One of the most eagerly anticipated editions of the Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship gets underway this weekend with the southernmost round of the series, The DriveSouth Rally Otago.
New cars including seven different manufacturers along with New Zealand's best rally stars will herald the start of the 2016 Championship.
Headlining the ultra-competitive championship field is New Zealand's World Rally Championship pairing of Hayden Paddon and co-driver John Kennard. The duo are taking a break from their Hyundai WRC Team duties to compete in the opening two rounds of the NZ championship for the newly formed Hyundai New Zealand Rally Team, and will debut an all new Hyundai i20 rally car built in Auckland by Force Motorsport.
"I'm very excited to be part of this programme with Hyundai New Zealand as we enter a new phase of our partnership to bring our rally exploits back to New Zealand and to introduce Hyundai New Zealand to the NZRC," stated Paddon at the recent launch of the new car. "Together, we are all working to provide more opportunities for people in New Zealand rallying and this new car will form a major part of this project while also allowing John and I to, once again, enjoy two of the best rally events and rally roads in the world."
Also debuting a new car is defending National Rally champions Ben Hunt and Tony Rawstorn.
The Nelson pairing were rewarded for their 2015 title win by receiving major support from Subaru New Zealand with a new 2016 Subaru Impreza WRX STI NR4 at their disposal for the 2016 season.
"I'm really looking forward to competing on what really is one of my favourite events. Our whole team is so excited to compete in the brand new Subaru WRX STI All Wheel Drive, it really is one of the best base cars to start with and will develop into an amazing car with a bit of time. For Otago, we're looking for a strong finish to reward everyone for their hard work on building this car over the past three months," says Hunt.
2015 series runner-up and ultra-consistent performers Phil Campbell and Venita Fabbro will be aiming to go one better in 2016. The Tauranga pairing are sticking with the known quantity of their Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9. Also Mitsubishi Evo mounted, Tauranga's David Holder, who is mentored by WRC star Paddon, is looking to produce a strong championship start and show the pace that netted him podium finishes at the last two rounds of the 2015 series.
Added excitement for the 2016 series is the exciting new generation turbocharged four wheel drive rally cars based on the AP4 regulations. Along with Paddon's new Hyundai, Force Motorsport will also debut an all-new 2015 Mazda 2 rally car for Andrew Hawkeswood while multiple Targa New Zealand champion Glenn Inkster returns to full time NZRC competition in a Skoda Fabia. New Zealand's fastest female rally driver, Dunedin's Emma Gilmour, will also be hunting stage wins in her Suzuki Swift that has been developed over the past three seasons to the same regulations.
Demonstrating the ultra-competitive nature of the 2016 NZRC the list of potential front runners also includes the Rangiora brother and sister team of Matt and Nicole Summerfield, who claimed their maiden NZRC round win at the final event of 2015, returning Rotorua Mitsubishi driver and regular front runner Sloan Cox from Rotorua, 2015 National Junior Rally champion Lance Williams from Te Aroha, the ever consistent Graham Featherstone in his Mitsubishi Evo and 2012 Championship runner-up and former Junior champion Matt Jansen from Christchurch.
The two-wheel drive battle has also fired up over the off-season, with the experienced Dave Strong returning with his Honda Civic to take on the Ford Escort of Anthony Jones, while young guns Dylan Thomson (Ford Fiesta) and Jack Williamson (Suzuki Swift) will be keen to challenge their more experienced counterparts in their Rookie NZRC seasons.
After having things largely his own way in the Historic category over the past few years, Marcus van Klink will have competition from the similar Mazda RX-7 of John Silcock plus the Ford Escorts of Regan Ross, Jeff Judd, Tony Gosling and Carl Rabbidge. The classic field will also compete in the internationally renowned Otago Classic Rally, which includes former WRC driver Markko Martin.
The Gull Rally Challenge, contested across the first day only of the two-day rally, will see a classic Mitsubishi vs Subaru battle in the four wheel drive class with defending champion Richard Bateman (Mitsubishi) out to repeat his Otago round win from last year. He will face competition from fellow Mainlander Barry Varcoe in a Subaru, as well as North Island drivers Tyler Radovan and Jono Shapley (Both Mitsubishi mounted) and Dan Walker (Subaru). The two-wheel drive field sees former Bathurst winner Greg Murphy line up in a Vauxhall Chevette, with more competition expected when the series moves to the North Island.
After a ceremonial start in Dunedin's Octagon from 5.30pm on Friday, competitors will take on 130km of special stages to the north of Dunedin on Saturday. Teams will then cover a further 145km of special stages to the west of Dunedin on Sunday before the finish at the historic Railway Station from 4.30pm.