The temperature forecast in the Canterbury Forests might be cold but the pace will be hot this coming weekend as round three of the Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship sees the series return to the South Island for the Joe's Garage/Lone Star Rally Canterbury.
Contested over nine special stages and 171 kilometres of competitive driving on forestry roads in the Ashley and Okuku Forests, the event marks the midway point in the five round national championship.
Heading the title chase with a commanding points lead following their debut round win at Rally Whangarei is Tauranga Mitsubishi driver David Holder and co-driver Jason Farmer. Piloting the Stadium Finance Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, Holder has had a fast but more importantly consistent start to the championship as his rivals have stumbled with issues.
"We've got a great platform to launch from here in terms of the championship lead, but rallying can be a cruel sport, so it's really important that Jase and I take a good haul of points rather than risking it all for another win," stated the Tauranga driver. "Having said that, now that I've got a taste for the top step of the podium it could prove hard to resist."
After competing at the opening two rounds of the championship Kiwi World Rally Championship star Hayden Paddon has returned to Europe for the remainder of the season, leaving Canterbury driver Richard Baddock a surprise second place on his return to the championship after an 18 month absence. Driving the oldest car in the championship, Baddock has proved this to be no disadvantage, and heading into his home event is a realistic podium placer.
One driver sure to be the focus of attention is defending champion Ben Hunt, returning from a sizeable accident at the previous round when he rolled out of the International Rally of Whangarei. Hunt has form in the Canterbury forests taking victory last year, and while the brand new Subaru has been repaired, Hunt suffered three broken ribs in the Whangarei crash and realistically will not know just how well healed they are until the first stage.
Outside of the top three in the championship, a number of drivers are contenders for outright victory. Local Rangiora driver Matt Summerfield has demonstrated blistering pace in the opening two rounds of the championship but been dogged by niggling mechanical issues with his Subaru. A former winner of the event Summerfield should impress and will be wanting to shake the monkey off his back with three DNF's in his last three starts at home.
Rotorua Mitsubishi driver Sloan Cox led for the majority of the opening day at Whangarei and will have International co-driver Malcolm Read re-joining him this weekend, while Dunedin's Emma Gilmour has finally extracted the speed she has been searching for from her Suzuki Swift Maxi with an impressive second overall at Whangarei. The AP4 based cars of Andrew Hawkeswood (Mazda 2) and Glenn Inkster (Skoda Fabia) will be looking to return to the form shown in Otago after a challenging Whangarei, while former National Champion Chris West makes a welcome return to the championship in the Team Ralliart Mitsubishi Mirage, substituting for Brian Green. Te Aroha Subaru driver Lance Williams has shown strong speed at both events this season, only to have a puncture and an unforgiving roll-over remove any chance of a strong result at Whangarei while the potential dark horse in the field is Tauranga's Phil Campbell, the 2015 Championship runner-up, who was very fast on the Canterbury stages in 2015 in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo.
The two-wheel drive battle sees Hawkesbay driver Max Bayley in his R2 Fiesta take on the modern powered Escort of Anthony Jones, while evergreen Dave Strong will be hanging on their heels. The youngest driver the championship and series rookie Dylan Thomson is second in the class and looking for a third consecutive podium finish.
The Historic field returns to full strength for this event, with Marcus van Klink heading the field, also holding down a top five outright championship position. He will have his major rival Regan Ross return for the event on a rally the Kaikoura driver has achieved plenty of success on in the past. The opposition won't be discounted either, with Jeff Judd and Tony Gosling in their Escorts both recording podium finishes in the opening rounds, and John Silcock returning with his Mazda RX-7. Silcock should know his way around the Ashley Forest stages, having kept beehives in the forest for years.
A competitive Gull Rally Challenge field is headed by defending class champion Darren Galbraith who will be seeking to replicate his second overall finish at Canterbury last year. Galbraith is expected to set the pace in his one-off appearance for the year, the battle behind him will be fascinating. Richard Bateman and Kingsley Jones each have a round win to their name this year, but the challenge from Wayne Pittams, Lee Robson and Warwick Redfern means the battle for the podium spots will be intense. Then throw into the mix championship leader Jono Shapley, Tyler Radovan, debutant Jason Clark, Bryn Smith and Dan Alexander, all waiting to pounce on any mistake made by their peers. V8 Supercar star Greg Murphy will make his second championship appearance in the Stadium Finance Vauxhall Chevette in the two wheel drive category.
The Joes Garage/Lone Star Rally of Canterbury commences with the Top Five start order draw and driver autograph session from 5pm at Lone Star in Christchurch on Saturday. The action commences from Joes Garage in Rangiora on Sunday morning with the first car departing at 7.40am for the nine special stages in Ashley and Okuku Forests. The finish ramp and champagne celbvrations will be awaiting the finishers back at Lone Star in Christchurch from 5.30pm on Sunday evening.