Newly crowned National Rally Championship David Holder heads a 74-car strong field for the fifth and final round of the Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship this weekend.
Based from the holiday town of Whitianga on the Coromandel Peninsula, the Mahindra Goldrush Rally Coromandel will feature 10 special stages and 120 kilometres of competitive driving.
Holder and co-driver Jason Farmer head to the series finale looking for a third win of the season in their Stadium Finance Mitsubishi Evo. Following two victories and a third placing from four rounds the Tauranga driver has secured the 2016 title ahead of the Coromandel finale so has the benefit of no championship pressure. Good form on the Coromandel roads with a second and third placing's in the past two seasons means Holder heads to the Peninsula full of confidence.
Behind the new champion the story of the Coromandel Rally will be the fierce battle raging for the remaining podium places with eight cars separated by only 12 points. Dunedin driver Emma Gilmour currently holds second in the points standings in her Suzuki Swift after a win and a second place from the two finishes so far in 2016.
Gilmour's championship challenge was side lined with engine failure at the previous round in Gisborne, but Gilmour has her sights firmly set on a clean run at Coromandel to secure second in the 2016 championship.
Ever consistent performer Graham Featherstone is only two points behind Gilmour in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo. The Te Aroha farmer is a previous podium finish on the Coromandel roads and with the prospect of a best ever championship finish at stake Featherstone's consistent fast style could be his trump card. A further two points behind in fourth is Rotorua speedster Sloan Cox. The Rotorua Mitsubishi Evo X driver has had a difficult season with stage winning pace hampered by niggling mechanical problems. If Cox and co-driver Malcolm Read can produce a clean run they have the speed to be fighting for a rally win and championship podium.
Behind Cox and also amongst the battle is Andrew Hawkeswood. Since debuting a new Mazda 2 AP4+ car at the start of the season Hawkeswood and the Force Motorsport Team have developed the speed of the Mazda into rally winning contenders. Outside the top five seeds other drivers still in with a chance of a championship podium include newly crowned BNT Historic Category Champion Marcus Van Klink and his Group B Mazda RX7, Auckland's Dylan Turner who has produced two podium places from two starts in the LJ Hooker Mitsubishi, Junior championship challenger Lance Williams from Te Aroha and Tauranga's Phil Campbell a previous winner of the Coromandel event.
Outside of the championship podium fight are three driver all capable of spoiling the party and securing an outright rally win. Outgoing national champion Ben Hunt has had a tough season in his new Subaru WRX STI for 2016. After a strong debut with second behind Hayden Paddon at Otago, Hunt has failed to finish the last three events with either mechanical or offroad excursions. Hunt will be looking to regain some confidence at a rally where he last stood on top of the podium 12 months ago. Rangiora Subaru driver Matt Summerfield has also failed to secure the results expected of him in 2016 with a string of mechanical failures. Matt and co-driving sister Nicole will be hoping Coromandel marks a turn in their fortunes to end the 2016 season.
Making a one-off appearance in New Zealand, Australian Brendan Reeves will take the wheel of the 2015 specification Mazda 2 formerly run by Andrew Hawkeswood. A former driver in the Junior World Rally Championship Reeves from Victoria is one of Australia's leading rally drivers with an impressive CV. If he can adapt to the Mazda quickly Reeves will provide a great benchmark for local competitors.
The two-wheel drive class battle will be hard fought with wily veteran Dave Strong only needing to finish in his Honda to claim his ninth two-wheel drive championship. Competition will come from Cambridge driver Anthony Jones in his Mk2 Escort, who won the opening two rounds before two mechanical failures at Canterbury and Gisborne bumped him down to second place while series rookies and Junior drivers Dylan Thomson and Jack Williamson will keep the front runners honest. Thomson is on course for a class podium in his Ford Fiesta.
The BNT Historic championship race has already been wrapped up by Marcus van Klink, who will face competition for round honours from the similar Mazda RX7 of John Silcock and the Ford Escort RS1800's of Jeff Judd and Tony Gosling. Silcock and Judd are tied for second in the Classic Championship so have everything to play for, while Gosling was the Category winner at this event last year.
The Gull Rally Challenge will offer up an interesting battle in both the two and four wheel drive categories. Auckland husband and wife team Kingsley and Waverly Jones have an unassailable lead following an unfortunate incident at the Tauranga Clubmans rally that has sidelined Bryn Smith with a back injury. Jones will enjoy a head to head battle with Gisborne round winner Grant Blackberry who has experienced great form of late, and Canterbury round winner Lee Robson. Behind these three it's a north versus south Mitsubishi battle with Jono Shapley, Warwick Redfern, Jono Walker and Tyler Radovan up against Southerners Richard Bateman and Jason Clark. The two-wheel drive Gull Rally Challenge sees Jeff Torkington needing to make the finish to claim his second title in the class He will however have a battle on his hands up against the Mk1 Escort of series rookie Rob Connell.
Also up for grabs will be the inaugural Group A Challenge title for pre-93 Group A cars. Former National Championship front runner Ray Wilson has shown he has lost none of his form to lead the class in his Audi Quattro. Competition will come from the Mitsubishi VR-4 of Matt Adams and the Subaru Legacys of Simon Bell as well as series debutants Marty Smith and Chris Sheriff, while Phil Collins faces a big battle to have his Audi Quattro ready after a roll-over at the Catlins Rally only a week ago.
The Mahindra Gold Rush Rally of Coromandel starts from the Mercury Bay Sports Park at 7.30am on Saturday morning heading north via the Ernslaw Forest before a refuel in the Coromandel township takes the rally to its most northern point at Port Charles. The challenging 309 Road takes teams back to Whitianga and the Central Service Park at the Mercury Bay Sports Park for the first of three service breaks. The longest stage of the rally, the 23 kilometre Tapu-Coroglen test will be tackled twice along with two more passes through the 309 Road. The popular Whitianga Waterways Super Special stage will feature twice on Saturday afternoon providing a great opportunity to view the cars in action in the heart of the town, before the rally finish and podium celebrations commence from 4.30pm in Blacksmiths Lane in Central Whitianga.