The Penny Homes Holden Rally Team makes its debut at this week's much-anticipated Otago Rally with Christchurch driver Josh Marston behind the wheel of one of the team's two Holden Barina AP4+ cars.
Gore-based co-driver Andrew Graves will sit alongside Marston who returns to New Zealand Rally Championship competition following a break after winning the 2013 New Zealand 2WD Rally Championship.
Overseas commitments mean the team's other driver, Hawke's Bay-based Kiwi race legend Greg Murphy, won't get a run on Otago's famed gravel roads this year.
Murph admits he's gutted not to be competing: "I can't wait to see how the Barina goes in anger this weekend in Josh's hands - Otago was my rally highlight last year even though I didn't finish. I know Josh and Andrew are pumped about the weekend and what it all means, not just for them, but for Holden being back involved in rallying and for this AP4 class."
The development of the two AP4 Barinas started two years ago when both Murphy and Marston were thinking about the new rally car category. Introduced by a mutual friend, the pair started talking and eventually the project progressed to the point where RDL Performance, the race and rally shop in Christchurch owned by the Marston family and run by engineer Tony Power, completed the build.
Murphy says: "After a couple of seasons in the Classic class, I couldn't help but get involved in this AP4 class and clearly I'm not the only one, with a whole bunch of new AP4s being launched. It has been such an enjoyable last couple of years venturing into the unknown and learning a whole new skill set and the support has been brilliant. New Zealand's rally culture is special and I really see this form of the sport going from strength to strength over the next few years, so I am keen to get behind it."
Motorsport fans have already seen Murphy's Barina in action - Murphy showed its pace was top ten material at February's Leadfoot Festival, then Marston undertook zero car duties at the Westland Rally in March.
"It was amazing to drive for the first time at the Westland Rally," says Marston of his Westland weekend. "It was cool to get behind the wheel after so many years' planning. The car is a proper rally car - engineered for competition from the outset. They also look great, production-based, but more highly modified, so make an exciting package on the road where it's also exciting to drive - it moves around a fair bit, but I enjoy that and react really well."
Murphy and Marston also tested the car during a recent tyre test with MRF Tyres, so Marston is feeling pretty comfortable in the car.
"The proof will be in the pudding at Otago," says Marston who'll be competing for the fifth time at Otago. "You just don't know until you turn up at the first event and see where everyone else is at. We won't be doing anything silly - it's a long championship and the aim is getting through all the events with as few issues as we can."
The Barinas run a 2-litre EcoTech, direct-injected GM engine, de-stroked to 1800cc which Marston says is available in the Astra VXR and several American GM models. "We're still developing the engine; it's an ongoing thing."
As for Murphy, he'll be following the Otago action from Australia. "Fortunately Mark Leonard [Murphy's Timaru-based co-driver] and I don't have to wait too long before we get to debut our Barina in Whangarei later in April. At the moment, my only expectation is to get to the finish, but once the countdown clock gets to zero, that will probably change."
Major sponsor Holden New Zealand has backed the rally project with enthusiasm. Managing director Kristian Aquilina says: "Greg Murphy is synonymous with Holden and motorsport, so we were naturally very enthusiastic to become involved with the team when he approached us with a proposal to enter the rally championship. Rallying in New Zealand enjoys a strong following and it's great to be involved in this exciting action with Greg and Josh. We're looking forward to seeing the guys driving their cars to the limit and are eager to follow their progress throughout the course of the championship."