The back roads of the Bay of Plenty provide the venue for the return of gravel rally competition to the North Island this weekend.
With motorsport - like all other activities – being seriously impacted by Covid-19, the last gravel rally to take place in the North Island was exactly 12 months ago as the finale of the 2019 NZ Rally Championship.
Competitors have been able to race at short-format rallysprint and hillclimb events during 2020 but on Sunday full-scale rallying resumes with the Driven Auto Sales Rally Bay of Plenty.
Based out of Whakatāne, the action will take place in the Pukehina, Pikowai, Otamarakau and Manawahe districts.
The rally is organised by Motorsport BOP and has been welcomed by the Whakatāne District Council. The council is keen to encourage events to the town which has seen its visitor numbers impacted by both Covid-19 and the White Island eruption in December last year.
A field of 52 crews have entered the rally which features nine special stages and 123km of competition. There is a Rally Car Show at Whakatāne's waterfront Kakahoroa Drive car park from 3.30pm with Whakatāne's mayor Judy Turner flagging the crews away from a ceremonial start.
The field will race through the stages at one minute starting intervals headed by top seed Phil Campbell of Tauranga driving his four-wheel-drive Ford Fiesta AP4.
Campbell is one of several NZ Rally Championship front runners chasing success this weekend. Next in the seeded start order are Aucklander driver Raana Horan (Skoda Fabia R5), Pukekohe driver Dylan Turner (Audi S1 AP4) and Dunedin's Emma Gilmour driving her Suzuki Swift AP4.
Masterton-based Richard Mason - New Zealand's only five-time national rally champion – will be making his first rally start in more than four years driving a Subaru Impreza.
Along with the established stars a quarter of the field, 13 drivers, will compete for separate Novice honours. Novices are defined as having competed in fewer than three rallies.
Following the Saturday afternoon formalities, the rally action begins at 7am on Sunday and the rally finishes back in Whakatāne at 3.20pm.
The crews get a short break from the pace of competition when they visit service parks at the Pukehina School (9am) and the Matata Rugby Club (11.05am and 1.30pm).