Circumstances had contrived to deny 4wd fans their rivalry during the national series, but the Scott Biggs vs Hamish Auret battle was back on with full force at the 5th Suzuki Extreme Challenge at the Cowper farm in Turakina on Sunday.
In the end, the defending champion from Auckland was able to "do the double" again, as Biggs added the challenge crown to winning the 2018-19 4x4 National Trials season title earlier in the month.
But it was a close run thing as Auret and co-driver Paul Barnes had the chance to win their first challenge by the tenth and final hazard – the Heavy Duty Grime Time – if they could have passed through the bog and up the final vertical climb to successfully complete all ten gates.
However, they would miss two of them to give the title to Biggs by just 150 points.
Drivers collect 100 points for every one of the ten gates they can clear with their whole truck among nine hazards on the course, while the other hazard – 4x4 Gymkhana – is a time trial with the ten drivers receiving 1000 points down to 100 based on quickest time, minus any penalty time from taking out a gate marker or touching the boundary rope.
Eager to finally win the challenge after not being a factor in the national series due to a late start, Auret and Barnes had a rough beginning on the opening hazard – Get a Grip – which would negatively affect several driver's chances with big offs and truck damage.
"Big wall of water and unfortunately right down the engine intake," said Auret.
"It died on course, right at the start."
Having missed out of several early points, Auret had to claw his way back up the leader board as the day progressed through obstacles with bogs, steep climbs, difficult angles going sideways through gullies, and hair-raising ascents and descents of cliff faces.
By the time they reached 4x4 Gymkhana, midway through the afternoon, Auret had worked up to third place behind Biggs and Palmerston North's Derek Smyth.
Biggs would clear the gully and then the Figure 8 at the top of the course in a blistering 29.78s, with Auret getting two wheels up in the air as he whipped through the turns to finish second in 31.87s.
The pressure got to Smyth as he spun onto his side and ended up rolled on his roof as the only driver not to complete the course, which saw him fall back in the standings, while Hamilton's Neville Mather moved into the top 3.
Auret kept pace with Biggs on the eighth hazard – Nerves of Steel – when the Auckland driver produced a master class to sweep down the twisting gates and then power back up through the bog to make a perfect score.
Under pressure, Auret then had some little bobbles that took him close to the gate markers, but he also got the power and the traction to clear ten gates.
On the penultimate hazard – No Time for Smoko – Biggs started with around a 150 point lead, but mistimed his powerful drive up the archway on top of the course to take out the fourth through to sixth gate markers, opening the door for Auret to make up the difference.
The Whanganui driver cleared the early section well, but on the final push up the cliff face, the front end of the truck just twisted at the wrong moment to take out the ninth gate marker, while Auret spun the tyres to lose momentum before reaching the top.
His 800 points had still whittled Biggs' advantage down to just 50 points, half a gate, and Heavy Duty Grime Time was looking like a cruel final test with a long bog run and a difficult left-tilting angle to clear at back end of the track, before powering up one of the steepest climbs on the whole course.
Biggs make a great start, but his expression took the story after he twisted over the top of the 5th gate marker, missing a perfect score, but he showed great resolve to drive hard up the slope and exercised full control at the top to turn right and make it through the last gate.
With a 950 point deficit, colourful announcer Tim 'Caveman' Barrot informed the crowd the title would be Auret's if he could make a perfect run, although the mud was getting worse for the drivers further down the queue.
The Whanganui driver started strong, just deftly avoiding the third and fourth gate markers, but at the top of the seventh gate he just clipped the boundary tape, which the excited fans did not see at the time, and then on his fateful climb would spin the tyres just in sight of the top.
Auret was happy enough with that effort, but ultimately the missed points right at the start of the day had come back to haunt him.
"That cost us 500 when the truck broke," he said.
"But I am genuinely happy to get second.
"To be fair to Scott, I haven't quite been able to keep up with him this year [in the national series], so it's probably appropriate he won it.
"It's a good rivalry."
Biggs, having been involved in 4x4 competition for 13 years, is now seeing the fruits of his labours with his Nitro Custom truck after winning both the national series and the challenge in back-to-back years.
"It's unbelievable, I just need to sit back and take it all in," he said.
"It wasn't by no means a clean sweep, just a solid test of the truck.
"Full credit to Hamish, we always have an awesome rivalry."
His brother Jarred Biggs struggled with mechanical issues for much of the day, being allowed to go last on the ninth hazard so they could change out his alternator, but great drives on both the final two hazards elevated him to a share of fourth spot with Smyth.
Palmerston North's Stuart Earle, who has challenge organiser Dan Cowper as his co-driver, was entering for the first time and just finished outside of the top 5.
The event was filmed and will later be broadcast in two episodes on TV3's CRC Motorsport show.
Final Points: 1. Scott Biggs (Auckland) 8400 points; 2. Hamish Auret (Whanganui) 8250; 3. Neville Mather (Hamilton) 7600; 4=. Jarred Biggs (Auckland) 7150; 4=. Derek Smyth (Palmerston North) 7150; 6. Stuart Earle (Palmerston North) 7100; 7. Rowan Huckstep (Te Kiri) 7000; 8. Russell Luders (Waiterimu) 6650; 9. Dave McKie (Taupiri) 6500; 10. Greg McDell (Taupiri) 6150.