The country's leading rally drivers descend on the roads of Northland this week for the International Rally of Whangārei.
Two years after they were last used, the highly cambered and challenging gravel roads north and southwest of the city will test New Zealand's best drivers, after the 2020 event was cancelled due to Covid-19.
The event - sponsored by the Mark Cromie Motor Group - doubles as the second round of the Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship and former World Rally Championship star Hayden Paddon will start with a nice buffer in the championship points and as favourite to win the rally. Paddon won the Whangārei rally in 2018.
"I'm really eager to return to one of the most popular rallies in the country," Paddon said.
"It has certainly felt like a long time since we were there in 2019. However, with most of the stages the same as two years ago, it gives us a really clear target to focus on to try to better our own performances.
"Weather could have a part to play in that and, if the forecast rain arrives, could mean we only have once chance to try to lower our records on the first pass, before the roads become too muddy on the second pass."
Paddon dominated the field to take a comprehensive outright win at Winmax Brakes Otago Rally last month but feels the chasing pack is catching up to him. Several of his rival competitors were matching or bettering his stage times from 2019, so Paddon knows he needs to continue to make gains to maintain his advantage.
"There are also a lot of competitive teams champing at the bit who are making some great gains and certainly keeping the pressure on us," Paddon said.
"Ben [Hunt] is always fast in Whangārei, but Robbie Stokes is no longer a dark horse, and we can expect him along with Emma [Gilmour], Raana [Horan] and Josh [Marston] to be fighting right up the front. It's simply too close amongst the top 10 to call it."
The rally began with an official welcome last night before a ceremonial opening on the Te Matau a Pohe Bridge today at 5.50pm and two passes through the Pohe Island Super Special stage just minutes from the CBD from 1pm to 3pm. The rally stars will sign autographs on the bridge from 5.20pm to 5.50pm, ahead of the ceremonial start.
Saturday's action sees competitors head north out of the city while Sunday's stages take competitors south and west of the city
For all rally details see nzrallychamps.co.nz