Hayden Paddon is locked and loaded to rival the nation's best at the Rally of Whangārei this weekend.
The Rally of Whangārei was Paddon's first NZRC round victory in 2007, and he jump-started proceedings on Friday night by winning the first two stages of the 18 to be raced this weekend across 264 kilometres of gravel.
Paddon says competition up north always delivers.
"It's one of our favourites because of the roads up here. It's looking quite dry, quite a bit of gravel so we've got a bit of sweeping to do."
Paddon says the moveable surface shifts the camber - the angle of the wheels in relation to the vehicle - constantly.
"You're almost dancing with the car between corners and literally jumping from corner to corner. You don't get that anywhere else in the world or in New Zealand.
"It's a pretty cool sensation. You've got to have a lot of commitment and make sure you stay on the right side of the camber."
Paddon made a solid start to his title defence, winning the Rally of Otago comfortably, but the number one seed says his Hyundai team have been fine-tuning his i20 AP4.
"There were a lot of things not working the way we anticipated down there. We've changed quite a few things on the setup. Only small things but we are trying to get the balance right."
Online Racing Team driver Todd Bawden has no doubt Paddon will be the man to beat.
Bawden and co-driver Paul Burborough were last year's Group NZ winners and placed fifth overall in Category 1.
The Rally of Whangārei eighth seed sits 21st after the opening stages, 27.7 seconds off the pace of Paddon.
The experienced duo are aiming for a top-five finish but Bawden says it's unlikely they will get close to the defending champion.
"He's the pinnacle of New Zealand as a driver. I would never beat him but I'll give him a good run for his money. It'd be nice but he's in a league of his own."
Despite his dominance, Bawden says Paddon has no issue sharing his knowledge.
"Hayden has been really helpful to talk to and he's given me a lot of good tips. It's good to see Hayden doesn't mind giving his information. He wants us all to do well."
After 22 years in their Mitsubishi Lancer Evo6, Bawden and Burborough are in a brand new Ford Fiesta R5 MkII.
Team Online Racing placed sixth at the Rally of Otago but Bawden says the new vehicle needs breaking in.
"We've changed quite a bit and learned a lot more from testing in Maramarua. We've learnt how to drive the car in a different way.
"We think we're moving forward but there's so much to learn."
The remaining 16 stages will be completed this weekend.