The start of the New Zealand Rally Championship (NZRC) takes on the fast and flowing roads of the hinterland of Dunedin for Rally Otago next Friday.
A record 133 entries, one of the bigger fields seen for a New Zealand rally, comprises 50 competitors in the 2021 NZRC, 42 crews lining up for the Otago Classic Rally, 14 in the 4WD Classic Rally and a healthy 27 in the All-comers Rally.
The bumper field for top honours includes former New Zealand champion Hayden Paddon, defending champion Ben Hunt and the likes of Josh Marston, Dylan Turner, Matt Summerfield and Dunedin local and two-time championship runner-up Emma Gilmour, who all loom as likely title contenders.
"My car is sitting in the showroom ready to go, with no last-minute bits coming from overseas, or needing an engine change," said Gilmour from her Dunedin Suzuki dealership.
"It makes a change from trying to get it ready right up until the day of the race. To have had the last 12 months to really work on the car and make the changes we want has been fantastic.
"It's been a really nice build-up to the opening rally, and Rally Otago is such a cool event. It's good to see the sport in such a healthy state, with so many entries and such a depth of talent at the pointy end of the field.
"On the day, anyone could take it, and it'll be down to consistency and having no dramas. The car is going the best it ever has and I can't wait."
Rally Otago is one of Hunt's favourite races.
"I have to admit I've enjoyed the break away during 2020, as I could spend more time with family and friends," said Hunt. "People also don't realise the pressure of working on the car all the time during a normal [non-Covid] rally season and chasing sponsorship.
"We drove the car last Friday and it was awesome and so good to be back going for a skid. There's no place like being inside a rally car. I can't wait to get to Otago, as it's the best rally in New Zealand and I love it.
"There's just so much road selection and variety, and it's a bit like Finland, it's bloody awesome."
Raana Horan won the most recent round of the championship in late 2019 and is tipped for more success this season, while stablemate Kingsley Jones has also demonstrated improved speed in the past 12 months or so.
Phil Campbell impressed at the Battle of Jacks Ridge late last year and is a proven NZRC competitor.
Youngsters Jack Hawkeswood and Robbie Stokes have long been expected to follow in the footsteps of their former national champion fathers and could break through as early as this season.
Seven entrants have been confirmed in the FIA Group N 2WD category — headlined by former champion Dylan Thomson, who has returned to the class in 2021. Youngsters Harri Judd, Bryn Jones, Jackson Clendon and Jordan Grant should be competitive, as will the experienced Jeff Ward. Blenheim rookie Brendon Wadsworth is a bit of a wildcard in the class and will be worth keeping an eye on.
Defending champion Marcus van Klink will be the man to beat in the Open 2WD class but will be pushed hard by the experienced Brent Taylor, Wayne Pittams and Dave Strong, while youngster Ari Pettigrew should not be discounted.
In the Historic 2WD class this season, Anthony Jones, Jeff Judd and John Silcock are among the names to watch.
The rally begins with a ceremonial opening in the Octagon in Dunedin next Friday night before two days of high-speed stages south of the city.
The championship will then head to Whangārei in May, South Canterbury in June, Hawke's Bay in July and finish at Coromandel in September.