The race for the 2017 New Zealand Rally Championship title is probably one of the most closely contested in a number of years with the winner being decided this weekend at the last race, Rally New Zealand.

One of the sports long-term challengers Andrew Hawkeswood and co-driver Jeff Cress hold a narrow 10-point advantage over Ben Hunt (co-driver Tony Rawstorn) with Matt Summerfield (co-driver Nicole Summerfield) breathing down his neck a mere single point behind.

The two-day event is being held on some of the most demanding roads in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions. Adding a fair old chunk of spice to the proceedings is the addition of New Zealand's World Rally Championship driver Hayden Paddon who is reunited with long-time co-driver John Kennard.

The pair will be racing their Hyundai NZ i20 AP4 car and Kennard can't wait to get back among the action.


"It's really nice to be back in a car. In fact, it's great to be back in any car. It may not be a WRC car, but the AP4 is a nice, fun car a bit like an R5," said Kennard after recce.

"What you have to remember is how flowing the roads are in New Zealand. The corners don't happen as sharp and aren't one after another. It's a different sort of rallying to a lot of places overseas.

'This rally has some really famous stages like the Whaanga Coast and Manawaha Road, which Hayden has never done. I think the last time I did the Manawaha Road was in 1986 in a Group A Audi.

"I remember we stopped in the middle of it to haul Neil Allport back onto the road again after he got stuck in a ditch. It was raining absolutely cats and dogs and I got out to hook the towrope up to pull him back onto the road.

"That was the year we finished third in the World Rally Championship round [when New Zealand was part of the WRC calendar] even after stopping for Neil.

"Recce has been good and the roads have been good. Starting first will be both a good thing and a bad thing. There is some heavy gravel that will be a challenge, but on the other hand we won't have to worry about the dust."

It's been a bit of a rocky season for Paddon that didn't start so well at Rally Monaco where there was the incident with a spectator. From then on there were flashes of brilliances, mistakes, bad luck, mechanical dramas, change in the Hyundai driver line up and of course the swapping of co-drivers.

Kennard was always going to hand over the co-driving to duties to young Seb Marshall this year, but his hand was forced and the seat change came earlier than planned, and parts of the rest of the year are best forgotten.

Having written that, to see Paddon and Marshall back on the podium at Rally Australia was fantastic and showed that perseverance and a bit of luck can go a long way.

"It hasn't been a great year that's for sure. This year, just when you thought everything was back on track, something else jumps out at you.

"It was a great finish to the year and you have to remember that when Hayden says it [podium] was due to others misfortune, you have to remember that others got on the podium because of Hayden's misfortune.

"If other people make mistakes you have to take advantage of them. Also, Seb has settled in relatively easy and the time we took to get him in the car early with testing and everything else has paid off.

"They had spent a lot of time in the car together before tackling a WRC stage in anger. I always thought it would work. He does remind me of me 30 years ago, which helps," said Kennard.

Paddon is the top seed in a 54-strong field with both the Rally New Zealand trophy and the New Zealand Rally Championship title up for grabs.

"Hayden's keen to get his name back on that trophy [NZ Rally] especially when you see who else is on it — Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz, Marcus Gronholm, Sebastien Loeb and Jari-Matti Latvala," said Kennard.

Marshall and Paddon's WRC engineer Rui Soares are with the team in New Zealand to check the rally out and take a holiday afterward.

After the ceremonial start at Tauranga's The Strand yesterday evening, teams are now in Raglan for six special stages, including the legendary Whaanga Coast, covering 145 kilometres of special stages before returning to Baypark Stadium on Saturday night. Day two is based in the Bay of Plenty with 80 kilometres of special stages including Manawahe Road.

NZRC points
Andrew Hawkeswood 109
Ben Hunt 99
Matt Summerfield 98
David Holder 75
Sloan Cox 68
Rhys Gardner 67
Graham Feathersone 66
Tony Gosling 58