International Classic Rally of Otago Preview

thumbOn outright speed, this weekend’s Stadium Cars / Ssangyong International Classic Rally of Otago could turn into a classic New Zealand vs Australia shoot-out.

NZ’s brightest star, Hayden Paddon, will go head-to-head with Aussie legend, Neal Bates, with the rest of the 44-car classic field looking likely to have to follow in their dust.

This is by no means disregarding 1994 World Rally Champion, Didier Auriol, and former event winners Derek Ayson, Marcus van Klink and Deane Buist, but they could be playing catch up unless they bring their A-game from the very first stage.

A three-time winner of the NZ Championship component of the event, Paddon will drive a Ford Escort RS1800 for the second time in the Classic Rally. In 2012 he led convincingly, only for a puncture to drop him to fourth place at the finish.

While Paddon will be somewhat familiar with his car, young co-driver, Malcolm Read, will be sitting alongside the Hyundai WRC driver for the first time. Whether this affects Paddon’s confidence (and speed) remains to be seen.

Bates, a four-time Australian Rally Champion and Possum Bourne’s greatest trans-Tasman rival, certainly looks to have the more complete package to win again, repeating his victory from 2013. He returns with the same car and co-driver combination (Coral Taylor and the Toyota Celica RA40), and will be hard to beat.

Having won the event on his debut last year, his knowledge of the stages and the unique Otago roads may give him an even bigger advantage.

France’s Didier Auriol won’t have that luxury. The former Lancia and Toyota WRC star has competed at Rally New Zealand many times, but never in the South Island, However, that doesn’t mean Auriol can’t win – not by any stretch of the imagination.

He’s still competing in his own Ford Escort RS1800 at home in France, so adapting to Brent Rawstron’s similar car shouldn’t be a problem. Nor should coming to grips with brand new stages. You don’t win a world championship by luck, so expect Auriol to be right on the pace, although a “win it, or bin it” attitude is hardly his style.

Gore’s Derek Ayson will be another pushing hard for further success, having won this event three-times in the past, from 2009-2011. Ayson’s Ford Escort has a Nissan motor fitted, but has proven that it has the pace to win.

As has Kaipori driver, Marcus van Klink, in his brutal rotary-powered Mazda RX7. The reigning New Zealand Classic Rally Champion, van Klink made the most of Hayden Paddon’s misfortune in 2012 to claim victory, but whether he has the outright speed to challenge for the win remains to be seen.

Then there’s Deane Buist, the winner here in 2007. His Ford Escort RS1800 was to have been driven by Grant Walker, but the Aussie suffered a broken arm in a rally crash back home last weekend and has had to withdraw.

That gives Buist the chance to return to an event he loves – albeit without the practice behind the wheel that he would normally have had. Nevertheless, he’ll be fast and a real chance.

Outside the top five drivers, there are a host of others with the speed and the machinery to cause an upset, including Regan Ross (Ford Escort) and Robert Murray (Mazda RX7).

A pleasant change from a host of Escorts and Mazdas will be Jeff David’s Porsche 911. One of six Australians in the classic field, David has competed in the Otago Rally several times, finishing an impressive second in 2011. He’s in good form too, having won Victoria’s tough Alpine Rally in November last year against a star-studded field.

The leading Dunedin driver in the classic rally is Allan Dippie in another Porsche 911, while crowd favourite, local car deal Mark Laughton, will have his V8-powered Hillman Avenger sideways throughout the event’s 15 closed road special stages.

Tony Johnstone is another to watch. The Dunedin panel beater and his V8 Ford Capri are Otago Rally regulars, and while not likely to challenge for the top 10, Johnstone should be there at the finish yet again.

This could be one of the closest fought Otago Rallies ever with world-class talent, the fastest classic rally cars, and some of the world’s best rally roads.

Call me patriotic, but my money is on another Neal Bates win. But then again, I could easily be swayed to choose Paddon …. or Auriol …..