‘Best rally in the world,’ Otago Classic winner says

Eventual Otago Classic Rally winner Kris Meeke negotiates a corner during special stage 9, near...
Eventual Otago Classic Rally winner Kris Meeke negotiates a corner during special stage 9, near Taieri Mouth, yesterday. PHOTO: DAVID THOMSON
Former world championship star Kris Meeke came, saw and duly conquered at this weekend’s Otago Classic Rally, loving the experience so much he isn’t even sure he wants to go home.

The Andorran-based Irishman made the comment tongue-in cheek and was genuinely fulsome in his praise after running out a clear classic winner from Cantabrian and former three-times classic rally winner Deane Buist.

"Having heard so much about Otago before coming here my expectations were high, but the experience was still even better than expected", Meeke said. "This has to be the best rally in the world, not just in terms of the roads, but the whole way it is run, and the hospitality; this is rallying as it should be."

The latest in a series of world rallying superstars to drive the Rossendale Ford Escort BDA, Meeke was the fastest classic rally contender through all but two of the rally’s 16 special stages, with the other two stage wins falling to fellow BDA driver Buist. He led from the start and ended up the classic winner by a decisive margin of 2m 29secs from Buist.

"Beating Kris to the win was never really going to happen, so my focus has been on not losing too much time to him", admitted Buist at the finish.

Buist was quick and tidy throughout, with his stage wins coming late on Saturday, and his only major drama being a spin on one of Sunday morning’s stages that cost him around 20 seconds.

Early on, though, ex-national championship frontrunner Ari Pettigrew looked to pose the strongest challenge to Meeke. Driving another Ford Escort, but this one Nissan-powered, Pettigrew was faster than Buist early on, but then went off the road in spectacular fashion on the rally’s fifth stage. He limped out of the stage, his crew patched up the badly battered car in service, but its engine then failed heading to the next stage and Pettigrew’s rally was run.

Third-place in the classics fell to former outright Otago winner John Silcock (Rangiora) in a Mazda RX-7. Silcock’s success came after trading times for most of the event with Australian-based Irishman Richie Dalton, whose hard-charging style was ultimately unable to match Silcock’s more measured approach.

Also spectacular throughout, Cantabrian Ally Mackay ran home a fine fifth in his older Mark 1 Ford Escort, not only emerging ahead of sixth Graham Fergusson (Greymouth) in a new Mark 2 Escort after a fair scrap, but also coming within a whisker of overhauling Dalton for fourth.

Tim McIver (Christchurch), Tristan Carrigan (Australia) and Stephen Gill (Winton) managed an Escort lock-out on places seven through nine, Queenslander Carrigan, who had been delayed by brake problems early on, grabbed eighth from Gill on the rally’s final special stage.

The classic top-10 was rounded out by Dunedin’s Jake Thomas, whose run in his Toyota Levin was one of the outstanding performances. Thomas finished more than 10 minutes clear of fellow 1301-1700cc classic class contender Dean Schroder (Blenheim), with another Toyota driver, Miles McElwain (Whitianga), third in class.

Top honours in the 0-1301cc classic class went to Wanaka’s Luke Smeeks ahead of fellow Toyota Starlet drivers Adam Fisher (Wellington) and Jay Ritchie (Christchurch).

— David Thomson