Driving pairs take their marks

Canadian extreme sports star Brandon Semenuk will bring more international flavour to the Otago...
Canadian extreme sports star Brandon Semenuk will bring more international flavour to the Otago Rally this weekend. PHOTOS: GREGOR RICHARDSON/DAVID THOMSON
The biggest talking point of the Otago Rally may be the absence of 10-time winner Hayden Paddon, but there are other major changes afoot.

While Cromwell-based driver Paddon is in Hungary beginning his European Rally Championship title defence, most of the well-credentialled pack, poised to pick up the coveted season-opening rally win, have shuffled co-drivers.

The notable exception is Auckland-based top seed Ben Hunt.

Navigator Tony Rawstorn enters his 15th season calling Hunt’s pace notes and their long-term partnership is based around being good mates in and out of the Skoda Fabia.

Passenger seat shift-arounds punctuate the other top seeds.

Waikuku’s Robbie Stokes enlists Sarah Brennan in his Ford Fiesta AP4, while hometown heroine Emma Gilmour has taken on promising co-driver Katrina Renshaw.

Seeded fourth, Indian rally star Gaurav Gill will have young Cantabrian Jared Hudson to help provide some Kiwi insight into the 280 Otago-centric kilometres he will contest in Paddon’s Hyundai i20N Rally 2 car.

Three-time Asia-Pacific rally champion, Gill is one of eight drivers registered for the Pacific Cup section of the APRC, the Otago Rally again qualifying as the Asian championship’s opening round.

Hamilton’s Todd Bawden has opted this season for Mainland co-driver Dave Neill (Christchurch) sitting alongside him in the Ford Fiesta R5 MkII RC2, while Jack Hawkeswood has a fellow Aucklander, Jason Farmer, calling the shots in his Toyota GR Yaris.

The driver/co-driver relationship is vital, so it will be interesting to see which of the frontrunners has struck their pairing just right, come the end of the 16th stage on Sunday.

Local star Emma Gilmour will seek glory at her hometown rally, alongside co-driver Katrina...
Local star Emma Gilmour will seek glory at her hometown rally, alongside co-driver Katrina Renshaw, of Palmerston North.
They will be among 117 cars — the biggest field in four years — in an event including the New Zealand Rally Championship, the Otago International Classic Rally, the Classic 4WD rally and the Allcomers Rally.

There are 18 international teams from nine countries in this year’s event, many of those contesting the Otago International Classic Rally for two-wheel-drive cars.

At the top of the foreign fight is five-time World Rally Championship winner Kris Meeke.

He will pilot the Rossendale Ford Escort RS1800 and has opted for a compatriot Irish co-driver, Noel O’Sullivan.

The always fast Deane Buist, of Christchurch, will be putting his many years of contesting the Otago Rally to good use and looking to boost his 2023 runner-up position back up to the wins he scored in 2022 and 2021.

Classic rally fan favourite and former winner Marcus van Klink will bring out his popular Group B replica Mazda for the first time in some years.

Seeded fifth, regular NZRC front-runner Ari Pettigrew has swapped his Holden Barina for a 2.4-litre Nissan-powered Escort and will be gunning for classic rally glory.

The 4WD Classic event has attracted 19 drivers and top-seed Andrew Graves is no stranger to Otago Rally followers.

A successful driver in his evergreen Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 3, Gore’s Graves has also co-driven for many big-name drivers over the years.

For Otago, his son Hayden will be providing pace-note calling duties.

Driving a Subaru H6, American rally champion Brandon Semenuk will no doubt pile the pressure on Graves, closely followed by third seed Tim Smith (Christchurch) in the same model Subaru.

For fans of the fearsome Group B era, keep an eye out for Steve Cox’s magnificent Audi Quattro S1 works replica, perhaps aptly numbered 111.

The Allcomers Rally provides the opportunity for an eclectic mix of cars and crews to enjoy the spectacular rally roads for which Otago is renowned.

 - By Catherine Pattison