Rally Whangarei is definitely one I really look forward to. I always enjoy 2 day rallies, I mean who wouldn’t?! Somehow this one didn’t match expectations despite Hayden Paddon’s presence.
This year was the first for me where the Rally HQ / media centre and the service park were down the road a few minutes at the Toll Stadium. It was certainly easier to park when we had to report to the media centre, so that was a plus. On the down side, for me, the whole thing seemed a little disjointed from the town centre. I used to love it when the driver signing and ceremonial start used to be right in the town centre. It forced people to take note of our sport, and there was always a great buzz walking around. It hasn’t quite felt the same since the change of format. Maybe it’s just me?
Walking around the service park late Friday afternoon it felt quiet and almost deserted, not the hive of activity I would have expected. I came across two young boys who were holding Hayden Paddon posters. They asked me if I knew where he was. Hayden had only just run past me heading back towards Rally HQ moments before and I didn’t have the heart to tell them. A quick look around and I found Ben Hunt and Tony Rawstorn working on their car. I yelled out asking if they had any posters they could sign for the boys. Being the totally decent guys they are, they quickly found some and signed them for the boys. The boys were stoked to walk away with autographs of the National Champions! Thanks Ben and Tony.
Before long it was time to head over to Pohe Island to get the event under way. I’m convinced there was a bigger crowd on the bridge this year to see Hayden Paddon than last year to see Ken Block!
The night stages are run in reverse with the back of the field going first. This gives the grass roots guys who don’t always get any attention a chance to run in front of the large crowds. Must be quite a buzz. As the field progressed, one driver that stood out for me was Glenn Inkster. He was driving the wheels off his car. It looked and sounded fantastic. Glenn ended 3rd after the two night stages behind Sloan Cox and Hayden Paddon. Saturday was shaping up to be a great days rallying.
An early start (when isn’t it on a rally day!) saw us heading North towards Towai. I say us as I was joined by Paul Byrne and Mike Peffers for the weekend. Unbelievably we came across a café which was open before 6.00am. Hitting the brakes very hard, we were hoping there would be a decent coffee to be had, as Paul can be unbearable until his first coffee, and it was going to be a long day if we didn’t find one. Amazingly the café was up and running and even offered to make us lunch to take. Phew!
We decided to skip the first stage of the day and head to the second at Towai. We were joined by a substantial number of spectators. The marshals did a great job helping people get to the designated areas which offered some great viewing. Not long after the stage had gone live and we were waiting for the cars to arrive, all of a sudden out of nowhere a guy on a farm quad came down the road against the flow of the rally, around the hairpin and down the road to a driveway. The driveway had been taped off with the orange netting and yellow tape. The guy, ignoring all the marshals and photographers, just lowered the netting and drove through putting the netting back behind him. Close call!
It wasn’t long before the first of the international cars were flying through the stage. The Skodas of Gaurav Gill and Fabian Kreim were first. Gaurav, as always, was very fast, picking great lines. Fabian was really impressive to watch, especially considering this was his first ever gravel rally! Behind them, Mike Young was on a mission. He had suffered a cruel electrical fault the night before putting him behind over 15 minutes and was trying hard to make up some of the lost time.
After a small gap between APRC and the NZRC entries, Max Bayley came blasting down the hill. It’s great to see Max back out there, especially given how his season ended last year. After Max there was a really long pause in proceedings. What was happening? Where was Hayden? (who should have been next of the road). After 5 minutes or so, Hayden appeared in the distance, making his way down the hill and over the railway lines. His car looked ok, and seemed to be going well until the hairpin. The car bogged down and appeared to struggle to get going up the hill, but quickly sounded ok again.
The marshal sounded his air horn to warn us of the arrival of the next car. Instead of hearing a car roaring down the hill, all I could hear was lots of beeping on a horn. As soon as a car came into sight I could see it was one of the APRC Subarus, which clearly had an issue as he was driving with his hazard lights going. There was clearly a faster car right behind him, but the dust made it impossible to see who until they got closer. It was Ben Hunt, and he (or Tony) was hard out on the horn, whilst trying to pass on either side. I moved position, fully expecting the slower car to pull over and let Ben through. This didn’t happen. As the Subaru rounded the hairpin, Ben went for the inside to pass, but more amazingly, out of the dust Dave Holder was trying to come around both cars. I’ve never seen anything like this in a rally. As they blasted up the hill, the last thing I saw before the dust blocked my view was Ben Hunt going toward the right, and Dave Holder lunging to the left of the Subaru who was clearly driving right up the middle of the road. As the dust covered me, I could just hear roaring engines and horns blasting. I’ve no idea what the outcome of it was!
The rest of the field made their way through the stage without much drama. That was until after Dylan Turner. The idiot on the quad bike had somehow made it out onto the stage, and drove up the road behind Dylan despite the marshals efforts again. I hope someone went back and spoke to this guy after the rally. After Richard Baddock had been past, there was another very long break. It’s never good when this happens, as you never know what’s going on. After a while, one of the marshals mentioned that the stage had been cancelled due to a car that had blocked the road. Not long after that, Glen Inkster cruised through the stage at touring speed. This suggested the messages we were getting were true. At this point most of the spectators started to leave. Speaking to a couple of them, they were heading up to Akerama Road Junction. We had thought about doing this, but it was clear we would struggle to get there in time given how many cars had just left before us, and as we had all shot the junction many times and decided we wanted to try something different so waited for more news.
Next car through was Clinton Cunningham. He definitely wasn’t touring, and the marshal was telling us the stage was live again. Despite the horrendous dust it was worth staying to watch the rest of the field. This left us some time until the cars would be back in the afternoon. At this point we had caught up with Ian Thronton and all decided to go for lunch in Kawakawa before shooting 2 stages, Maromaku and Helena, in the afternoon.
Arriving really early for Maromaku, we parked up and went to look at a railway crossing where we’d heard cars jumped / lifted wheels. The spot had clearly been popular with photographers in the morning as we could see plenty of evidence of grass being trampled while people claimed their spots. I wanted to shoot a little closer and lower down but there was way too much grass and weeds sticking up in the way. I started to snap them off but there was just too much. Luckily there were a couple local farm kids to hand who were very keen to help. I decided the best way was to ask them to lie down and roll the grass flat. They were more than happy to do this for me which was great. It was only after they walked away I realised some cows had recently walked through there and the kids had been rolling in cow muck. Ooops – sorry boys.
This was a good stage to shoot as most of the field lifted wheels. It was also good to shoot somewhere different. Everyone was pretty committed over the lines, which I thoroughly enjoyed watching and photographing. It seemed to be over as quickly as it began. Off to Helena next. I had shot this spectator point at the end of the stage last year into bright sunlight, so wasn’t overly keen but we went anyway.
By the time we arrived the sun was hidden behind a blanket of cloud making it a much better prospect, although the light levels were starting to fade. From what happened last year, not many people made a clean fast entry onto the bridge, which is a tight right hander after a fast section. It would be interesting to see how everyone faired this year.
Turns out the enthusiasm was still there for people to give it a good crack. Mike Young managed it really well, as did Clinton Cunningham. Dylan Turner came flying in and managed to spin, kicking up a dust storm. I’m not quite sure how they saw where they were, but they managed to get over the bridge. Marcus van Klink also came in hot and had a spin which saw the front of his car hanging precariously over the bank next to the bridge. Amazingly he was able to hit reverse and back out, although while spinning the car around he almost managed to put it down the bank where I was stood. Luckily for me I saw it coming and quickly moved further down the road. I think he was very lucky to get away with this one.
Absolutely shattered and covered in dust, it was time to head back to town for a shower and a well deserved beer while looking through the days images.
Overnight Saturday, it had rained pretty heavily, so conditions were going to be quite different and thankfully no more dust! Heading off South before dawn saw us driving in some pretty heavy rain. This was a total contrast from Saturday. Arriving in the stage, we had agreed to drive in and get locked in for this one. It wasn’t the first stage of the day, as we figured that’s where everyone had gone, so like the day before, we went to the second stage of the day.
Driving into the stage the rain completely stopped, and before long there was dust flying up behind us. Almost unbelievable considering the rain we had just come through! Once in place, the light started to come good and with a nice moody sky, this was going to work out great.
We all picked our spot and got ready for the first of the APRC cars. Amazingly the 2 Skoda’s took identical lines, one following exactly in the tracks of the first. I was shooting on the inside of a hairpin bend and was enjoying the look as the sun occasionally made its way out from behind the clouds. It was so good to see Hayden out in the stages again after having a couple of diff issues the day before. The new AP4 cars certainly look and sound the business. In fact the “new shiny bits” that Emma Gilmour installed on her car before the rally were working great and she was driving really well.
Dylan Turner nailed the hairpin. It was spectacular to watch. He was grinning from ear to ear, and even had time to give us photographers the thumbs up. Great stuff Dylan!
To change things up a bit I crossed the road to shoot from the other side. Turned out to not be the best idea I’d had. Brent Taylor in his Toyota GT86 attacked the hairpin in his usual aggressive style, throwing just about every bit of dust and rocks he could all over yours truly! I was covered from head to toe. My pockets were full of stones as were my shoes, and I had just turned grey with the dust. The camera equipment took a hammering too. This photo was taken after the first shake and blow off. Thanks to Owen de Mooy for the image.
After trying my best to shoot the rest of the stage it was time to try and clean off and head to Springfield to shoot the days second pass of this stage. Again we saw some really heavy rain as we were parking up near the stage. With umbrellas at the ready we walked into the stage and picked our spots.
Again, it was hard to believe just how much dust there was considering the rain that had not long stopped. It was now hot, dry and dusty again.
There was a good turn out of spectators here, and I’m guessing there would have been more during the morning pass. It was great to see so much support for the event. I would recommend this spot in Springfield for anyone to spectate from. It’s elevated position and view meant cars could be seen for a long time, across some stunning scenery. They are also travelling at high speed through here and managing to lift wheels off the ground. Definitely a good place to watch peoples commitment! The rain held off for this stage, and once again I found myself eating dust for the duration despite being high up off the road.
My event reports don’t often report blow by blow as most of you already know what happened, but I try to write a short(ish) report on what the rally was like from my perspective. With that in mind I’ve decided to bring back my “Sideways Driver of the Day”, as I quite often see drivers pushing to their limits with unreal commitment but don’t often get a mention. There were several drivers that caught my eye at Whangarei. Glenn Inkster’s performance Friday night was awesome to watch. It’s just a real shame that I didn’t see him at speed again for the rest of the weekend. Sloan Cox was driving really well and it was great to see him back on top form in the NZRC – let’s hope this show of speed continues. Dave Holder looked fiery and fully committed, and a well deserved win. Jack Williamson appears to be getting quicker and quicker in the Suzuki Swift, learning the craft of carrying the speed through the corners. Great effort Jack. Dylan Turner was amazing to watch during the weekend. He seemed very relaxed behind the wheel and looked like he was having a great time. This just leaves two more drivers who I thought drove really well. Emma Gilmour fitted some nice new shiny bits to her car prior to the event, and boy what a difference. The car looked and sounded great, and Emma’s driving was the best I’ve personally seen. The bar has been raised this year for sure which can only be a great thing for the NZRC.
So finally the last driver to catch my eye was Grant Blackberry. This is one committed driver. He’s always pushing himself and his car to the limits. There is no doubt in my mind, that Grant is my Sideways Driver of the Day for Rally Whangarei. Well done Grant!
The full gallery from the event can be found here. I’ve tried to feature every car, but have many more images if I’ve missed anyone.