by Richard Leggett
Ross MacDonald and I were seeded 40th amongst 43 entries at the start of this year’s Taranaki Tarmac Rally, held on Saturday 18th June. We had enormous fun throwing the mighty Fiat Tipo Sedicivalvole around on the rally’s 8 special stages.
The morning loop of four stages, around Okato and Pukeiti to the south west of New Plymouth, consisted of two runs through two mainly tight and twisty stages. Rain showers and oil on the road from another competitor ahead of us made the roads extra slippery, so we took things fairly carefully and tried to maintain a consistent pace without falling off. In stages 1 and 2 the RallySafe unit was glowing with a ‘hazard on course’ warning almost constantly, as we passed a lot of warning triangles and competitors either off the road (many through fences in paddocks) or stopped in the stages with car issues. But the roads were great and the Tipo seemed well suited to the morning loop, demonstrating a complete resistance to understeer and a liking for sliding sideways in the slick conditions that defied its front wheel driven chassis layout. One particular highlight was overtaking the flame-spitting Mazda RX-8 of Terry Hewitt and Stephen Armstrong with our driver’s side wheels on the grass verge at about 160km/h, enough to make the crews of both cars hold their breaths and clench their cheeks I suspect….
A second highlight of the morning stages was catching and overtaking the AE86 Corolla of Dennis Carson and James Post in SS4. Having caught Dennis through the narrow twisties of Carrington Road in the foothills of Mount Taranaki, we sat close behind the Toyota and pressed the ‘Overtake’ button on the RallySafe unit to make sure he knew we were there. Coming up a fast, flowing incline over a crest to turn left at the tricky intersection into Plymouth Road, Dennis got the Corolla completely crossed up and spun his car directly in front of us, pirouetting off the inside of the corner and creating a convenient Fiat-sized gap on the outside for us to spear through.
For the afternoon loop the crews headed east to do four stages closer to Inglewood and Egmont Village, and the morning’s rain showers cleared for drier roads and a few more scenic views of the beautiful, snow-capped Taranaki volcano.
The afternoon’s stages were very different to the morning and seemed better suited to the more powerful cars, with wider roads and a few fast bends over blind crests to keep crews alert. With the stages being faster in the afternoon, rally organisers had introduced virtual chicanes, which were sections approximately 200m long within the afternoon stages through which an average maximum speed of 50 km/h was permitted. Designed to keep total stage average speeds down, the RallySafe system provided a warning message in advance of the virtual chicanes, and the beginning and ends of the 50 km/h sections were identified with orange traffic cones. These mandatory slow sections seemed to divide opinion amongst competitors, with some seeing them as a necessary solution for safety reasons, but many others regarding them as an irritating annoyance that interrupted drivers’ flow and put a lid on closed road fun…
In the end we managed to finish 24th overall, which was a reasonably satisfying result for us. The event was extremely well run by Taranaki Car Club, with a compact, enjoyable format and a good, balanced ratio of special stages to touring distances. In 2017 I understand the event is scheduled to become the only full-tarmac round of the NZ Rally Championship, which should be a welcome and interesting addition to the calendar.