New Zealand’s premier rally certainly has a chequered history as far as the World Championship is concerned. In its early years the then organiser, Murray Thompson, aware of his country’s remoteness and that very little notice would be taken of approaches by post or telephone, made several visits to Europe to present his case for Championship status, and in 1977 the rally was first included in the World Championship (then for makes only, not for drivers).
Regrettably, certain visiting teams that year made the mistake of assuming that the organisers were no more than hillbillies. True that they were inexperienced at dealing with hard professionalism, and had left a few loopholes here and there, but they were sufficiently astute to spot blatant breaches of the rules, and various arguments took place from time to time.
The debates may, or may not, have been taken by FISA’s observers as an indication of organisational incompetence, but the outcome was disappearance from the list of Championship qualifiers for 1978, a Paris decision which· was both grossly unfair and unjustifiable for, in our view, the event thoroughly deserved its place in the world series.
Efforts to regain that place were immediately started and, in 1979, it was back where it belonged, qualifying for both makes and drivers series. In 1981 it was out again, and there can be no doubt that this was due more to political machinations than to any genuine shortcoming.
In 1982 it was back in again, and has not only stayed there but has so increased its reputation for competitive quality and friendly, efficient, organisation that FISA, were it not for its thick, impenetrable skin, should be considering itself incapable of recognising a worthwhile rally when it first sees it.
Adequate financial backing has been another problem for the New Zealanders, and the rally has gone from sponsor to sponsor during its championship years. Called the Heatway Rally when it first came to prominence, it was backed by Radio New Zealand in 1977, then by Motogard until 1982. The association seemed permanent, for Motogard established a year-round rally office with a full-time organiser;, but when it was taken over by Repco, still smarting under memories of the Rowio-Australia Trial, the sponsorship was terminated.
Two Japanese electronics companies then followed, first Sanyo, then A WA Clarion; which backed the rally this year.
New Zealand is not a country you visit on the way to somewhere else. You either go there as a destination, or’you d.9n’t go there at all. It’s the end of the line, the terminus, and New Zealanders are so conscious of their remoteness that they consider an OE (overseas experience) to be an essential part of their education.
For the same reason, perhaps, they are uncommonly hospitable to visitors, and those who go there for the rally are treated not only to a stay in a beautiful, tranquil country, ideally suited to the sport, but to an unforgettably friendly reception from everyone.
The rally used to alternate between the North and South Islands, even traversing both on one occasion, although the unpredictable gales of the Cook Straits removed all thoughts of that becoming a permanent feature. Nowadays it seems to have made its home in the North Island, where start and finish are at Auckland.
Divided into four legs by three night stops, the 1,500 mile route contained 46 special stages totalling some 530 miles, a competitive proportion far more intensive than that of European events. The first leg ran into the Northland Peninsula, ending in a stop at Auckland, whilst the others were to the South of the commercial capital, broken by two stops at Rotorua.
Remote though it may be, the event attracted no less than six works teams, including the prime contenders for Championship success, Peugeot and Audi. Toyota, Nissan and Subaru were also there, and, for reasons known only to themselves, a group from Russia’s Avtoexport with two Ladas.
Salonen/Harjanne and Vatanen/Harryman were driving the two Peugeot 205 Turbo 16s; Blomqvist/Cederberg and Rohrl/ Geistdorfer the two Audi Sport Quattros, both with six-speed gearboxes and steel front struts rather than the aluminium ones which failed in Greece. Toyota also fielded a two-car team, the Celicas being driven by :Kankkunen/Gallagher and Waldegard/ Thorszelius. Nissan brought three 240RSs, one for Shekhar and Yvonne Mehta and the others for local men Cook/Jones and Donald/Lancaster.
Subaru brought no less than six fourwheel-drive cars, four Leone RS Turbos for Kirkland/Doughty, Vittuli/Nixon, Tundo/ Halls, Bourne/Eggleton and Teesdale/ Haldane, and a little 3-cylinder, 997 cc Justy for Japanese crew Takahashi/Vosimoto. The two Lada 2105 Sports were driven by Brundza/Dadvani and Rublev/Gogunov.
Prior to the start in the morning of the last Saturday in June, there were no confident forecasts concerning which of the four real favourites from Peugeot and Audi would emerge in front, nor whether there would be a dominant leader or a close fight. As it turned out, close fight it was, between Rohrl and Salonen, although initially there was little to choose between the four cars of Audi and Peugeot.
After opening stages which, more or less, produced evenly matched performances, Rohr! drew ahead. Plagued by the inability of his engine to achieve its full rpm, he was his usual complaining self, and in this mood he simply took the bit between his teeth. Even after he has won a rally, we have known him to shake his head and run through a list of the problems he had to overcome, and it seems that he is never as aggressive as when he has some trouble. On this occasion, he also had snatching brakes and overheating to contend with, but managed nevertheless to stay ahead, leading Salonen by 16 sec at the end of the first leg.
Half a dozen stages into the second leg there was a three and a half miler on an autocross circuit, and Rohr} went on to this with tyres which were too wide. The result was inevitable; unable to get adequate grip, his Audi spun several times, on one occasion even stalling its engine, and the German driver’s time was so bad that Salonen moved into a three second lead.
Rohrl regained the lead for one stage, but promptly lost it again, perhaps due to the fact that very loose surfaces tend to provide least grip when they have not had a car driven really fast over them – and Rohrl was first through after all. Salonen was not content to stay just marginally ahead, and when the rally reached the night stop at Rotorua, a town dotted with evil smelling sulphur springs but a very pleasant place nevertheless, he led by 23 seconds.
Meanwhile, despite losing time with a puncture, Vatanen was well ahead of Blomqvist, who had endured the same problems as Rohrl, hot, snatching brakes and inability to get to peak rpm.
Waldegard’s performance was not expected to be brilliant without proper pace notes, but neither was it expected to end as soon as it did. On just the second stage of the rally a broken gearbox left him stranded, and by the time this was fixed he had lost 51 of his 60 minutes’ maximum lateness. With very little margin for further Rroblems he continued, but when more time was lost after a wheel nut jammed on its stud, he came so close to that excluding hour that he and his team felt there was no point in continuing.
Team-mate Kankkunen had been doing better, holding fifth place behind the four 4- w-d cars, but a broken differential on the autocross circuit produced a time loss which dropped him to 33rd place at Rotorua. Mehta, too, had lost a huge chunk of time with a broken main electrical feed. He dropped to 42nd place and decided that it really wasn’t worth going on.
In the third leg, Salonen expected a strong challenge from Rohrl, and scanned his team’s intelligence reports very closely indeed, but when the Audi’s gearbox started making noises, and the selection mechanism . became stiff, Rohr l’s attack diminished and the Finn was able to increase his lead to Im 43s. Vatanen and Blomqvist were third and fourth, followed by the private Quattro of Stewart, the Escort of Tulloch and the Subaru of Bourne. Cook (Nissan) and Teesdale (Subaru) were next, followed by Kirkland, who had only started by virtue of an urgent engine change on the eve of the start after the original unit had blown up during a test display session.
For the fourth leg Rohrl was confident that he could move up again, for his gearbox had been changed (and undershield vented to give a better flow of cooling air), his engine restored to full power and his brakes made efficient again. But he had reckoned without Vatanen, who started the leg in an all-out bid to provide Peugeot with a onetwo result. He closed the gap completely on the first stage, and moved up to second place on the second, seven seconds ahead of a mystified Rohr! who could not understand why he was slower with a healthy car than he was with a.sick one.
Perhaps it was all due to Vatanen finding a form which’ was somewhat lacking on the first days, and to Salonen having his suspension raised to its customary height after a lowered setting early in the event produced difficult handling. Rohr! could make no further impression, and Blomqvist had to be content with fourth place despite trying so hard that he came very dose to disaster when he clipped a bank and spun at a speed close to 100 mph.
Peugeots first and second, and Audis third and fourth! That was the result, further increasing the respective championship leads of Salonen and his team. Anyone wanting to bet on the Finn’s chances of becoming champion this year will get very short odds indeed. If he pulls it off, he will be the third of his countrymen to become World Champion since the title was officially created in 1979. – G.P.