One of the reasons for New Zealand’s great enchantment and fascination is its remoteness. No one ever goes there on the way to somewhere else because there’s pretty well nowhere else to go. It has thus escaped most of the ravages of popular tourism. It is by no means a backward country – its cities, resources and amenities are as modern as any you will find in the world but the visitor cannot help being endeared, not only by the unspoilt countryside and the welcoming friendliness of its genial people, but by the sleepy, old-world charm of its rural townships and the feeling they give you of stepping back in time.
Visiting New Zealand has never been other than an enjoyable experience for us, for the excellence of the premier rally of the country and for pretty well everything about the place, and we are happy to record that almost everyone else in the rally world to whom we have spoken has been of the same mind.
Ask any number of the visiting drivers who have competed there and they will tell you that the rally, the people and the place itself rate close to the top of their list of preferences. If they had their way, they would go back year after year, but the days when a works driver could ask for a car and support for a particular event have long gone. Rally costs have become astronomical and budgets, not to mention logistical arrangements, have to be drawn up in advance and fitted into overall plans.
Privateers, or the drivers of privately backed teams, can go largely where they choose, provided they have the finance, but factory drivers have no such choice. They are committed to their teams’ programmes and can usually go only where their teams go. Of course, if a works driver wanted to enter an event privately he could do so, provided his contract allowed it, but he would certainly not consider doing it on a shoestring, without the degree of expensive factory support to which he is accustomed, and would be even less likely to finance such an undertaking himself.
The New Zealand Rally, as the most distant from the European bases of most factory teams, is one of the most costly, and as such is one which is frequently omitted from works teams’ programmes. Another reason for this is its omission from the World Championship for Makes, and teams which consider the car to be more important than its driver in terms of publicity potential are inclined to place the rally low on its list of priorities.
Due to this, the event has had some rather unlikely winners in the past and has attracted teams which would have little chance against the might of those such as Toyota and Lancia. A Subaru winning in New Zealand, for instance, would give rise to greater glee than one scoring fourth place on the Acropolis.
When Martini Racing did not enter its Lancias for the New Zealand Rally this year, and when neither Toyota nor Ford was showing any interest, the way was open for others to attempt to capture some World Championship kudos.
The most prominent was Subaru Europe, on whose behalf Prodrive sent two Legacy Turbos from England for Colin McRae/Derek Ringer and Ari Vatanen/Bruno Berglund, and provided the support entourage. For McRae and Ringer it was something of a rush trip after the Scottish Rally, and when they got off the plane at Auckland they had no choice but to drive out immediately to begin their recce. Even so, they managed to drive over each special stage no more than twice.
Subaru Australia has a somewhat older Legacy which is driven by New Zealanders Peter Bourne/Rodger Freeth, and this too was entered in the rally. But prior to the start the car was considerably updated by Prodrive mechanics who brought in parts specifically for that purpose.
The only other Group A Legacy in the event was that entered privately by Joe McAndrew/Bob Haldane, whilst Brian Watkin/Gary Smith and Will and Heather Orr had Group N versions.
There were no Mitsubishis from Europe, but Ross Dunkerton/Fred Gocentas brought a somewhat outdated Galant VR-4 from Ralliart Australia. Dunkerton was in an uncharacteristically introvert mood before the start, having been told that budget requirements meant that he would have to miss one round of the Asia Pacific Championship. He was stunned when told that this event would be the Australia Rally, where he was least likely to do well against the European works teams who would be there.
Several other Mitsubishis were entered privately, including two from Indonesia, one of which was driven by Hutomo Mandala, son of that country’s president. Two Group N versions were driven by Ed Ordynski/Harry Mansson from Australia and Kyoshi Inoue/Sitoshi Hayoshi from Japan.
Although Martini’s Lancias were not there, Italy’s ART team brought a Group A Integrale for Piero Liatti/Luciano Tedeschini. Liatti, reigning European Champion was one of only three A-seeded drivers in the rally, the others being Vatanen and McRae.
Two Group N Integrates were driven by Carlos Menem (another son of a head of state) and Victor Zucchini from Argentina and Mikael Sundstrom/Jakke Honkanen from Finland, the latter pair having scraped together all the backing they could muster and, avoiding all excesses, making the trip in as cheap a way as possible.
Three Ford Sierra Cosworth 4x4s were those of Mohammed Bin Sulayem/Ronan Morgan (built in England by Mike Little Preparations), New Zealanders Brian Stokes/Jeff Judd and, from Austria. Kurt Gottlicher/Otto Zwanzigleitner. A Group N Nissan Sunny GTI-R was driven by Japanese pair Yoshio Fujimoto/Hakaru Ichino.
Four Mazda 323 GT-Xs appeared among the front runners, all driven by New Zealanders. However, one crew, Rod Millen/Tony Sircombe, is resident in California, calling itself Mazda Rally Team Pacific-Asia. The other pairs were Ray Wilson/Leo Bult, Neil Allport/Jim Robb and Greg Graham/Peter Johnson. Although it was originally not Toyota’s intention to tackle the event, the team’s disastrous result in Greece caused a change of plan. There were no makes’ points to be gained, but the team considers that getting Carlos Sainz to the world champion’s rostrum again is an equally worthwhile objective, so one Celica Turbo was sent to New Zealand for Sainz and Luis Moya. Two older versions of the car were driven by Australians Frank Neale/Philip Dodd and New Zealanders Ross Meekings/Steve March, the former a Group A car and the latter Group N. In its time, the New Zealand Rally has been in and out of the World Championship, sometimes qualifying for both series, sometimes only for the drivers’. It has also had a variety of sponsors and did, at one time, alternate each year between North and South Islands. One year it covered both, but the ferry voyage across the blustery Cook Strait must have been an unpleasant experience, for it was never tried again.
It has also alternated between Auckland and Wellington, where the organisers’ office was once located, but in recent years it has stuck to Auckland for start and finish, moving down to Rotorua for two of the three night stops. The two areas containing most of the special stages were between Rotorua and Hamilton to the west and between Rotorua and Gisborne, on the east coast.
There were six stages on the first day, 13 on the second, 12 on the third and seven on the fourth. Of the 1,250 mile total distance, some 367 were devoted to special stages, the bulk of them on dirt roads, mostly public but some through private forests.
Although New Zealand’s North Island enjoys a temperate climate, it can be quite cold in late June, but warm sunshine attracted a sizeable crowd to the first stage on the Thursday, just up the road from the noon start at Manukau. This was a 1.37-miler at Totara Park where Bourne surprised everyone by being fastest. But differences were very small, so the advantage was minimal. McRae had a problem getting his brakes to work properly, whilst Millen had a disastrous start when somehow his electrical master switch managed to turn itself off.
After some two minutes he and Sircombe found the trouble but in their haste to get going they neglected to replace the pins securing the bonnet which promptly flew open causing further delay.
On the second stage, a nine-miler north of Auckland, McRae’s centre differential failed due to some electronic quirk, and this was followed by a broken prop shaft. But he only had one downhill mile to go and lost little time.
Bourne’s intercooler stopped working on the same stage, which also brought the first retirement when Menem spun off the road and hit a tree which removed his left rear wheel. Later, he blamed a photographer who had been standing near the apex of a corner which he intended to clip, but this cause seems doubtful. Two stages later, McRae’s troubles became far more serious when his water temperature went up and his engine began misfiring badly. After that stage there was little time for service, but enough to determine that water was mysteriously escaping from somewhere. Liatti was fastest, and Bourne spun after his brake fluid boiled.
After arriving five minutes late at SS5 McRae drove slowly, planning to have a major service afterwards. But his engine wouldn’t take it and finally stopped, its head gasket blown. Later, the Subaru team stated that the cause had been overbored cylinders, allowing water to seep between the liners and the block. His untimely return to Auckland was a huge disappointment for the Scot, from whom much was expected on this event.
On the same stage, Bin Sulayem, who was feeling ill and experiencing stomach pains, putting it down to something he had eaten before the start, lost much time when his front differential broke halfway through and he dropped to 23rd place.
Sainz, who had been trying various rear differentials during the day, had a leaking cam cover replaced. At the end of the day he was in the lead by just 21s from Vatanen who, in turn, was ahead of Bourne by a single second. Liatti was fourth, another 26s behind, and was followed by Allport and Dunkerton.
The Friday start was at 5am, and this time it was colder and there was some fog about. On the first stage Hutomo crashed, putting the second president’s son out of the rally, but it was on the second stage that warning was given of the next significant incident when Bourne’s car was seen to be smoking. One stage later, all oil pressure vanished and Bourne just switched off and called it a day. Later, it was said that a piston had cracked.
The feeling in the Subaru camp was not good, although Vatanen perked himself up in the belief that what had happened to two cars could not possibly happen to the third. Soon after, he must have felt much better, for the treads of Sainz’s soft-rubber tyres wore away on the 18.6-mile stage 11 and one tyre burst, the Spaniard losing time which put Vatanen into the lead.
Using soft treads caught Sainz out more than once and there was a time when it seemed that he would be overhauled by Liatti, who had earlier spun into a ditch after his intercom failed and he could not hear the notes properly.
Vatanen’s lead was short-lived. Having gained it on SS11, he lost it on SS13 when he decided to cut a corner and got a puncture. He only lost a minute, but far more significant was that his car was beginning to leave a smoke trail. Two stages later, what he had been dreading happened. The oil pressure vanished and the engine stopped. It was the same problem as Bourne’s, a cracked piston.
By this time, Sundstrom had lost time when he hit a gatepost, but was nevertheless opening up a lead among the Group N contingent. The blow broke the co-driver’s door latch and they carried on with Honkanen’s right hand on the door hand and his left holding his pace-notes. Sundstrom was rather nervous that he would lose his place in the notes, but apparently he did not.
Watkin crashed his Subaru on SS12 and Stokes his Sierra Cosworth on SS14. Gottlicher was having great difficulty with his brakes after the servo broke and was driving very cautiously indeed. Unfortunately, he had no spare, but the next day he was able to benefit from the misfortune, and generosity, of Mohammed Bin Sulayem and the Mike Little contingent. After spending the second night stop in agony with stomach pains, Bin Sulayem decided not to continue and, hearing of Gottlicher’s problem, the team sent a spare servo to Saturday’s first regrouping stop so that Gottlicher could have it fitted. It was a timely gesture, for the Austrian did five stages without brakes that morning and was on the point of deciding that it was madness to continue. By this time, Sainz’s lead over Liatti was up to 43s, but it looked as though the TTE mechanics were gradually improving the fettle of the Toyota and Sainz was getting quicker and quicker.
Under the clear, morning sky, frost was again in evidence, and two stages into the Saturday Allport spun his Mazda on an ice patch and ditched it at a spot where there were no spectators. He was unable to continue.
There were two very twisty stages in close succession along what is called the Motu Road. Millen went off on an ice patch here, but not so seriously that his co-driver could not heave the car back unaided. Liatti lost time when he broke a left rear suspension arm and bent the shock absorber against a rock, and later caused frontal body damage whilst limping to the finish because the car was so difficult to drive. He had to do another stage with the left rear wheel askew before the damper could be replaced, because mechanics on the spot had none of the correct type.
Dunkerton spun and stalled on SS25, and then spent 15 minutes in a ditch on the next one. Sundstrom needed a change of radiator fan after his water temperature rose, but he was still leading the Group N category, ahead of Ordynski. On the last stage, Millen spun twice after his brake master cylinder jammed.
The last stage of the Saturday was the only one on which Sainz had not made best time that day. Both Sainz and his car seemed to improve as the day progressed, but he did not appear to be driving at 100 per cent. He had no need to because his opposition was not as formidable as it usually is. By then his lead over Liatti was up to 4m 24s, whilst Dunkerton was nearly another three and a half minutes behind, ahead of Millen and McAndrew.
Even more frost was apparent when the cars left Rotorua on the final leg to Auckland. It certainly caught the leaders out, for Sainz and Liatti indulged in formation autobatics on the road section to the first stage. Sainz spinning and Liatti going very sideways right behind him.
Fortunately they hit neither each other nor anything else.
After three of the day’s seven stages, no-one expected any more dramatic incidents, but the engine failures hadn’t stopped yet. It was Millen who was next when a loud bang came from beneath his Mazda’s bonnet. Amazingly, the engine didn’t stop, but both oil pressure and power dropped alarmingly. At the end of the stage, he found valves and various other engine bric-a-brac resting on the sumpguard and was quite astonished that it had been able to continue running when so seriously damaged.
A couple of stages later, McAndrew, who had moved up to fourth place, also stopped with dramatic engine failure, a big hole being punched through the side of the cylinder block. It had certainly been an event for engine failures, and one which Subaru will never forget. McAndrew’s retirement meant that all four of the Group A Subaru Legacies entered in the rally stopped with engine failures. By way of small compensation, husband and wife privateers Will and Heather Orr drove their Group N Legacy to seventh.
It was the third win in succession for Sainz and Moya in New Zealand. With two wins, one second, one third and one fourth to his credit, Sainz is back in the lead of the World Championship for drivers. 15 points ahead of Kankkunen who has scored only one win this year. In third place, Auriol’s points come from three outright wins, which is an indication of the importance of second and third places when enough people are in the running for the title. Dunkerton, by his third place, became the first Australian to gain a FISA A-seeding, but it remains to be seen whether he will succeed in using this achievement to persuade Ralliart Australia to enter him in his major home event after all.
Next round of the World Championship, this time qualifying for both drivers’ and makes’ series, is the Argentina Rally towards the end of July. After that, it’s Finland’s 1000 Lakes Rally right at the end of August, followed by the Australia Rally in September. the Sanremo and Ivory Coast rallies in October and the Cataluna and RAC rallies in November.
It’s a lot to be crammed in but, since only five of the seven count for both drivers’ and makes’ series, and drivers cannot compete in more than 10 rounds during the year if they want to be eligible for the championship, no-one is going to tackle the lot. G P