It seems inconceivable that a qualifying round of a World Championship should produce no significant change in the standings of that series, yet that is precisely what happened in New Zealand, where the eighth round of the World Rally Championship for Drivers took place in July.
The Championship is dominated by the three works drivers of the Lancia team, followed by a fourth who drives for the French Lancia importer and occasionally for the factory. They can only go where their team chooses to participate, and because the New Zealand Rally was not a qualifier this year for the makes section of the championship, the Italian team decided to save the cost of a foray to the Antipodes.
Whether it was right for the New Zealand Rally to be dropped from the makes series is quite another matter, for the event has always been extremely well run, and has a plentiful supply of superb forest stages at its disposal. Lancia, the only team seriously tackling the World Championship this year, probably welcomed the opportunity to stay away from New Zealand — and not only to save money, for it was no doubt pleased to be able to use the time preparing for other events.
The Italians also have some unhappy memories of New Zealand, for some years back, on their first visit, they quite wrongly took the native population to be hillbillies and tried a few tricks which backfired. One driver caused a hue and cry when he roared through a police speed-check, ignored a signal to stop, and tried in vain to give a police pursuit car the miss. They also ignored the regulation banning two-way radios from competing cars, and were most surprised when, after Post Office staff reported hearing Italian voices, a driver was caught carrying a portable transceiver hidden under his seat — claimed by the manager at the time to be “a toy which I buy in Hong Kong”!
Japanese makes were well represented this year by Subaru, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Toyota and Mazda, with varying degrees of factory support for local and Japanese drivers, whilst the main opposition from Europe consisted of an Opel Kadett GSi from GM Euro Sport driven by Josef (Sepp) Haider/Ferdi Hinterleitner and a Sierra XR4x4 for Jimmy McRae/Rob Arthur.
As is quite often the case nowadays with many teams, the GM outfit did not consist entirely of factory staff. On the contrary, it was a mixed bag of freelancers from Germany, Britain, New Zealand and even Kenya, the man in charge being Surinder Thatthi from Nairobi who always joins the Opel team as local “boss” during the Safari Rally.
Alas, the Britons McRae and Arthur had a very short rally indeed, for their engine failed on the first day. It was something which they had been half expecting, for engines had failed twice before during pre-event testing.
The rally started in Auckland and finished there nearly 1200 miles later, spending one night stop at Auckland, two at Rotorua. After the first day, over only some thirty miles of special stages, Ray Wilson and Stuart Lewis led in their Mazda 323, but on the second day the Austrians Haider and Hinterleitner moved ahead in their Kadett and stayed there to the finish, followed by the Mazda pair.
Apart from Josef Haider jumping into a joint seventh place in the World Championship standings, the New Zealand Rally has made little difference to the lead positions. None of the leading ten finishers had any previous points, but we do now have a few more A-seeded drivers and it is this seeding which no doubt pleases Haider as much as his win.
It is a pity that the New Zealand Rally has not achieved greater popularity. It is certainly of a calibre ranking among the world’s best, and on merit deserves a place in both World Championship series. The only thing going against it is its location, and the deterrent of expense. GP