The quaint city of Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island may seem like a strange place to stage an international classic rally but a decision by the local Otago Car Club back in 1997 to run such an event in the hills and forest surrounding this corner of ‘Middle Earth’ has turned to pure gold for them.
17 years on the International Classic Rally of Otago has turned into the biggest classic event in the Southern Hemisphere thanks largely to the local’s pragmatic approach and the inclusion of a ‘star’ international driver in a local car each year.
In the past the stars have included a stellar cast of rally greats including Bjorn Waldegard, Hannu Mikkola, Juha Kankkunen, Ari Vatanen, Alex Fiorio, Jimmy and Alister McRae, Pasi Hagstrom, Piero Liatti, Ken Block and Miki Biasion, not to mention a who’s who of Aussie greats including Geoff Portman, Ross Dunkerton, and Neal Bates.
Bates has led the international stars and the locals a merry dance for the past two years, shipping his impressive retro Celica RA40 ‘across the ditch ‘ to claim the Classic on debut last year before doing it again this year.
So what makes this event so great? Well, not only is the retro theme championed by the fleet of rapid RS1800 Escorts, Toyota Celicas, Porsche 911s, Datsun Stanzas, Mazda RX7s and BMWs to name a few, but also by the ease of spectating and laid back attitude. It is rallying just like it used to be, no over enthusiastic officials making it tough for fans, easy viewing, and the wondrous sound of Cosworth BDAs, Porsche flat sixes and BMW engines being revved to within an inch of their lives.
Along with all that, you get wondrous backdrops and roads that defy logic along with speed and spectacle that defies sanity.
Rallying may not be everyone’s cup of tea and it is fair to say that it takes a bit of fortitude and resolve to chase rally cars all across the Otago countryside, particularly when it is eight degrees and blowing a gale with a wind-chill that feels like minus five. But there is reward for the adventurous.
Watching drivers like Hayden Paddon, NZ’s great hope for the WRC, behind the wheel of an RS1800 Escort on the Otago, driving at a pace that would have done past masters proud was an experience to be savoured, especially with the likes of Neal Bates in his rapid retro Celica giving chase, not to forget the plethora of local Kiwi pilots , who do know a thing or two about throwing Ford Escorts down narrow gravel roads. Check out the spectacular on-board video of Paddon during the rally;
Dunedin is no Monaco of the South but it is a pleasant little city full of buildings that mark it as being trapped in a time warp, a throwback to the boom days of the 1940s and 50s when agriculture filled the pockets of the town and even before that when gold brought prospectors and prosperity to this little Scottish enclave Down Under.
However, despite the feeling of time warp Otago is now a university town. So as well as following the rally cars from sun up to sun down there are some great little restaurants and bars to warm up in after a day rambling out in the hills.
Haydon Paddon was the fastest man on day one of the two-day International Classic, but Neal Bates was never far away. Paddon powering and sliding the Cosworth Escort like a modern day Ari Vatanen. He built up a lead of over 20 seconds on Bates until at very high speed in top gear on the final stage of the day a badly written pace note caught the young flyer out and the Escort rolled out of the rally, leaving Bates with his smooth and flowing style to dominate from there until the finish.
The icing on the cake was a the final stage of the day on tarmac around the Dunedin dock area with the classic cars powersliding around the course with inside wheels dangling in the air and tyre smoke being generated at every turn, leaving thick black rubber marks to entertain the thousands of spectators who packed into vantage points to watch.
While Paddon was out the rally still held plenty of interest on day two when the wind had dropped, the sun shone and the Otago countryside sparkled.
Bates was poetry in motion on the final day, caressing the Celica around the sinuous ridge top roads in a class of his own. Behind him an unknown Kiwi named Regan Ross (even many of the locals didn’t know who he was) , powering and sliding his Escort superbly in second until the tricky roads also caught him out and he crashed back to obscurity.
This left the podium battle to local Derek Ayson, a three-time past winner of Otago in his Nissan-powered Escort, and long time rival Deane Buist also in an Escort, with Buist winning out to take the second step 1 minute 46.9 seconds behind Bates. Ayson took third another 1 minute 12 seconds further back.
Didier Auriol, the 1994 World Rally Champion, struggled with setup on day one but some adjustments and a confidence boost saw him fly on day two to grab fourth outright just ahead of Aussie Porsche driver Jeff David.
The other bonus for an Aussie heading to the Otago is that the South Island of NZ is filled with driver’s roads that are just as fun and enjoyable, sparsely populated and only occasionally patrolled by the local constabulary who aren’t quite as savage or revenue hungry as our boys in blue back home.
If rallying is your thing then you should consider jumping on the bomber for Otago next May and sample some of the best classic rally car action on the planet.