The first round of the 2015 FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship (APRC) has visitors from India, Sweden, Japan, New Caledonia, New Zealand, and Indonesia and includes American sensation Ken Block, contesting the national event.
Covering 282.2km of Northland’s gravel roads broken in to 16 competitive ‘special stage’ tests, the entire event has been re-mapped.
Starting and finishing in Whangarei the action begins on Friday night. From 4:45pm there is a driver signing session at Te Matau ā Pohe (the bridge adjacent to Pohe Island). That is followed at 6pm with a ceremonial start before the first of two competitive Hella Super Special tests at the William Fraser Memorial Park at Pohe Island, for the cars and their crew.
Saturday’s eight stages use four sections of road, first in the morning and then repeated in the afternoon.
Departing Whangarei’s Quayside town basin from 6:55am the crews head north. Using roads grouped either side of State Highway 1 near Maromaku, the first two (Maromaku 17.31km with one spectator point and Towai 27.28km, with two spectator points) feature sections used last year with some parts reversed. The next stage, Tapuhi (17.22km, with a further two spectator points) has changes to the start and finish.
Wrapping up each run is the 14.82km ‘Helena’ stage – a new addition to the event. Starting just inland of Helena Bay and the $50 million retreat of Alexander Abramov it has a distinct style. Two-time New Zealand Rally Champion Neil Allport expects it will catch a few.
“If you blink you might find yourself off it,” says Allport, offering sage advice to the drivers.
“It is a well-used piece of road with a hard base and good gravel surface. What is unique is the way it changes style – it is like three stages in one. The start is in keeping with what competitors will see in previous stages, and then it gets in to tight gnarly and switchback corners with steep cambers. Toward the finish it opens out and is very fast.
“My summing up: pay attention.”
Following a second service break back at the Whangarei Quayside town basin the cars are parked for the night ahead of Sunday’s 7:25am departure.
A further six stages use three groups of road, used once in the morning and again in the afternoon. Now traditional to the event, the day starts with the familiar Waipu roads of Springfield (28.51km), which has three spectator points, Waiotira (16.56km) with two spectator points and the Otuhi (18.15km) stage – to the north of the Tangihua forest, with a further two spectator points. Each test varies from past editions of the event.
After the second run the cars and crew return to the Whangarei Quayside town basin for the 3pm ceremonial finish.
Along with the celebratory national anthem of the winning team the top-three finishers are further recognised by their nation’s flag being shown adjacent to the winners’ dais.
While 2014 winner Gaurav Gill and co-driver Glenn Macneall are form favourites, fellow MRF Tyres teammates Pontus Tidemand and co-driver Emil Axelsson (Sweden) arrive for their first taste of New Zealand’s roads. The 24-year-old comes with plenty of winning pedigree having been Sweden’s youngest rally champion (2011) and winner of the FIA Junior World Rally Championship (2013). The pair will be driving factory backed Skoda Fabia S2000 specification cars, with a third campaigned by New Caledonia’s Jean-Louis Leyraud.
Indonesia’s Subhan Aksa makes a return to New Zealand and will drive a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X. Two Japanese entries include Mitsuhiro Aoki (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X) and the return of woman driver Rina Ito (Mazda Demio).
New Zealand representatives include Brian Green (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X) and Mike Young (Subaru Impreza).
Integrated in to the event is a national category for those contesting the New Zealand Rally Championship and club classes.
Headed by five-time New Zealand rally champions Richard and Sara Mason (Masterton, Subaru Impreza) they have significant competition for local honours. Also competing is the home-built Peugeot skinned car of Alex Kelsey and co-driver Mal Peden (Coromandel, Kelsey MC2) plus top campaigners Ben Hunt and co-driver Tony Rawstorn (Auckland, Subaru Impreza), Andrew Hawkeswood and Jeff Cress (Auckland, Mazda 2), David Holder and Rob Scott (Tauranga, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 8), Emma Gilmour and Anthony McLoughlin (Suzuki Maxi), and many more. Also making a return to the Northland roads is American stunt driver Ken Block and co-driver Alex Gelsomino (Ford Fiesta H.F.H.V) – who last contested the event in 2007.