Forget the cricket. Forget the rugby. Forget World Cups. The FIA World Rally Championship is the only thing New Zealand needs to be thinking about with the biggest and best show back in town next year.
WRC Promoter managing director Oliver Ciesla has just landed back in Europe from his latest discussions with the organisers of next September’s Auckland-based event and he couldn’t be more excited about being back in the land of the long white cloud.
There’s always been something special about Rally New Zealand. Maybe it’s to do with it being the furthest possible trip for Europeans, but there’s a huge sense of adventure when you land in the city of sails. Maybe it’s the exceptional welcome from the enthusiastic and knowledgeable locals. Or maybe it’s the outstanding roads. In fact, it’s a combination of all three.
New Zealand first made it to the WRC calendar in 1977 and that inaugural event was one of the most astonishing stories in the rally’s history. Unsurprisingly for a good rally story from the seventies, Ari Vatanen was at the heart of this one.
He drove a locally sourced Ford Escort RS1800 on the event, defending Blue Oval honour against three factory Fiat 131 Abarths. The Flying Finn arrived in New Zealand early, hoping to recce the 75 stages, covering 2,211km, as many times as possible.
Local co-driver Jim Scott had other ideas and refused to take anything more than a week off from his business selling lawn mowers.
“We did all the stages once,” said Vatanen. “This was a recipe for disaster…”
The disasters came thick and fast, the first being the most significant. Ari lost the car on a downhill asphalt section and slid down a bank.
“We needed a winch to get the car back up,” he explained. “We got one, but the winch had to be attached to a tree on the other side of the road, so every time we got the car moving, we had to stop to allow another car through.”
More than half an hour was lost, but Vatanen was sublime on the stunning North Island roads. He carved back through the field, including a particularly fine run through the 102km road from Pehira to Rakauroa.
In that one stage, he caught and passed all three factory Fiats, leaving Fulvio Bacchelli, Markku Alén and Simo Lampinen somewhat lost for words.
Unfortunately for Vatanen the dream story didn’t come true. After competitive driving totalling more than 24 hours, he finished second to Bacchelli by just over a minute.
Vatanen’s most amusing comment regarded Scott. “At the start, he looked like my father,” smiled Vatanen. “By the finish, he looked like my grandfather.”
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville summed up 2020’s return neatly when he said: “Rally New Zealand is the rally every driver wants to do.” It’s not hard to see why.