Every rally needs a Roger. In fact, every rally needs a pair of Oakleys.
Roger and Norman Oakley are the backbone of the Otago Rally. Roger drives the commercial and promotional side of the event, while Norman is clerk of the course and one of the country’s most well-respected event directors.
There are hundreds of volunteers working on this weekend’s Dunedin-based event, but if these two didn’t put the hours in week-in-week-out, there wouldn’t be a startline for Hayden Paddon to park his Hyundai i20 AP4 in search of a sixth straight Otago win.
Talking to Roger is inordinately refreshing. Here’s a man who’s convinced a few folk to fly right around the world to drive the South Island roads he calls home.
Who’s on the list? There’s a few. Let’s see, how about: Hannu Mikkola, Miki Biasion, Markko Märtin, Ari Vatanen, Juha Kankkunen, Björn Waldegård, Michèle Mouton, Didier Auriol, Mads Østberg, Piero Liatti, Jimmy and Alister McRae and Alex Fiorio.
Not a bad roll call, is it?
To be fair, Roger doesn’t always work alone when he goes fishing for world champions. He’s been known to use the world’s most successful female co-driver for bait.
Fabrizia Pons is a very willing accomplice when it comes to vaulting the equator, bound for the land of the long white cloud. The woman who won five rounds of the world championship events, grins at the prospect of talking NZ.
“I never tire of going to New Zealand,” she said. “One day I hope to stop [there] and never go away. To ask me about New Zealand is like a wedding invitation. The Otago Rally is very well, professionally organized; the stages? Magnificent.”
Pons was integral in bringing her friend and former driver Ari Vatanen south.
“New Zealand has a special place in my heart,” Vatanen said. “I’ll never forget the country of my honeymoon.”
How romantic. Except…
“I did Rally New Zealand at the same time! Otago Rally was the missing link in my New Zealand rallying experience and my long-awaited first visit to the South Island did not disappoint.
“The roads were like the beautiful 1000 Lakes stages, but without the jumps. And without the lakes. But with many more sheep! In fact I enjoyed the last stage so much I kissed a gatepost…
“It’s a real pleasure to come back 30 years after the first time – still with the same wife and the same car [Escort Mk2]. The honeymoon continues!”
Ever the poet, Ari captures the mood and the emotion of Otago perfectly.
There’s no Vatanen, no Kankkunen and no Mikko Hirvonen this time. Continued COVID restrictions mean no international visitors – not even the Finns could fly by prime minister Jacinda Ardern.
So what makes this weekend worth watching?
The Kiwi superstars
‘Fanga Dan’ Woolhouse is a special sort of driver. You’ve got to be a brave sort to flick your car sideways at 120mph. But Whangarei’s most famous motorsport son does it within touching distance – literally touching distance – of another car. And then holds it in a big, long, lovely drift.
Granted, he’s got between 900 and 1100bhp on tap among this three drift cars, but still, his is a special craft and talent.
For the first time, he’s taking that talent to the world’s most famous Team Rossendale Ford Escort RS1800.
Driving the car for the first time at last month’s Westland Rally Sprint, he finished a hugely impressive fourth in class and 21st overall – with his times improving every stage.
“I had an absolute ball,” he said. “We got faster and faster and now I can’t wait for the Otago Rally. I’ve got huge appreciation to Ian McKee, my co-driver, what a legend! There’s no way you’d catch me jumping into the passenger seat with a novice at the wheel.”
The drift king’s not the only member of New Zealand’s sporting royalty in Dunedin this week – former gold medalist rower Hamish Bond is also making his rally debut. Bond swaps his two-man scull for a Subaru Impreza.
Bond said: “This is an opportunity I couldn’t ignore. This is something completely different for me – I have no experience here at all. I’m trying to get in as much time as I can behind the wheel. They talk about needing 10,000 hours at something before you become an expert – I’ll be lucky to clock up an hour!
“I’m really looking forward to the event – I haven’t fully binned it yet, but I’ve been on the edge a couple of times!”
Roger’s always keen to keep an eye on his guests, but Bond’s arrival in our world is something special.
“Hamish,” he said, “is good. I’ll be really interested to see how he goes. He’s a scarily focused sportsman, hell of a nice guy and it will be interesting to follow his progress. I’m hoping he gets to the finish – that way he’s less likely to cost us money!”
The big one
That’s the opening round of the Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship, right? Sort of.
The ENEOS Otago International Classic Rally is the one which, historically, everybody has always talked about. It’s the one that’s collected the gods of our sport in Dunedin on an annual basis year-on-year.
Granted, it won’t be quite the same without a world champion hurling an RS1800 between the trees, but it won’t be long before they’re back again.
In the meantime, you can manage with Paul Kendrick’s Fia 131 Abarth, a big bunch of Escorts, a Mitsubishi Lancer EX Turbo and a screaming Mazda RX7 among others. And seeded at number one, it’s ‘Fanga Dan.’
“Wish me luck…” he grinned at Thursday’s media event in Dunedin.
The combination of the Otago Classic 4WD Rally, the ENEOS Otago International Classic Rally and the Winmax Otago Rally provides an impressive entry. It’s almost a record-breaker.
Oakley added: “We’ve only got Kiwis this year and we’re within a handful of an all-time Kiwi record [for entries on a rally]. I’ve only been involved in the running this event for 30 years and the sport’s been around for 50 – but as far as anybody can remember, the 108 we’ve got on the list, is about as many as we’ve had.
“Our all-time entry was 132 in 2019, before COVID came and did its thing, but that included 20 internationals.
“This event means so much to us and to the city [of Dunedin].
“We feel quite strongly the duty for the sport and to our own town. For our motivations, we’re motivated to run an event in the New Zealand Rally Championship, but we feel even more strongly motivated to grow and promote the sport – alongside that, we like to promote our own town. Dunedin gets around 6500 bed nights for the city, which is quite important to us.
“It’s been a tricky time with COVID. The on-off scenario is all-consuming. When the restrictions come, you can’t just take your foot off the pedal and stop doing things, you can’t stop writing the emails and getting things in place – just in case the restrictions go away again.
“We had this to some extent when [restrictions were] lifted last week and suddenly we were able to run the ceremonial start on Friday night again. We could do that because we had the plans in place.
“We just can’t wait to get this thing started.”
Paddon’s chances of the half-dozen
Five-time New Zealand Rally Champion and five-time Otago winner Hayden Paddon is chasing six and six this weekend and this season.
The 2016 Rally Argentina winner is a step ahead of the field and the Dunedin bookies’ odds on ultra-favorite. For Paddon, this weekend is about seat time and looking forward to a World Rally Championship return.
Oh, and a few stage records.
He said: “We have targeted a few stage records this year, so will be really good to measure ourselves against earlier times to see how far we have progressed. No doubt there will be a lot of good competition which will step up this year, but my sole focus is doing the best job we can and trying to continuously to improve.
“We would love to win another title; that always the goal at the start of the season. It will need to be like previous years, not only speed but also consistency, so we are focused on winning that title.
— Hayden Paddon (@HaydenPaddon) April 5, 2022
“Any driving we can do before heading back to Europe [and the WRC] will be good. It’s all about seat time and although the cars are different, there is no substitute.
“Our team have been quite busy over the last few months. We have made a lot of new developments on the car this year which I’m pretty excited about. As our competitors get faster, we also need to keep lifting our game, and this year is one of the biggest steps we have made in recent years.”
Should Paddon’s challenge falter, who’s there?
Robbie Stokes is up next in a Ford Fiesta AP4 with Aucklanders Ben Hunt – who makes an exciting Škoda switch – and Raana Horan right in the mix too.
Josh Marston and Emma Gilmour bring their Holden Barina and Suzuki Swift AP4 hardware as does Dylan Turner, who maintains the famous name of Audi in the sport.
The event gets underway with a ceremonial start in Dunedin on Friday night before the first of nine Saturday stages at 0725 (local time). The opening day totals 90 miles with Sunday not far short at 82. The rally concludes with the classic Kuri Bush test.
Stay tuned to DirtFish’s website as well as our social channels for the latest updates from the South Island.
Saturday April 9
SS1 Switchback (8.58 miles) 0725
SS2 Stoneburn (18.48 miles) 0800
SS3 Moonlight 1 (6.83 miles) 0850
SS4 Hartfield (11.80 miles) 1015
SS5 Shag Valley (5.16 miles) 1110
SS6 Moonlight 2 (6.83 miles) 1145
SS7 Four Mile (7.77 miles) 1310
SS8 Nenthorn (22.99 miles) 1345
Sunday April 10
SS10 Black Rock (10.56 miles) 0735
SS11 Emerald Heights (11.18 miles) 0815
SS12 Waipori Gorge (8.07 miles) 0845
SS13 Dicksons (13.04 miles) 1025
SS14 Whare Flat (7.45 miles) 1110
SS15 Circle Hill (17.39 miles) 1305
SS16 Taieri Beach (5.59 miles) 1400
SS17 Kuri Bush (9.39 miles) 1430
Total competitive distance: 172.5 miles