Kris Meeke column: Why I’m returning to Otago Rally

In a guest column for DirtFish, the five-time WRC event winner describes his eye-opening debut down under


Twenty-one years I waited to drive a rally car in New Zealand. It’ll not be another 21 before I’m back, trust me. Good? Sublime. The best.

After all the stories, my expectations for this event were, I guess, pretty high. It exceeded them on every level. Noel [O’Sullivan, co-driver] and I came down here to have a bit of craic, to drive the car and to enjoy the roads. The impact this place and these people have had on me is incredible. When we came out of Kuri Bush, the last stage, the famous one, I would’ve done anything to turn right and go back around to the start for another shot at it.

Lots of people were asking me at the finish if I’d be back in New Zealand to compete again… I told them I might not actually leave! What was it that made the roads so good? It was everything. Obviously, it was the corners and the character, the undulations, the camber and the surface. Finland is a fantastic place to go rallying, but the roads are just a touch softer and they can rut-up a little bit. Down here, the roads were so firm. There was a lot of rain in the lead up to the event, but there was absolutely no hint of any kind of rutting at all. I think you could have run 10 times across those roads and they’d have been the same: absolutely mint.

Before the start, Brandon [Semenuk] and I were making a film with DirtFish and one of the questions was which stage I would do with a last tank of fuel. For me it was Ouninpohja in Finland… I might have to rethink that now.


The Ford Escort RS1800 – what a car. And what a place to put her sideways!

Another privilege from last week was meeting Brandon. What a guy! It was so cool to have time to chat with him and listen to his approach to rallying and what he does on a bike. Honestly, when he was talking about his time at Red Bull Rampage, the hairs were coming up on the back of my hand. It was insane. They’re all nutjobs! It was great to hang out with him and Keaton [Williams, co-driver] and it would be fantastic to make it to America to race those boys.

Coming out of Kuri Bush, the adrenalin’s flowing and everything is pumping, it was just incredible. It’s like somebody took a clean sheet of paper, drew the perfect event and called it the Otago Rally.

It’s not just the roads, either. The organization was sublime – big congratulations to Norm and Rog Oakley. I don’t think we did a road section of more than 20 kilometers before we were into another stages. Then another one. And they were all among the best in the world. I haven’t driven the other stages, for example, in the North Island, but that’s something I will be putting right in the future – so I’ll be able to give a fuller example soon!

If there’s one thing I’d change it would be to run some repeated stages. It’s incredible that we did 170 competitive miles and didn’t drive a mile of that gravel in the same direction twice. But it would have been nice to have gone back in for a second run. All the time, you needed to just keep that wee bit of margin, just staying on your toes, just in case. The recce here is run in convoy and with 100-odd cars, that’s a fairly long line and sometimes you might have made the odd tweak to the notes. It would have been even better to have used the first pass to really check the notes before absolutely sending it the second time.

If the dream came true, I’d buy an Escort and leave her down there. Kris Meeke

Honestly, that’s a small thing. The roads were insane, and I’m told they could run thousands of miles of stages between Dunedin and Christchurch and never use the same stretch twice. That’s some country.

There seemed to be a bit of chat about the WRC coming back to New Zealand and I could only imagine the fun you’d have driving a Rally1 car along those roads. To be honest, even driving a Rally2 car would be unreal. Maybe that’s something I need to talk to somebody about: be great to get down there and race Hayden [Paddon] in a Rally2 or AP4 or something. Or the pair of us could go at it in a couple of Mk2s.

The one thing the Otago Rally doesn’t need is the world championship. This rally is something special. It stands alone and it does the most amazing job which would be much more complicated under the WRC regulations. Sure, it would be amazing to see the WRC back down here and it has to come to the best roads in the world, but not to this event. It needs to stay just as it is. It’s perfect. And it’s perfect because of the approach to everything. New Zealanders are a practical, sensible bunch of people – an example of this is allowing us to use power-steering on a historic class car. Why wouldn’t you? OK, you can argue it’s a performance thing and it’s not how it was 40 years ago, but 99% of the people driving these cars are doing it to enjoy themselves.

It’s the same with some of the technical regulations surrounding certain areas of the cars – elsewhere in the world, you have to keep to the absolute letter of the law that was in place 40 years ago. But 40 years ago, we didn’t have the same things we have today, we could make these cars cheaper and more reliable without impacting on the performance if there was just some leniency and thought put in.

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This Escort might not be entirely true to original spec thanks to the added power-steering – but it's better that way

You get all of the above down here. These organizers know a lot of folks have come a long way to compete in Otago and the emphasis is very much on making sure they have a good time and come back next year. That’s so refreshing to see.

I will be back, that’s for sure. Listening to the crews talking about round two of the championship in South Canterbury or the new event coming in Invercargill for round three, it sounds like the roads are just as good up and down the country. I think the only answer is for me to do the whole New Zealand Rally Championship. Why not? If the dream came true, I’d buy an Escort and leave her down there. Sure, it’s a day on a plane to be back on the best roads in the world.

I’m in. I’m all in.

But for now, I have to say a huge thanks to Brent Rawstron and everybody in the Rossendale team for allowing me the honor and the privilege to get behind the wheel of a car which has been driven by the greatest names in the world of rallying.

I hope me and Noel did it justice.

Words:Kris Meeke