You know the feeling. Your science teacher hands your paper back. You’re pretty pleased; who wouldn’t be with 90%? Andrew Connolly. That’s who. His 98% has left him frustrated.
It’s the same with the 100 meters. Sub-13 seconds this time. A personal best. But second again. Bloody Nathan Owen.
Welcome to Robbie Stokes’ world.
Robbie’s world is shared by Emma Gilmour, Ben Hunt, Raana Horan and a good few more.
Bloody Hayden Paddon.
You could be forgiven for thinking it impossible for DirtFish to write about New Zealand rallying without somehow including the words ‘Paddon’ and ‘Hayden.’ And you’d be right. We like Geraldine’s finest. But last week’s Otago Rally reminded us of the depth and breadth of talent struggling to step out from the Rally Argentina winner’s shadow.
It would be the same if Sébastien Ogier binned his endurance racing fascination for a shot at the French championship. At times, it’s impossible to see past Paddon, for very good reason.
Last Saturday morning at the junction of the Mahinerangi Road, there was one very good reason to look past him. Yes, Paddon had eclipsed his own benchmark for the Black Rock stage. But so had Robbie Stokes.
Granted, Paddon had still taken a second per mile out of his Ford Fiesta AP4-driving rival, but Stokes has become painfully aware that these small wins are well worth taking when it comes to competing against the finest Kiwi rally driver in history.
“I was really proud of that,” Stokes told DirtFish. “We had some problems with the driveshafts on the car, but I honestly felt – and feel – it’s getting faster and faster.”
But can it be fast enough?
“I want to beat him, of course I do. I don’t see it as a burden that he’s here and always winning – I see it as an incentive. If we can go as fast as him then, on the world stage, we’ll be pretty competitive.
“We’re still well away from our potential with the car and pacenotes; this is only my second year in a four-wheel-drive car and I hadn’t driven some of those roads in Otago. I was really happy with the pace we showed.”
Typically with New Zealand rallying, the rivalry between Paddon and the best of the rest is ruthlessly intense. But between the events, there’s a real sense of assisting each other to help the greater cause of continued recognition for Kiwis on the world’s stages.
Paddon’s been around the world and he’s beaten Ogier to win at the highest level. He’s on his way back to the world championship, but he’s more than ready to offer a helping hand to a driver a step or two behind him.
Drivers like the 26-year-old from Waikuku.
That’s what I’m trying to do right now. I’m trying to beat him on a stage…Robbie Stokes on Hayden Paddon
“A few years ago Hayden helped me out quite a bit,” said Stokes. “I went to a test with him and he took me in the car and showed me some stuff. There were lots of little things, things he tells you that really stick in the mind. Those things have helped me get better, with doing everything right and with being totally professional.
“He talked about trying to win a stage, then a rally and then win a title. That’s what I’m trying to do right now. I’m trying to beat him on a stage…”
When’s that going to happen?
“Maybe it would have happened in Otago,” he said. “It felt really good for us and it was getting faster.
“I think [Rally] South Canterbury could be interesting. I know it’s his home rally, but on the first stage of the event last year we were a second up on him at the first split after five kilometers. That gave a lot of confidence. Now I need to do it through a whole stage. I’ve done South Canterbury a couple of times in the AP4 car and I know the roads quite well.
“But maybe the next round in Whangarei as well. Those are stages I really like. Basically, I want to go faster than Hayden anywhere and everywhere! He’s a proven world-class driver and for us to get up there would be really good.”
Stokes comes from a rally family. His father – Brian – is a double NZ Rally champion, and his sister Amy is his co-driver.
“We all work together,” said Stokes. “We work on everything. This is one of the good things about the AP4 class, you get the chance to develop the car yourself. Ian Mason has worked with us for a lot of years and he’s fantastic and we have Jack Williamson working on the engine – he used to be with Hayden.
“The engine is something we’re particularly proud of, I reckon we’ve got the best engine out there. Like I said, we all talk and we all work on this thing, dad included.
“For me, the goal of being NZ champion is right there – I’d be the first son to win the title after his father. That’s what I want.”
After that, the world’s waiting. Or Europe at least.
“Moving towards the world championship is definitely something I want to do,” Stokes added. “We’re looking to get up there to Europe for a rally next season. Maybe I do a European Rally Championship round, we’ll see – the competition is so tight up there with rallies measured in seconds rather than minutes. I like that.”
He won’t, of course, have to wait that long to measure himself against the best of the best.
“I can’t wait for Rally New Zealand,” he grinned. “That’s going to be a real challenge. The WRC means longer loops of stages, managing the tires, and all that. I’m really excited about that and seeing where we are against the Rally2 cars.”
Competing in a Ford continues a family tradition with his father Brian also having been a ‘blue oval’ regular in a range of Sierras and Escort RS Cosworths. All home built and run.
“We’re backed by the manufacturer for this year,” said Stokes Jr. “We get help from Ford New Zealand and that’s something that really helps.”
The level of importer support in the NZ Rally Championship is another phenomenal story. But that’s one for another day.
For now, remember the name. It’s Stokes. Robbie Stokes.