The Kiwi opener that delivered rallying rock and roll

Jack Hawkeswood made history with his Otago Rally win on Sunday, while superstars Kris Meeke and Brandon Semenuk delivered the entertainment

Hawkeswood Otago

The full gamut of emotions were on show at the stop line of the Kuri Bush stage, which closed out yet another classic – in every sense of the word – Otago Rally on Sunday afternoon. Kris Meeke? Brandon Semenuk? They can wait. The first word has to go to Jack Hawkeswood.

The 23-year-old Kiwi was never going to steal the limelight from such lauded company as five-time world rally winner Meeke and two-time American champ Semenuk, but the Toyota GR Yaris driver certainly borrowed his fair share on an exceptional weekend for himself and co-driver Jason Farmer.

Hawkeswood scored his maiden Asia Pacific and New Zealand Rally Championship win in exceptional style over 170 competitive miles. He built an early lead on Saturday morning, then drove faultlessly to defend that advantage for the remainder of the event. Robbie Stokes put together a spirited challenge aboard his Ford Fiesta AP4, the Waikuku driver starting Sunday in fine style by cutting Hawkeswood’s lead to 11.8 seconds. Sadly for Stokes he handed back the 7.6s gained (to the tenth) in the next one when the Fiesta suffered a broken tie rod.

While Hawkeswood looked to have the event under control, he could never quite break completely free from Stokes’ close attentions.

Meeke Otago Ridder

Tire wear on the front of Meeke's Escort was susprisingly light on a stunning weekend for the Northern Irishman's South Island debut

Stokes told DirtFish: “I didn’t really know what the gap was until we got to the start of Kuri Bush (the final stage) and I asked Sarah [Brennan, co-driver] if there was any point in pushing and taking a risk. She told me there wasn’t. No excuses from me, Jack’s been brilliant for the whole rally. We’ve been there or thereabouts for the whole event, but next time we’ll just have to go faster.”

Brennan was probably right, lifting 19.2s out of the leader through 10 miles of one of the world’s most challenging stages was always going to be an enormous ask. Hawkeswood richly deserved his victory was greeted at the finish by his father Andrew, a fellow NZRC round winner.

“This is a dream come true,” the winner told DirtFish at the finish, “especially to be duking it out with Robbie right until the end. To be the first father-son to win a New Zealand round is something pretty special. We’ve learned a lot here this weekend, but it’s eyes front for the rest of the year now.”

It looks like history was destined to be made on New Zealand’s east coast, had it not been Jack and Andrew Hawkesworth, it would have been Robbie and Brian Stokes.

Ben Hunt rounded out the NZRC podium in his Škoda. Those top three drivers are, however, very well aware that the master is back for round two in South Canterbury next month. The prospect of taking on Hayden Paddon, absent as he started the defence of his European title in Hungary, is a fearsome but familiar one. Hyundai NZ’s seven-time champion might well be a score down, but he still remains firm favourite to retain his crown.

It’s a demonstration of the ferocity of the fight to make hay in the southern hemisphere sunshine, that we’ve got so far into this story without mentioning Meeke and Semenuk.

The Northern Irishman, driving the Rossendale Ford Escort was in dreamland for much of the weekend. Predictably, he dominated the Classic category of the rally, but such was his new-found love for the Kiwi roads that he almost had to be dragged back onto the plane north. “People have been asking me when I’m coming back,“ he smiled. “I might not actually go home! The place is just sublime. The car’s been fantastic, definitely one of the best Escorts I’ve ever driven and these roads… where do you start. Best rally in the world? For me, yes, it’s definitely up there. I’ve absolutely loved it and I’d be back here in a heartbeat.”

The love of the South Island gravel was very much echoed aboard Semenuk’s Subaru Impreza H6. Stopping to change a puncture probably took the edge off the opening day for the ultra-competitive Canadian, but he was smiling through seven of Sunday’s eight stages. He’d started the understand more of what was required to get the best out of the Group N-spec Subaru and had all six cylinders singing when he arrived at the final stage.

Semenuk Ross Hyde

Semenuk's event went south when his Subaru fell foul of a final-stage roll. (No Kiwis were injured in the incident)

Roofing the Impreza a mile in wasn’t the way he wanted to end his maiden Kiwi competition. “It was a stupid slow corner,” he said. “Super dumb. Honestly, it was the slowest f*****g corner ever. We turned into the corner, which was a three, and I was getting back on it when it dragged us out. There was like a dirt wall and the front wheel touched like a lip at the bottom and it slowly rolled. I mean, we were going like 20mph, dude.

“It’s only the second time I’ve rolled – the first one was a really slow one as well. It’s tough.”
With the car on its roof and partially in the road, co-driver Keaton Williams galvanized the gathered fans to put it back on its wheels, so they could finish the stage.

“We wanted the finish,” said Williams, “and we made it into the final control with 15 seconds to spare before we incurred penalties. I guess Kuri Bush bit us.”

They weren’t the first and they certainly wouldn’t be the last.

The Classic 4WD category went to father and son team Andrew and Hayden Graves in their lovely Mitsubishi Lancer Evo III. Also well worthy of a mention was Caleb MacDonald, who lifted the Allcomers Class in his Lancer.

Andrew Graves Ridder

The Graves family Lancer helped wind the clock back three decades and remind folk of a Finn called Tommi...