In the absence of the World Rally Championship, this week’s Otago Rally is New Zealand’s highest profile motorsport event of the season. The Oakley brothers – Roger and Norman – are at the very center of the Dunedin-based event.
Roger gives us an insight into the week ahead for him and his team.
It’s rally week. How does that make you feel?
Excited, and, of course, a bit anxious. All the work for the event leads up to now, and there’s no excuses. The over-riding emotion though, is excitement. Meeting all the competitors and supporters, showcasing the sport to our region, and most of all having a spectacular event with great competition.
You’ve been busy building this rally pretty much since the 2022 event finished. What sort of things are you doing this week – what are the last-minute preparations?
In theory, all the organizing, planning and briefing of people is complete. So in many regards, the event is now in the hands of the huge band of volunteers. My role is now about being at the key events and locations and being available to make sure any issues can be easily resolved. Of course, there’s inevitably quite a list of things that I’ll be involved in personally, particularly meeting sponsors and supporters.
What’s it like when you see the first teams arriving in the service park to set-up?
It’s a big buzz when you see all the competitors arriving at the ceremonial start at The Octagon in the centre of Dunedin. It suddenly makes the event seem real, and that everything’s ready to go. After that, like most of the key organizing team, I don’t actually get to see much of the event.
Apart from Mikko Hirvonen finally doing the decent thing and flying south, what’s new about this year’s event?
The big thing is the return of international competitors, journalists and spectators – this is such a great thing after three years of COVID isolation. Having the DirtFish team here in person is great, and I know the competitors will love meeting them.
The international competitors bring such a buzz to the event, you’ve got to remember that New Zealand is islands in the middle of nowhere – we’re almost 2,000 miles away from Australia! We are also really pleased to be the inaugural round of the new TER World Series, which brings a huge amount of TV coverage. Otago’s Hayden Paddon being top seed is not new, but having another two Otago drivers – Ari Pettigrew and Emma Gilmour – in the top four is pretty special for this part of the world.
What will you be doing during the event itself?
Sitting quietly with my finger’s crossed! In my role in the promotions side, I’ll be sitting at Rally HQ channelling news for the event reporting, working with quite a number of other people who will be in many places. I’ll have an eye on preparing for the finish line ceremonies, and also the preparation for the prizegiving dinner at the Town Hall where there will be 500 people attending.
How are the conditions looking?
The roads are looking in really good shape: smooth, hard and fast. The weather forecast is pretty good too, with hopefully just enough bits and pieces of rain to keep dust under control.
Do you think some of the stage records are under threat?
I think so, with the great road conditions. Hayden Paddon is switching from his AP4 Hyundai to his new Hyundai i20 N Rally2, this is going to be fascinating. Remember his comparison he provided DirtFish last year, AP4 is potentially better in fast conditions while the Rally2 is more agile. But keep an eye out for the other Kiwis: [Emma] Gilmour, [Ari] Pettigrew, [Ben] Hunt, [Robbie] Stokes, [Raana] Horan… there’s a long list who just keep getting faster.
In outright two-wheel drive, keep an eye on Jackson Clendon (Ford Fiesta Rally4). In Classic 2WD, [Mikko] Hirvonen is match fit in BDA Escorts, but he’s got to beat records set by Markko Märtin, Mads Østberg, [Hayden] Paddon and the likes. Tim Smith, in the Classic 4WD is a rising star, and the Allcomers field always throws up surprises.
What about Sarah Walker, what can we expect from a triple BMX world champion?
The thing that immediately impresses about Sarah is her complete focus; she wants to know everything about how to go fast. And this is as much with regard to the mental approach as to the skills. The next most impressive thing is that she has immediately shown great skills, and does not seem at all overawed. I think that’s what a world champion’s background and mindset brings. I would not be surprised if by the end of the event her stage times are not embarrassing a few people.
Emma Gilmour in a Rally2 car, that’s exciting too…
Really exciting. Emma has always been in contention for a podium, and she says the Citroën is noticeably more competent than her 10-year-old AP4 Suzuki.
And that fella Hirvonen in that MkII. You’ve waited a while, you must be stoked to have him…
Mikko is a star for many reasons, obviously his record in the WRC, but equally because he’s such a great ambassador for the sport. I can’t wait to meet him, and we’ve only made one request of him, and that’s to really enjoy himself. He’s got star power, and helps make the event special.
Dunedin’s a key partner for the event, how important is the city for Otago Rally?
The support of the Dunedin City Council is fundamental, and it goes way beyond the funding support. Dunedin City Council’s Events team is focused on helping events be the best they can, and they help us overcome hurdles. Their attitude is: how can we help? The geographic boundaries of the city are huge, many of the stages are on their roads, there’s never been any question of payment for their use.
One story comes to mind, from some years ago: we were hit by a big storm a week before the rally and there was some significant damage to one stage at some water crossings – we thought we’d lose the stage. The city team called saying: “We’re sorry, the stage is impassable… we won’t have it fixed for you before Wednesday. Is that going to be OK?” Just to have it fixed at all was incredible, that it only took a couple of days was even more amazing.
Rallying is full of unsung heroes, who are yours?
I’d like to give a big shout out to the volunteers. Everyone knows how fundamental they are to success. The team we have here are so skilled and proactive. I’d also like to talk about the whole rally community, it’s such a great thing to be part of. We have competitors ranging in age from 16 to 76, and an even wider range with the volunteers, and it’s like one big community, full of characters. And I’d include the international competitors in that as well, they’re here for the love of the sport.
Rallies are like a big reunion, they’re great to be part of.