Let’s play a quick game: Björn Waldegård, Hannu Mikkola, Jimmy McRae, Alister McRae, Juha Kankkunen, Didier Auriol, Michèle Mouton, Gwyndaf Evans, Markko Märtin and Mads Østberg – what do they all have in common, aside from competing in the World Rally Championship?
Any guesses? OK, we’ll tell you.
Every single one of them has made the long trip to New Zealand and competed on the Otago Rally at some point in the 21st century. Mikko Hirvonen might’ve joined the club – and is understood to have been incredibly keen to – had COVID-19 not thrown a logistical curveball that was impossible to overcome.
The question is: why?
Perhaps the immediate counter question, then, is why not? Beautiful roads, a welcoming atmosphere and the opportunity to roll back the years in a gorgeous car, it’s a fairly irresistible proposition.
But rally drivers are invited by event organizers to come to their event all over the world, so the fact that Otago has managed to get so many legends to say yes really does speak volumes as to the quality of the rally.
And rest assured, that’s no accident.
“We’ve been blessed with fantastic support from the likes of Fabrizia Pons who you might or might not know has a love affair with New Zealand from her days coming out with Audi back in the ’80s. So much so that as a sidestory, back in Italy when the Winter Olympics were on she made a point of being the Italian liaison for the New Zealand Winter Olympics team,” says Chris Grant, results coordinator at ChrisSport.
“And she’s on record as saying that if and when she ever does retire, New Zealand would be one of the places at the top of her list to come and live. It’s nice to know that we’ve done more than just provide a sporting interest for someone to come to New Zealand.
“People like her and in fact our own John Kennard, Hayden [Paddon]’s co-driver, with his past WRC contacts with working for the works teams, he and Fabrizia have been instrumental in luring some of these drivers to say yes to make the effort to come out and help setup and promote our event, and hopefully have a good time while they’re here.
“And again, the innovative nature of the Otago guys when they realized COVID was going to scupper the international and overseas plans, the last couple of years they’ve turned to top New Zealand sportspeople outside the realms of rallying.
“There’s Aaron Slight who used to be a superbike rider, we have Avalon Biddle, one of the top lady motorbike riders, and this year we’ve got one of our top Olympics rowers Hamish Bond who’s just recently retired, he’ll be driving a Subaru Impreza, and a drifting guy is going to be driving an Escort. The guys never take no for an answer!”
Østberg is the most recent international rally driver to have made the trip, competing in both 2018 and ’19. It’s clear that both trips left their mark.
“I love that event,” he says. “What can I say, I’ve done it two times in the past and it’s also a unique event with the fast flowing stages of New Zealand.
“Really nice nature and again, doing that rally is almost travelling through an adventure. You see different nature and so many nice stages. So it’s one of the best memories I have is from doing the Otago Rally.
“Also the people were fantastic every time I was there, everyone was friendly and taking care of us. And the nature is just beautiful.
“In one way it’s reminding me of the northern coast of Norway with the big mountains and ice lakes and it’s a beautiful part of the world. So it’s nice to look around, not only on the stages.
“It’s also an event which has the potential to be in WRC,” he adds. “I wouldn’t blink my eyes if the Otago Rally was a WRC event.
“So it’s a proper event with nice stages and also Dunedin is a really nice host city for the event, so it’s a proper rally and I think seeing videos and pictures from the stages is something special.”
But what does Østberg treasure most from his two Otago Rally outings?
“That’s a very good question. My best memory for sure is 2019 when I won the classic event there,” he recalls.
“I think we finished top six on the overall standings with a car that’s even older than me. So that’s a great memory to be honest. Fighting with R5 cars with a classic Escort is a perfect memory for me.”
Otago is infectious, even for the world’s best who travel the globe in some of the finest machines ever made.