Why Otago Rally is worth watching

There’s plenty going on at this week’s Dunedin-based New Zealand Championship opener

Rally Otago 2024Ranan HoranRoss Hyde Photo

It’s sometimes easy to overlook the backbone of the Central Machine Hire Otago Rally when you’re staring at Kris Meeke in that Escort. Or Brandon Semenuk in a Subaru Impreza H6. But there is – as always – so much more to this week than a couple of rallying rockstars who’ve made the trip south.

In terms of New Zealand rallying, this weekend represents a land of opportunity. There’s very much a feeling of the cat being away and the mice collectively coming out to play. Hayden Paddon’s on the wrong continent – the Hyundai NZ driver is starting the defense of his European Rally Championship title in Hungary this week.

The defense of last year’s latest home success commences in Timaru at next month’s Rally South Canterbury. Ari Pettigrew was Paddon’s closest challenger in Otago last year (admittedly more than four minutes behind the one-time Rally Argentina winner), but he’s swapped a Holden Barina AP4 for an Escort in the Classic event.

Škoda driver Ben Hunt starts from number one, with Robbie Stokes (Ford Fiesta AP4) and Dunedin’s local hero Emma Gilmour (Citroën C3 Rally2) following. Multiple Asia-Pacific Champion Gaurav Gill makes a welcome return to New Zealand aboard a Hyundai i20 N Rally2 at four. Hamilton’s Todd Bawden brings his Fiesta R5, with Jack Hawkeswood running his exciting Toyota GR Yaris to round out the top six starters.


Rally Otago 2024Bent HiuntRoss Hyde Photo

Third last year, Ben Hunt will lead the crews away in 2024

Further down the order, NZ series sponsor Brian Green wheels out his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX for another campaign.

Meeke leads the Otago International Classic Rally field away in the Rossanedale Escort. The Northern Irishman will be hard to beat despite a lack of familiarity with the terrain and the machine. Deane Buist, also in an Escort RS1800, will try to topple the titan and go one better than finishing second to Mikko Hirvonen last year.

Mitsubishi Lancer Evo III driver Andrew Graves heads the Otago Classic 4WD field with Semenuk’s Impreza H6 right behind him. The defending American champion is one of 10 naturally aspirated Subarus on the entry.

The crews assemble in the center of Dunedin for Friday night’s ceremonial start before the competition runs through eight stages and 90 miles on Saturday and 81 miles and eight stages on Sunday. The only double usage comes on the Kuri Bush stage, with a handful of miles used in the opposite direction as Sunday’s second test.

Otherwise, it’s all single-pass prime South Island gravel. All, that is, apart from Saturday night’s traditional Dunedin town center crowd-pleaser, which offers nothing more than three wide-open corners for the crews to put on a show. Gravel tires, don’t forget, are compulsory. It’s another reason why we love this event so much.