Gus Greensmith was expecting big things. Rally New Zealand, he’d told DirtFish, was that one rally remaining on his bucket list to tick off.
But having traversed the nine different stages that make up this year’s route, somehow, those lofty expectations have been surpassed.
“Recce was bloody lovely, it was grand,” Greensmith beamed.
“New Zealand’s always been the rally – aside from Monte Carlo – since before I started rallying, that I’ve been desperate to do. It was every bit as good as I expected. To be honest, a bit better.
“The first two days are the just the most incredible stages I’ve ever seen in my life. The second one, I’m usually not a massive fan of long stages, I usually think 15-20 is about perfect.
“But no, it’s 31km of just magic.”
And that’s what Rally New Zealand is. Magic.
New Zealand is a stunning country filled with the most welcoming people with an astonishing determination to succeed and just pick themselves up whenever they’re knocked back, but that atmosphere isn’t what has the world’s best rally drivers drooling.
It’s the roads, perfectly draped through the countryside with their stunning cambers and flowing nature. If you were to design your perfect rally stage, there’s every chance it would look something like what the WRC’s finest are taking on this weekend.
“It’s quite hard to describe it, really,” Greensmith added.
“The main thing is the flow. There’s no disruption to the flow, which is really strange. Usually you get into sections in any other rally and it’ll be like jointed, kind of awkward corners. But here it’s just constantly flowing.
“Obviously the rhythm changes and it slows down, speeds up, bigger straights. But the actual flow of the corner never changes, it’s just nice and progressive everywhere.
“And then you also have the camber, which we don’t really have anywhere else in the world. So you can see corners.
“I’ve had to come up with a new note this weekend to describe aggressive, positive camber where you can carry the speed.”
And that note would be?
“Banked. It took me a long time to think of that and I’m not actually being sarcastic, it did! I couldn’t think of one that worked!”
Greensmith doesn’t stand alone in shouting about Rally New Zealand from the rooftops. Team-mate Craig Breen’s thoughts could equally serve as a testimonial for the rally.
“I have to say they’re some of the best roads that I’ve ever driven on,” he said.
“They’re just so well made everywhere – even the bad ones are good to be honest with you. Beautiful roads, just a constant flow, and the rhythm is perfect so amazing I have to say.
This is a very, very special event, it's made to be enjoyedCraig Breen
Oliver Solberg is another who’s joined the Rally New Zealand fan club. He has been to the rally before, but that was when he was a 10-year-old supporting his father, Petter, who took the final podium spot in a works Ford Fiesta WRC.
Solberg’s memories aren’t of his world championship-winning dad though, but instead of Colin Clark driving him and his mom Pernilla back to service from the end of one of the stages.
“He was the best driver that we could find somewhere in the forest,” Solberg quipped. “He was the only choice we had!”
There’s a good chance Solberg will be traveling an awful lot faster a decade later.
“Beautiful,” he said when asked for his thoughts on the stages.
“They’re some of the coolest roads I’ve ever seen. It’s not as cambered as I expected but the roads are stunning, stunning.”
But what about the experienced members of the WRC’s fraternity? Namely Mr Ogier, Mr Neuville and Mr Tänak. How are they finding it on what is their second time contesting the rally?
“Maybe the memories will come back while driving in the stages during the rally, but it’s hard to recognize, to remember, to be honest,” Neuville, who drove a Citroën DS3 WRC to fifth when he was last here in 2012, said.
“Except shakedown; I found myself more or less back.”
“I actually didn’t remember anything when I came here,” agreed Neuville’s Hyundai team-mate Tänak, who leads the rally after Thursday’s park stage.
“Even doing these stages now, yes some places I can remember but mostly it looks all new.”
But there’s perhaps a very good reason neither Neuville nor Tänak can remember what they faced 10 years ago – besides that clear passage of time and the umpteen number of WRC rallies they’ve both entered.
The roads have changed in that time.
“It seems to be wider in many places – not everywhere,” Neuville pointed out. “Maybe more loose but I remember in 2012 we had more rain during recce as well, so it seems that there’s more loose on the roads now.
“This could more or less disappear when the rain comes [this weekend]. Tricky.”
“Whaanga Coast, that’s basically the only stage that didn’t change for me,” said Ogier.
“It still feels different to me than 10 years ago, it feels the roads are wider with a faster profile in general. But again, still beautiful.”
And if there’s one word that sums up Rally New Zealand, let it be Ogier’s.
A new generation is about to be introduced to one of the world’s most famous rallies – and it’s fair to say none of them can wait.
“I just want to enjoy it,” said Breen.
“This is a very, very special event, it’s made to be enjoyed so that’s definitely the plan.”