The history of rallying in New Zealand

New Zealand has a rich rallying history that's set to be projected onto the international stage again later this year

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It’s a haven. The gorgeous roads. The stunning scenery. The sheer passion for it. New Zealand’s marriage with rallying is on a level few other countries can rival.

As a nation it’s back on the global rallying map with its reintroduction to the World Rally Championship in 2022, 10 years after it was last included back in 2012.

When Jari-Matti Latvala, a rallying obsessive and the most experienced driver ever in the WRC, gives his opinion, it’s usually fairly accurate. It’s clear that New Zealand has been badly missed from rallying’s world tour.

“It’s one of the best rallies in the championship, the roads have quite a nice camber, it’s like dancing on gravel,” Latvala said.

Sebastien Loeb - Action

“This is an event which drivers, and fans, love.”

Those of us that resemble walking encyclopedias of our sport will be more than aware of New Zealand’s charms, but for the new generation of fans, this September they’re about to see what all the fuss is about. Here’s a basic overview.

First run in 1969, New Zealand was on the WRC’s schedule eight years later and – aside from some missed years due to calendar rotation in 1978, ’81, ’96, 2009 and ’11 – stayed there ever since until it slipped off the schedule in 2012.

Marcus Grönholm tops the rally’s roll of honor with five victories between 2000 and ’07, including that epic vs Sébastien Loeb that was won by a scant 0.3 seconds.

Carlos Sainz (four), Loeb (three), Colin McRae (three), Timo Salonen (two) and Richard Burns (two) are all also multiple winners of the WRC event, while Andrew Cowan, Hannu Mikkola and Hayden Paddon have each won the rally more than once but not always in the WRC.

Paddon’s pair of victories came on the two most recent editions of Rally New Zealand.  The rally wasn’t held at all between 2013-16 but returned in 2017 and ’18; the latter of those years still standing as the last time the event ran as the organizer has prepared for a WRC return which has twice been stunted by the coronavirus pandemic.

But that doesn’t mean rallying in New Zealand has been dormant, far from it. Aside from 2020 when New Zealand was under strict lockdown in response to COVID-19, the local New Zealand Rally Championship has been running every year since 1975.

This year, Paddon will be gunning for a record sixth title that would elevate him above Richard Mason’s five. Subarus and Mitsubishis have been the cars to have forever – having claimed all but three titles since 1993 – but the new AP4+ regulations have proved their worth as both Paddon and Andrew Hawkeswood have won titles in Mazda and Hyundai equipment.

Hayden Paddon 2019_PeterWhitten

For the European, American, African and Asian readers don’t worry, there’ll be a full explainer on what the AP4 cars are on DirtFish very soon.

The New Zealand rally calendar is also an epic, beginning with the Otago Rally in early April followed by International Rally of Whangerei, Rally South Canterbury, Rally Hawke’s Bay and then Rally New Zealand which, this year, will be split into two separate points-scoring rounds in the NZ championship.

Otago and Whangeri are the flagship events and both are currently part of the Asia Pacific Rally Championship schedule too, while the Silver Fern Rally is another gruelling classic – an historic rally at well over 750 miles in its modern guise – that had been running biennially until COVID-19 interrupted the universe.

In short, 2022 is a big year for New Zealand rallying. With its return to the WRC comes more international exposure and opportunity that will only serve to benefit the country’s drivers and events, while Paddon’s return to world championship rallying is another massive shot in the arm.

In the build up to Otago this year there will be plenty more content right here on DirtFish, so make sure you don’t miss it in order to immerse yourself in New Zealand rallying culture.

Words:Luke Barry