When the World Rally Championship departed the viaduct basin and Auckland in 2012, the series’ future down there was definitely debatable.
The Rally New Zealand service park had been shoehorned into a space which simply wasn’t big enough or nearly attractive enough to bring fans from Queen Street’s beating heart of the city to the harbourside. And there were definitely grumbles about remote services in Raglan on day one and Whangarei on the Saturday.
Rally NZ had shifted back to the City of Sails for its previous edition in 2010. Prior to that, being based out Hamilton for three years had delivered better access to the stages, but a depleted population and potential spectator base.
It was a rally caught between two stools with the stakeholders all apparently set on separate agendas.
And it wasn’t just New Zealand. Rally Australia was even worse, struggling to find a permanent home after Western Australia pulled the plug on its funding for a Perth-based event. The two Antipodean qualifiers had agreed a process of event rotation with the FIA, but as the Coffs Harbour-homed Rally Oz grew into the calendar, the New Zealanders faded.
For 26 years, between 1982 and 2008, the event was missed only once. Since 2008, there have been just two trips to the land of the long white cloud.
Just as was the case across the Tasman, Rally New Zealand struggled for a home, experimenting with Hamilton for three years. The Waikato city offered great access to the stages and alleviated the issue of remote service parks, but there wasn’t the centre of population to support the event. The manufacturers wanted to be back in the bright lights and the big city. Back to Auckland then.
But the feeling was very much one of the moment having passed. New Zealand’s appetite and ambition for WRC looked to have faded.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. A dedicated and hardworking hardcore group kept the Kiwi flame burning. And nobody worked harder than Hayden Paddon. The former Rally Argentina winner never lost the faith, and his reward comes when the world championship lands back in his backyard for the last week in September.
And that’s two years later than expected. COVID-19 has put paid to two previous attempts, but it’s really happening this time around – pandemic permitting.
And this one’s going to be special, with all the best North Island roads on offer, as well as the new Jack’s Ridge superspecial – a handful of miles out of Auckland and run with the famous cityscape and Hauraki Gulf as a backdrop.
The question mark down under now reverts back to Australia. Coffs Harbour, we’re told, is definitely done. The hankering for something higher profile and ideally closer to Sydney has laid Bathurst and the Mount Panorama circuit into the event’s crosshairs. Or at least it has this week.
The story changes on a regular basis. One thing is for sure, a solid showing from New Zealand in fall/spring, depending which hemisphere you’re reading this in, could help make the case for a more sustained return to the calendar.
And, make no mistake, those roads deserve to be represented in the WRC year-on-year.
We’ve been gone too long.