With the greatest of respect to Estonia and Estonians, we shouldn’t be here this week. Lovely as Tartu is, this wasn’t the plan for the first week in September.
The plan – for the vast majority of the World Rally Championship’s service park – was to spend a night sleeping five miles above planet earth as they made their way from the globe’s top to bottom.
On Thursday this week, the world’s finest rally drivers should have been in action in New Zealand for the first time in eight years.
But, guess what… Kiwi borders remain shut and all that hope and expectation sets itself on a wing and a prayer for a possible slot on the 2021 calendar. And, with Australia already contracted and agreed for next year, the odds look slim.
Auckland’s brightest hope remains with its fellow southern hemisphere friends across the Tasman.
Half a dozen years into the 17th Century Dutchman Willem Janszoon became the first European to set foot in Australia. Shortly after he did that, speculation began that Rally Australia would move from Coffs Harbor to Bathurst for 2021.
And they’re still talking. The corridors of officialdom in Motorsport Australia echo with quiet confirmation that Mount Panorama is the only option. Talk to the Bathurst locals, 100 or so miles north-west of Sydney and the story is that, well, so far there is no story.
Let’s get back to New Zealand, our originally planned destination for this week.
Anybody who reads DirtFish regularly might have noticed that I’m a reasonably big fan of New Zealand. In fact, if somebody would just hook it up to a big tug and tow it up alongside Orkney, I’d almost certainly move there.
The people, the geography, the culture and the desire to place sport at the very heart of everything they do make these islands in the South Pacific very, very special. And that’s before you’ve even turned a wheel on one of their roads.
I remember talking to Jarmo Mahonen, the FIA’s now retired rally director. Jarmo is Finnish to his very core (not that this ever clouded the impartiality his role with the governing body demanded) and he maintains Finnish roads are the finest available anywhere in the world.
Then he went to New Zealand.
“For a Finn,” he said, “this is hard for me to tell you. But maybe these roads are the best.”
He thought about what he’d said.
“Or maybe they’re as good as ours.”
Pick the right piece of road, get into the gravel north of Auckland and you’ll find roads to rivals absolutely anything. Why?
The angle of the road at the apex of the corners is a thing of absolute beauty. And an opportunity to go a gear higher than you’d ever have imagined possible.
Honestly, even me in a breathless, automatic, Hertz-sourced hire a week can appreciate why drivers love these unique cambers so much. You skip from crest to crest, hooking a wheel deeper and deeper carrying more and more speed.
Get too confident, carry too much speed and that camber that’s worked so well for you, suddenly becomes your mortal enemy. Get on the wrong side of a camber and it will spit you into the silver ferns quicker than you can say: “If Hayden Paddon didn’t have bad luck…”.
A qualifying WRC round since 1977, New Zealand was pretty much a regular feature on the calendar until – having tried rotating with Australia – it fell from favor and struggled for funding.
Since it last ran in 2012, New Zealand has been seen as an expensive luxury the WRC can ill afford. The logistical costs of taking the WRC to Auckland are reckoned out of kilter with the value derived from a car market which shifts 150,000 units each year.
Personally, I think that’s nonsense. On both counts.
If there’s one place that’s made for a media-driven market it’s New Zealand. If you can’t make a great – and eminently sellable – story out of those roads and a backdrop dramatically favored by Peter Jackson for three films about a ring that have, so far, netted US$2.9m, there’s something wrong.
And the car market thing? Remind me, how many cars are sold in Finland in an average year? Around 40,000 fewer than New Zealand.
Fundamentally, rallying is an extreme sport. And where, I ask you, is widely recognized as the extreme sport capital of mother earth? That’s right New Zealand.
That’s how, within a couple of hours of touching down in the City of Sails, you can check into your hotel, take a lift to the tallest part of the building and jump off (providing you’re staying in the Sky City – with the leap of faith coming from atop the Sky Tower).
But for serious adventure, head south. Queenstown’s where it’s really all at. Kawarau Bridge is the original bungee; the steep-sided gorge lined by the shallows of the Shotover River (‘Shotty’ if you’re a local) isn’t the obvious place to bolt together a pair of V8s capable of shifting 760 liters of water per second.
Unless you’re in New Zealand. Welcome to the jet boat.
Still not convinced? How about being fired from 0-60mph in 1.5s across a canyon? Or swinging 300 meters across the same canyon. As AJ Hackett himself said: “Live more, fear less.”
It’s a special, special place. And that’s before I’ve even started on the fact that it’s rugby central (and that, my friends, is a very good thing).
But it was the WRC that would have taken us there. And it was the WRC that would have sat at the center of a city from which the America’s Cup would have recently departed. In 2003 Rally New Zealand landed in Auckland a month after the world’s best sailing competition and, even though Team New Zealand got knocked out of the park by the Swiss (go figure…) boat Alinghi, the buzz about town just kept on coming.
On the stages, what would have happened this week? Would, for example, local hero Hayden Paddon have been able to make full use of a factory-spec Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC? Of course he would.
Paddon’s knowledge and understanding of the roads would have offset some of the rustiness gathered on the WRC’s most overlooked and hard-working of superstars.
But it would have been close. Rally New Zealand is a fast rally and an event decided by small margins – as we’ll see with a look back at the fascinating tussle for 2007 honors.
It’s also one of the more mechanically sympathetic places to compete, with the smooth gravel rarely cutting up enough to trouble even the lowest of dirt-driven ride heights.
In short, New Zealand’s a great place and a magic WRC round.
Next time? Here’s hoping.
In the meantime, Estonia. And a big thank you to Urmo Aava and his team for putting together what has all the makings of a similarly brilliant event in next to no time.
This week was always going to be about fast gravel. The only things missing are the day on the plane, exquisite Sauvignon Blanc and some of the best domestic rugger around.