This week's Brother Rally New Zealand will feature three of the world's best female rally drivers: New Zealand's Emma Gilmour, Sweden's Ramona Karlsson and Britain's Louise Cook, as they try to upstage their male counterparts over the gravel roads of the upper North Island from 21-24 June.
All contesting the seventh round of the World Rally Championship that returns to New Zealand for 2012, the three lady drivers have individual pursuits and won't necessarily be competing head-to-head against each other in the same class. Every bit as competitive as their male counterparts, their colourful addition is also the first time the three have been together at the same event.
Dunedin based Emma Gilmour, who has been a regular competitor at Rally New Zealand in recent years and one of the leading contenders in the Brian Green New Zealand Rally Championship (NZRC), powered by Brother, says it is a highlight in her career to have two other female contenders to prove it's not a male dominated sport. Gilmour and co-driver/partner Glenn Macneall will compete in the Group N production category of the event driving a Subaru STI.
"It's a point of interest that's good for the sport and ultimately for women in the sport. It is such a special rally really. You're taking part in a World Rally Championship event with all the big teams there and the exposure that brings is huge," says Gilmour, who is also a member of the Women & Motor Sport Commission, a part of the Federation Internationale de L'Automobile (FIA).
Close to securing the honour of being first Kiwi crew home on her debut to the event in 2005, Gilmour is currently second overall in the NZRC standings to Subaru rival Richard Mason. Aiming for a clean run to improve her 2012 title aspirations, Gilmour says the car is all but new for the marathon event of the year.
"We treat the event as if we're starting a brand new season – as it's so long distance-wise. The car has had a lot of time and dollars spent on it and we've been over it with a fine-toothed comb, replacing the turbo with a brand new one and the like."
Cook – a 25-year-old Brit, has gone to extraordinary lengths just to make the start line of Brother Rally New Zealand. She still has a major battle to find funding to compete in New Zealand and will be using the loaned Stadium Cars/Nichibo New Zealand Ford Fiesta ST, competing in the 2WD class of the Group N production category. While she still has to work hard to get sponsorship, Cook says it has become easier with the more profile she gets.
"People used to think I was lying about being a rally driver," she said. "When I first tried to get £50 sponsors around local industrial estates, people would wander off and check on the internet quick before they would help me. I guess I am not a stereotypical rally driver, but I am not a big fan of stereotypes and I believe you should try to do things in life you want to, irrespective of who you are or how you look."
Excited about the chance to come all the way to New Zealand after being told first-hand what an amazing place it is, Cook nominated the event as one of the rounds she has to contest to compete in the Production World Rally Championship.
"I had to choose at least one long haul round and New Zealand looked great. My brother has been travelling around the country and my late father spoke very highly of New Zealand - it was his most favourite place in the whole world. I think he wanted to stay there.
"The roads look amazing and have a great reputation for being real drivers' stages. All the people I have been in contact with so far have been great and very helpful, so hopefully this is a sign of how New Zealand people are.
"It would be great to finish Brother Rally New Zealand and to learn the character of the place. It can sound lame doing these events and aiming to see all the stages, but it is so important to my career right now. If the notes are going well and the car feels right, I will have a push but 2012 is a no-risk season to get ready for 2013."
The only all-female crew in the rally, 31-year-old Ramona Karlsson and co-driver Miriam Walfridsson are making their first ever visit to the land down-under. Having heard plenty of good things about New Zealand she believes a top result in the Production World Rally Championship category is an achievable result.
"I've heard a lot of positive things about Brother Rally New Zealand with nice and smooth roads and friendly people and it has always been a goal for me getting there," says the pilot of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X.
"I've heard the roads are very good quality, and I've looked at some in-car movies that really make me long to be there. Everybody says that the New Zealand people are very friendly, helpful and open minded, so again - I can't wait to get there.
"If we will be in top five, we will be satisfied."
Additionally, there is an approximate ratio of one female co-driver for every one male driver in the rally.
The three teams will join with their fellow competitors for a parade down Queen Street at 4.30pm Thursday 21 June driving their cars. That will be followed by a ticketed welcome function to officially open the event where the WRC drivers will select their starting positions based on their qualifying stage times. A new MotorExpo and FanZone will operate inside rally headquarters at the Viaduct Events Centre throughout Friday 22 June to Sunday 24 June.
Entry is free and alongside great vehicle displays and interactive entertainment, fans can watch the only big screen television showing live rally footage from out on the course. Numerous prime and other spectator viewing areas offer excellent opportunities to watch the high speed action in person across all three days of the event. Sunday's action includes the free-for-everyone Auckland Domain super special stage before the ceremonial finish at 3:30pm near the Viaduct Events Centre on Auckland's waterfront.
Detailed spectator and ticket information and current news is available on the event website www.rallynz.org.nz