A year ago, you wouldn’t have given a Mitsubishi driver a bolter’s show of winning the New Zealand Rally Championship.
New Zealand rallying was a Subaru domain, with the two dominant drivers, defending champion Richard Mason and former champion Chris West, setting the pace in Impreza WRX STis.
They were evenly-matched for speed, and the Impreza had a clear advantage over the Lancer Evos. But before this month’s Wairarapa Rally, where Mason re-established his supremacy after a disastrous second round in Whangarei, Evo 8 driver Hayden Paddon held the series lead.
He’d taken it with a sensational and canny performance in the Northland event driving with a maturity that belied his age – he’d just turned 20.
Bad tyre choices – too soft causing a four-tyre meltdown and retirement on day one and a day two crash, possibly also caused by tyres losing their grip – had cost series leader Mason dearly.
It had been business as usual for Subaru in the opening round at Dunedin where Mason won from fellow Impreza pilots Emma Gilmour and Sam Murray.
But Whangarei was a nightmare for Mason and Gilmour, who wrote off her car in a massive crash that also dented her confidence severely.
The tyre problems had seen Mason languishing in the morning stages of Leg 1 where he chose too hard a compound and suffered a massive lack of grip.
That put Lancer Evo 9 driver Dean Sumner in the box seat and he opened a strong lead before the Lancer retired with damaged suspension.
He resurfaced on Sunday to win Leg 2, although Paddon’s aggregate time gave him the overall win.
Sumner had already shown flashes of pace in Otago where he had equalled Mason’s time on Sunday’s opening stage.
But it was a rally of woes for the Rotorua driver who even suggested he’d be happier back in his old Evo 8.
But if Whangarei was Subaru’s low point it provided salad days for the Lancers, and they were ready to charge again.
Sumner was confident, so too was series leader Paddon, although his confidence was tempered by the difficulties he thought he might face running first on the road in Wairarapa.
That proved a major handicap for Paddon, getting used to sweeping the road on special stages that were heavily-gravelled.
But by Sunday afternoon he was a consistently second-fastest behind runaway leader Mason.
Sumner revealed a much-enhanced mental toughness, resisting heavy pressure from rookie Callum McInnes (WRX) and a fast-closing Paddon to hold on to second behind Mason in Leg 2.
As they closed in, Sumner responded and upped his work rate; it was a mature display and one that bodes well as the series enters its second half at Hawke’s Bay in August.
Sumner could do nothing about pegging back Mason, but nor could anyone else.
With the car almost right – its handling was still marred by front diff problems – Mason was uncatchable and threatens to be so for the rest of the championship.
The most important thing, though, is that the Lancers are charging again and in with a chance with a string of drivers capable of winning stages and leading rallies: the NZ Rally Championship is no longer a Subaru whitewash with the Evos providing the sideshow.
To be fair, Gilmour was coping with a new car in Wairarapa and ended up retiring on day two when the gearbox broke; and Palmerston North speedster Murray has been hampered by car set-up problems from the outset of the championship.
Nonetheless he’s third on points, between Paddon and Sumner. The championship has really come to life.
By Mike Stock