NZ Rally Champion Richard Mason overcame unexpected and unusual late-rally pressure to win last weekend’s Scenic Circle Southern Cross Hotel Otago Rally.
He took the overall and both heats – but the victory in Sunday’s Heat 2 of the Vantage Aluminium Joinery NZ Championship opener went right to the wire.
In the final wash-up, it was a perfect result, but it almost hadn’t been.
After dominating Saturday’s Leg 1, BNT Subaru Impreza WRX STi driver Mason struck problems in Sunday’s first three stages - even though he won two of them.
He had won all of Saturday’s gravel stages, and looked set to do the same after winning Sunday’s first test.
An indicator may have been there for observers to see, but few noticed it.
That stage was the first time in the Otago event that Mason’s pace had been equalled on gravel.
He shared the stage win with Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9 driver Dean Sumner who was battling a heavy cold that saw him pumping himself full of Coldrex.
Sumner’s car had also been detuned slightly when the crew gave it a rebuild after its turbo had failed on Saturday, eliminating Sumner from the heat.
The theory was to run the car with lower boost to ensure a finish. It worked, Sumner coming home fifth but he was frustrated by the car’s lack of power.
Then on the second test, Mason was comprehensively beaten, finishing the stage fifth. Emma Gilmour won the test in her Vantage Impreza WRX, and moved into the rally lead. She was now 14.6 seconds ahead of Mason.
Mason was third, behind Scotsman Alister McRae (WRX) who had been third on Leg 1.
It was a wake-up call for Mason, and a confidence booster for Gilmour who was benefiting by having partner and former Subaru WRC works co-driver Glenn Macneall calling the pacenotes.
Mason responded the only way he knows how, with a hard-charging fightback drive on the next test, SS11, the 35.77km Doon Flats. After the stage he was convinced he had done a flyer and was astounded to discover he had taken only 5.5 seconds off Gilmour.
He had been telling co-driver and fiancee Sara Randall that the car had seemed down on power at times during the stage, and went looking for a reason.
He found it in a blocked feed to the intercooler water spray unit (the unit’s tank was still full). The engine management system had reduced the power as things got hotter.
Mason was still more than nine seconds behind Gilmour, though McRae had now
slipped to sixth place and would slump to an eighth place finish after the Impreza developed centre diff problems.
Junior rally champion Hayden Paddon (above, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 8) had worked his way into third place by now, a position he would hold till the end. Paddon also placed third overall, a result that exceeded his wildest dreams. He would have been content with a top-five finish.
Then came SS12, Akatore West, the stage that would ultimately set up a nail-biting finish to Leg 2.
Mason discovered the water sprayer blockage before this stage and cleared it.
With the engine back to full power he flew through the stage, a fact underlined by the time he was allocated – 6m 35.9s, a full 11.6 seconds faster than Gilmour. He had taken a sensational one-second-a-kilometre off her. Or had he?
That gave Mason the rally lead by 2.5 seconds – or so it seemed at the time.
No-one seemed to doubt it at the check-in control at the Lake Waihola service park.
Mason was convinced that with the car restored to full power he had simply whomped the opposition. He’s done such things before.
Evo 9 driver Dylan Turner mused: “Where does that leave the rest of us? He’s so much faster than anyone else that it’s not funny.”
Even Gilmour said she had been soundly beaten, dropping her back to second place. “Mason did a blinder through the last stage, but still I’m really happy. The car is really good and I keep learning and improving my driving all the time.”
Mason won SS13, adding 4.5 seconds to his lead over Emma, then made the gap 13.7 seconds after winning SS14.
So he went to the final stage, the Forbury Park trotting track superspecial, with what he thought was a good lead in Heat 2 and an unassailable lead in the rally overall.
It would simply be a matter of driving around, and only a disaster could stop him winning.
Well it wasn’t exactly a disaster, but it certainly was a bombshell.
As he waited to start the Forbury Park stage, Mason was told a countback by officials had discovered his SS12 stage time was 10 seconds slower than had been thought originally. He’d done 6m 45.9s, not 6m 35.9s.
The error was put down to a mis-spoken or misheard communication between the official manning the flying finish and the timing control at the end of the test.
Someone at rally headquarters had thought it unlikely – given the relative margins between them on other stages – that Mason had indeed taken a second a kilometre off Gilmour on SS12.
There’s a feeling among some observers that that was a flawed assumption – Mason has shown before that he’s capable of such a performance. Whether he could have done it in the face of Emma’s superb form on Sunday is an issue that won’t be resolved till they’re in a similar situation on another rally.
Officials began an exhaustive investigation of the SS12 paperwork and found a discrepancy that was confirmed by the print-out from the special stage clock. The print-out showed Mason’s time as 6m 45.9s, 10 seconds slower than originally thought.
That meant Mason had been in second place right up until he won SS14. His lead over Gilmour going to Forbury Park was a mere 3.7 seconds.
The pressure was well and truly on. He couldn’t afford a mishap but equally he would have to go all out and complete the stage in as fast as possible a time. While running first on the road and sweeping the loose material off the surface, that would be a tall order.
He went for it, driving so hard he had a rare nudge of a barrier, damaging the brand-new Impreza. He was 12th fastest, Gilmour 10th and 1.4 seconds quicker.
Mason had won the Leg by just 2.3 seconds. Gilmour (top right) was second, Paddon third.
In the Leg 2 results, Sumner was next, then Sam Murray (WRX) who had had an unhappy rally, musing at one stage that he should have stayed home and watched television.
Former champion Chris West was next in an old-technology Evo 6.5 Lancer which even had a standard gearbox; followed by Turner, McRae (left), Callum McInnes (WRX), and Nathan Thomas (Evo 7).
In the overall rally, Mason won from Gilmour, Paddon, Murray, West, Turner, McRae. McInnes, Thomas and Stewart Taylor (Evo 9) who had bounced back from a scary high-speed off-road excursion that left his car stranded in a fence.
Mark Tapper won the Ford Fiesta challenge class, Aaron Cook drove his Honda Jazz-Type R to victory in Kiwi 2, and Robert Murray won the national championship classic section in his Mazda RX7.
In the Dunlop Classic International Rally section of the event, Christchurch’s Deane Buist won in his Ford Escort BDA, from Italian Alex Fiorio (Porsche 911) and Murray. Regan Ross won the Rally Xtreme round in his Evo 8, from Jeff Judd (WRX) and Mike Turfus (Evo 7).
Andrew Hawkeswood won the Allcomers’ section in his Evo 6.5, followed by Kieran Hall (Evo 5) and Andrew Graves (Evo 3).
In fact, taking all classes into account, Hawkeswood was third overall behind Mason and Gilmour on elapsed time. He had even won Sunday’s longest test, SS11, by 2.8 seconds from Mason.