Matt Summerfield and Ben Hunt went agonisingly close to winning the Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship in 2017.
The pair was in a three-way title fight with veteran driver Andrew Hawkeswood at Rally New Zealand last November and they had to watch the Mazda driver take out the championship. But with Hawkeswood sitting out the start of the 2018 season the door has been left open for that rivalry to continue at this weekend’s Otago Rally.
In fact the pointy end of the championship has been tipped upside down as the NZRC has become a victim of its own success. Champion from 2016 David Holder has secured a place in the Junior World Rally Championship this season while regular contender Sloan Cox has taken up an opportunity to enter a Rallycross academy in Europe.
WRC star Hayden Paddon will be at Otago Rally however and will contest five of the six rallies on the domestic calendar this year and will obviously be a strong favourite.
But the big battle could be between Summerfield and Hunt as well as other leading drivers like Rhys Gardner, Emma Gilmour, Graham Featherstone, Dylan Turner and Darren Galbraith.
“I love keeping an eye on Hayden’s times and trying to get as close as you can to them,” Hunt says.
“I have a day job – I do 10-12 hours every day and then I work on my race car so it is a totally different league but if I can be competitive in some stages then we will be pushing on and trying to do that.
“Matt [Summerfield] has been going a lot better the last couple of years and he is jumping into the Ralliart car – it is light and nimble and I think it is a pretty good car. He will be one to watch. Darren Galbraith and the likes of that are quick as well.
“There is a lot of talent in New Zealand now and it has got a lot faster from say three to 10 is a lot more competitive now.”
Summerfield will pilot the ex-Brian Green new-style Mitsubishi Mirage this season and is thinking big.
“I would love to win the championship even though it has obviously got a lot harder having Hayden [Paddon] coming back for those five rallies and the points structure changing somewhat in his favour,” Summerfield says.
“You never know – it is a long season and rallying is a pretty exciting game where anything can change so we have our hopes high.
“We rate ourselves to be a bit faster [than last season] – maybe not straight away – but over the course of this season,” Summerfield says.
“In some ways there is a little less competition but when you have a professional in a domestic championship it is going to be a big task to try and match him.
“It will be good for us in the big picture of having someone like Hayden as the benchmark out the front – to have a world class driver out in front of you is only going to motivate you.”
While trying to keep pace with Paddon will prove challenging to say the least Summerfield is hoping to be consistently the best of the rest and then could come into title calculations should the Hyundai driver run into any problems and drop points at any event.
“That is our game plan. It is a bit of a take it rally by rally. We still have to drive fast at the end of the day and we would like to be the best of the rest,” the Rangiora product said.
“The other guys like [Ben] Hunt and co have put a lot of work in the off-season so it is a bit of an unknown at the moment with what speed they will have and what speed we will have after driving the Impreza for so long.”
Otago Rally begins with a ceremonial opening in the Octagon in downtown Dunedin on Friday night before 17 special stages across Saturday and Sunday.
The 2018 New Zealand Rally Championship is proudly supported by Brian Green Property Group, Gull New Zealand, Dunlop New Zealand, Hella New Zealand and Stadium Finance.