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Preview: Dunlop Classic Rally of Otago

Otago Classic RallyThe field for the Dunlop International Classic Rally of Otago may be a
little thinner in terms of overseas drivers than in past years, but the
form guide hints that the battle for victory could be just as intense
as always.

Last year’s winner, Finnish star Pasi Hagstrom, is not competing this
year, but his place in the field has been taken by one of the legendary
McRae clan – Alister.
The Scotsman contested the Otago Rally in 2007, driving a Subaru in the NZRC component, but this year he returns for his first crack at the Classic Rally, driving a Ford Escort RS1800 prepared by Christchurch’s Bryce Biggs.

McRae is no stranger to the BDA Escort. He has his own examply back in Scotland, and last September he won the McRae Stages Rally, in honour of his elder brother, Colin, who died in a helicopter crash in September 2007.

It’s hard to see anyone beating McRae. While others may have more experience of the Otago stages than him, his talent, speed and commitment are unquestioned. As a former WRC works driver for Subaru, Mitsubishi and Hyundai, he has all the credentials required to make him an unbackable favourite.

2007 winner, Deane Buist, returns again to try to win back his title, driving his unique Toyota Corolla – complete with Escort BDA running gear.

Buist is the first to admit that McRae will be tough to beat, and if the Scotsman does set the pace, the Christchurch driver may be forced to fight it out for the other places on the podium with Australian Ross Dunkerton, and fellow Kiwis Derek Ayson and Richard Kelsey.

Dunkerton is an Otago regular and will drive a BDA Escort for the first time. He has purchased the ex-Jeff Judd RS1800, and in his most competitive Otago Rally mount so far, he’ll be eyeing his chances. The five-time Australian Champion is a favourite among South Island fans, and should again be one to watch.

Ayson is another to follow, with his Nissan-powered Escort an event regular. As is Kelsey, who was running inside the top five last year before a big accident on the second day ended his chances and badly damaged his Mazda RX7.

Local favourite, Duncan McCrostie, is back in his Nissan Bluebird Turbo, and joins a number of others who will all push for finishes well inside the top 10. Regan Ross (Nissan-powered Escort), Rob Wylie (Nissan 240RS) and Euan Fuge (Mazda RX3) will also stake their claim.

Australian Darryn Snooks returns in his improved Datsun Stanza. After an event dogged by off-road excursions last year, Snooks is eager to repeat – or better – his eighth place from 2007. His battle to be the first Australian home will be a tough one. Not only does he have to contend with Dunkerton, but Brad Goldsbrough will make his first appearance at the event in a Datsun 1600.

Goldsbrough is a former Privateers’ Cup winner in the Australian Rally Championship, and his 2.4 litre Datsun has been very successful in a range of events back in New South Wales. Expect him to perform strongly, despite never having competed here before.

Keith Callinan is another Aussie regular who’s back, driving his BDA Escort.

Former UK speedster, and now Kiwi resident, Willie Rutherford, will drive the Porsche 911 that took Hagstrom to victory last year. Rutherford was one of the stars of British rallying in the 1970s, but last year’s Silver Fern Rally was his first competitive outing for many years.

With 39 cars on the Classic Rally entry list, spectators will be in for a real treat over the two days of the event. If there was a betting market, McRae would be odds-on, but like in all sports, anything can, and probably will, happen.

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