Vatanen slip gives Ayson Otago Rally victory
Heading into the final special stage of the 2011 Otago Rally, Derek Ayson acknowledged that he was now cruising for second place, and that to finish runner-up to 1981 world rally champion Ari Vatanen would be quite an achievement.
Ayson, who won the classic section of the event in both 2010 and 2009,
had worked his way up to second place after what, by his standards, was a
slow start to the rally. First up, he struggled for confidence on the
Friday night stages. Then his endeavours to make up lost ground on
Saturday were hampered by brake problems.
Things finally seemed to come right for the South Otago driver on
Sunday, but with the gap between him and Vatanen standing at over a
minute and only the final stage to go, victory seemed out of reach.
Vatanen had, up to that point, driven a beautifully controlled event in
his Escort BDA, but then slid wide on a tightening right downhill bend
and smashed a gate post with the tail of the car.
The shattered wheel rim and suspension damage forced him and co-driver
Fabrizia Pons to pull over and retire. Ayson duly powered through to
claim the win, over two minutes clear of Australian Porsche driver Jeff
"It's so sad Ari's not here on the podium with us," was David's verdict
as he prepared for the traditional champagne spray at the conclusion of
the event. Ayson offered a similar verdict, describing his own success
as a bit of a hollow victory, despite his entering the history books as
the first driver to win the Otago Classic Rally three times.
Their sentiment said much about the status of Vatanen, as a charismatic
superstar who made a huge impression at Otago not only for his legendary
driving skills, but also for his extraordinary willingness to take time
during the event to connect with rally fans including fellow
competitors, of all ages. By the end of the rally, it seemed that even
his rivals wanted Vatanen to win.
Though he had warned all and sundry not to expect too much before the
event, the Finnish ace was always in the hunt for victory. He was placed
second after the Friday night stages, behind Australian Stewart Reid,
and took the lead when Reid's car suffered a gearbox failure late on
Ayson emerged as the quickest of the classic runners on Sunday, after
Kaiapoi driver Marcus Van Klink's Mazda RX7 suffered a broken wheel on
the third stage of the day. However Ayson never seemed to be making up
ground fast enough to threaten for the lead, and when Vatanen won the
penultimate stage, victory was his for the taking.
Then came that gate and a footnote to add to the many incidents and
accidents that have marked Vatanen's spectacular professional rally
Another late drama saw Kaitangata driver Duncan McCrostie (Nissan
Bluebird) complete the final stage placed third, but then require a tow
to reach the rally finish. That handed the final podium place to a
surprised and delighted Andy Ruddenklau, of Dunedin.
Aucklander Rob Wylie (Nissan), Gary Smith (Hamilton, Ford Escort) and
Mark Laughton (Dunedin, Hillman Avenger) completed the top six in a
classic field that suffered a heavy rate of attrition on yesterday's
Early casualties included Escort BDA trio Jeff Judd, Shane Murland, and
Robert van Gisbergen, all of who rolled into retirement on the opening
stage yesterday. Judd had been placed third and van Gisbergen seventh at
the end of Saturday's stages.
Story by David Thomson (Otago Daily Times)
Photos by 'Crowbar'