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Hirvonen shows class in opening Otago leg

Finland’s Mikko Hirvonen was all class on the Otago Rally’s opening leg, leading the Eneos Motor Oil International Classic Rally for all but one stage of the day.

Hirvonen and co-driver Jarno Ottman’s Ford Escort RS1800 was on song through the day’s eight stages, and after momentarily placing second after stages two and three, retook their lead on the second pass of Ridge Road and from there, they never looked back.

The famous black Rossendale Wines Escort has a nest 30-second lead in the rally overnight, and the 15-time WRC winner will surely go into Sunday confident of being the first international since Mads Ostberg to win the Classic Rally.

In the chasing pack, three-time event winner, Deane Buist is second.

The Christchurch driver led early in the piece, but simply could not keep up with the international star, Hirvonen, as the day wore on. He will take positives from the fact that he holds onto his second position by a significant margin, and that he’ll be there to pounce if his main rival has issues.

A mixed day was had by Jeff Judd, but his strong finish means that it’s a lockout on the overnight podium for Ford Escort RS1800s.

Judd lost a minute in the tough run over Danseys Pass, but rebounded to set a strong time on the last proper stage of the day to consolidate and be well entrenched in third – a place he’s held from special stage one.

In the immediate position below the top three was John Silcock’s Mazda RX7. The Group B car was strong all day, and is a minute from the podium. Silcock and co-driver, Donna Elder can dream of a podium place come Sunday, given the tough nature of Sunday’s stages.

Tim McIver’s Escort is fifth ahead of the first turbo-charged classic car in the field – Karl Robinson’s Nissan Bluebird Turbo.

Robinson is sitting in that position despite only cracking the top six stage times once through the day, proving consistency is key over a long day of rallying.

Conditions on the Otago stages near Oamaru were extremely foggy during the morning, however, once it lifted, crews and spectators were revelling in a beautifully sunny day.

John Spencer was one to fall foul to the conditions on stage four. The Datsun 1600 driver was well within the top five before issues surfaced and put him out of the action for a top place. He and Tony Best will begin Sunday from 20th overall.

On Sunday, crews head south of Dunedin for some of the most famous Otago stages of all. Names like Waipori Gorge and Kuri Bush will greet crews on what is expected to be another fine, sunny day.

In all, seven stages and over 130 competitive kilometres will conclude the 2023 Eneos Motor Oil International Otago Classic Rally, with plenty of action still to play out.

The Rally is grateful for the support of Dunedin City Council Premier Event funding.

Photos: Peter Whitten

Otago International Classic Rally after leg one

1. Mikko Hirvonen/Jarno Ottman, Ford Escort RS1800, 1:16:38.0

2. Deane Buist/Karl Celeste, Ford Escort RS1800, +30.0s

3. Jeff Judd/Lisa Hudson, Ford Escort RS1800, +3m09.2s

4. John Silcock/Donna Elder, Mazda RX7, +4m03.5s

5. Tim McIver/Tim McDonald, Ford Escort, +4m54.2s

6. Karl Robinson/Chantelle Robinson, Nissan Bluebird Turbo, +5m14.1s

7. Stewart Reid/Bella Haggarty, Mazda RX7, +6m01.1s

8. Craig Barclay/Andrew Wardell, Ford Escort, +6m01.3s

9. Ally Mackay/Mikko Johnston, Ford Escort, +6m45.9s

10. Deborah Kibble/Heather Barton, Mitsubishi EX Lancer, +7m40.6s

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