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GP Week : Issue 157
38 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: Under threat to its continued position in the FIA’s World Rally Championship calendar is the faraway but popular Rally of New Zealand. This year Rally New Zealand (June 22-24) stands at round seven of the 13-event 2012 series, proudly in the middle of the season. Despite being so far away from Europe, the country has always enjoyed the same sporting traditions as their relatives in the Northern Hemisphere. But when they first entered the world championship series in 1977, it took a lot of adjustment before their way of doing things met fully with the expectations of their visitors... It was like stepping into another world. The moment that the three works Fiats, their crews and particularly their managers de-planed in New Zealand for the 1977 Rally of the South Pacific, rally sport in New Zealand would never be quite the same again. It was to be the first time the world rally championship had been to an event fully south of the Equator, the first time high technology cars and teams had been to Australasia. And the first time rally sport in New Zealand had to face up to the way things happened in the rest of the world. It all happened 35 years ago, in May 1977. It was a most remarkable time for all concerned. New Zealand was in the midst of an international motor sport vacuum at that time. Race car driver and designer Bruce McLaren had died in a testing crash in 1970, F1 champion Denis Hulme had retired at the end of 1974, fellow F1 driver Chris Amon at the end of 1976, and the popular Tasman Series which had regularly brought foreign racing drivers to the country ended in 1975. Occasionally world class rally drivers had been to the country, like when Hannu Mikkola won the Heatway International Rally in 1973, a 5000km event which covered both North and South Islands. The specialist marathon driver Andrew Cowan had won the Heatway Rallies in 1972 and 1976. But not much more than that. International motorsport invasions did not happen very often in NZ. Little wonder that the Fiat brigade found the territory unusually undeveloped in the sporting regulatory sense. Top class professional Europeans found things very different down south. Among the things which the Europeans immediately noticed were that few local cars complied exactly with the FIA rules. Practising was not allowed as farmers would not permit the rally to pass if there was any hint of it. The sections through private forests often had barred gates or demanded permits for access. In addition to the total stage distance of around 2,200km, there was also almost the same distance again on public road liaison sections, all to be covered within a national speed limit of 80kph. The 1977 Rally of the South Pacific stretched into six days, quite a leisurely itinerary. Despite its huge stage length, the route could easily have been compressed into four days. There were no specific rules about tyres, beyond a ban on studs and the requirements of national laws, so imagine the excitement when Fiat produced some slick tyres for the asphalt stages! National competition systems were used, like timing not to the second but instead to the hundredth of a minute. Perhaps the main difference was that the organisers viewed the rules of the game in a laissez-faire way – a veritable world away from the highly specific style that Europeans did things. Cultural differences boiled over on the first evening when Markku Alen was timed on a road section driving at 132kph, 52kph over the limit, and could not be caught by chasing police cars. Alen claimed he was used to police cars flashing blue lights, not red and yellow ones, and did not realise the car behind was a law-enforcement officer. He insisted he was not trying to run away! Anyway, the organisers invoked a loosely worded clause in the regulations entitled ‘Public Road Courtesy’, fined him 100 local dollars and in addition ... imposed a penalty of exclusion! The latter grabbed the attention of the Italians. The Italian team’s PR people dropped hints about a possible breakdown in trade talks about importing New Zealand RALLY >>> FEATURE