New Plymouth's Neil Marshall again emerged victorious in Saturday's Taranaki Tarmac Rally - but the result was far closer than his 31.9 second winning margin would indicate.
That's because second placegetter Stewart Taylor copped a 30 second penalty for driving too fast through a virtual chicane in the sixth special stage near Rahotu.
And then when the Havelock North man turned on a brilliant drive to clean out everyone in the eighth and final stage through Pukeiti, it meant that if it were not for the earlier penalty, Marshall would have won by just 1.9 seconds.
In fact Marshall thought the margin was that tight, because he was unaware that Taylor had been penalised.
"Going into that final stage we thought my lead was 14 seconds, which meant I thought I had enough time up my sleeve to drive hard without being silly about it," he said.
"But for a little time after the last stage I thought we had lost the rally."
The entire Plymouth International-sponsored Taranaki rally was a contest between the first and third seeds Marshall and Taylor as they wrestled their Mitsubishi Lancer Evos over country roads made slippery by torrential rain.
Taylor, the leader in the Rally XTreme series, had a sensational start when he won the first stage through Tarata and Ratapiko by almost half a minute from Marshall, who experienced early trouble trying to get heat into his tyres in the cold and wet conditions.
But the next six special stages all belonged to the Taranaki man as he took advantage of local knowledge to win every one of them. By the end of the fifth stage he'd overtaken Taylor to lead by 7.5 seconds overall - and then when the Hawke's Bay man copped the penalty on special stage six, the contest was all over.
Taylor took out second place, with Taranaki's Nigel Adams a solid third despite hitting a bank on one stage.
The big talking point of the rally was the virtual chicanes, which were used for the first time in any rally in New Zealand.
All the competing cars were required to carry new GPS-based vehicle tracking and timing equipment developed by a Tasmanian company called RallySafe, and this allowed the rally organisers to introduce three virtual chicanes in the sixth special stage, which had some long downhill straights, in an effort to keep average vehicle speeds down.
As each car got within 500m of a chicane a light on the RallySafe equipment would shine yellow, at which stage the driver would be required to reduce the vehicle's speed to 50kmh by the time the vehicle got to a second zone 230m long. Once that speed had been reached, the light would turn green again and the competitor could accelerate away.
The trouble was, several drivers were unable to reduce their speeds from around 240kmh to 50kmh in time because their co-drivers, who were concentrating on reading the rally pace notes, failed to notice the light shine yellow. As a result 10 competitors copped penalties for single breaches, two suffered double breaches, and five breached the rules at all three chicanes.
Taylor breached the rules at the second chicane when he shot through the slow zone at 160kmh, the result of his co-driver noticing far too late that the yellow light was shining. It's understood that after the rally he was one of several competitors suggesting that future virtual chicanes should also have some form of visual references, such as hay bales on the side of the road, that the drivers could also use as the signal to slow down.
Rally organiser Garnett Henderson said a special briefing had been held on Friday night where all the drivers had been given a demonstration on how the virtual chicanes worked.
"But obviously it just needs to be streamlined a little, because the guys at the pointy end of a rally are all concentrating on reading pace notes so might miss a light shining. There probably needs to be other visual references," he said.
Given the awful weather conditions, Saturday's rally was surprisingly incident-free. The biggest crash was on the first stage when the Subaru driven by Otorohanga's Trevor DeMalmanche rolled and burst into flames, while the seventh stage had to be delayed when a cow wandered onto the road.
- Taranaki Daily News
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