Young spark leads diesel charge

TIM GREY
Last updated 12:03 20/03/2009
Don Scott
Burning the midnight oil: Rallying legend Alister McRae (left) and 16-year-old NZ Rally Championship driver Matt Summerfield (right), at a fund-raiser for the Rangiora student's racing campaign. Summerfield will be the first driver to enter the championship in a diesel-powered car.

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16-year-old Rangiora student Matt Summerfield will be lining up the New Zealand Rally Championships’ first diesel-powered entry in the forthcoming Rally of Hawke’s Bay. TIM GREY reports.

The diesel engine has been a slow-burner in motorsport even though one was first introduced to a track way back in 1931 for the Indy 500 - a full five years before Mercedes-Benz released the first production diesel.

Indeed, petrol heads have only recently been given significant food for thought thanks to Audi Sport's hat-trick of Le Mans 24-Hours trophies which started with the historic win of the Audi R10 TDI in 2006.

As a sign of the diesel's slow progress in motorsport, the German auto-maker is this year set to be only the first to develop a second-generation diesel race car in the shape of the R15, which will compete for Audi at this year's Le Mans 24-Hours in June.

Closer to home, however, it is a Rangiora High School student who is leading the charge and raising more than a few eyebrows in the spark plug-dominated arena of domestic rallying.

Not that any comments about glacially-thawing glow plugs on the start line have managed to bother Matt Summerfield in the run up to the five-round championship starting in Hawke's Bay on April 4.

Last weekend he tested his drive, a 1.9 litre turbo-diesel Skoda Fabia vRS built by Auckland rally enthusiast Allan Geddes and motor dealership Giltrap Prestige, at the Rakaia Zig Zag Sprint and - after predictably being the butt of a few jokes - took home second place.

It was a declaration of intent not only for the young driver but also for biodiesel producer Kiwifuels, the Summerfield family business which is providing the go-juice for the Skoda. Since then the young Cantabrian has been taking advantage of the experience offered by former British Rally Champion Alister McRae - who came over to New Zealand from his base in Australia for a flying visit this week.

McRae joined the Summerfield family as special guest at the launch of Matt's Class 2 championship campaign, a fundraising auction held on Wednesday (March 18), at JR's Bar & Grill in Rangiora which raised more than $4500 - the equivalent of a dozen tyres (16 are used per round).

Needless to say, all involved are under no illusions as to why it has taken so long for competition diesels to be taken seriously in motorsport.

Given all that vital low-end torque on offer, has it been concerns over weight distribution, development cost or a lack of mid-range grunt - or has it simply been an image problem?

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"No one really knows, because they have got everything, a lot of power, a lot of torque. I guess some people think it is just a sh**ty old diesel," Matt says.

"We've had a few people rubbishing it, a few competitors at an event, but it turned out we actually beat them. We got the last laugh."

His father, Les Summerfield, a 30-year local rallying veteran turned biodiesel producer and distributor, says the Kiwi view of diesels is similar to that in the States.

If anything, unleashing the power from diesels has been the stumbling point.

"Diesel in New Zealand is still mainly seen as trucks and tractors," he says.

"The Europeans are the ones who are really up to play with the diesel as we have already seen with a car like that (the Skoda) - nearly 300hp from a 1900cc turbo, that's almost unheard of, really. But I think you will see a lot more of it from now on."

As well we might, considering the fact that biodiesel, on average, produces a fraction of the emissions of regular petro-diesel.

Motorsport across the world is in damage limitation mode as concerns over climate change continue unabated - and in this context biodiesel offers a distinct advantage.

"Motorsport has always been seen as the ogre (of sport), if you like," Les Summerfield says. "We just want to show that people are trying to do something."

For the moment at least, emissions are secondary to performance, and for Matt Summerfield there are no complaints about a move up from his "under-powered" Toyota Starlet, which he used to come third in his class in last year's Mainland Rally Series, to a European turbo-diesel bursting with grunt.

That is, of course, if you discount the eerie calm of a turbo diesel in full-flight. "The diesels work really well because you don't have to rev so much to get the same amount of torque, but they are a bit quiet," he says.

"You have got to keep an eye on where you are revving. It seems quite slow, when it really is a lot faster than some of the other cars."

The 16-year-old is aiming for the top. He wants to match the success of his boyhood idol Possum Bourne and even has his sights set on WRC glory.

It sounds like a lofty ambition for one so young, but in a motorsport era personified by the likes of young drivers like Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton, nothing is impossible given the right support.

Fortunately, that is something Matt is not lacking in.

His talent was recognised by Geddes during last year's Mainland Rally Series, but he can also count on the guiding hand of his father, as well as his father's regular co-driver Dave Neill.

And then there's McRae - WRC veteran, former British Rally Champion and bearer of one of the most recognisable family names in motorsport.

Matt Summerfield was one of a select few Kiwi rally drivers who got the chance to be tutored one-on-one by the rallying legend in the week.

"He is definitely a talented guy for sure, and especially at that age," McRae says. "If you look at any motorsport, it has changed over the last decade. Especially in rallying experience counted, but you look now and the young guys are coming through sooner and sooner.

"There are guys in F1 at 20-years-old and in rallying you've got Marty Wilson from the UK in the world championship at 20-years-old."

Given continued support Matt Summerfield could do the same - and if he does it on biodiesel he'll definitely be the one having the last laugh.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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