Leading Kiwi rally driver Emma Gilmour says news the World Rally Championship could once more include New Zealand is exciting, and she is sure the country has the resources to deliver a world class event.
With recent domestic media speculation that the event is now only $1m away from being a viable proposition and apparent support feeding through from the FIA, there is a real prospect that the New Zealand event will return to the world championship.
Dunedin-born and bred Gilmour has rallied internationally up to WRC level, competing in Finland and Germany in 2006. Though a passionate Mainlander, she says a WRC round could be run in the north or the south of New Zealand.
“We definitely have the ability to run the event and it could be run in either North or South – obviously I’d love to see it in Otago but we might not have enough accommodation to cover it,” she said.
With Auckland Council’s ATEED CCO reported to be behind the bid, the likely venue would be Auckland, though this entails significant touring distances to find the classic rally roads the international drivers love.
So how about the rally then? It’s a driver’s favourite, but is loved less by the team bean counters because of its remoteness. Though it made sense to run NZ and Australian rounds back to back, that seldom seemed to happen when the Australian event was run in Perth and was in its heyday.
A little history: ‘our’ rally first became a round of the WRC in 1977 and has lost that status several times – in 1978 it was downgraded but the Fiat team still came and Ford provided Escorts through customer teams; in 1981, when Aucklander Jim Donald won it in a group 4 Escort RS up against a strong local field but with few overseas drivers to run against; then it fell out of the calendar more permanently in 2011 and has only run recently as a regional (NZ) event.
The rally has always relied on a good strong volunteer base and on support ‘above and beyond’ from emergency services and local councils. In the past there hasn’t been a lot of central Government support for the event though Tourism New Zealand took an interest some years ago and brought a bevy of international journalists to the country to see both the event and the scenery. Included in those groups were editors from Car and Driver and Top Gear magazines and journalists from The Australian, Auto Motor und Sport and Australia’s Rallysport magazine.
Tourism also tried to help the event find a sponsor as the ‘Smokefree’ era came to a close funding the involvement of IMG to cast about for backers.
Doing it the Kiwi way
Kicking off her own rally career in the latter years of Rally New Zealand, and rated the leading female rally driver in 2009, Emma Gilmour is a star in a locally developed car. Few Kiwi rally drivers have had so much rally experience. From dodging tank traps in German at WRC level to flying over the jumps at Rally Finland, from the X-Games to rallycross and cross country offroad endurance racing in Qatar, Gilmour has grabbed hold of the best of the opportunities that have come her way.
The result is a driver with massive knowledge about a very diverse range of rally and rally-style motorsport – and one with a business brain on her shoulders, dividing time between running her Suzuki dealership in Dunedin and the rally operation, which is itself an almost full-time role for her.
Dragged away from horse-riding and her first adrenalin sport, downhill mountain biking, her first experience of rallying was from the navigator’s seat when 19 years old. A step across into driving came three years later and her first car was a group N/A/’Monster’ Mitsubishi Evo 3.
Her Dad, she says, remains her biggest influence in all things automotive – not just rallying. Her passion for automotive things took hold almost literally at his elbow as he worked on cars in his workshop.
Her best championship finishes so far are a hat-trick of second placings in 2010, 2011 and 2012 and winning a round in 2016.
Today Gilmour rallies a locally-built Suzuki Swift Sport that was created in 2012, tweaked progressively in the following seasons and then comprehensively upgraded in 2018.
There are any number of firsts attached to the initial build programme, and the car has taken her to the first ever national rally win by a female driver. It would be nice to think the sport celebrated that milestone wholeheartedly.
Though she won’t tell you as much, there were a few sensitive male egoes that had a hard time dealing with her speed, success and profile.
Taking the pulse of the sport
Gilmour is one of a few who can speak with authority about the recent state of the sport, and she finds it in good health. Entry numbers are climbing, the national championship is strong, and thanks to the talent and effort of her fellow mainlander Hayden Paddon, New Zealand is once more on the global horizon. A return to WRC status for Rally NZ would put the icing well and truly on that cake.
The loosening of New Zealand Rally Championship eligibility rules to admit cars prepared to the fledgling AP4 rules has helped grow involvement in the sport, though Gilmour says paradoxically rallying was probably more accessible for more drivers in the group N days when rally cars were more closely based on their road equivalents. At that time she ran a group N Subaru.
“Group N was fantastic for drivers – a global category with clear rules that enabled lots of teams to build competitive, already developed cars,” she said.
Though there was a downside from using standard road car components in terms of component reliability and durability, she says the category gave local drivers crucial ‘seat time’ in competitive machinery.
One of the best aspects of group N was that everything, she says, was to a global template and there were a wide variety of manufacturers involved. Opportunities for drivers and navigators to progress were many.
Entering this decade though the two leading Japanese brands were losing interest in group N. In 2012, with group N on the wane, Gilmour and then-partner Glenn Macneall were among many wondering what was next. A ‘Maxi’ class in Argentina showed potential, being based on a kit of parts that would convert a road-going car into a robust and fast competition car.
Through her Suzuki contacts Gilmour raised the possibility of building a Swift Sport using a Maxi kit. They created a car built to a standard that could then be developed as and when resources allowed.
With so many variables and unknowns, it was a long and sometimes frustrating process developing the car as budget allowed – “so our first rally win at Canterbury in 2016 was very rewarding.”
By the end of 2018, the team knew the car needed a major rebuild after several seasons of being developed on the go.
“We took the opportunity to add aero, modify the engine bay and remove a lot of excess weight. We needed the car lighter to make the most of running the 1600cc engine as we had been running at the same weight limit as cars with 1800cc engines.”
Fittingly, she insists this current car is the most exciting rally car she has ever driven.
Her advice for drivers starting out? Get seat time, and lots of it. Front wheel drive, rear wheel drive, all-wheel-drive – the vehicle formats are secondary to hands-on competition. Then try to get an experienced person alongside to advise and offer tips that can short-cut some of the learning process.
“Get into the category you can afford. Practice. Compete. And listen to advice from experienced competitors.”
With so much time and money invested in the rebuild/up-spec, the engine failure at the start of the 2019 season might have been a crushing blow if not for Gilmour’s redoubtable southern resilience. Instead, the team has re-focussed and continues in the championship with their focus firmly on 2020.