It had been a long time between starts for the 50 odd Competitors who took to the course for Round 2 of the 2020/21 NZ Trials series hosted by the Hikutaia School, at Hikutaia, just out of Thames at the end of January.
With Covid-19 causing the cancellation of the final round of the 2019/20 series, then a six-week break between round one and two of the current series, you could be excused for thinking some of the crews could be getting a little rusty.
But for defending champs. Hamilton’s Greg and Chris McDell in their bright yellow 6 Litre Cowper Truck it was straight back to “business as usual.”
The brothers won last year’s series without winning a round, but an impressive run of seconds paid dividends in the race for points.
They had broken the pattern with a comprehensive win at round 1 of this year’s series at Tirau, but were home in second again in round two.
Fellow Hamiltonian, Nitro Truck pilot Neville Mather was a bit of a surprise winner, heading home a defending trifecta of NZ1, NZ2 and NZ3 in D-Class. For Mather, who finished last year in 7th, it was even better than that, as he beat home last season’s top dogs down to 6th, in order!
Whakatane’s Shane Towers put on an impressive giant-killing performance, his win in C-Class being good enough to take home third overall, his little Turbo’d SR20 2 litre Nissan powered Tombuilt2 really taking it to the big horsepower V8’s, splitting NZ1 and NZ2 in the overall classifications.
Recovering from a huge multiple rollover in round 1, Towers and co-driver Tony Hadland made no race of it in C-Class, beating home Rhys O’Brien by over 100 points, and one of only two in the whole field to come away from Stage 23 with zero penalties.
O’Brien and co-driver Clarrie Vazey put on a giant-killing performance of their own in the afternoon, the only C-Class crew to zero Stage 8, and one of only 3 in the overall top 10 to achieve that result. In fact, they were good enough to finish 7th overall in their 2400cc Honda powered buggy.
Towers and Hadland won both morning and afternoon sessions on their way to victory, but had to settle for minor podiums in the speed sections, with O’Brien and the Nathan Fogden/ Mike Gibbons combination sharing fast time in the morning, and Fogden winning the afternoon blast on the grass on his way to third in Class.
Kings of speed for the day went to Mather and Co-driver Richard Verner on their way to their first-ever National Series Round win. “It was a pretty good feeling to get that first win” Mather reckoned, “We won the Mt Egmont pairs last season, but this is really special.”
Mather has been in the trials scene for some time, starting as co-driver for Graham Bevedge in Wanganui way back in 2003, then driving his own E-Class Suzuki, before taking a break for about 4 years.
His return was straight into D-Class, with the big 6-litre Nitro Truck. “I went up to the Bigg’s Nitro Truck set-up in Auckland to have a look,” he says. “I thought, these are pretty cool – I think I’ll have one.”
“I was pretty lucky to pick up Richard as co-driver as well, he was around years ago, and I reckon I struck it good to get him in the team.”
The team spirit is really important to Mather and Verner, and they were rapt that Simon Bishop from key supporters Explorer Motorhomes was there to share that first win.
The Hamilton Carpet Layer’s Nitro rig is one of the lighter ones in the field, “I was always focussed on keeping it as light as possible where the budget allowed,” says Mather. “I reckon it’s one of the keys to how it goes,” he adds.
“We were lucky with the draw in a couple of stages,” he says of an event where the draw played a part in some of the results, “but I really loved the speed stages, winning them was an extra bonus.
Mather and Verner were models of consistency over the two sessions, scoring exactly the same penalties and times morning and afternoon: 200 points and 22 seconds each, which was good enough to win the morning, but only 5th in the afternoon.
Towers echoed Mather’s thoughts about the effects of the light weight of their respective trucks.
“The weight was definitely an advantage on the day,” he said, “but for us, with so much less power we have to think differently, and look for different lines. We missed out on the luck of the draw, but the state of the stages showed us what wasn’t working, and we had to try something different.”
“The characteristics of the truck let us do that, it’s an awesome piece of gear!”
The afternoon was won by the McDells, just ahead of a fast-finishing Scott Biggs and Sam Thomsen. Palmerston North duo of Derek Smyth and Paul Chapman were third in the afternoon session, followed by Towers and Phil Cameron, who fought back from 16th at the break to just make it into the top 10 at the finish.
Things were a bit tougher for the McDells on their run to second. “We struck all the afternoon mudholes in a row late in the day, they were very tightly pegged, with really only one line in, and one out, so we were pushing to the max – it was very hard on the gear,” says Greg.
But the real drama came earlier in the day when a simple rollover turned into a major tumble down the hill.
“We didn’t think the truck was too badly damaged,” reports Greg, “but then noticed lots of oil coming from the left front. Once we had a look at it we realised we could see daylight right through the front hub!”
There was considerable damage done to the front axle, including broken kingpins, but the crew was able to get it fixed and back out on the track, albeit without front brakes.
An issue right at the end, where it took the recovery crew over 20 minutes to extract the NZ1 from where it was wedged under a big log in one of the mud bogs ran them close to time, but in the end Greg reckons they were just happy to finish, and bank the points.
Biggs picked up a couple of places to climb from 6th to 4th overall, and third in class, with his afternoon performance, while brother Jarred with Fleche Crawford went the other way, dropping from second to 6th in the afternoon.
Come-back kings from the first round, Hamish Auret and Paul Barnes had a shocker afternoon, dropping from 4th overall to 18th at the end. “It was just one of those days when nothing went right,” was Auret’s take on the afternoon. “We had 4 rollovers, the worse of which was when we rolled out of an ungraded stage and copped the maximum penalty.”
“We also made a couple of driver/ co-driver errors, and then just pushed too hard. It’s my worst result in 6 years,” he finished.
Smyth and Chapmans afternoon fightback lifted them from 21st overall by the midway point, to 8th overall, and 6th in class.
An ungraded stage is one where the crew can opt to take a penalty for hitting a marker peg, but must finish the stage. Most of the drivers chose to collect a 20 point penalty for hitting the first peg, to set up a better line to complete the stage.
The team suffered from a bad start draw in the morning, running down the start order through a series of mud holes that cut up a lot more than had been expected. “It’s just a sign of the times,” Smyth thinks, “with so many top trucks these days stages change so much, some really cut up, and some improve. It’s something we will have to learn to manage.”
“It was an interesting course, mostly dry, but some sections a lot muddier than expected. It was great to see the crowds there, and the course was very well put together for the spectators”.
Finishing at an unaccustomed 7th overall, Brian Howat in his self-built, rear-engine Rover V8 powered buggy reckoned he got the best of a changing course during the day.
“We had a ball,” he says of his and co-driver John Jones’s day. “We were running an old 3.9 litre V8 Disco motor I had put together out of 3. I made up a dry sump, running a pair of Toyota Windom transmission pumps, fitted new spark plugs, and we probably had about 160HP if we were lucky. I’m still grinning about it!”
Craig and Nicole Potter were another pair that had their morning’s good result wiped out in the afternoon. They were sitting just inside the top 10 with 6 stages to go in the afternoon, when they melted the wiring loom after the main earth lead came loose, and the loom became the earth. “Yeah, it was a bit disappointing” was how Craig summed it up.
Philip Walton and Brendan Austin brought their D- Class Nitro home in 5th overall, just ahead of Smythe to add to the Nitro dominance of the top 10.
In an indication of the challenging nature of the sport, and in a display of sheer determination, after having a transfer case mount pull through a cross-member in the little E-Class Suzuki after just 5 stages, Daniel Howat won the class by strapping the whole assembly into place with a load binder, and just nosing the vehicle onto the rest of the morning, and all of the afternoon stages.
Despite picking up no less than 26 maximum stage penalties, Howat and co-driver Cole Stockler were listed as finishers and retained the class lead for the series. Stephen Andrell won G-Class even after finishing with 14 stage maximum penalties.
Before the series moves on to round 3 in the Taranaki, we will leave it to Neville Mather to come up with the last word from Round 2. “Winning a National Round is a pretty amazing feeling. I wouldn’t mind another dose!”