As the New Zealand flag is ready to fall on the international competitors who are facing 3000 kms and seven days of hard rallying in the renowned marathon Silver Fern Rally, the Anglo New Zealand team of Tony Jardine (UK) and Warwick Martin (NZ) have faced their own battle even before the rally starts!
With the original Bryce Biggs run 1975 Toyota Corolla failing to meet the NET-HERO carbon neutral team’s top technical checks, the decision was made to move to a 1975 historic Ford Escort. When on inspection this car proved to need too much work, none other than the 2022 New Zealand Historic Rally Champion, North Canterbury’s John Silcock, came to the rescue. He directed team boss Bryce to a different Toyota Corolla, this one owned by Jeff Judd, who himself is competing in the rally, not in his Toyota but in his 1977 Ford Escort with ex WRC star Belgian Stephane Prevot co driving.
Tony Jardine, ex F1 and experienced media man whose dream it is to compete in the daunting Silver Fern Rally, was more than a little bit nervous by now; “ I couldn’t believe what was happening, I could see my long held ambition of driving some of the best rally roads in the world crumbling before my eyes! I was definitely palpitating with each change, three different cars in five hours is some shock- I change my mind less times in a day – thanks to Jeff Judd for agreeing to the hire!”
Jardine and the team met the car for the first time on Thursday to test on private farm roads representative of rally conditions they will face, by now Jardine was less nervous! “The car handled well and seemed solid enough, but now we have a race against time to check all the major components and bring the car preparation up to meet the demands of a seven day marathon, all in 24 hours.”
Following official technical checks and a driver’s briefing on Saturday at the Riccarton Race Course in Christchurch, the rally started on Sunday 20th November heading for seven special stages of 109 kms in length with a total distance for the first of seven legs of 370 kms.
In all other ways the rally build up has been smooth and the New Zealand welcome extraordinarily warm, which has provided encouragement for the Anglo New Zealand team in Christchurch. Based at the Commodore Hotel, where owners Michael and Thomas Patterson have generously allowed the team to establish their HQ, special Pirelli rally tyres arrived from Australia and team kit from Alpinestars in Italy adding to the international effort.
In a further show of support for the team, following the livery launch of the freshly arrived car in front of the Commodore Hotel, media, sponsors and rally organisers attended a welcome lunch arranged by Michael Patterson.
Amongst the guests were Silver Fern Rally organisers, the Ultimate Rally Group and their General Manager, Victoria Martin. Former top F3 and F2 UK Race team owner and latterly world sailing promoter Murray Taylor, who hails from Christchurch, was also there having provided a lot of help for his long time racing mate Jardine. Both have been very supportive of the team effort.
With the world’s fastest and longest historic special stage rally under way, set against the beautiful South Island backdrop and on its challenging roads, the goal for the NET-HERO carbon neutral team is to finish the event and enjoy every kilometre of the amazing route!
The epic, historic endurance rally that is the New Zealand Silver Fern, has bared its teeth by throwing torrential rain, flooded rivers and fords with a mix of fog, at competitors from Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
“This is what we signed up for” said experienced international rally co driver Welshman Alun Cook who went on to say; “I have preached this for a long time about the Silver Fern Rally, it is effectively two season’s worth of typical UK rallying in one week, here in New Zealand. You wouldn’t get that anywhere else in the world, I can’t wait for Leg 5 when there is a 74 kms special stage!”
Stage 4 was cancelled due to a flooded ford but with 5 legs and 2,400 kms still to go of the endurance event, the surface has only just been scratched. Seasoned competitors warn of long tough stages to come, some with a multitude of crests, but mostly very high speed and arduous.
The Anglo-New Zealand NET-HERO team of Tony Jardine (UK) and Warwick Martin (NZ) have kept their 1985 Toyota Corolla at a good consistent pace despite a couple of scares. Warwick was convinced they were about to roll over as the car dropped into a high speed hollow, then high on the rocky fast Hakataramea Pass, mist and fog clouded their judgement.
Further along the hill top stage, having successfully threaded the Toyota through the rock strewn paths over many fords, the crew hit a cattle crossing at high speed which kicked the rear of the car high into the air, Tony Jardine commented; “ I saw the earth ramp at the far edge too late, up she went, but luckily there was little damage. In the damper conditions we made the right choice of the Pirelli super soft front tyres which have given us great turn in, the tyres have survived quite a battering!”
There was no such luck for New Zealander Ken Macdonald at the same crossing as his RS1800 Ford Escort dug in as it hit the earth ramp at high speed. The sump guard sliced into the mud and stones some of which were ingested by the expensive BDG Ford racing engine, game over.
Welsh Crew Ron Morgan and Marc Clatworthy went flying off the road in their Ford Escort, over a bank and ended up in a farmer’s field. Ron said; “I was distracted by a Mazda which was off the road, the next thing we knew was we landed too far left and flew off into the field. The ironic thing was that the farmer’s son who helped get us out, works in Swansea!”
The Bryce Biggs run Toyota AE86 of Jardine and Martin has in fact been kept on the road through the team’s ingenuity and creativity, after the exhaust manifold cracked and then split open mid-morning creating a potential fire hazard and severe loss of power. From strategic pit stops in with the chase crew and makeshift welding, to finding an amazing mobile welding service team who were allowed into the ‘end of the day’ final service at the beautiful old stock market town of Oamaru and its colonial quarter, the exhaust manifold is fixed. The ‘extractors’ or ‘headers’ in NZ motor sport language, are finally sealed ready for day 3 action.
The Silver Fern Historic Rally New Zealand is living up to its reputation as the world’s foremost endurance rally as mammoth stages of 40 kms become the average, with 51 kms over mountain tracks and a 71 km stage to start in heavy rain on a slippery Leg 5, where fresh Pirelli tyres were fitted to grip in the mud. This was a typical test of stamina for crew and machine on New Zealand’s incredible driving roads.
The crew were still going strong in stamina, rising to 7th but the machine cried enough after 135 kms and four and a half stages on the fifth day – a thrust bearing broke with pieces falling into the gearbox causing internal damage. The Bryce Biggs team are currently searching for a replacement gearbox so the NET-HERO car can run for the last two Legs of the Silver Fern Rally, the big goal for Jardine is to reach that finish after nearly 3000 kms.
The Leg 3 welding and hammering at every services stop of the bellowing blown exhaust manifold, was finally solved at the Dunedin halt where the Anglo New Zealand crew of Tony Jardine (UK) and Warwick Martin (NZ) received a brand new exhaust manifold.
The team have been in a great battle with another Toyota driven by Kiwi Steve Cox and co-driver Laurie Brenssell, this included a couple of minor offs for Jardine along the way. Steve Cox took 20 seconds out of him over the 71 km wet Stout Road outside Invercargill, the most southerly part of New Zealand before you hit Antarctica. Visibility was an issue, but Jardine and Martin were clawing back time when the gearbox thrust bearing collapsed on stage 32 after 1845 kms!
All the cars have taken a beating. It is difficult not to when crews encounter stages such as Danseys’s Pass at 28 kms, across the rock strewn mountain roads and river crossings or the other Leg 3 basher of Paerau, the Old Dunstan Rd which is virtually as it was 160 years ago, the trail for pioneers searching for gold, travelling in their wagons. In fact, some of the rutted tracks were more suitable for old wagons, some were reminiscent of the East African Safari with their washed out river beds and muddy tracks, a good pace was required as cars picked a path.
Naseby was the antidote where the settlers built a lovely small colonial town. That was the place to settle and fettle the rally cars, a welcome service point to fix the battered cars. All was calm again until Porsche 911 driver Allan Dippie told the story of Dansey’s Mountain Pass on another rally as he was chasing another car when his Historic London Sydney Toyota Corolla lost its footing and rolled over the edge destroying itself against the rocks on its flight down the side of one of New Zealand’s highest passes. Unbelievably, the crew were OK but the car, although a pile of junk, was eventually rebuilt.
From high mountain passes to flat out fast smooth gravel roads, rally crews need to hold their nerve over the endless blind crests whilst flat out in 5th or 6th gear with long straights and sustained high speed.
The Leg 5 Cannibal Bay Road and Hunt Road were glorious twisty forest stages with a slimy top surface due to the rain. The Ultimate Rally Group, who run the Silver Fern Rally have been dealing with many councils and local authorities to close such wonderful roads for competition, so it was gratifying for their Chief Executive Peter Martin to be able to have permission to close the roads around Greenfield in the Otago area and indeed arrange for a service halt at Clutha Valley School.
Tony Jardine and co-driver Warwick Martin went into the school with Peter Martin to talk to two classes and later the children were allowed out to go and see the rally cars in the presence of the local councillors and community.
Back into the action, at one point leader Kiwi Jeff Judd with Belgian Stephane Prevot alongside him, punctured a tyre and slid off the road, handing the lead to James Ford and Neil Shanks whilst Englishman Phil Squires and Welshman Alun Cook had a torrid time with a gearbox issue and an engine oil leak only later to find themselves fighting a bee inside their cockpit!
Welshmen Ron Morgan and Marc Clatworthy stopped twice in their Ford Escort on Leg 5 having survived a big off on day two. However, the biggest crash was for Brandon James and Dale Furniss in their Ford Escort just a bit further down the stage from where the stricken NET-HERO Toyota was at the side of the track. The car was badly damaged in a big roll but fortunately both Brandon and Dale were unhurt.
Such is the high speed nature of this epic endurance rally across one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, that the scenery holds many traps for the unwary, a bit like a Venus flytrap.
It also can deliver punishment in mechanical terms as the NET-HERO Bryce Biggs team found out near the end of Leg 5. They are now in a race against time to find and fit the gearbox parts to get Jardine and Martin back in the rally.
The magnificent Silver Fern Rally of New Zealand crossed 3000 kms of beautiful South Island Mountain passes, hills, forest tracks and fast gravel countryside roads, to finally finish back in Christchurch after seven hard days and 43 competitive special stages.
In a major test of endurance for crews and rally cars, the NET-HERO team of Tony Jardine (UK) and Warwick Martin (NZ) had risen to seventh place by Leg four, the Bryce Biggs run team continually welding a broken exhaust manifold until a new system was fitted at the Dunedin halt to keep the crew in contention.
With 1845 kms run and two special stages left of Leg five, the Historic class 1985 1600 cc Twin Cam Toyota Corolla dramatically slewed sideways to a halt. It was jammed in gear after parts of a failed bearing dropped into the transmission savaging the flywheel on the appropriately named 12 km Cannibal Bay Road stage.
The team had to miss four special stages, including the early part of Leg 6 as an alternative gearbox was sourced late at night in Invercargill and fitted by 3.00 am with the final parts grabbed from a Toyota dealer as it opened its doors at 8.00 am. After a frantic rendezvous between Jardine, Martin and crew with the refreshed car, the team then dashed across country to re-join the rally taking the time penalties which dropped them down the order.
Second place finisher and experienced Kiwi rally driver Jeff Judd, who had ‘last minute’ loaned the team his Toyota after their original car failed, told Tony Jardine; “It is such a big challenge and there are so many variables, you just don’t know what’s going to hit you next.” Indeed it did, on the final day, Leg seven, leaving service the panhard rod holding the rear suspension in place snapped in two. More anxious moments as the team lashed a makeshift strap across the axle and sent Jardine wobbling on his way whilst they went on the hunt for a welder.
Midday service in Methven with welded rod back in place, Tony Jardine and Warwick Martin set two top five times before finally arriving back relieved and happy for the finish at Riccarton Park race course in Christchurch taking tenth place overall and winning the 1600 cc class.
Tony Jardine commented; “It was touch and go at times whether we would get back in, I was definitely feeling anxious – but Bryce Biggs and his crew were incredibly resourceful and diligent and found fixes where I thought none was possible! I have long held the ambition of driving in the Silver Fern Rally and finally despite the ‘heart stopping’ moments of car changes, broken manifolds and gearboxes, my dream of finishing the event has come true – and in the top ten! A massive thanks to Bryce Biggs and Ultimate Rally Group boss Peter Martin who with his team runs such a brilliant rally across the best rally roads in the world, and my New Zealand co driver Warwick Martin who put up with me. I am also proud that that we have totally offset our carbon exhaust emissions from the Toyota in this rally via NET-HERO, an important part for motor sport to play in the future and beyond.
“We received a great Kiwi welcome and have been supported ever since we arrived by great people like Michael Patterson of the Commodore Hotel and Murray Taylor a former racing mate. Pirelli shipped tyres from Australia for us and they were just brilliant, great grip and durability even though we ran super soft fronts for better turn in. We didn’t have one puncture in nearly 700 kms of special stages!”
Out front, the battle for the win was between New Zealand driver Jeff Judd and his top ex WRC codriver, Belgian Stephane Prevot in their Ford Escort, against Englishman James Ford and Scotsman Neil Shanks in another Ford Escort. Judd had the edge until a puncture put him off the road and he got stuck for over eight minutes. Ford and Shanks then held their nerve, managing their lead as Judd went on the attack, to win the Silver Fern Rally on their first visit, denying Jeff Judd the home win he craves.
James Ford; “The win is a big surprise to be honest. We had a good battle for the first three days, we were roughly with Jeff, but had it been on out and out pace then I don’t think we could have stuck with him. I didn’t think it was going to be as hard as it was as I’ve competed in lots of Rally Raids on motorbikes like the Rally Maroc, Algeria Rally and finished fifth in the Moroccan Desert Challenge so I am used to endurance, but the 50 kms Paerau Rock and Pillar mountain stage was the worst for us – even the 71 km stage in the wet was OK – but if you made one mistake up there it could end in a massive accident.
“This is my first Silver Fern and my fist gravel rally since 2013, we have been winning on tarmac in the Historic Circuit of Ireland, Galway and the Jim Clark in Scotland but to win this one is huge for us!” Co-driver Neil Shanks added; “It’s not bad for your first ever Silver Fern Rally is it? We have had an awesome week, this is seriously the best thing you can do, an amazing event.”
Jeff Judd; “I am wrapped to finish second, Stephane has been brilliant, it was just great to get him out here. We knew James was managing his position, but we had a lot of fun trying to charge back, it would have been interesting to see what would have happened without our puncture and the off, I think we could have drawn him into battle and that would have been exciting! Congratulations to James and Neil.”
The final podium place went to the Scots duo of Ally MacKay and Michael Hendry in their Mk 1 Ford Escort. Ally, a New Zealand domiciled Scot said; “Every day was a new challenge, in a good way though, the roads here are fantastic, in fact they are so good that I stayed over here!
“Our high point was winning two stages, SS36 and 37, it was great coming off the stages as the Magnum team were applauding us, but to get on the podium was wonderful, half of it filled by Scots, me Michael and Neil Shanks. We all used to live quite close to each other in Scotland, who would have thought we would all share a podium together on the other side of the world?”
Peter Martin the Managing Director of the Ultimate Rally Group who run the Silver Fern Rally was pleased with the way the rally went but disappointed with the reduced entry caused by post COVID fall out and the massive rise in costs due to Putin’s war.
“We had a longer tail than the rest of the world due to the wrong strategy, when we finally let people in we were a three and a half year pandemic compared to the rest of the world at two! It has been frustrating; the knock-on effects have impacted supply chains to all industries. Freight and fuel costs have been significant, and we are a long way away.
“However, we are looking at changing things for 2024 to try and save the competitors and ourselves costs. We may run for five days but still with the same length of event, just run a bit longer each day. The roads here are fabulous, there is nothing like this in the rest of the world, the people here are engaging, they would give you the shirt off their backs to help you, they want to see you finish the event.
Photos by Mad Angles and Geoff Ridder