2016 Race to the Sky

Race to the Sky organisers, Highlands Motorsport Park, have confirmed the Cardrona Valley hillclimb will run again in 2016 over the weekend of 18 to 20 March. New Zealand’s leading automotive supplier Repco will continue as the naming rights’ sponsor for the famed international hillclimb.

The revived Repco Race to the Sky ran on 18 and 19 April this year with Australia-based Scotsman Alister McRae taking a popular victory in the ex-World Rally Championship Vantage-backed Subaru Impreza WRX used by Kiwi rally legend Possum Bourne to win the event back in 2001. Australian Brett Hayward piloted his self-built supercharged Suzuki-powered open wheeler into a well-deserved second place and well-known super quad racer Ian Ffitch, from Amberley, took third overall and received the Possum Bourne Memorial Trophy as the fastest New Zealander. This year’s event was the first time in eight years that the Cardrona Valley hillclimb had ran since 2007 which was the last of ten events run by Race to the Sky founder Grant Aitken.
With positive feedback from competitors, spectators and sponsor partners from the 18-19 April event, Mike Sentch, who heads the Highlands’ Repco Race to the Sky team, says: “Following the success of April’s Repco Race to the Sky, there was no doubt in our minds that the event would return on an annual basis. It’s especially good to once again have the passionate and supportive team from Repco working alongside us to host this iconic motorsport event for the enjoyment of the many thousands of fans who join us in the Cardrona Valley and followed the event online.”
Jonathon Maddren, Repco New Zealand’s general manager sales and operations, says: “Repco Race to the Sky 2015 definitely delivered on providing a world-class event that spectators and competitors alike enjoyed immensely. The event still has a very ‘Kiwi’ feel to it and the wide range of vehicles entered continues to capture the motorsport industry’s attention as much, if not more than in the past. Repco is delighted to be a part of the event in 2016 and beyond!”
Sentch says they surveyed the 105 competitors who raced up the 14.5 kilometre gravel access road during April’s event.
“We’ve had fantastically positive feedback from competitors. As you’d expect, having run the event for the first time with our team, we have a few aspects we want to tweak, but overall everyone was really happy with how the event ran. Without a doubt, everyone was excited to have the opportunity to return – or tackle for the first time – one of the best ‘man and machine vs. mountain’ challenges you’ll find in the world.”
Competitor interest for the 2016 event is strong with Sentch reporting that Monster Tajima says he’s keen to return, despite the major crash the eight-time Race to the Sky King of the Mountain suffered at this year’s event.
“Paul Wilding, Monster’s team manager, says they’re still working out what happened to cause the problems with the custom-built Super 86 hillclimb special which lead to the crash. Despite that, there is definitely unfinished business for the Monster Sport team, so we’re very much looking forward to seeing them back in 2016.”
Former British Rally Champion and factory WRC driver Alister McRae and Vantage Motorsport principal Craig Vincent have also got the event on their calendar.
“At this stage I believe we will return next year,” Vincent says. “The car and team have got such a following that it would be a shame to leave it in the garage. It was fantastic to win this year, especially with this car which is still just a World Rally Car with a bit more horsepower; it’s not a special one-off. 
“I think with the right balance and depending on road conditions the car can always be competitive. This year we finally got on top of our ongoing cooling problem from previous attempts at Race to the Sky although we still had one major mechanical issue to contend with,” Vincent says of the engine failure during Sunday morning’s qualifying run which saw the Possum Bourne Motor Sport team work frantically to replace the engine in time for the afternoon’s final.
“The eight minute barrier sits in front of us and, with the good engine, we believe an 8.10 was possible this year. So can we find 10 seconds? That is a big ask but maybe!”
Vincent rates the Repco Race to the Sky as a great spectacle with the diverse range of equipment used by national and international competitors to attack the famed hillclimb course. “All around it is such a great one-off event that deserves its place on the New Zealand motorsport calendar.”
McRae also rates the event. “It was a great event all round. In WRC, you are in the car for three days and doing my first hillclimb event at Race to the Sky, I was concerned there would be a lot of hanging around, but the thrill of driving the Vantage Subaru up one of the best roads in New Zealand and the atmosphere all weekend made it one of the best motorsport weekends I’ve taken part in. I would love to come back in 2016 and defend the win from this year. I’m sure the event is only going to get bigger and the competition greater from now on.”
McRae says the Vantage Subaru was awesome to drive. “Being a WRC car with extra power, rather than a hillclimb special, it made for a great package. With a bit of development work in the suspension and looking at improving the aero package, without taking away from its WRC heritage, I believe the car will be competitive again.”
In 2016, the event format will be amended slightly to allow competitors a high speed practice run on the course on Friday afternoon, in addition to Saturday’s two practice sessions and one qualifying session, and Sunday’s all-important qualifying run and finals.
Sentch notes: “Following their reconnaissance of the course in a road car on Friday morning, all competitors will get a practice run on Friday afternoon, following feedback that this would provide an opportunity to make setup and mechanical changes to their car, quad, motorbike or off-roader before further practise and the first qualifying run on Saturday.”
In regard to the 2016 dates, Sentch says: “We certainly didn’t want the clash with the New Zealand round of the FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship that occurred this year even though we were the first to confirm the April dates. We’ve already talked to APRC officials about 2016 and as they’re unable to confirm which weekend in April their event will run, we have elected to move our date to March and thus avoid any potential conflict. The March date also gives us and the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground, which owns the mountain access road which Race to the Sky uses, a little more time to recondition the road after the event and prepare for their busy winter season.”
Sentch and his team are currently working through various operational and planning aspects for the 2016 and will soon release the first in a series of competitor communications. Further details on the 2016 Repco Race to the Sky will be available on the event website or follow the Highlands Motorsport Park Facebook page.