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Season Wrap - From Snow and Ice to Auzzie Bushfires

2019 is done and dusted. Our rally season has finished for the year and it has taken us all over the Asia Pacific region - from the freezing snow of Rally Tsumagoi in Japan to the bush-fires at WRC Rally Australia in Coffs Harbour. We led four out of six rallies we entered this year including a debut win for the Toyota CH-R at Rally Hokkaido and won three championships - FIA Asia Cup, FIA Junior Cup and the Japan Super Series.

Lets start at the beginning. In February my co-driver Malcolm Read and I flew to Tokyo for Rally Tsumagoi, a snow and ice rally held at a ski resort in the mountains of Japan's main island where we were entered in Cusco Racing's Toyota Yaris 4WD with TRD backing. As I'd never rallied on snow or ice before it was a learning experience from the start with very challenging conditions on the black ice and learning to use the snow banks to slow and turn the car. We managed to finish 3rd overall and first international home.

Following the event we were invited to TRD's brand new headquarters. We were shown their new hi-tech development facilities and where they do all the work on the TRD 8AR-TURBO engine. We were really surprised to see the FIA Asia Cup we won in 2013 proudly displayed in the main foyer.

Next up was my home rally, International Rally of Whangarei. This was the first event of our APRC campaign and after a short test we were into the rally which started with the usual super special in Whangarei. It was a mixed first day with a spin before a bridge and low power all day costing us a lot of time. We finished day 1 in a disappointing 12th place, way under where I wanted to be. The next day with normal power restored, the car feeling good and some retirements, we hauled ourselves back to 4th in the APRC and NZRC fields.

In June we then returned to the village of Tsumagoi for the Montre Rally which was now part of the APRC. It was a completely new rally for us and we had to write fresh pace-notes for this event. We were seeded number one and the rally started well with a 1 minute lead at midday service, but from there everything started to go wrong. We bent a front suspension arm on a cancelled stage and then had the same thing happen on the rear on the last stage of day. Both times we managed to fix the car thanks to Malcolm. We crawled to the finish of day one, 4 minutes off the lead. I was determined the next day to gain as much time back as possible and see how far up the order we could get. We won all Day Two stages finishing 3rd overall and just 15 seconds off 2nd place. We made up a whooping 3 and half minutes.

Yokote Rally was up next in the northern part of Japan's main island. Held at the end of July summer was in full swing, which meant extreme heat and humidity - just like Malaysia! We overcame early clutch problems to win both days and every stage of the rally. A nice overall win for Cusco and TRD which was much deserved.

After the Yokote Rally we did three days of testing on Cusco's new rally car, a Toyota C-HR. It felt good straight out of the box and the plan was to debut it at September's APRC Rally Hokkaido. For this rally Glenn Macneall stepped in for Malcolm Read as it clashed with his ARC commitments. We did another two full days of testing before the rally to fine tune the setup, which was important for the new car and to test new parts.

I felt a small bit of pressure going into the rally with it being Cusco's and TRD's home rally, but that soon wore off as we started the rally well, winning all of the first four stages and taking a commanding lead into Saturday afternoon. We tried a new Dunlop tyre for the next loop of stages which worked well and we lead day one by 4 minutes. For day two we knew we just had to bring it home for the Cusco TRD C-HR to take its debut win and that's just what we did. We won by 7 minutes, my first proper international win. A very proud moment for me and the team!

October's China Rally in Longyou was the host for APRC Grand Finale, a winner takes all event, where whoever won the rally would be the FIA APRC champion. Our preparations for the rally were disrupted by the car container being held up by recent typhoons and while it arrived just in time we weren't able to do shakedown. The car stalled at the start of the super special costing at least 10 seconds and lead to us starting 8th on the road the next day. We were having a good run on the opening concrete stage when we caught the car in front, following him for over 2 kms before we finally found a way passed.

We still won the stage by 15 seconds and jumped into the overall lead. Unfortunately two stages later, without warning the car stopped with an electrical problem and that was it - our best chance of winning the FIA Asia-Pacific championship was gone! After all the hard work and planning through the year, the whole team was completely gutted.

We restarted the next day with the Asia Cup still on the line - I pushed hard early in the first mountain stage and won it by 1 minute. In the afternoon we had a puncture but it didn't stop us winning 5 out of 6 stages for the day. It was enough for us to win the FIA Asia Cup and FIA Junior Cup for 2019.

The final rally of the year was WRC Rally Australia in Coffs Harbour, our second WRC event, where we were entered in Racetorque's Peugeot AP4. Unfortunately there were very bad bush fires in the area and the event had to be cancelled. We completely agreed with the decision as people's homes and farms were in danger. We still managed to get some testing in and spent a whole day testing Dunlop's new international tyre. It was a good day and plenty of positives for the future.

So that's a wrap, 2019 was a good year overall with some great results and rally wins! I have to say a big thank-you to Cusco Racing and Dunlop Japan for their continued support. 2020 is looking just as good and I hope to share with you our plans very soon.