Usually, we associate the glory of car racing with the man behind the wheel. But a lot of what goes on under the bonnet and at the hand of the spanner has a huge effect on how the cars – and their drivers – race.
Just ask Tauranga’s Mike Pittams. The experienced engineer has been appointed car chief of the Hyundai NZ Rally Team to race in the 2017 New Zealand Rally Championship.
He’s part of a new team put together by Hyundai NZ and World Rally champion and fellow Kiwi, Hayden Paddon – which will see him plus two others race the Hyundai i20 AP4+ spec car he helped launch in 2006.
The championship started last weekend – Tauranga rally driver David Holder, who is defending his 2016 NZRC title, along with up-and-coming-driver Job Quantock, are sharing the steering wheel with Hayden.
The team – with the goal win the manufacturers’ championship title – is run by Paddon Rallysport with Hayden co-manager alongside his Wanaka-based father Chris Paddon.
And Mike is the man who has got to ensure the car purrs and performs each time!
“I’m expected to have the car ship-shape yesterday,” says Mike, whose was born into a rallying family and became a car mechanic.
“I worked on race cars for about 10 years and I’ve looked after David’s car [in the New Zealand Rally Championship] for the last three years.
“When David first got that car Hayden [Paddon] suggested me as he’d seen some of my work before. I’ve known Hayden since when he was racing back in NZ.”
So when the opportunity for this new format – with Hayden racing the NZRC when he’s not overseas in the WRC and giving two other drivers a chance to develop their skills – came up, Mike applied online for the job. “Hayden then rang me up.”
Mike says to be a mechanic for David’s car – which won last year’s NZRC title was “exceptional”. “But to be given an opportunity by a WRC star is next level. And working with Hayden and the Hyundai team has improved my knowledge on the technical side of things.”
So what does he do?
“Basically, I do all of the mechanical work on the campaign, which involves an extensive rebuild and redesign.
“I also develop the car – to make it a faster design. We do this in the workshop before races.
“But then out on race days I’m in charge of the service crew guys – so my job is to make the car fast and reliable.
“So there’s lot of pressure on my shoulders,” admits Mike.
But he relishes in this. The Force Automotive owner is employed by Paddon Rallysport to run the Hyundai i20 AP4+ spec car for the NZRC. “This arrangement probably takes up about 30 per cent to 40 per cent of my time during the year,” says Mike. “So quite a lot.”
And the last few months have been “flat out” trying to ready the car for the start of NZRC this month – with David taking the wheel first at the Rally of Otago on April 8-9 and winning it.
“Basically, we’ve stripped the car down to bare shell, with nothing in it, and rebuilt 80 per cent of the components and we’ve redesigned stuff as well.”
And through all of this Mike is emailing Hayden overseas and Chris in Wanaka on progress.
“And probably once every three to four weeks Hayden and I skype as well – and I flick him through photos.”
So is he confident of the car going into the NZRC? “Yeah, but you never stop improving. If you want to be the best and go the fastest you have to try new things.
“So it’s constantly a work in progress.”
And there’s always tinkering down between races to suit each terrain or track that’s ahead. “You can change suspension settings, diff settings and anti-roll bars – all sorts of things.”
So Mike’s work is never done? “No, it’s not. It’s ongoing.”
“And we’re basically always re-building this car to make sure it works and is ready for the next rally.”
The six-round NZRC finishes with the two-day, Tauranga-based Rally New Zealand on November 25-26. Maybe then Mike will get some sleep.