It’s becoming a well-worn path, this annual pilgrimage to Robertstown. Leaving the concerns of the work-week behind heading out of town and a last minute stop for a coffee to go, it’s usually just as Port Wakefield road frees the shackles of its slower speed limits that that the first sip can be truly savored as an appropriate Spotify playlist is locked down. Close enough to be a practical tradition, yet with just enough distance to give a glimpse of that thing of beauty – the rally road trip.
It would take a lot for me to miss the Robertstown Rally, and 2016 was no different. Many of my senior’s will surely laugh this next comment off as nothing but an apprenticeship in rally experience, but this was the fifth year that Any Given Reason has covered the Robertstown rally. That’s feels like kind of a long time.
The rally route never changes all that much, and it’s getting to the stage where I don’t even bother taking specialist maps up anymore. I have a quick glance across Google maps back in Adelaide before I leave, and other than that we navigate from the pixelated event spectator guide and local knowledge.
It’s even getting to the point where we know some of the individual paddocks that line the stages and what grows in them, and the primary reason for recce’ing the Roast stage was to see if the Cherry Blossoms were blooming yet. Sadly they weren’t. There was no water and bird life in the swamp along the main road, either. Although, we did spot an Eagle sitting on a fencepost less than 50m from us and had a good ten second gawk before it gracefully took off, so 2016 wasn’t without it’s natural highlights.
That’s all a bit of a long-winded way of saying that it really enhances the experience of coming up to Robertstown each year. Sure, I love exploring new places and new rallies, but time not spent with your head in a map or lost on a questionably legal road can be spent catching up with friends and eating mutton rolls. And taking in spectacular sunsets – but more on that later.
As nice as being out of phone signal and spotting bird life is, it is certainly not the primary reason for going to Robertstown in winter. It’s to see cleverly built rally cars being flung at indecent speeds down bumpy roads, and the pair responsible for the most indecent of speeds were Declan Dwyer and Craig Adams, who took outright victory and the P6 class win in their Mitsubishi Evolution 6, their third Robertstown Rally win.
After the minor mechanical niggles that saw their chances of victory at the Southern Rally dashed, the pair had a storybook run to claim victory by just under three and a half minutes, taking all but one stage win in the process. The only stage they didn’t win, they drew equal first on.
In what was surely an exciting result for Datsun and old car fans alike, Neville Whittenbury and Kate Catford finished in second place outright in their ’73 Datsun 180B, also claiming the win in the Club Rally Car class and naturally finishing as the fastest 2WD.
It was great to see Nev’s 180B again, back in Australia after his successful campaign at New Zealand’s Otago Classic rally where he finished 12th in the Classic event. It was also good to see the rally return of co-driver Kate Catford, making her first competitive appearance since injuring her wrist in an accident 8 months ago.
And in what is surely a first at state championship level for decades, the final podium place was won by yet another Datsun – the ’78 Stanza of Andrew Gleeson and Mike Dale. Also running in the popular Club Rally Car class, Gleeson drove through nagging brake bias issues which apparently prevented him from ‘properly backing it in…’, but his performance still looked pretty convincing to me.
Gleeson and Dale managed to set the second fastest outright time on SS4, the super-fast Pipeline stage. It could be argued that the two Datsun’s podium positions were at the expense of many other crews who suffered unfortunate luck, but stage performances like this show that they’ve got the speed to begin with. No matter what happens, you very rarely fall into a podium position. You spend all day sliding that direction and hope to be in the right place at the end of that final stage.
In one of the most heartwarming results of recent times, Zayne Admiraal and Matthew Heywood managed to claim fourth place outright in their WRX, in their first ever state championship round. Not only that, but the pair had managed to complete major repairs to the WRX after backing it into a tree while running in the limited intro class at the previous round. It was a major achievement just to make the start line, let alone have a clean event and finish in such a competitive position without putting a scratch on the car.
Their event wasn’t entirely without drama, though. At around 200km/h Zayne noticed an odd feeling in the steering and that it wasn’t always reacting as he hoped. An inspection at the end of the stage found a steering knuckle bolt completely missing. A 12mm spanner was borrowed, and a bolt was stolen from the intercooler and installed into the steering to limp through until service – a ninety second road penalty for a late control check-in the only damage.
James Rodda and David Langfield were having a consistently strong event in their Evo 9, running a comfortable second outright and closing the gap on Dwyer/Adams and even drawing on an equal fastest stage time. It unfortunately all came unstuck on SS10, when the rear diff blew leaving them sidelined at the start of the night stages.
After such a strong performance at the first round of the championship where they finished on the podium in their first SARC event, all eyes were on Aaron Bowering and Nathan Lowe to see how they would shake the podium up at Robertstown. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, with the pair retiring the GC8 WRX with overheating and head gasket problems after just a few stages.
After so long spent preparing other people’s cars and working for Kevin Weeks’ Supaloc race team, it was great to see Simon Wenzel out debuting his own rally car build. Unfortunately it retired early on with engine troubles, but I’m sure these will be quickly sorted and the SSS Bluebird will have its time to shine.
Matt Selley’s Mk2 Escort was the one I was most looking forward to seeing at Robertstown. With a crazy-powerful Connaught Warrior 16V Twin Cam breathing through a pair of 48 DCOE’s that spins close to 8000rpm and a Quaife sequential box, the sound is off the chart and Matt doesn’t hang about driving it, either. The Youtube clip is well worth a watch.
Unfortunately it all came to an end during the service after the first group of stages. Matt had come over a crest at high speed and hit a huge rock, and the crew were carefully checking the Escort over. After the impact, Matt and Hamish had reported the rear end feeling a little squirmy on the transport.
The impact with the rock had ruined one of the rear wheels. They made it through the stage before changing it at the start of the transport, but the impact had bent the rear axle housing and their event was over.
Wayne Mason and Damo had a better run in their Escort, interestingly suffering the same fate of a dislodged ignition lead as had befallen Selley’s Escort but having an otherwise clean run, netting eighth outright and first Classic.
There’s been much speculation as to the future of rallying, and the sport is really at a crossroads. The ugly truth is that the production based rally car reached its pinnacle during the Evo 6/GC8 WRX era, and has been on a plateau since then. With the demise of production of road going rally specials, the sport has turned to more manufacturer friendly classes but these are typically less exciting to watch for spectators and sponsors.
On a national level, we’re seeing the attention turning toward the Classic’s, and we’re in the rather awkward situation where people like Neal Bates are building old Celica’s that are faster than the modern outright cars. It’s really interesting to see this change in focus filter down to the state championships, and in 2016 Robertstown highlighted this more than ever.
Of 22 entries, an astonishing 14 cars are based on traditional old school, rear wheel drive rally cars. As a fan of classic cars, I couldn’t be happier. We’re finally in a time where interesting classics are outnumbering Evo’s and Subaru’s. Nothing against these cars (I used to own a WRX for a while and an Evo 6.5 Makinen is a dream one day), but unless they’re being driven right on the limit an old school classic is always more entertaining.
From a photographers perspective, Robbie is always a pleasure. For me it kicked off on the Friday night with a rally dinner at the Eudunda Hotel, before a late night trip up to Inspiration Point and backwards along the Roast stage – we were hunting stars.
If you get a clear night, the midwinter sky up there is awe inspiring and it certainly puts you in your place. It’s become a tradition now each year for fellow photographer Mark Williams and I to set the tripods up, so we opened a few beers as we watched the satellites fly overhead. This photo was taken just after midnight and it was a balmy two degrees with a bit of a breeze.
We set up camp in our cars and slept alongside scenic road. I don’t know how cold it got, but my sleeping bag that kept me warm through Nepal was struggling that night. Even with my thermals on and a few spare jackets draped across me, it was that uncomfortable feeling of not being actually cold yet not being warm and snug either.
The benefit was being woken by natural light at sunrise, and stepping right out of the cars to photograph the sun filling the plain with glowing light and much needed warmth. As cold as we were at the top, it was a good five degrees cooler down in Robertstown and my car warned me to beware of ice on the road.
Doc easily won the t-shirt competition at the media briefing. After the usual banter (the same safety messages interspersed with the same digs at Phil Williams), we loaded into our cars and so would begin another day of zigging and zagging around the countryside.
In a stroke of pure luck we happened to catch the crews gearing up and preparing for the first stage. There was only time to snap a few frames – if you leave service park after the first competition car does, you’ll almost certainly miss it through the first stage.
The way it panned out, we ended up having some time to stop and have a chat to some of the officials. It really seems like the officials have a great time up at Robertstown, and they are most certainly the ones responsible for making the event happen in the first place.
I remember hearing stories from the seventies and eighties where the officials would go out in the middle of the night and make a large fire for warmth, and then spend most of the night drinking port and checking time cards. It’s not really like that anymore in 2016, but up at Robertstown you can feel that the same spirit is there. Many hands make light work, right?
It’s here that I need to make an admission and thankyou to fellow photographer Stuey Daddow. Mark Williams and I had suggested we quickly stop off at this road closure on our way to the quarry on the Roast stage, but we found the afternoon light to be absolutely perfect and if it were up to us, we would have stayed. But Stuey was really keen on the quarry, so we begrudgingly left after just a few cars.
As soon as we got there we quickly realised that it was the right call to make. The light there was perfect too, and with the quarry, some standing water and expansive views out over the valley we were spoilt for choice.
The Roast stage would run twice; once in the late afternoon, and once in the dark. After the first pass we followed it through a few kilometers to the water splash. Oddly, given the amount of rain we’ve had this winter, it wasn’t very full but it was super slippery.
But it’s an unbreakable rule of photography that perfect light should never, ever be wasted. So for those few minutes we all turn into landscape photographers. There could certainly be worse places to find yourself during Golden Hour.
They say it’s the small things in life, and on that freezing night our little group benefited from possibly the nicest thing that Phil Williams has done for someone else, ever. Another group had shot the mud splash on the previous run, and instead of stamping out their fire they kept it going for our warmth.
Not stamping out the fire was probably more out of Phil’s laziness than anything, but it always pays to look for the best in people. My photos from that night stage were mostly rubbish and I really just used artistry as an excuse to shoot as close to the fire as possible. Hey, at least it was nice and warm.
The mud was of a clay-type makeup, and it was so thick that it spread ahead of the cars and covered the headlights if they hit it in the wrong spot. It must be disconcerting to suddenly loose all lighting; a few crews thought they had an electrical issue and started switching the lights on and off, but Bruce Field had enough rally nous to stop immediately and clean the lights off.
With only three full state championship rallies, 2016 is the shortest season for some time. But from what I’ve heard around the place, 2016 is a rebuilding year for the championship and there is at least one new event in the works for 2017. With the outright battle heating up between a handful of genuine title contenders and more classic’s being built every month, the championship is finally looking up.
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