The forest racers were back in our city last weekend, with the top Australian crews returning once again to the gravel roads of the Barossa and Mount Crawford Forest areas to do battle in round four of the Australian Rally Championship – Lightforce Rally SA.
Claiming outright victory in another of their select few appearances in the championship were the Victorian pair of Brendan Reeves and co-driver sister Rhianon Gelsomino. Brendo and Rhi delivered a textbook performance in driving right on the limit for two days without stepping over it once, and overcame some minor mechanical niggles on day one to take both heat wins and the overall victory in their STi Spec C.
In a fantastic result for the newly reincarnated factory Subaru rally team (now known as Subaru do Motorsport and run by Les Walkden Rallying out of Tasmania), Molly Taylor and Bill Hayes punted the Group N spec STi to second outright, their best championship result yet. Subaru have taken a bold step for their return in building their car to Group N production specification, which makes it both heavier and less powerful than their primary competition. It’s a strategy aimed at showing the way toward a more cost effective entry to outright competition, a laudable aim. Silly marketing-generated name aside, it’s brilliant to have a factory Subaru team back in the national championship. It just feels right.
Rounding out an all-Subaru top three was Simon Evans and Ben Searcy in the ETS Racing Fuels GC8 WRX. This may look like a GC8 of old, but it’s jam packed with rally know-how and was just completed for the start of the 2016 season. Evans chose the lightest possible Subaru shell, and then filled it with the best of everything to build the ultimate unrestricted rally weapon. An unlucky junction overshoot and an encounter with a kangaroo meant his outright chances were dashed, but he was trading fastest stage times all weekend.
This car, spawned by a recent rule change whereby the maximum age of outright cars has been increased, has proven more controversial and diversive than just about any build of recent times. Seizing the ultimate freedoms, from an engineering perspective why wouldn’t you choose the lightest possible car and make it as fast as the rules allow? From what I’ve heard it is 150kg lighter than Molly’s car and has a lot more power to boot. I’ve also heard that it cost about a third more to build, too. The most expensive GC8 in ARC history? Probably. The fastest, too.
But more than anything it raises some pretty profound questions about the future of the championship. Should we be encouraging privateers to build the fastest possible cars they can and open the outright championship up to as many people as possible? Or should we be encouraging the manufacturers to use the championship as a marketing platform again and drive more professionalism like in the Subaru/Mitsubishi heyday of the early 2000’s? Everyone you ask has a different opinion.
South Australian’s James Rodda and David Langfield claimed equal fourth in the Australian Rally Championship event, whilst simultaneously taking the win in round three of the MRF Tyres South Australian Rally Championship which was held concurrently.
The many water splashes dotted throughout the course played havoc for most, and Rodda had a few close calls. One splash was so severe that it split the aluminum sump guard in half, and water ingestion on another splash knocked the spark right out of the engine for a few stages.
Backing up their incredible run at the Robertstown Rally a few weeks back where they finished fourth, SARC newcomers Zayne Admiraal and Matthew Heywood went half as good again and finished Second outright in the SARC category.
2016 marks Zayne and Matt’s first full season in the state championship. Zayne has been around the smaller rallysprint events for a few years, but it’s pretty incredible that until the start of the year co-driver Matt had never before sat in a rally car, and three events in they’re up spraying champagne. And there’s some pretty challenging stages at Lightforce Rally SA; anyone who’s ever seen High Eden Road at speed will attest that it’s very easy to get it very, very wrong.
With a suite of consistent results over the year, Gleeson wrapped up the championship at Lightforce Rally SA, being crowned the 2016 South Australian Rally Champion. It’s a nice little historical tie-in that this very car, albeit in a much tamer state of tune, won the state championship in 1981 with Barry Burns driving.
South Australia has benefitted from an abnormally wet winter this year, and the Mount Crawford Forest is revered as one of the wettest spots in the state. The forest was soggy to begin with, and a strong storm just a few days before the event simply made the waterlogged roads worse. Stories of meter-high water crossings on some stages and impassable recce’s were told and in the days leading up, several of the stages were cancelled. We made our ‘rallying has gone soft these days’ calls and with thoughts of those famous Safari rally style mud baths in our minds and the resulting photos, I was pretty disappointed. But having seen some of the cancelled stages from afar, it was the right call. The roads would have been trashed, and many of them were quite literally impassable. Like, the cancelled Waterholes stage had 100m straights that were entirely under a foot of water. It would have been a sea of stranded, bogged and flooded cars.
In the end the rain held off and the sun shone, and the stages that did run were largely dry and even a little bit dusty, spliced with many big splashes. Perfect. The added bonus for competitors was that many of the cancelled forestry stages were replaced with extra runs down the fast and flowing council stages, leading many competitors to suggest that it was probably a better event like that anyway.
One of the most legendary aspects of rallying are the all-nighter’s pulled to get cars back out into the forests after an accident. And in 2016, Harry Bates was the recipient of a minor miracle. On Saturday afternoon he slid off the road, hit wet grass and collected five pine trees before coming to a rest, putting the first major impact into the shell that his father Neal had won the 2008 national championship in.
When we left for dinner on Saturday night the broken parts were being ripped off, and Brad Musolino (Raaaayyy?) and Brooke were getting the welders out to repair some pretty intensive damage to the sill.
Adrian Coppin’s car wasn’t entered for the event, but they had brought it down as a spare and parts were being raided from it all over. A local signwriter even volunteered to re-wrap the Castrol liveried door and a spare raw kevlar guard, and at just after 3am they pushed the repaired Corolla into parc ferme.
So back to that opening image. The Audi S1 Quattro of Mal Keough and Andrew Bennett absolutely made the event for me. It is no exaggeration to say that I would have still done exactly what I did at Lightforce Rally SA if this was the only car entered. I would have gone all that way just to watch it drive past – it was that good.
True, it is not the real deal – it is a replica. But, and this is a very important But. Mal and Andrew were driving it on the absolute ragged edge all event, and there’s no way you could drive a genuine one like that. It looks like the real deal, and more importantly with the correct heavily turbocharged 2.6 inline five cylinder engine it sounds exactly like the real deal. With it bucking and jumping and pitching under hard acceleration, and ringing shotgun cracks out the exhaust on every gearchange, it is purely orgasmic watching it being driven just like those Group B videos you watch on Youtube.
So picture the moment. We’re hiking through the pine forests and chance upon a long, flat and smooth downhill jump that we’d somehow all forgotten about. The Audi is being wound out through the gears, the soprano five on song and each shotgun crack echoing through the forest, the machine audible for thirty or so seconds before its arrival.
The driver barely eases off through the dip before the lip, and the Audi takes flight. It glides upwards as its axis slowly rotates in mid-air, and after what seemed like an eternity it lands rear-bumper first, 747 style. The acceleration continues unabated on the other side, before changing down into second for the coming hairpin and winding out through all gears on the other side.
I’m too young to have been standing on Ouninpohja in 1981 and to have seen scene this for real. But this moment documented here, in the Mount Crawford Forest, is about as close as you would ever come to Finland in 1981 without a time machine. These photos represent the moment poorly – it was easily a highlight of 2016.
Another jump moment, far less elegant but no less memorable, came on Saturday afternoon across the famous Mt Crawford jump – Jack’s Jump (click here to discover the meaning behind the name). I’d decided to give the jump a miss this year as it’s become a bit of a cliche and rarely delivers the goods, until a Friday night Facebook message came through from Damian Reed, who was entered in the intro rally with Dale Neighbour co-driving in the indomitable Excellerator. “Excel. Crawford. Jump. Sat arvo. That. Is. All. No lift for nothing. I’ve been waiting years for this…” Okay so maybe our plans will have to change.
Flat strap over the jump and Damo easily got more air and distance than Molly or Simon or any of the ARC cars. It’s a big jump, but you still have to punt a stock Excel very hard to get that much air.
Other than a welded-on sump guard (no oil change for nothing…) and a pair of Sabelt harnesses this is a bog stock road car. And to think that Damo still drove it to work on Monday morning. This will be talked about for years!
And with the right media credentials and arriving at the start at the right time, on the stages too. Mechanically, Mark’s Celica actually shares a reasonable amount with the screaming NA unit in Harry Bates’ S2000 Corolla, although Mark’s is turbocharged. And E85’d. And on it’s current conservative tune it’s putting out around 240kw at the wheels, with a wall of a torque curve and instant response, anywhere in the rev range. Sitting at 75km/h in 5th and want to pass a slow car? No need to change down, just put your foot down and it picks up faster than my Fiat could ever dream of.
It was cool to watch the snarling rally cars, and then when Mark kindly let me drive we ran to his car and jumped behind the wheel of our own rally car. With the vague smell of E85 in the cabin, torque underfoot and a digital dash in front, it felt pretty close to WRC 1998. Responsibly, of course.
And so draws a close to the South Australian stage rallying year. The Australian Rally Championship now heads for its final round at Rally Australia, the WRC round to be held at Coffs Harbour on November 18-20.
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