RAA Southern Rally 2017 – SARC Round One

The South Australian Rally Championship made a fine return for the 2017 season by holding its first round at what is arguably the most spectacular stop of the championship – the RAA Southern Rally, held recently across the state’s rugged Fleurieu Peninsula region.

With around 120 competitive kilometres split across a mix of technical forest tracks surrounding the Second Valley Forestry Headquarters and some ballsy-quick and cresty closed road council stages, the compact event served up a challenge for all competing crews. Between a litany of mechanical failures and a few cruel accidents the attrition rate was high, however the overall victors managed to steer clear of trouble whilst keeping stage speed high.

Aaron Bowering and Nathan Lowe finished second at this event last year in their first ever gravel rally and went one better in 2017 to claim the outright victory, getting their 2017 championship campaign off to the best possible start. 

Local rally stalwarts Gary Brown and Mike Dale sped to second place outright in their blindingly fast Mitsubishi Galant VR4, proving that there is still plenty of life left in what is fast becoming a proper classic. It didn’t go all their way, however, when the pair had to overcome a rear brake caliper that had become detached from the hub assembly during the mornings stages. I heard an unconfirmed tale that a cable tie was used to affix the caliper back on to finish the event thirty seconds behind, which if true is pretty much the definition of rallying’s never-say-die attitude.

Getting dirty for the first time and claiming third positon outright was Ben Calder, with Steve Glenney sitting alongside calling the notes. Calder’s name can usually be found on the entry list of various national tarmac events where he drives an Evo 6.5, but the newly acquired PBMS built WRX highlights his intent to try his motorsport a little more sideways for a while. With Glenney no doubt giving plenty of tips and advice learnt over his extensive career, Calder was smooth and fast and barely put a foot wrong all day.

Also having a crack at gravel for the first time was Craig Haysman, with Julie Boorman sitting alongside calling the notes. Craig usually campaigns his fast and well-known yellow TR8 in Targa events, and his recently built white TR8 takes a similar V8 powerhouse but in a chassis designed for a fair bit more wheelspin and plenty more rooster tails of dust and rocks.

Their debut was an unfortunately harsh introduction to gravel and just how little grip there can sometimes be. The pair made a seemingly innocent mistake of running a fraction too wide on the exit of a corner over a crest in the forest. Plenty have and do get away with small errors like this all the time, but unfortunately there was a rather large pine stump waiting for Craig and Julie which tipped the TR8 onto its roof. Never fear, the car should hopefully be repaired in time for Round 2 in June.

Neil and Andrea Gehan overcame an engine fire that could have easily turned a lot worse than it did to finish in fourth place…

… whilst Paul Knopka and Neil Brannum finished their first rally in full outright competition in fifth place.

The Southern Districts Car Club are serious about ensuring that the lower classes of the sport are growing just as quickly as the outright contenders, and as such at the Southern Rally there were two classes designed with lower barriers to entry in mind. Winning the Clubman class, which runs a shorter competitive distance and is not pacenoted, was Simon Wenzel and Brett Mason-Fyfe driving a Nissan Bluebird.

Yes, here he is folks. The patron-saint of Introductory classes the state over, driving the ubiquitous yet famous Hyundai Excel was Damian Reed and Dale Neighbour, winners of the Intro class for standard road cars. The pair once again proved two truths that are known the world over: that any car can be reasonably quick if driven with sufficient vigour, and that the Hyundai Excel may well just be the most bulletproof car known to mankind. The thing I love about watching Damo drive this car is that there is almost zero engine noise, meaning that on approach all you can hear is the sound of sump-guard repeatedly bottoming out and being smashed with rocks. In the world of rally it is a unique experience.

Territorians Ben Kittle and Caroline Vale singled their inventions for a strong result by entering their newly acquired RaceTorque built Lancer Evolution 10. Sadly a rather serious gearbox failure put paid to an otherwise strong performance, but we are assured they will be back at a future round of the championship this year.

Matt Selley and Hamish McKendrick had a largely strong event in their MkII Escort, benefitting from some recent upgrades and careful tuning to see the angry little weapon fly faster than it ever has before. The pair were quickest outright over the legendary Balquhidder stage, pulling some fifteen seconds on the next fastest car of Calder/Glenney. They certainly used more of the road than anyone else on our particular corner, if that’s any indication to go by.

 I’m sure they would have figured much higher in the overall results if it weren’t for a couple of small niggling issues, such as a broken throttle cable which sidelined the car just a few hundred meters from the service park.

Roadside servicing is not permitted in gravel rallying in South Australia, so with the service crew looking on but unable to assist Selley and McKendrick managed to repair the cable and kept going.

Driving their EG Civic, Marc Butler and Peter Sims had just about the closest call you could ever hope to drive away from over one of Balquhidder’s notorious crests. After loosing the rear around a left bend over crest, Butler has somehow spun the Civic around a full 360deg down the narrow dirt road and emerged facing the right way, buried in the bushes but with no apparent damage. A gear is selected and the stage is resumed – incredible.

Head on across to the Southern Districts Car Club’s Facebook page and have a watch of the video posted to their wall. It makes for great viewing.

Unfortunately Wayne Mason and David Langfield were not quite so lucky in their Escort. In similar circumstances but over a corner on a much sharper and steeper crest the Escort tipped onto its side and rolled several times down the road on the other side. Thankfully the pair were uninjured, but the same sadly cannot be said of the beautiful Escort which was quite heavily damaged.

For as long as I can remember the sport has been dominated by turbocharged, four wheel drive cars. And with good reason too – it’s very difficult to go faster for the money. But gradually things are changing, and there seems to be an awakening of competitors choosing fun and enjoyment over outright speed. As a result, the number of rear-wheel drive cars is increasing and it’s making these events much more of a spectacle. What can be better than a good old power slide in the dirt? A four wheel drive has to be driven very hard indeed before it becomes exciting to watch.

One of the most exciting to see was the Mercedes-Benz 450SLC of Stuart Bowes, co-driven by Mark Nelson and making its gravel debut as the Zero car. We’ve seen the 450 before in anger on tarmac in the Twilight Tarmac Rallysprint event last year and static at Any Given Reason’s own Burger Meet event on Boxing Day, but to see it being flung sideways down the road was something again.

With the added benefit of wheelspin on gravel giving the big V8 the chance to really sing in the lower gears, it sounded brilliant tearing through the forests and I can’t wait to see how it goes in its first proper competition outing on the dirt in a few weeks time.

From a photographers perspective, the Southern Rally is easily one of my favourites as there is just so much to work with.

The crests and hills are such that in many places you can see the road stretching for several kilometres before the cars reach you. It makes for good photos and brilliant spectating. Unfortunately it was pretty cold and overcast for most of the day and the light never particularly helped us, but that didn’t matter.

This will be the final Southern Rally in its current format for a while as the forest can not be used next year, so it will be interesting to see what the Southern Districts Car Club come up with. No matter what it is, as long as the setting is even half as spectacular they will be on to a winner.

Words and photos by Andrew Coles.

The South Australian Rally Championship resumes with the exciting new Lightforce Rally of the Heartland, a 350km ‘blind’ event including a mammoth 90+km stage. The rally is based out of the Burra area on June 2-4 – find more info here at the event website.

 

 

 

 

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