I had an incredible opportunity last week. So bear with me while I open with a little boast.
The final round of the 2016 World Rally Championship was held in November in Coffs Harbour. This is big time – previous rounds are held in Monte Carlo, Argentina, Mexico, Spain and China – so it’s a bit of a coup that Australia gets a guernsey, and the final round as well.
After the serious racing was done, I was invited by the Hyundai Motorsport team to ride along with their young-gun driver Hayden Paddon, through the infamous Wedding Bells forest stage of the course.
(Hayden hails from New Zealand and wants Australia to share its WRC round with our cousins over the ditch, but we’ll just look past that for now, Hayden …).
I keep an eye on most motorsports, but I have to admit, I’ve never really gotten into rallying. To be honest, all I saw was a lot of dust and dirt, and I guess I never took a close enough look to really see how much skill and talent is involved in that driving.
Boy, have I been converted.
To say I was a little nervous after Hyundai sent me the following video, of three-time World Superbike Champion Troy Bayliss riding along with Hyundai’s Chris Atkinson, would be an enormous understatement.
Superbikes can travel up to 350kmph, so if this ride was enough to leave Troy almost speechless, I was worried.
I was also told the biggest jump on the track would see the car in the air for almost 40 metres. For those counting along at home, that’s a long time with no wheels on the ground.
In fact, the ride wasn’t scary at all – frankly, it all happens so quickly, there’s no time to be afraid.
Looking not very nervous at all – talk about having your game face on …
Moreover, the calm and focus with which Hayden controlled the car was very reassuring – you would have thought he was taking a casual Sunday drive through the mountains. He’s a very impressive driver and ambassador for the sport, and definitely one to watch.
Not surprisingly, it was a heck of a lot of fun. I think we reached speeds of up to 155-160kmph on the two laps we did, and the 30cm+ clearance of suspension on these incredible vehicles means the jumps aren’t as teeth-chattering as you imagine.
I could rave on, but I won’t. I’m more interested in talking about the sport of rally driving as a whole, and particularly its links to Canberra.
Maybe I’ve just been living in my own little bubble – or maybe it’s a blinding glimpse of the obvious – but it doesn’t seem to me that rally sport gets the profile that, for example, the Supercars and Formula One enjoy.
To be fair, riding in the navigator’s seat of a world-class rally vehicle through a stage of the championship course, is something very few of us will ever have the chance to do.
But we should care about the sport, because Canberra is seen by many – and was even described to me by one of the professional drivers in Coffs – as the ‘spiritual home’ of rallysport in Australia.
You can view some cracking footage online from way back in 1980, of world champion and four-time Paris Dakar Rally winner Ari Vatanen ploughing his way through the suburb of Fadden, before it was even a suburb. Try not to be distracted by the fashions and vintage advertising signage of the time.
And of course, every Canberran worth their salt knows Neal Bates, who – along with his famed co-driver and navigator Coral Taylor – won multiple Australia Rally Championships, and continues to run his Neal Bates Motorsport business from its base in Hume.
The Neal Bates Motorsport Toyota competing at the 2016 National Capital Rally. Image from the Facebook page, photo by Adam McGrath/HCreations.
We have some of the best forest tracks in the country here (arguably, in the world), and a local government that’s willing to think outside the box and support sports like this.
I had a chat this week with Ellie Yates, who is secretary of the Brindabella Motorsport Club (which runs local and national events) as well as being a competitor herself. She says the National Capital Rally, which is our premier local event, is well supported by both government and the community.
“Events here consistently have high attendance rates. The National Capital rally attracts over 50 entrants and 100 competitors from all around Australia to fight it out on some of the best roads in the country,” she said.
“Rallying unfortunately comes with some accessibility issues for spectators, requiring a trek out to the forest to watch, but we find once people get out they will consistently come back for more.
“In recent years we have had thousands of spectators spread out between our spectator points,”
Ellie also says the biggest issues facing the sport in Canberra are government regulation and public perception.
“We receive a lot of support from the ACT Government, including a grant to bring events closer to spectators, so all of Canberra can get a piece of the action. Unfortunately, with increasing red tape and conservation measures it is becoming harder to run as many events as we would like.
“We do as a sport have a public perception issue where many people in the community see us as ‘rev heads’ and associate us with the hoons on the road. This is however completely not the case!
“We take all our need to race out on the track and in the forests in controlled environments, and would encourage anyone who feels the need to race to come out and get involved as well,” she said.
Image from National Capital Rally Facebook page, photo by Adam McGrath/HCreations.
If you’d like to get involved – and you like planning ahead! – the National Capital Rally is on from 27-29 May next year, and they’re always looking for volunteers.
In the meantime, are you a fan of rally sport? If not, what would it take to get you involved? I can’t promise a ride in the Hyundai i20 pocket-rocket, but let me see what I can do …
All images of World Rally Championships from Coffs Harbour kindly supplied by Hyundai Motorsport and the photographer Thomas Wielecki.