31 March 2022

Canberra confirmed 'spiritual home' of rallying as our biggest motorsport event returns

| James Coleman
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Rally car

Plenty of dirt will fly at the National Capital Rally this weekend. Photo: Jack Martin Photography.

It’s almost ballet. Hopping from one wheel to the other, threading a dainty line between trees, rocks, trenches and the odd spectator at breath-taking alacrity, a train of fine pebbles and guttural noise in the wake.

It’s the art of driving very fast on dirt, and here in Australia, the ACT is widely regarded as its spiritual home.

From 2 to 3 April, up to 56 drivers from across Australia, including Western Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania, will don their helmets, climb into their purpose-built cars, and take to the fire trails in Kowen Forest for the Netier National Capital Rally.

It’s regarded as the biggest motorsport event on Canberra’s calendar, and organisers are inviting locals to take up a place alongside the track to watch the spectacular event unfold.

Rally cars

The field of competing rally cars in a … er, field, near Kowen Forest. Photo: Netier National Capital Rally.

Canberra talent Harry Bates, son of motorsport legend Neal Bates, will be there with his cousin, Lewis Bates, in their Toyota GR Yaris hatchbacks.

Harry started his driving career at the tender age of 12, competing in local motorkhanas on gravel and tarmac. In 2014, aged 18, he entered rallying, and he has been climbing podiums and accepting trophies ever since.

READ ALSO From go-karts to Bathurst for local, young race drivers

He and Lewis have also been the official factory drivers for Toyota Australia since 2019 and had a hand in the marketing and promotion of the GR Yaris hot hatch. The Yaris rally cars they use today are the first of their kind in the world.

“We completed those builds right here in Canberra a year ago as the first GR Yaris rally car in the world,” Harry says.

He describes Canberra as the ideal romping ground for rallying.

“Canberrans are pretty lucky to be surrounded by so much bush and nature, but from a rally point of view, that’s particularly advantageous.”

Harry Bates at the wheel. Photo: Jack Martin Photography

There are two main competition areas in the ACT, one near the Brindabella mountains near The Cotter, Uriarra and Tidbinbilla, with another on the other side of Canberra in Kowen Forest along Sutton Road. Both double as fire trails and service tracks for the ACT’s rangers when they aren’t hosting rallies.

“There are a spattering of others, but really, there’s so much to offer in those two forests alone that that tends to be where we rally 90 per cent of the time,” he says.

The recipe for a rally track is simple and consists of a dirt road made up of stages. This weekend’s Netier rally is 13 stages long, with each stage ranging between 6 and 13 km long.

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Needless to say, Harry describes rallying as sitting on the “more extreme end of the motorsport spectrum”, but isn’t quite the “dancing with danger” it might appear from a spectator standpoint.

“You’re out in the forest, in the middle of nowhere, with trees right on the edge of the road,” he says.

“But to set the fastest time, you really need to be in total control at all times. So yes, while we’re sideways and it all looks spectacular, we’re only sideways the right amount. Often the most spectacular looking rally driver is not the fastest.”

Rally car in the air

Harry Bates’ rally car takes off. Photo: Jack Martin Photography.

While birth into a motorsport family might have given Harry smooth passage into the world of rallying, he says getting started can be as simple as going out and buying a ready-made car.

“A guy I know is doing his first rally this weekend in Canberra, and he just bought himself a rally car for around $20,000, one that was already fitted with a roll cage and was ready to go.”

As with all other motorsport sectors in Australia, an aspiring driver must be a club member to receive a competition licence from Motorsport Australia. For Canberra’s rallies, this oversight is provided by the Brindabella Motor Sport Club.

READ ALSO Yaris GR proves it’s time to stop calling Toyotas’ whitegoods on wheels’

Then you have to make sure the seatbelt fits.

“For competing in the top level, you try to stay as physically fit as possible,” Harry says. “I have been working on that for the past few months in preparation for this upcoming rally.”

He says there are limited opportunities to practice the actual driving component due to running costs, but that in preparation for a rally, drivers review pace notes and study videos from previous rallies.

Popping off. Photo: Jack Martin Photography.

Before the rally, they are also provided with a ‘test day’ when they can drive around the track and familiarise themselves with all its twists and turns.

“But we’re definitely not spending every day inside the car like a tennis player would on a tennis court,” he says.

A convoy of rally cars will depart the Sutton Driver Training Centre at 5:30 pm on Friday, 1 April and pass through Braddon. The Netier National Capital Rally will be held from Saturday, 2 April to Sunday, 3 April at Kowen Forest.

Entry is free, but you need tickets to enter.

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