26 April 2022

Is Canberra as good at rallying as the nation thinks we are?

| James Coleman
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Car in rally

Dirt is in the air. Photo: James Coleman.

Canberra’s own 27-year-old Harry Bates has taken the top spot on the podium at the National Capital Rally held in Kowen Forest last weekend, ahead of V8 Supercar driver Shane van Gisbergen and Hyundai N rally driver Brendan Reeves.

The ACT is regarded as the ‘spiritual home of rallying’ among rallying types in Australia, so it’s fitting a Canberran took Round One of the 2022 Australian Rally Championship.

Bates knew this, of course. Coupled with the fact that the naming sponsor of the event, IT company Netier, was also his sponsor – he desperately wanted to do well.

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But how well did Canberra do overall, given our reputation as ‘rally central’? There was only one way to find that out – my brother-in-law and I had to go along.

On its off days, Kowen Forest is a commercial pine plantation and locked to vehicles other than logging trucks and bicycles. But together with another track at the foot of the Brindabellas, it hosts our rally action. It even has its own dedicated Kowen Rally Spectator Village.

Rally car covered in mud

Mud, glorious mud. Photos: James Coleman.

Turning off Sutton Road, the tarmac abruptly became a dirty forest trail. Initially, eucalypt trees surrounded us on both sides, but before long, we were bumping through a pine forest.

This must be it – whenever you see any sort of rally event, it’s almost always set amongst pine trees. And again, like today, there’ll be some drizzle in the air. The vibe is off to a good start.

We roll into a muddy paddock that has morphed into a semi-organised car park and trudge up through what we think is the main entrance.

That’s the first thing to note about motorsports events. Many of them seem to be a case of ‘those who know, know’. Those who don’t are resigned to aimless wandering until they stumble upon the right place.

The ‘village’ marks the beginning and end of the 200-plus kilometre circuit, before and after it snakes its way through the millions of pine trees.

The spectator village is divided into three areas, bordering different parts of the track.

But before we take a stand, there’s a Capital Brewing Company Pale Ale to be had. Point to note – there’s no internet out here and poor mobile reception, so bring cash.

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My brother-in-law and I settle down by the start line, marked by a Red Bull-branded inflatable arch, and watch a particularly plump banana slug ooze its way up the concrete barrier as the minutes tick by.

That’s the second thing to note about motorsport. There’s a lot of hanging around.

Hundreds of people have turned up despite the rain and, looking over the clusters of anoraks, branded jackets and umbrellas, it’s clear Canberra has nailed the rally vibe again. The only difference is the smell of barbecued sausages wafting up from the food vendors. I imagine it’s sauerkraut on a stick at the FIA European Rally Championship.

Rally car

Not your average Yaris. Photo: James Coleman.

The first car appears under the arch and it’s none other than Bates in his Toyota GR Yaris, built right here in Canberra in collaboration with Toyota Australia as the first of its type in the world.

Phones come out, and parents in the audience clip ear muffs over their children’s heads, but by the time the gearbox audibly clunks into action and the revs rise to a crescendo, the slug has made its way to the top of the barrier.

Finally, he’s away. The car screams down to the first corner, changes down with another clunk and a bark from the exhaust, spitting clumps of mud into the air and audience as it powers behind the back of shed, around another corner, over a bridge and out of sight. Don’t bring your good clothes is the moral of this story.

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More waiting, another car, more waiting, another car and so on until all 56 have passed by. Rally is like a box of chocolates – you only ever get a morsel but what a spectacular morsel it is.

Almost all of them are front-wheel-drive hatchbacks from the likes of Toyota, Hyundai, Ford, Honda and Mitsubishi, with some all-wheel-drive sedans from Subaru thrown in for good measure.

The only rear-wheel-drive appearances come courtesy of an old Ford Escort and, boy, does he look like he’s having fun. In fact, we both hang back just so we can watch him slither and slide his way over the finish line about an hour later.

I’m sure it’s more entertaining from where he is, but there’s something impressive about watching a car and driver dance together on the edges of physics.

Couple that with the smell of pine sap, a good dousing of rain, a sausage sandwich and a beer and you have a rally.

And it’s 15 minutes away, in our own backyard.

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