Non-stop rain from Friday night until Sunday morning created muddy and extremely slippery conditions for 125 vehicles that started the iconic Alpine Rally in Gippsland Victoria on the weekend.
Co-drivers earned their keep as stages were cancelled and shortened and service parks moved on Saturday as a result of the torrential weather conditions.
Four-time Australian rally champion Simon Evans (VIC) with his West Australian co-driver Ben Searcy pushed hard in their Datsun Stanza and were rewarded with second place outright behind Ben Barker and Damian Long in a BMW 320i.
Gunning it to make up a 1:12 minute deficit on the final day, Evans / Searcy won three stages but it wasn’t enough to close the gap.
Evans, 45, said he was happy with second place after a huge weekend.
“To get through the rally in some of the roughest conditions I’ve seen is amazing, it was a very tough few days. But I’m feeling very satisfied with how we finished,” Evans said.
“The Stanza is bulletproof and didn’t miss a beat - I hammered it driving full throttle, applying heaps of pressure to Ben and Damian, but their BMW was just too quick.
“There were heaps spectators, especially on Sunday, it felt like I was racing in a WRC event. We went full tilt and put on a good show for them,” a cheerful Evans said.
This was the fourth time Evans has contested the Alpine Rally and it’s the third time he’s finished runner up; his first attempt in 1990 was a DNF.
Co-driver Searcy complimented Evans on a faultless drive.
“Simon didn’t put a foot wrong all weekend, but the Datsun didn’t have the mumbo to keep up with the BMW,” the 37-year-old from East Vic Park said.
“The atmosphere was amazing with people lining the stages. It’s an event that really lives up to the hype and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
Hugh Harmer didn’t have such a clean run, but did earn himself bragging rights.
Hugh and co-driver Mitch Gray in a 1979 VB Commodore with a loud and proud 253 engine won SS12, the one-kilometre Speedway stage.
“To win a stage even with a two-second penalty is amazing – you can bet the boys will be hearing about it for five days on our road trip back to Perth!” the 64-year-old from Belhus said.
“It was a wet sloppy mess with big holes on the first two days and I put her over a cliff between three trees and it took us four hours to get the car out. But the last two stages on Sunday were brilliant and suited the car one hundred per cent.
“The communication between myself and co-driver Mitch was fantastic, he did a great job keeping on top of all the changes.
“I would’ve liked to see all four WA cars finish and I feel sorry for Shane, but that’s rallying.”
Hugh’s son Shane Harmer and co driver Nicholas Anyan had an incident and a few mechanical issues, ultimately forcing retirement after SS10.
“We hit a bank on stage five, bending some panels and got a flat tyre and then we had a fuel issue on stage six so I had to drive really slowly,” Shane said.
“We had a clutch problem which was fixed and the car was singing on stage 10, we were going really well, but we lost the clutch and had to retire.
“I’d love to come back and do it again, one hundred per cent,” 36-year-old Shane said.
Julian Wright / Jeff Huggins, 1971 Datsun 1200. Photo: John Doutch
Finishing in 22nd outright was West Australian Julian Wright with Victorian co-driver Jeff Huggins in a 1971 Datsun 1200 Coupe, the same car that won Western Australia’s 2017 Clubman Masters Series.
“I have to thank Hugh Harmer and Onslow Contracting who have been amazing and if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have been able to compete in the Alpine Rally,” the Network IT business owner said.
“The stages were fast and flowing but the torrential rain meant the ruts on the road filled with water so we were aquaplaning a lot of the time, it was quite treacherous.
“The atmosphere was awesome - there were so many spectators and there was a huge field of quality cars and drivers, it was great to be a part of it.
“The car ran beautifully, there’s not a mark on it and it didn’t miss a beat, I’m really happy all round,” Wright from Willeton said.
Finishing in 18th place outright was Mark Travers from Bunbury with co-driver Jeremy Edwards, the duo leaving a significant mark on their 1983 Toyota Sprinter.
On the second stage of the Alpine Rally, they went over a crest of a hill and went off the stage, almost destroying the car. The pair were unhurt.
“I have to thank Hugh Harmer for all his help and the LRT crew who worked until 2am to fix the car after our off on Friday. We were lucky to be able to get it going again,” 35-year-old Travers said.
“After that though, things went well. The weather was shocking and I’ve not driven in mud like that before, but we had a good crack and got some stages time we’re happy with – Jeremy did a fantastic job as co-driver.
“Now all I have to do is figure out how to do it again in two years’ time!” Travers said.
Of the 125 two-wheel-drive cars that started the Alpine Rally, 77 finished. Organised by the Historic Rally Association, all vehicles had to be over 25 years old, non-turbo and not 4WD, creating a true test between man and machine.
It was also a test of communication between the driver and co-driver as the Alpine Rally was ‘blind’, meaning crews were not permitted to do a recce to write their own pace notes, instead they read from event-issued roadbooks.
The first Alpine Rally was held in 1921, making it the world’s second oldest rally after Monte Carlo and the world’s fourth oldest motorsport event after the Monte Carlo Rally, the French Grand Prix and Indianapolis.
Held every two years, it’s Australia’s oldest and the largest gravel rally.
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