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Australian Rally Championship photographer, Ryan Lahiff, gives his take on the current state of the national championship, and what he believes could be done to revive it.
 

Last weekend, as the curtain closed on another championship season at Australia’s top level of rallying, you can’t help but wonder what will possibly happen next, and not in a good way either.


Without the support of the Victorian Rally Championship and the bumper crop of Hyundai Excel series competitors, it would have been a very dire weekend for the ARC.

But not all is lost, the ARC can still reclaim its position at the top, it just feels like it needs a damn good push in the right direction. The only problem is the people doing the pushing (CAMS, ARCom et al) don’t really seem to grasp which way to shove right now.

Let’s face it, for a long time we were spoilt! Not too many national championships can boast manufacturer entries from major multi-national vehicle manufacturers the likes of Toyota, Subaru, Mitsubishi and Ford over the years, and for a while we had them all.

So it’s only natural that manufacturer interests will wane, the quality of competitors will fall away, and entry lists will reduce. Motorsport is cyclical, it has its ups and downs. And whilst it’s always easy to point to the glory days and say it should always be like that, the reality is that is not sustainable.

So what is sustainable and which direction should the sport be going in? The simple answer I think is backwards, and at first that seems a drastic statement, but bear with me and see if the logic plays out.

Some facts though, to lay the ground work. Rallying is expensive, but all forms of motorsport are these days. Should we therefore be throwing everything and the kitchen sink at doing skids in the dirt or have we collectively set the bar too far out of reach in the desperate hope of mirroring the exploits of teams and drivers on the WRC stage?

In the past this wasn’t so hard, the cars in the WRC were accessible, the technology was simple, and we cheered when the likes of Ross Dunkerton, Ed Ordynski, Possum Bourne and Neal Bates took it up to the best in the world. But times have changed, technology has spiraled out of reach and costs have blown the roof off.

Nowadays, even our best local drivers would struggle against those competing in the PWRC, not from an ability or talent stand point, but purely from a financial one.

Look at Simon Evans. No question the concrete layer from Pakenham has the skills to finesse a car at speed with the best of the them. Hell, he’s probably better, but without the literal cement truck brimming with cash needed to even crack a start in the IRC, let alone the WRC, you kind of wonder what the point is.

So while we’ve crossed our fingers and hoped the likes of Chris Atkinson in recent years, and now Brendan Reeves and Molly Taylor, will be able to break it long term onto the WRC stages, the reality is maybe that’s an ambition way past our collective hopes and dreams.

Let me ramble on further then. The greatest addition to the ARC this year has been the historic class running at the head of the field. Mind you, I wasn’t born when half of these cars were running the first time, so imagine my surprise when I marveled at Jack Monkhouse launching a near 40 year old Datsun higher than the ARC front runners at the Rally SA. Or Will Orders power sliding his buzzing RX7 even more sideways than the current Group N cars will allow at the super special at Rally Qld.

Maybe the phrase what’s old is new again applies more than we can even imagine. And perhaps that is the key, recapture what makes rallying fun, but at a sensible level. Rather than shooting for the stars and falling short, maybe let’s peg it back a few rungs to try to make the ARC fun to compete in and, above all, fun to watch.

So here goes, the point to my argument, and again I’m going to use an example of what’s been great about the ARC this year – Eli Evans and that high-revving Honda.

Okay, Eli is well off the pace of his older brother Simon, but then again he’s only got half the wheels turning in his favour. But Eli has proven that having the latest and greatest Group N Impreza or Lancer at your disposal doesn’t make you any less interesting, far from it. I’ve heard spectators all year asking each other when the Honda Civic was due to roar through.

So for substantially less money to purchase, and significantly less to run and maintain, should we be looking to two-wheel power for our fix? Don’t forget there are plenty of options out there and a well punted two-wheel drive rally car can be equally, if not more spectacular, than a mediocre driver in a four-wheel drive.

And let’s not forget, if our sport wants to stay relevant look at what manufacturers of the day are selling. We don’t want to end up like V8 Supercars, flogging tired technology that is rapidly losing its spectator appeal. Hatchbacks are the hot commodity in the market right now, and the manufacturers are sensing this transition of interest by the buying public with the raft of hot hatches either on sale now or just around the corner.

Added to this, small and large manufacturers are interested in motorsport, they just need a cost sensitive arena to promote their products. Could rallying be that arena? If the Honda Australia General Manager’s comments at Rally Victoria on the weekend are anything to go by, it’s a damn good place to start and their toe in the water experience this year will no doubt lead to bigger and better next.

So maybe, before the big splash on an Evo or WRX, consider some alternative options; a Ford Fiesta R2, Citroen C2, Honda Civic R3, Peugeot 207 R2, Renault Clio R3, and that’s just the cars you can buy off the shelf. Remember when the likes of Brett Middleton, Ross Mackenzie, Dean Herridge, Rick Bates and Lee Peterson built their own hot hatches and had ding dong battles all year behind the ‘oh so predictable’ Bourne/Bates battle of the World Rally Cars?

And if the entry list from Rally Victoria is anything to go by the organisers of the Excel series need a bloody firm pat on the back. If anything is going to pull rallying back from the brink it could well be those cheap Korean buzz boxes. Why not a national series of Excels, 30 or 40 of the damn things, pushed aggressively and spiritedly all while their drivers laugh their heads off that they built their entire rally car for the cost of just one set of Impreza or Evo drive shafts.

In summary, old not new. Save your pennies on centre differentials and whiz bang gearboxes. The future of the ARC could well be two-wheel drive.

Imagine a bumper field of historics and a crop of high-revving, hard-charging hatches just like the ones selling in big numbers from dealerships around the country, not the big spoilers and blow off valves we’re all used to cringing at when we pull up to the traffic lights!
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