The news that Rally Australia will relocate to Coffs Harbour for the September 2011 running of the event is hardly a surprising one, given the battle that event organisers had with the ever-present environmentalists in the Northern Rivers region.

RallySport Magazine's Peter Whitten looks at the reason that brought about the relocation.

After nearly two decades of trouble free WRC rounds in Western Australia, the shift to the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales was always considered a perplexing one.

While nobody ever doubted the ability of Garry Connelly and his team to get a world class event off the ground, the location of the rally was widely regarded as something out of left field.

On the plus side, the event headquarters and hotel were superb, the shakedown and super special stage location were exciting and close to HQ, but the stages themselves left a lot to be desired.

The biggest problem was the incredibly long distance from Rally HQ at Kingscliff to the remote service area – and the bulk of the stages – at Kyogle. The long, winding and slow transport stages that competitors, crews and spectators were forced to endure, were taxing on everyone and brought about scores of negative comments.

The stages themselves were okay, although many of the sport’s leading drivers didn’t rate them as anything special. From a fan’s point of view the nature of the terrain and the limited access roads onto stages meant that spectating options were extremely limited, and some of the locations on offer were hardly what you’d call exciting. Certainly there was no ‘Bunnings’ in Northern NSW.

But by far the most concerning part of Repco Rally Australia 2009 were the protestors that were a blight on the event from start to finish. Any event that runs around Nimbin is sure to have some extra issues, but a world championship motorsport event surely couldn’t have run in a worse location.

Rally Australian General Manager, Gary Upson, and Event Secretary, Janah Mclean, and their staff did a brilliant job just to get the event off the ground at all. National laws, State laws, aboriginal laws and just about any law you can think of was thrown in front of them during the pre-event period, and they did an incredible job just to get the rally past the planning stages.

Both Upson and Mclean had had successful stints at Rally New Zealand and relocated to Australia to perform their roles, and must be commended on the jobs they did. It made it all the more puzzling when Upson’s contract wasn’t renewed just two months after last year’s event.

It is believed that the change in location had a lot to do with the FIA, who were known to be unhappy with the protest element at the event. Many of the sport’s top drivers were quoted as saying they didn’t want to go back to the event if it was held in the same location, which indicates that the FIA and rally organisers had no other option but to find another place to hold the rally.

So we move on, and Coffs Harbour has been given the chance to showcase the best drivers in the world.

Coffs Harbour, just 300km south of Kingscliff, has hosted some of Australia’s best rallies for as long as the sport has been around. The Southern Cross Rallies in the 1970s used stages around the coastal city, and it has hosted a round of the Australian Rally Championship consistently.

Without a doubt it will be a far better location to host a WRC round. One of the strengths is that the stages are close to the city centre and transport will be kept to a minimum, but the stages will also offer a real challenge to the WRC crews.

Coffs Harbour organisers have had a long history of working with the media to provide iconic photo opportunities, such as the stage through the banana plantation in the 1990s that really epitomised the local area. And it made for great photos and television.

Just as importantly, Coffs Harbour has plenty of quality accommodation, a major airport that services the capital cities, and critically, a population base that has grown up with rallying in the area, which can only be beneficial to the event.

While full details on the rally and the route are still some time off, RallySport Magazine are thrilled that Coffs Harbour have been given the opportunity to show the world what they can do. Deep down many rally fans still wish that the WRC round was being held in Western Australia, but those days are well and truly gone.

With a date on the WRC calendar and somewhere to hold the rally, we can now all look forward to Rally Australia 2011 – bring it on!

Photos: Peter Whitten

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