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Nobody ever said that organizing a World Championship rally was easy, a fact that those on the organising team of the just-completed Repco Rally Australia would wholeheartedly agree. Probably more than any of the other 19 Rally Australia events held until this year, the 2009 event, conceived and implemented in just nine months, was the most challenging one so far.


Not only were the organisers forced to develop a brand new route in a brand new area, challenging enough in itself, they were also faced with fierce opposition from local environmentalists who wanted nothing better than to see the rally bugger off to somewhere, anywhere, else rather than their area. More of that later.

It’s a well-known assumption that the FIA, the sport’s governing body who sanction rallying, would hardly bat an eyelid if Rally Australia didn’t appear on the world calendar, despite all the previous rounds held in Western Australia since 1988 receiving plaudits for turning on the best WRC round year after year. Put simply, Rally Australia (and to a similar degree, Rally New Zealand) are just too far away from rallying’s traditional European base, events in the Antipodies requiring a long haul of cars and equipment many months before the event itself. To Repco Rally Australia’s credit, the Aussie organising team perservered against all the odds, producing, by today’s current standards, a world-class event.

Pity, though, that despite super-human efforts by the organisers and the officials to produce a fault-free event (and at which they succeeded in almost all areas, it must be said), the gloss was taken off the rally by two factors, one outside their control, and one which will provide more fodder for the FIA to think about dropping Australia off the WRC calendar in the future.

As we all know by now, Sebastien Loeb’s win was taken from him after the Citroens, at post-event scrutiny, were given a one minute penalty for using non-homologated parts in the front suspension, a decision that gave Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen the belated victory. It was an unfortunate end to the rally, given that the victory champagne had been sprayed and the accolades given. Of course the local media, ever ones to turn victory into adversity, lapped up the turnaround, quoting (or perhaps enticing) the Frenchman to declare that he will never come back to Rally Australia, the homologation problem only adding fuel to the other much-reported negative aspect of the event that upset the leading drivers, the presence of the anti-rally protesters.

With no apparent support from the Queensland government, between whose boundaries it had long been assumed the rally would run, the organisers were forced to look elsewhere for major funding to run the event. Somewhere near the eleventh hour, Events NSW came to the party as major sponsor, which, along with generous support from Repco, appeared to turn the event into a viable proposition.

However, there was significant baggage still attached to the rally, most notably the greenie movement who, when they discovered the “mad rally race” was to be held in their backyard, woke up from their hibernations and began a concerted campaign of action designed to send the rally elsewhere and which eventually ended up in the courts.

While the Kyogle-Murwillumbah area was probably never the best area in which to run a WRC round, RRA, using NSW money, gave them little choice, knowing full well that the protest movement were always likely to oppose an event in what is recognised as the “greenest” of Australia’s hippie green areas.

There was much noise made by the greenies in the local media, espousing false and fanciful theories that (for instance) old age pensioners would be driven from their lodgings by hundreds of helicopters flying low overhead, or that koalas would die of fright from the noise of rally car engines. Then there was the other anti-rally bandwagoneer, a so-called champion European ex-rally navigator who became increasingly more vocal by suggesting that the “racing cars” would head out at dead of night to practice their pacenotes on public roads to the detriment of any other poor unsuspecting individual who might just happen to be unlucky enough to be traveling in the opposite direction.

While all this argy-bargy went on and the intensity increased, it eventually dawned on RRA organisers that this level of protest was not going to go away, and no matter how many officials had already been trained to help run the event, just one senseless act of protest (or as it later turned out, criminal act) that couldn’t be stopped by an official, could put a stop to the rally.

To cut a long story short, the NSW Government agreed to deploy an extra 150 police officers to ensure that the rally went ahead. This came at considerable expense as you can imagine, for not only did they need to be fed, watered, accommodated and be provided with a means of transport, they brought with them patrol cars, motorcycles, the dog squad and the police helicopter, all paid for, we can assume, by the taxpayers of NSW.

The upshot of this was that reported protest incidents were of a fairly minor number, but sufficient enough to evoke publicity in major newspapers, local radio, TV and press, and even on the ABCs highly-influential “7.30 Report.” While we may just brush the protests off as a minor inconvenience, it is unlikely that the FIA, who jealously guard the WRC’s reputation, are likely to ignore the adverse publicity.

There is no doubt that the unfortunate negative publicity will remain in the back of their minds come WRC calendar decision-making time in the future. With TV footage of Repco Rally Australia beamed to millions of viewers in hundreds of countries, the sight of Australian roads lined with placard-waving protesters will do nothing for the WRC’s image. And we still have to deal with the opinions of the leading crews who had to run the gauntlet of rock-throwing low-lifes out on the stages while a police helicopter flew overhead.

So this preamble begs the question of the future of Rally Australia in the Northern Rivers district of NSW. Does the organising team just regard the protests as a minor inconvenience that will eventually fade away, or will they be forced to rely on the might of the police (and the huge cost that that incurs) to placate the noisy natives? And having secured a minor victory of disruption techniques, will the protesters quietly fade back into the shrubbery, licking their wounds and admitting defeat?

Or will they retreat for more ammunition and regroup for a greater presence to again appear and disrupt in 2011? Would moving the rally to a less-sensitive area be a sound move or an admission of defeat for the decision makers at Repco Rally Australia?

Australia badly needs more successful WRC events like this one in the future. There’s going to be a lot of soul searching to be had in the ensuing two years to ensure the rally’s great reputation is not destroyed. The noisy and particularly dangerous minority need to be avoided at all costs. Just show we do that is the 64 million dollar question.

- Jeff Whitten

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