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There’ll be many shouting “I told you so”, but I take my hat off to the Neal Bates Motorsport crew for debuting their brand new Toyota Yaris AP4 at Lightforce Rally SA. With Harry Bates leading the Australian Rally Championship heading into the event, it can be argued that Toyota and NBM had little to gain and plenty to lose, but I disagree, for a number of reasons. Sure, the plan backfired and Harry left South Australia with no points and now only an extremely slim chance of winning the title, but there are bigger things in play here. For a start, Harry eventually wants to head overseas to compete, meaning that Rally Australia in November is his big chance to impress those who only get the chance to see him in action once a year. If Toyota were to have waited and debuted the car in Coffs Harbour, then there’s no saying that the same electrical gremlins that hampered the team last weekend wouldn’t have risen their head there. Now, with two months to sort the car before the season finale, they’ll head into the WRC round full of confidence. Toyota, too, were keen to have the car debuted in South Australia. Having Bates win the ARC in a 10-year old Corolla S2000 would be great for the young gun’s portfolio, but how does a manufacturer promote the fact that a long-superseded car has won a national championship?
It was perhaps significant that the new Yaris sported “Toyota” branding, rather than the “Toyota Genuine Parts” stickers that the S2000 had previously been adorned with.
The manufacturer also saw the benefits in launching the car in South Australia, flying a number of motoring journalists to the event. That the car completed only one special stage was disappointing, but certainly not disastrous. Neal Bates and his team had put in an astronomical effort to get the car finished and ready for Rally SA. Working 20 hour days, the team fit the build of the Yaris AP4 in around preparing a fleet of Toyota 86 race cars, and just getting the car to the start was a feat in itself. However, the mechanical problems that the team encountered were still unexpected. In a test session a week before the rally, and in a full morning of media rides on the Friday, the Yaris ran perfectly and showed not even a glimpse of trouble. But Murphy’s Law intervened, and a kilometre and a half into the first shakedown run on Saturday morning the car began misfiring. Initially it was thought to be a turbo wastegate problem. A new part was sourced in Adelaide, and when that didn’t fix the problem, there was some serious exhaust work happening just minutes before the first stage was due to begin. Bates drove the car to the start of the first stage, but with the engine still off-song, he returned to the service park where the team spent until midnight trying to find the source of the problem. By Sunday morning the car was running perfectly again, and Neal Bates was hopeful that the camshaft sensor they had replaced was the cause of the gremlins. But mid-way through the first stage of the day, the problem resurfaced and Harry’s rally was done. Not before showing its potential, however. More than halfway through the first stage on Sunday, Bates trailed rally winner Nathan Quinn by just two seconds and was three seconds up on Molly Taylor’s Subaru. And this was on Bates’ first run through the Crawford multiple-use stage, and everyone else’s third attempt.
Harry was a heartbroken young man on Sunday, but he’s also smart enough to know that a missed chance to win his first national title is not the end of the world, and certainly won’t define his career.
After all, Markku Alen never won the World Rally Championship, and he’s still seen as one of the greatest rally drivers of all time. The Yaris AP4 is a work of art and appears to have tremendous potential. The car’s debut is likely to be a very small bump on the team’s road to future success.
  • Gallery photos below: Peter Whitten / Luke Whitten
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