The AP4 rally car class in the Asia Pacific region is flourishing at a great pace, with New Zealand leading the way, and teams in Australia and Japan following suit quickly.
Back in 2002, however, Australia launched a ‘special’ class into the Australian Rally Championship that enabled Toyota to make a return to the national series.
In the early 2000s, national rallying was dominated by either Group A (modified) or Group N (production) cars after the outlawing of World Rally Cars, but the top level of Group N was limited to those manufacturers who built turbocharged, four-wheel drive cars. That meant that Subaru and Mitsubishi were really the only options for serious competitors.
Enter Group N (P), which the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport (CAMS) designed to further open the Australian Rally Championship (ARC) to more car makers, specifically Toyota, who had a long history of involvement in the sport.
The first competitors to run in the new ‘prototype’ class were Neal Bates and Coral Taylor, who put a turbocharged engine and four-wheel drive transmission in to the humble Toyota Corolla.
Australian Rallysport News (now RallySport Magazine) ran an exclusive feature on the new car, and interviewed Neal Bates, just before the car made its debut in the 2002 Rally of Melbourne.
Here’s what we discovered …..
Neal Bates ran an ex-works Corolla World Rally Car before embarking on the Group N (P) project. Photo: Peter Whitten
Bates and Toyota to return to Australian Rally Championship
The new Corolla, which features running gear from a Celica GT-Four, has been built over the past three months at Bates’ Canberra workshops, and while Toyota are yet to throw their official support behind the program, it is expected that this is simply a formality.
Australian Rallysport News spoke exclusively to Bates and his team in Canberra just two weeks before the Rally of Melbourne, with the ARN crew being the first to view and photograph the new car.
“We’re very excited to be returning to the ARC,” Bates said. “Although I have yet to drive the car on gravel and we will be short on testing time before the first event, we are realistically six months ahead of schedule, given that we’re working towards the 2003 championship.”
Bates' team built the Group N (P) Corolla, before eventually getting backing from Toyota.
While rival manufacturer Proton have planned and talked about building their 4WD Waja for the ARC, Bates purchased the Corolla himself and set about building the car to the recently-released regulations.
The Corolla will run under what are basically Group N rules, with the addition of the four-wheel drive transmission and running gear from the Celica GT-Four.
“The whole build project has gone better than we had initially thought,” Bates added. “We haven’t come across any real hurdles, and we’re confident that we’ve put together a good package.”
ARN’s Peter Whitten spoke at length with Bates about the process of building the first prototype Corolla, his aspirations for the Rally of Melbourne, and his hopes and goals for the 2003 season.
BATES ON THE CAR…..How easy was it to get the Celica GT-Four running gear to fit under the new Corolla?
I wouldn’t call it easy, but it probably went better than we anticipated. We’re incredibly happy with the way the car has come up, and it will only be easier to build them from here.
Obviously the first car you build is by far the most difficult, and along the way we made jigs for everything, so next time it will be a lot quicker and a lot simpler to do.
The interior of the Corolla as neat and tidy, like most Group N cars.
So by that do we read into it that this won’t be the only Corolla you build, and that there could be customer cars down the track?
I hope so! That’s what I would plan, for there to be more, and certainly we weren’t silly enough not to make jigs along the way. So my hope is that it’s a good thing, Toyota want to get behind it and run more cars into the future.
Do Toyota have much of an input into the project to date, or will that follow later?
I think that they (Toyota) have an interest in it, but like everything, it’s got to prove itself and they’re not going to commit straight away. But as you say, I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think there was a future with it. For me, I’m looking forward to the future and am over the moon to be back in rallying again!
Presumably the biggest hurdle with building the car was getting the engine to fit in the Corolla?
The engine actually fitted better than what we thought. We thought we’d have to modify the firewall, but we didn’t. It has a scuttle panel that juts out into the engine bay, which we thought would hit on the manifold, but it all fitted in and all we had to do was make mounts off the chassis rail and from there it all bolted in.
The Corolla’s a bit shorter in the engine bay than what the GT-Four was, so getting radiators and fans and intercoolers to fit was all a bit of a drama, but it’s all in there now and all fits very well.
The Celica GT-Four engine was shoe-horned into the Corolla.
The GT-Four has a wider track than the Corolla. Was it a big problem getting the running gear to fit under the car?
Not really. We’ve increased the wheel arches by 30mm at the rear and 20mm at the front by flaring the guards, which not only made it fit, but enhances the appearance as well.
I think it looks mean and tough, and we even did things like putting the mesh out of the grille from the GT-Four into the Corolla, so appearance-wise I think it looks incredibly good. I just hope it goes as well as it looks!
Have you built your own engine for the car, or sourced one from overseas?
The first engine we’ve got from Toyota Team Europe because we had time constraints, and they had one laying around from back in the Group N program days. But in the future we’ll build our own.
What sort of horsepower figures did you get when the car was on the dyno here in Canberra?
If I told you that I’d have to kill you (laughs). At the moment not enough, and we’re working on it. But I think when we go to Melbourne we’ll be about 30 horsepower down on what we think we need to have, compared to the opposition.
In what areas is the car lacking: overall horsepower, torque?
At the moment it’s down everywhere, but we’ll work on that and I’m sure we can improve it. The last thing we wanted to do was blow the thing up on the dyno, so we were very, very conservative.
For the first event the purpose of the exercise wasn’t to get as much power as possible – we just wanted to make sure it was running properly.
What gearbox will the car run?
We’ll run a 5-speed GT-Four dog box. It has a viscous coupling in it, so it will have a 50:50 torque split. We had the choice of Mitsubishi or Subaru ratios – they were both very similar – but we chose the Subaru ratios because ‘Modena’ had cut them before, so that was an easier option for us.
I haven’t actually driven the car with the good gearbox in it yet, but I’m very happy with how it’s come up.
The Corolla was driven by Celica GT-Four four-wheel drive transmission.
How reliable will the gearbox be?
The GT-Four’s strong point was always the gearbox. You could put the standard Celica GT-Four gearbox behind a World Rally Car engine and it wouldn’t break. We’re quite fortunate in that regard because you can’t change the gearbox in the new car without pulling the engine out!
The car will run a passive diff set-up (not active). Will that be a disadvantage against, for example, the Lancer Evo 7?
I’m not convinced it will be a disadvantage. I think the Mitsubishi system works quite well, but I’m not sure they’ve got the Subaru one working 100% yet, and I’m not even sure whether they use it or whether they use viscous diffs.
There’s nothing wrong with a viscous system if it’s a grippy surface – there’s no difference at all – maybe if it’s a muddy, slippery rally there might be a slight disadvantage there, but I don’t see it being a major problem.
Are there many differences in the chassis of the new Corolla than that of the World Rally Car you drove last year?
It’s different. This one’s a bigger car, which is probably a good thing because it made it easier to get the engine to fit. It’s a lot longer in the wheelbase than what the World Rally Car was, and generally it’s just a bigger car.
I think it should be well balanced, although if I had a preference I’d rather it be shorter, but it’s not. Length-wise it sits somewhere between the Subaru and the Mitsubishi, so that can’t be a bad thing.
You’re running Proflex suspension on the car. Is there much difference in the suspension on the Group N car as opposed to what you could run on the World Rally Car?
No, not really. We ran Ohlins shock absorbers last year because that’s what it had, but I don’t think there’s a lot of difference between the two types of cars as far as shock absorbers are concerned.
But having said that, Group N is new territory for us, so I’m sure we’ll learn a lot along the way.
What will your preference be when setting up the suspension of the car?
Certainly oversteer! I’m not a fan of understeer at all. When you turn the steering wheel you want the car to turn. When we test a car the thing that I always want out of it is a car that will pivot around the front wheels, so that’s what we’ll be aiming for.
Pirelli seems to have been the tyre to have this year, but you’ll run Michelin, as you have in the past. Are you confident the Michelin will be up to the task?
Sure, you can say Pirellis are the tyre to have this year, but both factory teams are on them, so that makes them the tyre to have. But if you look at the World Championship, Michelin have cleaned up big time, so I don’t see there being any problems with us having a competitive tyre at all.
In Melbourne we’ll probably use what we know, but we’ll do some more tyre testing before next year to come up with the right tyre for the job.
The running gear in the car is now seven or eight years old and, presumably, out of development. Where will you be looking at heading in terms of making the car faster at each event?
That’s something we’ll have to sort out along the way. For example, if Mitsubishi and Subaru brought out a new car and they were hugely different in some way which made them better, we would have to do a similar sort of thing with this car to stay in the running.
But I don’t think that’s going to be an issue to start with, and depends where manufacturer development goes in the future. But it’s something that we will review along the way.
Flared arches front and rear gave the Corolla Group N (P) wider track.
Under the rules though, you could put the latest Subaru or Mitsubishi running gear in the car. Is this something you’d consider?
No, we wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t change from Toyota running gear at all. You can take other components from the manufacturer’s parts bin, but at the moment we’re using the best option for the job – which means parts that are homologated, which makes it a lot easier.
Is it advantageous that you haven’t run a Group N car before, and that there has been no development on the Celica GT-Four running gear in Group N for some years?
For sure, there’s always room for improvement, and let’s face it, people talk about it not being new technology, but is Simon Evans’ Subaru new technology? And realistically all the others are doing is whinging about how fast Simon’s car is.
Personally, I don’t think there’s been huge gains forwards in engine technology over the last few years anyway.
So obviously you think there’s plenty of scope there to improve the car?
Absolutely. Fuels are better now which will help engine performance, and there’s other areas in the tuning and mapping of the car that we’ll look at.
If you look at the GT-Four as a Group N car it did win Group N a couple of times on the World Championship, but reliastically it did struggle, and the gearbox ratios and the weight were the major drawbacks of the car.
Hopefully with this car we’ve addressed those two major flaws. The GT-Four had plenty of power, but it had a very wide ratioed gearbox, so it was basically a three-speed because that’s all you ever used. It would do over 100 miles an hour in third gear!
Have you added up the sums and worked out what the car has cost to build?
No I haven’t, but obviously the first one you build is always going to be the most expensive, but I wouldn’t imagine it being any more expensive than a normal Group N car to build.
If you buy a Lancer Evo 7 you’re looking at 60-odd grand to buy the base car, and around $120,000+ for the finished car, so I think with our car you’d be looking at a similar amount.
The bonus with the Corolla is that the base car is a lot cheaper. I bought this car for $18,600, but obviously it needs a lot more modification to take it up to the turbo, 4WD specification that we’ve ended up with.
Has the time frame gone over, or under, what you expected?
The hours in this one have probably been horrendous, but as I say, the more we do, and having jigs and so forth, the next one will be much quicker.
Neal Bates and Coral Taylor are arguably Australia's most successful rally pairing.
BATES ON HIS RETURN TO THE ARC….How excited is Neal Bates about returning to the Australian Rally Championship?
I am very excited! I’ve been doing the ARC for quite a few years, and it’s not until you don’t have it that you realise how much you miss it.
This year has been incredibly hard for me and I’ve missed it hugely. I feel like a 20-year old heading back into the sport.
What have you missed the most this year?
Everything! The camaraderie in the ARC, the competition, the adrenaline, the whole scene of regularly competing. Rallying gives me a huge kick, and I’ve missed that kick this year!
Coral and I have been doing a lot of corporate work together for Lexus and we did Rally Tasmania and Targa, but we haven’t done a lot of competition together and it’s that element that we’ve missed the most.
How easy will it be to get back in the car and on the pace again straight away, given that it’s nearly 11 months since you’ve done a gravel rally?
I don’t think it will be overly difficult, but on the other hand I don’t think that I’ll go to Melbourne and be quicker than everyone there either.
I hope I am, but the reality is that they know their cars incredibly well and have been competing with them all year – I haven’t even driven this car yet and we’re two weeks before the first event. It will be very difficult to turn up in Melbourne and be in a winning position, but you never know.
The debut of the car was at the 2002 Rally of Melbourne, in plain white livery. Photo: Neil Blackbourn
Obviously you’ve got some aspirations for the first event in the car though.
I want to finish in the top five, but I think that will be a very difficult task, and I’d probably be reasonably happy with a top 10 finish. I’ll be over the moon if we finish in the top five, but it’ll be a tall order.
You had the chance to take up the second Mitsubishi drive at the start of the year, but were unable to do so. Was there a point where you wished you had taken that chance, or are you glad you sat it out and stayed loyal to Toyota?
We spoke to Mitsubishi at the start of the year, and obviously it’s a pretty hard decision knowing what to do. I’ve been involved with Toyota since 1989 and if you look at my car over the years, it hasn’t had many changes in the way of sponsors and I like to be loyal to sponsors, look after them and try and do the right thing.
For me, it was just too difficult to walk away from a relationship that had been going for that long. I wanted to give myself the opportunity to stay with Toyota, and now I’m very pleased that it was the right decision.
Did you have some inkling right from the start that the current Corolla project might come about?
Absolutely no idea, but it was something that we pushed very hard for. There wasn’t a very good response to it initially, but they (Toyota) came around as the year went on and we got the okay to build this car.
I must say, though, that I’ve done a lot of this off my own bat because it’s something that I wanted to do, and I just hope it works out well.
The debut of the Group N (P) Corolla didn't go exactly to plan for Neal Bates.
Did Mitsubishi’s interest in you, and the fact you test drove a Hyundai World Rally Car last year, increase Toyota’s resolve to keep you within the company?
That’s a hard one to answer really. It’s a great thing to be involved with a company for so many years, but on the other hand you probably become part of the furniture, which makes you less valuable than what you could be to another manufacturer.
But, however it happened, it’s hopefully a very good thing. While I’ve missed not being involved in the ARC this year, I’m confident I made the right decision.
Have there been any discussions about the plans for next year and whether you’ll contest the whole championship, and with one or two cars?
I’d love to run the ARC with a two-car team, that’s my aim and goal. I think if you look at the championship now you need to run two cars, but we’ll just see how the next six months pan out.
Have Toyota given you any indication on what you need to do in Melbourne in order for them to support the project in 2003?
Not really. Basically we’ve built the car and Toyota are interested to see how it goes and how it’s received, and we’ll go from there. Some of those questions are very difficult to answer at the moment, but I’m confident that it will happen for next year.
If it is a two-car team, would you like your brother Rick in the second car?
No, that’s not a requirement. I would look at what’s the best thing for the team. I think that Rick could do the job perfectly, but depending on what the best marketing reasons are and the best situation, I’d also like to give someone else, a young person, a similar opportunity that I had in the sport.
I was very fortunate that I got involved with Toyota and was in the right place at the right time, and you make your opportunities along the way from there, but it would be nice to give someone else an opportunity.
Toyota backing later saw Bates running a three-car team of Corolla Group N (P)s in the ARC. Photo: Neil Blackbourn
If Toyota do support the program next year, how much of an issue is it that you can’t compete in the Rally of Canberra or Rally Australia because the car won’t be homologated by the FIA?
I would hope that situation will change sometime down the track, but we knew that when we started building the car and it’s something we’ll have to deal with.
I’m not in love with Rally Australia as an event anyway, so that probably doesn’t bother me too much, but certainly I’d like the opportunity to compete in Canberra.
Is that an anomaly in the rules, that they’ve brought in rules to introduce new manufacturers, yet the prototype cars can’t compete in two events that count towards the Manufacturers’ Championship?
The rules state you only count your best six results from the eight events, but that also means you need to finish all those six events, so yes, it does make it difficult. It puts the pressure on and it’s why you need a two-car team to score as many points as possible.
How have you seen the 2002 championship, and have you been surprised by the pace the Group N cars have been going?
I think they’ve been pushing very hard and I think the changes in rules have given people like Simon (Evans), Scott Pedder and so forth the opportunity to be up the front, where they wouldn’t have been before.
Therefore I think the rules have been very good, but sometimes I wonder whether having the same rules for PRC cars might have been a better thing from a spectacle, because the cars would have a bit more power and you could throw them around a little bit more. But I think the championship has worked very well this year.
• Originally published in Australian Rallysport News, September 2002
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