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Interview: John Allen – Living The Dream, Part 1

John Allen is one of Australia's most experience co-drivers - but it hasn't always been podiums and champagne.

In 2006, Australian Rallysport News published an interview with one of Australia’s leading rally co-drivers, John Allen.

At the time, ARN reported that John had started late in the sport, deciding after a lifetime career as a senior public servant that there had to be more to life.

Jumping in at the deep end, ‘JA’ decided that he would take up the sport of rally co-driving at an age when most competitors were well-advanced into a motorsport career, or where some had even enjoyed 20 years in the car and gracefully retired into the background.

Success followed, with highlights including second outright at Targa Tasmania with Greg Garwood in 2005 and 2006, and a heartbreaking runner-up finish in the Australian Rally Championship in 2011, alongside Ryan Smart.

In recent years, with a growing business seeing John regularly travelling the country to deliver professional consultancy services, active co-driving roles have been spasmodic.

Although there was no shortage of opportunities, work commitments, a new home on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and a few other toys, like a new jetski, kept JA busy.

A connection with Sydney-based construction contractor, Richie Dalton, grew in 2013 when JA co-drove the popular Irishman in his Shamrock Motorsport Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9.

The team showed good speed and a strong friendship developed. When Richie decided to invest in a new ‘Proto’ specification Ford Fiesta to run in the New Zealand Rally Championship, JA was able to focus on his business while the build took place, confident that the new car was going to be special.

While the construction and assembly of the beautiful Fiesta was widely publicised in social media – attracting much feedback on ‘Richie’s Rear Wing’ – development gremlins meant that the car’s competition debut was delayed.

With Rally Otago in 2018 confirmed as the first event for the new team, team followers on social media were treated to more frivolity as the team shared their 24-hour extended travel itinerary, due to unexpected inclement weather in NZ.

There was an unfortunate retirement due to mechanical issues, but it came as a surprise to many, however, that JA then announced that he was withdrawing from the team, and rallying, after Otago.

RallySport Mag’s Tom Smith caught up with the man they call ‘JA’ to dig into the reasons for this change in direction, and what the future holds for one of the country’s most popular and well-respected co-drivers.

John Allen calling the pace notes for Ryan Smart at Rally Australia in 2011. Photo: John Doutch

RallySport Magazine: We interviewed you 12 years ago when you revealed your desire for a life ‘away from the desk’, and filled with more excitement. Have those years delivered on your plans?

John Allen: “Mid Life Crisis” was the title for that story as I remember.

I remember fast tracking my accountancy career where, at 31, I was briefly the Chief Finance Officer for the Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie, before I realised I worked all my life to get to a career goal and hated it.

On reflection it was the best thing that ever happened to me because I was watching Neal Bates, Ed Ordynski and Possum Bourne on TV and thought life is short …. go and do that instead!

When I spoke to Rallysport Mag in 2006 I was adamant I was going to win Targa Tasmania, but that plan didn’t quite happen. I have finished second both in 2005 and 2006 with Greg Garwood, and only missing out on winning Targa in 2005 by six seconds is still the closest finish in the history of the event.

I have led it in 2010 and 2013, only to be denied a win due to blown engines. It’s a brutal sport.

Still, rallying for me has had the most amazing highs and life experiences. Starting the sport late in life meant I had to fast track everything if I wanted to reach the top of the sport, so I competed in the World Rally Championship in NZ in 2006 and Argentina in 2007 with Kevin Shaw.

Kevin offered me an amazing opportunity to compete in a couple of rounds of the WRC, for which I am forever grateful, but this was only a part time gig.

If there was ever a chance to make my dream of competing professionally in the WRC, Tony Green was the driver than could make this possible.

Few people have heard of Tony Green, in fact I never had until Adrian Bukmanis, who was a successful and flamboyant driver in the early 90s, called me while he was working at Prodrive. He told me this Tony Green chap had been contracted to a wealthy Chinese stockbroker to build him a team and be his lead driver.

I couldn’t find much on the internet about Tony, apart from the fact that he had done a bit of drifting in Europe and competed in five rallies. My doubts of his ability were quickly erased when we were second outright to David Higgins in our first rally in Shanghai.

Tony was an unbelievably gifted driver and we went on to be the unofficial Chinese Rally Champions in 2008.

I say unofficial because foreigners weren’t allowed to be crowned as champions, but we collected the most points of everyone that year and we had some outstanding competition, in the form of Mark and David Higgins, Juha Salo, Jussi Valimaki and Dean Herridge – to name a few.

Allen was mightily impressed with Tony Green’s skills as a rally driver.

The team was happy and they offered us a contract to compete in the Chinese Rally Championship the following year in brand new Prodrive Subaru, and in 2010 plans were in place to enter us into a full-time drive in the WRC.

Life couldn’t have been better. I was living the dream and tossed in my day job.

RSM: I can almost picture you handing your resignation letter to your government manager, and him/her trying to talk you out of I t…. was there a moment of hesitation, or did you embrace the decision?

JA: With this unexpected unofficial championship win the Chinese team signed us up for the following year with the view of taking us to the WRC.

It was an amazing experience and I was part of a three-car Prodrive Subaru team that had all the professionalism of a WRC satellite team. Unforntunately, this was short-lived with a DNF on the first rally after broken suspension, leading to an unfortunate roll over on the first rally.

Our second rally we finished fourth, and first Subaru behind three very fast Evo 9s at the Beijing tarmac rally.

This fourth place was a far better result than it sounds as our Subaru was 20 kilometres per hour slower in top speed than the Evo 9 Lancers, and I remember being satisfied with that, but the team were most disappointed, even though we were first Subaru home, beating Simon Evans in an identical Subaru by a minute.

My pleas (in hindsight) were obviously lost on the Chinese team where I explained that my driver, Tony Green, in only his 12th ever rally, had beaten a four-time Australian Champion by a minute in this rally.

Their response was like ….. “Simon Evans, who is she?”

So that was it, dream over, well almost. Even amidst the ashes of the GFC where few teams were hiring drivers, I did a deal for Tony Green to sign up to a less well funded team for Rally Longyou and we worked our way up to third in the APRC (when it was a hotly contested championship).

We were satisfyingly ahead of Jari Ketomaa who took over our Prodrive Subaru, before a seized gearbox left us stuck in the middle of the road. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that was my best ever chance of getting to the WRC, and my last trip to China.

For me I moved on, Tony never rallied again, which was a loss as he was a freakish talent behind the wheel.

John Allen (left) and Tony Green at a team launch for the Chinese Rally Championship.

RSM: So is there a magic formula to success in rallying?

JA: Talent, passion and money. These are the three ingredients you need if you ever want to reach the top in motorsport.

Most drivers have one of them, a few have two of those, and it is rare to find a driver that has all three.

Like most drivers, the lack of funds killed Tony’s dream. No doubt he was one of the most talented and passionate drivers I ever sat beside. He was in the mould of Petter Solberg.

Our sport is tough and money is the biggest hurdle to overcome. $2000 will get you a great set of golf clubs, $300 will get you a good tennis racquet or cricket bat, and if you have the talent you will be set for life.

To get to the WRC you are going to need $350,000 to get a good R5 car, and that again to do just a few rounds of the WRC. I’m not saying it can’t be done, Hayden Paddon is proof of that.

RSM: Without picking favourites, you have been privileged to sit beside some great drivers and in some incredible vehicles. Which driver/s impressed you most (and why), and which was the most exciting car you’ve co-driven in?

JA: I owe so much to Ray Vandersee. Without him taking a chance on me and us working so well together to get great results, I would have never had the profile to be offered other great co-driving opportunities in the future.

Ray gave me my start in Targa Tasmania back in 2000, when I had never even done a rally as a co-driver in my life. It all came about as I was having a midlife crisis when, at 30, I realised I was an accountant and was hating it and wanted something more exciting in my life, and thought rally driving would be the excitement I needed.

Competing with Ray Vandersee in the tarmac-special Skelta G-Force.

Ray, a very accomplished driver who, after having a break from competing at the top level, needed a co-driver who weighed no more than 60 kilos and that could survive six days of an arctic Tasmanian winter, including hail and snow in an open top Westfield Clubman.

I wasn’t top of the co-driver list for Ray, having no experience, but a few other co-drivers knocked the ride back with the lack of protection an open top car had. That said, I never felt unsafe with Ray driving and it was an exhilarating experience being so close to the road …. and the scenery.

Targa Tasmania is diving straight into the deep end that I think is tougher than a WRC round. Targa Tasmania is twice the length of the average WRC round over twice as many days, and there isn’t a stage that is repeated, so there is a lot of preparation and stamina to complete the event.

My first day of co-driving with Ray and we were eighth outright out of 300 cars. Ray and I made it as high as the top five, but in 2005 they deemed our car ineligible and I took an offer up with Greg Garwood to compete in his Porsche Turbo, finishing second outright in 2005.

Ray and I did have a win together at the 2007 Mt Buller Sprint. It felt like a deserved victory. This was no ordinary car, but the Skelta G-Force Ray built himself.

I’ve never been in a car like it, the mid corner grip was incredible, it simply would never end. Ray designed ground effects aerodynamics into this car where the faster you drove it, the more is pushed you into the ground.

Ray’s driving style is incredibly precise and neat. He continually hits every braking point and apex perfectly. For me, he is the most under-rated tarmac driver of his time.

Smart and Allen so very nearly won the 2011 Australian Rally Championship. Photo: John Doutch

RSM: In 2011 you and Ryan Smart looked a certainty to win the Australian Rally Championship before having a centre diff fail with only two stages to go. What is the back story behind this?

JA: In 2011 I was keen to compete a full national championship again and Ryan Smart (“Smarty”) called me up and asked if I’d be interested in co-driving in an ex-Neal Bates Corolla Group N(P), as his sister, Rebecca, was heading overseas.

Smarty lived just up the road from me on the Sunshine Coast so we thought we would catch up and do a bit of pacenote practice together.

Smarty guessed corner angles and distances, and to be honest his notes were all over the shop, with little consistency. We put a pacenote wheel on and measured all the distances, and it was an instant improvement.

Smarty also liked calling the direction (left or right) first, then the corner angle (number). I was actually used to the other way around with the corner angle then the direction. When I wrote down L6 I would accidently call it as Lg (Long).

I was struggling with the change. As relaxed as ever, Smarty said: “Johnny, if it’s easier, just call the way you like it with the number first.”

I can’t ever imagine any other driver being so casual about changing his notes. He’s the easiest bloke to work for.

In 2011 there was a major rule change, removing the turbo restrictor and making the sport more exciting, which I am all for, however, the budget required was out of reach for Smarty to rebuild the Toyota’s engine, so he left the restrictor in the car.

I knew we would be down on power, but I was devastated to learn we were actually two seconds a kilometre slower on the Bussleton tarmac stage on the Friday night than the unrestricted cars.

Smarty wasn’t fazed at all by being smoked by two seconds a kilometre on the tarmac, and casually turned to me and said: “No worries, we will sort them out when we get on the dirt tomorrow”.

It wasn’t arrogance or cockiness, in fact it was almost understated. He was just so confident in his ability and true to his word that we took the lead two stages later and won his (and my) first Australian Championship round win in Perth.

Proving this was no fluke, we followed this up with a win at the following round in Queensland. It wasn’t as straightforward as it sounds and with a few mechanical problems. We hadn’t led the rally after 18 stages, though we were consistent enough to be third, only two seconds off the lead with the 34km Big Derrier stage to decide the result.

I remember getting towards the end of the stage and thinking ‘I want this to be over’ as we were taking some big risks over the jumps (though it probably felt in control to Smarty), and we won by 14 seconds. This was a rally that I used to watch 15 years earlier as a spectator, watching Bourne and Bates fight out for wins. I never imagined that my name would be etched on the same trophy.

The next two rallies weren’t as fortunate for us, with a gearbox fail in South Australia and a drive shaft breaking in Coffs Harbour, which took us from a three minute lead to limping home for a second place outright.

The final round in Melbourne had us with a slight points advantage and favourites to win the Australian Rally Championship, though I refused to consider it a possibility until we had a strong lead with two stages to go.

For the whole rally I refused to entertain the chance I could be an Australian Rally Champion, however, with two stages to go it felt like an absolute certainty. That was the moment I clearly jinxed myself because as we took off on the second last stage, an ominous bang from the centre diff spelt disaster.

It felt like the car was in front wheel drive sometimes and other times no drive at all.  It shredded the front tyres, causing one of them to blow. With the time lost we dropped back to second in the championship.

It was the most debilitating point in my rally career. I was gutted for Ryan and the Smart family, who threw everything at that championship. To be honest, I probably haven’t gotten over it as well as I hoped.

I spoke to Smarty the other day and he felt the same way. It’s not that there is any real fame or fortune from winning the Australian Championship, but it would have been a satisfying personal self achievement.

As a footnote, Smarty called me up and said we had to get the band back together after five years apart.  He had purchased a Evo 9 and wanted to have another crack at Rally Queensland in 2016. This was a diabolical event with heavy rain before the event, and the roads are notorious for being unpredictable, with the different surfaces from mud to 50 shades of clay.

There is no better reader of how much grip roads have than Smarty. Having grown up riding trail bikes around this area, it taught him that, and we had a convincing win. It’s satisfying to know Smarty and I could jump in a car after five years apart and beat top drivers like Simon Evans, Harry Bates and Molly Taylor.

If you gave Smarty an R5, I know we would be on the pace again.

  • In Part 2 of our John Allen interview, he reveals his favourites, co-drive in everything from Lamborghinis to Porsches, and takes to the stages with Richie Dalton in his Ford Fiesta Proto, and the mighty Skoda Fabia R5.

 

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