Interview: John Allen – Living The Dream, Part 2
RallySport Mag’s Tom Smith recently caught up with Queenslander, John Allen, the man they call ‘JA’, to dig into the reasons for this ‘retirement’ from co-driving, and what the future holds for one of the country’s most popular and well-respected co-drivers. This is Part 2 of our John Allen interview.
RallySport Mag: With some many successes under your belt, the man-cave is probably littered with trophies. What are some of the highlights of your rally career to date? What events or results really stick in the memory banks?
John Allen: Winning the 2009 Targa Wrest Point by three seconds with Greg Garwood, in a car that shouldn’t have been competitive with Tony Quinn’s new Nissan GTR and Jason White’s Lamborghini Gallardo. I gave us next to no chance of winning this event in a five year old Porsche GT3 RS, as we only managed sixth outright in the previous year’s Targa Tasmania.
To do this required something really special – upsetting Greg Garwood, which is pretty easy – sometimes I don’t even realising I am doing it!
I love Greg’s GT3 RS but it should never have been competitive against Jim Richard’s GT2 and the Lamborghini or Nissan GTR. I told him this many times. I also said it would make a good classic rally car because it was five years old.
I can’t take all the credit for upsetting Greg. Cameron Reeves has half shares in this. Greg took both Cameron and I out for dinner, and as a way of a “thank you”, Cameron traced “Greg is slow” on the back window of the recce car. That really upset him, particularly as it took him three stages of recce the next morning to see it. …… “Is that what he thinks of me…..I paid for his dinner last night!”
I forgot about all of this, but clearly Greg hadn’t on the first competitive stage from Geeveston to Tahune Airwalk. As a co-driver you know from the first couple of corners if a driver is going to have a crack, and if you need to be paying extra attention, and Greg was sliding his GT3 around like a dirt car, jumping crests and committing to every single note.
He was driving with a bit of anger, which is good. While the GT3 doesn’t have the power or top end speed, if you ring it’s neck it makes time up with its mid-corner speed and under brakes. Add a bit of rain towards the end of the stage and we were surprise leaders, beating Jim Richards by nine seconds in his Porsche GT2, and Tony Quinn. We pushed our lead out to 14 seconds over Tony Quinn by the end of day 1.
Day 2 and no matter how hard we pushed (and despite drinking four Red Bulls each) our lead was cut to two seconds with one stage to go, with Tony Quinn having the momentum going his way in his Nissan GTR.
I was honestly feeling deflated and thought we were going to miss out on another Targa win. I turned to Greg with 10 seconds to go before we were due to start and told him: “I don’t want to come second”. Greg fired back: “We won’t be coming second Johnny!”
At the start of a stage like this it’s a mixture of adrenalin, nerves, Red Bull and a 100% focus on the stage, and nothing else, and then it’s go. Once you are in the stage there aren’t any more nerves and your whole focus is just getting to the next corner as fast as you can.
At the end of the stage all you know is you have done your best and what will be is what will be. Not long after we heard we beat Tony Quinn by a second, and we won Targa Wrest Point by three seconds, with Jason White a further nine seconds back in his Lamborghini.
This was without doubt the most satisfying tarmac win of my career and extra special to do it with Greg and the Garwood family, especially after missing out on winning Targa Tasmania by six seconds in 2005.
I’m not sure if Greg gained more personal satisfaction from winning Targa Wrest Point or making me apologise (many times) for calling his car old, or Cameron Reeves apologise for calling him slow. I do know he drives at another level when he has a bit of mongrel in him.
I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Garwoods here. They are a special family and made my wife Kathryn and I so welcome, and were incredibly generous to both of us. We definitely shared our highs and lows competing, and I loved the family atmosphere and watching their son, Adam, and daughter, Jemeeka, grow up.
Speaking of Adam Garwood, I did get to co-drive for him when he turned 17, and he will be a future Targa winner for sure (though Porsche Carrera Cup career is his focus for the moment.)
From sitting beside him at Targa North West, he was incredibly precise with his steering and throttle inputs and drove perfectly to the notes. You know as a co-driver when you a sitting beside a good driver when everything feels smooth, almost slow motion, but at the end of the stages you are setting blistering times. Adam’s a huge talent. Watch out for him.
RSM: What was your favourite rally?
JA: Strangely, my favourite rally was one of our most frustrating, the 2007 WRC round in Argentina with Kevin Shaw.
In an exceedingly brave move (especially for a South American round) the organisers decided to have the opening stage 700km to the east in Beunos Aires, flying us and transporting the cars by truck the 1400km round trip.
Three planes were chartered to return us back to Cordoba, leaving at midnight for us to return to our hotel. Thinking this was a perfect chance to grab some sleep on the plane, I slept all the way and was amazed to think how similar Cordoba airport was to Buenos Aires, only for it to dawn on me we were back where we started from as our plane could not land in Cordoba due to the fog.
So, with two thirds of the WRC field in Cordoba and the remaining third stuck at Buenos Aires airport, day one of the WRC was cancelled. Day 2 fared not much better for us, with a rock collecting our oil cooler 20km into the first stage. With an oil warning on our dash, Kevin switched the engine off, saving the car for day three, and what a day that turned out to be!
Day 3 of Argentina is where the two most recognised stages in the WRC are held. The legendary Mina Clavero and El Condor stages. Spectator control wasn’t what it is today and over 100,000 Argentinians, drunk on the previous night’s celebrations from camping out to get the best positions in the stage, lined the road and stood on the moonscape rocks.
It was an absolute spectacle and every year when it comes on TV those memories come flooding back. To top it off, Kevin Shaw ripped out a seventh fastest stage time on the last stage. That’s my best result in a WRC stage, and I’ll take that with me.
Rallying sometimes isn’t about the result, but the memories.
RSM: Dirt or Tarmac?
JA: I reckon I have been asked if I prefer dirt or tarmac more times than I have done rallies. I love them both, which is why I competed in both disciplines.
For tarmac you simply can’t beat the braking and acceleration (the Lamborghini Gallardo was 2.8 seconds from 0 to 100km/h and I saw a top speed of 271km/h).
The top tarmac rally cars felt at times like you were sitting in a video game they were so quick. It was so more relaxed without having to worry about managing an A to A timing system. Just turn up at the next stage and race.
Riding in a dirt car is a whole different proposition. While the outright acceleration and top speed are not there, the constant change of direction and setting up the car a long way out from the corner is such a buzz, as well as the big jumps (that you get away with).
I actually credit my two big tarmac wins – 2009 Targa Wrest Point and 2010 Targa High Country – to my co-driving on dirt. With only two passes on the dirt to perfect your pacenotes you have to have a system that you can trust.
I won the first running of both Targa Wrest Point with Greg Garwood and Targa High Country with Kevin Weeks in the Lamborghini Gallardo, primarily because we had a good set of notes and committed to them from the first corner on stages never driven before. Many tarmac drivers seem to need 10 runs over a stage to get their confidence, rather than relying on notes.
I have won many tarmac stages outright on day four and day five at Targa Tasmania with Greg Garwood, though interestingly we have never recce-ed them together as he was always too busy.
I used to write the notes with Cameron Reeves and Greg would just commit to what I told him. I don’t know of any driver that could be fastest over a stage that he has never driven before using someone else’s pace notes.
To be fair he will tell you some of my calls were pretty optimistic … and yell at me in stage saying “.. with pacenotes like that is how you end up in hospital” … then in the next breath, he’d calmly say “…. still, no $%& would be faster than us through that corner Johnny”, and we would win another stage.
RSM: Favourite car?
JA: Can I choose two of them? One for dirt and one for tarmac?
Without question on tarmac it would have to be the black Supaloc Lamborghini Gallardo. I remembered all the drivers gathered at the bottom of Mt Buller waiting for their turn to drive up the mountain and literally it was the only car that would stop all conversation amongst drivers as it sat on the rev limiter on take off, and then rip up the gears. It was music to the ears.
To be fortunate enough to co-drive in the car a year later, then win Targa High Country was a real treat and we used to crack the windows slightly in stage just to listen to it. It was a sweeter sound than any song you’ve heard, and threw the biggest flames out the back.
On dirt, no question would be the Skoda Fabia R5 rally car Richie Dalton and I finished eighth at Rally Australia in the WRC in 2017. It never seemed to have ripping acceleration, but it was a rapid thing that you could smash over bumps everyone else would be slowing down for.
It was just so perfect inside the car that everything felt like a committee designed it – even down to the clever places you store your helmets.
RSM: ‘Trust Me’?
JA: Some love it, some don’t, but my “Trust me!” call has proven effective, giving first wins at a national level for Ryan Smart (three ARC round wins), Richie Dalton (2014 Australian 4WD Series Champion), Greg Garwood (2009 Targa Wrest Point), Kevin Weeks (2010 Targa High Country), Tony Green (2008 Chinese Rally Championship), Ray Vandersee (2007 Mt Buller Sprint), as well as helping a few other drivers grab podium wins.
Darren Windus (2010 ARC WA), Brenton Kaitler (2009 ARC Tasmania), Jack Monkhouse (2013 ARC SA) and Kingsley Thomson (2012 NZRC Whangarei).
RSM: So what’s the difference between a driver who makes up the numbers and one who wins?
JA: There really isn’t anything to split the top drivers on the slower corners or corners they can see, but the difference between a driver who is making up the numbers and the driver that is going to win the rally is the speed they carry over the very fast, blind corners and crests.
That takes huge commitment and trust, which is where the infamous “trust me” call came from.
It probably came out frustration that some drivers I sat beside were lifting out of the throttle when coming up to crests that I knew were flat out (from all of my homework I did reviewing the notes on video), so the “trust me” call gave them the confidence to believe the call.
I know some drivers continue to give me a playful ribbing about my “trust me” and “she’s flat!” calls, but it’s good to remind me that I gave them their first win and probably best result in their career because they committed to what I was telling them.
Sometimes there are the “doubters/haters” of my calling style and on occasions you start to believe it, but it was refreshing to stumble across a piece from World Rally Blog saying: “This is how you co-drive in a rally car!”
I felt Ryan Smart really committed to my notes and if I could go back to one stage where, as a team, we were most in sync, it would be the opening stage in the 2011 WRC at Coffs Harbour. This was huge commitment by Smarty and gave us a 30 second lead in the ARC after the first stage.
It’s worth a look on YouTube and it’s my favourite stage and pacenote calling, primarily because as a driver Ryan placed absolute trust in everything I told him.
RSM: You and Richie Dalton have made quite a formidable team in Australian rallying. How did that come about?
JA: “Don’t ask, don’t get!”, was Richie’s philosophy when he called me up in 2013 and asked if I would co-drive for him at Rally Australia. I think he was a bit surprised when I said yes, as at this time he was a relatively unknown, but I wanted to do the rally and I am the world’s worst spectator. For me it was a great option.
Richie is such a likeable bloke. He’s Irish so I guess that’s a given, and he had some speed about him, though I did feel I needed to reign that in when we finished up on the bank on the other side of the flying finish board at the end of the first stage, such was his exuberance.
To his credit he backed the speed off a bit and with consistently fast driving we found ourselves as fastest 4WD on the second day. It was only a blown intercooler pipe on the last stage on day three that dropped up back to third, but no doubt Richie had the talent to win rallies.
I only had to wait for the next rally in Melbourne, which was diabolically wet, for Richie’s first win. Richie turned to me on the first stage and told me he’s never driven in mud and how fast should he go!?
“As fast as you feel safe mate. Just feel out the grip” I told him. The first corner I thought we would have been off for sure and the second and third corners as well, but full credit to Richie, he had the capability to maximise the speed but the keep the car on the road and he had his first rally win.
I saw real potential in Richie at this stage. Unfortunately for me so did Alex Gelsomino, and with Ken Block retiring from the WRC, Alex was looking for a new ride and called up Richie.
To be fair to Richie, he called me to discuss it and I thought it was more likely that Alex would probably offer him a better chance to take his career further, so I gave him the thumbs up. Looking back, I would normally be saying things about stealing my ride and “co-driver ethics”, but as far back in 2013 I was thinking about giving the sport away, so I probably wasn’t as bothered as I should have been.
For whatever reason, that partnership only lasted a rally and Richie asked me to complete the rest of the 2014 Australian Rally 4WD series, which we won convincingly in Coffs Harbour and Melbourne. It was a fitting celebration to have a series win.
At this stage Richie and I had an enviable record together. Four rallies together, three wins and a third. We made quite a team.
RSM: Okay, down to the nitty-gritty. You had obviously committed to Richie and the fabulous new Fiesta Proto for the debut season in 2017, which then became 2018. Tell us about those lean couple of years, and your personal preparation for the new seat in the Shamrock Fiesta.
JA: It was only meant to be a lean year out of the sport with Richie, which turned into three with delays with sorting out the build of the new Fiesta rally car.
To keep my eye in I co-drove a rally each with future stars Adam Garwood and Arron Windus, then won nearly every super special stage there was with the mad Irishman, JJ Hatton, and to top it off won a round of the Australian Rally Championship in Queensland in 2016 with Ryan Smart.
It is a fabulous car that Fiesta Proto, and I can’t speak for Richie, but if you had the time again we should have taken a year off and saved up for a Skoda Fabia R5.
After winning the 2014 4WD Australian Rally Championship series, Richie decided that new Proto regulations looked to be a way to be competitive, while still being able to afford to pay rent and eat food, so he ordered a Ford Fiesta body shell from Poland.
This process was only meant to be a year out of the sport, but turned into three years as we suffered delays getting the bodyshell to Sydney, then lost way too much time rewiring the car, and some wasted research and development on a Billet engine block. The end result, though, was a seriously stunning rally car that was as awesome to drive as it was too look at.
Unfortunately, it was too awesome a car with that WRC inspired rear wing and we hit a stalemate with the regulators of the ARC, so I put in a call to Blair Bartels of the New Zealand Rally Championship, who couldn’t be more welcoming of a car like Richie’s Fiesta.
The exposure and the marketing the NZRC gave the Fiesta was outstanding and after briefly competing over there you can see why their championship is such a success, as they are so inclusive of nearly any car that wants to compete.
Realistically, the only car that will beat a Skoda R5 is a WRC car, so I still shake my head in disbelief at why spectacular looking and engineered cars, that New Zealand welcome, can’t compete at home here in Australia.
I think it is great to have Skoda R5s competing in Australia and as long as they are there, I think we can afford to relax the rules to allow other cars to be more competitive and increase the numbers in the ARC, and make the championship more spectacular for both drivers and spectators.
Still, there is a silver-lining to most things and without the delay in getting the Fiesta ready, we would never have had the opportunity or motivation for Richie to lease a Skoda R5 and finish a career high eighth outright in the World Rally Championship.
RSM: That 8th place meant you the first Aussie to score WRC points in over four years. This must have been a satisfying way to end a great co-driving career. How did the drive in the R5 come about?
JA: It was very satisfying, though it nearly never happened. The Skoda only arrived the morning before testing with hold ups in transporting the car and getting it through customs.
Not knowing what to expect from a brand new car, and Richie’s first time driving a left-hand drive car, I didn’t have any great expectations in testing, particularly with Richie being out of the seat for the past two years.
He really doesn’t carry much rust and was on the pace straight away in testing. The Race Torque boys did a fabulous job with the data and set-up and really listened to Richie’s feedback. The day went perfectly, except for one spin we had in testing, which neither of us can explain, which did affect our confidence on day 1.
We were still unsure why we had that spin and fair play to Richie as he was smart enough to drive within himself and not get sucked into having a race with Brendan Reeves, and young hotshot, Finland’s Kalle Rovenpaera, but we still finished 15th for the day.
This smart driving paid off for us on day 2, with both Brendan Reeves and Kalle Rovenpara having accidents, which meant we could sneak up to the leader board to 11th after Mikkelsen and Meeke also crashed out.
We were close to our dream of a top 10 finish and with more confidence in the car we calculated we could catch the soon to be crowned Australian Rally Champion, Nathan Quinn, on speed. Both Citroen drivers, Breen and Lefebvre, crashed out, but with the other Citroen driver, Meeke, catching us we were sitting a dream ninth with only the power stage to go.
Disappointingly we were not included in the 12 cars to be broadcast on the TV power stage, but on the plus side we started just behind Jari-Matti Latvala and rally winner Neuville, and it’s a fascinating part of the sport you don’t get to see on TV.
Latvala and Neuville were glued to their phones watching Ogier’s post rally interview on WRC Live, hoping to hear which team he was deciding to drive for as his decision could well affect their careers.
Latvala quickly disappeared from my view to be beside his car, on the ground doing push ups! Neuville joked with him that he must be serious about winning the power stage.
Our potential ninth position became eighth when Latvala crashed out on the last power stage. All we had to do was complete the stage and the win was ours.
That eigth place at the WRC was definitely the highlight of my career and it was immensely satisfying to watch Richie develop from a rookie with bucket loads of talent, to guide him to winning the Australian Rally 4WD series and then achieve an eighth place, and for me, first Australian home through a smart, measured drive.
As part of the entry to the WRC, we were invited to the WRC Gala dinner in Sydney and it’s not to be missed, with Shane Jacobsen as Master of Ceremonies and every WRC driver and co-driver there to accept their awards. It was broadcast to the world.
I had prearranged for my wife, Kathryn, to fly down and join us for the WRC Gala Dinner, which didn’t take any convincing as Andreas Mikklesen was going to be there!
Having Kathryn share the WRC Gala experience was extra special reward for both of us, as she has supported and suffered with me embarking on this mid-life crisis for 18 long years, happily sending me on my way for another rally adventure.
I can’t thank her enough for the support she has given me. Without her, I would never have had the success I had.
RSM: Rally Otago 2018 arrives finally. The car and the team are ready. You enjoy a well-publicised long-haul flight to NZ and slept on the floor in Wellington airport. Tell us about the event from your perspective. What ultimately were the reasons for you to take a sabbatical after Otago?
JA: The last rally I competed in New Zealand probably made up Richie and my decision to say it’s time. As you know, we had far from an ideal preparation, missing our flight to Christchurch, then no sleep (though we tried sleeping on the floor at Wellington airport), and with the delayed flight into Dunedin the following day, we only just made the back of the queue to make recce.
To be honest, I really did battle with the lack of sleep and with the schedule that only allows a one pass recce, then only time for one check of the video.
It was far from an ideal preparation compared to what I and Richie had been used to and I’d describe my note calling as “just OK” for my standard for that rally (Otago). This was largely due to a one pass recce, but with Richie driving faster than ever, it’s a huge responsibility on my side of the car to make sure my timing of delivering pacenotes is absolutely perfect.
Instead of enjoying the rallying, as I used to, in my head I am thinking of how I am responsible for a huge investment Richie has made in this car, as well as the risk to injuring both us and our families if I make a mistake.
Richie had a discussion with me about it and decided to call time and look for another co-driver. Richie and I have had a great run together, we have both improved as a driver and co-driver, and had extraordinary success together. I am so grateful for the time I have had together with Richie and the Dalton family.
That said, I am not saying I don’t feel I have the talent to the job. Though it seems ages away now, it was only four months previously that Richie and I drove a perfect rally, rewarding us with an exceptional eighth outright at Australia’s round of the WRC in Coffs Harbour, and for me the first Australian to score World Championship points in four years.
The difference between here and NZ was the fact that we have a two pass recce for Richie to be happy with the notes, and I would have the time to watch the video of the stages up to four times before we began the rally.
With this much homework, I can picture the stage from start to finish, which means I have the confidence to push the driver on the notes … and throw in a few “trust me’s”
So, I don’t doubt myself, I have the talent to the job, but I know the passion isn’t what it used to be.
Though this may come as a surprise to many, I still work and for 26 weeks of the year I am on a plane away from home with my financial consultancy business. Another eight weeks away to go rallying was staring to become tiring and was beginning to affect my preparation from rallying.
It’s not something you want to admit to yourself or others that your preparation isn’t what it should be, and it’s not a risk I wanted to take in a car anymore.
RSM: What about the future and more rally events? You are not a youngster anymore, but still fit, healthy and enthusiastic. Do you have any irons in the fire for an occasional ride?
JA: I don’t really want to say the word “retire” because my biggest fear has always been the void in your life when you give up rallying, because it’s where your enjoyment, identity, adrenalin hit and friends are.
But since moving to the Sunshine Coast with the beach, the jet ski, the golf course and starting up a financial consultancy business, I have plenty to distract me.
You won’t see my helmet and HANS on eBay just yet though. While I have made the call to retire from chasing national championships, you still may see me having a skid in Richie’s Escort or Smarty’s Stanza, or cherry pick the odd event that may take my interest.
Though if I compete again it will be just for fun, and to have a laugh with a couple of good mates.
- By Tom Smith