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Melbourne based pair Shawn Urquhart and Leigh Eeles took on the challenge of Rally Australia, in Coffs Harbour, with their newly acquired Mitsubishi Mirage and the backing of School of Dirt, finishing 10th outright.

After an absence of 8 years from the sport, Shawn Urquhart made a return to rallying to contend the Australian Rally Championship (ARC) in a front wheel drive Mitsubishi Mirage. While Shawn was known for his time driving Lancer 4WDs and then taking up Classic competition behind the wheel of a Fiat 131 Abarth, the pull of the new ARC rules to focus on the two wheel drive category was too strong.

“The chance to buy a cheap front wheel drive came up a few weeks ago and I couldn’t pass it up. I thought it’d be great to do this event and in a reasonable car that would both get us to the end, and give us a feel for how we’d go in a more competitive front wheel drive in the future," Urquhart said.

"We’re about to start our own rally experience school and it only makes sense to have some front wheel drive experience to round things out. We’re on target to kick-off our ‘School Of Dirt’ before the end of the year which will be fantastic.”

The vehicle was collected from Sydney only seven weeks before the event. With much preparation needed, the car was stripped, painted and refitted where needed and Victorian rally registration achieved only the day before leaving for Coffs Harbour.

With only a 3km road-test behind the wheel before putting the car on the trailer, the first time the pair drove the car on dirt was as they pulled up at the Power Stage at Coffs Harbour.

This event provided a number of ‘firsts’ for the team. The first time Urquhart had driven a front wheel drive, the first time he’d competed at Rally Australia, and most importantly, the first time Eeles had ever co-driven or even raced a rally car.

“Shawn and I have been discussing him getting back into rallying for a few years now, we just needed to find a co-driver. Luckily for me, Shawn was willing to take me on even with the lack of rallying knowledge I had,” Eeles commented.

“When the opportunity arose to purchase the Mirage I was all for it.  Learning everything that I need to know as a co-driver isn’t an easy task but something that I’ve jumped into with the passion I also have for many other forms of motorsport.”

With a competitive field of over 20 two wheel drive cars, by the end of Saturday’s stages the team was sitting comfortably in 11th place outright. Happy with their progress during the event, Urquhart commented, “We’ve been pushing hard today but within ourselves. We lost some time behind a limping car yesterday and had some other little issues but we’re looking okay for a top-10 finish which is what we came here to achieve.

"It’s taking some time to get used to the car too as you have to be on it all the time. It’s only a 1600cc car and the smallest in the field. We’ve got nothing on those big horsepower stages but we’re still here.”

The Super Special Stage held in the centre of Coffs Harbour offered the team an opportunity to drive a little harder. After pushing the ‘School Of Dirt’ Mirage harder on each outing at the stage, the pair overshot into the infield on a couple of occasions as they attempted to put on a show for the spectators. Dean Herridge interviewed the pair after the Saturday night Super Special Stage saying “You guys really attack this stage – harder than anything else out in the forest.”  Urquhart’s comment was simple, “Well it’s like this – if something breaks, it’s a short drive back to service.”

Sunday’s stages had been cut in half with only the morning pass being contended for the two wheel drive category. Eeles was really getting into the groove with reading the notes now and the first couple of stages of the day went well. The ‘School Of Dirt’ Mirage was still in 11th position by over half a minute at the start of the last stage, Shipmans I, a 29.44km stage. The pair decided to push hard to see if they could take that next place.
Twenty kilometres in and dust was becoming an issue due to a limping car, cutting their speed and almost leaving the road on a couple of occasions. Regardless, the pair pushed on hard through the dust and achieved their goal by taking 10th outright by just four seconds.

“We’re rapt to have come here and not only finished but managed to break into the top 10,” commented Urquhart. “Leigh has been great and really overcome some massive learning curves here. I’m so happy with the result. You have to drive to the conditions and get to the end – we’ve done just that.”

Urquhart and Eeles are now headed to Rally Victoria, in mid November, for the last round of the Australian Rally Championship. Happy to have an event behind them now, the team intends on pushing harder at Rally Victoria given what they’ve learnt at Coffs.

“Shawn and I have some work to do now. We know we can drive harder as a team and while the car doesn’t have the horsepower of the others, it’s also capable of more. We’re looking forward to pushing at Rally Vic and then working on something bigger for next year. While we will be focusing on building School Of Dirt, we still want to compete regularly in the ARC also.”

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