Postcard from Mt Baw Baw, as tarmac sprint looms
The picturesque Mount Baw Baw Alpine Resort is situated on the Baw Baw Plateau, nestled high on the Great Dividing Range in Victoria.
The mountain peak falls within the boundaries of the Baw Baw Shire and is one of the many superb tourist attractions on offer in Gippsland. Baw Baw’s name originates from the word “Bo Bo” which means “ghost” or “bandicoot” to the Woniwurrung people, or “echo” in the Gunai Language.
During the winter months, it’s Melbourne’s closest downhill ski resort and there’s endless hours of outdoor adventures all year round. For those who enjoy cycling, the ride to the summit is ranked among the hardest road climbs in Australia.
But it’s in February, with the snow melted, that the idyllic Alpine Village really comes alive for car enthusiasts, when it hosts a round of the AASA Australian Tarmac Rally Championship.
Outside of the ski season, the rally weekend is the mountain’s single largest income producing activity, with all competitors, crews and officials, staying and eating on the Mountain; and what a place it is.
Sitting out on the deck of The Village Central Restaurant and looking over the snow gums to the valley some 1500 meters below, it’s not difficult to understand why so many people are attracted to the mountain all year round.
The Mt Baw Baw Sprint, Victorian Down Hill Mountain Bike Series, Off Road Motor Bike Trials and the Alpine Run Series are just some of the iconic events hosted on the mountain, and which in return contribute to the economic sustainability of the Alpine Resort.
The Mt Baw Baw Sprint, to be held over the weekend of the February 23-24 attracts the best rally crews from across the country, for what is the penultimate round of the 2019 championship.
It may seem strange when describing the challenge awaiting the competitors, that we borrow from a cycling website, ‘The Climbing Cyclist’, but their description of the final 12.5km ride to the submit is compelling.
“A warning to recreational riders – this is a seriously challenging climb and one that should not be attempted unless climbs like Lake Mountain and Inverness Road can be completed without too many difficulties.
Treat this climb with the respect that it deserves. After crossing Big Tree Creek, the road remains flat for 200 meters before crossing the creek once again and it’s at this point the climbing starts, settling into a comfortable gradient of around 5%.
At the 500m mark the gradient increases slightly, sitting at around 7% before dropping back to 5% for a short time. After several kilometres spent winding through the lush beauty of the Baw Baw National Park the road moves towards the business end of the climb.
After 5.7km of climbing you will notice a sign on the left of the road announcing that you’ve reached The Gantry. This point marks the end of the pedestrian climbing and the start of 6.8km of pain and suffering.
As you bend around to the right and past the site of the old tollbooth, you’ll see the road disappearing skyward in front of you – a sight that continues to scare even the hardiest of cyclists.
From this point it’s all up, and not gently either. Straight away the road settles into a gradient in excess of 10% which is more or less maintained until the end of the climb.
You’ll want to find a rhythm pretty early on here as it doesn’t get a whole lot easier from this point.”
For those competing in the Mt Baw Baw Sprint, it’s not just the steepness and sheer beauty, if you had time to look, that keeps competitors returning to the event year after year.
When traversed at race speed, the road becomes one of, if not the most technically challenging in all of Australia, making it the ideal location for a tarmac rally.
With narrow roads, edges covered with leaf litter and other foliage; navigators must call their notes accurately and drivers place the cars precisely.
The 29km Porcupine Creek run on Sunday, from Icy Creek to the summit, may have the lowest average speed of any stage on the AASA Australian Tarmac Rally Championship calendar, but with its 320 turns and no long straights for competitors to regain their composure, it’s a relentless test of concentration and control.
The Mt Baw Baw Sprint, although demanding, is also the penultimate round of the 2018/2019 championship.
As crews awaken their beasts from the Christmas slumber, some will head to the Apple Isle to compete in Targa North West before setting course for the famous Mountain resort, while for others, Mt Baw Baw will be the first outing in the new year.
With new scoring rules, where competitors can no longer drop their worst round, consistency and reliability have become as important as outright speed, and with double points on offer at Lake Mountain, a good result at Baw Baw is paramount for their championship aspirations.
Let’s take a look at the Championship standings, starting with the co-driver’s championship, a new inclusion for the 2018/19 season.
Only 4 points separate the top three co-drivers. Sue Evans leads the way on 174 points closely followed by Kerry Hines with 172 from Paul van der Mey on 170.
The outright driver’s championship is not as tight as the co-drivers, but with only 10 points separating Tim Hendy in a 2016 Porsche GT4, from the Audi TT RS of Barrie Smith and, with Neil Cuthbert’s Mitsubishi Evo only a further 4 points behind, the driver’s championship is still wide open.
In fact, with double points on offer at the final round, a DNF at Mt Baw Baw could see any of the top 12 competitors crowned 2019 Australian Tarmac Rally Champion.
Unlike the 2018 Classic Championship, where Keith and Alex Morling, in their beautifully prepared 1976 Ford Escort, showed a clean pair of heels, this time they’re not having it all their own way.
Although leading on 200 points coming into the Mt Baw Baw Sprint, the 1985 BMW 325i of Peter Gluskie and Samantha Winter, refreshed with a new motor, is snapping at their tyres, only 4 points in arrears on 196 points. Gluskie and Winter are closely followed by Mark Clair and Lee Harper on 192 points, driving a 1974 Porsche 911 RS.
Adam Spence and Lee Challoner-Miles, piloting a 2013 Renault Clio, lead the Showroom 2WD category by a slim 6-point margin from Toni Conrad, the only female driver in the series, steering a 2009 V8 Holden Commodore, with Kim Bersell in the co-driver’s seat.
The stunning red V8 Shelby GT Mustang of 2015 outright Australian Tarmac Rally Champion Craig Dean is 92 points behind the Commodore.
We conclude our post card from Mt Baw Baw with Showroom 4WD which is headed by Barrie Smith and Paul van der Mey in their Audi TT, leading another Audi TT, that of Michael Minshall and Russell Hannah, who are on equal points with Allan and Kerry Hines in their 2008 Mitsubishi Evo.
With only 6 points separating the crews, the championship is anybody’s for the taking.
What about the American muscle cars, the C7 Corvette’s and Dodge Vipers not yet mentioned?
While they have been setting some of the fastest stage times throughout the championship, tyre degradation in particular has been their Achilles heel. So, while Mt Baw Baw is horsepower heaven and they could dominate, don’t be surprised if the old guard prevail, but a new era is dawning.
And as for Lotus, on paper at least, it’s nimble and powerful 350S Exige should be ideally suited to the twisty and precise format of the AASA Australian Tarmac Rally Championship series, but finishing has been proving difficult for them.
After Mt Baw Baw, crews move to another celebrated Alpine Resort, Lake Mountain for what is the final round of the Championship.
Race to the Clouds?
“A Victorian based Three Peaks Alpine Series, run as part of the Tarmac Championship, may be something to look forward to in 2020,” said Peter Washington of Mountain Motor Sports.