Rally Australia – the triumphs and the tragedies
- 9th September 2014, 10:54am
Since it was first held as a round of the World Rally Championship in 1989, Rally Australia has captivated the sport.
First in Perth, later in northern New South Wales, and now in Coffs Harbour, the event has witnessed innovation and drama, combined with scintillating highs and gut wrenching lows.
Yet through it all, it has been the ultimate test of man and machine over some of the world’s toughest rally roads.
Peter Whitten looks at some of the key moments from Rally Australia.
AND THEY’RE OFF
Commonwealth Bank Rally Australia started with great fanfare in 1989, with the opening stage around the Richmond Raceway trotting track and the surrounding streets. After being flagged off from the start ramp, competitors drove down the ramp and forward about 20 metres, before being counted down for the opening stage.
Not so one Indonesian crew, who must have struggled with the language barrier. When they were told they could leave the start ramp, the driver dropped the clutch and headed straight through the start control and into the stage.
Needless to say they were instantly excluded from the event, in what is still probably the event’s quickest retirement.
BEST OF THE BEST
The construction of the Langley Park Super Special Stage on the banks of the Swan River changed rallying forever, with other events quick to follow suit and build their own spectator stages.
The two-at-a-time track, complete with tunnel and jump, was the showcase of the rally – and perhaps the entire World Rally Championship – and remains the best stage of its kind ever run.
It included its fair share of drama too, including Brett Middleton destroying his Daihatsu Charade against a tree on the event’s first stage, and the now infamous start line drag down Riverside Drive, which ultimately led to Toyota being banned from the WRC for an illegal turbo restrictor.
WET, WET, WET
Who could forget when the heavens opened and didn’t want to stop? The famous Bunnings stages were awash with water, and the watersplash at the bottom of the jumps was flowing fast, wide, and deep.
One by one the leading WRC cars became stranded in the creek, and the sight of Jimmy McRae wading into the water to try and slow down son Colin’s Subaru before it hit the torrent will be etched in the minds of rally fans forever.
The watersplash was a car park, as drivers tried valiantly to dry out wet electronics. In Carlos Sainz’s case, that proved more difficult, with water spurting out of his Ford Escort’s spark plug holes as he cranked the engine over.
It was a nightmare for organisers, who had to adjust the rally schedule on the run, but it was another defining chapter in the rally’s history.
FROM TRIUMPH TO TRAGEDY
The death of Possum Bourne’s co-driver, Rodger Freeth, in the 1993 event, remains the darkest hour in Rally Australia’s history.
Driving a factory-backed 555 Subaru Legacy, Bourne was pushing hard when he left the road on the Flynn’s stage, hitting a tree and destroying the car.
Freeth was initially conscious, but massive internal injuries proved fatal, and the popular Kiwi later died.
The mood at the Langley Park stage later that night is still hard to explain, except to say that none of us there wish to repeat it again. RIP Rog.
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER
Western Australia’s unique ball bearing gravel was forever a talking point among the WRC crews, with nobody wanting to run first car on the road and act as road sweeper.
A number of different ways were introduced to even things up, including allowing the drivers to select a number, which gave them the choice of where they started on the road.
But when Colin McRae – one of the WRC frontrunners for Ford – was late to the lottery at Langley Park, he was left out of the ‘raffle’, and was forced to run as first car on the road.
It didn’t do his championship hopes much good, and made the Scotsman less than his normal jovial self.
NORTH WE GO
When the WA government decided that they no longer wanted to support Rally Australia, the event went into hibernation until the NSW government backed the event in 2009, and saw it run out of Kingscliff, near the Queensland border.
An enjoyable event with exciting stages, was tarnished by a rowdy group of protestors determined to stop the rally from running.
Demonstrations of all descriptions played havoc with the event and gave the event some pretty bad publicity.
And while the protestor’s efforts didn’t stop the rally that year, the fact that it was only run in that region once means they probably had a victory in the long run.
AND THE WINNER IS
The 2009 event was controversial for other reasons as well. Sebastien Loeb took the victory in his Citroen, but when his car was found to be illegal at post-event scrutineering later that night, the Frenchman was quickly excluded.
That gave Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen the victory, but by the time the decision had been made and the TV crews were ready for a late night interview with the Finn, he’d been celebrating for several hours.
Ford’s PR team quickly decided that Mikko would be best to get to bed and do the interviews after a good night’s sleep ….. and after he’d sobered up a little.
NOT THIS TIME
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville is the latest driver (after Subaru’s Petter Solberg) to crash heavily on shakedown, and then to go on and win the rally outright.
It wasn’t the case in 2011 for Ford’s Evgeny (Crash-ikov) Novikov though, when the rally ran in Coffs Harbour for the first time.
The Russian crashed his Ford on the shakedown stage, and true to form, eventually did the job properly on the final day, totally destroying the car and leaving it good only for the scrap heap.
As we head into the 2014 rally, we’re just hoping that the same doesn’t happen to the similarly crash-prone Robert Kubica.
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