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It’s a long time since night rallying played a major part in the Australian Rally Championship, but this week’s Rally of Canberra takes a step back in time with a forest stage conducted in darkness – and spectators can’t wait for it.

The highest-profile gravel rally on the calendar this year, the Rally of Canberra will begin this Friday evening with a 10.33km stage in the Bluetts plantation, just outside the centre of the nation’s capital.

It will be a landmark stage for many reason, not the least because it will take rallying back to the days when extra driving lights were a standard feature on a rally car, and when being able to read the road made the art of rally driving one of the biggest reasons that a driver was successful, or otherwise.

While most club events, and many state championship rounds, still utilize night stages right around Australia, it is something that the national championship has moved away from over the last 10 years, primarily because of the ease of conducting everything in daylight hours and so that television crews can get their footage packaged in time for the evening news broadcasts.

Even as late as this year, however, ARC rounds have had stages at night, but in recent years they have been Super Special Stages run at venues like the Nambour Showgrounds in Queensland, and on the foreshore in Busselton, in WA.

But spectators have craved for the thrill of night spectating, and this year the Rally of Canberra is providing them with just that.

Almost without question, rally competitors start their lives as spectators, and usually that means following club events held at night. And almost all of those spectators will tell you that there’s simply nothing like standing in the forest in the pitch dark, waiting to hear the first sound of a rally car heading your way, and then catching a glimpse of the lights as it weaves in and out of the trees toward your location.

In a flash, the car slides around the corner and heads off into the distance, leaving the fading tail lights and the sound of the powerful engine in its wake. Then, a couple of minutes later, it all happens again as the next competitor repeats the procedure.

“My last factory rally car didn’t even have a light pod,” former Mitsubishi driver Ed Ordynski said recently. And when the itinerary for this year’s Rally of Canberra was released there were frantic phone calls to the rally office from many of the leading teams for that very reason – they didn’t have driving lights for the front of their cars.

Rally drivers are a versatile bunch, though. Simon Evans, Neal Bates, Michael Guest and Dean Herridge all grew up doing night rallies, and all will be eager to hit the stages in Canberra and experience something that most of them won’t have done for many years.

Even at World Championship level night rallying is making a comeback of sorts. The Monte Carlo has stages in darkness, and this year’s Rally of Great Britain will have two forest stages held completely in the dark – although in the UK that can mean stages run at 5 o’clock in the afternoon!

Over the past couple of years there’s been a strengthening opinion that rallying in the 21st century is structured too heavily toward television, and doesn’t look after the wants and needs of the average spectator. Multiple-use spectator points and rallies which run exactly the same stages year after year are some of “Joe Public’s” complaints, but for too long those opinions seem to have been ignored.

Thankfully, the Rally of Canberra is making a play towards traditional rallying, and the fans are bound to love it.

“We wanted to capitilise on starting the event on Friday evening,” rally manager, Jenny Boyd, said. “In previous years the cars have driven over the ramp in the city on Friday night, but then the teams have had to park them until the rally proper got under way the following day.

“This year we thought we would hold a stage on the Friday night, so that spectators can actually see some rallying, and we’re confident that it will be a popular move.”

One intriguing aspect of the night stage will be that the stage will run again on Saturday in daylight. Drivers will note with interest the differences between the times set in darkness and in daylight. Some drivers will also believe that previous experience in the dark will give them an advantage over their rivals.

Whatever the results, it looks certain that rallying will be the big winner by having a competitive forest stage held at night. The Rally of Canberra have taken a big step in taking rallying back to its roots, and RallySport Magazine see that as being one of the biggest positives so far in this year’s ARC.

See you there – and don’t forget to bring your torch!

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