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There’s no doubt that the introduction of Super 2000 rally cars into the Australian Rally Championship this year has added some much needed noise and excitement to the sport of rallying.

Although the category has been criticised by some for being too expensive and outside the financial limitations of privateer competitors, it has seen both Toyota and Ford increase their commitment to Australian rallying. With the disappearance of Subaru and Mitsubishi, that’s one of the biggest positives we’ve seen in many years.

Prior to the Great Lakes Rally in New South Wales I had the opportunity to sit beside triple Australian Rally Champion Neal Bates in Toyota’s latest weapon– the Toyota Corolla S2000.

It had been some years since I’d ridden with Bates, which only made me more keen to strap myself in and experience that feeling of being thrown into the back of the seat once again.

With former World Rally Championship star, Alister McRae, vacating the left-hand seat for me, I slid in, hoping that some of the famous McRae DNA would rub off onto me before my ride was over.

With the belts tightened and the helmet secure, Bates headed off on the 3km drive to the start of the test stage.

My prior knowledge of the Super 2000 cars told me that the lighter weight of the cars made them superior to their Group N rivals in the braking department, although the lack of torque out of corners, due to the lack of a turbocharger, also meant the cars were harder to get off the start line.

The test stage was under 3km long, and as I was soon to find out, was very fast.

Despite building the revs substantially on the start line, when the control official counted “3, 2, 1, GO”, Bates still had to dip the clutch to get the Corolla moving. Immediately you could tell that the Group N turbo cars would have grabbed a one or two second advantage before 100 metres had even been travelled.

The stage quickly opened out into a long, fast straight and the Corolla was soon nearing its maximum top speed of 177km/h. I briefly saw the digital readout hit 170 before Bates stamped on the middle pedal to set the car up for the first real corner.

Having ridden in rally cars of all types over a 20 year period, I’m pretty used to being in a rally car with somebody else in control. But no matter how many times you do it, you never seem to lose that nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach as the first corner approaches.

Of course you know the car will slow down. Of course you know you’ll get around the corner. And of course you know the driver has no intention of crashing into the scenery on a test stage – but the feeling is still there, albeit briefly.

In under 3km – 2.7km to be exact - it’s hard to take a whole lot in. I spent my time watching the road, watching Bates’ fancy footwork on the pedals and watching the readouts on the dash. But aside from all that, it was hard to gain much of an impression on the actual performance of the Super 2000 car.

Yes, the car is loud from the inside and the speed and braking capabilities of the car are simply phenomenal. However, for me, the most impressive aspect of my ride was the cornering capabilities of the car and the tyres.

Unless you’ve had a ride in one of these cars, it is impossible to appreciate how much grip they have in the corners. On Michelin tyres that had, at best, 75% of their tread left, the car never looked like going off the road – and when you’re going through corners on loose gravel at over 120km/h that’s really something.

To me, the car felt quite tail-happy when Bates was hard on the brakes for the tighter corners, but never did we go close to leaving the road. The front of the car hugged the corners and we were quickly heading down the next straight, approaching the next corner. Again, though, in such a short space of time it’s hard to gather much information.

All too quickly my ride was over and we headed back to the service area where the TRD team were ready to prep the car for the following day’s stages.

As I peeled myself out of the seat I knew two things: 1. I’d never be able to read pacenotes at that speed like Coral Taylor does, and 2. I was a much better passenger than Alister McRae.

I also knew that it was unlikely that any of Alister’s DNA had rubbed off on me, and that the guys from Neal Bates Motorsport have done a sensational job in building the car – a car that has so far finished every Heat of every rally it has entered.

Thanks for the ride Batesy. Now, how ‘bout a test drive from the other side of the car……….

NEAL BATES PROFILE

Born: March 19, 1965

Lives: Royalla, NSW

Status: Married to Jane

Triple Australian Rally Champion Neal Bates is one of the most successful and popular drivers in the sport's history and has been an ambassador for Toyota for more than 15 years.

Bates and co-driver Coral Taylor were the first crew to win three successive Australian Rally Championships, driving Toyota Celicas to victory in 1993, '94 and '95.

Bates was something of a prodigy when he first stepped into a rally car at the age of 18, in 1984, and caught the eye of Toyota Australia with his exploits in an early-model Celica. He was invited to take part in the 1989 Toyota Star Search circuit racing program and, despite his limited bitumen experience, won his class at Bathurst driving a works Corolla.

When Toyota decided to run a new Celica GT-Four in rallying, Bates was the natural choice as driver. Together, they tackled the ARC with a succession of Celica and Corolla rally cars, finishing top three in the championship a remarkable 11 straight years up to 2001, when new rules forced them out for a season to produce a new car.

The successful partnership was restored in 2003 with the formation of Toyota Team Racing, running a pair of Corolla Sportivos under the new Group N (Prototype) regulations. Developing the new cars as he went, Neal finished the championship in eighth place and improved to sixth in 2004 and 2005.

Last year was Bates' best year since 2001, winning the season-opening Capital Rally and finishing every event on the podium. Bates was runner-up to team-mate Simon Evans in the drivers' championship, and was thrilled to have built and developed a team of two Group N(P) Corollas to claim the manufacturers' championship.

Neal's talents have been recognised internationally by Toyota Team Europe (TTE), which gave him the opportunity to compete in some local region rounds of the World Rally Championship.

He competed in his first International Rally with TTE in 1991 at Rally Australia and in 1996 finished an amazing sixth outright in the New Zealand WRC round.

A natural all-rounder, Neal has performed well when given a chance to compete on the blacktop and has contested the Bathurst 1000 11 times, finishing in the top 10 twice.

He also won the 1995 Targa Tasmania outright driving a Toyota Celica GT-Four and scored three successive class wins with a Lexus IS200 in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

ACHIEVEMENTS

1989 1st Toyota Star Search
1989 1st in Class - Bathurst 1000 (Toyota Corolla)
1991 1st in Class - Bathurst 12 Hour (Toyota Celica SX)
1992 1st in Class - Bathurst 12 Hour (Toyota MR2)
1993 1st Australian Rally Championship (Toyota Celica GT-Four ST185)
1993 1st in Class - Bathurst 12 Hour (Toyota MR2)
1994 1st Australian Rally Championship (Toyota Celica GT-Four ST185 & Celica
GT-Four ST205)
1994 1st in Class - Bathurst 12 Hour (Toyota MR2)
1995 1st Australian Rally Championship (Toyota Celica GT-Four ST205)
1995 1st Outright - Targa Tasmania (Toyota Celica GT-4)
1996 2nd Australian Rally Championship (Toyota Celica GT-Four ST205)
1997 3rd Australian Rally Championship (Toyota Celica GT-Four ST205 & Toyota
Corolla WRC)
1998 2nd Australian Rally Championship (Toyota Corolla WRC)
1999 2nd Australian Rally Championship (Toyota Corolla WRC)
1999 1st in Class - Targa Tasmania (Lexus IS200)
2000 2nd Australian Rally Championship (Toyota Corolla WRC)
2000 1st in Class - Targa Tasmania (Lexus IS200)
2001 2nd Australian Rally Championship (Toyota Corolla WRC)
2001 1st in Class - Targa Tasmania (Lexus IS200)
2006 2nd Australian Rally Championship (Toyota Corolla Group N (Prototype))

FAVOURITE RALLY

NGK Rally of Melbourne - especially Heat 1.

DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN THREE WORDS

All right bloke.

DESCRIBE YOUR CO-DRIVER IN THREE WORDS

Never makes mistakes.

WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT RALLYING?

Teamwork, sliding sideways around corners.

PET HATE

E-mail and E-groups.

HOBBIES

Water skiing, motorbike riding, part-time modelling.

WHAT DO YOU DRIVE?

Toyota LandCruiser 100.

WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW ABOUT NEAL

Puts tomato sauce on most food that he eats.

WHO DO YOU MOST ADMIRE?

Sebastien Loeb because he does it smoother and neater than anyone else.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE MUSIC?

Anything mellow.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE BOOK?

Picture books.

IF YOU WEREN'T A RALLY DRIVER, YOU WOULD BE...

A dolphin trainer.


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