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The Coffs Harbor WRC round, which has served Australia so well for many years, came to an incongruous end in 2019 with the demoralising cancellation of the event as a result of the local NSW bushfire crisis. Despite the very best efforts of the organisers, sponsors and regional supporters, the event could not be seen to proceed while the risk to the community, competitors and spectators existed. The logistics of trying to run the 2019 event placed an onerous burden on an already stretched emergency services network. It was a last-minute decision to cancel the event, and it was not the end of an era that the Australian rally community was expecting. Notwithstanding the sad finish to this east-coast event, Coffs Harbour has hosted a wonderful seven years of World Championship rallying. After also hosting a very popular ARC round for many years, showcasing the great attributes of the Coffs Coast and enticing competitors and spectators from all corners of Australia, Coffs Harbour became a firm favourite for competitors and spectators alike. Located centrally between Brisbane and Sydney on the east coast, it was accessible, welcoming and presented great rally roads over both shire and forestry routes. Coffs was then nominated as the new home of the WRC in New South Wales after the first east-coast round, based in Kingscliff in 2009, was rejected by some members of the community. The 2009 (Repco Rally Australia) event was run to the highest possible standards, with a great focus on the environment and sustainability, but the long liaison between the beachside rally base at Kingscliff and the wonderful shire and forestry roads around Kyogle proved its undoing. Not just for the driving times over twisty and hilly roads, but the fact that some communities in the hinterland took a healthy dislike to the motorsport event, and took the opportunity to protest the rally out of the district.

Dani Sordo in action at Rally Australia in 2009, the only time the event was held at Kingscliffe.

The organisers were tarred with the brush of environmental vandals, locals took to booing the rally cars as they drove past small communities, and in at least one instance, rocks were thrown at passing rally cars. Sadly, at the rally base in Kyogle, in the heart of cattle country, the town and local businesses welcomed the rally with open arms and enjoyed significant economic returns. Even international drivers were quoted as asking why the event would return to this area when it appeared the WRC was unwanted! The significance of the sponsor should not be understated. Repco was seen as a strong Australian brand name and perfectly suited to the toughness of a world championship rally in Australia. The event included a super special stage in the town of Murwillumbah, effectively little more than a street stage which mirrored the iconic Speed on Tweed local ‘dash’ event which had built a strong following in the town. Neal Bates Motorsport and Queenlander Stewart Reid ran their newly-homologated Toyota Corolla S2000s in the event, chasing the internationals in the PWRC class. Unfortunately, the dominant Citroen C4s of Loeb, Sordo and Ogier were demoted due to illegal front anti-roll bar links, and Mikko Hirvonen took the revised top podium position in his M-Sport Ford Focus. Hayden Paddon brought his Lancer Evo 9 over the Tasman and took 9th outright, winning PWRC in the process, but was not registered for points. Locals Cody Crocker/Ben Atkinson took 12th outright and 4th in class, Nathan Quinn/David Green were 16th, and John Goasdoue/Scott Beckwith 7th in class. 2010 – Rally of NZ As part of the antipodean event-sharing strategy, in 2010 the event moved to the north island of New Zealand, and after 400km of gravel stages, the win was taken by Jari Matti Latvala, from Sebastian Ogier and Sebastian Loeb. The Aussie contingent was limited, with Glen MacNeall co-driving for with Emma Gilmour to 17th outright in their Subaru WRX, Ben Searcy alongside Jean-Louis Leyraud who came 24th in another WRX, and Anthony McLoughlin, with Liu Caodong in a Subaru Sti, who retired on SS21 after an accident. 2011 – Rally Australia 2011 saw the WRC jump back across the ditch to Oz under the familiar Repco Rally Australia banner, but in a new location. In response to the criticism levelled against the 2009 event, Coffs Harbour entered the fray, with seaside ambience, plentiful good quality accommodation, a local airport, fantastic shire and forestry roads and a huge bucketful of good will. The Coffs Jetty precinct stage was a picturesque inclusion, designed to attract a large spectator crowd, with a lot of effort going into the construction of grandstands and corporate suites. Unfortunately the design of the stage meant that spectators trying to get to the infield could only use an access point at track level, and only during safe gaps in the running of the cars. There was some dissatisfaction because of the prolonged delays in getting in and out of the infield. This would be a factor that the organisers took on board for the following year. Attracting a lot of interest was the entry of American gymkhana specialist Ken Block in his Fiesta WRC, who eventually finished in 19th place. Mikko Hirvonen took another win for M-Sport in his WRC Fiesta, with Latvala in second from Petter Solberg third in a Citroen DS3. Haydon Paddon/John Kennard recorded a brilliant 6th outright in their Subaru STi, and won the PWRC class. Naturally the local entries in their home event were high, with John Spencer/John Goasdoue claiming 15th outright in Spencer’s Evo 9 Lancer, Reeves/Smyth 17th O/R (Subaru STi), and Quinn/Green 18th (Lancer Evo 9).

New Zealand is a driver and fan favourite, but hasn't hosted the WRC since 2012.

2012  - Brother Rally New Zealand Back to Auckland in New Zealand’s north island, and the event used the traditional WRC roads on the west coast, along with a city-centre special stage around the botanical gardens. In typical cold and wet New Zealand weather, it was a Citroen win to Sebastian Loeb, with Mikko Hirvonen and Petter Solberg rounding out the podium. At home, Hayden Paddon was a brilliant 12th outright in his ‘Green Machine’ Skoda Fabia S2000. 2013 – Rally Australia Back in Australia in 2013 and Coffs Harbour welcomed Coates Hire as the naming rights sponsor for the event. The Coates organisation had been a long and strong local supporter of rallying on the east coast. Nathan Quinn, Coffs Harbour’s favourite son, swung a deal to run a WRC car for the first time with the Motorsport Italia team’s Mini WRC car. Although not a top-level current car, Quinn/MacNeall performed extremely well to finish in 8th outright to please his local supporters. It cost a lot though, with funding cobbled together in this one-off drive. Hayden Paddon was still running WRC2 in this event, and finished 5th in the category in his Skoda Fabia S2000, and 16th outright. Interestingly, the podium was taken by three different makes with Ogier taking the win in his VW Polo R WRC, from Neuville in a Fiesta RS and Hirvonen in third in his DS3 Citroen. The rally saw the Super Special Stage move into central Coffs Harbour, with a stage run multiple times in Brelsford Park under lights.

Kris Meeke battles typically dusty Coffs Harbour conditions on the 2013 shakedown stage.

2014 – Rally Australia In 2014, the Super Special Stage was revised to include a manufactured track at the C-Ex Coffs International Stadium. The 1.66km long Hyundai Super Special Stage was designed to attract the local crowd to enjoy some genuine gravel action close to home. Chris Atkinson was invited to join the new Hyundai WRC team, making an appearance as Australia’s local home-grown WRC star, and claimed 10th outright in a Hyundai i20 WRC car, one of a trio competing that year. Atkinson’s car was reported to be in a lesser state of tune and handling specification to his teammates Paddon and Neuville. It was a dominant performance by the Volkswagen team, with podium positions taken by Ogier, Latvala and Mikkelsen.

Chris Atkinson drove for the factory Hyundai squad in 2014.

2015 – Rally Australia 2015, and while the Polo R WRC team was again on the winner’s rostrum, future World Rally Champion Ott Tanak took sixth place in his M-Sport Fiesta, impressing the Australian crowds in the process. Ogier, Latvala were only separated by 12 seconds at the end of the event, with Kris Meeke taking a well-deserved third, only 20 seconds further adrift. Ever reliable, Hayden Paddon/John Kennard were inside the top five, the first of the Hyundai i20 WRC team. Of the Australians contesting the WRC, 14th outright went to Nathan Quinn in his Lancer Evo 9, 15th to Eli Evans in a Citroen DS3, and Molly Taylor gained more and more experience in 17th in a Renault Clio R3.

With Hayden Paddon in the Hyundai squad, New Zealanders had plenty to cheer about in 2015.

2016 – Rally Australia 2016 brought about a change to the naming rights sponsor, with Kennards Hire providing both financial support and the massive amount of safety and other equipment required to present a World Championship rally. Taking the outright win, Andreas Mikkelsen saw the end of an era with the folding of the factory Volkswagen WRC team. The German manufacturer had suffered worldwide impacts of the ‘software’ scandal involving emissions testing, and apparently decided to focus their spend on compensating hundreds of thousands of car buyers who – despite being very happy with their VW product – may have sought some level of recovery for their ‘losses’. Ogier was second, with the Hyundai i20’s of Neuville and Paddon in third and fourth respectively. Molly Taylor and Bill Hayes took a fine 13th outright in the Subaru Australia STi, cementing her Australian Rally Championship title in the process. Take nothing away from the Pedder team Peugeot 208 Maxi, in a brilliant 14th outright, but controversy raged after the event as a result of a 1-minute penalty incurred by the team very late in the event on the final day. In the accompanying ARC event, the relegation of Pedder allowed Molly Taylor to take sufficient ARC points to clinch the title, with Simon Evans pushed down the order.

Volkswagen dominated the WRC for three years, before in-house problems saw them depart the series suddenly.

2017 – Rally Australia 2017 finally saw Neuville win Rally Australia in his Hyundai i20, from a hard-charging Tanak (Fiesta WRC) and a fighting Hayden Paddon in third place, thanks in part to a late crash by Latvala on the Power Stage, with the finish in sight. Showing the strength of the field, the podium place-getters were separated by less than a minute. One of the highlights of the event was the performance of popular local Richie Dalton in his R5 Skoda. After showing great speed in a number of cars and committing to a new Fiesta AP4 car, Dalton took the plunge and hired a Skoda R5 car to run in the international event. His spirited drive to finish 8th outright was remarkable in such a quality world-class field. Nathan Quinn once again flew the local flag in ninth outright, clinching the Australian title in the process, with Dean Herridge making a rare appearance to round on the top 10. Molly Taylor’s Subaru was a non-finisher due to engine problems, and her ‘brother-from-another-mother’ Harry Bates also retired his Toyota Yaris AP4 with problems not previously encountered during the car’s development.

Jari-Matti Latvala drove his Toyota Yaris WRC to victory at Rally Australia in 2018.

2018 – Rally Australia 2018 arrived with growing chat about the future of the WRC in Australia. Word was filtering through that the FIA may have wanted an event based out of a capital city, but the strength of NSW’s regional funding suggested that the state still had the inside running on the continuation of the event in this country. The event organisers pushed on with the job at hand, offering up their usual Coffs Harbour event with a strong international entry and a ‘business-as-usual’ attitude. Perhaps the most-seen news clip in a long time was the unfortunate crash of Molly Taylor’s Subaru in a road-side tree that was definitely not moving out of the way. Thankfully the crew was safe, but the accident made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Jari-Matti Latvala finally won what may be the final Rally Australia in Coffs Harbour, with Hayden Paddon taking a fitting second place in what was his last drive in the factory Hyundai WRC team. The popular Mads Ostberg grabbed third place for the Citroen WRC team. Locally, quiet achiever Steve Glenney took a Skoda Fabia R5 to an astonishing 9th outright. Reflecting the Australian team’s continued drive for excellence, Rally Australia officials were also recognized by the FIA in 2018 as being amongst the world’s best. Dr Matthew Croxford was named as Best Chief Medical Officer and Barry Habgood received the gong for Best Chief Scrutineer.

Sebastien Loeb clinched his sixth world title at Rally Australia in 2018.

2019 – Is this the end of an era? The terrible bushfire emergency of 2019 created havoc and dismay for so many affected families and communities on the east coast of Australia. In the lead-up to the November 2019 WRC event, it became evident that running a rally through some of the affected areas was not only dangerous for all concerned, but not the morally correct path to follow. International and local crews, visitors and volunteers had managed to make their way to Coffs Harbour before, in some cases, roads were cut or access restricted. As the intensity of the emergency became more apparent, the organisers of Kennards Hire Rally Australia worked closely with local authorities, government stakeholders and the community in an effort to cobble together something of a spectacle. In the end, it became too much, and with emergency resources required elsewhere in so many locations, it was decided to abandon the event. Social media critics were quick to claim that the decision should have been made earlier to save people from making an unwanted trip to the region, but those who did make the effort to be in Coffs Harbour spent their money and lifted the local economy, while many offered help in any capacity.

The final Rally Australia at Coffs Harbour was cancelled because of bushfires that ravaged NSW.

No single WRC team criticised the decision, and without exception, WRC teams and stars stepped in to donate time, money and assistance to communities and individuals affected by the bushfire emergency. It showed the strength of the international rally community in a time of great adversity. With the 2019 Australian event not run and not won, attention has turned to Rally New Zealand, to be run in the north island of New Zealand this year. The Kiwis fought long and hard, and presented a good case to have the event brought back ‘home’, and there is little doubt that Rally New Zealand will put on a good show. Recently the WRC Promoter implied a return to Australian shores in 2021, by stating that the “.. intention … is to return to an attractive location in Australia.” Without confirming Coffs Harbour as the potential or likely home for a future event, there is speculation about an Australian venue for the WRC. Will it be Coffs Harbour? Sydney? Bathurst? Notably the Western Australian rally community has started a petition to bring the event back to the west, and is chasing the government for support and funding. Whatever the future holds, Coffs Harbour can proudly lay claim to having written and published a very significant chapter in Australia’s rallying history.
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