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About five kilometres into the event’s second stage, Sylvia Creek, Bates slid the Corolla wide on the exit to a fifth-gear bend. The back wheel hit a bank, flipped the car up and it rolled down the road, coming to rest on its roof.

“We didn’t come here to come second, but I guess we just overstepped the mark a little bit,” Neal Bates said later. “The car’s not too badly damaged, so we’ll be right to start again tomorrow.” But, as Coral Taylor said later, rallying’s a funny sport, and Possum Bourne looked to have the event in the bag then and there.

“Neal and I were sitting on the side of the road thinking how we’d just thrown the championship away. We needed to win this event to continue to lead the championship, but now it looked ominously like it was all over. How wrong we were.”

Possum Bourne and Craig Vincent had settled into the first day well, building a lead of two and a half minutes on Day One of the 1999 Rally of Melbourne by the time the penultimate stage of the day had begun. While the Kiwi was pushing hard, he certainly wasn’t on the limit.

But on the treacherously icy and snowy Ben Cairn stage, Bourne lost control of the Subaru in deep snow and hit a tree stump head on. The impact was heavy enough to render his car undriveable, despite the computer later revealing that at the time of impact the car was doing just 33.8kmh.

It was bad luck for Bourne and Vincent, but good luck at the same time – the pair stopped just 300 metres from the area’s snow-covered hang gliding launch pad, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to picture what might have occurred had the Subaru slid over the edge at the highest point of the mountain.

Weather always plays a big part in the running of the Rally of Melbourne in Victoria’s picturesque Yarra Valley, some 50 kilometres north of Melbourne. As well as being ideal country for the growing of wine-producing grapes, the fickle weather which Melbourne is famous for in springtime, always makes tyre choice a real gamble.

And despite the fact that temperatures at this time of the year are on the rise, sudden cold snaps often precede heavy snowfalls on the high ranges of the area. That was the case in 1999 when both Bates and Bourne fell victim to snow and ice, and there’s every chance that similar conditions could occur this year.

Despite one of the driest winters on record, conditions for the event could change literally overnight and dry, dusty stages on the valley floor could make way for wet, icy and snowy conditions high up in the hills.

The rally’s Ben Cairn stage is one of the most exciting in the whole event – fast and furious across the top of the range where brave pills are a mandatory requirement when drivers begin to select fifth gear. Then it’s the gut-wrenching descent on a bitumen surface to the Don Road spectator point where cars appear with brakes that glow red hot.

Everyone treats this stage with caution when it’s dry. Given a light dusting of snow, the stage resembles a scene from “Skating on Ice”, so there’s a certain guarantee that teams will be looking to the weather bureau for the first hint of inclement weather over this coming weekend.

Even though the area boasted 28 degree temperatures just four days before the start, there’s no guarantee that Mother Nature won’t intervene in the most bizarre of ways when the NGK Rally of Melbourne hits the high country in the Yarra Valley this weekend.

Photos: Peter Whitten

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