Wayne Bell is widely regarded as the greatest rally driver never to have won the Australian Rally Championship.
The Newcastle native got his big break when he was selected to drive for the factory Marlboro Holden Dealer Team in the 1980s, and spent many years driving a selection of Geminis in the Australian Rally Championship.
He was part of the Holden Dealer Team in the 1979 Repco Round Australia Reliability Trial, and later joined forces with Hyundai and ran the Korean company’s first official rally team, contesting the ARC, the Asia-Pacific and World Rally Championships.
Coming up to his 66th birthday in March, Bell tells RallySport Magazine of his greatest memories in the sport, how he wasn’t allowed to drive the final days of the ’79 Repco Trial, and his experiences with Hyundai, including being welcomed back to the team at the 2014 Rally of Portugal.
Wayne Bell pushing the Holden Dealer Team Gemini hard in the Castrol International Rally.
RSM: You’re widely regarded as the best driver never to win the Australian Rally Championship. How does that sit with you?Wayne Bell: Yes, I have that honour, if you can call it that. It does not worry me so much, although it would have been nice to have that title.
I was actually Australian and Asia-Pacific Champion in Formula 2 (F2) and won WRC events in the class of vehicle I was driving. However, in the overall scheme of things ... big deal!
I am satisfied that I was respected by my competitors, and spectators enjoyed my driving style. I am satisfied that my career lasted around 30 years, either driving factory cars or fully-supported teams. I never considered myself to be anything special or better than my competitors.
Driving came easy to me. I did not have to work at it, and just got in and did my thing.
George (Shepheard – Holden Dealer Team boss) never said anything to me as far as my ability was concerned, except once in testing the Gemini for the first time. He said to his wife Marie, who was there at the time: “You have got to go for a ride with Wayne, it is really something else”. I took that as a compliment.
The only person to ever really comment was Fred Gocentas when we were testing in the Fiat. Fred said: “F^%& me, I am pleased you never had a BDA”. I also took that as a compliment, and once Neal Bates said after a test session in Canberra (in a Hyundai Coupe): “[email protected]#t, do you usually drive that hard?”
Also, Murry Coote just reckoned I was crazy. Anyway, to answer your question, no it does not bother me that much.
What was your best year in the ARC, and how close did you come to winning the championship?
I am hopeless on dates, however, I finished second in the ARC twice I think, for sure once behind Greg Carr. Having my team, Japanese Connection, withdraw halfway through the championship, and some poor decisions on my behalf after that, cost me the championship that year.
I only needed to finish the Alpine Rally ahead of Greg’s Alfa, and with the 323 Mazda that should have been a stroll in the park. But no, not me ... I clipped a bank on the first stage and broke the rear suspension. We had no parts, so completed the event with a patched up car held together with wire.
I made the mistake of modifying the Mazda to Group A, but should have left it standard - it was fast enough to win.
Wayne Bell was one of the pioneers in Australia driving a Mazda 323 4WD in the mid 1980s.
You drove for the factory Holden Dealer Team for many years, largely in what were considered uncompetitive cars (Geminis) against the factory Ford and Datsun teams. Was it a frustrating period, or one where you felt you were punching above your weight?
It was a huge honour to be selected for the Dealer Team. Who would not jump at the chance?
In hindsight I should have waited. I wanted to drive for Mitsubishi and I think had I not driven for MHDT, then that would have happened. No regrets though, I just loved driving and, to be frank, I did not care what I drove, as long as I was having fun and getting the best out of the machinery I had at that time.
I was not getting paid, but it was not costing me to do what I loved either.
The Turbo Gemini was a disaster at that time. Technology was not around like it is today. The turbo lag was tremendous, although funnily enough, it suited my style. I liked to be on the throttle early and this simply meant I had to be on it even earlier.
The thing was quick when it was going, and we often had quickest stage times.
Jumping the factory Holden Gemini at Amaroo Park during the Southern Cross Rally.
Tell us a bit about the experience of the 1979 Round Australia Trial with Holden?
This was something special. I had been testing the old silver Commodore for 12 months prior to this event. George (Shepheard) did a fantastic job setting up the team for the Round Australia.
To achieve a 1-2-3 for Holden was unbelievable. It is history now that Brocky and I were having a right tussle and George did not interfere, saying they would sort it out.
Before Townsville, in car 17, we had decided to back off and let Brocky go and we would cruise to a comfortable second. We figured GM could get better publicity from Brocky winning than us.
However, there was a big team meeting in Townsville that I was not privy to. I was stuffed and needed sleep.
After Townsville I never got to drive the car again. I had to ask Fergy (Barry Ferguson) to let me drive into Newcastle, my home town, and he reluctantly agreed.
I don’t know what went down in Townsville to this day, but I am pretty sure instructions were for Brock to win, and I don’t think the big brass at GM trusted me to let that happen. I don’t know what I did, but from that day on I was out of favour with GMH management.
Years later I got an email from GM asking if I would drive a Calibra in Targa Tasmania. I replied that I would love to, and jokingly said “No second place this time”.
I never heard back, and next thing I know Ed Ordynski was driving it. Such is life!
I do thank George for having the belief in me as a driver, and together we had a lot of fun times. We had a great team, if not the most competitive car. Still, we achieved some outstanding results in the little Twin Cam Gemini.
When four-wheel drive came along, you drove a very fast Mazda 323. What was the change from rear-wheel drive to four-wheel drive like?
As I said earlier, Japanese Connection withdrew their support so I was without a drive. Lovell Springs were the main sponsor and Robert Lovell (an absolute gentleman) said “go and buy another car”. Problem solved!
Andrew Murfett had a 323 for sale, his old rally car that he had just taken all the rally gear out of and converted it back to a road car. I got him to chuck all the parts in the boot and send it to me.
It arrived three weeks before the SA round of the championship. My friends and I screwed the thing back together, stuck it on a trailer and headed for SA.
We lined up at the start of the first stage, never having driven the car, and away we went. It was pouring rain and Greg (Carr) was car one, we were second on the road. Greg’s lines were perfect, out wide, clip the apex then drift out wide again.
On the other hand, I was all over the road. Wherever the wheels were pointing when you hit the throttle, that was where this bloody thing went! I was up the inside of corners, literally all over the road. The stage was some 16km long and when we got to the end Dave Boddy just looked at me and said: “That was bloody terrible”. I replied, “Yep, not so good, eh!”.
As he was walking back from the control table he was shaking his head and laughing. He got in and said “guess what?”
I just shrugged. “We were 16 seconds faster then Greg!” I said “You are f*+&$# kidding”.
I did get the hang of it as the rally progressed, and we ended up winning by some margin, if I remember correctly.
When mastered with left-foot braking and getting into how to drive these things, they were bloody quick. Completely different to anything I had ever driven.
George Shepheard (left) and a tired looking Wayne Bell at a Castrol International Rally presentation. Journalist Will Hagan is in the background.
Wayne Bell and his Toyota Sprinter at the Keema Classic Rally in Queensland in 1987.
Moving forward, you were the first driver to bring Hyundai to rallying, and had a successful program in Australia, the Asia-Pacific region and in the World Championship. What were the highlights during the formation and the running of this program?
I guess bringing a brand new manufacturer into the sport, they were as keen as mustard, but had no idea what it was all about. The cars were fairly standard and were super strong.
We competed in 24 events before we had a retirement, finished no worse then second in class. I do believe that it gave Hyundai Korea the impression that they could win the WRC, that this rallying was easy.
Korea always made the decision to compete at the last moment. With Group N this was not such a problem, however, the move to Group A was something else. I could never make them understand that I needed approval and budget well in advance of the proposed competition date.
I had exactly three weeks to build two F2 Coupes for Rally New Zealand. Fortunately, I hade assumed they would approve the budget and went ahead and got the homologation and some parts designed and built. If they did not go ahead, I was financially up the creek big time.
My car only did one stage and had no oil pressure, but Bob Nicoli managed to finish the event. Despite the time constraints we got the cars sorted and had some success in Asia with the Coupe.
Highlights? Well, the Hong Kong Beijing Rally was unbelievable, and winning our class in that was fantastic. Also, when Greg Carr drove our second car in Rally Australia and the cars finished first and second in class.
Being treated like a king in Korea was amazing. I went into a shop to buy some Nike shoes, as they were super cheap in Korea, and the little guy in the store just stopped in his tracks. “Mr Wayne Bell,” he mumbled. “Please, please sit down.”
My wife just looked at me and made some smart comment!
Even to this day I have Facebook friends in Korea. Yes, they were the good days for sure. Hyundai are a great company and I have some life long friends in Korea.
Bell made Hyundai's rallying debut in a front-wheel drive Lantra, in the Alpine Rally in Victoria.
Your fourth place in Formula 2 in Portugal must have been the one of the best moments in your career?
The highlight of that event was at the start when Carlos Sainz, Juha Kankkunen, Colin McRae and several of the top drivers came over to me and said: “Welcome to Europe, Wayne, you should have been here years ago”. I will never forget that moment.
As for the event, it could have gone better. Whilst the car I drove was actually one I had built here in Australia, the Poms had had it all apart and it was never the same. It was over-fuelling to buggery and was way down on power. We finished fourth in F2 against some very good competition, so I was pleased with that.
Just to compete in Portugal was a fantastic experience. The crowds and the famous jump were incredible. Mr G.H Choi (current President of Hyundai Motor Sport) came over and said, “Thanks Wayne, you saved our arse again”.
Bell jumps the factory Hyundai over the famous Fafe jump in the Rally of Portugal. Photo: via Facebook
You retired in 2001, but have made the occasional appearance in rallying since then. What draws you back to the sport and keeps your interest?
Yes, I had a couple of guest drives for fun and enjoyed that. I think I am pretty much over it now as I know I can’t drive like I used to, and it’s too expensive these days even to just go out and have some fun.
I was very temped to ask G.H. Choi for a steer of the WRC i20, just to see how I would go. But with commonsense, and to save myself some serious embarrassment, I decided not to.
Hyundai’s participation has rekindled my passion and I watch closely what is going on in the team and how the drivers and cars are going.
Who were the drivers your respected most throughout your career and who were the hardest to beat?
Do you want a long list?? There were many of them. I would have to say Greg Carr in Canberra was unbeatable. I did manage to beat him once, but that is all. Let me see, there’s Greg Carr, George Fury, Colin Bond, Geoff Portman, Hugh Bell, Ed Ordynski, Ross Dunko, just to name a few.
What do you think of the current state of rallying on a world scale, and in Australia?
The WRC has heaps of potential. When Toyota come back it will be very interesting. There is also a potential for other manufacturers to compete.
At the moment there is not enough depth in the field at the top end.
In the ARC, I have been watching the progress of Harry (Bates) and Molly (Taylor), and it’s great to see Simon (Evans) back - he is very talented.
I reckon the R5 class could be the way to go in Australia. It’s still not cheap, but it’s a level playing field with potential for manufacturer involvement
The ARC lacks depth at the moment. I would like to see the more open NZ regulations, however, modern cars still need to win the championship if the sport is to regain its heyday.
Sure, there can be a classic class with their own championship or whatever, however for an importer or manufacturer to be interested it has to be modern cars. That is why I like the R5 regulations.
The Holden Gemini was a common fixture in Australian rallying in the 1970s. This is Bell on the Endrust Rally in South Australia.
How does Wayne Bell fill in his days now?
Still working for the Government, involved in the automotive services section for Fair Trading.
I’m doing some outback travel with the Land Cruiser and camper trailer. Catching up with old friends, pestering people on Facebook and just generally taking it easy.
I am 64 and rising. It seems like only yesterday when I took the first MHDT Gemini home and NBN 3 (local TV station) were there waiting to interview me as the local kid made good. Also, there was the local neighbour who used to always complain to my parents about my driving.
Mate, I couldn’t help it if he lived on a gravel street with a square left uphill. Even he was pleased for me!
Originally published in RallySport Magazine, August 2016.
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