For a young person wanting to get started in rally driving, the decision of what car to buy first is probably the toughest one of all.
Should you go front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, or step straight into the deep end with four-wheel drive?
We decided to ask two of Australia’s most respected rally drivers, Neal Bates and Brendan Reeves, what they would do, if they had their time all over again.
Neal Bates is a four-time Australian Rally Champion, a Targa Tasmania winner and has just about done it all in Australian rallying. Brendan Reeves is a multiple ARC round winner, contested the World Rally Championship Academy, and is now a much-respected driving coach.
Both started in rear-wheel drive cars, but their experiences - and the progression of time - has meant that it’s not what they’d do now.
“I’d definitely choose front-wheel drive, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the cheapest car they can find,” Bates said.
“Both Harry and Lewis (Bates) started in a Corolla Sportivo that we bought for $18,000, but it could be a Mirage, an Excel or just about anything.”
Reeves agrees: “I’d start with a Hyundai Excel and do the one-make series that has been so successful in both NSW and Victoria,” he said.
“If you can drive any car flat out that’s a good thing, but if the competition you are beating is in the same car on the same events, then it says a lot about your driving ability.
“Excels aren’t super fast, but budget wise they are really affordable, spare parts are cheap, and you can usually buy a fully prepared car for under $10,000.
“After a year in an Excel, a young driver would then have plenty of experience and have more of an idea about what to move into next,” he added.
Neal Bates says that a front-wheel drive rally car is the way to get started in the sport.
The choice of your first car will often be determined by what a driver is expecting to get out of rallying, and how far they are hoping to progress up the ladder.
It should also have a bearing on what events you contest.
“It depends what your aim is,” Bates says. “If your aim is to win the Australian or World championship, then you’ll need to be doing every pacenoted rally you can.
“But if you just want to compete for the fun of it, then do whatever rally you want and enjoy the experience.
“If you look at the current WRC drivers, though, and looked at how many non-pacenoted rallies they’ve done in their careers, I don’t think you’d find that it’s many.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a guy like Sebastien Ogier has never done a ‘blind’ rally.”
Getting to the top is never easy, and this is not helped by there being no set path up the ladder in Australian rallying.
In circuit racing, you might progress from karting into Formula Ford, into TCR, then the Supercars development series and, eventually into Supercars. Rallying, however, doesn’t have such a set structure.
Rear-wheel drive cars are fun to drive, but experts recommend front-drive machines to start rallying in. Photo: Peter Whitten
The bottom line is, you need money to get anywhere.
“It takes lots of money,” Bates explains. “To make it in Formula 1 you probably need $20 million, in the WRC probably $3 million.”
“You need talent first, then money,” Reeves adds.
“If you have the money, you can get to where you want to be, no problem. But you also need the talent to get there – otherwise, what’s the point?”
Reeves is speaking from experience, having been a competitor in the WRC Academy in 2011 and 2012, and competing against drivers like Craig Breen and Elfyn Evans – now regular WRC stars.
“No matter what category you’re competing in, unless you’re dominating, you’ll never make it,” he says.
“Both Craig and Elfyn dominated the WRC Academy, and look at where they’ve ended up.”
Motorsport is an incredibly expensive sport, and while getting started isn’t cheap, the advice of drivers like Neal Bates and Brendan Reeves will, if nothing else, help to set you on the right path.
After that, it’s up to you how far you proceed.
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