|Australian Rally Super Series - Round 1 - Rally NSW, Coffs Harbour||Round 2|
The same weekend that the V8 Supercars went around the ex-F1 circuit, world championship cars of a completely different kind were going into battle in the country beach resort town of Coffs Harbour, seven hours drive north of Sydney - Australia's biggest city (where I grew up!). The rally fraternity met for it's first barney of the year, and Canberra's Neal Bates and Coral Taylor are determined this year that they will be the first to get to four Aussie titles. The pair, driving a Corolla WRC, have had to follow Kiwi Possum Bourne and co-driver Craig Vincent home in the last three Australian title years. They are now tied on three titles each! Possum really wants the fourth title though, and has secured an ex-Colin McRae Prodrive Subaru WRC98 - in fact the one Colin used during last year's Rally Australia.
Many other classes would be contested - Queenslander Stewart Reid (actually Scottish born, but we don't hold that against him!) wants to bring home the Group N title, and would do this event in an older Evo 3 Lancer and then subsequent rounds in a new Evo 5. Cody Crocker and Greg Foletta, from Melbourne, have a full time drive in the ARC this year, in a factory Group N Impreza (teammate to Possum Bourne). The father and son combination from Sydney, John and Damien Long would be back to try and defend their Privateers Cup win of last year, and had traded their Evo 3 Lancer for another Evo 5, while Spencer Lowndes (no relation to Touring Car driver Craig) had another Evo 5. Mark Haybittle would continue with his Evo 5 (the first one to run in the country) last year.
F2 looks like an interesting battle, with last year's pace setters Daihatsu pulling out - leaving F2 champ Rick Bates (younger twin brother of Neal Bates) to try and finance his own efforts. It also meant his teammate from West Australia, Ross Mackenzie, has had to shelve any plans he had of doing any more than one, maybe two of this year's events. Dean Herridge is in the UK doing the first two rounds of the British Championship, and so is his Hyundai Coupe FX, but he and co driver Glenn Macneall should be back for round two of the driver's title in Queensland in June.
The weather was not kind to the organisers this year in the hills behind Coffs. The rally started with a short super special around a local park, and Bates and Bourne equalled times, and they would swap seconds all day. As last year, Bates eked out a small advantage until his gear box refused to go past fourth gear about three stages from the end. The TTA (Toyota Team Australia) guys worked miracles to change the gearbox in 14 minutes, but the same thing happened on the final stage. Possum was glad to see the finish, describing it as some of the hardest conditions he has ever faced. The new car was taking some learning, as an off at a left turn indicated. So Bates and Taylor had to settle for second. Again. They believed they had the package to turn this around on day 2 however..
The battle for Group N was just as tight, with Crocker and Foletta looking as though their Group N defence was starting well until they went off on the same corner as Poss - but further off, with lots of front end damage. They were also out of day 2. The Evo 5 of Spencer Lowndes and Claire Parker was travelling well, as the car was only finished a few days before the rally. But they spun off, and Mark Haybittle, following on the road, was unable to avoid the stranded car, and nearly knocked it off a 200 metre drop! But nobody, not even Crocker was going to catch Stewie Reid and Anthony McLoughlin. The pair were looking forward to day 2.
F2 was dominated by the new VW Kit Car of Simon Evans, and wife Sue. Simon has campaigned a Corolla hatch with limited success in the past and was looking forward to showing what he and the awesome ex-Alister McRae Golf could do. He set many fastest times, but they ran out of fuel and illegally refuelled before the second stage. This meant that they would have to withdraw before the end of the day, which they did on the final transport back into Coffs. This left Rick Bates/ Jenny Brittan (yes, the wife of Englishman Nick Brittan) to take the class, but not before a great battle with three times Aussie F2 champ Brett Middleton, who with co-driver Andrew Benefield, were having a much better run in Coffs than for most of last year in their Civic V-TEC. But Bates ended the day with the points lead.
But what about day 2? 120mm of rain fell overnight Saturday night, which gave the organisers little option but to cancel the second day's rallying. This was the first time a leg of an Australian Rally Championship round has ever been abandoned, especially before the start.
So the ARC now moves to the Australian Asia Pacific Championship round in Canberra in early May. With names like Malaysian champion Karamjit Singh in an Escort WRC, the two local WRC car drivers, ex-Aussie champ Ed Ordynski in a Group A Evo 3 Lancer, Britain's Dom Buckley in a Group A Impreza and many more, the FAI Rally of Canberra will be an event not to be missed. So I won't, and I'll bring you images and stories from there in May. Stay sideways!
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