Hiding behind the fanfare of AFL preliminary finals weekend, the Australian Tarmac Rally Championship kicked off its 2018-19 campaign with the Snowy River Sprint, held over 22-23 September.
Based in the Gippsland region of Victoria, the Snowy River Sprint tests crews over 19 stages and a total competitive distance of 260km. The stage layout is compact, utilising the twisty tarmac around the picturesque town of Buchan, which served as the event’s pre-start assembly point and service area.
Some 38 crews entered the Competition category, with a diverse mix of vehicles competing for stage honours; from the incredible Dodge Viper of John Ireland and Janet Binns through perennial favourite Mitsubishi Lancer Evolutions and Subaru Impreza WRXs to the diminutive 1965 Mini of Chris Fitzgerald and Corey Bryant, there was truly something for everyone.
In addition, the Australian Auto Sport Alliance-led ‘Tour’ section – seen as a feeder category, with a 130km/h speed limit, lead and sweep drivers, no required roll cage and driver training available – attracted ten crews. Of these, several participants entered via new charity partner, Drive Against Depression. This organisation normalises conversations around mental health via a range of motoring events.
Warm, welcoming weather dawned on the Saturday as Buchan’s stunning location created a natural amphitheatre for service crews. The in-car teams, however, were focused on the packed, 13-stage Saturday schedule, with only one test measuring over 10km in length.
The opening stage, known simply as CFA for its proximity to the Buchan fire department, offered an instantly challenging 7.87km test.
The Ireland/Binns Viper set the initial pace, though a gap of only 1.1sec back to Craig Dean and Mary Hughes’s menacing Shelby GT Mustang indicated honours would be hard-fought from the outset. It was the same two crews, mixed in with the Danny Traverso and Jason Page Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, that monopolised the podium places until Tucker Box, the 8.87km fifth stage and the first of the return run to Buchan for lunch.
After topping the charts all morning, the Ireland Viper managed only a third position on Tucker Box as the Dean Shelby took line honours, followed by Mick Harding and Adam Kudra in their potent 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX STi numbered ‘555’, referencing the legendary Subaru World Rally Team that won world rally championships around the turn of the century.
At the Buchan lunch stop it appeared that the Viper was using its tyres more than the Mustang. Straight up after lunch, on the day’s longest stage (CFA Long, 16.99km), however, Ireland eked out another stage win, this time by 1.2sec from the Traverso Mitsubishi, with Dean another two seconds back.
Ireland would also take the tenth stage before the Harding Impreza was able to usurp the American Muscle Cars’ Day One event dominance… albeit only 0.1sec ahead of Ireland after 9.38km of driving. The mighty V10-powered Viper was able to redress the balance by taking the final two stages of the day, taking an impressive overnight lead.
Unfortunately, the Viper crew had literally worn the tyre through, with the effect that they were unable to start the second day’s stages. This opened the door for a titanic Day Two battle between the Dean Mustang and the tenacious Traverso Evo and Harding’s STi.
Gentle rain coincided with crews returning to the Buchan stage start and it proved advantageous to the all-wheel drive crews. Harding/Kudra took the opening 16.8km test with Traverso/Page in second and Dean’s rear-wheel drive, V8 beast in third place. But a new stage winner emerged on the 19.58km Stony Long, with John and Guy Lilleyman’s Mitsubishi Evo taking fastest time.
But if the Lilleymans’ Day Two pace surprised, it was the mechanical issues that befell the Dean Mustang that stunned, the morning favourite for outright victory failing to complete the sixteenth stage, Ostlers Long. Instead it was Harding who assumed the top slot with a stage 16 win in the Subaru.
He followed this up with another win on Tara, the shortest stage of Day Two at 8.58km. With only two long (Buchan Long at 37.44km and Orbost Long’s 29.17km respectively) stages remaining, the pressure was on Traverso. He delivered a mighty result on Stage 18, covering the near-40km twist of tarmac in only 19 minutes, 18.807 seconds. The problem? Harding was only 0.8sec behind…
For the final Snowy River Sprint stage, Traverso still wouldn’t relent, and he took yet another stage gong. But Harding was there again, only 1.4sec off. The STi v Evo battle had added another classic rally chapter. As the sun set over East Gippsland, the final results filtered through with Harding and Kudra taking outright honours in the 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX STi.
Traverso and Page fought hard over the two days, to finish only 19.4sec in arrears – when you factor-in the 260km competitive distance, the gap was truly tiny. Finishing in third place was the Lilleyman’s Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, this crew only 1 minute and 42 seconds off the top step and consistently in the top six over the weekend.
Over in the Classic Competition it was the Morlings’ 1976 Mk2 Ford Escort that took the chequer, a comfortable six minutes and 51sec to the good of the Clair/Harper with the crowd favourite 1972 Holden Torana only 27sec further back.
After the Snowy River Sprint, the second round of the 2018-19 Australian Tarmac Rally Championship is The Great
Tarmac Rally, held out of Marysville, Victoria on October 12-13.