GQ, October 2019 (LINK)
Three drivers from the world’s most insane category of motorsport explain the method to the madness.
When Friedrich Nietzsche said ‘there is always some reason in madness’, he obviously had never anticipated the sheer lunacy of rally driving. Because unlike almost any other sport in the world, when it comes to reason… well on first glance, seems entirely absent.
Rally, for the uninitiated, is a grueling category of motorsport where cars slide, skid and jump over mud, ice, dirt, gravel and/or sand as they speed through set race stages one-by-one. Stages are purposely-set tracks that wind through dense, twisting forests, take on unpredictable mountain roads and drift across scorched deserts, one at a time, all the while a co-driver directs with pace notes and instructions for the roads ahead.
All this happens at brain-melting speeds, timed within the tenth of a second with the unpredictability of the forest acting as a wild card.
Then, drivers and co-drivers have to somehow have to dial the adrenaline back down, flick the switch and drive on public roads again to get to the next stage, obeying local rules and speeds, before going at it all over again. Unlike the controlled and relatively easily-learnable tracks in circuit racing, rally takes place on some of the most variable and erratic tracks in the world – ‘tracks’ being a loose term to even start with. Pure madness.
Photo: Lewis Bates/Toyota Gazoo Racing courtesy of the World Rally Championship
“The feeling of driving a car down a closed forest road on gravel, going sideways through trees and flying flat out at 200 kilometres an hour is…I can't describe it in words,” says current Australian Rally Champion Harry Bates. “But it's one of the most incredible feelings. And very addictive.”
For spectators, he adds, it becomes just as thrilling – you never quite know what you’re going to get – jumps and sends, skids, crashes (hopefully nothing too bad), dust clouds, crazy saves and even the odd kangaroo on the track (!!) are often the norm. Just the scene itself is something to behind - the claps of the cars and the clouds of dust rising above the eucalyptus – it’s like nothing else on earth.
Photo: Hyundai's Andreas Mikkelsen during the 2018 Rally Australia, courtesy of the World Rally Championship)
For one weekend this November, the crème de la crème of the sport, the thrilling World Rally Championship arrives in Coffs Harbour for its final global leg. After bashing through 13 other countries, including Sweden, Monaco, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Portugal, Finland, Turkey, Great Britain and Spain lands the Kennard’s Hire Rally Australia is the last chance for teams to earn points, the adrenaline is extra high.
It's also one of a handful of world championship motorsport events held in Australia (such as the Formula One and MotoGP) and due to a new rotation on the calendar, won’t return to Coffs Harbour again until 2021.
Photo: Harry Bates/Toyota Gazoo Racing, courtesy of the Rally Australia
Not only does the event show off the picturesque forests of northern New South Wales to the rest of the world (and our pristine Northern NSW beaches to visitors), but it will race beside the CAMS Australian Rally Championship, of which Bates and his brother Lewis compete in for Toyota Gazoo Racing Australia.
“Rally Australia is probably one of the toughest events on the world rally calendar,” says Harry. “It's proven that time and time again.” Alas, despite the fact the WRC brings some of the world’s best teams to our shores, all who are expertly skilled in writing pace notes and reading the road, Australians do have some kind of home advantage: we are used to the variability of the bush. “We live in a pretty vast land and we're lucky enough to do rallies in Western Australia, Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland and more,” he says.
“Every one of our rallies is completely different and that gives us a good advantage when we're competing against people who have only competed on one surface or in one type of forest. From that point of view, being an Australian is very, very helpful.”
Unlike circuit racing (and to be honest, most sports around the world) rally’s unpredictability means experience trumps youth. “It's an incredibly tough sport and because you're traveling, and these aren’t permanent tracks.
You're not going to the same race track every year where you learn your corners and braking points,” explains Subaru do Motorsport driver and 2016 Australian Rally Champion, Molly Taylor. Taylor recently added asphalt to her resume by joining the newest category of circuit racing, TCR, in addition to her already packed rally schedule.
“You'll see that drivers traditionally peak later because you have to be in so many scenarios and you have to learn what to do and often that just happens by making mistakes. There's just so much to learn because the conditions, the group, the road, everything is constantly changing and you've got two people in the car working together. To get everything right is really, really hard. It takes time.”
Even though the Bates brothers and Taylor have the sport in their blood and etched into their memories – their respective parents, driver Neal Bates and co-driver Coral Taylor are four-time Australian Rally Champions and Australia’s most successful team in the ‘90s and 2000s – they insist it doesn’t make it any easier. It does not take away that the madness of the speed, the variables and the fact drivers and co-drivers have to work together in sync.
“When you first start rallying, it can be overwhelming - there's so much happening at once, it's sort of hard to take everything in,” says Lewis. “Until you experience that for yourself, you don't realise sort of how much is going on and the speeds you go. And so yeah, that sort of blew me away a bit when I did my first rally, even though I watched Dad do it from a young age."
Harry agrees, "It takes a while to learn everything there is to know about rallying because there are so many layers and facets. The road and getting the fastest stage time is just one part, but you have to develop a relationship with a co-driver, which is very unique to motorsport and you have to have a really strong bond and one-on-one trusting relationship with them.”
Photo: Molly Taylor/Subaru do Motorspot
So does the holy fuck-ness, the sheer madness of this sport have an existential method, beyond the physical rush and adrenaline addiction? “When I was younger, I listened to a quote from Luis Moya who was Carlos Sainz’ co-driver and world champion,” says Taylor, touching on the difficulty of what goes on behind what we see as spectators.
“He said ‘Rally is the university of life’. There's the adrenaline and the buzz and that sensation of the car dancing under you as you're right on the edge of grip and trying not to go over… but you learn to push yourself out of your natural comfort zone.”
She continues, “You’re dealing with so many crappy, awful scenarios and one small mistake can have a big consequence. And then you also have the teamwork of the driver, co-driver and your team.. You’re trying to set-up and develop the car and that element of competition, and then the atmosphere from all the crowds – you do feel like you’re a family too.” Taylor pauses, pensively. “I guess when you kind think about all that… it does put everything into perspective. It does teach you so much. It is the university of life, in a way.”