Fine dust billows from the rally car’s arches as the fastest man threads the needle on the last day of Rally Australia.
Andreas Mikkelsen is taking liberties – cutting corners, running inside wheels perilous close to a steep drop and throwing his car sideways in a desperate bid to scrub off speed before a sharp bend near Bucca, a stone’s throw from Coffs Harbour.
Mikkelsen is a hunted man.
The factory-backed Volkswagen driver is fighting team-mate and new world champion Sebastien Ogier as well as young Hyundai runner Hayden Paddon, a Kiwi who hopes to upset the all-conquering Volkswagen effort on the year’s last racing day.
Just a few seconds separate the trio after more than two hours of competition.
It’s stirring stuff – enough to attract not only thousands of local spectators but racers like V8 Supercars man Craig Lowndes, who joins a small crew hosted by Hyundai Australia. We’re travelling in style, riding in helicopters from stage to stage to take in as much action as possible.
This is Lowndes’ first WRC experience, and it’s safe to say he’s a fan.
“This is fantastic,” he says.
“It’s world class. We watch them on TV all the time, but to have this in your own backyard is quite incredible.
“The WRC been on the bucket list, I’ve wanted to come out, but there has been date clashes every year up until this year. It’s nice to get out and finally have a look.”
Lowndes compares notes with rally drivers and finds surprising commonality between gravel and circuit racing. Both disciplines require constant work to help cars go, stop and turn better than their rivals – it’s all about grip and confidence.
The best WRC pilots have plenty of the latter – confidence in their skill, machinery and co-driver. Crews practice the course beforehand, taking detailed notes that inform their path to victory, as it’s not possible to win simply by reacting to what you can see.
The Bathurst winner watches alongside new wife Lara Lowndes, who travelled the globe with Peugeot’s World Rally Championship squad as its driver logistics manager a decade ago.
It’s a busy day off for a duo facing regular interruptions from petrolheads keen to meet racing royalty.
Bucca resident Matt Perks politely asks for a picture, jokingly adding that “you’re at my house so I suppose you have to say yes”.
Having parked the choppers on a farm next door, we join Matt and his mates in a front yard with front-row seats to a spectacle taking place on public roads.
“I enjoy it thoroughly,” Perks says.
“I’m really grateful it’s come back this way – there’s a good track, a good road and a good vantage point.
“If you think about it, this is held worldwide and then it comes all the way to your front door. I’m pretty grateful that the big drivers come out here – we love watching it and we love supporting it.”
It seems poignant that Hyundai ambassador Chris Atkinson is comparably invisible to fans, escorting our band in relative anonymity. I can’t imagine Casey Stoner or Mark Webber flying under the radar quite so easily.
“Atko” is Australia’s most recent WRC contender, and his cabinet is stocked with trophies from around the globe. There’s still room in there, so he’s competing in China and the US with Volkswagen and Subaru, but Australia’s national series is not on the agenda.
He reckons the WRC is the best show going, but that it has a problem with accessibility.
“The spectacle is still awesome, the footage is great, the content is great, and it’s just a matter of putting it in front of people,” he says.
“People won’t go out of their way to see it, but everyone is always blown away – a WRC car in real life on the right stages is probably one of the best things you’ll see in motorsport.”
“The spectacle is amazing, but it’s hard to get to.”
That’s doubly true if you don’t have access to a helicopter. We fly over long queues of cars at public-friendly super special stages at Raleigh Raceway and the Coffs Harbour esplanade, arriving in time to see the cars in action, and leaving when competition comes to a close.
The super special stages showcase competition in an easily digestible form; spectators witness the entire stage from one vantage point with commentators, big screens, beer and burger stands that make life easy. It’s a little like fast food – popular, quick and easily accessed if a little underwhelming, particularly if you have a taste for the real thing.
Atkinson is a rally purist keen to skip crowd-friendly special stages on go-kart tracks and carparks in favour of 200km/h jumps and high-commitment bends on gravel shire roads running throughout the Coffs region.
My first taste of a WRC car in full flight takes place near Taylor’s Arm, where our guide has us huddled behind a thick tree on the lip of a sixth-gear crest. Ogier’s Volkswagen explodes over the brow at full chat less than two metres away, rapping on its rev limiter as we’re peppered by stones.
It’s a shattering experience.
“Rallying shouldn’t be like Formula 1,” Atkinson says.
“They’ve stopped trying to make it like circuit racing. It’s not circuit racing, it’s an adventure – like the Tour de France.
“It should be something different.”
As a performance car enthusiast with a keen interest in several kinds of motorsport, I should be all over the WRC.
But it just couldn’t grab me. Until now.
Videos don’t do justice to the sheer violence of a WRC car being driven on the limit – the twitching, shape-shifting body language of cars on slippery surfaces is so much better firsthand. It’s a visceral experience, from the sound of twittering turbochargers and cracking exhausts to the cloying dust suspended in the air for a couple of minutes every time a car goes past.
Spectators spend the time between cars debating vantage points, spinning yarns of driving heroics and comparing action photos.
Hyundai has us here to demonstrate its investment in global motorsport, building enthusiast credibility ahead of the launch of its first proper performance car in the near future.
The sport is in a period of transition, both locally and abroad as current-generation WRC cars based on cheap-and-cheerful econoboxes like the Hyundai i20 and Ford Fiesta haven’t clicked with enthusiasts, and the sport is short on superstars. World rally organisers hope to address the former with faster cars featuring improved tech and extra downforce. The latter can only come with time and exposure, which is proving difficult in an increasingly fractured media landscape.
There’s light on the horizon at home, too, following the Australian Rally Championship’s return to proper all-wheel-drive machinery after years of uninspiring shopping-cart racing.
The ARC has been in the doldrums with front-wheel-drive machinery such as the Honda Jazz, Renault Clio and Citroen DS3 securing Australian championships at far slower speeds than cars that raced a decade ago.
Mark Stacey served as the late Possum Bourne’s co-driver in two championship-winning campaigns with fire-breathing, turbocharged and all-wheel-drive machinery that would leave recent ARC machinery in its dust.
Put off by the disparate group of cars currently campaigning in Australia, Stacey reckons the standard of driving here is also cause for concern.
“You get second-tier drivers who think ‘Who’s running? No-one is running, I could get an Australian championship’, and that’s happened for several years,” he says.
“You have several Australian champions who don’t deserve to be Australian champions.
“They do, because that year they went out and won the title, but against who? You always measure yourself against your competition.”
The ARC is on a better track now, inviting a bafflingly diverse array of all-wheel-drive machinery to fight for glory.
Subaru driver Molly Taylor sealed a popular and unlikely championship win in Coffs Harbour at the wheel of a newer, more reliable, but slightly slower machine than rivals running fast and fragile decade-old cars.
Australia’s first female champion, the daughter of ultra-successful navigator Coral Taylor, would no doubt take issue with Stacey’s assessment of the Australian scene.
But her run to the championship suggests there is a lack of depth in the category that should come back stronger in 2017. Taylor had not taken victory in any rallies this year, and only secured a win in the final round when punctures, crashes and penalties rubbed out faster rivals in Steven Bradbury-like circumstances.
Few would doubt Stacey’s assertion that global rallying peaked in the 1990s, when the sport hosted mighty factory-funded teams from Subaru, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Ford, Peugeot and more.
That sort of support can be hit-and-miss, as evidenced by Volkswagen’s shock decision to quit the sport for 2017, while Toyota and Citroen are waiting in the wings to take to the stages alongside Hyundai in 2017.
Volkswagen’s position put drivers under immense pressure for the last round of the year. Its three regular crews are now out of work, and rival pilots signed to Hyundai or Ford could find their contracts aren’t quite concrete in the face of new possibilities.
Mikkelsen, Ogier and Paddon gave it everything on the third day at Coffs, when the latter pair make costly errors before lunch – Ogier dumping time by spinning out of control on a technical stage, while a relatively minor off for Paddon punched a rear tyre off its rim and shredded the Hyundai’s bodywork.
The young Kiwi is a picture of dejection at lunch, disconsolate in the knowledge that a certain podium has gone begging.
Fellow Hyundai man Thierry Neuville takes third behind Ogier and Mikkelsen, who seal an emotional 1-2 victory for Volkswagen in its final rally.
The winning Norwegian crew finished with a shiny new trophy, a champagne-soaked racesuit and a dusty Volkswagen featuring an extra piece of advertising that wasn’t there at the start of the rally.
Hanging a cheeky “#HIREUS” sign below their names, Mikkelsen and co-driver Anders Jaeger laid out their credentials for 2017 in the best possible manner.
As did rallying, really. By no means guaranteed widespread success, the sport nailed its colours to the mast with a brilliant display in Australia that should please rusted-on fans and give fence-sitters a reason to consider a road less travelled.