A co-driving legend’s unexpected return

Coral Taylor thought her professional rally career was over, but she's back in the hot seat for 2023

© Copyright: Jack Martin Photography

Some names just look right next to one another on the side window of a rally car. Loeb/Elena, McRae/Grist, Burns/Reid… the list goes on.

But few gel together quite as well as Bates/Taylor.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Neal Bates and Coral Taylor’s iconic partnership that powered them to four Australian Rally Championship titles (including three on the bounce from 1993 to ’95) and over 30 rally wins, as well as five top-10 finishes in the World Rally Championship.

Together they formed a formidable duo; but like all things it had to come to an end.  Neal Bates Motorsport is now all about the future – Neal’s sons Harry and Lewis.

© Copyright: Jack Martin Photography

Taylor remains an integral part of the team – her passion for rallying burning as brightly as it did the day she started. But nowadays – at 62 years old – she fulfils a less adrenalin-infused role.

“I’ve been more on the managerial side and the logistics,” she says. “I’m usually the go-to person in the service park, so when someone needs someone to sort some issue out, I’m doing the running around!

“I do a bit of everything. I drive the truck to rallies, I put together the logs for the team and the service schedules, the event schedules – I do whatever’s needed really.”

After such a long and successful professional career, Taylor has been happy just competing for fun alongside her old driver.

“What we’ve been doing has been just doing it for fun, for the pure enjoyment of taking a car out,” she explains, “and Neal has a fantastic RA40 Celica which is a replica of Ove Andersson’s car.”

Taylor openly admits she “can’t ever imagine not wanting to get in a rally car. Maybe that day will come but I don’t envisage it.” But taking on a full-time season again, those days are over.

Or so she thought.

© Copyright: Jack Martin Photography

What if we told you that the Bates/Taylor partnership will be printed on a Toyota in the ARC once more, only this time it’s Harry Bates, not Neal, behind the wheel.

Coral is back – and she can’t quite believe it.

“I certainly never imagined the 2023 Australian Rally Championship, but then again I started rallying as a hobby – I never imagined it turning into the career that it did,” she tells DirtFish.

“Things just kind of happened without much planning, and last year I never expected to sit with Harry for one event which was just a last-minute call-up when John [McCarthy] had COVID. So, all of that, no – nothing was expected, it’s all just happened.

“I’m surprised to be back, but excited at the same time!”

That rally in Tasmania proved key to Taylor’s amazing comeback story.

“If I hadn’t done that, I probably would’ve felt exactly how I did feel at that time which was ‘hey that’s exciting, I’d love to hop in the car with you’ but ‘hey it’s been a few years since I’ve been running at the top end of the field’,” she admits.

HB & CT 2

“And except for the fact that there was no option, basically it was the next day that everything was starting, I kind of just got thrown in. And that’s really the catalyst for everything because I jumped in, we had a really great event and it kind of just felt like going home getting back in the car.

“It took away the worry that I’d been out of the sport at that level for too long and therefore that was a ‘pass’ thing for me, it actually just confirmed that it could still happen.

“Having had that experience in that one-off, that makes this decision very easy. If I hadn’t have done that, I probably would’ve still been trying to help Harry find a new co-driver.”

Taylor comes from a rallying family. Her father, Norm Fritter, competed regularly in the ’60s meaning that as a child, she was thrust into a motorsport environment.

“I really didn’t give any thought to it, and I just figured everybody’s dad was a rally driver and that’s what dads did,” Taylor remembers.

“As kids we used to go out to rallies with mom, they used to do some controls and we’d stand around but I seriously a) didn’t understand it and b) didn’t take any interest.

“In 1970 dad did the Round Australia Trial which was a big rally right around Australia and back in the ’70s they were huge adventures, but after that he retired and it was nine years later in 1979, the Round Australia Trial, was happening [again].

“So, it had been the first time in nine years there’d been one of those huge marathon events, and it rekindled his interest. So, when he spoke about wanting to do that, I was 18 at the time so I said, ‘oh I’ll come with you’, idle dinner table chat really, but that’s what we ended up doing.”

It was a decision that would completely transform Taylor’s life – not that she knew that at the time.

“My life savings trying to save up to buy my first car became half shares in a rally car, but even at that point to me it was just a one-off adventure with my dad,” she says.

“But we did that rally and of course I loved it so then we did more and here I am!

© Copyright: Jack Martin Photography

“That one event led to where I am now, and dad and I continued competing together for a few years and then he got busy with work and I had an offer to compete in the Queensland Rally Championship with the guy who was the Queensland Rally champion at the time, which led to another offer then, his name was Peter Markovic.

“I then co-drive for Peter Glennie who was another Queenslander who did Australian Rally Championship rounds, and that was for a few years, and then I joined Murray Coote.

“He has a business here in Australia, CA Suspension, and it’s his suspension that we run in all of our Neal Bates Motorsport cars, [he’s a] very clever guy, and he was competing with Mazda at the time.

“So, I ran with Murray for a couple of years, but Mazda pulled out of the championship, and I had the phone call from Neal. And really as far as co-drivers go, a lot of co-drivers have co-driven for a lot of different people – my pool of drivers is probably fairly small, particularly because from 1993 to this day it’s been with Neal and a couple of rallies with Harry because I did Harry’s second ever rally with him – begrudgingly at the time.

“I had my daughter Molly and Neal’s helped Molly – our families are very close [and] we’ve all known each other all our lives, so when that offer came. I felt more that I should do it to help Harry – young driver, second rally – but I didn’t really want to because I thought a novice driver would scare me and I didn’t want to sit beside a novice driver.

“But at the end of stage three in that rally Neal was at the finish control and he came up to the window and he said, ‘is he scaring you yet?’ And I said ‘no, not at all.’ And that was the thing that astounded me: from the moment we started that rally, I could not believe the ability of someone doing their second rally, I was severely shocked.

“Even the event organizers were shocked. And this is a true story, the clerk of the course sent one of his officials down to the service park to confirm that Neal was physically standing in the service park.

I hadn't realized how much I missed it until I did that one event last year Coral Taylor

“Because the times were so good in a little two-wheel-drive Corolla that they thought Neal must have jumped in and it wasn’t Harry.

“And then when Neal and I finished our officially rallying as such with Toyota and then Harry and then Lewis started, my involvement has still been there all through that with the team.”

Except now she’s back in the hot seat, back in a rally car – an environment she labels as her “happy place”.

Taylor explains: “I think I hadn’t realized how much I missed it until I did that one event last year, and I was scrolling social media when Harry had rung with the question about this year, and I came across a photograph which was of Harry and I sitting in the car driving out of the ceremonial start at that one event that I did with Harry last year.

“And I looked at the photo and I got all the same feelings of how much I enjoyed being back in the car, from that photo, and thought ‘this is an amazing opportunity for me, it’s unexpected and it’s something I’m so excited by and would just love to do.'”

© Copyright: Jack Martin Photography

Although Bates has enjoyed a prosperous relationship with McCarthy over the years who’s expected to only be taking a sabbatical in 2023, he says he had always assumed he’d end up competing with the co-driver that brought his dad so much success.

“To give you an appreciation of how long I’ve known Coral, my mom informed me the other day that Coral changed my first ever nappy [diaper]. So, there you go!” Bates shares.

“I sort of always thought that I would end up rallying with Coral in a weird way, because when I first started rallying, I knew her so well and Coral’s been in the top few co-drivers in Australia for a very long time now, so I felt very grateful to be able to do my second ever rally with her.

“But at the time dad sort of said ‘look, we do need to find you a permanent co-driver’, one reason being that Coral was his co-driver and he was still doing a fair bit of rallying at the time so he didn’t want me to steal her, and also because he always felt that I needed to develop a relationship with someone a bit younger let’s say and those sorts of things.

© Copyright: Jack Martin Photography

“That was the direction we headed in at the time and hence I found John McCarthy who’s been my co-driver from 2015 until now basically. But then when he pulled out and I was after a replacement, Coral was my number one pick.

“I didn’t really expect her to do it, I didn’t think she would want to to be honest. I didn’t think she’d want to commit to a full season again, but I think it speaks volumes of Coral’s passion for the sport that she was keen to do it, and that she still has the fire in the belly to go and win rallies and win championships – I think that’s quite special.”

Particularly when you contextualize it. As already mentioned, 2023 marks 30 years since Taylor’s first ARC title, but it also marks 37 years since her first ARC rally win.

She feels incredibly lucky to have had the career that she’s had and can’t wait to add another chapter to it.

“Nobody chooses to be a rally driver or a co-driver, initially, as a job, expecting that to be their career and their income source.

“People go rallying because they love it, and when you start out in those early days, you’re probably spending every cent you have and you’re working every spare hour you have on the car, so you only go through that much pain to do something that you really enjoy.

“I’ve just been extremely lucky that I’ve had that experience and then turned a hobby into a career quite by accident. But the initial motivation is because you love to be in a rally car.

© Copyright: Jack Martin Photography

“Back in Neal’s and my day, in our busiest times when you’ve got Toyota on the phone 20 times a day and endless meetings, you’re doing this and doing that and dealing with all the things outside of the car and doing all-nighters at the workshop which there were plenty of in those years, and sometimes in the middle of all of that you think ‘why the hell am I doing this?’

“And then you get in the rally car, and you go ‘yep’. All of the effort you put in is to get to that point.”

And that explains why Taylor, at a point in her life when most would consider slowing down, just wants to go faster. But as extraordinary and sentimental as the situation is, there is an important job to do.

The opening round of the Australian championship is just three weeks away, and as much as she had never expected to be fighting for a fifth Australian title, that’s exactly what Taylor intends to do.

© Copyright: Jack Martin Photography

“Absolutely,” she says.

“I consider this a celebration year, but while I say I do it because I love it, that doesn’t take away from the seriousness of it either.

“Because yes our aim is to win the championship so we’ve got to put in the work, be prepared and put our best foot forward every rally to make that happen, and that’s what we will concentrate on.”

DirtFish Women’s Month aims to educate and inspire – telling the stories of women involved in all roles of motorsport and culminating in the Women in Motorsport Summit on March 11.