Inside the Toyota GR Yaris’s first-ever rally

Neal Bates Motorsport scored a 1-2 on debut with the GR Yaris AP4 - the much-vaunted rally car for the road

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It’s probably fair to say that the headline ‘Bates wins in Australia’ wouldn’t garner many website clicks or sell many newspapers. After all, Harry Bates’ victory on the 2021 National Capital Rally last weekend was his seventh in a row in the Australian Rally Championship.

However this performance did generate headlines. Why? Because it was the Toyota GR Yaris’s – the much-hyped rally car for the road – first actual victory on a rally. Indeed, it was its first-ever rally of any kind. And, better still, it was a 1-2 finish with Harry’s brother Lewis finishing 43.6 seconds behind.

“We didn’t expect it,” Harry tells DirtFish.

“We had two brand-new cars which were only completed three weeks prior to the event and by the time the event started we’d done about 70 or 80km of shaking down and testing so [it was] very, very untested.

“We were a little bit, not prepared for the worst but potentially worried that we hadn’t found all of the issues or anything like that. But the cars were good straight out of the box which is really a testament to my team at Neal Bates Motorsport.”

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Harry is absolutely right to direct praise towards the family team. Neal Bates Motorsport – owned by, naturally, Neal Bates who starred in Toyota cars on Rally Australia in the WRC throughout the 1990s – has just five mechanics who built the two new cars in as little as four months.

Not only did they build two cars in such a short timeframe, they built an instant winner too. The new Toyota Yaris AP4 (essentially a Rally2 car but with a six-speed transmission instead of five) is unbeaten in competition with Harry winning 11 of the 14 tests last week and Lewis the other three.

“Obviously we were very, very happy,” Neal says.

“You always dream to build a car that’s successful straight up but it’s incredibly nice when it actually comes to fruition, and from the moment Harry and Lewis hopped into the cars they said the chassis was a huge improvement on the previous car, its stability – really there’s been no negative in terms of its driveability and how it sits on the road.”

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I would say we’ve got a package already that is 90% of the way there Harry Bates

Harry adds: “It’s easier to drive already, which is always something as a rally driver you like and you’re looking for. And so that’s good early signs.

“The GR Yaris, because we were running obviously the previous-shape Yaris prior, does have a few advantages as a rally car. As a standard road car it’s got a carbon roof, aluminium doors and it’s got a very low center of gravity therefore as a rally car.

“From that point of view the chassis probably feels better already than the old car and the other difference is we’re running the three-cylinder 1.6-liter engine now. And the characteristics of that engine are quite different to our previous Yaris as our three-cylinder makes all of its power down low.

“It’s a more torquey engine but probably less powerful than the old car so just different to drive but torque down low does give you drivability which is nice to have.”

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It wasn’t all plain sailing though. Harry did run into a brief problem on the penultimate stage of the rally which did cost him a minute to his brother.

“It ended up being the load sensor on the shift-cut mechanism that cuts the ignition when you’re shifting,” he says, “that just failed and so I had to disconnect and do the powerstage with no shift-cut which was fine.”

However having two cars running straightaway will help eradicate such issues in the future: “That doubles the chances of getting the data together to move forward with development with the car, and it also doubles the chances of finding any potential issues and ironing those out quickly,” Harry affirms.

“Ironically the small issues that we have found have happened almost at the exact same time on both, so they’re both built very much the same.”

Are any of these “small issues” of concern? Does anything specific need to be worked on ahead of the next event?

“I’ve had this discussion with the team a lot over the last few days because you finish an event like that and there’s so many things going through your head that need improving but really the list came down to a couple of key areas,” Harry reveals.

“The first one being fixing any sort of shift-cut issues we had which is only minor really and the other one being continuing to find ways to basically just improve the chassis and in general make it more driveable.

“On the weekend we had a real mix of stages and there were some conditions where the car worked really well and some where it didn’t work as well but, as you say, fine-tuning.

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“To sum that up I would say we’ve got a package already that 90% of the way there and from here on we’re only going to be finding 1% at a time.”

As issues with a new car go then this is about as trivial as it gets. But why build a new car when the old one had proved so adept?

“You’re right the old car was a very, very good package,” Harry explains, “something we’d been campaigning since the beginning of 2018 and we’d developed it then throughout the course of 2018, ’19 and then 2020 into something that won in Australian Rally Championship but also something that was very consistent, driveable and a great car.

“But Toyota Australia’s marketing department felt like they had a very big job to do in selling these GR Yarises in Australia because it’s not your average sort of car, it’s a four-wheel-drive turbo Yaris. It’s not something you normally see and also the Australian car market, we’re very geared towards big cars.

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I think that's cool that our little workshop in Australia can churn those out and it’s attracting so much interest all over the globe Harry Bates

“We’re a little bit like America in that regard, and so they weren’t predicting that they were going to sell that many.

“As it turns out that wasn’t the case, they’ve sold really, really well here but they also were very committed at that point to having a rally program that was very centered around the GR Yaris and the whole sort of Gazoo Racing brand in Australia is something that they’re trying to do a lot with, hence they wanted their local rally team to carry the Gazoo Racing brand.”

Neal Bates Motorsport also had the unexpected honor of giving the GR Yaris its competition debut.

The Toyota World Rally Team was supposed to be campaigning one in the World Rally Championship this season for Sébastien Ogier, Elfyn Evans and Kalle Rovanperä, but COVID-19 threw the team a curveball that led to this plan being abandoned.

“I mean it’s funny how things work out,” Harry admits.

“We were never expecting to be the first but obviously when the World Rally Team made the decision – which was understandable because they weren’t going to be able to get the testing done they needed to to debut a new car – it took us a little while to realize that we were going to be the first.

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“And for that reason I think the car’s attracted worldwide attention, I mean you’re speaking to me now and that’s because you’ve got a genuine interest not only in what we’re doing in the Australian Rally Championship but also in the GR Yaris.

“I think that that’s a cool thing, for sure, that our little workshop in Australia can churn those out and it’s attracting so much interest all over the globe. It also just shows the impact that the GR Yaris has had on everyday people, rally fans as well as just normal motoring enthusiasts, because it is a rally car for the road.

“It’s the first probably true rally car for the road since the ‘90s, maybe since the Group A days, and things like that so it’s having a big effect.”

It’s impossible not to be genuinely impressed by what everyone at Neal Bates Motorsport has pulled off. It’s equally impossible not to feel some warmth towards the whole project too.

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They’re record breakers, and to celebrate it they headed to the Bates family home for pizza and a digest of rallying videos on the night of their success.

“[It was] mainly videos of the new car,” Harry says, “because everyone I guess at that point is wanting to see what they’ve built, what it looks like in the forests and particularly for our mechanics, our service crew, they don’t get to go out and watch very often.

“For me having the two cars successful on the weekend the way they were, it was just a really, really nice reward for the team because they, as you mentioned, built two rally cars in four months and they’re only a team of five guys.

“So to see them the night after the rally, really excited about the fact the work they’d put in had paid off was really nice for me to see and it was a big effort by everyone so that was probably my highlight of the weekend.”

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The GR Yaris AP4 story will continue on next month’s Rally Queensland where the Bates brothers will very much be back into their usual position of pre-event favorites.

Just as dad Neal likes it.

“Obviously the old one was quite successful, they’d won every rally in this country for the last two years,” he says.

“Every time you build a new car you look to make it better than the previous one and to a degree I think that’s happened already.

“I think they’re very, very good cars and hopefully they’ll have a lot more success.”