Hollywood script writers would even struggle to concoct a plot as gripping and unbelievable as what unfolded in this year’s Australian Rally Championship.
Two drivers and their two Toyota GR Yaris AP4s had just one stage to get it done. And, of course, only one of them could do it.
Oh, and these two drivers were Harry and Lewis Bates. Or in other words, they’re brothers.
This is the incredible story of how just 2.1 seconds made one half of the Bates family elated, and the other graciously disappointed.
Heading into 2023, the duo – both competing for their legendary father’s Neal Bates Motorsport outfit – were the obvious championship contenders.
Lewis had just become Australian champion for the first time in 2022, matching his brother’s success from 2019. But Harry had been unbeaten across 2019, ’20 and ’21 – it’s just that there weren’t enough events to constitute a championship in those COVID-ridden years.
Perhaps he was therefore marginally considered the favorite, but the start of his season was, in his words, disastrous.
“Rounds one and two were both somewhat disasters,” Harry tells DirtFish.
“In the first four kilometers of the championship, our car’s exhaust manifold failed and we were out. That wasn’t a very good way to start our year, let’s say. We were P-nowhere in the championship.”
And then on the second round, Bates and new co-driver Coral Taylor (an Australian rallying legend) lost a win due to a time penalty after some confusion with a non-standard time card.
“That one-minute penalty took away a win where Harry had driven the most fantastic rally,” Coral says, “and for a technicality on a timecard we didn’t get the result we needed.”
It was beginning to feel like this wasn’t going to be their year, but Harry didn’t leave the second event feeling too disheartened.
“It was the week after Craig [Breen] had died, round two of our championship, and I had set a very clear goal,” he explains. “My partner gave birth to our little girl the same week that Craig passed away and then we had to go Perth a few days after that for round two of the ARC.
“So all those things kind of happened in quick succession and I even said it out loud, I set a pretty clear goal of just really enjoying myself at that rally, enjoying the ability to be in a rally car and ‘how lucky are we, really!’ Craig was the sort of guy who really always drew that home.
“I think on behalf of all rally drivers he was the one who really would constantly make mention of how fortunate we are to get to do what we do, how cool it is, how incredible it is and on the days where it doesn’t go well, that’s the sort of thing you have to remember.
“And for me Craig was that guy – he was the guy I looked up to for full-blown enjoyment out of our sport.
It has kind of been the story of the year; that fighting back from various thingsCoral Taylor
“I always felt like his feet were on the ground. He wasn’t someone who allowed any sort of arrogance to come from. He would talk to me, an Australian rally champion, the same way he would speak to Ogier – or at least that’s the feeling I always got from him, you know?”
But if Harry was to be this year’s Australian champion, he would need to turn the tide – and quickly.
As it happened, that’s exactly what he did. Victories on both the Queensland and Gippsland events launched him back into contention, and solid results in Adelade’s two heats left him 23 points adrift of team-mate and brother Lewis with just Canberra left to run.
And guess what? “If you win both the rally and the powerstage, then you outscore second place by 24 points.”
So Harry could still win the title, and his job was easy… in theory.
“In theory…” Harry laughs, “other than we were up against very quick people in the same car, same everything.”
That was probably a bit of a flippant question from this writer (a non-competitor), but it did at least make things clear in the 28-year-old’s mind. He had to win the rally and he had to win the powerstage. There were no other permutations to worry about.
“That’s right, and I did say that to people in the lead up that there was really no point overcomplicating it because we had to drive as fast as we could all weekend, that was that,” Harry agrees.
“Our strategy had to be simple: win the rally and the powerstage.”
These things are easily said but much harder done, and when they span on the final stage of Saturday’s opening leg to trail Lewis and Anthony McLoughlin overnight, Harry and Coral may have felt like things were slipping away from them again.
But they’d been here before.
“It has kind of been the story of the year; that fighting back from various things,” Coral says.
“We feel like we’ve been fighting back all year, and then it came down to the final day and it felt like we were fighting back again!”
It didn’t take long for Harry and Coral to move back ahead – one stage, in fact. Lewis then retook the lead on Sunday’s second test but with just the powerstage left to run, Harry had a cushion of 3.9s with just four miles of competitive driving remaining.
The championship would be settled on the very last stage of the season.
“Before the powerstage, same as WRC, they have a big regroup where they flip the field so they run the powerstage in reverse order,” Harry explains.
“So we arrived at that regroup with a 3.9s rally lead and only 6km to go, so at that point I actually said to Coral ‘We’ve done one of our two jobs this weekend, we’ve pretty much wrapped up the rally.’ Even though it was only 3.9s, with only 6km to go you can sort of put that bit to bed.
“But then we had an hour-long regroup to sit there and think about the 6km that was coming which was ultimately what was going to determine the championship.”
It wasn’t a total unknown though, as the second half of the powerstage had already been used that morning. So Harry downloaded that onboard onto his phone at service and spent, he estimates, a good 25 minutes reviewing his onboard.
“That’s where rallying’s changed so much,” he says, “the drivers do have a pretty good picture of a stage like that in their head before they go into it.
“But then I just felt I was so tense that I needed to just switch off from that and actually go and relax. Because at some point you’ve done so much preparation for this moment, it’s actually not about doing more preparation, it’s about just sitting there and calming yourself down and figuring out how to compute it.”
Harry wasn’t alone in his decision making.
“Obviously my younger brother, team-mate and championship contender was sitting 20m away from me doing the exact same thing, but there was that much tension in the regroup it was a very weird feeling.
“Everyone was just staring at us – all the other competitors, all the officials were just staring at us, and I reckon everyone all of a sudden became a body language expert of whatever!
“I ended up going over and just sitting with Lewis.”
And what do you reckon they talked about?
Nope, you’re wrong.
“They talked work!” Coral smiles.
But soon it was time for the real business. Helmets on, belts tightened, Harry and Coral were first to tackle the stage. They needed the perfect run, but they didn’t get it.
Coral remembers: “For me, usually I’m just in my own world concentrating on my job so some co-drivers will be able to tell you what their driver did everywhere, but I’m just focusing on what I’m doing.
“But there was one, probably the first right-hander, where I thought ‘ooh’ just a little bit. There was the tiniest margin there, and that was my only thought.”
The rest however? “It was completely perfect.”
Rolling into the stop control, all eyes were on Harry and Coral. Media swarmed the car, TV got a soundbite from Harry, but then the waiting game began.
“I took my helmet off and got out of the car – as I was getting out of the car, the commentators had given an update of Lewis’ split time to the first split and they said he was 0.9s down on Coral and I,” Harry recalls.
“To be honest, at that point, I probably deep down knew… because I knew the second half of the stage we’d absolutely nailed it. I thought ‘he couldn’t possibly get us in the second half of the stage’ I just thought if he was going to get us it had to be in the first half, that was the only area where I had a little bit of doubt.
“So I lent into the car, Coral was still in there filling out timecards and doing co-driver duties, and I just really sort of hurriedly said… What did I say Coral?”
All of a sudden all these photographers and videographers have swarmed around us. Again I had TV put a microphone in my face after that first reaction, but the only people I really wanted to see was my familyHarry Bates
“You said ‘Lewis is down 0.9s at the split’, and you closed the door,” Coral takes over. But the rushed nature of the message meant it wasn’t fully received
“And I thought ‘Down? As in down on our time, or down behind…’ do you know what I mean? So I didn’t know if that was good or bad, I wasn’t 100% sure which direction down was at that point.”
Talk about tension. But it’s remarkable how clearly Harry can remember it all.
“Coral got out of the car, we’re standing there waiting and you can actually see Lewis come into view,” he describes. “He does a jump, goes through this spectator complex and finishes the stage – and then we just have to wait, because we’re waiting for the live timing to show the time up.
“That probably took 10 seconds or so. At that point I’m hands on head just going ‘oh my god come on’ and then the commentator said over the PA… ‘Harry Bates wins the stage, he and Coral Taylor are champions’ and we just… well…
“I just threw my hands in the air with excitement and elation, Coral burst into tears immediately. Like immediately.”
“Yeah I had a good little cry,” she confirms.
“We had a big cheer and cuddle, and by that stage Lewis had just rolled into the stop control and I went over and said to him ‘we did it, well done’ and we shook hands,” Harry continues.
“And then Lewis’ co-driver Anthony, we managed to have a hug with him, it was a surreal moment.
“The next five minutes is just CRAZY because all of a sudden all these photographers and videographers have swarmed around us. Again I had TV put a microphone in my face after that first reaction, but the only people I really wanted to see was my family.
“I’m searching through the crowd, all of our team were there, all of our mechanics, everyone was there, my parents – I managed to hug my parents pretty quickly, managed to hug my team but I couldn’t find my fiancée, soon to be wife, or my kids.
“Eventually I managed to find my family and managed to have a hug with my son, my fiancée Hayley and my little girl Isla and that was a pretty cool moment I must say. They’re on the journey, they’re very much a part of it.”
Coral’s daughter, Molly Taylor, who had actually been competing in the event herself was at the end of the stage too, and she actually knew her mom had done it before most others did.
“Molly and Harry’s son, little Harry, had actually been over with their noses right on the screens as the times were running,” Coral explains.
“So they knew for that 10 or 15 seconds before it was announced, but my daughter Molly didn’t want to show any reaction or say anything because they were waiting for the official announcement.
“But little Harry, a 10-year-old who’s got this knowledge that his dad’s just won but the world doesn’t know just yet and we’ve seen a video of him running away from the live timing [to find you].”
It was utter joy, elation and relief. A victory so sweet it’s impossible to describe.
“We talked about how we just kept fighting back all year, and if those things hadn’t happened and if we’d come into that final round with a healthy lead in the championship, the finish of that rally would not have been what it was, the intensity of the emotions [would not have been so strong],” says Coral.
But for Harry’s jubilation, there was Lewis’ despair. Losing any championship is tough, but to do so against your own team-mate, your own brother (where comparisons are natural in everyday life let alone competition) and by just 2.1s having led the standings all year… that can’t have been easy.
“That’s the really weird part about this is that it’s your team-mate, for Harry it’s his brother, and as you’re sitting there waiting to find out whether you’ve won a championship or not, you know either way you’re either going to feel really disappointed or really elated,” Coral shares.
“So while we had the elation, I looked across at Lewis and Anthony at one point and thought ‘oh my god this is so awful, I know how they’re feeling.’ It isn’t that it’s your rival that you don’t feel sorry for them if they’ve come second you just want to beat them, it’s [a really difficult situation].
“Someone said to me the other day ‘How do the boys’ parents cope?’ and I said ‘Well I’m just glad I’m not in their position.’
“As a parent, you can’t favor one or the other child you’d like to win a championship so that’s a negative, but on the positive side one of them is going to become the champion.
“It’s going to be a win-win for them no matter what, but it’s a really unusual situation to be in.”
“Yeah my mom… she’s usually pretty good at holding it together when we’re competing, she’s normally quite strong, but on Sunday – she didn’t show me all the emotion, I did see a bit of it – but she admitted after the fact that she was not… she just wanted the day to be over,” Harry adds.
“The outcome was irrelevant to her because one way or another she was going to have one happy son and one disappointed son, but she was pretty emotional.”
For his part, a clearly-gutted Lewis was the ultimate professional. He told the media he was “pretty disappointed but if we can’t win it we want our team-mates to win it, and Harry and Coral have done an amazing job this year. They’ve set the pace at every rally.”
Battle will no doubt resume in 2024, where Coral will be shooting for a record-breaking sixth ARC title as a co-driver.
“We did decide that we would make our one-year association a two-year association. So yes, we are going again,” Coral reveals.
“Harry we need the sixth, and your third…”
Again it sounds simple, but in rallying it rarely ever is.