In an extraordinary twist to the unfolding story of Rally Australia, Motorsport Australia has refused to rule out a return to Coffs Harbour for the nation’s World Rally Championship round in 2021.
Australia’s contract with WRC Promoter was confirmed by the FIA’s World Motor Sport Council last week, with plenty of speculation about a new event based out of Mount Panorama, Bathurst. Motorsport Australia director Michael Smith told DirtFish to expect confirmation of the location for the event in the coming weeks.
“We are still working through this with our government partners and with the WRC Promoter, but we’re hopeful to make an announcement on location in the next few weeks,” Smith said.
Asked if Coffs Harbour – Rally Australia’s base since 2011 – was officially off the table, he replied: “No, I’m not saying that at all.”
Both the FIA and WRC Promoter would take a considerable amount of convincing to return to Coffs after both organisations were critical of the northern New South Wales city for being too small and too far from the major population centres in Sydney, Gold Coast and Brisbane.
Smith added: “Look, I’d love to share [our plans] with you, but all I can say is that we are really thrilled to be back on the calendar. We were really saddened by the events that transpired last year with the bushfires [that led to the event being called off]; the Coffs Harbour region was profoundly hit by that.”
The late cancellation of November’s Rally Australia – with parts of Coffs looking set to be engulfed by the fires – was understood to be a tragic end to a location which had polarized service park opinion for eight years.
As recently as this week, news channels in Australia were still reporting Coffs Harbour won’t host the event next season.
Another question mark for Australia’s WRC round centered on the structure of the organization itself. The Rally Australia team was disbanded last year, but Smith insists the infrastructure remains within the country’s governing body, which owns Rally Australia.
The Rally Australia board of directors still exists and is chaired by Motorsport Australia president Andrew Papadopoulos. Leading Australian driver Molly Taylor sits on the board and, of course, there’s WRC expertise in the shape of former rally chairman Ben Rainsford and former sporting director Adrian Stafford close by.
“With any given year you do lose some personnel from the organizing team,” said Smith, “But fundamentally we are anticipating – from a sporting point of view – the team that has delivered Rally Australia for the last number of years to continue, for the most part, in Rally Australia into the future.”
The Australians must rue the day the event ever left Perth. From 1989 until 2006 Garry Connelly guided what was one of the most consistently high-quality rallies in the history of the WRC. The event broke boundaries and delivered innovations like the spectacular Langley Park side-by-side superspecial. Perth was a place tailor-made for a WRC round. The stages weren’t too far away and the city itself was small enough to genuinely embrace its round of the world championship.
There’s more than a few pushing to get the service park back alongside the Swan River and to see the world’s finest take flight through Bunnings once more. Stranger things have happened…
One thing’s sure: Smith has to deliver on his plan and deliver quickly. Failure to do so will open the door for Rally New Zealand, which has a well-financed and workable plan sitting on the spike for 2021.
Last week’s WMSC meeting raised the odd eyebrow and New Zealand’s omission was one of them. Yes, we all knew Australia had a contract, but the thinking was that the NZ-then-Australia plan for 2020-21 could be flipped to 2021-22.
Certainly, that was Rally NZ CEO Michael Goldstein’s reading of the situation.
“Everybody was saying was that logic would suggest that the calendar is delayed by 12 months,” Smith told DirtFish.
As they say in Auckland: yeah, nah.
There’s sympathy for the Kiwi plight on the Tasman Sea’s far side. But not sufficient sympathy for the Australians to consider Goldstein’s rotation plan outlined by DirtFish yesterday.
Smith said: “We’ve been clear in the past that a rotation strategy is very difficult to make work and, as you can imagine for an event such as this, you employ a large group of people and to employ them to deliver one event then not have them deliver an event the year after comes with its problems and challenges in terms of continuity of sponsors and broadcast partners and government partners.
“We’ve been pretty clear in the past that it’s difficult to make those things work in a practical sense.”
Smith wasn’t keen on discussing the length of the new contract with WRC Promoter, but it’s likely to span at least three years. A wait like that will hurt New Zealand. Again.
“I’m not emotional about it,” said Goldstein. “It’s work. But for a lot of people in our organization it’s a way of life. My step-father-in-law is Willard Martin, our clerk of the course. How is it for somebody like him? He’s waited eight years and then worked for six months to make a route which ticked every box the promoter wanted ticking.”
And it surely did. The furthest the route went out of downtown Auckland was an hour’s drive. The powerstage was set for an all-new, purpose-built stage just over 10 miles out of the city center, there was a superspecial in a stadium and NZ’s most compact-ever route was all packaged around an international city with massive sporting pedigree.
Australia’s going to have to go some to trump that. Then again, there’s nothing like a bit of trans-Tasman rivalry to get those two nations upping the game.