2017 South West Stages
The first weekend after the football grand finals have concluded is a famous motorsport weekend in Australia. This year was no exception, but not just in Bathurst. Another groups of motorsport enthusiast graced their presence in another country town. The Victorian Country town of Heywood was oddly the setting for the fifth and final round of the 2017 MRF Tyres South Australian Rally Championship.
Hosted by the South East Automobile Club, this was a brand new event on the calendar, not only for SARC, but also the Victorian Clubman Rally Championship, The SEAC Club Trials Series, The South Australian Clubman Rally Series and The Historic Rally Association Trials Championship. Even on Bathurst weekend the turnout of cars, drivers and teams was still a significant increase compared to a usual SARC event. The diversity in cars was refreshing ranging from the usual rally weapons like the Subaru WRX Sti’s and Mitsubishi Evo’s through to a 2 door Peugeot 504, a Mk 1 VW Golf GTI and even a rally interpretation of the “Blue Meanie” HDT VK Group A SS Commodore. With so many different cars in the field, it not only made for some exciting racing, but also some interesting viewing in the service park and regroup areas. To add a little more interest, the rules of the event did not allow teams, drivers or navigators to do any reconnaissance of any of the rally stages, making this a “blind rally” with co-drivers only being able to use the event provided “road book” as a guide to the special stages.
Before going any further, it has to be said that no event ever runs perfectly, especially a first time run event. The South West Stages 2017 was no exception, however I don’t care to highlight the short comings of the event, but rather praise Nathan Lowe and his team for what they have tirelessly put together in very trying and challenging circumstances. If there is one thing I took away from the weekend it is a preview to the vision of what Nathan and the team at SEAC could bring to the table in years to come. The potential of this event is that it could become a “must do” event for every rally driver, team, official, photographer, spectator within in the 2 States, or even beyond. If it was easy to run an event and every one flowed without a hitch, then there would be an abundance of rallying throughout the country every weekend.
Without that abundance of rallying, it does make race weekends a bit more special and this was definitely no exception with the 2017 MRF Tyres SA Rally Champion to be crowned, or sprayed with champagne in motorsport tradition, at the end of the night. Throughout the 2017 season from the fast flowing stages in Second Valley in May, through to the wind turbines at Burra, the farming roads or Robertstown and the forests of Mount Crawford, there have been two consistently quick contenders and the dirt roads of Heywood would decide who would prove their consistency and speed is superior. Aaron Bowering in his Subaru WRX was leading on points coming into this final round with Gary Brown in a Mitsubishi Galant VR4 the only other driver close enough to snatch it away from him.
Bowering has always displayed a fast and smooth driving style since he began competing in the SA Rally championship in 2016, however in that, his rookie year, reliability was an issue. In 2017 Aaron embraced a slightly different approach and sacrificed a little bit of car speed for enhanced durability of the vehicle. This sensible approach was paying dividends as he entered the final round of the year having to finish 11th or better to receive the title of the 2017 MRF Tyres SA Rally Champion. If this kind of pressure to finish the event wasn’t enough, Bowering would be steering through this rally with Ross Shephard calling the notes, as his usual “wingman” Nathan Lowe was event organiser and Clerk of Course. As the event was a “blind rally”, having Lowe, the course designer, by his side would definitely have given Bowering a distinct advantage over the rest of the field. This decision was without a doubt the right one, but also demonstrated the commitment of Nathan to his vision for this event, as he virtually gave any possible chance of winning the co-drivers championship in order to fulfil his role as clerk of course, essentially handing the award to Mike Dale, the navigator for Gary Brown.
Brown & Dale were a notable absence from the 2016 SA Rally Championship and it has been wonderful to see them return in 2017, doing so with the success and stability in performance they have produced. This rally in Heywood was no different for the duo in the VR4 Galant ran fast and strong, doing everything possible to keep up with the blue, white & yellow
Subaru of Bowering. However, the championship leader continued to negotiate the first three daylight stages several seconds quicker than his nearest rival. That was until the last daylight stage when all times were deleted. The stage was cancelled when the first car, David McDonough’s Mitsubishi Evo 6 stopped on stage with an oil fire, causing a blockage and forcing the rest of the field to transport back to service park to regroup before running the same four special stages at night.
As the sun set on service park, the hopes of Aaron Bowering were securing the race victory and the championship. In a dramatic turn of events, on the sixth stage, the second in the darkness, those hopes quickly changed to desperation. The lights dimmed on Bowering’s WRX as well as his championship dream when at almost 200km/h, a stray kangaroo destroyed the front end of the race car. Without headlights and with heavy damage to the radiator and bonnet, Bowering had no choice other than returning to Service Park, to assess options of what could be salvaged on both the car and the championship. Whilst Bowering was dealing with is misfortune, Gary Brown was continuing to push on hard, with the SARC event victory in sight as well as the possibility of the season title. Brown and Dale went on to record the best times for the remaining stages, securing the event win and the co-driver championship for Mike Dale. Despite all the hard work of Brown and the incident with the kangaroo for the other contender, it still wasn’t enough for Brown to claim the
Season Championship as Bowering manage to crawl his beat up and broken WRX back into the parc ferme, having completed enough of the rally to be declared a finisher in tenth. All Bowering needed to do to ensure his first SARC Driver’s Championship, was finish in eleventh place, meaning the extensive rebuild needed to defend his title would be the last thing on the minds of Bowering Racing Team, for a short while anyway.
Although a lot of the focus of this inaugural rally event was on the championship race, there were some other notable performances in the SARC, with Shane Alker demonstrating some remarkable speed in the rear wheel drive Nissan 200SX. Alker has been a significant improver over the 2017 season and to stand on the podium is just reward for the pace and performance he has shown this season. It seems like Shane is really starting to come to terms with his vehicle and will be very interesting to watch in 2017.
SARC Stalwart Neil Gehan completed the third place on the podium and rounded out what has been a solid and consistent season. Gehan is another who built on a solid 2016 with improved performance in 2017 and Niel and co-driver/daughter Andrea should be very proud of all they have achieved this year.
The top 5 for this rally saw Paul Knopka bring his WRX home in fourth place and for the first time in 2017 he has no repairs to do on his car post event. Paul will be another worth keeping an eye on next season to see the way he and his weapon improve.
Leading of the 2017 2WD Championship coming into this round, Marc Butler rounded out the top 5 for this event completing what has been an impressive year in his underpowered, front wheel drive Honda Civic. This year has seen Butler steer his machine to the absolute limit and what he has produced over the year has been the metaphoric definition of punching above one’s weight. To see what Marc could produce a more competitive car would be very interesting, but until that time comes, it is great to see what Marc is producing in this car.
Once again it must be said what a wonderful first time event this was. No amount of credit is enough for Nathan Lowe and his team at the SEAC for their tireless efforts in extremely difficult circumstance for creating an event that has potential to be one of the greats of the Australian Rally scene.
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