Moving day at the COT. The fourth day of the Classic Outback Trial has provided the first day where the leading crews incorporated some real strategy into their days rallying.
This is a long event and although there are still 3 days to go, it’s clear the front runners have their eyes on a bottle of champagne at Angove Winery in Renmark on Saturday afternoon. For the first time in the event, “hopes” of the previous days were replaced with “possibilities” at the Ivanhoe start. Crews would use the longest day of the event to set themselves up for the remaining days and the finish in Renmark.
In the service park too, the relaxed atmosphere of previous days was replaced with a sense of drama and tension. At every service rendezvous the service crews of the leading cars each noted the condition of their opposition. Don’t get me wrong, the strong sense of camaraderie is still there with crews lending other crews parts and even repairing each other’s service trailers on the side of the road.
Day 4 was the longest of the trial at 470 km and crews had to complete 126 km of competitive stages before lunch and service at Menindee, the only town the rally passes through this day. The run to Broken Hill after lunch was prefaced by another 2 stages of 82 km before finishing at the Broken Hill trotting track and service. Today’s stages were mostly very fast and open and suited the more powerful vehicles.
Winning the day for the second time and with it their second set of daily COT gnomes, were Neil Cuthbert and Ross Runnalls. Being 42 minutes behind the leader after yesterday’s faux pas, Cuthbert’s only chance to break back in to the top five was to take as much time out of the leaders as he can and position themselves to take advantage of any faltering by those above him. After 470 km today and at maximum attack in the powerful Datsun, he was able to claw back just 2 ½ minutes from Travis/Travis. Clearly those above Cuthbert are also implementing their own strategy. They are however, just 11 minutes off their coveted top 5.
At the top of the leader board, Travis/Travis started the day nearly 17 minutes ahead of Swan/Franklin and that’s probably enough of a margin to change a tyre mid stage and still retain the lead. The irony than is that without having to push at 10/10ths the Travis’s have extended their lead out to 24 minutes when the Swan/Franklin Commodore punctured a brand new tyre 5 km in to a 55 km stage, costing them 6 minutes when they stopped to fix it. Swan and Franklin have a combined experience of 50 years rallying and this was their first puncture on a competitive stage.
Swan conceded at the Ivanhoe start that catching the experienced Andrew Travis with faster stage times would not be possible, but he could not back off as Andy Crane and Dave Anderson in the flying Peugeot 504 were just 3 minutes behind and catching. Crane’s strategy for day 4 was the same as Cuthbert’s, maximum attack, the difference being that Crane had a real chance of moving in to second place, especially given the puncture that Swan would suffer late in the day. The strategy faltered however by the end of day 4. Crane had a hint of the bad luck looming when he punctured at the very end of the day’s second stage. It cost them no time as the service crew were waiting for them on the main road. Of course, opposition crews had no idea whether the flat tyre had cost Crane time on the stage or not. Despite charging hard, Crane/Anderson could make up no time on the later stages on Swan/Franklin after taking some wrong runs on the Viewmont stage which allowed the following car of Ashton/Nixon to overtake them, forcing them to slow in the dust behind. Swan was achieving his aim of keeping Crane at bay. The Crane challenge was snuffed out on the last stage when the gearbox of the 504 failed. They are listed as starters for day 5 with the crew hoping to be able to make repairs.
Another gearbox failure has put paid the Gerry Bashford and Ray Daniels good run. The Ford Escort Mexico faltered on the short transport in to Broken Hill after the last stage. With their spare gearbox back in Melbourne with Ted Perkins (Cortina, retired) service crew, a 3 day holiday is the only way the crew till see the finish in Renmark.
Returning to the event after catastrophic gearbox failure the day before was the Mercedes 280 SL of Pat and Brad Cole. The Mercedes arrived at Ivanhoe on Wednesday morning after the service crew worked all night at Cobar re-manufacturing selector forks and repairing the rest of the drive line.
This event is hard on service crews. There are huge distances to cover and here is little waiting around for their cars to arrive. Twice each day the crews put their cars up on stands, wheels off and do a complete check over the car, clean the mud and dust and make repairs or carry out scheduled maintenance. Tyre management is not a huge issue though as this event does not wear tyres out. It does however shred them occasionally and the Gary’s motorsport tyre truck following this event is still well stocked.
The normally relaxed Michael and Andrew Sawyer (Datsun 1600) had tyre issue too at the start of Special Stage 18, the 71 km Viewmont stage. A flat tyre just as they were being called to the line was hastily replaced but not far in to the stage the wheel parted company and they watched it accelerate away from them. Undaunted, the lads chased after it in their 3 wheeled Datsun until a patch of soft sand brought them to a halt, bogging the wheel-less side so badly that co-driver Andrew could not open his door. While Michel alighted from their beached tripod and continued the chase on foot, Andrew set about digging the car out. Despite the drama, they have lost just 1 spot, finishing the day in 7th overall. Less than a minute behind however is the hard charging Ian and Val Swan, revelling in a Volvo that is now fast and reliable.
The Blair/Vettoretti’s Nissan Bluebird arrived at the Menindee service point on a trailer with a badly blown head gasket on its second motor. With all the drama’s this team has had to this point, Steve Blair was seriously contemplating leaving it on the trailer.
The highly experienced crew of Mike Batten and Steuart Snooks (Datsun 1600) have capitalised on the problems above them and have helped themselves by charging hard all day. Finishing each stage within the top six, the crew have moved up from 5th to 3rd and are just over a minute off second place. The roads on this day will have suited the long legs of the Datsun to the detriment of the underpowered crews like Ashton/Nixon whom they have leapfrogged in their jump to third.
Birthday boy Greg Hannah (Happy birthday Greg!) was rewarded with a good run in their Holden Commodore and they are placed 15th overall, up one spot from the day before. These long distance rally specialists are playing the waiting game, counting on the reliability of the Holden to move them up. Another birthday celebrated on day 4 is the birth of the first grandchild for our photographer Ian Smith.
Day 5 of the Classic outback trial is something of a rest day after 4 intense days of endurance special stage rallying. After a rest overnight for the officials and crews, there are only 3 stages in the morning leaving the afternoon free so crews can soak in this most iconic of Australian outback towns, Broken Hill.
Firstly the cars will do 6 laps of the Broken Hill Speedway from 9.45 am followed by 2 short stages heading up to Silverton of just 8 and 7 km. The Classic outback trial cars will finish behind the Mad Max museum just before noon and crews will have chance to enjoy lunch at the famous Silverton Hotel. The afternoon is free. Day 6, Friday, will be underway at 9 am on Sulphide street.
Quote of the day: “It’s a different form of the sport to what we know. It’s not a night in the forest, it’s a week in the outback.” – Kim Harper at the Start of Day 4 in Ivanhoe.
Leaders in to Broken Hill are:
Category 1: Historic Rally Cars: Ashton/Nixon (Galant)
Category 2: Classic Cars to 1982: Pickering/Boddy (Datsun 240Z)
Category 3: Club Cars (to 1989): Batten/Snooks (Datsun 1600)
Category 3A Early PRC (to 1986): Travis/Travis (Datsun 1600)
Category 3B: Modern PRC (1987-1988): Swan/Franklin (Holden Commodore VL)
Outright: 1-Travis/Travis (Datsun 1600), 2- Swan/Franklin (Holden Commodore VL), 3 – Batten/Snooks (Datsun 1600)
– Alan Baker
Photos Credits: Ian Smith.