I’ve been lucky enough to get involved a few forms of motorsport, but one box that needed ticking was a gravel experience.
Just as well, Subaru Motorsport Australia has just completed their promotional rally ride car which is based off the WRX STI NR4. Sure, it wasn’t the full backfiring anti-lag monster that’s raced in the Australian Rally Championship, but as a way to introduce punters to the sport the NR4 car is a happy medium.
The WRX STI NR4 is essentially a rally car offered by the Subaru factory itself, which can then be further prepared depending on how and where you want to drive it.
Compared to the real thing, the interior is still stripped out, with a roll cage, bucket seats and harnesses added back in for safety. The powertrain remains the same as a stock car, and a six-speed H-pattern gearbox looks familiarly like that in its road-going counterpart.
Most importantly though is the fact that it receives rally-spec suspension and matching dirt tyres, which should see us bounding along the dirt tracks of Canberra’s Kowen Forest at a rapid rate.
And who better to steer than 2016 Australian Rally Champion Molly Taylor herself?
Concerning though, was the fact that yours truly was to play the role of navigator.
Coming into the sport fairly blind, taking my first peek at the set of notes designed to guide us around a small circuit through the forest was daunting to say the least.
Gone is sense and ordered arrangement of letters and numbers, replaced with pictographs and symbols that are meant to represent instructions.
It felt as though learning the lingo would take an age in itself. But we didn’t have all day, as I quickly found myself in a set of overalls and wrapping a HANS device around my neck.
Climbing aboard through the jungle gym of the roll cage isn’t easy for a six foot four frame, but I managed to manoeuvre myself in fairly easily by going leg-bum-leg before being strapped in tight by the Subaru Motorsport crew.
Molly reassuringly tells me that she’s had a few practice runs, so the course isn’t a complete unknown to her, but even still, I prop up my notes ready to start sending directions via the intercom system.
3, 2, 1, GO! It takes about five seconds for me to realise I could never cut it as a navigator: “OFF NOTES!”
Keeping pace as a navigator is a lot harder than you realise. It doesn’t help that the notes themselves look nothing like the English language.
While launching the car and getting up to speed was nothing particularly special as the drivetrain remains stock, the way Taylor attempts to hold speed through corners on gravel is unnervingly abnormal.
A quick yank of the hydraulic handbrake and the car pitches sideways through the first left-hander, spitting out the other side pointing in the right direction and back on the throttle we go.
All the while I’m doing the best I can, trying to translate the notes into spoken instructions.
We raced a car for less than the cost of a night out
The difficult part is trying to seamlessly switch between looking at the notes and looking through the windscreen at the upcoming set of corners. Working out where you are in relation to the pace notes is hard, and as soon as you get a gauge on where you’re headed, you look back down to the sheet of paper and you’ve lost your place.
Luckily, Taylor is powering on through my inattentiveness like a champ, bounding along the dirt track at a pace well-north of 150km/h.
She prompts me again for new directions and I feed through a line before quickly realising that was the last corner. Can’t win!
Further down the stage I start to get the hang of it, calling out notes that (I hope) were of actual use rather than redundant gibberish.
Of course, returning to the makeshift pit area Taylor insists the navigating was decent for a first timer, but we both know it wasn’t.
That’s fine, leaves room for improvement and a chance for another ride at a later date.
It’s an electrifying experience from the passenger seat, and is equally fun watching cars being flung into corners, before speeding off down narrow tracks, mere metres from potentially deadly tree trunks. Now I know what I’ve been missing all this time.
Click through the gallery above for more photos of Subaru's rally ride experience.
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