Having spent most of my childhood less than 10 minutes walk from the beach, totally blasé about the view of the surf from our back deck, I was always slightly jealous of anyone who grew up on a farm.
This feature was originally published in MOTOR’s December 2008 issue
With not a paddock in sight, and rust an ever-pervading presence, my chances of creating a dream rally track (and having an old Datto to fang around it) were a great big, fat zero. So I gave up on the idea, moved to Sydney and grew comfy in a hand-me-down, three-speed auto Holden Camira.
But nearly 20 years later, I’m standing on a winding, deserted dirt road in the Brindabellas outside Canberra, right next to former F2 rally champ and gun-for-hire, Rick Bates, holding the keys to a Mazda 2 that has been suitably rally-prepped for, er, me, by Mazda Australia’s motorsport division. And this is despite the fact that I’m still yet to drive in a hillclimb, motorkhana, track sprint, or rally of any kind – classic, charity, dirt or otherwise. Are they mad? It’s a bit like asking Grant Hackett to have a go at diving off the 10-metre tower – sure, the bloke can swim, but that doesn’t mean he can put his knees behind his ears. In mid-air. In front of an audience.
Still, no bailing out now. I’m here with Bates – at Mazda’s request, funnily enough – to score some vital pointers on how to not make a massive shame-job of myself doing something I’ve never done before, badly. So I warn him first. “I’m not out to prove I’m the next Atko. I just want to know everything you know, and I don’t want any sugar-coating. Be honest if my driving’s shit. And it’d be great if I don’t roll it because Allan [Horsley, Mazda’s motorsport manager] will f___ing kill me.”
I’m well aware that Horsley will fashion my fingers and toes into coat hooks if I crush his Mazda 2 ‘Extreme’ into a ball, so it’s head down, bum up as Bates demonstrates discipline one – handbrake turns.
The rally 2 has a simple hydraulic handbrake with no détente, meaning it’s straight up, then down, without worrying about locking it fully on. Rick drives the Mazda down a moderate slope and as he approaches a wider section of the road, grabs the suede Momo steering at nine-o’clock with his right hand, steers slightly to the right, then as he turns back left, rips up the handbrake.
As expected, the Mazda pirouettes on cue and rotates exactly 180 degrees left. It’s Handbrake Turn 101 – the easiest of easy, and even I manage it without appearing like too much of a fool.
Next handbrake turn is an uphill one – entering a blind left-hander before performing the opposite steering manoeuvre to above, flicking the car right, over an off-camber crest arse-first onto a side road before ending up facing the direction we came from. Rick goes in hard – well, as hard as a Mazda 2 can accelerating uphill – and vaguely Scando-flicks the diminutive beast before grabbing the handbrake and halting it in a shower of dirt and stones right next to a steep drop.
Sitting in the front-left pew, I have a bird’s-eye view of the slip-and-slide we’ll be barrel-rolling down if I overcook things. So I limp-wrist it, breaching the crest and pulling the car up, but well away from the edge and having only covered about 135 degrees. I get a little bit closer next go, and the next, but never quite manage to overcome subconscious self- and vehicle-preservation in order to nail the manoeuvre. Rick writes ‘OK’ on my score sheet, which I suppose is better than ‘useless’.
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Following my slight humbling, Rick moves on to braking – and decides that there’s something amiss with the rally 2’s brake bias. Twiddling with a dial between the front seats, he performs more than a dozen hard stops, one after the other, again and again, each without warning, and I can feel myself starting to turn green.
Not wanting to project coffee vommie when there’s a cameraman present, I crack a window, direct the roof air vent onto my face and depress the air-con, only to discover it has been removed in Mr Horsley’s own take on Mazda Japan’s ‘gram strategy’.
Once I’m back in the hot seat, facial colour returns. Braking simply involves hitting the picks hard when the 2’s pointing straight, otherwise with such a short wheelbase and responsive handling, it may decide to swap ends. Quickly. With no ABS and proper rally tyres, it’s surprising how effective the Mazda’s basic disc/drum brakes are as the tyres claw into the ground.
But dirt-road handling is what I’m really here for – Ari Vatanen rooster tails, Scandinavian flicks and all that stuff. Rick pounds through a few corners right on the edge of the Mazda’s cornering envelope, unsettling the bum slightly before drifting through turns with an enviable smoothness, and wringing every ounce of grunt from the 2’s exhaust-fettled 1.5.
Despite the mods, the engine has apparently gained just one kilowatt, raising it to a grand total of 77, and the exhaust is loud a boomy through the naked floorpan. There doesn’t seem to be much torque, either, so bouncing the needle in the 2’s tiny tacho on the 6700rpm rev limiter often seems a better alternative than shifting up and losing momentum.
Speaking of which, it’s my turn. I already know that the rally 2’s driving position and gearstick placement (sprouting from the lower part of the dash, with the stock plastic lever) are both excellent, but I didn’t expect the handling to be similarly impressive.
Driving on dirt with proper rally tyres is a revelation, and the Mazda’s balance is brilliant. I don’t even bother touching the handbrake because the tail is so responsive to throttle lifts and trail-braking, and even though the 2 doesn’t actually feel quick – not that you can really tell because the speedo cable has been removed in potentially another radical, weight-saving measure – its ability to hold speed through corners is considerable.
Rick thinks it might actually be a little too taily, but I’m loving it, though hopefully I don’t eat my words in the big event – the National Capital Rally, part of the NSW Rally Championship – by braking too hard with lock on or lifting off after going in too hot and thus spinning off into the mulga.
Keeping on memory lane with classic MOTOR
Over the constant buzzing and whirring of the Terraphone (phone of terror?) intercom, Rick offers several pertinent pointers. I’m treating the dirt track a bit too much like tar, steering off the wheel tracks already engraved on the road’s crown and running wide – costing time and upping my chances of kissing a dirt bank. I’m also entering too wide.
Where turning in deep on bitumen promotes understeer and makes a car feel off balance, on the dirt it simply keeps your cornering tight and any balance adjustment is achieved simply via a throttle lift or a brake dab. And just in case everything does turn ugly, Rick has one piece of advice he says you get only from experience – “don’t steer into a bank or you’ll drive up it and probably roll. Keep your wheels straight and you might just bounce off it.”
Matching Rick’s level of speed, fluidity and control would be bloody nice, to be honest, and a day’s worth of tuition isn’t going to turn a sow’s ear (or pig, if you ask anyone from work, referring to yours truly) into a rally star.
If anything, the Mazda 2 would be even more fun if it actually had some discernable power, but Horsley has a solution to this. “Lose some bloody weight and stop drinking piss.” He’s been harping on about it for months while doing wonders for my self-confidence, but I’m down to 87.5kg, which apparently still puts me in the ‘fat bastard’ category. Even if I don’t win, at least I’ll be slim.