2018 Forest Rally – What a drama!

The tough event!

By far, this would have to be the toughest rally we’ve ever done! The 2018 Make Smoking History Forest Rally was a tragedy for us. We started with five cars and by the end not one had got through unscathed.

Round 2 of the WA Rally Championship, the Forest is the longest rally of the year. There’s a lot of preparation involved to get our cars and 30 person team through nearly three days of competition. In the final couple of days before the event we were quietly confident of a good showing.

On Anzac day we pointed the service truck southwest and took the 3 hour drive to Busselton. Our accommodation was not far from the super special stage on the foreshore. We unloaded some of the gear needed for the weekend and got our home base set up.

Dark clouds brewing

By Thursday morning all of our state crews were preparing for recce. The Forest Rally has many stages and it takes a good couple of days to write pace notes and get them sorted. By mid morning however we became aware of a problem with the Escort.

Geoff and Paul had built a new MK2 Escort rally car for 2018. The car wasn’t quite ready for the start of the season so its debut was to be the Forest.  After scrutineering on Tuesday a problem had developed with the clutch that needed attention. The gearbox now had to come out to sort it.

The clock was ticking

Friday morning and the countdown was on. Overnight we’d pulled the Escort’s gearbox and discovered a seized clutch bearing.  Sourcing a new bearing proved to be a difficult job. In the end we found one in Perth and got it to Busselton by “Pony Express”.

By late afternoon we had the gearbox back in the Escort and all our other cars ready to start the rally. Whilst the guys were at the driver’s briefing we finalised the Escort and bled the clutch. All of a sudden fluid starting pouring out of the bell housing! The gearbox had to come out again! The problem this time was failed seals in the clutch slave cylinder. We were out of time…

No start and no re-start

In the past we could have missed the opening stages and started the rally Saturday morning. Now the Forest Rally rules say that if you don’t start stage 1, you’re out for the whole weekend. We had no choice but to put the gearbox back in the car without a usable clutch. Geoff started the car in gear and puttered over the start line on the tarmac Busselton super special stage. We then withdrew the car and gave notice of our intention to re-start Saturday morning.

For Ben/Chris in their Spec C WRX, Mark/Jess in their Celica GT4 and Brad/Richard in their WRX, the tarmac runs were fine. The cars ran flawlessly as the crews eased their way into the Forest Rally.

Back at home base, out came the Escort’s gearbox again. We’d fitted new ‘o’ rings to the slave cylinder and put it all back together. If nothing else, we’d had plenty of (unwanted) practice at changing the gearbox. This time all seemed well and the car was driven to the overnight holding area.

The gravel stages start

By Saturday morning the team was already looking weary from the long Friday. The cars all arrived on time for the first service early in the morning. Spot lights and tarmac tyres were removed and fresh gravel tyres were fitted. Now the rally could start proper. We thought all of our dramas were behind us for the weekend.

Before Ben and Chris had got half way through the first gravel stage (SS3) they’d developed a problem. The Spec C had stopped without warning and now refused to start. The symptoms described over the phone sounded ominous. We headed out to recover the guys and the car.

Two for the price of one

We’d only just despatched some of the team to pick up Ben and Chris when we received another call. This time it was Geoff and Paul. They’d put the Escort off in SS4 and were bogged. Worse still, Mark and Jess had got just past the Escort and then put the Celica off down the bank! Incidentally that same corner had claimed Lance & Jace during the 2017 Forest Rally when they rolled the Silvia.

Within two stages we had three cars in trouble in heat 1. Our emphasis soon turned to rescue rather than service. Luckily Brad/Richard and Lance/Jace appeared to be having a good run and all hope was not lost.

The diagnosis

By late Saturday morning we had all the cars back at the service park. The Escort only needed minor tinkering and was ready to re-start. The Celica had suffered some superficial panel damage to the right front fender and bonnet. With the help of some hammers and a boot the car was well on its way to a re-start. The Spec C however had terminal problems. Unfortunately the cam belt had failed. An unusual fault, it most likely had done further damage inside the engine. Regretfully Ben and Chris were out of the rally.

No sooner had Geoff and Paul left service to restart the rally, they were back. The clutch hydraulics had failed again and the fluid leaking from the bell housing told its own story. Without spares we made the decision not to pull the gearbox out again. Sadly they too were out of the event at an early stage.

This could have been deadly

Lance and Jace were the next to have trouble and it wasn’t an accident or mechanical. On one particular corner during the afternoon, the pair overshot. Not normally a major drama, this particular junction was a divider between two separate stages. For reasons that are still unclear, they managed to get themselves onto a completely different stage. Believing they were on the correct road, the pair continued on to the finish.

The surprised officials at the end of the section sent Lance and Jace to Forest Rally HQ. The organisers took a dim view and decided to exclude them with immediate effect. Out of five of our team that started heat 1, only Brad and Richard finished the day.

Heat 2 with two back in

Sunday dawned with two of our cars in the rally. Mark & Jess had restarted Saturday evening alongside Brad/Richard and completed the tarmac without incident.  Our service area was smaller and quieter than Saturday. After the first service some of the team headed off to the spectator point to watch some rally action.

Later in the morning we got a call from Brad and Richard. They’d clipped a rock and suspected the front suspension was damaged. We got them to withdraw and head straight back to service so we could sort it. The WRX had a broken a left lower control arm. We replaced the part and re-started them later in the day.

Getting them to the finish

After the final service we packed up everything and headed to the finish ramp. Soon enough Mark and Jess came in, however there was no sign of Brad and Richard. Where could they be? They hadn’t rung us. What had happened? Finally the pair got to the finish well out of order.

On the penultimate stage they’d spun the WRX and gone off backwards into the trees. Luckily the damage was minor and they continued without much time loss. On the final stage they blew a tire and had to stop and change it. The two issues had dropped them quite a bit of time. The 2018 Forest Rally had been a difficult one and we finished…. Just!

The next event is the Safari Rally in Boddington on the June long weekend. The cars will get some intensive care to be ready to race again.

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