AFTER almost retiring before the event began, Eli Evans has taken an emotional win in the ECB Australian Rally Championship round at Coates Hire Rally Australia today.
“I’m not usually left lost for words, but today feels very special, quite incredible actually considering that just a few days ago I wasn’t even sure if we’d make the start line,” Evans said about his ARMOR ALL & STP Power Stage crash on Thursday.
“The team worked around the clock to repair the car and they put their faith in me to do them proud, so it feels amazing to be able to repay them in this way.”
The win pushes the Team Citroen Australia even further ahead in the East Coast Bullbars Australian Rally Championship, but the race will go down to the final event of the year, Scouts Rally SA, after his main rival Molly Taylor managed to claw her way into a podium position in third.
“Unfortunately Eli has a bigger lead on us than at the start of the weekend, but considering the problems we’ve had I’m still very happy to take second, and even happier to still be in the title fight,” Taylor said.
Splitting the pair was Steve Mackenzie, the young Ford driver matching his speed with new-found consistency to finish the World Championship event in second.
“The team gave me a long talking-to after Queensland and I really drove with a plan this weekend and it’s great that it paid off,” Mackenzie said.
Today’s third and final Leg comprised just five stages, with Eli immediately controlling the pace from the front, 23.1 seconds over the 21.95km Bucca Long.
The first stage started badly for Harry Bates, who went off the road.
“It was a decent crash. I braked too late for a narrow square right, the surface had turned to that real bull dust, and I went straight off and into a stump.”
On the second stage Eli maintained his winning way, but by a far narrower margin to Molly Taylor, this time just 1.6 seconds the advantage. By the third stage Molly had finally hit her straps and claimed the stage victory.
“It’s so nice to be able to battle today. We’ve had such a tough weekend, the pace just wasn’t there the last two days and then finally today things have started to turn around.
“We made some more small changes and found the spark plugs were very dirty after yesterday. But I think the nature of the stages is the big thing, far less stop start than the past two days.”
Further back Adrian Coppin’s Citroen DS3, battered and bruised from a roll-over yesterday, had received a new drivers door courtesy of rival Tony Sullens.
“The old one wasn’t closing properly and letting in a heap of dust, so Tony was kind enough to help us out.”
In the 4WDs leader Marcus Walkem was concentrating on maintaining his lead from a hard-charging Mick Patton, the margin holding steady at just over one minute.
Patton had made some adjustments to his Mitsubishi but was unable to close down the margin to Walkem.
“He’s driving incredibly well. We’ve made some changes to suit the stages today and it’s feeling good.”
Gerald Schofield moved up into the final 4WD podium position after Mike Bailey crashed into a tree.
With just two stages to go and almost two minutes advantage, one would think Eli Evans would be back off the pace. But on the penultimate stage he once again put the pedal to the metal, opening a further 19.9 second buffer over Mackenzie.
And after a frustrating year developing his Volkswagen Polo finally some joy came for Ashlea James, who set the second fastest stage time behind Eli over the 9.23km Wedding Bells stage.
The 4WD meant a special victory for Tasmanian Walkem, once again highlighting his impressive pace despite limited appearances in the Australian Rally Championship.
“An awesome event. An incredible feeling to win against such a strong field of four-wheel drives this weekend. We had some issues on Friday but we managed to stay in touch and then pull ahead yesterday,” he said at the finish.
Second-placed Mick Patton extended his points lead in the National 4WD Series, having played a tactical game all weekend.
“I’m happy with second, we achieved what we came here to achieve and that was to leave in an even stronger position in the points. I’m looking forward to Rally SA now,” he said.
In the Classics, Clay Badenoch appeared to have it all his own way, but admitted that despite his eventual winning margin of more than 13 minutes from second-placed Keith Fackrell and third place-getter Brett Stephens it had been a tough weekend.
“Obviously not having Neal (Bates) start the rally left me with a lot of pressure to live up to. It was a shame not to be able to race against Neal and Coral (Taylor, co-driver) this weekend but I’m happy I was able to uphold honours for the team and Toyota.”
And after being kept honest by second-placed Iain Hughes and third-placed Nathan Chivers, Cody Crocker once again stood on the top step of the podium in the Side-by-Side Rally Challenge.
The East Coast Bullbars Australian Rally Championship now gears up for its season finale – Scouts Rally SA – which runs in the Adelaide hills from the 23rd to the 25th October.