London-Sydney: Down Under - Underground

London-Sydney: Down Under - UndergroundFrom Chris Biewer [ 28/06/2004 ].
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Back again to the London-Sydney Marathon. And what a picturesque start into the Australian leg: Day21 rest day in Alice Springs. Day22 a 420km road section to famous Ayers Rock. On the Sunday, day23, procedures became more serious. Far more serious: 831km total, 3 stages on the way to Coober Pedy, where the teams are right now (well, at the time of writing this) sleeping in an underground hotel – hence the headline “Down Under - Underground”. But as well the challenge is a very different one. The Toyota vs Honda battle has turned upside down as well with the Hondas taking Toyota’s 1st & 3rd places – yes, we have a new leader! The historic cars are still struggling, but it seems to be a different struggle….

Aren’t there a lot of famous place names already just after touch down down under? Following the flight transfer there was a deserved rest day in Alice Springs. But not only a lazy day in town was on the agenda. With the longest and hardest section of the rally about to start, some servicing was adviseable. Day22 was still a calmer day with a 420km road section Alice Springs-Ayers Rock, through the Anna Creek farm, which is bigger in land than Belgium! The crews arrived in time for the famous, stunning sunset, in which the Ayers Rock changes colour no less than 7 times.

From here we have the main day of action we are covering now. 831km total was the Sunday, including 3 stages on a surface you would probably expect from Australia: It was slippery and sandy and everything was bright red. The day ended in Coober Pedy, which is the World’s Opal capital. Believe it or not, 80% of the precious stones called Opal in this World are found in Coober Pedy! And another thing makes this place unique: Here in the middle of the Australian Outback it often is so hot that the people live in “dugouts”, bungalows and hotels are under ground. Tho, indeed, that the rally teams spend the night under ground is no joke.

And the rally stays exciting and unusual like this: On tomorrow’s agenda is a pub visit! No, it’s not a simple piss up down the pub. The rally visits William Creek, a village with a population of 27(!) and the only pub for 400km!!!! Yes, we are in the Outback, while the rally is heading for a salt lake and the Simpson Desert. But more about that when we have some stage results from all this.

Now to the section Ayers Rock to Coober Pedy, the first stage action on Australian soil for the 2004 London-Sydney Rally.

We already gave it away above, Jimmy McRae has lost his lead. And his Toyota team mate Graham Lorimer lost 3rd place. Jimmy led from day4 in France all the way through Italy, Greece, Turkey, India… But Australia is very different, very fast and sandy. And Joe McAndrew dominated the first day on the new continent. Already on the first Australian stage, SS37 Curtin Spring, Joe McAndrew took nearly a minute out of Jimmy McRae and Joe took the lead by a narrow 6s. However over Mount Connor1 and Mount Connor2 Joe McAndrew’s performance was just as crushing, extending his lead over Jimmy McRae to a healthy 1m14s! McAndrew’s navigator Murray Cole: "The sandy stuff suited us and our tyres and I think our engines have more torque than the Toyotas and Joe revels in soft going."

While Jimmy seems secure to at least keep 2nd place, his Toyota Corolla team mate Graham Lorimer was also a victim of one of the Honda Integra steam rollers. Mike Montgomery snatched 3rd place away from Graham on Mount Connor1 and by the end of the day he had extended the gap to 1m26s. In 5th is with Shane Murland/John Benton another Honda Integra and in 6th we have the first historic car, the Ford Escort RS1600 of Anthony Ward/Mark Solloway. But that 6th place of Anthony and Mark may soon be under thread.

Indeed Anthony Ward delivers the perfect proof that the Australian action is a very different challenge. Anthony, who with Mark and the trusty Escort RS1600 already finished in the top10 on last year’s Golden 50 East African Safari Rally, said: "I've never been in sandy stuff like that before. I was wheel spinning at 7,000 revs in third gear, it was very strange. Frankly I didn't know what to do. I played it safe and worked on not stopping and not getting bogged down. I think we were two minutes slower than McAndrew." Actually, to be precise, in the three stages of fairly similar length Anthony lost to Joe 4m30s in SS37, 3m02s in SS38 and 1m35s in SS39. So he is starting to get the hang of it. But wheel spin at 7000rpm in 3rd gear, wow!

Another team to show how different the challenge is for this last, long leg are Australians Lloyd Hughes/Hugh Hodgkinson in their Porsche 911 S. We didn’t mention them before because they had so far a rather quiet rally further down the field. They reached Australia in 24th place overall. And here they are very much at home. For the first time during this event Lloyd and Hugh managed a top10 stage time – and 3 of them in one day! They moved up from 24th to 21st during the day and their climb up the field is very likely far from over!

It is a little surprising that in the historics a Porsche should be the car to have for the Australian Outback. Of course, unfortunately the retirement list shows a number of pre event favourites, all of them in V8 cars as the Holden Monaro and the Ford Capri Perana. This leaves the challenge of the V8s to Richard Martin-Hurst/Tony Devantier, Ford Capri Perana and Gary & Rex Leeson, Ford Falcon. They are currently in 8th and 10th position. However their first stage times in Australia were steady, but not convincing enough to worry the guys in front of them.

Vidar Christensen in the Peugeot 306 S16 and David Winstanley in the MG ZR 160 seemed to be able to keep their speed on the new continent to confirm their results. But sadly it was our brave Skoda 1100MB crew to hit trouble down under. The car of Jiri Motal and Ota Kramaz is the car with the smallest engine in the entire rally. How funny that they are still exactly one place ahead of a Forld Falcon 4.7 V8 and one place behind the Leyland P76 right now. Jiri and Ota tumbled to 27th place again after a day with severe gearbox problems, even requiring road side repairs. As a result the Skoda team arrived last on the road into opal capital Coober Pedy. "A shame," said a disappointed Ota, "All the shops were closed so I won't be able to buy my wife an opal."

We will be back soon with reports of action in the Lake Eyre salt lake, the Simpson Desert and, of course the only pub for 400km!