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SUVs to become forest racers

Forester S: Subaru's compact off-roader could be one of the contenders in the Australian Rally Championship's SUV segment.

Australian Rally Championship tempts manufacturers with innovative SUV category

General News logo12 Apr 2011

ORGANISERS of the Australian Rally Championship have taken the local car industry by surprise with an announcement that they will introduce a special section for lightly modified SUVs such as the Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and Ford Territory next year.

Although designed to bring manufacturers and importers back into the ailing championship, few brands were aware of the move ahead of last week’s announcement by ARC chief executive Scott Pedder.

Even Subaru Australia – whose managing director Nick Senior prompted the move by saying the ARC needed to embrace what is now the country’s biggest market sector – said it would have to wait until details of the SUV category were released in September before being able to consider committing the substantial budget required for a program with the WRX-based Forester S-Edition.

One of the most interested brands appears to be Toyota, which has been out of Australian motor sport since dropping its local Corolla rally program two years ago but is interested in getting involved again.

Toyota Australia spokesman Mike Breen told GoAuto he had discussed the SUV proposal with Mr Pedder and that it was possible a factory-backed RAV4 could be seen in the forests in 2013.

80 center imageFrom top: Toyota RAV4, Ford Territory, Honda CR-V.

“We’re keen to do something – it just has to be the right thing,” Mr Breen told us.

“We’re always looking at opportunities in motor sport, especially as we’re not involved at the moment, and we think this is a good idea.

“They (the organisers) seem to be doing the planning pretty well, but of course it all comes down to the final specifications.

“If we do anything, we’ll look at 2013.”

Interestingly, four-time national rally champion Neal Bates, whose Canberra-based team developed and built the Corollas that won three successive titles before the 2009 GFC-induced shutdown, remains on a Toyota Australia retainer.

Neal Bates Motorsport, which recently oversaw the Lexus celebrity events supporting the Australian F1 Grand Prix at Albert Park, would undoubtedly be given the challenge of building a RAV4 forest racer, having successfully developed Toyota’s S2000 Corollas locally.

Hyundai and Mazda have also been named as being interested in joining the SUV category, although veteran Mazda Australia motorsport manager Allan Horsley knew nothing about it when contacted by GoAuto this week.

Nevertheless, Mr Horsley said Mazda was a pro-motorsport company and could be interested in the concept, but would have to see the details before considering it seriously.

Ford Motorsport chief Chris Styring was also unaware of the SUV category when contacted by GoAuto and noted that “budgets are always tight”, but thought it was an interesting concept that would be worth looking at in more detail in light of the Territory.

Championship boss Scott Pedder, who became CEO only four months ago, said his organisation had talked to 11 car companies in the past month about its plans.

He has wasted little time making wholesale changes to the series, starting in 2012 when only drivers of two-wheel drive cars will be eligible to score points and win the title (although current all-wheel drive cars will still be able to compete).

Mr Pedder said that both the 2WD and SUV decisions were intended to attract more manufacturer participation, which has dropped away dramatically in recent years.

Honda runs a successful class program with a 2WD Civic Type R, but the only cars able to win outright are the Subaru Impreza WRX and Mitsubishi Lancer Evo – and neither company has been directly involved in recent years.

“SUVs are the fastest-growing sector in the Australian car park and now have a larger market share than the traditional large passenger car market,” said Mr Pedder, a former Mitsubishi works driver who was on the verge of taking last year’s title before being sidelined by a serious accident.

“As Nick Senior from Subaru suggested in his press conference as part of the new Forester launch, there is not really a relevant motorsport category in Australia in which these cars can run.

“In our meetings with the manufacturers over the past month there has been significant interest in an SUV category. I’m not expecting factory teams in the first year, but I think the Australian Rally Championship has all the attributes to create a fantastic platform for the promotion of these vehicles and this category.

“Initially, my opinion is to run these in ‘Showroom-plus’ specification, in other words a pretty stock vehicle plus safety equipment and freedoms for suspension, brakes and exhaust.

“Also, as many SUVs only come with automatic transmission, this is another area we would need to look at. We have a few months to work out the fine details.

“The new SUV category will enable more manufacturers to become involved in rallying utilising vehicles from the fastest growing sector in the Australian car market.

“The most successful periods of the Australian Rally Championship relate directly to the times when manufacturer involvement was at its highest. Formula One, V8 Supercars and the WRC are all motor sport championships that enjoy the status they currently have largely because of the involvement of manufacturers.

“Manufacturers bring organic exposure to the championship and the sport via their marketing leveraging programs and they provide aspiration for our up and coming crews, which relates to significant gains in the commercial and sporting appeal of the championship.

“Motor sport is a proven brand builder and rallying, unlike many other motor sport disciplines, provides greater vehicle options and is a category that the public can directly relate to the showroom and the cars they drive.”

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