In his home country, seven-times Indonesian champion Rifat Sungkar is treated like rally royalty but in Canberra this weekend, he’s stepping into territory which is owned by Australia’s king of the forest, Cody Crocker.
While the two drivers might be team-mates aboard identical Subarus in the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship and in this weekend’s Rally of Canberra, the lines of demarcation are well established.
Crocker knows Canberra’s rally roads and conditions as well as anybody. He has won the A-P section of the rally here four times, the past three times in succession. And if he wins again this weekend, he will go one better than WA legend Ross Dunkerton and the man who Crocker regards as his mentor, the late, great Possum Bourne. Crocker hasn’t driven a rally car in anger since winning the Rally of China in November last year. But yesterday he climbed into his familiar blue Impreza WRX Sti like it was an old shoe, blasting around the Bluetts Forest test track which is familiar as his backyard in Melbourne. “You treat every event with the same respect and high degree of preparation but getting five wins here will be that little bit special because I know how much Possum loved this rally,” Crocker said during a break in testing yesterday. “It’s strange, you know, it’s been five years since he died but I still miss him; the entire team misses him. When you are that larger-than-life character that Possum was, he will always leave that gap in our lives.” Peter “Possum” Bourne suffered fatal injuries on April 18 2003, in a car crash during preparations for the Race to the Sky hillclimb in New Zealand’s Central Otago.
Bourne’s rally legacy continues in the cars built by the company he founded, Possum Bourne Motorsport. Both Crocker and Sungkar’s car were built by PBM in New Zealand, as are many of the fastest production-based Group N cars competing through South-East Asia. Crocker, 36, is the top-seeded Asia-Pacific driver competing in the Rally of Canberra. He not only has a formidable record here, but throughout the region having won three Australian Rally Championships and four Asia-Pacific titles, the past two in succession.
But being at the top of his game also carries its penalties. As the driver with the number one on his door, he will be first on the road and therefore act as the road sweeper for all the cars following behind him. All the loose stones which sit on the road surface are a detriment to optimum grip. The more the rally road is swept of stones, the grippier and faster it becomes. “Ideally you’d like to be around car four or five on the road because that’s the position which offers the best grip, and it hasn’t been cut up by the traffic,” Crocker said. “But I’ve started in this [number one] position plenty of times before so you just accept it and move on.”
This weekend Crocker’s co-driver will be Queenslander Ben Atkinson, who has also called the corners for his brother, Chris, a former Australian champion now competing as a Subaru factory driver – and the sole Australian – in the prestigious World Rally Championship. Chris Atkinson is currently placed third in the WRC, and is widely regarded as a world champion in the making.
Crocker’s team-mate Rifat Sungkar, on his third visit to Canberra, this weekend will carry an Australian in the co-driver’s seat. Former WA policeman Bill Hayes has been drafted into the team this season to lift Sungkar’s driving to the next level. The Indonesian star is relying heavily on Hayes’s experience and cool head to find those extra seconds he needs in order to approach the superior standards set by Crocker. Hayes recently took Sungkar out onto his old rally stomping ground at Mundaring, east of Perth, and spent two solid days in the car with the 29-year-old Indonesian, working on refining their pace notes and fine-tuning the all-important communication levels between driver and co-driver. “In our first rally together in Japan, I could tell Rifat was listening to me and in his head he was then translating what I said back into Indonesian,” Hayes explained. “At this level of competition, with the speeds and stage times you need to achieve, that’s not going to work. So we’ve been beavering away at getting a stronger level of understanding. We’re getting there; it [the communication] is beginning to gel nicely but realistically it might take this rally and maybe one or two more to really get us totally in synch.”
The 21st Rally of Canberra begins with a ceremonial start in Garema Place tonight, followed by competition out in the forests all weekend.