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Round 3 - Changbaishan - First Gravel Stage win!

From the Russian border (Mohe, Round 2) to New Zealand for Tony’s little man’s 6th birthday and then, continuing their mad month, on to the Korean border for Team FCACA’s third round of the China Rally Championship (CRC).


For Tony this lifestyle is everything he has ever dreamed of, but like most good things it has come at a cost. So, being able to spend time together with his son on his birthday means more to Tony than most dads, especially as this was only the third time in six years it has been possible for him to do so. This was made extra special by Tyler’s birthday wish to have a family birthday.


The familiar ‘five airport flight’ to their final destination ended in time to prepare suspension settings, together with Pirelli tyres, for the Team’s assault on the only round. Championship pacesetters David Higgins and Leuan Thomas would not compete due to British championship commitments.

The FCACA crew who had made the 4000km road trip from Mohe to Changbaishan did an exceptional job of finding fast-flowing and slow, sandy, technical test stages, allowing the Kiwi/Aussie partnership to set up for both the K-series and the unusual XR Pirelli tyre pattern and compound. This test would, unfortunately, be cut short after clipping a hidden tree stump, bending a steering arm. Tony also damaged his wrist while wrestling to keep the Prodrive N12B Subaru on all fours.


Wednesday morning’s one-handed reconnaissance (recce) was the chance to understand the 28 and 29km stages, repeated 3 times on Saturday and totalling over 170km of competitive stages. This was followed by a four-hour break, believed to be in place to clean up all the “recce races carnage”, with many of the usual rental recce cars being replaced with local taxis?!

The afternoon was much shorter with 21 and 11km stages repeated twice on Sunday, where you could be forgiven for thinking these stages were from a different rally; starting out with 5km of ultra-soft, sandy conditions with hidden jumps followed by fast flowing rough, rocky, narrow dirt roads.

This was looking to be an awesome rally!

Thursday and the whole Team would make their way back to the test stages, with their new found knowledge, gained from the recce, to continue their Tuesday test, working together with Prodrive to set the N12B Subaru up for the mixed stages. Then, rushing back to Chanbaishan to recce (walk) the 1km super special stage run as Stage 1, first thing on Friday morning, would be run on a gravel school football ground for all the locals to experience rally first hand.


Friday morning’s Super Special Stage 1 would be made more interesting by the fact that all the teams would use normal road tyres, leading to various different approaches from the top teams.

After a disappointing run through the stage, Tony and John found themselves in 4th.

1st:   Japan’s  –  Nutahara.


2nd:  Finland’s  –  Salo


3rd:   Australia’s – Herridge.


Friday afternoon was spent team building.  Sightseeing on Changbaishan Mountain in heavy snow was a beautiful sight to see and a great way to prepare for Saturdays 170km of competitive stages…

A 4.30am wake-up call was much anticipated by a concentrated pair trying to start the day the same way they had ended Mohe’s Sunday stages. The arrival of Team owner Mr Chen is always exciting, as his passion for Rally is second to none, embracing the pair in the hotel foyer before heading into the first real stage of the rally.

With the arrival of Pirelli’s tyre technician, a conversation about cool temperatures would lead to Tony making a critical tyre choice against his testing knowledge, ultimately moulding the result of the rally…

Tony – ”Every day’s a learning day”…


The Kiwi/Aussie combo started Stage 2 strong and was happy with the first 10km of the stage, working well with Tony really starting to trust his notes. Unfortunately, this would be destroyed by the last minute tyre choice, leading to the first puncture of the weekend and of their career together.


Trying to drive the remaining 18km of the stage with one front tyre was quickly followed by the reality; it had to be changed.

Putting this disappointment out of their minds, they now focused on Stage 3 with an undamaged car, albeit on the wrong tyres. The boys pushed conservatively through the stage, leading once again to the final 5km being run on another punctured front tyre, yet setting the 3rd fastest stage time in the process.

Stage 4 and back to the previously tested Pirelli XR7. It would take some getting used to, with awesome grip on the starts and braking contradicted through the corners with a lot of lateral movement it would, once again, enable them to achieve 3rd outright.

Stage 5 was looking to be the best time the pair had achieved for the day when a difficult right hand bend tightening 3 times (which had already claimed the 000 Organisers Car) led to Tony stalling the car and losing 40 seconds in the process trying to restart the Subaru.

The final stages, 6 and 7, were used more like a test than a rally. Concentrating on note changes and committing to medium-fast descriptions and distances of the corners, as well as feeling the N12B Subaru moving sideways a lot through the corners on the Pirelli XR tyres, the pair worked their way back up to 10th outright; 1 and half minutes off a top 5 position, after posting 2nd and 3rd outright stage times respectively.


Sunday was a new day, with 64km of special stages to show what Team FCACA’s Number 1 was made of. Starting out on what could be called more a beach than Stage 8, there was a whole lot of drifting going on, making a tyre choice a difficult one. With the pair ending the stage 2nd quickest to Salo, they followed up on Stage 9 with Team FCACA’s first gravel stage win. Now, 5th outright!

4 seconds off Salo/Stenberg for the day … there was nothing to lose in going for the leg (Day 2) win.

Adding insult to injury; after starting out on the “beach” significantly quicker than the previous pass and following the same line as the last run through the stage, it ended with a very unspectacular bump (rock/tree stump?) which bent the front lower suspension arm and stabiliser into the driver’s side steering arm, with the wheel rubbing on the inner arch eventually leading to the pair driving at 183kmh on 3 wheels but losing another 2 minutes in the process…


Finally making it to time control, removing the remaining hub of the wheel from the wheel studs and thinking of the next rally, the pair almost called it a day when co-driver John Allen said: “What would Possum Do?”… That said, Tony continued with some creative ingenuity, including head butting the Ohlins damper in the process and then fitting a inflated tyre which wouldn’t fit in the arch, firing up the N12B and continuing on to the final stage, praying the new Pirelli XR7 would make it to the end of the next stage allowing the pair to reach the finish.

Thankfully, this was the case, dropping another minute in the 11km stage they had previously won and finished 6th outright.


Once back in service it was obvious through all the disappointment of a tough weekend that the team had gained the respect of the top teams, with congratulations along the whole service area, none more than from an ecstatic FCACA Team owner. 

Tony – “If you had told me after stage 2 on Saturday morning we would have finished 5th, I would have never believed you.”

The overall result aside, this has been without a doubt the best week of my career: Testing with Prodrive, getting a real feel for the car’s Ohlins suspension, Pirelli tyres and my notes, all the while trusting my first class Aussie partner, John, who has done a stunning job and can take full credit for allowing me to show some of my potential as a driver on my 11th rally… 

Watch this space!

There’s a whole lot more to come!”

“Congratulations to Juha Salo and Mika Stenberg on their stunning win off the back of becoming Finlands number 1 and to our good friends Dean Herridge and Chris Murphy for finally being able to show the pace of their Subaru China N14 after a troublesome season so far”.


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