On the Friday afternoon, Tom Clarke thought his weekend was over.
A flat tyre about 22 kilometres from the end of the 50km second stage meant Clarke and co-driver Ryan Preston had a choice: stop and change the tyre or press on. They chose the latter, limping home almost four minutes behind the rest of the pack.
But the weekend was anything but over. It was just getting started.
Clarke, from Sylvania Waters, travelled to Coffs Harbour on the NSW North Coast last month for Rally Australia. The event doubled as the 13th and final race of the 2017 World Rally Championship. It was the second time Clarke had also entered Rally Australia under WRC rules.
Not backed by a manufacturing team, Clarke and Preston took on some of the best rally drivers in the world in their 2003 Mitsubishi Evo 9. The privateers overcame their set back on day one to eventually finish second in the national event and 14th outright in the WRC field.
“In motorsport and rally in particular where WRC is the pinnacle of the rally world, to even get there and be able to run with those guys is an achievement in itself for us,” Clarke told the Leader.
“My aim was to hopefully be around 20th. I didn’t even consider we’d be remotely close to the top 10. So to finish 14th, everything fell together. The Australian Rally Championship is the biggest in our country as well and we don’t have big manufacturer backing. We have some great sponsors but we do it on a privateer basis.”
Clarke and Preston improved on their first Rally Australia-WRC finish from 2016 when they finished fifth in the national event and 17th outright. The pair also achieved their main goal for the weekend, to win a NSW State Rally Championship round for the first time.
To even get there and be able to run with those guys is an achievement in itself for us.Tom Clarke
Clarke overcame the flat tyre from Friday to surge back into contention on Saturday after their luck turned. A number of other entrants suffered flats themselves, bringing Clarke back to the pack.
Then, after two days of perfect weather, torrential rain hit the race on the Sunday, allowing Clarke to consolidate his position in the field.
“It was one of those things. It doesn’t always come together but in the end we had a dream run,” Clarke said.
“We had a bad day on the Friday. The flat [tyre] hindered us but we decided instead of pulling over and changing it we ran the car out. We lost about four minutes and I thought our weekend was pretty much over then. That field, it’s pretty tight, you can’t afford those dramas in motorsport.
“Then we came out on Saturday and everyone got a flat and it brought everyone back to us. Then once we were back to that point and we had a chance we just pushed on as hard as we could. We got into a really good position on Saturday as the other cars sort of had some dramas.
“We got up into second and then on Sunday the rain was just out of control. We couldn’t do anything, just consolidated where we were because we had a good lead on third.
“Having done it [in 2016] we were much more comfortable this year as well. You’ve got an insight into the conditions and the road surface changes. Going in there this year I was remembering the next 10 or 15km, remembering where you could cut, where there was a big tree on the outside, changes in surfaces. Having that memory helps.”
Clarke also paid tribute to his co-driver Preston, with Clarke believing the 21-year-old Queensland could become the best navigator in Australia.
“His job is paramount to us. It’s a job I couldn’t do,” Clarke said.
“The concentration, the amount of time in the car, making those calls. He pretty much directs me from start to finish. He’s got to deal with officials and know pages of rules and regulations.
“He’s very knowledgeable. He’s keen, he’s got a huge passion for rally. And we’re going from strength to strength. We’ve got a really good bond in the car now. I think where we’re heading, we want to get to the top. And I think on potential he has the ability to be the best in the country.”