The annual Fiat Nationals took place at Benalla, Victoria, this past weekend (20-21 January). In what has become an annual pilgrimage for us, we made the 900km trek over in our 1987 Alfa Romeo Sprint and 1979 Fiat X1/9. Yes, that is correct. Every year we drive old Italian cars halfway across the country in the middle of an Aussie summer. Crazy.
See here for motorkhana photos.
See here for Show & Shine and Supersprint photos.
The event has been run as a motorkhana and next year will be celebrating it’s 50th running. Historically run around places like Dubbo and Wagga Wagga, 7 years ago the event moved to Bathurst and enjoyed the addition of a speed event for the first time – a hillclimb up the famous Bathurst race track. This was when I started attending and I ended up competing at the Bathurst hillclimb three times. The event then moved to Goulburn and featured a supersprint around the Wakefield Park circuit. Attending both of these locations from Adelaide involved crossing the Hay Plains (not a great deal of fun in summer), so it was with great happiness when I read that the event would be moving to Benalla, Victoria, for 2012. The event would also include a supersprint around the Winton circuit.
So that’s how I found myself behind the wheel of the Alfa last Friday, chasing one of the most amazing dawn sunrises I’ve seen into the distance. It was forecasted to be a hot day and the early morning air was refreshingly balmy as it kissed and caressed the skin. Lights on, windows down, we sped through the darkness with the knowledge that things were going to get quite a bit warmer as soon as that sun rose.
At Tailem Bend we met up with our travelling companions – a race prepared Fiat 124 Sedan on trailer and a Mk V Golf GTI. After a couple of hours driving we soon realised that our GPS was leading us on an interesting and original path. We turned off the main Melbourne road when instructed by the small grey box and found ourselves traversing these small and narrow Victorian country roads. The road was so narrow at some points that we needed to drive in the grass to miss oncoming cars – however the tradeoff was the almost complete lack of traffic and some surprisingly fun corners. The little roads wound their way around paddock borders and occasionally featured the odd S bend or 90deg turn. With complete sight around the corner the whole road could be used – it was a great way of breaking the distance up!
Despite driving an estimated extra 100km, we made it to Benalla and the welcome function. The best part about these welcome functions is hunting the car park to see what cars everyone has brought this year.
The boys from turbo124.com were in attendance with strong numbers.
As it turned out there was actually a major national dog show on in Benalla on the same weekend. The motel car park was full of trailers, carrying both race cars and dogs. Some of the dogs were pretty hilarious looking.
In past years (1950’s-80’s and 90’s) speed events like hillclimbs, supersprints and track days were the sole reserve of either the Ferrari or Maserati driving elite, or those with the resources and knowledge to build their own racecar. There was no real outlet for people to use their road cars without serious risk of damage. For this reason motorkhana’s were extremely popular, providing an easy entry point into basic motorsports. The Fiat club started holding an annual motorkhana weekend in the early 60’s, which was famed for it’s lightheartedness and fun. It was really a party weekend with a little bit of competition thrown in.
As these things do, eventually rivalry between people from the different states attending emerged. Hence, the Fiat Of Italy Cup was established and awarded to the state who scores the most points over the course of the weekends competition. The actual trophy is made of silver and dates from the 1920’s. It was donated to the clubs by Fiat of Italy in Turin in the 1960’s, and is still awarded to the winning state each year some 50 years later.
For 2012 the motorkhana grounds came with a bit of a twist. Usually held in a farmers paddock, this year the competition was held on a cricket oval in the small township of Baddaginne, about 10km out of Benalla. The grounds hadn’t seen a game of cricket for over 10 years so were extremely dusty, but the participants enjoyed all the facilities usually afforded to country cricket teams.
It was extremely hot and dusty. Photographing the competition involved short stints in the sun to shoot as many frames as possible, then retreating back into the shade for a cool bottle of water every 10 minutes.
Aidan Buggee had fun in his 131 turbo wagon. His theory was that if you can’t win you might as well have fun loosing, and was certainly the most entertaining to watch.
As is the case with most competition, people soon realised that a stock road car can be significantly modified for enhanced motorkhana performance – enter the motorkhana special. Many are based on cars like the Fiat 500 and Niki. Their small size and light weight makes them ideal for navigating the tight course around the flags and they can be fitted with powerful 1500 or 2000cc 4 cylinder engines from larger Fiat models. In addition, their rear or mid engined placement gives them brilliant traction in the mud or dirt conditions.
Purpose built motorkhana specials are called rails, and usually feature the entire front mechanical package from small from wheel drive cars such as the original Mini or Fiat 128 in a purpose built tube frame chassis.
Both the 500 or Niki based cars and the Rails usually feature what’s called a fiddle brake – hydraulic master cylinders acting on individual wheels. You can see in the photo above that there are several levers just behind the front wheel. Each of these levers locks an individual wheel, front or back. So for example you are trying to drive around a flag. You simply approach from the right hand side, then lock the front left wheel as you get to the flag. With full power the car then rotates around the stationary front left wheel, and you rocket off away to the next flag. A properly driven Rail is devastatingly quick, nothing can touch them.
The rail above, driven by Glenn Smith, was the fastest car on the day and won the motorkhana competition outright, a fantastic achievement for Glenn. And for the record, Victoria won the Fiat Of Italy Cup for the first time in 16 years.
Steve Schmidt did very well in his 124AC rally car. Steve competed in Classic Targa Adelaide back in September in this car and was the sister car to Guy Standen and myself throughout the event.
I was competing in our Alfa Romeo Sprint. It was my first time at Winton, and I found it to be a challenging but rewarding circuit. I also found it to be a strange juxtaposition – if you got it right it is an incredibly satisfying circuit to drive, but if you got it wrong, which is easy to do, it was incredibly frustrating. The elevation change adds interest that we don’t have back in Adelaide, and the flowing nature of turn 1 as it drops down to turn 2 is addictive. Turn three is an extremely long left handed sweeper that requires an unconventional line that takes a little while to get your head around. You stay right out on the right for most of the corner, only apexing at the very end which sets you up for the following right hander. I found it best to hold about a 3/4 throttle around turn 3, balancing the car and keeping the nose tucked in with some careful left foot braking. I’m not sure if it’s faster to left foot brake or not, but it sure was fun to practise a skill I’ve been trying to teach myself for some time.
Late apex’s are the general rule for Winton – on a lot of corners the apex is more than 2/3 around the corner. The back section is best treated with a calm head and a relaxed attitude, as even the slightest amount of overdriving will cause the car to wash wide with huge understeer. And it’s a track that flows too – understeer on one corner means your exit point is wrong, and then your entry point for the next corner is also wrong, and from there you might as well kiss your lap goodbye.
I managed a best time of 1.50.73. The poor Alfa wasn’t coping with the heat all that well, so in order to keep the temps down I started spacing my hot laps with cool down laps in between. This meant I only got about 2 hot laps per session, but it also meant we had a car to drive home the following day!
The turbo 125 proved to be extremely quick. I was amazed at how physically fast it looked on the track. That section of track in the Alfa feels fast when you’re driving it, but I know from watching Dad (who’s times were similar) that the car looks slow from the outside. For a car to look physically fast there it must be really moving. It certainly had the bulk power on hand to snap beautiful powerslides at will, which it did regularly.
The ‘Reasonably Priced Fiat’ or ‘The Fridge’ did well again. This little competition, started by the turbo124.com guys last year, borrows a similar theme from Top Gear and is a challenge where about 20-something people each have two hot laps in the same car on the same day. The person with the fastest time wins.
Here’s some footage from Glenn Smith’s run.
Apologies for the lack of creativity or effort in these shots. After getting out of the car wearing a 3 layer race suit, gloves, balaclava and helmet on a 37deg day, the last thing you feel like doing is standing out in the sun with a camera before you need to jump back into the car. I forced myself to at least get a few shots, but most of my spare time was spent trying to cool off as much as possible!
Phil joined our little convoy in his Abarth 500 for the journey home. This photo was taken in the lovely Victorian country town of St Arnaud. I’ve never been there before but I instantly fell in love with the place. Leafy tree lined roads traverse past immaculately kept buildings and public parks and a cute old church that’s been converted into a funky coffee shop. I’ll definitely come back when I can spend some more time here.
The weather was weird on the way home. In general it was very hot, dry and sunny. This whirly whirly was heading toward the road we were travelling on just ahead, and we were worried it was going to intersect us. I imagine that being in an open X1/9 as one of these passes over you would not be that pleasant.
And then the rains hit. Yes, rain. The trip was completely dry except for this band of rain, and it didn’t even last for five minutes. But the eerie thing was the way it began so suddenly. In the photo above you can see how the road we are travelling on is hot, dry and in full sun. Yet not a hundred metres ahead it is raining heavily, and the road is flooded. It was so heavy that we had to slow to 60km/h and the car was aquaplaning through the puddles.
Next years Nationals are going to be held in the southern Queensland town of Warwick, with the supersprint being held at Morgan Park Raceway. It’s a terribly long way to drive from Adelaide, so assuming we can find a way to transport the cars we’ll see you in 2013!