Italian Connection: The thinking man's rally

Abarth Rally: The thinking man's rally

Senna? Hopeless at Trivial Pursuit. Loeb? I doubt he has ever won a meat tray at a pub in his life. And I don’t ever recall Brocky sitting opposite Eddie McGuire on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

Skill, talent and bravado behind the wheel win motorsport endeavours, right? Not quiz aptitude. So I ask that you consider this while I report that MOTOR has contested the Italian Connection Trophy road rally. And come last.

No, not last in category. Not ‘done poorly’ or ‘towards the bottom’. Bloody. Stone. Cold. Motherless. Last. Place. Outright.

Abarth 500C corneringYes, I know that’s very difficult to believe, but hear me out. The Trofeo Connessione Italiani, or ICT, is no regular rally. Had co-driver Richard Berry and I read the form guide closely we’d have realised that the three-day jaunt through Southern NSW and the Victorian High Country isn’t a rally or race, per se.

It’s primarily a social grand touring event, and secondarily a charity run to raise money and awareness for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a rare, ultimately terminal illness affecting one in 3300 males.

Some 800km of punting Australia’s finest twisties is supplemented by off-street elements such as timed motorkhanas, speed trials and lap sprints. All right up MOTOR’s alley. But the ICT bases its main competitive component on navigational skills (oh dear) and how adept entrants are at answering cryptic questions related to the route (oh very dear). So while Berry and I brought our game faces, turns out it was for the wrong game.

Abarth 500-C motorPrepared for battle? We thought so. Team MOTOR Fiat Squadra Corsa was perhaps the most well equipped of the 25-car field.

For starters, Fiat/Chrysler Oz supplied an Abarth 500C EsseEsse (aka, someone else’s car), good for 118kW/230Nm before you factor in its mod of an optional freer-flowing exhaust system.

The best optional extra, though, was its Michael Gee enhancement – a tireless Tassie lad who shadowed our white-on-white rag-top in a Jeep Grand Cherokee piled with supplies (aka, someone else’s fuel, tyres, helmets and credit card) as support crew. The most packed by half of the rest of the field was a sharp pencil for the quiz sheets and a picnic lunch.

Abarth  500 c engineNot that much of our stock would prove that advantageous. Berry and I are not the sharpest tools in the rally shed and the priority of navigational skill over speed certainly hadn’t sunken in on Thursday check-in when we got lost during the two-kay transport stage between Documentation and Scrutineering.

At scrutineering, a fellow competitor remarks that the Abarth is a quick breed, to which I respond it would be if we figure out how to activate its launch control system (which, I’ve heard, isn’t so much as mentioned in the owner’s manual) for “stage one”. He shoots me a look which clearly asks “why the bloody heck will you need launch control?”

Abarth rally vineyardFriday morning. Berry and I get lost in the 2.5 kays between the hotel and the start line. Clearly the penny hadn’t yet dropped.

Of course, I blame Berry. And a lack of caffeine. And the car, which, even at $38,990 (a $4000 premium over the hardtop EsseEsse), has no sat-nav. I’d also noticed, well into Thursday’s 550km transport stage from Sydney to ICT’s base camp of Albury, that there’s no cruise control either.

It turns out the ICT, which isn’t strictly for Italian marques, is a bit of an Abarth-fest. We’re the only soft-top among a gaggle of five Abarth, meaning three of MOTOR’s direct rivals are 50kg lighter (1035kg) three-door tin-lid hatches sporting conventional five-speed manuals.

Abarth rally sceneryOur rag-top only comes with the Competizione MTA robotised paddle-shift manual, a transmission shared with one other Abarth in the field, a 695 Tributo Ferrari, which packs an EsseEsse-crushing 132kW/250Nm and asks a frosty $69,990 for the privilege.

The flag drops, we blow the outskirts of Wodonga on a snaking 200km beeline toward Mount Hotham and I start strategising where I’m going to start rounding up our Abarth nemeses when, 15 kays in, Berry commands me to pull over.

“Scouts Australia is the parent body of what group?” he says. Pardon…? And so begins the quiz component of the rally, some 73 brain teasers spread over three days and two states that rely on observation, Sherlock Holmes-like deduction and the Abarth stuck firmly in Park on the side of the road. And I think to myself: why?

Abarth 500-C driving rearWe’re not even at day one’s morning tea in Mitta Mitta (Q14: What are the names of the clubs at Mitta Valley?) when the big answer becomes obvious. Motorsport is, by nature, a selfish petrolhead indulgence. And yet almost all of the ICT competitors are couples or families and I reckon only half of them are revheads.

It’s simple really: success in ICT is as much – if not more – down to the co-driver as it is to the driver. Success or failure is largely down to those in the left-hand seat – the spouses, children and grandparents. Family-friendly motorsport, then, in the most literal and proactive sense.

That said, the driving component is brilliant. Mitta Mitta to Omeo could be the most relentless 100km stretch of tight, hard-attacking corners in Oz. And when the route gets challenging and serious, ICT suspends the quiz component from the itinerary. So as we climb Mount Wills, the 1.4-litre turbo strung off its redline, I’m surprised at my co-driver’s request to pull over. And not in the quest for trivial answers. Berry’s car sick.

Abarth 500-C driving frontThe full MOTOR Fiat Militia – Abarth and Jeep support crew line astern – is parked up on a verge in the middle of nowhere while the co-driver evacuates his stomach, perhaps earning a “Chuck” Berry nickname forever more.I flash an “all fine” wave to an elderly gent and his young female co-driver as they happily cruise by aboard a beautiful Porsche 550 Spyder replica.

It’s humiliation. So I do what any responsible team leader should do in such situations: I share Berry’s woes with anyone I can think of via electronic media. “I don’t get car sick,” Berry later retorted. “It was just a slight unsettling of the inner ear.” Sure.

By the time the wonderful Hotham Heights-Bright loop returns to Albury to complete day one, we’re placed 15th in the running and nowhere. But we’ve sampled some stunning roads, some of them even the correct ICT ones, to make the bottom order.

Abarth -500-C-drivingDay two kicks off with: “What cattle are at Santa Glen?” and proceeds through a 350-odd-kay route that takes in Beechworth, Porepunkah, the magnificent Mount Buffalo, Bright and Mount Beauty, complete with some of the world’s finest twisties and silliest questions. The ICT organisers mix up the routes (and questions) each year to avoid repetition and some years’ sections of the route get closed when snowfall becomes too heavy.

During 2014’s unseasonably fine May, though, it’s all smooth running, and the Abarth is proving as sharp as its pilots are blunt. We’re tumbling down the order like a pair of drunken clowns. At dinner, we discover we’re in last place. There’s another day to go.

In pathetic desperation, Team MOTOR Fiat – well, Berry, mostly – resorts to attempted cheating by trying to butter up three ICT veterans in a Valiant Regal to provide us with correct quiz answers. They shrewdly demand gold to the event’s sponsor charity in trade. Ruthless, I tell you.

Abarth rally ferrariDay three and it’s 170km from Albury through Jingellic and Tintaldra to Corryong Airport, the venue for the first of the off-street competition. Hallelujah for that! With the spectre of a wooden spoon hanging above us, Berry and I adopt Plan Icarus: if we can’t reach the sun, we might as well go down in a blaze of (semi-)glory trying.

Motorkhana One, run one is a flurry of hapless steering inputs and handbrake butchery. Run two feels tighter and quicker…until an official informs me I ballsed up the cone sequence. D’oh. Fourth quickest though and our dignity, at last, begins to turn a corner.

Motorkhana Two is one run only. So a full kamikaze approach is the only way. Halfway along I clip a cone, copping a brutal five-second penalty. So imagine my surprise to find out my penalised time was still third quickest outright! Sans the cone infringement I’d have topped the table by two full seconds... We’re back!

Abarth rally motorkhanaIt’s a short-lived triumph. On the 400m Sprint component I drop the ball. Launch control fails me, or vice versa, and the Abarth bogs down in second gear, my 16.22sec pass slowest of the three Abarth that run. Just 0.16sec covers the three of us, but it’s a blow for Team MOTOR Fiat.

The event’s final road loop, some 144km to the Logic Driver Training Centre in Wodonga, is time to cool the heels and get the game face straightened up. Berry and I have now clocked up nearly 2000 kays in the Abarth and its driving position – all arms and no legs – is taking its toll on my back.

But, jeez, its agile little chassis, tremendous front-end grip and point, and robust handbraking talent have certainly made up for its ergonomic woes. The car’s abilities are bringing a shine to the MOTOR Militia party.

Abarth rally driving interiorLogic’s skidpan tarmac isn’t as slippery as Corryong Airport’s and the motorkhana design is easier to digest. I get two passes and decide to treat both, and the Abarth, with homicidal, ragged-edged attack. The agreed tactic entering ICT’s final disciplines is that if the car breaks we’ll send it home in a bucket and ride back to hotel in the Jeep.

It doesn’t break. Far from it. I’m not sure which run was my 44.47 second pass but it tops the timesheet. Take that Scouts Australia.

With confidence rising, ICT presents its final challenge: two one-kilometre-long sprints, point-to-point, around Logic’s handy little, nine-corner race circuit. If MOTOR’s reputation will hang anywhere in the event, it’s here.

Abarth rally sunsetPass one is a blind run. I try to quickly memorise the lines as best I can, scope the run-offs, make judgement on the degree of disaster’s onset. The track and car feel good.

Pass two is a flat-out, 11-tenths flurry of constantly screaming tyres, nudged grass verges, wrung out redlines and torturous braking points. I almost take out the timing equipment over the flying finish. It wasn’t the prettiest lap, but the grab-its-scruff attitude is certainly what the Abarth seemed to relish.

It felt fast. Turns out that it was fast. The little 1.4-litre, convertible, automatic, trumped-up Fiat 500’s lap time of 49.13sec was third quickest of the entire field.

An absolute blast? Certainly. Even this dunce can understand that coming stone motherless last doesn’t really matter, as long as you have fun – and take a few scalps – getting there.

Abarth Fiat 500

Engine: 1368cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbo
Power: 118kW @ 5500rpm
Torque: 230Nm @ 2750rpm
Weight: 1085kg
0-100km/h: 7.4sec
Price: $38,990


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