“Yaris, Neal Bates Motorsport & the Barossa Valley… Are you interested?” Our buddies from Toyota Australia gave us an unexpected call a couple of weeks ago, inviting us to yet another event. We replied with an over enthusiastic “YES!”, before having the chance to pause and think, why all this fuss over a Toyota Yaris?
Rest assured, once we arrived in South Australia all our questions were quickly answered, just in time for the 2017 Lightforce Rally SA event.
We had been invited to witness the shakedown of the brand new AP4 Spec Toyota Yaris built by Neal Bates Motorsport. The owner and name behind the company is of course former Australian Rally champion Neal Bates. This car is set to replace the highly successful S2000 spec Toyota Corolla which the team had been campaigning over the past decade.
Unfortunately, the current generation of Corollas were not suitable to replace the now retired S2000 spec car for the team; manufacturers have been constantly increasing the sizes of their staple models. This meant the only car fit for the cause was the little Yaris.
Yes, we know the Yaris does not strike as an obvious contender for an Australian Rally Championship (ARC), but Neal Bates Motorsport has spared no expense in transforming the little hatch into a title winning rally car.
Harry Bates (Neal’s son) has been given the task in piloting this far from standard Yaris. He has proved himself by taking to the sport like a duck to water, Harry has shown extraordinary talent behind the wheel. Currently with a 3-point lead in the 2017 ARC, it truly is a make or break with the new car as it makes its debut at the Lightforce Rally round.
Neal and the rest of the Bates family think Harry has what it takes to compete overseas, so while building the Yaris they decided early on that it would be best to use a left-hand drive car for the build.
This posed a glaring problem for Harry and the rest of the Bates family. How do you practice for the switch to a left-hand drive car before it’s even built? Buy an ex Toyota team car of course! This 1994 GT-Four Celica has been the perfect test mule for Harry to get in as much seat time before the maiden race for the new car.
Now it was all eyes on Harry and the new Yaris. Toyota and the team had set up a base camp for the big day and invited various journalists along, because of course testing a brand-new car in private isn’t stressful enough! Harry took us out one by one for some hot laps around the mini rally stage during the day.
Once the track marshal gave the green light, Harry was off for a few quick laps with his co-driver (John) to ensure everything was nice and tight. The car didn’t skip a beat and is a true testament to the work carried out by the Neal Bates Motorsport team.
This car looks like a factory built WRC car, but everything was built in house by the team in Canberra from the roll cage right down to the wiring. Once a 3-door Yaris hatch, it is now a snarling, angry and very wide looking rally car.
The car uses a 1.6l engine just like the WRC spec Toyota Yaris, albeit with less power due to regulations. The team actually used a 2ZZ-GE, found in locally delivered Celica’s and the Corolla Sportivo’s. Originally being a 1.8l power plant the team had to de-stroke the engine to comply with the series rules.
The now turbocharged 1.6l Yaris made all sorts of wonderful noises which echoed through the forest, with each crackle and pop almost sounding like gun fire. A far cry from the standard engine noise the car used to make.
After a handful of laps the team retired the car back to the makeshift garage. The pristine paint was now caked in mud and debris from the short course. Officially christening the car.
With all the dirt there was no way the team was getting away with clean hands while working on the car.
Watching the team work in unison was an amazing sight. With Harry’s first laps done and dusted this was now the first real world practice for the team responsible for keeping the car running. There wasn’t a single hesitation or pause from anyone during the whole day. Just like the car they performed flawlessly.
Lying by the side of the car, the essential tools were sprawled out across the ground. I personally own most if not all the tools you see here at home… I however could not maintain a world class rally car. The knowledge each person brings to the team is key to both Harry and the cars success.
No team can succeed without a leader and Darryl Bush has been absolutely integral to Neal Bates Motorsport. Working alongside Neal for over 30 years his knowledge of all things rally is truly incredible.
Between laps we were thrown the keys to this Toyota Kluger to get around the track. The 4WD actually came in handy with all the unsealed roads and deep water around the track.
I’ve personally been enjoying all the latest designs from Toyota. I can’t remember giving a Kluger a second look before this model but I’m a big fan of the rear window profile, gloss black pillars and the interior is a nice place to be. Especially on cold South Australian day!
Getting close to the end of the day it was time to jump in for my own lap around the circuit. First things first I’ve been in all sorts of track cars, never have I been in a rally car or even a passenger on the right hand side… Wow! Everything about it felt strange but at the same time the car felt smooth and precise.
The amount of grip the car had on the loose surface is out of this world. Braking is much later than I had anticipated, the car is also very dynamic and seems to use it’s weight/aero very well along with some passive rear steering.
Flying into the corner with a solid long press of the brakes, the front end of the car digs itself into road. Then a sharp turn on the steering wheel, the front tyres pull the car around while the rear seems to step out ever so slightly and before you know it Harry is reaching for the sequential gear lever and you’re pushed back into the seat ready for the next turn.
The best way to summarise the experience is “Controlled Chaos”. Between the trees blurring past the windows, the barrage of noises from the engine, gearbox and exhaust to the force from the acceleration. It really is an all out assault on the senses.
Meanwhile I look over at Harry and see the calm focused look on his face and then I look ahead to see a jump in the road and I brace myself for the worst. In the blink of an eye we’re a few hundred meters passed it without any reaction from Harry or the car. The suspension really soaks up anything that gets thrown at it.
All in all I am certain this will be the most extreme Toyota Yaris I will ever sit in. With 224kw of power and weighing only 1230kgs it is an extremely agile little car.
One thing that surprised me is that the car has equal sized brakes on the front and the rear! On all four corners are 300mm slotted discs with four-piston AP Racing calipers. The steering and handbrake are all hydraulic units which means every input from Harry is almost instant.
Comparing the built Yaris side by side to the standard road car highlights just how much the team at Neal Bates Motorsport have done to achieve the end result.
Sporting an engine swap, turbocharger, 6 speed sequential gearbox, all wheel drive-train and a plethora of performance parts from the likes of Sadev, Garrett and MCA.
It is a completely different car now, all while utilizing factory items. It still shares so many original panels and lights with the road car that it’s easily recognizable and most importantly that it’s still relevant to the public. With so many fiberglassed chassis’ in motorsport with fake headlight stickers and models not even offered for sale it’s great to see something that resembles the road car so closely.
I look forward to watching the future of this little Yarris unfold along with Harry’s career.
A massive thank you to the team at Toyota for inviting us along and a very big thank you the Bates family for being so welcoming. I feel that the rally bug is starting to bite!
Thanks for reading,