After a year off courtesy of COVID-19, the Alice Springs Queen’s Birthday long weekend tradition of the Tatts Finke Desert Race is back with a vengeance, and there’s no shortage of competition for 2021’s King of the Desert crowns.
Started in 1976 amongst a group of local Alice Springs motorbike racers, this 460km there-and-back challenge to the remote Aputula (previously Finke) community has garnered a global reputation as it’s grown into one of the largest and toughest events on Australia’s off-road racing calendar.
By 1988, bikes got some four-wheel competition that couldn’t quite keep up over the inhospitable outback track until a fierce rivalry between the two camps came to a head, with tit for tat outright wins in the late 1990s and early 2000s seeing the King of the Desert title split into two crowns for the outright fastest two- and four-wheeled competitors.
Fast forward to the 45th Tatts Finke Desert Race in 2021 and an incredibly diverse field continues to push the boundaries of what’s possible in off-road motorsport. 61 side-by-sides, 57 buggies, 39 trucks and 605 motorbikes are set to duke it out in unpredictably treacherous terrain on parts of the Old Ghan Railway service road to reach the Finke River before racing back to the finish line in Alice Springs, competing not only for a class win, but also to add fuel to the fiery debate of which platform is the outright fastest.
Each has its pros and cons, and few know this better than Finke veteran Hayden Bentley. “I’ve raced at Finke over 20 times,” says Hayden, “competing since my early 20s when I started out in a low-budget VW-based buggy. I could outdrive most of the field but struggled with reliability, so I slowly worked my way up to higher-end buggies. I was on a trip to the U.S. to buy another buggy, but I somehow came home with a trophy truck instead. It’s hard to beat the speed of lightweight buggies in the smooth stuff and their maneuverability on tight tracks, but trophy trucks soak up the rough stuff much better and are more fun to drive while being more forgiving, plus the crowd loves them, so it was time to try something new.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Hayden adds, “if you were 110% focused on nothing but winning, history says a buggy is the way to go, but the trucks are getting closer and have won a handful of times now. I felt I’d achieved everything I could in a buggy, winning Finke and the championship in 2007 in a two-seater and then Finke in a frighteningly fast single-seater in 2013, so I moved on to a 2WD trophy truck. I’ve always liked doing things differently, so with the #418 2WD truck winning races, I’ve now moved on to the only 4WD trophy truck entered in Finke this year (#818) as a challenge to try and beat the buggies while developing something new.”
The 2WD Bentley Motorsports trophy truck won’t be sitting idle at home though, with the next generation of Bentleys in Hannah (19) and Sam (17) taking the reins. “We grew up around off-road racing and have great memories at Finke,” says Hannah, “so I’m really excited to be making my debut here in such a well-prepped truck. We’ve all been working really hard to get both trucks ready and I’ve been spending a lot of time getting comfortable behind the wheel, so I’m looking forward to the prologue and the race to Finke.” “I’ll be jumping in for the race back to Alice, which will be the most seat time I’ve had in this truck,” Sam chimes in. “That’s probably for the best though, I can be a bit over-confident sometimes, so I feel like I’m in a good state of mind to run a fast but cautious pace, with the focus being to finish in one piece while developing skills for the years to come.”
“The course is looking really well graded this year, so there’s not going to be a lot in it between the faster trucks and buggies,” says Ryan Taylor, driver of the #6 Pro Buggy from Race Wheels Australia, who are the Australian distributor of Method Race Wheels and Toyo Tires’ official off-road motorsport retailer in Australia. “Overall times for Finke are blisteringly fast these days,” adds Ryan’s brother Micahael. “It’s basically a 460km sprint race now as the whole field is giving it everything right from the start. Sure, there are a few that you expect to see as front runners, and we hope to be up there, but if you’re not running at full pace or have to stop for a puncture or any other issue, you don’t even have a shot, so it comes down to having the right gear to be reliable and then the few who get lucky.”
“We’ve taken a really different tack this year,” says Brad Gallard, driver of the #454 trophy truck. “We came up early and focused on reading conditions for both the prologue track and the race course to then set the car up very differently to what we normally do and aim for a few new lines. We’ve added some mod cons to the truck but otherwise, we’ve gone back to the setup of around 2011 to 2012 when we were getting results and last won Finke. We’ve intentionally kept the beat up panels so that there’s no holding back or being nervous about the first scratch; I’m going to be pushing hard from the start and spending most of the race with a 7000rpm shift light in my face while we blast over whoops flat out in top gear.”
“This event is a strengths and weaknesses game,” says Dale Moscatt, navigator for Glenn Brinkman in the Extreme 4WD #820 D-MAX that was previously campaigned by Bruce Garland at Dakar and Finke. “There are so many different characteristics to the track and you can’t aim to be flat everywhere unless you’re in a full hog trophy truck. We’re old school and have been rallying for quite a while, so we’ve written 224 pages of detailed pace notes for the round trip to know exactly what every corner and crest has in store for us.” “Driving the Tatts Finke Desert Race is a bucket list thing for me” adds Glenn. “Pre-running the track, it’s like nothing else I’ve ever done and this off-road racing thing is new for us, but we wanted to come and give it our best shot.”
We caught up with a number of other Team Toyo drivers at tonight’s jam-packed scrutineering session, so stay tuned for updates from tomorrow’s prologue and the race ahead this long weekend.
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