Subaru do Motorsport team driver Molly Taylor has become the first female winner of the Australian Rally Championship (ARC) after the tightest title tussle in 25 years.
A brilliant three-day campaign at Kennards Hire Rally Australia in the All-Wheel Drive Group N production class WRX STI NR4 saw Molly join the distinguished list of ARC champions after a mature run across 23 stages at the Coffs Harbour, NSW, event - also winning the ARC class in the rally, her first.
Molly was aided by the invaluable experience of co-driver Bill Hayes, who took out the co-drivers title too.
The Les Walkden Rallying-prepared WRX STI proved a trusty turbocharged trailblazer over the dust-dominated weekend on the NSW north coast.
The title came after rally leader Mark Pedder incurred a one minute time penalty after competition concluded, provisionally* placing Molly on 329 Championship points, early leader Simon Evans on 327 and Harry Bates on 321. It also placed the Subaru team third among ARC entrants in the rally.
After five rounds across the country and hundreds of competitive kilometres, the title chase dramatically came down to the final two stages of Rally Australia, totalling just 12.44 kilometres.
And with Molly needing to leapfrog Pedder to gain sufficient points to win the Championship, the results of the timing enquiry post-event left the Subaru team on tenterhooks – only learning of their success as they awaited their turn to drive onto the podium at the ceremonial finish in Coffs Harbour town city.
The win adds to the Subaru Australia trophy cabinet, where 10 consecutive ARC titles from 1996 to 2005, made an unbeaten benchmark before the team withdrew from domestic rallying, only re-emerging this year under the Subaru do Motorsport banner.
A delighted Molly said: "I can confirm today that dreams really do come true.
"Talk about taking it down to the wire! We knew we had to give it everything on those last two stages after a really consistent run all weekend and we pushed so hard.
"And then to get the news that there was a possible penalty for Mark, it was like being on a rollercoaster.
"Bill, Les Walkden and the team have done an amazing job all year and it's such a pleasure to work with a truly professional outfit that has an amazing team spirit.
"We're so pleased to be able to do it for Subaru too, with their incredible rally heritage."
Subaru Australia Managing Director, Colin Christie, said: "We're ecstatic with this result on so many levels.
"It's wonderful for Molly to not only win the drivers championship, but also become the first female to do so and we're honoured to have such a fantastic role model to inspire young people.
"Equally, we're proud of Bill in taking out the co-drivers championship. Together Bill and Molly have worked as a wonderful partnership throughout the season and it's a great credit to them that they have seized their respective titles.
"Les Walkden and his team have displayed tremendous professionalism all year and we're delighted with their achievements on behalf of Subaru do Motorsport.
"It's all been underpinned by the great engineering and reliability of the production class WRX STI – we couldn't ask for a better advert for this incredibly versatile car.
"And we're also honoured that after more than 10 years out of domestic rallying, Subaru has returned to continue its unbroken run of championship wins."
Early indications of a good day ahead came in yesterday evening's two Super Special Stages at Coffs Harbour Jetty, which – despite the short 1.27 kilometre duration, were sufficient to maintain the team's overall third placing at day's end.
With just five competitive Sunday stages across 57.18 kilometres, Taylor and Hayes pressed hard to chip away at the overnight lead of Harry Bates and their opportunity struck on SS20, the day's longest stage, when the Toyota experienced problems, relegating Bates to 18th on stage.
From then on it was Molly's renowned consistency - and the title incentive ahead – that proved pivotal.
The team competed in all five rounds of the Kumho Tyre Australian Rally Championship 2016, growing in confidence as familiarity with the WRX STI increased as the season progressed.
Subaru had historical success in Coffs Harbour, with the late Possum Bourne winning four consecutive events there from 1996-99.
*Subject to final confirmation by the Australian Rally Championship.