In 2021, the FIA launched Rally Star, a global talent detection program aiming to find the next Rally champions. The program starts with local selections, then six Continental Finals will each contribute one driver to join the FIA Rally Star team. Besides the winning driver from each continent, the six best female drivers will compete in an additional Women’s Final for one to come out on top and join the FIA Rally Star team. The FIA Rally Star team will conduct a training program in 2023, with the opportunity to compete in Junior WRC in the 2024 season.
From October 10th to 12th, India hosted the fourth Continental Final of the FIA Rally Star – the Asia-Pacific (APAC) Final. 25-year-old Indian driver Pragathi Gowda will be joining Farah Zakaria (Jordan), Maja Hallén Fellenius (Sweden), Katie Milner (United Kingdom), and Kristie Ellis (South Africa) in the Women’s Final in Januaray 2023 in Peru. We interviewed one of the finalists in the APAC Final – Australian driver Molly Spalding. Let’s see what she has to say.
Unlike many other drivers who’ve driven a kart way before they’ve ever sit behind the wheel of a road car, Molly’s journey with motorsport started after she had been a driver on the street. Then similar to almost everyone in motorsport, the passion for the speed or the machine kept them in this world. “I actually started quite late compared to a lot of people. I started driving normally on the road when I was 17. I love driving, and as soon as I got my own car, I started wanting to work on the car myself. I met people through working on the car, and then they introduced me to grassroots entry-level motorsport. That was about 6 years ago when I was about 18.”
My family thought I was mad because we’re not a motorsport family. But then they got on board and they’re very supportive now.
Molly’s entry point into motorsport was through off-road events. The gravel surface and the family atmosphere of the off-road community attracted her to go further into this world. “I’ve done a little bit of racing on the tarmac as well. But there’s just something about being on gravel roads and those loser surfaces and getting the car in control. You almost end up feeling like you’re one with the car getting to handle it the way you want. There’s just something about that feeling that’s amazing. The whole thing is amazing. The community in rally is amazing as well. Unlike some of the sports where you’re racing side by side, with rallying being a time attack, there’s a lot of family aspect even though you’re competing against each other. Everybody knows everybody, and everyone wants to help everyone.”
In the rallying family, there is the big community, and there is the small family around you – your co-driver and your team. Molly has been racing with her current co-driver for two years and they make a great team. “When I first brought him on board, he actually came to me and expressed interest in wanting to be a part of my team and to navigate for me. We spent the off-season doing a lot of training, so we would be driving around on the local roads and be practicing pace notes. We’d be reading the road, reading pace notes, writing pace notes together. One of my main mechanic has been with me 3 or 4 years, and has helped built my car with me. Having those really consistent, strong figures in your team is very important, because you can rely on them and you can trust them. Knowing that your crew has checked your wheel nuts at the service means that you don’t have to think about it, and you don’t have to worry. You know your car is safe and good to go.”
It’s absolutely a team effort and you wouldn’t be able to get anywhere without those amazing team members.
From grassroots events, Molly’s career in motorsport took off. She progressed to national events, building her own car. “I just absolutely fell in love with motorsport, particularly driving on the dirt. I built my own car. I started doing more events to get to bigger events, such as rally sprints. I built a car to do the South Australian Rally Championship. I’ve done that championship for about 3 years. Last year, I decided to build another car as I built a full drive Subaru to do the Junior Australian Rally Championship. This is my first year competing nationally.”
In this first year of national championship, Molly has getting great results. But even more important than the results, she is enjoying great landscapes and being part of the rallying history. “It was a challenge to jump into a new car for this season, but I really enjoyed driving the Subaru. It’s built for rally from factory. The core body of the car just wants to rally. I feel that it loves jumping, it loves the dirt. The Junior Australian Championship has been a real step up in the level of competition. The events themselves are longer, 2.5 or 3 days worth of rallying, rather than a 1 or 2 day of event. We’ve been going around in all the different states in Australia. So there’s a lot of pre- and post-event travel, which is a bit of a challenge. The quality of roads you get is the best that every state has to offer. You just drive incredible roads, which is an absolute pleasure to do. With my team who is so committed, we’re getting some really good results. It’s also a great feeling to keep moving onwards and upwards through all the rallying. We have one more round this season, and we’re currently sitting in second for the championship with 10 points behind. We’ve got a chance to take out the championship we can win this last round.”
I like rallying on anything, but you’re really driving those historical, well known, amazing roads that you see in videos. You feel like you are part of the rallying history.
The next step going from national championships is international events, and Rally Star is the perfect opportunity for that, so Molly didn’t hesitate when she learned about the program. “As soon as I saw the Rally Star opportunity, I just knew it’s something that I really wanted to do. It’s an amazing opportunity. I just tried to get involved in any way that I could.”
The road to India wasn’t easy, with the world still haunted by COVID. It wasn’t always sure the events would take place or the whole program would happen. “The local selection events kept getting cancelled. There was a lot of stopping and starting. I wasn’t sure whether we’re gonna make it, not sure whether Australia was even gonna be able to put a team together. Once it was announced who was going, we had a few date changes as well. But once you set your heart on it, there was no way that I was gonna miss it.”
There was a point when it looks like it was only going to be a sim-racing competition, which I’m less familiar with. But if that was the only chance to do it, I knew I had to jump at it. So I set up a simulator in my living room, taught myself how to do it, and practiced.
Having been selected to go to India for the APAC Final, it wasn’t easy to prepare for it either. But Molly was able to learn from those with experiences before she went off to India. “There are not actually that many cross-karts available in Australia. So I didn’t have the opportunity to test drive or practice in any before I went to the APAC Final. My previous car was front-wheel drive and then my current one is full drive. So the cross-karts being rear-wheel drive was also going to be a bit of challenge. I made sure that I spoke to anyone who’ve driven them before and got some advice from some really experienced drivers. I just tried to get as much seat time as I could in my car leading up to the Final. So I can be in the right head space, ready to race.”
Even without preparation on the cross-karts used in the Final, Molly was able to quickly adapt on the first two days of competition and got through to the third day. “I had a bit of a shaky first day, but I got a hang of the kart. I clipped a couple of the barriers so I got some time penalties. But I was lucky that my time was good enough even with those time penalties. I made it through to day 2. On day 2 they really upped up the pressure. They made the track a bit longer. They were much more demanding of the driving that we were doing, the technique we were showing. They were pushing it a little harder. The weather was a challenge too, it changed so much throughout the day with thunderstorms late in the morning and dry track the end of the day. I made it into day 3. On the third day, it wasn’t just about driving. We had a fitness test in the morning, which was really challenging with 80% humidity in India. We had a reaction test which was really fun. We also did interviews with the jury”
Molly wasn’t as lucky on day 3 and couldn’t get through to the Women’s Final early next year. But the selection event was still a great learning experience from many aspects. “When they announced the participants for day 3, they also sent through a contract. This is my first experience of ever receiving a contract like that. This is one of the big things that was very different at that level of motorsport. It was a lot of mental effort to get your head around what you are signing. Even for us who didn’t progress further, experiencing that next level of motorsport where there are intense contracting in short time frames, with team managers and things to deal with, was still great training.”
Besides the racing, the selection events have always been a great opportunity for socializing with people in the motorsport world, and so was this one for Molly. “On the night of day 2, the people from the track organized a social event for all of us, the competitors, judges and jury. It was good to get to actually speak with people in a more relaxed setting, because it was pretty high pressure when we were out at the track.”
On the weekend of November 26-27, 2022, Molly was able to win the Junior Australian Rally Championship like she had hoped! We would like to congratulate her on this tramendous result and wish her a even better season in 2023!