Most racing circuits – the better ones, that is – have a major point of difference. Cue Symmons Plains, which has a pair of not one, but two, stand-outs: a stomp-on-the-brakes, 1st gear hairpin bend, the exit of which is metres lower than the entry; and a banana-shaped straight that encourages side-by-side racing which actually leads to a genuine overtaking opportunity.
Between them, this testing pair puts a premium on horsepower, braking and traction.
After reporting first-hand on a round of the Australian Motorcycle Roadracing Championships at Symmons in I984, I long relished the thought of one day getting to drive there. My turn came at the 2008 launch of Subaru’s WRX STi Spec-R.
But, first, a bit more background…
The track’s origins go back to the late-1950s, when the prominent motor sporting Youl family (father Bryce and talented sons John and Gavin) pegged out a course on their grazing property outside Launceston. By 1960, the surface was laid and circuit ready for action.
Over the ensuing years, the basic 2.41km layout – which some say resembled a pork chop with extended bone (!) – remained largely unchanged. In 1994, though, space greatly improved with the construction of a new pit lane on the outside of the circuit, while the start/finish line moved to front of the pits.
Now, back to the 21st century and the launch event.
Subaru’s advanced driving team has taken the decision to create a chicane on both straights. While obviously slowing down straight-line speed, this increases braking and harder cornering opportunities.
Advice from Subaru Australia’s rally top guns, Cody Crocker and Dean Herridge, is to take the corners a gear higher, eliminating the time-consuming need to change down and up, and have the Sooby all nicely balanced and settled to fire out the other side when the turbo floodgates open at 4000 rpm.
It’s my first drive of a WRX of any kind – and I’m duly impressed, as I thought would be. It feels dead-set engineered for track work, rather than a warmed-over road car. There’s a heavy duty competency about the steering, gear shifting and braking. Grip and traction are omnipresent; body control rigid and reassuring.
And the track? It’s a busy, little place, Symmons, with some interesting features, But, to my mind, it lacks the one essential that makes a good racing circuit great – undulation – something its southern Tassie bro, Baskerville Raceway, has in spades.
Of course, you don’t have to seek out a racing circuit to enjoy a great drive in the Apple Isle. It’s over-endowed with ripper roads and super scenery that reward and resonate.
Here’s a few examples close to Symmons Plains:
If you don’t mind getting your sidewalls dusty, head up Jacob’s Ladder and zigzag your way to the plateau of Ben Lomond (about 1500 metres). Some 60km to the east of Launceston, it can be accessed by following St Leonards and Blessington Roads (C401) and then turning right to Ben Lomond Road, which takes you deep into the national park of the same name. The road and its access is gravel, adding another dimension to the drive to the top. The going is breathtakingly narrow most of the way, with one hairpin after another and only a steel cable ‘safety’ fence between you and the valley deep below. Travelling up its 18km is one thing, coming down is another, demanding complete concentration and subtle use of the throttle, brakes and steering.
Of course, there’s no shortage of Targa Tasmania stages you can tackle. One of the best is the fabled Hellyer Gorge. At a whisker over 20km, it takes in a section of the Murchison Highway (A10) south of Burnie. Hellyer Gorge is revered by tarmac rally competitors for its compelling challenge – a mix of tight twists; quick, bumpy sections; and the occasional bridge crossing. Heavily-shaded sections prevent the road from drying, in winter creating a minefield of black ice and other slippery stuff, adding another layer of complexity and degree of difficulty.
These and other stonking drives join the dots that are historic, interesting, delightful little towns and villages.
Places such as Ross, with its convict-built, circa 1836 sandstone bridge and scrumptious scallop pies; Evandale, a veritable time capsule where annually penny farthing bikes take over the streets; and Longford, once (1953-68) home to one of the most amazing road racing circuits in the world.
If you’re travelling south from Launceston to Hobart, forget the boring A to B Midland Highway and try this.
Go via Longford and stop off at the Country Club Hotel and check out the in-house motor sport museum. Continue on through Cressy and take the writhing B51 up Poatina hill through a succession of dense switchbacks and on to Tasmania’s Central Plateau.
You then dine out on a veritable feast of hairy hairpins, sensational sweepers and unreal undulations that comprise the A5. Turn right in the middle of Bothwell and follow Hollow Tree Road (B110) down to just south of Hamilton, then left onto the Lyell Highway (A10) towards New Norfolk.
Hook a right before Rosegarland and join the B61, then, a few kilometres on turn left into Glenora Road (B62). Just south of New Norfolk, it’s another right at Sorell Creek to the C165 which leads through Molesworth and Glenlusk down the hill to Berriedale and onto the highway to Hobart.
After all, life is pretty straight without twisties.