This year’s edition of the Tatts Finke Desert Race saw Toby Price triumph again, with the Dakar star taking his third straight win in the Car category, adding to the six titles he’s already won in the Bike category.
Partnered once again by navigator Jason Duncan in the Mitsubishi Triton TSCO Trophy Truck, Price was one of 127 starters in the Car category and 556 entrants overall this year. Within the Extreme 2WD class that the Trophy Trucks fall under, Price had 22 rivals, including the vastly experienced Beau Robinson, Greg Gartner and Hayden Bentley.
Price’s first four-wheel win in a Trophy Truck two years ago broke the stranglehold that the Pro Buggy class had on the outright result at Finke since the Car category was introduced in 1988. The Pro Buggy field were aiming to wrest the advantage back this year, led by multiple Finke winners Mark Burrows and Shannon Rentsch, as well as Travis Robinson, Josh Howells, Aaron James and 2016 winner Glenn Owen in a class that numbered 24 starters.
Other classes this year consisted of Prolite Buggy, Super 1650 Buggy, Sportslite, SxS Pro, SxS Sport, Extreme 4WD, Performance 2WD and Production 4WD: the latter including the high-profile Ford Ranger Raptor factory entry. Co-developed and built in Australia, the Ranger Raptor came to Finke aiming to replicate its class win at the Baja 1000 in Mexico last November.
Ahead of this year’s Finke, the Car category was under a cloud, due to a coronial inquest into the death of a spectator at the 2021 event. That inquest accused both the Finke Committee and Motorsport Australia (MSA) of failing to act on safety issues raised in the wake of the 2021 fatality, as well as a previous report from 2018. Ultimately, the Car category was given the go ahead less than a month out from the race weekend, under a special MSA permit that mandated major changes to spectator access. These restrictions applied to the length of the 226km course and particularly to crests, jumps and high-speed corners that carried additional risk.
With the permit in place and key stakeholders on board, the 2023 Tatts Finke Desert Race got underway with the 8.3km Prologue to determine the starting order for the two-day, 452km competition.
Price recorded the fastest time in the Prologue, as well as the highest top speed. His 4 minutes 36.710 second lap beat out Beau Robinson by 2.257 seconds, with Travis Robinson third fastest, 10.362 seconds off Price’s time.
Howells finished the Prologue in fourth overall, with last year’s runner-up James next, followed by Gartner, Toby Whateley (Extreme 2WD), six-time Finke winner Rentsch, Brent Martin (Prolite Buggy) and Brent Smoothy (Extreme 4WD), with Paul Weel (Extreme 2WD) completing the top ten.
With Brad Lovell at the wheel, the Production 4WD Ranger Raptor completed the Prologue in 79th overall but was more than a minute ahead of its class competitors. James Cook was fastest SxS entry and 19th overall. Eleven starters failed to complete the Prologue.
Day 1’s run from Alice Springs to Finke was held on a course dampened by recent rain, which reduced dust but also pounded suspension components as the racing surface was harder. The firm track was undoubtedly a factor in 28 entrants in the Car category failing to finish the first leg.
The conditions impacted Price’s performance on the opening 226km run, too, but even with being more than two minutes slower than Day 1 last year, the eight-time King of the Desert was quickest into Finke, with a time of 1 hour 38 minutes and 35.389 seconds.
Travis Robinson (1h42m19.723s) was second fastest, despite a heavy crash at the 77km mark. Rentsch was third (1h43m24.479s), followed by Gartner, Howells, Smoothy, Martin, Burrows, Beau Robinson, Phil Lovett (Extreme 4WD) and Carl Haby (Pro Buggy). Howells would later be disqualified and his results removed.
Maintaining his Prologue form, Cook was the first SXS Pro entry into Finke (and 19th overall after the Howells DSQ), while the Production 4WD Ranger Raptor was 89th overall in a class that had been reduced to two following the retirement of Jordan Lawson’s Mitsubishi Triton.
Notable DNFs on Day 1 included James, Whateley, Owen, Weel and Simon Evans in a list of 28 that had to pull out.
With a lead of almost four minutes, Price was in the box seat for Day 2’s return leg to Alice Springs, but leading can be just as hard as following, as the front runner is unaware of the pace of those behind – at least until they overtake!
Despite the requirement for some caution, Price finished the second leg with a time of 1 hour, 43 minutes and 11.239 seconds. This meant his combined time of 3 hours, 21 minutes and 46.628 seconds was only four tenths of a second shy of the record time he set last year.
“We came into this one a little unprepared - coming back from the Baja races – we didn’t know what to expect,” Price explained. “But we just wanted to go flat out, put on a show and wring the neck of the TSCO Trophy Truck.
Price went on to say he had a clean run on Day 1, pushing hard to take an advantage into Day 2, then babied the truck home.
“We’ve got three in a row, so we’re stoked. To have three in a row – and nine championships out here – it’s pretty crazy.”
The lure of a tenth King of the Desert crown will almost certainly see Price return to Finke in 2024, but his future at Finke beyond next year is uncertain.
Gartner was second into Alice Springs, with a 1h44m07.471s time. Beau Robinson was next best, then Martin and Burrows. Despite being out of contention for the overall, Weel completed Day 2 in sixth, ahead of Lovett, Michael Dolan (Extreme 2WD), Justin Montesalvo (Extreme 2WD) and Kent Battle (Pro Buggy).
While no-one could catch Price, Gartner’s blazing Day 2 time moved him up to second overall, 6 minutes and 2 seconds in arrears. Travis Robinson was third overall, equalling his result from last year. Martin was fourth and the best of the Prolite Buggies, followed by Beau Robinson. Rentsch fell back to sixth overall after completing Day 2 in twelfth place, with his Pro Buggy rival Burrows in seventh. Lovett, Dolan and Battle completed the overall Top 10.
Notable in the results at this year’s Finke is that four of the Top 10 were Extreme 2WD entries. This reflects a changing of the guard in off-road racing – at least at Finke - as Pro Buggies dominated the outright Top 10 as recently as 2019.
Cook was the best of the SxS class in 16th overall, while Lovell ran the Ranger Raptor trouble-free back to Alice Springs, finishing 73rd overall and more than 90 minutes ahead of his remaining rival in Production 4WD; Adam Jiear (Toyota 76 Series LandCruiser).
In the Polaris Motorsport Australia Off Road Championship, of which Finke is Round 3 in this year’s five-round series, Travis Robinson extended his lead to 129 points over second-placed Cook, who leads the separate Motorsport Australia SxS Championship. Third in the championship after Finke is Mel Brandle (Prolite Buggy), with Pooncarie Desert Dash winners Raana Horan/Michael Connor (Pro Buggy) still fourth despite not running at Finke.
2023 Tatts Finke Desert Race – Overall Top 15