How To Experience The Australian Grand Prix Weekend, Toyota GR Style
It’s no secret that I have a crush on the Toyota GR Corolla. Since driving the car on track at Sydney’s motorsport park, there’s been a 1.6-litre-sized hole in my heart that nothing seems to fill. Like a bad breakup, I went through the usual stages: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, but acceptance never came. I tried to keep myself busy by socialising and exercising, but ended up looking at old photos and playing with my PlayStation Thrustmaster gearbox in the dark (it wasn’t even plugged in). Short of shaving my head, I tried everything… I was a motoring emo or ‘memo’ as I screamed at the moon.
Just when I thought things between us couldn’t get more toxic, Toyota Australia got in touch and asked if I’d like to spend the Grand Prix weekend with it down in Melbourne. Naturally, my friends and family were rightfully concerned. They’d experienced my mood swings, tolerated me blasting ‘The Used’ 24/7, and frankly, didn’t think manually shifting an imaginary car in the dark was completely healthy.
Their advice was objective, rational, and made perfect sense. So, predictably, I did the exact opposite and booked the first flight I could for a series of dates with the one, the only, Toyota GR Corolla. Here’s what happened.
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Touring Greater Melbourne in the Toyota GR Corolla
As I landed in Melbourne and headed straight to the Qantas valet, the nerves started setting in. Was it as good as I remembered? Had I been in my head a bit too much? But as I saw its little nostrils poking out amongst the sea of average faces, we exchanged a wry smile and the warmth washed over me.
Once inside the cabin, everything started to click again. I wouldn’t say it felt like home per se (unless your interpretation of ‘home’ is weeks of back and forth until your heart is blended into a melancholy milkshake). Still, the seats, shifter and steering wheel just felt, well, right.
Once we were out of the city and the rain started to fall, many would begin to tread carefully, but not us; we were dancing. As the roads got twistier, the traction from the GR’s all-wheel-drive system just kept delivering. From corner to corner, the gruff unit would seamlessly slalom with a sense of sure-footedness that would eclipse many peers on dry bitumen. The steering rack is nicely weighted, the shifts are crisp, and everything about the driving experience is engaging while still allowing for adjustments to the car’s trajectory mid-corner.
The 1.6-litre turbo has such a practical torque curve that it pulls much harder than its capacity suggests, boosting its way up inclines with little growls from the exhaust and whistles from the bypass valve. The balance between power, braking, suspension, steering, shifts, and wheelbase is phenomenal. It’s not supercar levels of sharpness and speed, but in many ways, it’s much more engaging and fun, especially on public roads where it will spend most of its existence.
Was it as good to drive as I fantasised? Even better. It made even more sense on the road than on the track. But as I entered Yarra Valley with some fragrant brakes underfoot, it was time for our first date; Levantine Hill Estate.
Levantine Hill Estate
The first stop on the Gazoo Gastronomy was Yarra Valley institution, Levantine Hill Estate.
Levantine Hill is a breathtaking vineyard nestled in the heart of the Yarra Valley, formed from the merger of two vineyards. Situated on a steep hill with rocky outcrops, Levantine Hill’s slopes, amphitheatres, valleys, and orientation gives the property a unique differential compared to other vineyards in the valley. This uniqueness is also reflected in their wines, which showcase award-winning Sauvignon Blanc Semillon, Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah.
Sitting down at their glasshouse-style restaurant is an experience in itself. With views of vineyards, helicopters, and a certain GR Corolla in the distance, it’s a venue that lends itself to daylight dining.
The à la carte lunch menu is Mediterranean-inspired, with a variety of local produce designed for sharing, accompanied by an extensive cheese and wine selection.
Not being a wine connoisseur myself, I was at the mercy of staff recommendations, and they didn’t disappoint. I sampled the 2018 Levantine Hill Estate Pinot Noir, which (without being too technical here) was the Toyota GR of Pinots. In fact, the staff were sensational from start to finish, rounding off one of the most excellent lunchtime dining experiences I’d had in recent memory.
Check out Levantine Hill Estate
Eau De Vie
With the GR Corolla worn out from our daytime driving rendezvous, I tucked it into bed and walked down to one of Melbourne’s most popular Whiskey bars, Eau De Vie.
Snuggled in a back alley of the Flinders Lane district, Eau-de-Vie is a hidden gem that transports guests to a 1920s American speakeasy. With its intimate setting and charming ambience, Eau-de-Vie covers patrons from casual drop-ins to lavish Cocktail Degustations with a whiskey library that will equal parts impress and intimidate.
Luckily for me, Whiskey connoisseur and all-round legend Joyce Chang takes a no-nonsense approach to her interactions and recommendation, so after 5 minutes of back and forth, I had the ‘Independents Day’ Whiskey flight under my nostrils.
My flight consisted of the following:
- Lost Distillery’s Auchnagie
- Adelphi Laudale Speyside 12yr
- Glen Elgin North Star Series 018
- Port Askaig 12-Year Autumn Edition
- Cadenhead’s Bunnahabhain
Joyce walked me through the stories and processes of each whiskey maker without ever making the process too forced or pretentious. The scents and flavours were unique and diverse, and while I wouldn’t necessarily rush out to buy a bottle of any of my samples, the ambience and overall experience were hard to fault. If bourbon is more your style, check out our list of the best right here.
Talking With the Experts at Toyota GR Garage
Waking up with a slightly dusty mouth and an even dustier head, I thought a few glasses of water and an intriguing conversation would get things back on track. So, I went and checked on the GR Carolla, smoothed things over from the night before, and headed to the Toyota GR Garage at the Australian Grand Prix.
Like most car brands, the Australian Grand Prix is a popular event to showcase vehicles and engage with the general public. But unlike most car brands, Toyota decided to staff its GR Garage with the Australian Rally Royal family, the Bates’.
Working closely with Toyota since 1989, Australian Rally Legend Neal Bates now runs his own motorsport business, working closely with the Toyota Gazoo Racing family across various projects. The soon-to-released GR86 race car, GR Hilux, and the Yaris AP4 rally car were all in attendance, drawing much fanfare, but it was Neil’s sons, Harry and Lewis Bates, that I was interested in having a yarn with. So with Lewis distracted by the GR Hilux, I pulled Harry away from the mob to discuss all things Toyota, Trajectories and Titles.
Justin Jackie: How did you get into Motorsport?
Harry Bates: I grew up around Motorsport, so obviously, having a dad who was an Australian rally champion meant that I was always around it, but I didn’t really get involved myself until I was late into my teen years, I guess when I was 17, 18. I started to develop more of a solid interest in cars and Motorsport when I bought myself a rally car. My first rally car was a standard front-wheel drive Toyota Corolla and then I progressed from there. Obviously, now, having a long-standing association with Toyota is something I’m very grateful for. I’m very appreciative of them.
JJ: Were you always going to Rally?
HB: Rallying has always been my passion. To me, it’s the ultimate form of Motorsport; that’s just my personal thing. It’s obviously exciting; we get to race on different terrains, and from that point of view, it’s always different. There are so many variables in rallying but also the fact that it’s just you, your codriver, your car, and the clock. It’s really down to you. To me, that’s why I love it because it’s very pure from that point of view.
JJ: How involved do you get with car development?
HB: Yeah, very. So really, when we built the first Yaris AP4, I was the guinea pig. I was the guy who had to jump in and learn how to drive it and learn what we needed to do to improve it. As a driver, you have an essential role in ensuring that you’re driving development forward all the time. So I would say that over the years, I’ve learned a lot about what I need as a driver from the car and then the next step is being able to communicate that to the team. Luckily for me, I’ve got a really great relationship with our engineers and our mechanics. Together we’ve been able to build a car that’s now an Australian Rally Championship-winning car which is pretty cool.
With the GR Yaris being a homologation special, what advantages did you experience when converting it to the AP4 Rally car?
We knew there would be some benefits, but I don’t think at the time we knew how great the benefits would be. The GR Yaris was always going to be a step up from the Yaris we were rallying prior, but it really is an incredible car. Every single thing about the road car is purpose-made for rallying. It’s got lightweight panels; it’s got a low centre of gravity, you know, the perfect wheelbase for us to work with; it’s nimble, agile, so everything about it was just so purpose-built for rallying, and I think for Toyota to put that much effort into a road car is amazing and speaks volume of what the company’s headed for in terms of their performance cars.
Neil was telling me about the GR86 race series cars you’ve built. Have you had a chance to get in one of the cars?
I’ve driven the new GR86 race car on the track already and can confirm it’s a ball of fun. So yeah, very excited to see the new series roll out next year in 2024. And the GR86 is such a step up from the previous 86. To see 32 or 34 of them on track is going to be pretty special.
Is there scope for my crush, the GR Corolla, to find its way into a race series?
I think so. You know, we don’t know exactly what that’s going to be yet, but for sure, the GR Corolla is another great platform. Very similar platform to the GR Yaris in many ways. I have no doubt it would make a good rally car, but who knows where it’s going to land in the motorsport space, but I’m sure it’ll find a home.
Gazoo Racing has a substantial European base. What is your relationship with the northern operation?
The relationship we have at the moment is very much in a technical engineering aspect. Obviously, they’re the engine supplier for us, (Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe) so we have weekly meetings and catch-ups with them on engine development and things we’re looking at moving forward with basically the powertrain. Having said that, Toyota are currently developing a Rally 2 car which will be sold all over the world and I really think for both Lewis and I that’ll open up opportunities for us as drivers to compete not only in Australia but abroad as well.
Will the Rally 2 car be based on the GR Yaris platform?
Correct. So essentially, the engine that’s been in the GR Yaris AP4 before has been the test bed for the Rally 2 car. So we’ve been working with them on the development of that car for over two years now, which has been very special to be a part of, and I can’t wait for the Rally 2 car to actually roll out.
Finishing the Greater Melbourne Trip in Style
With so much time spent trackside, Toyota thought I should patch things up with the GR Corolla, and head out on one last date. A date that would be tasty and sustainable with a fresh atmosphere. Enter Freyja.
Lodged in Melbourne’s CBD, Freyja is a restaurant that takes pride in its commitment to using only the freshest, seasonal ingredients available. Led by Executive Chef Jae Bang (whose pedigree includes a Michelin Star and over sixteen years of global culinary experience), Freyja is the perfect intersection of low-key ambience with vivid flavours.
The interior blends exposed brick, Scandinavian timber furnishings, and modern art, all while being framed by large, ornate windows (which is great if you have an unhealthy relationship with an inanimate object). All the staff are as attentive as they are knowledgeable, but would still banter with you like an old friend.
The emphasis on freshness and seasonality shines through in every dish, with carefully balanced flavours and thoughtfully sourced ingredients. From the first bite to the last, each dish at Freyja is a testament to Chef Jae Bang’s culinary expertise and the entire team’s ability to execute excellent service without playing to the traditional fine-dining norms.
Saying Goodbye to the Toyota GR Corolla
So, as I drove back towards Melbourne airport, I could hear you asking: Was it all worth it?
Well, let us look at the facts:
- Pros: It’s one of the most fun, thrilling and engaging sports cars on the market today that always leaves a smile on my face.
- Cons: I don’t own one and the waitlist whispers are crushing.
As an entertaining, sensory overload of a weekend, it was absolutely worth it. In an era of sensible cars and technology phasing out human interaction, Toyota’s GR division is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly autonomous tunnel. A lot of people might scoff at the performance arms of car brands being kitsch marketing exercises (in some cases, rightfully so), but when in their purest forms, they represent the romantic side of car ownership. The relationship between human and machine.
The symbiotic inputs and outputs. It’s what we ‘drivers’ cling to as the car industry heads the other way. But not divisions like Gazoo Racing. With things like manual gearboxes still being valued and the driver behind the wheel even more so, it comes as no surprise that Toyota’s wearing the GR badge are some of the most sort-after on the planet, and rightly so.
But on the flip side, this is what makes them so hard to let go. As I struggle to open the door at the airport and say goodbye (again), I have to turn to (as most tragics do) Notting Hill, when William says: “The thing is, with you, I’m in real danger. It seems like a perfect situation, apart from that foul temper of yours, but my relatively inexperienced heart would I fear not recover if I was, once again, cast aside as I would absolutely expect to be. There’s just too many pictures of you, too many films. You know, you’d go and I’d be… uh, well buggered basically. ”
I’m going to try and celebrate the times we shared rather than mourn the loss, as they say, but for those lucky enough to own one, take my advice: Don’t let go.
Check out the Toyota GR Corolla
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