Despite being Australia’s most prestigious off-road event, the fate of the Finke Desert Race was left in the air amid a coroner’s investigation into the death of a spectator at the 2021 edition. After a lengthy deadlock, Motorsport Australia has agreed to provide a permit to allow four-wheel vehicles to take part provided safety protocols are improved.
Approximnately thirty-five kilometres before the finish line at the 2021 Finke Desert Race, Patrick Byrne‘s trophy truck went off course and hit a group of spectators who were standing within two metres of the track. 60-year-old Nigel Harris, who was photographing the event, was killed instantly while two others were injured including Byrne’s co-driver. The rest of the leg was cancelled for bikes.
A coronial inquest was launched last week amid assertions that FDR organisers had improper safety measures in place. Jodi Truman, the counsel assisting the coroner, also called the risk of spectator death under said conditions “extreme”, while a spectator being hit by a vehicle received a “high-risk rating” and overall safety was “medium risk”. A safety advisor for Motorsport Australia also noted in 2018 the lack of safety teams specifically for attendees.
The situation prompted Motorsport Australia, who sanctions the cars, to renege on approving a permit for the 2023 race to go ahead. On the other hand, Motorcycling Australia gave the green light for the bikes.
On Thursday, Motorsport Australia released a statement saying that “[d]iscussions relating to the required permit for the Auto (car) section of the 2023 Tatts Finke Desert Race are ongoing between the Finke Desert Race Committee and Motorsport Australia, with the support of the Northern Territory Government. The Finke Desert Race Committee hopes to reach a resolution soon. The outcome of the final decision will be communicated as soon as possible.”
“Following extensive discussions with the Finke Desert Race organisers, the NT Government, NT Police and other key stakeholders, Motorsport Australia can confirm it intends to issue a permit for this year’s event, subject to specific safety measures being implemented,” begins Motorsport Australia’s own comment. “The decision is also subject to the final approval of the Motorsport Australia Board.
“These measures will be outlined in the coming days and weeks as work continues in preparation for the 2023 race.
“Motorsport Australia thanks competitors, officials, spectators and all those associated with the event for their ongoing co-operation and patience. We are particularly grateful for the assistance and support of the NT Government and NT Police and for their commitment to improved safety management to secure the long-term future of this iconic event.
“Spectators will have a significant role to play in making sure the event runs smoothly in 2023 and for many years to come. Should the event proceed, there will be a zero-tolerance approach to any inappropriate spectator behaviour throughout the 2023 event, and organisers will have no option in stopping the race should spectators fail to follow the instructions of officials and event staff.”
With the final thumbs up given, the 2023 Tatts Finke Desert Race will take place on 9–12 June. Toby Price is the defending winner and eight-time champion.