'PURE TERROR IN A FROZEN HELL' – TIFF ON WHY RALLY DRIVING IS COMPLETE MADNESS
While the last weekend of January saw most of my attention focussed on The 24 Hours of Daytona, which certainly didn’t disappoint, I was also keeping in touch with all the goings–on down in Monte Carlo – even if the Monte Carlo Rally no longer actually visits Monte Carlo!
While Fernando Alonso managed to stave off the advances of Felipe Nasr in the final, very wet, minutes of Daytona, so Sebastian Ogier managed to stay ahead of Thierry Neuville in a nail biting final stage in France – and we had the joy of seeing Kris Meeke go fastest on that last power stage.
Kris Meeke in action in Monte Carlo (Pic: Red Bull Content Pool)
This weekend all eyes are back on both Daytona and the World Rally Championship with the Daytona 500 kicking off the NASCAR season. With forty cars running at full throttle for the whole lap in one great manic pack, jostling for position and waiting for the inevitable multi-car pileup, before a tension filled final lap dash, the 500 is a bizarre race but a fantastic spectacle with brilliant spectator access and plenty of American style showbiz.
Given a choice, I’d spend the weekend in the warm Florida sunshine. OK, last weekend’s warm-up race was brought to an early end due to rain but that’s a very rare happening. Stand on the fence on the inside of Turn Three as the pack thunders through and I defy anyone not to be blown away.
Having tested a NASCAR beast at Charlotte for a Top Gear story I can assure you there’s a lot more to driving them than simply ‘turning left’. Just ask Dario Franchitti who never got the hang of them and reckons he actually spent more time ‘turning right’, adding opposite lock, as that’s how loose the cars need to be to keep the pace.
Live rallying on the other hand is for far more hardy spectators and I well remember trudging miles out onto some far away moor down in Devon to watch the cars flashing past in the dark, walking down the stages and then stepping back to let them by! Thrilling stuff but, of course, no longer permitted. Mind you, with the speed the modern day cars travel at that’s not surprising...
Getting close to the action is what it's all about for rally fans (Pic: Red Bull Content Pool)
My rallying experience is fairly limited, although I did win my first ever outing partnered by Tony Mason in a round of the Ford RS2000 Rallye Championship that was part of the 1992 Tour of Cornwall event. It was another Top Gear affair and most of it was on tarmac which helped, but I did beat a couple of young hotshots in the process so felt pretty pleased with myself!
Later that year I was right in at the deep end when Ford entered me in what is now known as the ‘Rally GB’ but back then was the ‘Lombard RAC Rally’. I was in the Group N Production class and given the delightful Swedish co-driver Tina Thörner to help me find the way.
The rally ran the length and breadth of Britain back then and we had a full week of recceing every stage – twice at a maximum speed of 30mph – even before we got to the start. Tina managed to coax me to the finish despite the odd trip into the undergrowth and we ended up a reasonably satisfying seventh in class and 30th overall out of 157 entries – racing drivers aren’t well known for actually finishing rallies!
Apart from having to understand the pace notes – and believe in them as you shoot over a blind crest with no view of what is on the other side – one of the hardest things that only experience can bring you is learning to handle the often sudden variations of grip. Dry gravel, then a wet patch, then deep mud or crumbling rocks. One minute you feel completely in control the next, like a passenger.
Of course the Swedish Rally this weekend is viewed as the only proper snow rally of the year – although that’s not always guaranteed. Monte Carlo is perhaps much harder as it normally features bits of snow, ice and dry tarmac but Sweden should be just snow, snow, glorious snow! Now, while that might make it look far more treacherous, in fact it’s the most consistent surface and with nice studded tyres you actually have more grip than on a loose gravel road. There is, however, a dark art in how to bounce off the snowbanks and not get dragged into them.
Four years after my first World Championship encounter I was given another crack at this sport that is so alien to me – and a first-hand encounter with the effects of snow and ice. I was back on the start line of ‘Rally GB’ – by now the ‘1996 Network Q RAC Rally’ – in a front wheel drive Formula Two Skoda Felicia with Brian Hardie calling the notes.
The weather had been fine and dry all through the long recce so, with less mud and more consistent, dry gravel over some wonderful flowing stages I was really pumped up to have a go. I’d developed the art of left foot braking with a front wheel drive car a few years earlier driving a Formula Two Vauxhall Astra on a nice dry Scottish Rally. With more bias to the rear than usual, any understeer could be countered with a dab of the brakes, without having to lift off the throttle, and I’d really enjoyed balancing the car with the two pedals.
Unfortunately, when we woke up on the morning of the rally, Britain was covered in a thin layer of snow and a sheet of ice! With no studs allowed in the forests and no winter tyres back then, I was about to face 260 stage miles of pure terror. I wasn’t just out of my comfort zone, I was in a frozen hell.
A problem with the rear brakes didn’t help because my new left foot skills simply increased the understeer and even the handbrake couldn’t lock the rears. While works Skoda driver Stig Blomqvist was producing a master class of driving in these conditions, humbling the four wheel drive opposition, I wasn’t!
Part of the problem was that, running towards the back of the field, the cars ahead of you would turn more and more of the snow patches into polished ice so the less talented of us had the worst conditions. Having sat through an hour's delay half way through the opening day’s spectator stages as the wreckage of way more experienced drivers were removed, my nerves were in tatters.
We made it to the Croft Circuit late on that day and I felt that at least I’d know roughly where I was going as I knew the layout of the area. With a little confidence returning, I sat on the start line ready to have a real go. Revs singing, pumping through the gears, by the time I got into third the car must have been moving at about five miles an hour. I had no idea what to do, I could have walked faster!
Out in the forests for the next two days and, at times, we were almost at a crawling pace. We’d come to a crest which we knew led downhill into a tight hairpin. Fans on the roadside would be waving us forwards but, however slowly we went, once we were on the slope the car would simply build momentum. I jumped up and down on all the pedals in various combinations, vainly tugged on my useless handbrake but always knew where we would end up... in the ditch at the bottom.
Fans to the rescue once again (Pic: Red Bull Content Pool)
Happily settled in the ditch we’d be quickly surrounded by all those lovely rally fans and in an instant they are heaving you out of the ditch, urging you onwards while all you really want to do is stay there in that nice safe ditch.
There were some uphill sections when we thought we’d never get to the top and, late into the night, I experienced the most bizarre motorsport moment of my life. Battling to find enough traction to claw my way up a long climb, another car appeared behind us with its lights blazing into my mirrors. Somehow they were edging nearer and nearer, and I felt obliged to pull to one side to let them past. What happened next is something I’ll never forget.
Rachael Simmonite appeared alongside me... pulling her sister Stephanie and their Ford Escort on the end of a rope! I looked across at Brian who simply pointed to his unsuitable racing boots and we burst out laughing. Competing in a World Championship motorsport event we’d just been overtaken by a car being pulled on the end of a rope.
We somehow made it to the end and once again I was seventh in class but this time 53rd overall out of the 82 survivors from the massive 182 car entry. They were truly epic rallies back in those days and far different from the flat out sprints we see today, but that doesn’t mean there is any less skill required to win. Indeed while rallies used to be won by minutes the gaps are now counted in seconds – and sometimes just fractions of seconds.
With ever increasing speeds, the skills of both driver and co-driver are on a different planet to most of us. Both have to have absolute belief in each other. One missed call of the notes by either of them and you are flying into the scenery at a hundred miles an hour. The extra speed means co-drivers have to call those notes two, three or even four corners before you get there with the driver instantly picturing in his mind what lies ahead while still having to control the car and be aware of any sudden, unexpected obstacles. Go on-board for a full stage and it’s mesmerising.
The only problem rallying has is that it doesn’t lend itself to the modern demands of instant TV action. Bits are now live on BT Sport, who also provide highlight packages which Eurosport also do, while you can subscribe to WRC’s own ‘All Live’ programme but, however good the images are, the end result is all down to watching the moment the clock stops and not which of the wild pack of NASCARs crosses the line first – be it travelling forwards, backwards or on occasions upside down.
So I’ll spend the weekend following the rally on the website, catching some of those incredible images of the most unbelievable car control whenever I can and then settling into Sunday night with plenty of beers in the fridge and Darrel Waltrip getting things going with his traditional “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity Boys. Let’s Go Racing”!