9:06am - Friday 4 March, 2016 – Middle-of-Nowhere (Myherin), Wales

“You’re late. Ya don’t like fuckin gettin’ up early do ya, Alex?”

(I mean, does anyone?)

..remarks a jovial Howard Davies, one of the biggest characters (figuratively but could be taken literally) of the glory days of the British Rally Championship, as he gives me a warm welcome to the much anticipated, newly relaunched series.

Howard Davies (left) and Gwyndaf Evans (right) on BRC Rally Wales 1996

20 years ago, Howard Davies was the British Rally Champion co-driver alongside Gwyndaf Evans in the second year of a previously relaunched, 2-wheel drive championship that saw the F2 screamers even I get nostalgic about. I still remember eagerly awaiting the VHS tape of the BRC season review to arrive in the mail as a 10 year old before I’d spend my day intently focusing on deciphering and understanding Gwyndaf’s and Howard’s 1-9 pace notes system.

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“Chuck your (recce registration) card in the bin and grab your packet. Don’t need to see anything else; we’re only getting started now, and it is FUCKING FREEZING”

The horrendous snowy/mucky conditions during recce along with my SEMI-PRO rally computer/mount

None the less, getting cursed at by a legend feels surprisingly fitting for my return to the BRC. I must be doing something right for this scenario to be playing out, although clearly I’m not doing everything right…

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Every step over the slushy/muddy/icky snow sounds like I found the hidden whoopee cushion as I make the walk of shame past every competitor in the BRC back to our car, the very last car in a queue of 40+ eagerly awaiting teams in their recce vehicles because I am unforgivably late. I just really believed we could sleep in until 5am and eat breakfast without getting stuck in a horrendous snowstorm for the last 40 miles of the journey. Oops.

As I finally reach the warmth of the Ford Fiesta recce car, I awkwardly sprawl from the front seat back to the rear seats to try to stick the recce number on the inside of the back window. In the process, I clumsily wipe the inches of mud off my shoes all over the dash and onto the seats.

Uhh – yeah, so you were going to have to take this car to get washed after this anyway, right?

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For the first round of the BRC, Rally Mid Wales, I’m co-driving the first time for Will Graham in a familiar car I’ve spent many rallies in, the Ford Fiesta R2. Will usually co-drives for his dad, Ernie Graham, in a Mk2 Ford Escort. Ernie is a long-time friend and former co-driver to Stanley Ballantine, the Irish driver I spent much of last year sitting alongside. I met Ernie and Will last year from mooching off their motor home and stealing tea and snacks with Stanley. As a thank you for consuming their tea and snacks, they asked me to fill in for Will’s regular co-driver for Mid Wales since the other guy couldn’t make it.

Will is a fairly inexperienced driver, at 19 years of age and only in his second rally behind the wheel. However, he’s actually a quite a good, experienced co-driver. He and his dad set some insanely blistering times in their Mk2 Escort (see below) that was generally around the same times as Stanley and myself in a well driven Group N Mitsubishi Lancer EVO.

They act like it’s just a bit of fun for the whole family, but the pace is top of the historic class. Also, he’s probably the only co-driver I’ve met to have started younger than me, which I thought was impossible given that I started 3 weeks after my 16th birthday. However, take a rally-crazy family and mix in some Irish indifference to rules, and many more possibilities begin to open up. I’m not afraid to admit that I’m VERY jealous of this extra year since having 14 years of co-driving experience rather than my measly 13 years clearly would make all the difference at this phase in my career.

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As we await to recce the first stage, we hear reports that many of the first cars into the stage are stuck on hills or have slid off the road, making the stage impassable. Luckily for us all the way at the back of the line, we’re now the front-runners as everyone has to turn around, and the entire field tries recce again on the next stage. I knew a few extra minutes of sleep and a full breakfast was a good idea after all.

As we rendezvous at the start of the next stage, I catch most of my friends from British/Irish/American rallying throughout the years shivering and taking turns peeing in the snow. It’s not going to be an easy day, especially for us in a little two wheel drive Fiesta with summer tires trying to drive over a mix of snow, slush, and muck just to make the pace notes that we’ll be relying on during the rally.

On the upside, I usually get a bit concerned that I won’t get all my usual workouts in during a rally week because of having zero time, but as the wheels starting spinning and the car came to a stop up the first hill on the first recce-able stage, Hafren/Sweet Lamb, I realized I WOULD get in my Thursday night intervals and legs session that I so sadly had to miss the day before. I hopped out and started pushing, but I’m a tad too weak to push a Fiesta up a Welsh mountain by myself. In true rally spirit, our competitors behind us hopped out and joined in on the pushing. Out of breath and with my shoes and jeans caked in slush and mud, we made it up our first hill for the day.

Did you know that Wales has a lot of hills?

Fortunately, the upholstery in Will’s daily driver/recce car functioned as my heated towel as every hill and heavily cambered ditch sucked us in throughout the day.

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Since Will is still a bit new to driving, he uses the Patterson notes as a base and then modifies them during recce, like most people do with Jembas in the US. While I definitely prefer writing our own notes, in this case when most of the driver’s attention is on staying on the road or climbing the next hill and the conditions keep changing every few minutes, it’s nice to have a base to start with.

After a day of recce that took even longer than the above explanation of it, we headed back to service to meet our crew. We were being serviced by the newly formed MH Motorsport, which took on us along with another 4 Ford Fiesta R2s primarily competing in the Junior BRC. I was thoroughly surprised by the professional, collective team feel as well as the service setup that consisted of a heated area for working on the cars and FREE DONUTS.

I was joined by some pretty cool teammates, including Andrew Edwards (Dillon van Way’s usual professional/imported co-driver), who was sitting alongside 17 year old Umberto Accornero, and Dai Roberts sitting with Josh Cornwell. We were also joined by the only female driver in the Junior BRC, Kenyan/Brit Nabila Tejpar, which brings the total number of Kenyans on the team up to something like one or one and a half (depending on how much you want to count either of our Kenyan-ness), and with a DUNKIN DONUTS sponsorship/family business, the number of free donuts up to infiniti.

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They also upped our hotel game substantially, and as we checked into our pristine estate in the Shropshire hills that’s typically used for weddings, I also ended up using the rug of the Mellington Hall Estate as another heated towel to wipe all off all the mud that has accumulated on myself throughout the day.

Because rallying is supposed to be difficult, Saturday consisted of mostly twiddling our thumbs all day waiting for a post-sunset scheduled start as we all hypothesized what the weather conditions could possibly be like on the stages. It was a productive burning of time, however, with Antoine L’Estage and David Higgins unexpectedly popping by for a chat, and I even had time to pester Max Vatanen with silly questions about French pace notes without feeling too guilty about it. I try to curb my enthusiasm a little bit whenever the Vatanens are in town and strike up “normal” (rally) conversation topics since it seems to be becoming a more regular occurrence, but no matter how regular it gets, I can never suavely hide HOW FRIGGIN STOKED I AM EVERY TIME IT HAPPENS.

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Alright now – off to the first stage in the dark. 16 miles of Hafren/Sweet Lamb. Happy or scared who knows?

We start off, and well, it’s been a few years since I’ve co-driven for anyone who’s relatively new to this rally thing. Last time I co-drove for a new driver in a Fiesta R2, we crashed on the first corner. Actually, even when I co-drove for an experienced driver doing his first event in a Fiesta R2, we crashed on the very first corner. Right. Don’t mention that. The clock hits zero, we set off in the dark, and we successfully navigate the first bend.

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It does feel a bit disconcerting though when you’re sitting next to someone as they’re learning. You’re always watching them, and trying to be on top of correcting any mistakes as soon as you notice it while hoping they don’t make a knee jerk reaction in completely the wrong way. It’s a bit slow, it’s a bit butt-clenching, and it is HARD WORK.

Fortunately, Will only behaves like a newb for about a stage and a half. The second half of the Pikes Peak/Myherin stage in the dark, a switch turns in his head like “Oh yeah, I’ve done this loads of times with dad, no problem” and then he starts comfortably cruising, absorbing all the information in the pace notes perfectly, and begins confidently leaning the car through the corners. The snow in Myherin is no problem as we pass other stricken juniors, and at the end of Day 1, we find ourselves comfortably in the middle of a very competitive field of juniors (after all, the winning prize is a free season in the WRC) and ahead several well-established drivers who have been driving these little Fiesta R2s for years now. I’m enjoying myself as well. Well done, lad.

The following day, we continue where we left off, and set comfortable, competitive times throughout the day as carnage ensues throughout the difficult, snowy, mucky roads. There’s very little drama for us, however, and given that it’s Sunday evening now, I begin to think..

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Maybe we can just wrap up this rally all quickly and nicely now, and I can get nearly a full night’s sleep before my horrendous work/rally prep week.

Of course, that is a downright silly thought to have. We pull up to the penultimate stage, and just before we go to start, the stage is stopped. There’s been a big accident, a big delay, and now a canceled stage, but fortunately, no one was hurt in this horrendous mess of a I-don’t-even-know-what-car-it-is-anymore.

More delays going into the final stage, and I’m starting to get concerned that my reasonable bed time is coming under a very realistic threat. Regardless, I’m pretty excited for one last bit of fun in Wales and building Will’s confidence to close out a very quick and consistent drive.

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...Then there was a seemingly innocuous set of uphill/cambered bends we had already repeated before, some innocuous slush and mud, and a seemingly innocuous, slow speed tank slapper that seemed like it would be ok, but ended in a very snowy ditch. It’s too deep, too snowy, and too remote for there to be enough people around to push us out. GAME OVER, and now it’s time to wait in the frigid cold as afternoon turns to evening, and my dreams of a reasonable bed time begin to slip through my fingers.

After sweep gives us a pull, and we drive out of the stage, Will is understandably extremely disappointed, and the whole bringing the car back to daddy thing can always be a bit intense when you go off in these circumstances. We review the video together, and we can see it’s just a sudden, small rookie mistake that is unfortunate, but fortunately did not result in any damage. Dad is satisfied with the weekend, and very helpfully helps Will understand the insignificance of the off. Since Will is just running this year for experience, he still gets nearly all the stage mileage in, at a pace that he can progress his own abilities, and a clear, limited set of techniques to work on.

Unlike almost every other new driver I’ve sat with, Will actually knows how to rally – he knows the pace notes, he knows what he needs from the notes, he knows the pace to drive at, he knows what speed to approach the corners, etc. etc. However, he still lacks experience wrestling the Fiesta R2 from corner to corner. Fortunately for him, it’s much easier to replicate the driving experience in a testing situation versus trying to replicate the actual rally experience in a testing situation. With a little testing and a little coaching, he’ll be safely on the pace of the really fast kids a lot sooner than anyone would expect. Also fortunately for him, the family has a clear and objective understanding of this, so I suspect he’ll be supported in ironing out any glitches in technique before they ever hold him back.

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My friends from London, Heather and Corey, finish their B-roll for their BRC Mid-Wales Rally Review video that is especially cool and turned out nice (see below) and kindly give me a lift back to London as they often do. I pass out in the backseat spooning my suit and helmet bag, and as I return to my London flat at 1am, I realize I’ll be catching up at work this week and preparing for the Malcolm Wilson Rally the following week with a very bad rally hangover.

PART 2: The BTRDA is BACK

This time, however, I seemed to have combated the infamous rally hangover by getting straight back on the rally juice the following morning. After a lengthy day at the office, I’m reinvigorated by seeing all the photos of Aaron McClure’s pretty red EVO looking like the day before we ruined her in the Welsh forests, leaving her upside down in a slew of tree stumps. I’m sure you remember this scene last time..

So I’m pretty elated that 3 weeks later, everything now looks like this

Despite less time to prepare for the Malcolm Wilson Rally just a few days away, it’s absolutely critical that I prepare more than ever. If we crash the car again this time, Aaron’s season is over. The team cannot financially afford another off. In addition, this was the round Aaron crashed on last year; it probably has THE trickiest roads of the whole championship; AND I need to switch my brain from thinking in Will’s pace note system back to thinking in Aaron’s pace note system. How different are they? Well, in Will’s system, a “1" (i.e. a 1 right or a 1 left) is the fastest, flat-out bend. In Aaron’s system, however, a “1" is the slowest bend, so basically, going back to Aaron’s system literally feels like opposite day on Monday, and by Friday, I need to be fluent in it.

The beautiful scenery on a road section through the English Lake District

The Malcolm Wilson Rally is one of the few events during the year that gets to use the legendary Lakes District stages, including a favourite in the hearts of all rally drivers, Grizedale. Why? Well, Grizedale is basically a heavily cambered, twisty yet fast, loose gravel rollercoaster with infamous ditches lurking on every edge and deceptive, tightening corners with deceiving lines. The heavy camber of the road means if you get off the line, it goes badly very quickly, but if you successfully leap from corner to corner and hurl the car over the camber at high speed every time, you absolutely kill it. It’s like New Zealand with shorter corners and more terrible weather.

Given the technical nature of the roads, I elect to rewrite my notes this time and carry the original book with me. Having all the notes broken up exactly the way I want them makes me so much more comfortable, so much better, and so much more at ease.

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When I turn up to the rally after another week of work/rally prep days that end well past midnight every day of the week, I have no room to complain as the rest of the team has been flat out for the past month getting this car together. It looks perfect; it feels perfect; and after a quick 1 pass of the notes with Aaron, it’s time for bed with our 7:08am start time Saturday morning. That means I need to be up at 4:30am to have sufficient time to do pre-rally note routine, pack up, and be ready in the start area with adequate time. I believe it was inferred by someone last week that I don’t like waking up early, but this time I was waiting for my alarm clock to go off.

As we transit to the first stage, it really starts to sink in. Wait, we need to be really fast and competitive, but if we wreck this thing we are fucked, and we really have no idea if everything is actually going to work properly on this car because we’ve had time for precisely zero hours of testing. We’re just hoping that everything was put back the way it was supposed to be.

Anyway, it’s too late to dwell on any of that for that now. We start off a tiny bit tentatively in the very slippy mud of stages one and two, but regardless, the car is perfect. By the end of the first stage, Aaron is again confidently hurling the Evo into the tight, downhill hairpins.

However, we do lose about 13 seconds in just these two stages. Russ Thompson is on a mission, and admittedly, in the very slippy conditions, the very mainstream Pirelli tires of our competition seem to have a bit of a performance advantage to our less commonly used Yokohamas. Still, we’re just pretty relieved to have a more drama free run on a good pace.

And we’re still trying to win - like still really trying. As we head into the heart of the rally in the Grizedale stages, the fog rolls in, and Aaron goes out with his own agenda, unbeknownst to me. It’s clear by the second or third corner that he’s on a fucking mission with the secondary objective of placing the back end of that Evo in every single ditch in Grizedale North.

“Just..tidy it up a little?”

I say sheepishly mid-stage, but of course, also very sternly. There’s a renewed feeling of urgency and aggression in Aaron’s driving, and at this point, it’s time to hold on, do my best work, and verbally dab the brake pedal in the nasty sections as much as I can. As we come out of Grizedale North alive, we calm down and head into Grizedale South, where by the second or third corner I realize Aaron is on another mission. Drive the best stage in the world.

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First off, kudos to Aaron for not driving like a pansy after just coming off an expensive roll, on the exact same stage in which he rolled the car the previous year, and instead, turning that stage into a Group N record, 4th overall fastest time out of like, 100, and taking 9 seconds out of the class leader in the process. Aaron settles into a rhythm where he’s chucking the Evo from camber to camber, using every inch of the road perfectly and finding all those hidden apexes on his first turn in. The rhythm is absolutely perfect. The literal rhythm of rally - that call-note, precise-pause, driver-reaction, nail-apex, drift-to-next-corner kind of rhythm that could be music as much as it could be motor sport. Yes, that. But the intercom connection to the camera didn’t work, so you’ll never understand..

As such, below is the tribute to the best stage in the world, where I (finally) disappear from the scene, and you can just watch Aaron use the force to nail every rainy/foggy/slippy corner on that stage, with no recce, running essentially blind. I guess we’ll keep all those little tricks to Grizedale to ourselves for now thank you very much. Enjoy.

Heading into the last few stages, the gap is now less than 10 seconds to Russ Thompson/Andy Murphy in the lead. We could still pull this off as a win, but given that total heroism won’t even gain you a second per mile in this championship, we know the leaders must make a mistake for us to take the position. With a 10 second or so gap, any spin, stall, overshoot, or puncture would automatically hand us the win.

Or so we thought...

As shown above, on nearly the last corner of the last stage, Russ Thompson (the leader) slides wide into a left-hand corner; cracks the rear end over a tree entering the hairpin right; uses the tree ripping the wheel off to negotiate the hairpin right quickly; and then speeds off on 3 wheels without ever stalling or reversing.

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So anyway, despite some last corner drama, we still finish 2nd. In this championship, you can drive like we did in that Grizedale onboard above, have a mistake-free run, and your competition can bin it on the last corner with only a 10 second gap, but the competition is so good that the winner can make a heroic 3-wheeled effort to bring it home for a win while dropping less than a handful of seconds in the process. It’s as awesome as it is frustrating, and reaffirms our choice to be competing here as the best option for the money.

Kudos to Russ and Andy for a great drive and a heroic win I’m sure they’ll always remember and tell loads of stories about for ages. For now, after the disaster of the Cambrian, we’re quite happy to take second. And yes, the championship is back on!

Anyway, no time for excessive celebration then. Within an hour of crossing the finish line I’m already on my way back home. It’s a leaving party for one of my close friends Saturday night, followed by a Sunday morning flight to skiing in the Alps, then back home for work, then off the next weekend to Spain for a Stag Due (i.e. Bachelor Party), then a wedding/rally in Belfast (should be fun packing for that one), then another rally after returning home.

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I look at my schedule as I’m halfway through my stint of zero weekends at home, and it is literally insane. There is no way any of this could ever get done. But I’ve felt this way before, and I didn’t actually die, so I’ll get through it. Not only will I get through it, I’ll get through it with a stupid goggles tan.

And despite the obscene levels of intensity packed into each day, it’s pretty hard not to enjoy all the stuff I’m cramming into my life at the moment. Being able to spread it all out would be really nice, but as the old saying goes - you can’t have your beautiful skiing holiday, epic back-to-back rally weekends, and hang out on the Costa del Sol, and eat it too.

..or something like that

Stay tuned for next time when I head to Ireland to tackle the combined British Rally Championship/European Rally Championship round, the Circuit of Ireland, then immediately head off to compete in the Somerset Stages in the south of England, where Aaron and I again chase our first win.

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I’m quite stoked, as always, for the Circuit of Ireland my third year running, after that crazy crazy day of carnage that introduced me to Irish rallying 3 years ago alongside Alex Parpottas, finishing 2nd in the Junior ERC. See below from the time when Chris Ingram kart-wheeled out of the lead, Gino Bux rolled into a house, and we took the biggest jump in Ireland flat out and got away with it. I still get all kinds of warm, fuzzy, patriotic feelings seeing my American flag on that Eurosport leaderboard.

..catch you all in Ireland!

-Alex