Spoiler alert?

...last week on SEMI-PRO, I posted the launch to my 2016 blog, explaining how I’m striving to achieve Will Farrell levels of semi-professionalism in rallying this year, how I’d be doing a ton more rallying in 2016 even though I barely know what I’m doing (this can be taken in more ways than one), and how, at the very minimum, I’d be racing with the very quick, very competitive, very friendly, and (as a result of the aforementioned reasons) implicitly badass Aaron McClure in a fancy Group N Mitsubishi Lancer EVO in the BTRDA Rally Championship.

This entry covers the kick off to the season with the Cambrian Rally over Valentine’s Day weekend in Wales. I mean, what could be more romantic than a remote getaway to a Welsh ditch, in one of the most beautiful places in the world, in weather that somehow manages to dip below freezing yet still be warm enough to rain?

Pre event test in Sweet Lamb, with sleet and rain! Photo credit: Phill Griffiths

Being nearly semi-pro, we decided to prepare for the season properly and get a little testing done prior to our first event, the Cambrian. After all, we haven’t actually competed together before. Since the Cambrian is in Wales, and well, open rally space to thrash isn’t available in many places outside of Wales, we decided on the standard choice of doing a test at Sweet Lamb.

Photo credit: Phill Griffiths

It still makes me cringe these days when I even think of referring to testing at a place like Sweet Lamb as being “standard” after all my time in the UK. The Sweet Lamb Complex is arguably the most famous rally testing ground in the world as well as the most famous spectator stage in Rally GB. It’s a place where every World Rally Champion and every rally legend has spent significant chunks of time preparing for the World Rally Championship or British Rally Championship; where celebrities like Travis Pastrana and Chris Hoy got their first authentic rally experience and were absolutely swept off their feet by it. Having said that, it is, literally, a shed with a sheep farm in the middle of nowhere. Like literally, THE MIDDLE of nowhere. It is as real as it gets when it comes to rallying.

I sorted a hire a car for the day and set off from London just before 5am for my solo, 5 hour journey to the middle of nowhere. As we get close, my cell phone gradually runs out of bars until there’s no reception left, and I pull onto a nice, smooth gravel road where the humble “Sweet Lamb” sign intersects the “highway.” I’m early. I wander into the garage, and the only other person there is Enda McCormack. Edna is one of the Irish New Yorkers who I’ve rallied with and known for years back in the US and is probably a familiar name to my American readers. He’d be testing with us today as well in his new Subaru Impreza WRC. Rallying is a very, VERY small world.

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Within minutes of Aaron and the team’s arrival, we set off on a little one mile loop to feel out the car and get it driving properly. It was fairly evident that Aaron required no warm up whatsoever. The car pulled really strongly, and he was well in control.

After a few months out of the car, it took me a little bit of time to wrap my head around how smoothly and civilly the Group N EVOs pull out of tight corners, yet somehow, by the time you blink, you’re already on top of the next one. It is the epitome of smooth power delivery. Also, despite the car being a tank compared to the R2 and R5 cars of today, a combination of weight reduction, weight redistribution, and fancy active differentials means the AllFloors Express Mitsubishi Lancer Evo actually feels much more agile than expected. That agility will very much come in handy when it comes to working the 4-door sedan down gravel Welsh lanes just wider than the car itself.

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During the first little test, we notice a photographer that mysteriously appeared from the forest. He took sweet pictures and put them on Facebook before I even got home. His name is Phil Griffiths. I was pretty stoked.

Photo credit: Phil Griffiths

After a few small tweaks, we took a few passes on the longer, 3 mile route. We made some better notes, fell into a nice, natural rhythmn, and didn’t come across a single glitch or issue. With that, we conservatively called it quits for the day. Everything checks out. We’re ready. Bring on the Cambrian!

The Cambrian Rally is a pretty cool event, run since 1956 it uses most of the North Wales classic stages of Rally GB. Throughout the years, particularly in recent years with the WRC round being based in North Wales, the event has been used as a critical test to gain familiarity with the stages, many of which are used in the same or similar configurations as the WRC round. Funny-yet-surprisingly-pronounceable Welsh names like Penmachno, Clacaenog, and Great Orme should ring a bell to rally fans throughout the world as some of the most demanding tests within the sport, and current WRC greats outside of just the UK, like Mads Ostberg and Andreas Mikkelsen, have cut their teeth here to prepare for the event’s big uncle in October/November. For me, I was especially stoked that we’d get to use the Great Orme this year, a short, windy piece of tarmac that runs along rocky cliffs that drop to the Atlantic Ocean (shown below). The stage just has an indisputable cool factor associated with it, despite being in stark contrast to the gravel forestry stages that make up 90% of the event.

Formula 1 driver Kimi Raikonnen on the famous Great Orme stage

Like all BTRDA events, the event keeps a low cost structure with a single day of rallying, limited faffing, classes for non-homologated cars, and no reconnaissance (hereafter refereed to as “recce”). If you want the opposite of the above, you have the British Rally Championship (BRC), which runs international regulations at a significantly higher cost. As such, the BTRDA events have tremendous depth within the field as it’s fairly attainable for “normal” people (because normal people have Ford Focus WRCs too). 130 entries is standard for a rally weekend, and the events are so efficiently organised you’ll hardly notice the masses of vehicles that need to get pushed through the stages. That is, unless you get stuck on stage as car #15 on the road, and you must wait for 115 more cars at minimum 1 minute intervals to pass before you can even start to extract your fallen vehicle or go find your crew.

Since there’s no recce, you’re supplied notes and given a video of the stages to make amendments. After spending a year in the European Championship in 2014 and the majority of last year in Ireland where everyone makes their own pace notes, I have a lot of difficulty with no recce, especially when you’re expected to win with very small margins and you’re not all that familiar with the stages. To make up for my lack of confidence, I spend so much time scouring the DVD and trying to clean up my messy, convoluted book that I’m fairly convinced taking a 2 pass recce would actually constitute a time savings, or at the very least, pre-rally sleep savings.

Phill Hall told me that crazy, convoluted pace note books that make absolutely no sense to anyone else are badass, so here’s a page out of mine. Now that you have no respect for my mental sanity or stability, I will carry on with the blog.

I’ve never had supplied notes that I could trust anywhere near as much as my own, and trying to commit to the flat out pace needed to be top 10 out of 130 cars, to mix it with R5s and WRCs in a comparatively overweight, underpowered Group N car when you’re more or less taking someone else’s word for it is well..more unnerving than the usual 120mph sideways stuff along a mountainside that comes standard with the job.

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I wake up eagerly at 5am the morning of the rally like I really want to win - LIKE I REALLY WANT TO FRIGGIN WIN. Being on the side of the rally car with sense and reason, I try to check my aggression. I know when I feel like this, I must prioritize caution. Oddly enough, I must MAKE myself more cautious, despite not having the steering wheel myself, because only in extenuating circumstances should both parties in the car just want to go absolutely 110% flat out the whole time, but I do relish the times those few win-or-bust situations arise. Basically, it’s up to the co-driver to have the sense to pull the driver back from a win-or-bust strategy when it’s unnecessary (FYI most quick drivers default to win-or-bust), but the co-driver must be down to ride when the time comes for win-or-bust.

I go through all my notes, all “prettied” up, one more time. Once I’m nearly finished, I wake up Aaron, who, like most drivers, hits the snooze button right away. However, he only hits the snooze button once, AND it wasn’t like dragging a 4 year old out of bed, which is what most driver’s I’ve dealt with are like, so my first impressions on event with Aaron are that he’s pretty well behaved.

It’s an early start for us being Car 15 on the road, and absolutely necessary early when there’s 2+ hours of cars to start with over 130 entries taking on the event. We head off to the first stage, and as usual for events where recce is limited to video, my first thought is “Where are we? This looks absolutely nothing like the video.”

Despite the above, we’re both relaxed on the start line, cleanly launch away, and settle into the first few corners. It is slippery. Like, is-something-wrong-with-the-car? slippery. Aaron commits early, sensibly, and on the proper line, and the back end is still hanging in the ditch along the exit. The grip with cold tires on a hard surface on a cold morning is just nonexistent, but I can feel we’re setting a good pace despite the lack of pace the road demands. However, with nearly 2 miles to go, the car begins to understeer heavily. We have a problem, and it’s most certainly a flat tire. We gently press on until the tire wears down to the rim. Then we crawl to the finish as we feel all the hard earned seconds melt away. Is our challenge over already?

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However, all that good work we put in the first half of the stage means we’re only 1 second off the top seeded Group N car miraculously and less than 10 seconds off the lead. Our closest competitor behind us, Russ Thompson/Andy Murphy, also has a mysterious puncture; neither of us hit anything. We both change the wheel in the same layby, exchange some jokes with the other team, and hurry on to the next stage. We are still very much in this, and we know the pace is there.

At last, we get one clean run through the next stage, Elsi, finishing it one second off the lead in Group N and trouncing a few £200k+ R5's along the way. It’s the trickiest stage of the rally. It’s extremely tight and technical with lots of rhythm changes and considerable rework required to make the notes usable for us. There’s also loads of tricky junctions capped off with a steep descent to the finish and no margin for error throughout. However, our rhythm is embedded the entire way through. We’re comfortable; we’re setting times where we need to be. That’s the pace we’re going to be running the rest of the day, and surely, a strong start to the season will follow suit.

Below is a bit of onboard as we slide corner-to-corner and camber-to-camber, gently hurling around the Evo on the narrow tracks.

..and, if you have more time on your hands, you can catch the full onboard of the stage here

We head to the legendary Penmachno stage next, and recent heavy rain and flooding means the stage is altered and a bit more cut up than usual. In the middle of the stage is a nasty bit of slow, rough quarry that no one particularly enjoys before it opens up to the fast flowing road toward the finish. We discuss at the stage start that, despite the slow speeds, the quarry is an easy place to write off the car, so we’ll be slow, cautious, and sensible through the nasty section.

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As we turn onto the tight, rough, narrow bit, it all feels quite slow inside the car. The Evo is a big car for these roads, so she still needs to be thrown around a bit to get turning, and also needs a bit bigger turning radius than most cars. Most of the corners are triple caution and/or don’t cut, and it’s pretty obvious as to why as you come through each turn. However, we come across the first corner WITHOUT a don’t cut, and while we thought we were still very much on the road, a piece of embedded rock on the inside bank protruded out just a few inches. The rock conveniently hid behind a bush with branches that also protruded into the road just a few inches, making the rock impossible to spot on the recce video.

As our eyes peered down the road to accelerate toward the next corner, and as I called the next note, our rally was suddenly turned on its head. I sat, perplexed for a moment, as I hung suspended upside down in my belts trying to understand how I ended up in this very peculiar, yet unfortunately somewhat familiar, position

I wasn’t expecting that one - right, but there’s no time to sit around and try to make sense of it all right now. The next car is coming in less than a minute, and we’re sitting upside down on the outside of a downhill corner. I check that my door opens. Aaron politely tells me to get out first.

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“Ok, remember..hands up, don’t release your belts like an idiot and land straight on your head.” - I quietly say to myself.

I climb out, run down the road, and flag the next car down with a few seconds to spare. I’d generally say that the minute immediately following an accident is typically as dangerous as the accident itself, and in countries like Ireland with 30 second intervals between cars, it’s downright terrifying.

The car doesn’t look bad, so can’t we just flip it back over and carry on? Aaron runs down the road to the closest control point and tries to grab some spectators and marshals. They arrive, but given the narrowness of the road and the fact that we’d need to flip the car UP the hill, we would most likely cause a bad blockage within the stage and ruin it for the next 115 cars.
GAME OVER.

I think someone put my name on upside down?

As we settle down and settle in for the next two hours of cars that have yet to pass through the stage, we inspect the scene of the accident a bit more closely and try to figure out what happened. Aaron asks if there was a “don’t cut” for that corner because there should definitely be one, and he didn’t recall hearing one, and I’m all like...

Fortunately for my own career, there wasn’t one in the supplied notes, and there really wasn’t any way we could spot it on the recce video.

But, unfortunately for us, we’re upside down in the middle of fucking nowhere with a very smashed up car, an expensive repair bill, and a season starting on zero points when, after more attrition from our competition, we would have walked away with maximum points. BUMMER. While I’m relieved not have caused an accident for the first time, we still ended the rally with an accident, which generally sucks.

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...although it doesn’t suck as much as an equivalently expensive and super lame mechanical failure.

On the bright side, the marshals that came to assist were from Stockport Motor Club, the motor club I joined when I studied abroad in Manchester in 2008. This particular marshal used to literally pick me up from my dorm and give me a ride to some of the events. After my first week in the UK, he let me tag along with them to marshal McRae Stages the year after Colin McRae’s death, when all the legends suited up once more and competed in a proper rally. Again, rallying is a very VERY small (and helpful) world. And of course, I had all the time in the world to catch up..

Marshaling McRae Stages 2008

Fortunately, just two weeks after the roll at the Cambrian, our body shop sponsor Carcraft Body Repairs has already pulled through to make the car like new again, and Aaron is back assembling the pieces back together, if he can find where he put all the bolts that is! Literally, no one could ask for a better sponsor for a rally driver than a body shop!

The Malcolm Wilson Rally based out of the M-Sport HQ near Carlisle, is the next event for myself and Aaron. However, next week, I’m competing in the R2 category at the first event of the new, relaunched, British Rally Championship in Wales (again) with another young driver named Will Graham. We’ll be in a Fiesta R2 running the full international rally with recce (yay!) and scoring points within the Junior class. In addition, Alex Gelsomino AND Rhianon Gelsomino will be competing in the same class, so I’m sure the monster Hafren/Sweet Lamb stage under the Saturday night rally lights will be like a little Rally America reunion party.

I’m also pretty stoked on the BRC relaunch this year, with recent news that the championship will be covered on channel 4 AND BT Sport (basically main stream TV, one of which doesn’t require cable), and the depth of competition includes some of my favorites, like Elfyn Evans, Max Vatanen, the Moffet bros, Keith Cronin, etc. and loads of manufacturers. It should be an epic return to the traditional top national rally championship in the world.

Wow - that was long. Anyway, catch you all next time after I get through my monster two weeks with two consecutive rallies. Hopefully, they’ll be less pictures of inversion and poor, smashed up rally cars..oh and more winning. Later!