Previously on "The European Rally Championship Gets Americanized": We went halfway across the Atlantic Ocean to the Jurassic Park-looking island of Sao Miguel in the Azores, and after much confidence from our 2nd place finish during the Circuit of Ireland (Part 1), we promptly put the car off the road on the first stage, then again on the last stage after restarting the second leg. Oh, and a helicopter crashed into all of our shit on the 5 day ferry journey back to mainland Europe. Maybe it wasn't the best event for us. Anyway, since there was only a month between Azores and the next round, let's quickly carry on to Episode 3.
Episode 3 of the series brings us to the 50th running of the ever popular Ypres Rally, boasting more spectators than any other round of the European Rally Championship (and most rounds of the World Rally Championship) with the organization and atmosphere to match. With 295 stage km's (that's nearly 185 miles folks) over a day and a half itinerary (i.e. the typical duration of an American or Canadian national event but with >50% more mileage), it's by far the most jam-packed rally on the calendar. While racing on flat farmland through previous WWI trench-warfare battlefields might look easy at first glance, those car-swallowing trenches on either side of the road are just as precarious as they were exactly 100 years ago. Cut too much, and you end up like our fellow Junior competitor Tomas Pospíšilík during shakedown; cut too little, and well..you'll just have to read on for what happens then.
Ypres is also a British holiday-rallyist destination. It's close, the atmosphere in the town square is incredible, and the event runs perfectly year after year; therefore, it can be a tad difficult to stay completely focused on your preparation while all your English-speaking comrades are constantly inviting you to have the best beer in the world along with some of the best food you can find.
Regardless, we set out on the first day of recce on a mission. Alex was making some great notes efficiently, I was dealing with the migraine-inducing maze of unmarked junctions every 500m or less, and we were laying the little Vauxhall Corsa recce car deep in the ditches to get our cuts just right.
if you've ever had to read a route book, you'll have some empathy for me trying to write notes while navigating through this..oh, and there's no arrows
We even had time to stop for lunch and compare our notes from the first pass of recce to previous year onboards for R2 cars. This allowed us to revise the notes for areas to focus on/consider changing during the second pass, and then execute on the final run. It, in effect, gave us that quintessential third pass that you really do need when making notes from scratch. Go me.
After a busy morning of autograph sessions, photo-ops, and Q&A with Thierry Neuville, we set out on a strong pace on stage 1. It was maybe slightly quicker than what I had in mind, but it was completely necessary to be competitive here. The extra work we put in on the recce was paying huge dividends as well. Despite having never been on the stage before, the notes felt nearly perfect by the 2nd stage. Every blind junction was spotted, every cut bang on, all bad areas marked. Our more perfectionist attitude this time meant we were still making tons of changes the first pass just to make the notes that one little bit better. It felt quick and safe over that 23km of Witjschate to make the BUZZ SWEETS Fiesta the fastest Ford Fiesta R2 by a significant margin after stage 2, even against all the local Belgian boys that pull out all the stops every year for this one event. More importantly, it felt like a pace we could continue forever.
We head to stage three then feeling calm, confident, and quick. We get to one tight right corner with a big cut in it where we find a ton of gravel across the road. Alex tries to play it safe by not going too deep into the cut, but the road is just too slippery and tightens if you don't fully cut past the tightening bit. We start sliding wide, and as I raise my voice to make sure he comprehends the next tricky note past the junction, the outside wheel touches one of the infamous ditches, and we observe the world go around oh-so-softly. We land on the wheels, almost having cleared the ditch, still with some momentum, without stalling the car. As the car is coming back onto the wheels, I'm encouraging Alex to carry on. I can't quite see the ditch sitting so low in my navie seat but I thought maybe we could just power out of it. Nope, we move a few inches forward to plant ourselves fully into the ditch. We're going nowhere under our own power.
Fortunately, the crowds at this event are absolutely massive, so we roll down the windows and start waving at people to come push us. We were quite honoroed to have an army of about 20 Belgian dudes in collared shirts and sperrys, coming to spectate Friday afternoon after work, jump into the ditch and literally drag the car back up onto the field. They then direct us around to rejoin the access road so that we don't drive straight back into the ditch like one of our other fellow competitors. We continue on our way, and I steer the car a bit and read pace notes as Alex finishes buckling up as this way, he at least knows if he needs to slow the car down a bit or do the steering himself (i.e. fast corners - no, junctions - yes). We stayed pretty relaxed the whole stage actually; not because we weren't upset, but sometimes on stage you're just so focused on getting to the end that there's no mental capacity left to be upset.
Of course, as soon as we finish the stage and switch our heads back into transit mode, there's plenty of capacity left to be more upset. I think it hits Alex when we go to inspect the damage, and I casually climb out the window. The door isn't opening..and if it isn't opening, well the last thing you want to do is force it open before you make it to the next stage, in which case it may never close.
The car, however, it mostly fine despite my side looking fucked. I can see Alex's thoughts going to some dark, dark places though as we're continuing down the road section to the next stage. All I can really muster in the awkward, overly analytical, circular thinking that typically occupies my own head is..
If you dwell on what happened, you will not be concentrated or perform as well as you can
If you tell someone NOT to think about what happened, consciously not thinking about something is the same as thinking about something, so while good-natured, it's effectively useless
To not think about the bad thing, you must try to focus entirely on what you need to do
Therefore – all I can say to him is "Just keep going. Whatever you do keep you're head up and keep going. Every great driver has been exactly here or worse, so concentrate on doing the best you can with what you got, and you'll be much further ahead than you would have believed in the end. Losing 4 minutes is like getting a puncture and performing a mediocre tire change. There's much more rallying to go, and many more opportunities to make up for it."
The fellow junior ERC teams waiting a few km's before the stage start offer some support, as great rally competitors tend to do, and we make it back to service. Despite the roll being so soft that it didn't even dent the roof; there's still a lot of damage. Cars just don't like being tipped over (who would have thought), so the pace is frantic to get the car into some kind of usable shape, despite Alex P being adamant that surely this had to have been the world's slowest roll (Dad did not agree, however).
Our crew knows how to get it done when the pressure is on, and it helps a bit that our crew chief, Matt Beebe, does live for these 30 minutes of glory when it's the difference between getting back in it or going home. We get back in it, and even have our lights fitted, with 20 seconds to spare in our minute.
However, there was not enough time to fiddle with my non-opening door, so I slipped out of the window before the FIA stewards came to scan our barcodes on our tires (to make sure no one is cheating) for the tire marking zone leaving service.
They scan all the codes, and I try to be extra friendly as I sign off on it. Once we're done, I try to slip through the window unnoticed and flag Alex to head off quickly. The one FIA steward catches me just after I slip in and asks "Hey! Does your door open?" I reply "Yes" as I motion Alex to leg it. We finish the last three stages drama-free..albeit a bit slowly, but that's understandable I think. Of course, at the end of the leg, the head FIA steward find me to inform me of their disapproval of my previous antics at the tire marking zone, but fortunately the suggested course of action isn't retroactive. While the head steward says he would have excluded us if he was there personally, he said he would instead check if the door opened and closed, from inside and out, before the restart in the morning; otherwise, exclusion. I'd say that went well. I'll even file that under the friendly category for interactions with the FIA.
We start the next day, seeded way way back, and it's difficult to continue on. When you're not in a fight and you're not on the attack, it's tough to keep your rhythm. It's hot, we overshoot junctions all morning, although so did everyone it seems and possibly worse than us (as shown below). The overshoot below cost the leader, Andrea Crugnola, the win (well, he actually tied for first to the tenth, but still finished 2nd by some silly tie-breaker rules)
We manage to make tons of changes to our pace notes on the first pass, and fortunately, that finally allows us to really enjoy ourselves on the second pass. It's a long long day, but in the end we just end up BS-ing and trading times with Max Vatanen, who also had a crap first day, while I try to impress him (i.e. embarrass myself) with my knowledge of Finnish pace notes. As a competitor, he's exactly what we needed that day; someone in the same car, on the same pace, who's just the friendliest dude in the world so that we can carry on and enjoy yet another epic day of international rallying as well as forget about our Day 1 woes. You would just never expect anyone, let alone the son of your childhood hero, to be that friendly and personable. Rallying is unique in that, regardless of the level in the sport, you tend to like and enjoy hanging out with your rivals and closest competitors. They're the only ones with you all weekend as they're next to you on the road. After all, who wants to be stuck out in the woods all day with people who suck?
As we hand in our final time card at the finish regroup in Ypres, we decide that it is completely appropriate to have some overpriced pizza and beer while we wait to cross the finish podium. We cross the finish line of the 50th running of this historic event with two pizzas on the dashboard and continue to Parc Ferme where everyone instantly pisses off in their racing suits to go to the party. It's already well after midnight; we don't have much time before the bars close (or so we thought).
Apparently, I just don't understand small town Belgian nightlife where closing times don't exist. No wonder the British love this place (ok fine fine, I'm guilty too). Anyway, it started out something like this
(from left to right, Andrea Crugnola, myself, Chris Ingram, Matt Beebe)
For some, ended up something like this:
is that Thierry Neuville?
But at least we made it home just in-time for this:
The reality is, in rallying, you will struggle, and sometimes when you come off of two difficult events, one in the middle of the Atlantic ocean where you manage to DNF twice, followed by helicopter destroying your shit, followed by rolling into a ditch early on the event after, it can be hard to immediately look on the bright side of things. Still, we're rallyists; we're tough and we keeps our heads up. We're also absolutely ridiculous and sometimes (disturbingly) get a kick out of things like trying not to stall the car while rolling and having guys in business attire lift you back on the road so you can continue on as if nothing happened.
"Whether the result was 1st or 7th, at the end of the day it doesn't matter, but you have experienced something, and your life is that one bit richer" - Ari Vatanen
Well, the result this time actually was 7th. Plus I'm pretty sure we were a wee bit closer than 1 day behind the leaders, so thanks Ari Vatanen. I feel better now.
For all you rally dweebs out there the quote was in reference to Vatanen finishing 7th after the 1981 Ivory Coast Rally where he crashed into a lorry, had all kinds of mechanical problems, and I believe rolled the car as well. He finished more than 1 full day behind the winner, Timo Salonen, but still went on to become World Rally Champion that year.