The first three rallies/first three episodes of "The European Rally Championship Gets Americanized" took us from our first European Championship Rally with a 2nd place in Ireland, to adouble DNF/helicopter crash in Azores (you may just have to read the article to make
sense of that), and finally, upside down through a ditch in Belgium, all in the span of just two months. As such, a two month hiatus from rallying until Barum Czech Rally Zlin (which provides the lovely click-bait above for this article) was welcome break just to give us a chance to clean up the mess from our first foray into serious international rallying. Of course, by the time we just started to get that rally itch again, it was time to head off to our first rally in eastern Europe, in the very soviet-feeling eastern Czech town of Zlin near the Slovakian border.
2014 Barum Czech Rally Zlin
For most of us in North America, perceptions of Eastern European rallying is limited to the bulk of YouTube rally crash compilations where cars go flipping through neighborhoods trying to enter corners at speeds where there is absolutely zero chance they could ever make it through. Spectators jump out of the way; cheer and rave in slavik languages; and then quickly flip the car back over, or go rescue the driver and co-driver. It's madness. It's madness that always seemed so distant; now I'm about to be a part of it. Add in some hot non-English speaking promo girls lining every service park and regrouping control, along with some grim looking soviet reconstruction-era buildings (our hotel, quite appropriately, felt like a former mental institution), and we have ourselves a proper Eastern European rally experience. No wonder they're so happy when the rally comes to town.
(I know you're thinking "OOHH EEMM GEEE ALEX! PHARRELL HAPPY VIDEOS ARE SO TWO THOUSAND AND LATE!" but the reality is, this video is such an awesome bit of promo material, and I'm sure the song was only released like, a week ago in Czech Republic anyway)
Leading up to the event, the biggest encouragement for me was the ease in which, organizationally, everything just started to work. Finally, after three rallies of struggling to sort out how to get there and get through the events, I could take an afternoon/evening, read the regulations, quickly recognize and understand the nuances from the get go, and build it into my organization. It seemed easy to control when Alex and I flew, when the crew arrived, and how the weekend was going to work. I know how we're going to do recce; I know how much time I have to revise my notes; and I finally sorted out a strategy for cleaning up notes versus recopying them, with the confidence to take one approach or the other and understand the risks and advantages of each approach. No matter how lame it sounds, it feels good to see clearly the improvements you've made and the reduction in time and stress for myself and the team.
While recopying notes is not generally considered best practice, there are ways to reconcile the two books sensibly and use videos to ensure that you didn't miss anything major. In addition, you always have the original to refer back to; you won't get into a situation where you forget what you erased before you write it back down
On to the actual rally then. Friday night in Zlin means nothing else but rally; therefore, the city streets are all closed off while we do a 9km stage through them. The crowds are so massive our service crew tried to spectate and weren't able to get closer than 5 rows deep anywhere along the stage. We went through the street stage inch perfect, just carrying all the speed to the edge, nearly touching the outside curb after just touching the inside curb, braking at the last possible moment everywhere. It felt perfect. We couldn't go any faster; there was no way you could drive that stage faster we thought.
Instead, we check times before bed and see that we were slow. WTF
As we head off on the next day, we try to push on these tricky roads, but the car just feels a bit gutless. We try and try, but we just cannot come close to matching the times of the leaders. As we're still pushing, we lose our braking point in the sun on one stage late in the day and slide backwards into a ditch, only to be quickly rescued by tons of enthusiastic fans. No doubt about it, we gave it our best shot, but it's quite frustrating when there's just absolutely nothing we can do to be competitive.
We start to realize the Fiesta really can't keep up on the steep uphills, and the brakes won't last on the steep downhills. I hate to blame the car since it makes you sound as though you're so egotistical that you're estranged from reality (Me? Slow? Impossible! The only other explanation must be the car). However, have a look at a quick split screen I put together between one of the other juniors, local favorite Jan Cerny, in the Peugeot 208 and us in the Fiesta R2. In the first comparison, you can see we lose considerable time accelerating out of tight corners, but make up some time through the confusing junctions. However, once we go out onto the main road, it's game over for us. The second comparison video is, well, just plain depressing. See for yourself.
In comparison to US rallying, the cars really do need to be equal for each driver to have a chance. No one is leaving anything in reserve, so a tenth here and there really does matter and won't be made up purely by driver awesomeness, as much as we'd all like to believe it could.
Anyway, after a fairly drab rally for our standards, we make up for it by having the most wicked after party Sunday night in Zlin. Czech is an awesome party anywhere in the country. Beer actually IS cheaper than water. We never quite figured out whether the party suddenly got really awesome, or we all just got really drunk. All I know is, I've never woken up in the morning after a night like that wondering why there was still so much money left my wallet.
2014 Rallye International du Valais (Switzerland)
After a month of contemplating renting a Peugeot 208 for our last round of the championship in Switzerland (Rallye du Valais), we decide to just go out in the trusty Fiesta one last time and get as much good experience and enjoyment as we can through the most luxuriously picturesque rally in the world.
To me, it seems just a tad absurd to start recce by hanging out by the shores of Lake Geneva in some ridiculously ostentatious scene that, back in the US, would be used as ammunition against any future political candidate as an example of being out of touch with the average Joe. If this wasn't enough, our pre-rally party involved tasting 100 year old cheese and fine wine from a vintage vineyard tucked away in the Alps (referred to as a "Raclette Party"). Contrast this with pre-rally parties I grew up with that involved big dudes with big beards and trucker hats (before hipsters thought it was cool, or for that matter, existed) in some backwoods small town, surrounded by nothing, where you would otherwise never, ever go. Still, I'm out to do the same thing - go rallying, and my mindset couldn't be any more the same.
Too bad the Swiss just aren't massive fans of motorsport (despite all the money). The scenery and the town are just an idealistic portrait of sport - a rallying fairy tale almost. You would never believe you'd be allowed to race on these windy mountain passes weaving through the nicest ski resorts through the Alps. That kind of stuff is reserved for tacky Sega Rally and Gran Turismo fantasy stages, but here, you get the one opportunity in the world to race on them.
"Oh my God Al, look at that drop" – my driver (also Alex, remember) said to me on more than one occasion during recce. Sorry, driver Alex, I'm just not interested..
Yes - I know the drop is there. Do I really need to look down it? No. Do I still sometimes look down during recce? Damn right I do. But do I actually care? Not really. There's a big cliff, and honestly I could care less. It's not that I think we would just never fall down it, or that, falling down it wouldn't be a terrible thing. It's just that I know my competence, I know Alex's competence, and I trust that we will be competent. That doesn't mean mistakes don't happen, but how often do two competent rallyists, at this level, fall off a cliff? It's actually fairly infrequent, and I trust probability just as much as any mental gymnastics I've done to justify my rallying.
However, realistically, given that you do enough rallying, you will fall off. I've already accepted that reality ages ago, and my only concern when I look down is "Shit – I've been rallying for 12 years now. I'm a bit overdue."
While half of the recce was done in sunny 70F/20C degree weather, the conditions majorly deteriorated to below freezing temperatures with ice and snow on the mountain tops, which coincidentally, have the largest drop-offs. The conditions would be nothing like recce, and the closest we were going to get to a gravel crew was Seb Marshall, Peugeot factory co-driver for arguably the quickest driver in the ERC Kevin Abberring, kindly relaying us information from the Peugeot engineers just to make sure we didn't do anything too silly. As we arrived at the first stage, we already noticed a big queue for a long delay. The first car on the road, Bruno Magalhães had already hit a patch of black ice in the first kilometer of the stage and crashed out, blocking the road. This was going to be interesting...
We were slightly cautious, as was everyone else in these conditions, and our times were ok. While it was just a bit painful climbing the mountains at high altitude, waiting for the thing to get up to speed, we did get into a nice rhythm in the narrow bits and downhill sections. We had a little scare as the shift linkage broke while in 4th gear as we climbed an uphill section of a stage before a short, 10 minute road section. However, Alex was able to one-up McGyver and make a fix with zip ties and a ratchet strap, as rally drivers do, while just making it to the time control with seconds to spare.
We calmed down quickly after the incident and carried on as we do. The roads were beautiful and we enjoyed ourselves, despite the times not being ideal. The notes and relationship within the car seemed to work intuitively now. The chaos on the outside of the car of driving on a one lane road with patches of black ice while taking massive jumps with a drop into oblivion on the side are barely noticable inside of the car - as demonstrated in the video and picture below.
Hoon of the day maybe?
At the end of the rally, we were 4th in the Juniors, aka not too bad, aka still our second best result after Ireland. Ok, it's not perfect, but I'm happy with that..for now. We deserved a beer at least
However, most importantly for me, when I watch my own onboards, it's generally how I want notes to sound. That's how I want it to be timed. That's the atmosphere I want in the car. That's the level of inflection I want to use. That's the amount of clarity I desire to have in my voice. Below is an onboard that I'm finally happy with. I hope you enjoy the 1 lane roads between boulders as well as wide flowing downhill highways as much as we did. Enjoy!
Ok, so there's still several calls in this stage that I would do slightly differently given another chance. Fortunately, next year is my chance to get it right, or rather, our chance to get it right. As I said in Easier Said Than Done, if that smelly jokester Chris Duplessis was given the chance to learn the events, make his notes, make his mistakes, learn from them, then have a proper attack like most of the other talented drivers, I think his international career would turn out much differently.
This past year, Alex was going through the same first year situation. However, we went into this planning to have that second chance. Through the chaos of 2014, we made sure we got all of our onboards from every rally with full audio, and we made sure we put the most effort into making our pace notes the best we could possibly make them to have a solid base for 2015. This included multiple revisions and making changes on the fly on stage, even for stages not repeated in the same rally. These notes are now where we get to start for next year, which are worlds ahead from trying to make our own notes for the first time back in March. We're very much looking forward to our second chance in 2015. See you again in Ireland!