INGRAM: BACK TO THE FUTURE
Works Opel ace begins with Manta drive at Race Retro. By Jack Benyon
Once a year, Stoneleigh Park is home to some of the greatest and most historically significant cars in the history of race and rally. The event – Race Retro – attracts thousands of spectators every year and is a staple on the historic calendar. But this year, a 21-year-old made his debut in a car from before his birth year. His name? Chris Ingram.
The Manchester ace spent last year as the fastest Peugeot 208 R2 driver in the European Rally Championship Junior category for the majority of the campaign, but struggled to match the pace of the massive works Opel team on asphalt. Now he has signed for Opel, joining the team he looked on with starry eyes in 2015.
When you become a works driver, it’s usual practice that the first car you drive is the machine you’ll be using that year, in Chris’ case an Opel Adam R2. But not on this occasion. Instead, two rally winning ex-russell Brookes Opel Mantas from 1985 and 1987 were on hand for the junior to drive. And two-time British champion Brookes was there to provide some tips. It could well be one of the most enjoyable rally debuts in history.
“I’ve only sat in the Adam in the garage,” explains Ingram (after Race Retro Ingram tested the car in March). “This [the Manta] is the first non-french rally car I’ve ever driven. It’s a pretty awesome opportunity to come and see what it was like for Opel in its most successful era. They have a mega heritage, winning the UK championship with Jimmy Mcrae in 1981/82 and they won the world championship with Walter Rohrl before they won with the Manta a few years later. They’ve been quite quiet for a few years but they’re back now.”
Ingram will make his debut in the Adam on the Circuit of Ireland this weekend, a rally Brookes won on multiple occasions. The car we’re currently sat in won the Ulster in 1985. Brookes proved he can still make it dance for the crowd as he gave Ingram an installation lap.
“On dry Tarmac it was capable of challenging the Audi quattros that dominated the era,” explains Brookes. “In the forests it didn’t have the traction, but it was a great car and it was probably the last and ultimate expression of rearwheel-drive rallying. It was certainly one of my favourites. It was one of the last cars I ever drove without power steering, and on some of the longer events it was a workout. You certainly knew about it after you’d done a rally in this.”
Ingram and Brookes got to taste both machines, the gravel car being the only Manta to win a forest rally according to Brookes, taking the Fram Filters Welsh International in 1987.
“The car spent many years in Switzerland and when the current owner bought it, it still had the tyres on that we used for the Welsh International,” says Brookes. “And a pack of [co-driver] Mike Broad’s fags in the door pocket!”
Speaking to Ingram, you can’t help but feel that the youngster has embraced the significance of the situation he’s in. After all, following the likes of Brookes, Jimmy Mcrae, David Llewellin and Malcolm Wilson may be too much for some. But he’s approaching it with a steely vigour you expect from a potential champion, and someone you would expect had more experience.
“It’s humbling, this car is 10-15 years older than me,” he says. “You come here to a show like Race Retro and you see all the people in love with these classic cars, and then you get the opportunity to see and drive them, it’s easy to see why [the fans love them]. It’s mind-blowing how rallying was back then.”
It’s not Ingram’s first taste of 1980s rallying. He drove a Peugeot 205 T16 at the same event the year before, but is adamant about the Manta’s pace.
“I couldn’t get the power down in the T16 as the track is so tight,” he says. “This is more accessible and just as quick around this track. I can throw this around and get the back end out.”
The Manta 400 is a world apart from Ingram’s new saddle, but even in the 90- degree angles of the Stoneleigh course, Ingram had the car on the limit almost instantly. Chris’ father John – a rally winner in his own right – remarks: “That’s what has always impressed me about Chris. He’s got that ability to get in anything and push it straight away.”
If you’ve watched any of Ingram’s onboard, you’ll know exactly what his dad is talking about.
Despite never having driven a rearwheel-drive rally car before, he got the rear dancing under his control. The circuit is mostly 90-degree corners with short bursts up some short straights. But the car is still fishtailing at the end of the straights. Ingram confirms it isn’t short of power.
Such was the enjoyment from the passenger seat that this co-driver had his foot on the button of the horn, much to the delight of the spectators.
Out of the car and back to the legend, Ingram hasn’t escaped Brookes’ attention. He’s expecting big things from the Opel’s new leading light.
“He’s a good driver isn’t he?” says the veteran. “He’s coming along very well and that’s good to see. I hope he gets the breaks while he’s still young.”
It doesn’t get much better than praise of that kind from a double British champion. ■