MN GOES RAL­LY­ING

OUR MAN SUR­VIVES WOOD­PECKER TEST

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“You’ll get a mil­lion peo­ple of­fer­ing you ad­vice, but here’s the most im­por­tant. Don’t make any mis­takes. That’s where all the prob­lems start.”

That’s John Goff of rallyme, prob­a­bly re­spon­si­ble for bring­ing more peo­ple into ral­ly­ing than any sin­gle per­son in the sport over the past 20 years. He’s let­ting me take a look around the weapon I’m about to make my ral­ly­ing de­but in.

The Ford Fi­esta ST is in pur­ple-blue Es­cort Cos­worth colours, which adorned my bed­room wall as a child. Only this car has my name on and is fet­tled for me. My car. For this event any­way.

We’re in Lud­low, Shrop­shire, for the Wood­pecker Rally. Hav­ing cov­ered the BTRDA for Mo­tor­sport News for over a year, it’s my favourite. Or at least on a short­list of three. It con­tains Rad­nor, the fa­mous Wales Rally GB stage Richard Burns dom­i­nated in the fog all those years ago. The mys­tique sur­round­ing that stage was enough to have me leap at the chance to com­pete.

Thanks to the ST Tro­phy, I am. Goff has built the two-litre Fi­esta ST as a club­man ver­sion of M-sport’s mid-2000s ST which has been so pop­u­lar in ral­ly­ing since its in­cep­tion. The ST Tro­phy – the brain­child of John Pritchard and Ian Ar­den – boasts the M-sport cars at the front, but they cost around £10-15,000. Goff has built the club­man-spec ver­sion for £6000. It’s a great way into the sport ( see side­bar, right).

The aim? To find out what it’s all about. Hav­ing fol­lowed these drivers around for a year, it’s time to see if the book of rally driver ex­cuses is ac­tu­ally jus­ti­fied...

So I’ve had a look round the car, and it’s time to set­tle down with my co-driver and get ac­quainted. Paul ‘Rocky’ Hud­son is the man stupid enough to agree to sit with me, but his role as a qual­i­fied BARS in­struc­tor at Chris Birk­beck’s rally school means he’s the per­fect co-driver for en­try-level ral­ly­ing. Once Carl Williamson – the UK sup­plier of Simp­son equip­ment and a proven co-driver him­self – has been over with a Simp­son frontal head re­straint and a full face hel­met (which prompts a few jokes liken­ing me to Ari Vatanen who fa­mously wore a full-face hel­met) we’re tick­ing off all the things you do pre-rally.

There’s so much to do. More than I ex­pected hav­ing not com­peted be­fore. Aside from the ob­vi­ous sort­ing out the car, tyres and ser­vice crew etc, there’s the de­ci­sion of which pacenotes to use, gath­er­ing all the equip­ment, mak­ing sure you have mem­ber­ship and li­cense cards. All stuff eas­ily over­looked when you’re ner­vous.

Thanks to Pat­ter­son Pacenotes, I went with num­ber first, six fastest. That means the num­ber is the first thing the co-driver de­liv­ers, and the fastest corner be­ing a six, hence a tight corner is one. In lay­man’s terms, it’s the sys­tem Colin Mcrae Rally uses on the Plays­ta­tion, and I’d logged hours of ‘sim­u­la­tor work’ on that to un­der­stand the sys­tem.

So once ev­ery­thing is checked over it’s time to get ready. It’s lucky the ca­ma­raderie in the ST Tro­phy is such that I’m put at ease. “Don’t make me look silly,” says Cameron Davies. Af­ter the event he’s de­clared the in­au­gu­ral ST Tro­phy cham­pion. In per­for­mance seed­ing he’s reg­u­larly in the top 40. I’m start­ing at Car 134. I tell him he has noth­ing to worry about. Time to leave and get out on the stages. One of the strangest parts is the road sec­tion. In a com­pe­ti­tion ve­hi­cle it seems only nat­u­ral to drive it on a cir­cuit and alien to take it on a nor­mal road!

Rocky and I have a lit­tle chat on the road sec­tion up to the first stage. The only way to de­scribe the weather is like the movie The Day Af­ter To­mor­row. It isn’t far off mon­soon weather. Not only am I head­ing into this event with only a cou­ple of ex­pe­ri­ences of gravel ral­ly­ing in en­closed rally schools, I’m do­ing it in what one driver re­ferred to as “the worst weather I’ve com­peted in for 18 years”. A bril­liant way to start.

It’s up un­til this point I’ve been com­pletely calm. I’m not the type of per­son to flap around un­der pres­sure. But queu­ing for the start­line as we put our safety equip­ment on, all the nerves ar­rive at once. Emo­tion and pride at fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of some of the sport’s best. Know­ing I’m go­ing to dis­ap­point them mas­sively, and the fact that if I crash, it’s not just me I could hurt. Rocky is in the fir­ing line too. All things you don’t nec­es­sar­ily think about as a jour­nal­ist.

“Thirty,” says Rocky, count­ing me down. The weather is aw­ful, I can see the tram­line in the stages where cars have started (and strug­gled) be­fore. “Ten”. Clutch, revs, steer­ing to get off the line. Lights, rain, mud, stones. “Go!” The feel­ing is sen­sa­tional. All of the pre-event nerves dis­ap­pear in the drop of the ham­mer and the grin on my face is in­stan­ta­neous. Rocky said it would hap­pen. All the nerves would fade and they did.

The stage is a tricky one, with as­phalt sec­tions as slippy as the gravel, and a host of up­hill hair­pins. I fo­cus on keep­ing it tidy and bring­ing the car home. That’s all I’m af­ter.

We get to the end of the first stage and it’s straight into the sec­ond. The weather is caus­ing a lot of trou­ble. The grip is so change­able that learn­ing any­thing is dif­fi­cult. It feels like one minute I’m on the M6 toll road, and the next I’m on a spe­cially de­signed skid pan. Lots of grip. No grip.

The sec­ond stage, I’m a bit hap­pier. In terms of com­pe­ti­tion it’s my best stage of the rally. The first stage was tech­ni­cal with tricky up­hill hair­pins. The sec­ond test is more fast and flow­ing. I’m set­tling down and start­ing to en­joy it. By the end of the stage, I’m used to Rocky’s voice and able to de­ci­pher his notes, push­ing a touch harder each corner.

Then, stage three is a night­mare. Now I know what drivers mean when they say they can’t find a rhythm or have no feel­ing. I have no con­fi­dence to push the car to the edge as it feels like it will fall off a cliff if I do. There’s noth­ing wrong with the car. It’s my men­tal set- up and re­ac­tions, which on my first event aren’t up to scratch. I hit a heavy rut which winds me a touch, and then I’m caught by a rapid Hill­man Avenger just at the end of the test. Time to head back to ser­vice and hit the re­set but­ton.

A lot of that re­set was thanks to for­mer com­peti­tor James Wozen­croft, who works with the ST Tro­phy in his role at the MSA Academy. He’s talk­ing to me about brak­ing points, turn-in and things like that. I’m not skilled enough to feed­back ex­actly what I’m feel­ing in the car. An­other thing that’s sec­ond na­ture to the he­roes out on the stages, but dif­fi­cult to com­mu­ni­cate for a be­gin­ner. But Wozen­croft at least eases my frus­tra­tions at the SS3 per­for­mance.

Any­way, back to the in­ter­est­ing flatout stages bit; only it doesn’t quite go to plan. At the start-line of Rad­nor I’m about to re­alise a dream. To drive one of my favourite stages. Or so I thought.

About a third of the way in we hit a rut and the ECU forces the car into limp mode. There’s power in first gear but noth­ing at all fur­ther up. Not ideal when try­ing to look af­ter the drive­shafts. Ac­cel­er­at­ing up­hill with lock on the steer­ing wheel in first can de­stroy the Fi­esta drive­shafts.

We limp through. It’s an ex­pe­ri­ence, and 50 per cent of me is happy for it. I had no idea what to do, I was the equiv­a­lent of a flap­ping bird in the car, not know­ing what to do to fix the is­sue. “Noth­ing you can do, let’s get her to the end,” re­it­er­ates Rocky for the third time. Ten­sions are high (with me any­way) as I want it fixed. I want to at­tack Rad­nor. But it wasn’t to be.

As we roll into the con­trol at the end of the stage, we switch the car off and on again. It’s fine, prob­lem solved. It could hap­pen to any car, rally or not. It’s just sim­ple cruel co­in­ci­dence it hap­pens to us in one of Bri­tain’s best stages.

Not to worry. We get through stage five af­ter ser­vice and there’s one to go. Haye Park. “It’s a lovely stage, isn’t it?”

Mike Broad asks me af­ter the rally. Boy, is it ever. It had dried by the time we ar­rived at car 134, and it was to a driver what the Cru­cible ta­bles are to a snooker player. Rocky and I push on and the eu­pho­ria at the fin­ish is im­mense; what a stage. In that short test, I re­alised that the highs of the sport can erase the lows. The tyres, sup­plied by DMACK are work­ing per­fectly in tan­dem with the car, it’s a great feel­ing.

And just like that, the event is over. What an emo­tional roller­coaster. I can see why many peo­ple told me I’d be the bank man­ager’s best friend af­ter get­ting my first taste of ral­ly­ing.

In many ways, ral­ly­ing is one of the cru­ellest and most chal­leng­ing parts of mo­tor­sport. But when you can push and are sat­is­fied with your per­for­mance, the feel­ing is like no other, and most im­por­tantly, we got the car back with­out a scratch.

I’m hooked. Any­one have an R5 car I can bor­row? ■

Bring­ing the car home in one piece was the aim Our man en­joyed rally ex­pe­ri­ence

The in­au­gu­ral ST Tro­phy sea­son has proved a suc­cess with crews Con­di­tions were ap­palling but Paul Hud­son reined Benyon in

Benyon and Hud­son fin­ished the gru­elling event

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