MN GOES RALLYING
OUR MAN SURVIVES WOODPECKER TEST
“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? ■