Rhys Yates has come a long way in just two sea­sons. Is he ready to take on the big guns? By Jack Benyon

Motor Sport News - - Historics - Pho­tos: Jakob Ebrey, Writ­tle Pho­to­graphic

Talk about a me­te­oric rise. In 2013, Rhys Yates came home to find a Suzuki Swift rally car – his first taste of the sport – on his drive­way. In 2016 he beat El­fyn Evans to a Bri­tish Rally Cham­pi­onship stage win on the Rally Isle of Man, one of the tough­est as­phalt events on the map.

Yates’ story will be unfamiliar to most. The Ch­ester­field driver, 23, was on a path to two wheels. His fa­ther, John, had var­ied suc­cess on road ’bikes in the early 1990s and as soon as Rhys and brother James ‘JJ’ were old enough, they were off com­pet­ing in motocross.

“We started rac­ing when we were 13, and went through the moto youth ranks and had some de­cent re­sults,” says Yates. “My mum and dad hated it as I’d be off work and school with in­juries. I’d push like mad and crash con­stantly. My dad would smoke 20 ci­garettes and be stressed out.

“Just as I was about to grad­u­ate into the pros I had glan­du­lar fever and my ton­sils re­moved. It’s weird how things work out. At that point my dad bought us a Group N Suzuki Swift rally car for Christ­mas in 2013 to prise us away from ’bikes. I couldn’t ride at that point, but I could drive.”

It was a slip­pery slope to ral­ly­ing. At the point of hav­ing the Swift, Yates was still cer­tain he’d re­turn to ’bikes and the Swift was a happy dis­trac­tion to keep him sharp. But on a sod­den day at Sweet Lamb – where lots of ral­ly­ing mir­a­cles oc­cur – his mind was changed, four wheels in favour of two.

“We went test­ing to Sweet Lamb, at this point I was think­ing ‘this will do while I progress to­wards get­ting on the ’bike’,” ad­mits Yates. “Tom Cave was there in a [Ford] Fi­esta R2, at that point I didn’t know what an R2 was, never mind who Tom was. I thought ‘that’s proper ral­ly­ing’ with the se­quen­tial ’box and all. We’ve got to have one of them.”

By 2015 the fam­ily had a Fi­esta R2 pur­chased, and turned up at the BTRDA Mal­colm Wil­son Rally ser­vic­ing the car them­selves un­der the Bret­tex ban­ner, with lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence of how to run a rally car.

A year of dom­i­na­tion fol­lowed. The MSA English Cham­pi­onship, BTRDA B10 class and BTRDA First Ju­nior Driver ti­tles fol­lowed as he blazed a trail in his first full sea­son of ral­ly­ing. It was an epic tro­phy haul at the BTRDA awards.

With a sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment from the fam­ily-run out­fit, an R5 was next on the list. The Cam­brian would be the first event, and mov­ing for­ward, an as­sault on the re­turn­ing Bri­tish Rally Cham­pi­onship for 2016.

The driver that started the Cam­brian and the driver that sat in front of MN at the Au­tosport In­ter­na­tional Show ear­lier this month were chalk and cheese. Yates has spent the last year do­ing the learn­ing most young driv­ers get across four or five years in some sort of ju­nior cham­pi­onship. Yates had one full sea­son of com­pe­ti­tion in a front-wheel-drive car and then, bang, com­pet­ing against WRC driver El­fyn Evans in the same ma­chin­ery. A visit to the sea­son-clos­ing Wales Rally GB was al­most cer­tainly the big­gest learn­ing curve for Yates.

“I think we’ve pro­gressed a lot,” he says. “We weren’t even study­ing stage times at the start of the year, just mon­i­tor­ing our po­si­tions. On GB, I was watch­ing splits! Try­ing to see where we were los­ing the time to the likes of [Es­apekka] Lappi. Then we checked the pacenotes against those sec­tions to see the dif­fer­ence.

“To be re­al­is­tic, he [Lappi] is a works R5 driver and in a dif­fer­ent league, but if you want to get into that league you need to be work­ing out what these guys are do­ing dif­fer­ently and work to­wards that. It’s been a mas­sive learn­ing curve.”

The BRC was a mixed bag for Yates. The Mid Wales Stages was the first event at BRC level and a punc­ture halted pro­ceed­ings. The fol­low­ing Cir­cuit of Ire­land was his first proper closed-road as­phalt event, and the Pirelli had a cork­ing en­try to com­pete against. The real defin­ing mo­ment of the cham­pi­onship was the Scot­tish, where Yates had his first ‘proper’ crash. He rolled his Fi­esta.

“Be­cause it was a brand new car and we’d done two days test­ing be­fore, it was dif­fi­cult,” he says. “It was the lead up and the prepa­ra­tion be­ing so good that made the crash feel worse. There wasn’t enough in­for­ma­tion in my notes and I car­ried too much speed in.

“When you crash on a ’bike you’re look­ing at £120 for some new han­dle­bars and away you go. Ob­vi­ously with the R5 it’s a lot more sig­nif­i­cant, plus you get the dis­ap­point­ment as you know you’re out of the event. All the cost and ef­fort that’s gone in to get you to that point is wasted. You’re just sat star­ing at the car and you can’t es­cape what’s hap­pened.”

Af­ter that, a bounce back on the Nicky Grist proved fruit­ful, while the Ul­ster meant more learn­ing on as­phalt. But the Manx, one of the most feared events on the cal­en­dar, was the high­light for Yates. Run­ning fourth for the ma­jor­ity of the event, he set a fastest BRC time and was third on the open­ing stage to Craig Breen and El­fyn Evans. A slight er­ror ruled him out of the event on the fi­nal day, but the signs are there that he’s learned from his shunts and is ready to step up in 2017.

Per­haps the most dif­fi­cult change of all was of co-driver. Tom Wood­burn left the team at the end of the year, af­ter the two built up a strong bond in 2016. But the move was nec­es­sary ac­cord­ing to Yates. Carl Wil­liamson – who co-drove for Jari-matti Lat­vala in his stint in the BRC – takes over for this year.

“We’ve got a dif­fer­ent co-driver now and that will make a big dif­fer­ence,” adds Yates. “Woody is a good lad and a re­ally good co-driver, he just lacks ex­pe­ri­ence. If I had ex­pe­ri­ence and he didn’t, he’d still be in there with us. But I need more ex­pe­ri­ence to make that next step. Carl has a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence in com­par­i­son.”

Yates has also been work­ing with De­nis Gi­raudet, who won five WRC events co-driv­ing with Di­dier Au­riol and Juha Kankkunen, as well as Miche­lin who will give Yates more tech­ni­cal sup­port in 2017.

“De­nis is a lovely guy and re­ally helped,” says Yates. “If he says it’s flat, it’s flat, and I trust him on that. He likes help­ing young lads out. He said ‘I’m sur­prised given how much you’ve done, where your pace is at’. To hear that from some­one like him is a big con­fi­dence boost.”

The next big step comes from com­mit­ment, one of the hard­est things to teach a rally driver. Yates isn’t afraid, but driv­ing for a fam­ily team has draw­backs.

“It’s not like we’ve got mas­sive spon­sors who can bail us out,” he says. “There comes a time where you have to push in the car, and I do, but it’s al­ways in the back of your mind that you don’t want to throw an R5 off into some trees. It af­fects my fam­ily if we have an ac­ci­dent, the pres­sure is on all of us.”

Af­ter all, it’s a fam­ily run ef­fort. Friends and fam­ily help Yates work on the car in his shed. Lo­cal busi­nesses keep the team tick­ing over and while the fam­ily money buys an R5, it doesn’t go much fur­ther. The rest is a strug­gle. Work­ing as an elec­tri­cian adds to the cof­fers and study­ing for a busi­ness de­gree at univer­sity adds to Yates’ time con­straints.

With more ex­pe­ri­ence, the com­mit­ment in the car will come. With a few changes in the Bret­tex team over win­ter, the Ch­ester­field boys are a real threat for top fives in the BRC in 2017. ■

Manx pace showed a step up

Wood­burn (r) moves on for ’17

BTRDA in 2015 was suc­cess­ful

As­phalt pace pro­gressed in ’16

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