WHY YOUNGSTER RHYS YATES WILL BE ONE TO WATCH IN 2017
Rhys Yates has come a long way in just two seasons. Is he ready to take on the big guns? By Jack Benyon
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