|This is what I signed up for. This is utterly amazing. Never have I ever driven like this before|
As the days tick down to the Jim Clark Rally, I’m even quieter than normal.
I’m never what you’d call a loud chap anyway – I tend to mumble a lot – but last month’s Pirelli Rally (evo 119) had been about as tough as rallying gets in the UK and the night stages in particular had rocked me back on my heels. I wish I could summon up that innate confidence that some people – particularly a lot of racing drivers – seem to exude, but I can’t. I do get scared.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the challenge of pushing myself to the point of mild, discomfiting terror – standing on the edge of a really steep bit of off-piste and wondering if you can ski down it; taking your hand off the secure hold and reaching with fingertips for the tiny flake of rock high above you; driving a GT2. Conquering the doubts and feeling the fear morph into exhilaration is incredibly rewarding. But the Pirelli had made me wonder whether I’d pushed it too far this time. Was I actually going to enjoy rallying?
The Jim Clark is mainland Britain’s only rally run on closed public roads. It takes place in the Scottish Borders around Duns, where Clark lived from the age of six onwards. I remember reading his autobiography when I was young and grew up with him as a hero, so I’m looking forward to driving on roads he would have known so well. And the surface, as everyone keeps telling me, should be much more familiar. But that too brings its own pressures.
So the days tick slowly, quietly by, until I find myself sitting in evo’s long-term Mégane a couple of hundred yards down a small, peacefully verdant road on a perfectly bright, sunny Spring day.
‘Welcome to Leitholm,’ says Chris, my co-driver.
The next 12.8 distinctly challenging miles that we’re about to recce will be stages 15 and 17 on the Sunday. Assuming we make it through the 94.1 stage miles on Saturday. As we pass through at the statutory 30mph I’m trying to imagine what it’ll be like coming down these tiny lanes at two or three times the speed. There’s one particularly big jump (look it up on YouTube) where the road seems to just rise up above the surrounding fields and tower over you, casting a shadow. It’s a big launch- ramp and when you reach the top and blue sky is completely filling the windscreen the tarmac just drops from underneath you…
Next morning I wake with a jolt. It’s 6am. I pull on my kit and my big team jacket. Before long I’m tightening the wide belts in my Suzuki. Sitting at the start of SS1, I watch other Swifts disappear into the stage at minute intervals. The car in front pings off the line. One minute to go. Empty your mind. Concentrate…
CHANGE UP A GEAR 100 metres before the junction. Keep the throttle pinned as you move onto the wrong side of the white lines. Brake hard at the ‘give way’ sign and feel the tail go light as you sweep out onto the main road without even looking. Old ladies watch from peaceful, geranium-filled gardens; men with beer in hands shake their heads at your rubbish line. Ten miles into the stage, inside the roll cage, inside the big bucket seat, inside the race suit, inside the fireproof underwear, you just start to feel the first drips of hot sweat trickle down your face as you hold every gearchange until over 7000rpm and concentrate desperately hard on wringing the last drops of performance from the little 1.6-litre engine.
Now the trees are closing back in. Ahead the road disappears abruptly round a dark green bank. Usually the possibility of a couple of horses trotting just out of sight would slow you. Not today. You know you’re going to keep your right foot right down and take it flat. Why? Because over the noise of the screaming engine a voice inside your helmet has just told you that this blind bend is a five-left followed by a small jump and a six-right. Tense your body. Don’t lift. The road opens up like a dream in front of you, and the car sweeps back across the cat’s eyes, ready for the right-hander. All four wheels hang in the air fleetingly as you clear the intervening crest. In your head you’re already two turns up the road, matching what your eyes can or can’t see with the mental map being painted by the pace notes.
Wide into a downhill four-left. Should have carried more speed. Through a three-right, catching the verge on the inside. That was good. Momentarily the car goes sideways as we come over a rise, deep in fourth gear. Snatching opposite lock, I can feel the rear tyre skimming the slippery grass. Dive left past the red front door of a farmhouse. A smattering of gravel scattered across the road causes me to tense again. Out onto the moorland and we hit the limiter in top for a couple of seconds. Feel the near-slick tyres dig deep as we brake for a chicane constructed from big round hay bales. Hear a loud, but shorter than usual, drrm as we cross a cattle grid. The last mile is largely uphill but fast all the way. Yellow board, red board, back off the throttle, relax. Let the revs slowly drop down, let the shoulders gently sag. The clock has stopped.
I’m deliriously, unbelievably happy. This is what I signed up for. This is utterly amazing. Never have I driven like that before.
‘We’re doing the full two-day recce next time!’ I blurt excitedly over the intercom.
‘You’ve changed!’ says Chris, smiling.
There are 16 more stages of this utter madness, and I’m looking forward to every single one.
A COUPLE OF STAGES are shorter and more technical, with a seemingly endless number of short straights linked by tight, blind corners. The road is narrow and hedges shouldering up to the edge of the road disguise what’s ahead. It makes the pace notes even more critical and I realise I’ve been underestimating them. I need to work out exactly how fast I should be tipping into a ‘one’ or a ‘square plus’. Is it in second gear or third?
If you’re not absolutely confident then at best you’ll hesitate before the corner and leach away a couple of tenths. Most of the time you’ll brake much too early, go through a whole gear lower than you should and give up whole seconds to the front runners in the process. There are a couple of stages that we haven’t had time to recce at all, and although before the rally I had naively thought it wouldn’t matter that much, the difference it makes is heartbreaking to my rejuvenated competitive spirit. When you haven’t seen a stage beforehand you just can’t bring yourself to take crests without a little confidence-lift as you peer over the top to check the road doesn’t nudge critically left or right on the other side.
Back in service for twenty minutes, we look at the time-sheets and discover we’re fifth out of the seven Suzukis. I’m delighted – the four people ahead of us include the Danish Suzuki Swift Champion, an Irish tarmac-rally specialist, and no less than a class winner of the Jim Clark for the previous two years. Even better, we’re frequently less than a second a mile slower than the crews in third and fourth and we’ve even beaten one or the other of them on a couple of stages.
Langton is a short, two-mile spectator stage. As we leap the railway bridge second time through (I wuss out the first time) there’s enough time to think ‘I hope someone’s got a camera’ before we land slightly nose-heavy and I try to scrub off enough speed for the square left. The first time that I heard the Suzuki smack into the deck after a jump, I thought it couldn’t possibly survive, but the Proflex suspension just soaks it all up and the sump guard gains only a few more scrapes each time. Even Mark Gamble’s car survives, and judging by the state of his bonnet and front bumper at the end of the rally, he didn’t brake for anything on his way to the top of the podium. I’m soon yumping with abandon too, though – all part of the learning curve.
Langton also has a huge water splash. It’s popular with the spectators, but soaking slicks make negotiating the uphill hairpins immediately afterwards tricky and you can feel the stares of the crowd judging your relative skill and bravery. It’s not like racing where you can hide in the middle of a pack – you’re the only car in the spotlight.
We maintain fifth through the afternoon and eventually the car’s safely tucked up in parc ferme. Pizza, bed, alarm set for 6am.
AS SUNDAY DAWNS with a touch of mist, I know I’ve got to drive with my head if I want to cross the finishers’ ramp in Kelso town centre. Today is not the time for gung-ho antics. Snag a wheel on the verge, mishear ‘four’ as ‘five’, overlook the damp patch in the shade and we’ll be ejected from the grippy security of the road into a wood. And as I won’t learn or improve anything sitting at the side of a stage, I know I have to temper speed with caution to stay in the rally.
That’s the plan – but I have my biggest slide yet on stage 16, the penultimate stage. Then, sat at the beginning of Leitholm for the final stage, the worry of two days earlier has been replaced by sheer excitement. All I want to do is drive flat out, because I can. The green light shines, and for the last time I ignore all signs and lines and drive as fast as I possibly can down public roads. And no, I don’t lift over the big jump.
I’m lucky enough to have some supercars in my top ten drives, but I would swap all of them for that one stage of the Jim Clark Rally in my 123bhp Swift. That’s how much fun it was. I think I might even have allowed myself a whoop. Normal volume will be restored before the Isle of Man…