Absolute Beginners: Henry and Owen go rallying

Our Henry has decided that 2008 will be the year when he makes his rally debut. All he needs is a licence, and a car, and a co-driver…

I’ve been lucky enough to drive on numerous circuits since I’ve been at evo and all of them have been really, really good fun. With the possible exception of the Nürburgring, they’re a bit like big playgrounds. However, and perhaps for that very reason, I’ve always had a nagging feeling that driving on a circuit is akin to going climbing on an indoor wall.

Where you really want to climb is outside, a few thousand metres up, in thin but clean air, with a view of the world and the changeable surface of the rock pulling at the skin on your hands. By the same token, what I’ve always really wanted to do is go rallying. The idea of hammering through a forest or down a narrow lane with no room for error and only one chance to get each corner right; the thought of being out all day, driving through mud and gravel, sideways and airborne; the dream of a hydraulic handbrake…

So last year, after an agonisingly brief taste of a Group N Mitsubishi (evo 111), I started making plans. I was determined that 2008 would be the year I went rallying. But there were so many questions: How do I get my licence? What am I going to rally and where? How much will it all cost? Where on earth am I going to find someone with a small enough mental capacity to contemplate being my co-driver?

The first question was fairly easily answered. You simply go to The Motor Sports Association’s website (www.msauk.org) and order a ‘Go Rallying’ pack for £53. What comes through the post in return is a 500-page tome of rules, a licence application form, a DVD about rallying and a Demon Tweeks catalogue full of lovely bits and pieces. A list of rally schools is also included, because before you’re let loose on a special stage you need to prove you know what you’re up to, and that means you need to sit an exam.

So I picked up the phone and booked a test (£180) at the Phil Price Rally School. Based in Powys, Wales, it’s a bit of a hike, but I wanted to go there because it is by reputation the best rally school in the country.

Test organised, I now had to get answers to some of my other questions. There are seemingly hundreds of championships in which you can start rallying, and most have friendly internet forums where you can ask questions. I spent hours in the evenings going through all the options. The 205 Challenge (www.205cup.com) was a strong favourite and the Silverstone Tyres BRC Challenge (www.rallybrcchallenge.co.uk) also a possibility. I fired off some inquisitive emails and waited for replies.

Next up, the courageously unimaginative person who would be sitting in the passenger seat. It’s generally recommended that a novice driver should try and find a co-driver with a bit of experience. But where’s the fun in that? If this was going to a be a vertical learning curve for me then it might as well be the same for everyone in the car.

There is a special breed of human that often has to sit uncomplainingly in the passenger seat while journalists ‘test’ cars, and there was one particular photographer I had in mind. I just needed to put it to him the right way. Or get him to sign something when he was drunk. Luckily Owen Brown agreed. With the proviso that he can be prone to bouts of carsickness…

IT’S WITH THIS in mind that I suggest Owen joins me on my day at the rally school so that he can have a ride and see how he feels. We set off for Llangunllo early, but not early enough, it transpires. Things are looking tight as we fly past Leominster, Owen map-reading and me doing my very best to get us to school on time. The irony isn’t lost on us.

Most of the people on the day are doing ‘experiences’ bought for them as presents. Once they’re busy grappling with huge smiles and mk2 Escorts in the mud outside, Phil Price himself tells us all about the test. Now, I’ve done an ARDS (Association of Racing Drivers Schools) test, and it’s a case of watch a video, know your flags, sit a pitifully easy exam and drive a car around a track without crashing. By contrast the entire morning before we put pen to paper on the BARS (British Association of Rally Schools) exam is spent thoroughly going through not only the minefield of regulations, but also hints, tips and advice garnered from years of experience.

A good deal of what Phil says applies as much to navigator as to driver and I can see that it’s slowly dawning on Owen just what he’s let himself in for. There are times when I wonder if I’m going to remember it all too, but it’s invaluable stuff so we spend the morning soaking it all up and hoping it will stay lodged in the memory.

Pencil sucked, test (thankfully) passed and lunch munched, it’s time for the driving element. It’s raining and it’s one of those winter days that seems to get dark before it’s ever really got light. We’re in a Group N Subaru and I’m about to have my first ever experience of driving to pace notes. The driving’s the easy bit. It’s connecting the information you’re hearing about negotiating junctions and tight rights to what you’re seeing through the windscreen that requires concentration on a whole new level. It’s also amazing how hard it is to overcome all natural instinct and keep the throttle nailed over an unknown blind crest purely because someone sitting next to you has said that’s what you should do…

Then it’s Owen’s turn. Will he cope with a flat-out passenger ride from Phil? Will I have to find a new co-driver after this? (If I do, I won’t be bringing them here!) The Subaru disappears into what is now darkness with utter disdain for the ruts, potholes and rain. Five minutes later they’re back. Owen looks a bit white but there’s a smile, of sorts.

THE FORM, NOW BEARING Phil’s signature, and £43 are popped in the post. A week later my National B Stage Rally licence arrives. Hopefully I won’t be keeping it for long, though – it turns out that Owen and I will need international licences for what we’ll be doing…

I’d sent an email to Suzuki on the off-chance. I never thought they’d say yes. Then the reply came through. If I wanted it, I had a drive in the new Suzuki Swift Sport Cup championship. Six rounds, running in front of the British Rally Championship, starting on April 18 in the depths of Kielder Forest. Wow. Gulp.

What it boils down to is that whilst our Swift is being built in readiness for mid-April, Owen and I have to find an old rally car and complete five National-level rallies in order to get enough signatures on our National B licences to get them upgraded, first to National A, then to International status. I also have to send my own weight in letters to potential sponsors. Life is about to get very, very busy. I’m just thinking about that hydraulic handbrake…

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