Kielder Forest rally: Henry takes on killer Kielder

Henry’s got his international rally licence, now it’s time for him to use it – with a new car and a new co-driver, in the dark of Kielder Forest…

Killer Kielder. It has a ring to it. Killer Kielder. It’s the sort of alliteration that makes you repeatedly rinse the name around your mind like mental mouthwash until the taste of it overwhelms everything else. Not helpful. I screw up my eyes and shudder inside my helmet before opening them wide, taking a very deep breath and scanning the bare, bright-white interior of the Suzuki in an attempt to re-establish a grip on reality.

This is not good. In the middle of a forest I am having very real and very serious doubts about whether I shouldn’t give up my whole dream of rallying. After only two stages I’m honestly thinking of just getting out of the car, shutting the door and walking away from everything I’ve worked for over the last five months. Because I’m terrified.

It’s dark. The kind of nightmarish dark that hides things. Even worse, it’s a darkness punctuated with spots of faint light that illuminate a truth of ruts, mud, ditches, drops, trees and almost ghostly abandoned cars that have made full use of their roll cages. The plan had been just to get through the four night stages and then think about going quickly in daylight tomorrow. That’s still the plan, but at the moment I seem to be living in some sort of claustrophobic netherworld where no matter how fast or slow I go, every corner feels like a physical fight for survival.

With only two stages down, I have stared a sickening crash in the face at least three times. Just think about the last time you thought you were going to crash; that horrible freefalling sensation, the panic, the jolt of adrenalin, the frantic, instinctive clutches at avoidance. If you got away with it you were probably left with a cold sweat and an eerie silence in the car. You probably drove very sedately for the next few miles, short shifting and looking extra carefully at any junction you came to. I can’t do that. Instantly there’s another corner, more noise, more fear, more five-left-long-double-caution-tightens-into-square-left, more darkness, more desperate swipes of instinct to keep the silver Suzuki out of the pitch black forest that seems to be sucking us towards it with magnets.

What these night stages at the start of the Pirelli Rally are doing is throwing into sharp relief my complete lack of experience. At the beginning of this year I didn’t have a rally licence of any description. Now, after just five rallies in my 1.6 205 GTI (two gravel and three single-stage tarmac), I’m running in the Suzuki Swift Sport Cup at the first round of the British Rally Championship. An international rally as my sixth ever outing. I must be daft.

There are other new factors as well. The car, for example. ‘My’ Suzuki Swift Sport is very closely related to the standard road car, so the figures are still 123bhp at 6800rpm and 109lb ft at 4800rpm, all going through the front wheels. The five-speed gearbox has been left in, but there are shortened ratios for first and second. All of the interior, apart from the dashboard, has been ruthlessly dispatched and replaced with a latticework of roll cage. The seat belts are now six-point instead of three and the seats are more bucketed than anything I’ve ever come across. It’s a very cool-looking little car and I already feel proud of it. It even sounds great, with an angry, high-pitched exhaust note that’s amplified tenfold when you’re inside the car.

I haven’t done what you’d call a lot of testing in the Suzuki, though. Unfortunately I was over in America driving the diesel Audi R8 for last month’s issue when the others were testing, so I’ve had the distance between the service area at Carlisle Airport and the first stage to get comfy – just about long enough to get my mind and hands settled into left-hand-drive mode again…

And if I’m scared, then quite what Chris Brooks must be thinking I have no idea. To be honest, I’m wondering if the only reason he’s still sat in the seat next to mine is because the seat belts are jammed or something. Chris is my new and improved co-driver, taking the place of the noble but frequently travelsick Owen Brown. I met Chris for the first time yesterday evening and so far he has made the last 12 hours a lot easier by taking care of all the paperwork and telling me where I need to be and when. He’s also introduced me to the world of proper pace notes. Up to now it’s always been ‘in about half a mile you need to go leftish at a junction’. But now it’s the stuff that you hear Phil Mills, Daniel Elena et al chanting out on the WRC coverage.

For most of today Chris and I have been out on a recce, where all the teams drive slowly over the stages that’ll be tackled in the rally. During the recce you can either make your own pace notes or check and adjust ready-made notes that you can buy beforehand. Given my lack of experience we’ve plumped for the bought-in option and I’ve chosen a system of notes known as ‘six fastest, number first’. Basically this means that I’ll hear a number from one to six, which will indicate how fast the corner is, one being slowest and six fastest. There are also two types of corner slower than ‘one’: square (a 90 degree bend) and hairpin. After the speed of the corner comes a direction, traditionally left or right. After the direction there might also be a ‘plus’ or ‘minus’ (meaning slightly faster or slower) and an ‘opens’ or ‘tightens’. After that there might be an instruction such as ‘don’t cut’ or ‘rock on inside’. Then after that is another number, which will be the distance in metres to the next corner or instruction. All of which Chris deciphers from some hieroglyphics on a page.

The recce was intimidating enough in itself. We used evo’s long-term Nissan Navara and there were times when even its suspension barely seemed adequate and its width seemed too much. And driving slowly past big drops, ditches, piles of logs and other things that will all be much bigger in your imagination come nightfall is not the greatest nerve-steadier.

The most reassuring thing is Chris’s voice; he has the perfect co-driver’s voice. Through the intercom his soft, slightly Welsh lilt makes even a six-right-double-caution sound like tackling an empty mini-roundabout.

‘FIFTEEN SECONDS’ says Chris calmly as we sit at the start of Stage 3. ‘Try and stay in the ruts more.’

‘Will do,’ I croak back through a dry mouth, peering out at the traffic lights counting down to green. I flick on the huge spotlamps mounted to the bonnet and that same sinking feeling of disbelief I had on Stage 1 sweeps over me again as they cast a single tiny beam onto the stones about five feet in front of the car. Useless.

Five, four, three, two, one, go! The front wheels scrabble like a cat clawing at a cliff edge and the Swift immediately heads for a verge. I stay on the throttle, the diff hooks some grip and sends us sideways. I back off the throttle and the car’s pitched sideways with the camber. A spectator’s camera flash goes off mid-corner and I’m momentarily blinded, groping my way into a three-left-long…

The deep ruts in the muddy gravel have been hewn by the 100 or so cars running ahead of us. Staying in them feels brutal – great chunks of stone crash into the car’s undercarriage – yet straying out of them onto the loose stuff puts us into an instant slide that I don’t see coming, don’t know where it’s going and which takes several heart-pounding seconds of opposite lock to recover from.

And that’s on the straight bits. In the corners you have to hook into the camber so that you get a slingshot round and out like riding a sort of wall of death. That’s fine in principle, but mighty hard to convince yourself to do when you can see that you’ll be tilting the car precariously over one of Kielder’s infamous ditches. Too slow and you’ll topple in, too fast and…

Another car catches us mid-stage. At first all I can see are a distant pair of lights in the mirrors, like eyes stalking us through the forest. Then as it gradually hunts us down I know it’s not the friendly little Swift that was meant to be behind. Suddenly a bellowing V8 Land Rover Discovery, incongruous yet awesome, tears round the corner behind us and I scurry to the side of the track to let him past. Darkness closes back in.

By the time we make it back to the bright lights of service at around 11pm I feel dazed. I’m the slowest of the six Suzukis, but not by an embarrassing margin, and the main thing is that the car is back here and not out in the forest on its roof. As generators hum and the service crew dives under the car, I find a quiet corner to sit and reflect. It feels weird trying to make sense of what I’ve been doing for the last couple of hours. The closest thing I can compare it to is being caught in the middle of an emergency. You live off adrenalin for an extended period of time, dealing with an unnatural and extreme situation with a mixture of panic and purpose. When it’s all over you’re left stunned, looking at the normal world going about its business with a weird sense of calm clarity. I sleep like a baby.

THE NEXT MORNING dawns sunny, fresh and beautifully crisp. All the drivers are saying that the stages last night were the roughest and most treacherous they’ve ever known, which is a curious kind of relief to hear.

The first stages we’re going to this morning are fast and the landscape they twist through is amazing: timeless and almost fantastical, like Tolkien’s characters might be hiding in it. Able to see what I’m dealing with, I’m much more confident with the car. More importantly, I enjoy it, and I actually crack a smile that’s not born from nerves. I think Chris feels happier too.

The second stage is cancelled and during the wait we discover our car has a rear damper reservoir hanging off. Using all my Blue Peter know-how I cable-tie it onto something and wish it luck. After 45 minutes we’re off again.

I’m getting more precise now, carrying speed, trusting the pace notes over the blind crests, generally feeling a bit more like I deserve to have an international rally licence. And then it happens. Exiting a five-right, a small rock garden appears to have taken the place of the track. I slow and wince as we clatter over it. Then THUMP! The steering goes heavy in my hands, two warning lights come on and there’s no drive. I frantically pump the accelerator but we coast to a halt. Chris and I spend frenzied minutes on mobile phones, opening fuse boxes, hitting things and swearing, but to no avail. A Citroën C2-R2 Max and another car succumb to the same rocks. The stage closes. A marshal kindly tows us (at quite some speed) out of the forest to await our service crew with a trailer. And that’s it. Rally over. Killer Kielder.

Apparently a simple electrical relay had been thumped loose. It would have been fluke if we’d found it. Last night I would probably have welcomed the excuse, but today I’m gutted. Bizarrely, Super Rally rules dictate we’ll still get 14 points, so I’m only five off the championship leader, but it would have been infinitely more satisfying to have finished. Next time perhaps…

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