Shafts of beautiful golden spring light are piercing the latticework of trunks and branches in the Forest of Dean. Red. Fifteen seconds. Red and five amber. Ten seconds. Five amber. Hold the car on the hydraulic handbrake. Four amber. Glance at Owen. Three. Heart beating wildly. Two. Revs. One. Gulp. Green…
JUST THREE DAYS EARLIER, I was tucking away an entire packet of restorative chocolate chip cookies when what I really needed was a stiff drink. I’d just spent £5000 of my savings on quite a slow, shabby-looking hatchback. I’d also acquired a couple of tons of oily wire and metal that apparently came under the heading of ‘a comprehensive spares package’. Five grand is/was a lot of money to me, and I was feeling bloody unsettled about what I’d just spent it on.
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Rewind further, and it was as the clock ticked past the vertical on the night of December 31 2007 that I decided this would be the year I went rallying. I’d now completed my initial licence test (evo 116) and amazingly I’d had an offer from Suzuki to take part in the new Swift Sport Cup that will run in front of the 2008 British Rally Championship. The only problem was that before it started on April 18 I had to upgrade my basic National B Stage Rally Licence to an International Stage Rally Licence. This involved getting signatures, and signatures involved finishing rallies, and to do that I needed a car…
‘My’ Suzuki wasn’t built yet, so I couldn’t use that. I could have hired a car, but whilst that would be ideal for one or two rallies I was going to need a minimum of five signatures and I hadn’t got enough money to throw at that. I could have built a rally car from the ground up, but realistically that would mean someone else building it and it would take too much time. So I needed a ready-built rally car, I needed one yesterday and I needed to be able to afford it.
The 205 Challenge uses 1.6 205 GTIs and a scout around the forum for the championship revealed several were for sale. The advantage of these cars is that they are likely to be reliable, easy to fix if they’re not, and they can compete on both gravel and tarmac with very little alteration.
After several emails, phone calls and trips, time was running out. Which is how I found myself in Middlesbrough with my plucky co-driver Owen Brown, who had come along for moral support and to manoeuvre the Navara and trailer around the bits where I would wipe out large chunks of private property.
After Andrew Davison had walked me round the car and bewildered me with talk of welding, second coils and spare Billies, he said the words that sold it to me: ‘I really, really hate retiring so I’ve tried to make it as reliable as possible’. That’s what I need.
THAT WAS TUESDAY. Yesterday, Friday, Owen and his friend Huckle, who very kindly agreed to wield spanners and look after our oily bits, went on ahead down the M4 to Chepstow Racecourse, where the service area and MC1 (Main Control 1) are based for the Wyedean Forest Rally (entry £415). I got a phone call when they arrived (having slightly worryingly got lost on the way): ‘Er, Henry… Everyone else’s cars look very smart.’‘Like, how smart?’‘New.’‘We’ll give the Peugeot a wipe down, take some of the stickers off and I’m sure it’ll be fine,’ I say whilst closing my eyes and silently praying that we at least get through scrutineering.
A couple of hours later, as I buy two sets of the lucky number 113 to stick on the doors, getting a simple signature on a bit of paper has never seemed so daunting. We haven’t set the suspension up. People keep sucking their teeth when they look at our rather used tyres. Scrutineering would have gone better if I’d switched the correct fan on and the Pug hadn’t overheated. We have no pace notes so Owen will simply be shouting the junctions marked in the road book and I’ll have to drive the corners as I see them. And Owen really will be shouting because we haven’t had time to buy intercoms. No-one could accuse us of taking ourselves too seriously.
I sleep about as well as you’d expect in room 13 of the New Inn Motel and there’s a power cut halfway through breakfast. The first car leaves MC1 at 08:01. We’re the third from last car, due to leave at 10:27. I drive my savings down to the local petrol station and brim the tank ready for the long day ahead. It’s the first real drive I’ve had in my little GTI and, much as I love it, it is undoubtedly the slowest car I’ve driven in my three years at evo. The seat’s almost painfully tight, even for me, and left-foot braking isn’t going to be an option because I can’t fit my lanky leg that far under the shiny and distinctly ungrippy standard steering wheel. But as long as it gets to the end…
GREEN. THE BLACK STONES from the rutted gravel track spit up into the underside of the Peugeot and Owen’s first instruction gets lost amongst the clattering din. The 150 cars that have gone down the special stage ahead of us have scored great canyons with their tyres. At times these tracks seem deep enough to swallow the 205 whole and I’m sure we must be surfing along on the sump guard. The 1.6 may be slow but the car’s forever sliding – and not always where you expect. Slides develop because of an unseen camber or change in surface. On road it was a heavy-feeling, almost grumpy car to drive, but on the loose it’s floating over the surface. There’s a sense of driving with sweeping gestures rather than pinpoint accuracy.
The gearchange is vaguer than most politicians and I miss more changes in one morning than I have done in the past nine years. In some places I’m leaving margins wide enough to fit a sideways WRC car through, but by the end of the first stage I know all the stress of getting here has been worth it. Rallying is as utterly brilliant as I’d hoped.
We’ve got another six stages to go before we can get a signature though, and I’m wary of getting sucked into a mistake. Because the engine seems the thing most likely to go wrong with the car, I self-impose a very low rev-limit (not great considering the Pug doesn’t make any real power until 5000rpm) and I decide to be very circumspect about braking points. It doesn’t make for class-leading stage times but I’ve got to be grown-up about this – we don’t want to join the numerous cars now stationary in the forest with their ‘OK’ boards up.
Owen is having a slightly mixed day. He hasn’t been sick, which is good, but out of the corner of my eye I have seen him go for a phantom brake pedal a couple of times, which might account for the few unnerving right/left mix-ups… He doesn’t get a minute’s relaxation during the day, though. He still has to navigate even when I’m driving slowly along the road sections (some nearly an hour long) that link the stages together.
Back at Chepstow for lunch, Huckle reports that the 205 hasn’t used any oil (quite unlike the people that cooked my burger). I’m amazed at how well the little French car has survived its beating in the forest. Fingers crossed.
There’s a big delay before Special Stage 5 and some people are talking of having to do the last stages in the dark. I assume our lights work. It’s all very friendly as we stand around chatting with the crews of two other slightly tidier 205s. One of them – Team Psycho – is going really well, although they reveal their 1.6 has a whopping 170bhp (against our 118). Two stages later they’re out with a dropped valve.
The last Special Stage, Mailscot, is brilliant and terrifying. Brilliant because its six miles flow wonderfully and it’s not too rutted, terrifying because the low evening sun keeps blinding me and then disappearing from view. It’s like driving with a bag being pulled on and off your head. But by the end of the stage we’re elated. The signature is ours and we shake hands. One of the ever-patient marshals signs our last time card and explains to Owen that there’s a re-route back to service because of a traffic jam on one of the roads. Fifteen minutes later there’s an uncomfortable silence in the car.‘Do you know where we are, Owen?’Silence.‘Owen?’‘No.’Fortunately the 205 behind has spotted our mistake and kindly flashes us so we can follow them back to the route. There’s still silence echoing round the shell of the Pug.‘Soooo… Did you enjoy it?’ I venture cheerily.‘Honestly?’ asks Owen.‘Of course.’‘No. I’m completely shattered. I felt uncomfortable at speed. I don’t really get the map reading. I don’t like the pressure and I don’t like being shouted at.’‘Oh.’ The effort of scaling our near-vertical learning curve has taken its toll and the normally effervescent Owen is completely deflated in the low seat next to me. I point out that it’s quite tricky to shout ‘Left or right?!’ in a kindly fashion and that intercoms will make it better. We also agree that neither of us has eaten enough and we’ll take energy drinks and chocolate with us next time. It’s gone 6.30pm by the time we get back to the dark and rapidly emptying service area, but Owen’s getting a bit of bounce back. We resolve that next weekend will be much better…
SEVEN DAYS LATER WE’RE at Rockingham with one signature each and on tarmac tyres. Everyone was amazed that we managed to do a full-on forest rally as our first event, and today – a single-venue rally and much smaller – should be much easier. It will involve eight stages, all based on different layouts of Rockingham’s circuit, pit lane and access roads. There are no sections on public roads to worry about either, so it shouldn’t be as tiring.
At 09:28 the marshall gives us a start time, warns Owen that there’s oil on turn 11 and wishes us good luck. It’s tight between the cones and temporary chicanes and, as we need to finish, there’s a healthy amount of caution once again. So it’s a bit of a surprise to spin as I tip into a right-hander. A gentle enquiry whilst we’re turning round as to whether this might be turn 11 elicits the explanation.
That’s not what I’ll remember SS1 of the Emerald Stages Rally for, however. The sight I’ll recall for years to come is Owen throwing open his door as we come to a halt and throwing up all over a marshal’s feet. Lovely. It’s our worst fears come true: the extra g-forces from being on tarmac have triggered Owen’s carsickness. To his eternal credit he gets back in the car 15 minutes later for SS2. We drive round very, very slowly in the now sweet-smelling Pug, but even so we have to stop for three minutes mid-stage whilst Owen has a Technicolour shout at Rockingham’s pit lane.
He improves after lunch and a few more travel-sickness pills, but he remains looking straight ahead during the stages. Thoughtfully he holds the stage map at an angle where I can glance across at it to try and see where we’re going next. I suspect it’s not the most enjoyable day either of us have spent.
As I drive the 205 back to the office that night I’m pleased that we’ve got another signature and moved another step closer to the Suzuki, but there’s now a big question-mark hanging over the Catchpole-Brown rally combo…