It’s been two weeks since history was made in the Welsh mountains. Two weeks since I witnessed one of the great moments in Rallying. (More likely four moments when you think about it.) I’m still absorbing it all, taking it in.
That’s the great thing about being there. In addition to actually being a part of things. You can also go back home, switch on your Computer/Television and relive the whole thing again. Get all those emotions and feelings back again. Two weeks later we’re still doing that. Just the other day my wife and I were watching Elfyn Evans in car footage from Dyfnant 1 and we could see ourselves in the shots from the forward facing cameras.
We were there.
I think it was back in January when we decided that our trip back to the UK this year would be during Wales RallyGB. We did think about striking out on our own on this adventure. But I lived in Wales for a few years and spent many happy summers in the Welsh mountains as a child. So I knew the roads. I knew just how busy they could be. The more I thought about it, the happier I was going to be letting someone else take the strain. So we booked a guided tour through rallytravel.com. The official tour partners of Wales RallyGB.
It took a long time for the 10 months to come around. But there we were, one Thursday morning in a hotel in Lincoln getting ready to drive to our hotel in Oswestry, the base for the tour. Right then I was reminded why I’d decided to do the tour.
Messages on Facebook about the rally were showing that at 4am the line of traffic to get into the car park for the Clocaenog shakedown stage was over a mile long. At 4am! There was going to be heavy traffic all weekend.
Once we made it to Oswestry and checked in we were quickly introduced to the rest of our party. People from all over Europe and the world. Even journeying from Minnesota we hadn’t travelled the furthest. The Englishman from Sacramento had that on us. Estonians, Poles Belgians even Ugandans were in our group of over 70 people.
Once introductions were done with and we had our rally passes in our hands it was straight onto the bus to the opening Super Special at Tir Prince trotting track on the North Wales coast.
This was in interesting location, not really made for Rally cars but an entertaining stage had been laid out using the trotting track and parking lot, and with a fairground on site there was lots to keep parents and children happy.
However, things were not as good as they could have been. The track and its environs were very much on the flat. There were no grandstands to get an elevated view. With crowds stood four or five deep, there was little chance for those at the back to see these amazing new super powered World Rally Cars. Some at the back were quite disgruntled, some took to turning rubbish bins in their sides and standing on them to get a view. We luckily found a viewpoint at the front just by the landing area of the jump on the front straight. However, when a person just along from us raised his child onto his shoulders even we struggled to see. Some simple grandstands would have really helped.
Sweet Lamb. What a legendary name and location in world rallying. Quite honestly there is no better place to watch a stage in the world. In places it's possible to see as much as 90% of the stage. As the cars crest a ridge and come down into the bowl area, pass through the water splash and up the hill to crest another ridge. This takes the WRC cars about 3 minutes and with cars running at three minute intervals you could pretty well see a car all the time. We spent the entire day here. Sitting by the Watersplash for the first pass of the cars before moving up the hill in the afternoon.
What a day it was. Elfyn Evans began to make his mark, stamping his authority on the event as we basked in late autumn sunshine. That’s right I said sunshine. Wales RallyGB is an event that can be decided in the rain. 2015 was noted for huge rains. When we packed our suitcases rainwear was to the fore. In the end, all we used the rain gear for was to sit on.
After we’d seen most cars through the second pass of Sweet Lamb we got on our bus and headed towards Deeside service park. For that evening we had VIP passes to the MSport service. We would be mixing with the drivers and crew as they worked on the cars. This was to be quite an incredible experience.
We waited as the cars came in expecting a hive of activity when they arrived. Ogier and Ingrassia pulled in. Sebastien got out, waved to the crowd and got into a deep discussion with Malcolm Wilson. The crew looked at the car.
It sat there.
Tanak arrived. Elfyn arrived to a huge cheer from the assembled crowds.
The cars sat there untouched.
“Five minutes” came a cry from somewhere. The crew began to form around the car.
“One minute.” There was a countdown going on. Ramps and tools were being moved into place around the Blue Fiesta.
“Five, four, three two one!” All Hell broke loose! The jacks went under the car, it was raised, stands went in. Engine parts came out, wheels were removed, the nose was thrown aside. These guys each had a task and they knew what they were doing.
Then all of a sudden, from underneath the car the transmission appeared.
“Oh” said the Irish guy next to me. “I don’t think this is a normal service”.
As quickly as the old transmission came out a new one went in. All this time four guys appeared to work under the car simultaneously. Meanwhile other people were working on the rear of the car whilst a solo member of the team struggled with getting Julien Ingrassias door to shut properly. Whatever they did it was done in less than 45 minutes. Suspensions went back together, wheels went on, even Ingrassia's door was fixed and the car was driven to Parc Ferme for the night.
The team reset themselves and prepared to do the same to the other two cars. What a sight it was to watch.
Saturday saw us in the Welsh forests on the Dyfnant stage, at our own private viewing point. The forests is what a Welsh Rally is about. It’s very special to hear the cars echo around the trees, then appear in view, navigate a sharp hairpin and speed off out of sight, as the cars engine echoes around the trees again. It was a damp, misty morning as we arrived at our location.
A vehicles engine was heard. Not a rally car though. It was car 00.
‘Car zero is the stage start. The stage will start on time.” A voice announced as they passed us. This was very helpful. Perhaps rallies in America could adopt this practice.
A hairpin bend like where we were located was great for helping us to see the different driving lines. To see who was in control, who was pushing it. Car that were pushing would go wide onto the grass throwing up plumes of mud. Controlled drivers kept it on the road. Not spectacular, but fast. Elfyn Evans was clearly very in control. Of the event, the stage, everything. Already it seemed like it was his race to loose.
And so we got back on the bus again. Our Saturday afternoon was to be spent at the Rallyfest at Cholmondeley Castle. A nod to the Sundays of the 1970’s and 80’s when the Rally would have stages in the grounds of English stately homes.
A short stage of less than 2 miles would surely hold no problems for these drivers, even with a hay bale to do a donut around on the back straight. No problems for all but Juho Hanninen. Who clipped a bale, damaged his suspension and was pushed off the road to end his rally, his season, and perhaps his career in a World Rally Car as he is not being taken to Rally Australia by Toyota.
Tens of thousands must have turned out at Cholmondeley to watch the action. Hopefully they’ll keep coming back.
After Cholmondely the cars went to service before heading into the Welsh forests for some night stages. But we wouldn’t know what happened there until breakfast.
The first thing I did when I woke early on Sunday morning was check the reports. You can rely on something to happen in the forests at night on a Rally in the UK. It's woven into the history of the event. This year it was the turn of Sebastien Ogier. He flatted a tyre, broke the wheel and brake disc. He changed the wheel, removed the disc, and drove the rest of the way on three brakes - in thick fog. While others struggled with the conditions the World Champion moved up into second place. Elfyn Evans wasn’t struggling. He was 50 seconds up. The rally was his to loose. This was a topic of conversation at breakfast.
It was a very early start for us to get out to Brenig, the location of the Power Stage. As we were on the official tour we drove into the stage on the roads reserved for contestants. A couple of times we were passed by WRC cars headed to stage start.
There was a cool breeze, but the sun kept poking out as we sat on the hillside by Brenig reservoir. The road in front of us folded over the ridges running up and down hillsides to get to our viewpoint. A rally car would crest the ridge, run down the hill, disappear behind another hill, before cresting another ridge closer to us. It was an epic view.
So to the Power Stage. We wanted to be close to the podium to see history made so instead of watching the stage out on course we watched on TV! A large screen TV was set up at the stage end for the drivers to wait for the podium celebrations. We set up there watching TV with hundreds of others. Here we got to see a lot of the camaraderie between the drivers as they relaxed at the end of the event. They all stood around chatting, offering congratulations. Especially to Ogier whose overall third place won him the WRC drivers title for the fifth consecutive time. A few minutes earlier Ott Tanak had bought home his Ford Fiesta to win M-Sport the WRC Constructors title, and in a few more minutes Elfyn Evans would bring home his D-Mack shod Fiesta for his, and D-Macks, first top level WRC event win.
It’s difficult to put this in perspective. This small team out of the Lake District swept the board in this, the first season of the new era of WRC. The team totally dominated in a season that saw seven different drivers win events. A season that was one of the closest seasons in recent history. Yet from halfway through the season much of the outcome seemed inevitable. A team that put at least one driver on the podium in every event, sometimes two. It was consistency of the highest order.
As I stood there on the shores of Brenig watching the Union Jack being raised and “God save the Queen” being played. I was very proud indeed.
As you may know, I also co-present the "Open Paddock" podcast in the USA. This also gave me extra interest in the event. For I actually knew people taking part. Niall Burns, Phil Hall and Rhianon Gelsomino. It made appreciating the event that bit more special as I knew people that were passing me.
So to our Rallytravel tour. Would we do it again? Absolutely. It was great to be ferried about between stages without the stresses of driving. It was cool to share mealtimes with rally fans from around the globe. It was unbelievably brilliant to be stood there in the M-Sport service watching the action. We’ll do it again for sure.