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Euro-Trip Part II: Tarmac Fever in Ypres

Euro-Trip Part II: Tarmac Fever in Ypres

Holiday, a natural time to relax, unwind and recharge the body. Early June, with two full weeks booked off work, would be absolutely ideal for catching up on sleep, chilling out and enjoying a few cold beverages in the sunshine. It’s natural, but our man Cian doesn’t conform to normality. The following is an excerpt from the EuroTrip travel blog of a an absolute automotive nutter, and that’s in his own words!

This is becoming repetitive, almost to the point of feeling utterly futile. Each 30 second blast feels exactly like the last, only this time there is an angry looking man approaching at a rapid pace and I have little time to compose myself. Everything is flung across the passenger seat in flash, and my now free left hand jabs the gearstick into first while my other pulls the wheel violently right as I make way on this narrow stretch of tarmac. I needn’t have worried though, as if not even spotting my presence, a Clio 197 swings hard left straight into the ditch without a lift of throttle. Surprised, I grab my map and pen once again and scribble ‘Big Cut’, but 4km into the first stage, it dawned that I needn’t have bothered. This is Ypres, and every corner is BIG CUT!

Each and every one of us had a list of dream events, and I’m sure plenty of you, just like myself, have been influenced by tales of adventure and PetrolHead nirvana told through Speedhunters down the years. For years, I spent my time day dreaming in school and college about the places I wanted to travel simply to enjoy looking at other people’s cars. Coming from an Irish rallying background, a lot of my dream list consists of a number of the most spectacular examples of the sport, although I have to admit nearly all are of the sealed-surface, tarmac-based side of the discipline. Rally Ypres has, for quite some time, been pretty near the top of my list.

The fascination with this rather unique gem of Belgian rallying stems from a childhood spent watching as much motoring-based shows on TV as possible. As a rally-mad child growing up in Ireland, it was a real treat to be allowed sit up to watch RPM late on a Thursday evening. Showcasing all manner of events from both Rally and Track, the UTV show was a real gem in its day. Not content with just covering the Irish classic’s like Killarney, Donegal and Cork, RPM made the occasional trip further afield. The sight of a young Kris Meeke throwing a Corolla WRC around Barbados was cool, but it was the yearly duel between some of the UK & Irelands best and the likes of Freddy Loix, Patrick Snijers and Armin Schwarz in the Flanders sunshine that seems to set a seed.

Year after year, mid-June would see my attention turning to going’s on in Ypres. Generally clashing with events at home, I’d come home to a VHS recorded chock full of Eurosport recordings. Year after year, no matter the current leading style of vehicle, from Group A to WRC, S2000 to R5, it seemed nobody could topple ‘Fast Freddy’, as Loix racked up 11 wins. He walked past me in the square in Ypres on Saturday afternoon. I said hello, and he replied. Freddy continued upon his way, while I had an internal fan-boy moment.

Now, while I have been doing well of late to tick a few dream events, there was always a sizeable obstacle in the way of me making it to those flat, flowing fields of West Belgium. You see, while going to watch something at a circuit, like at the Nürburgring the previous week, can realistically be done by flying in and living out of luggage for a few days, rallying takes a lot more logistics to follow, thus driving is the only real option when photographing an event.

Wednesday morning, I closed the boot on my car, going through the mental list in my head that I’ve developed over years traipsing around Ireland. Clothes and camera gear were obvious, but the addition of off-road boots and thick socks is a lesson of many sore feet. Getting to the best spots requires often arriving hours before the action, so a camping chair, stove, pots and cutlery are added to the mix. Being that it’s the height of summer right now, a cooler box found its way in too. Driving on the continent requires a breakdown kit, and the prospect of an occasional nap sees a pillow and blanket tossed in for good luck. Now, how much would that be in Baggage?

Car fuelled, cool box/fridge (plug in job to make you feel exactly like a Rolls Royce owner) stocked up and sat-nav set, it was destination Ypres. When I did say a sizeable obstacle earlier, I may slightly have understated. Door to door was a 15 hour, 1100km one-way journey, done through the longest day of the year. I watched the sun set across the bow of an Irish Sea ferry, yet saw it reappear barely a few hours later somewhere along a UK motorway. In a weird status of high energy drinks being cancelled out by easy-listening to late night music, the miles clicked off with ease. Through the Channel tunnel and remembering to drive on the ‘wrong’ side after being awake for 24 hours, it was hammer down for the Belgian Border!

Arriving in Ypres, the first striking thing is how much this event takes over the whole city, with the large central squares becoming the Service Park for the weekend. Large awnings stretch out in front of historic churches and museums, Waffle-Houses reverberating to the sound of lumpy idols and smelling strongly of Race Fuel. Every turn reveals more teams setting up base for the weekend, with each square becoming less and less distinctive leading to quite a bit of head scratching as to where I’d parked the car. Signed on and stage maps in hand, it was time to take a look at these mythical stages.

For all the advances in modern technology, rallying remains decidedly old-school in how it conducts its business. To find the route, spectators have to purchase a printed Rally Programme. In this, the centre page is generally a tear out map detailing the route, and from there is up to you to plot your route. With a few hours to spare until the opening action, I head out onto the stages to find the best vantage points. A few hundred metres into stage 1 I had stopped twice, and scribbled V.Fast and Big Cut onto the map. By the 2 km mark the maps was a mess of dots and handwritten notes, and by Kilometre marker 5 I had given up, as watching a Recce Renault 197 dive nearly sideways into the scenery was a clear reminder that I need not bother with a Recce. I wanted speed and cuts, and Ypres is just that and more.

Thursday night is practice and qualifying, with the top crews getting a chance to take on a short stretch of stage to sort any last-minute niggles and set a time that would decide road position for the following day. Stood in a dusty field surrounded by waist high crops, the first crackle of an exhaust notes at full chat echo’s in the distance. The sizeable crowd, three and four deep in places, becomes tense. Casual chit-chat stops in anticipation. I’m like a child. A Fiesta R5 roars into sight on my left, the audible scream of a limiter being bashed accompanying it along its path. As it approaches a tight right, it’s an assault on the senses. The car makes a sudden dive for the ditch, inside wheels dipping feet off the tarmac. The scrape of a sump guard against the black-top is audible above the engines roar, as is the visible sparks through the kicked-up dust. In a matter of moments, the car is gone again, leaving only a large plume of dust to waft over the masses. 9.5 seconds the car is in the line of sight, and that’s it. Rallying, speed and excitement all in one. And then the next car follows.

By the end of qualifying, the clock is well beyond 9pm. I’ve been awake for 36 hours at this stage, and am beginning to watch a second straight sunset without sleep. Getting rather delusional, its back to the Air BnB, a real sign that this is a holiday as an Irish event would usually be done by sleeping in the car, yet by the time I get pictures downloaded, edited and sorted, its nearly 12. A thirty-nine-hour day before the event even begins, that’s rallying!

Friday is an odd day in Ypres, as it feels like there is a lot to time to sit and wait around before the action begins. The first stage of the rally doesn’t kick off until 16.30, giving the fans plenty of time to get up close with the stars. One man seems to move amongst a scrum of eager supporters everywhere he moves. They love their rallying in Belgium, and the current superstar is Thierry Neuville. The Hyundai driver currently leads the World Rally Championship, so its understandable that his decision to spend the mid-season break putting on a show for the home droves is a popular decision. Come the evening though, it was go time.

Ypres, as a rally, has always held a unique place in the rally world. Bar a few spells in the European Championship, the event has never been a round of any major championship, thus it has developed organically into the beast that it now is. The prospect of this being a round of the British Rally Championship has enticed a large entry of UK and Irish crews yet again, but the real cutting edge of the entry is loaded with the cream of European talent, be it both the cohort of quick locals used to the challenge or the influx of WRC2 drivers using this as a test for WRC Germany. The R5 class is the pinnacle here, and a mind blowing Thirty-One take to the start.

During the 1980’s and 90’s, Ypres was a 24-Hour rally, and although financial restraints have pretty much ended the endurance rallies of old, the event still manages to cram 23 special stages into 27 hours. Its well into the night when I get off the Saturday stages, nearly 23.30, but its worth it for the sight of rally cars racing through the sunset.

While the R5’s were leading the way, the crowd was divided on what was the real highlight. To many, the battle for RGT glory was an absolute feast for the senses. Developed as a class to encourage the return of sports cars to the stages, RGT has seen everything from Aston’s to Abarth’s, but the Belgian’s are all for Porsche. Full blown, un-silenced, howling, flame spitting GT3 911’s, snaking through the Belgian scenery, the large rear tyres fighting for grip on a constant basis. The spectacle was both incredible and deafening in equal measure. Patrick Snijers, yes THE Patrick Snijers of that infamous Manx rally 1988 video, led the way, but seven other GT3’s followed.

To me though, the additional ‘Historic Rally’ was just a sweet addition. Not did the entry boast all manner of hero cars, the driver entry included names like Latvala and Toivinen. The sight of a sideways MK2 Escort is something that we are spoiled with in Ireland, but to see the admiration held across the continent for what was Ford’s mid-70’s family car is just staggering.

After three long days and absolutely caked in dust, I had become completely drained. In the setting sun over Flanders Fields, it would be that man Neuville who would take the victory, but in as commanding a manner as expected. For me, Ypres was every bit as special as expected, and I may never look at a grass ditch the same again as that’s where the time lies. The long road home passed close to Goodwood and there was some Stance show on, so it would have been rude to not add a few days and call in for a look!