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A Welsh WRC Adventure

A Welsh WRC Adventure

Darkness and noise! Utter, total, smothering darkness. Pure blackness the like of which I’d never imagined before. Torch light barely pierced its gloom, hiding everything around. A glimmer of misty rain ran against my face, but without being able to see it before my eyes, I couldn’t tell if it was real. A dense forest atop a steep valley, daylight had been beaten into submission. And there was noise. Not natural woodland sounds like the creak of branches underfoot or moving wildlife, but a demonic roar that echoed through the tree’s. Minutes passed at will as the cacophony of pure mechanical aggression grew louder. Turbo charged chirps and flutters briefly interjected, but this was flat out, continuous movement, approaching at what seemed like an un-natural rate. Then we entered ‘the light’.

To experience a full-blown World Rally Car has, since their inception in the late 90’s, always been a special occasion. The ultimate machine designed to take on a truly staggering variety of terrains as quickly as possible, WRC cars are the pinnacle of production based motor-racing. In Ireland, we embraced the breed, and soon became home to a plethora of these rallying monsters, and many events boasted WRC entries numbering almost 20 at the pinnacle of the Celtic Tigre. While we have fallen from those heady heights, many still remain on Irish soil and often compete with notable success. For all my years growing up watching Donnelly, Nesbitt, Boyle et al wrestle these machines around narrow lanes, I’d never experienced the full-blown experience of a works car driven by the best in the business. 2017 has been the catalyst I needed though.

In January this year, I bit the bullet and headed for the snowy mountains of southern France for Rallye Monte Carlo. I gushed at the time of the spectacle, I made mental plans to get to place like Poland or Finland and I came away spell bound. As the season passed, I fell into a malaise. I was more comfortable watching the action on TV, or dates simply clashed, and thus I was pretty resigned to my sole WRC adventure for the year. Wales, the traditional curtain call to the season, had often flirted with my attention, but so did its many downsides. Watching footage year after year, all that came off the screen was cold, rain and a lot of mud. This year though, a calendar change had brought the rally earlier, the weather prospects were better and it fell on a long weekend. No brainer, right? Well work got in the way….or so it seemed!

About a week before the rally was to kick off, changes in work lifted a holiday ban in place for that time of year. Rally GB entered my head, but I dismissed it. The comfort argument reared its head, as did a number of local events on the same weekend, and so I cooled my jets and buckled up for the weekend. But I made a vital mistake. Thursday evening, just as the crews were heading off for Stage 1 of the event, I had a sneaky look at ferry prices. Like an addict on the scrounge, I said I’d let the expensive price warn me off…..but it didn’t. At about a days’ notice, I was heading for the forests for another date with the World Rally Championship.

The following day(s) was one of the oddest/draining/exciting days of my life. 44 hours of no sleep, 600 miles driving, a red-eye ferry, 6 cans of Red Bull, a stale Croissant, 7 miles of walking, 3 changes of socks and a huge, un-nerving smile. That’s what it takes to be a rally freak!!

Back tracking slightly though, Friday was a blur. The working day became an empty nothingness, all productivity side-lined with excitement for the weekend. The two-hour drive home was pretty much the same, although the thought process was slightly interjected with rational thoughts of what all to take. Car thoroughly packed, a short hop to Dublin Port and across the Irish sea saw me landed in Wales at 5.30am. I should have slept, taken rest or the like, but there was a forest to get to, and barely 2 hours later, the faithful daily driver touched gravel for the first time. Rain gear engaged, cameras locked and loaded and a high energy liquid-breakfast, the madness began.

Before the start of this season, much had been made of the new direction taken by the championship organisers with regards vehicle regulations. The fan’s wanted more aero, more noise and more speed. What the FIA did though, rather oddly, was grant all those wishes. The new cars are truly mental, have more wings than a Boeing and go like stink. It’s been a spectacular year with 7 different drivers taking wins, and every manufacturing tasting victory champagne. The fans have backed the new breed as well, and the queues to get to the stages is testament to the success that 2017 has been. Arriving 3 hours before a rally stage in Ireland, the course would still be open public road for at least 90 more minutes, yet here I was parking up 3 miles away on an approach road littered with cars and vehicles of all shapes and sizes.

I have mentioned it several times throughout the year of the variety of cool road-going metal you find following rallying. People that spend their weekends off standing in grass ditches are of course exactly the type of people who would see no issue driving their often-pristine vehicles into some pretty rough terrain. As the early morning fog lifts, both from my head and the surrounding mountains, I pass a pair using a hefty Group A lamp pod affixed to a Lancia Delta Intagrale as a tea tray, while others emerge from the rather opulent, and uber-low accommodation afforded in the back of a Volvo 850R. The pair of Daihatsu 4-Trac’s look at home here, more so than poor Peugeot 306 Rallye, named more in recognition of flowing French tarmac than rutted Welsh tracks. Then though, there are car owning hero’s that take cool to new levels. The retro car bubble has seen the price of Mitsubishi Lancer Tommi Mac’s absolutely skyrocket, yet here in the midst of a muddy forest I found one of the possibly cleanest I’ve ever witnessed. For all you true JDM nerds, the car arrived in the UK in recent years…….as a Grade 4.5!!

The organisation side of an event as large as Rally GB is one I’ve never experienced before in the rallying world. An excellently detailed rally guide provided stage maps, locations and viewing point information making the route planning incredibly easy. Arriving to the stage, large areas were designed to cater for the influx of spectators that descended over the weekend. Perched in place on Gartheineog, I had actually thought I was on a totally different stage but there’s the tiredness, it was time to wait. Bang on 9.40am though, the first shots of anti-lag rung out, and a sideways Citroen came into view, emerging sideways from around a stack of logs. A chase helicopter hovered overhead, adding to the atmosphere. Disappearing up a long fast right up a hill, this was it!

As the order is run in reverse on days 2 and 3 of a WRC event, the speed is always gradually building. While Khalid al-Quasimi may have looked quick, more and more passing cars allayed that thought. Bunches of fans awaited their respective hero’s, with a plethora of international flags being waved with vigour as they blasted past. The Tanak fan-club, decked in Estonian garb, made their presence felt, as did the many Belgian and French followers of Neuville and Ogier. A small smattering of Irish fans made sure their support for Kris Meeke and Craig Breen was acknowledged, but the home fans were out in force for one man in particular.

North Wales is a traditional hot-bed of rallying talent, with the famous sons of the region having names that read off with distinction. Dai Llewellyn, Phil Collins, Phil Mills and Gwyndaf Evans have enough titles and tall tales to fill a decent sized book, but the latest hero in the making is Gwyndaf’s son Elfyn. Hailing from Dolgellau, surrounded by rallying mecca’s like Sweet Lamb and Myherin, it wasn’t much of a leap to see him get behind the wheel of a rally car. A quick rise through the ranks had the young Welsh man becoming a full-blown WRC driver with M-Sport in 2015, perhaps too soon in most regards. Struggling to find his feet, a step back to WRC2 and the British Championship in 2016 was a re-invigoration, and this year he partnered with tyre brand DMack to drive the 3rd M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC. A string of good results had the public interest peaked, but the Friday of Rally GB had seen utter domination. 6 fastest stage times saw the Welshman at the top of the leader board, and the fans came out in droves. In one of the most dominant drives I can remember, Elfyn Evans led from Stage 2 right through to the finish, cheered on by nearly 100,000 home fans relishing in seeing not only Elfyn’s first win, but to witness he and Dan Barritt becoming the first ever Welsh crew to win their home World Championship event. It was a special weekend all round for M-Sport, with them winning the Constructor championship, and Ogier becoming the 1st Ford driving Champion since 1981.

As the car’s continued to pass, I began to move around in search of angles. It’s something I do so instinctively, and I’m sure I’ve annoyed plenty of marshals and officials in the process, but I can’t live with the thought of having albums chock of the same picture repeated ad-nauseum. Rallying, as a motorsport, is one of the most difficult to photograph I believe, as it’s a case of having one-shot to get the picture. The car is often in sight for only a handful of seconds, and the threat of that car going off the road and not being seen again for the day is a very real prospect. The room to try anything other than straight up shooting is often very small, but the freedom of not being under commercial pressure to get shots allows the chance to try things out. In a single spectator viewing pen, I was able to make at least 9 different photo views, but maybe that’s just my lack of fear for the welfare of my budget gear that I place it in plenty of mad places.

After the main body of WRC cars had passed, the next cohort was that of the WRC2 runners. Made up exclusively of R5 cars, this is a championship and level utterly dominated by the Skoda Fabia R5, although the Ford Fiesta R5 is not soft competition. Designed as a hot bed for developing talent, the GB entry was very much a who’s-who of future rallying stars that perhaps may only be known to the truly hardcore as of yet. The likes of Teemu Sunninen, Eric Camili, Ola-Christian Veiby and Tom Cave have future’s ahead of them if opportunity allows, yet this year has been a case of trying to catch Pontus Tidemand. The Swede, and his Skoda, have been the class of the WRC2 season and have proved almost untouchable across the year. An interesting entry though in Wales was a young man by the name of Kalle Rovanpera. Barely 17 years of age, this fella is special. He emerged onto the radars about 9 years ago with a clip of him sliding a Toyota Starlet around a finish lake. Those counting on your fingers, this guy was in Rally cars since the age of 8, and has been on a meteoric rise this past number of years. When you father is a WRC event winner and all-round cult hero Harri Rovanpera, I guess it’s a case like the Evans of talent running in the genes.

Behind those again was the battle for R2 victory, the first major stepping stone into World Rallying. Yet again, it’s the venerable M-Sport and Ford Fiesta package that is a true benchmark, although in Wales the only sole Works car ran wild. Chris Ingram and the Opel Adam R2 have been a formidable pair in 2017, pretty much sweeping the boards in the European Rally Championship. In Wales, the diminutive Adam romped home with over 12 minutes to spare over the opposition. From an Irish viewpoint, both Will Creighton and Marty Gallagher put in some great times all weekend, but a succession of issues hindered both their runs. With the limited opportunities to experience Gravel in Ireland, it’s a huge confidence to both to see the signs to be able to push on loose surface.

As the final few cars passed through the second running of the stage, it was time to make shapes for the famed Welsh night stages. An hour of walking, a swift removal of mud soaked clothing and a 40-minute blast later, I had a chance to relax. Sleep? Nah, I had the initial batch of photos to sort through, phone to charge and a head torch to check for signs of life. Meeting a few friends from home, as dusk descended we strolled into the woods. What happened next was, to me at least, one of the single greatest car related things I’ve ever experienced.

As I said at the top, when the dark came in, it took hold. Being from a City, I have a rather sheltered understanding of the true darkness of night, but armed with head torches, reflective coats and lamps, navigation was hard. A blisteringly fast section at the bottom of a valley was picked from the last ebbs of daylight, and the territory was marked with a succession of Irish flags planted in the ground. Listening attentively, the first whispers of a 1.6L WRC engine note rung out through the trees. I had grown up watch countless videos of rally days of yore, encapsulated by the timeless mystique of engine notes roaring through the trees of a Welsh forest at night. All those cliché’ d tales of hoards of bobble hatted nutters standing in the rain to see Roger Clark in a sideways Escort or Walter Rohrl in a snarling Audi raced through my head as I finally felt a part of the mystiques. I may have also been wearing a bobble hat!

The nature of the stage meant that that the cars were audible on full chat for about 90 seconds before coming into sight, although saying into sight is being rather kind. A flash of white light would emerge to our left around a rising right hander, broadside in the road owing to the slippy condition. Gear’s number three, four and five would be dispatched with before reaching us, each accompanied with a distinctive bang. Without the faintest dab of brakes, guided by a blinding array of lights, the cars tore past at almost maximum velocity, sparks and exhaust flames as well as rocks fired in the direction of our vantage point. This was as raw a sensation of speed as I have ever experienced, a true case of maximum attack. Picking out the identity of the crews, never mind the car, was almost impossible in the darkness, with only driving style and car characteristics often being the only telling differences. Passing us, we had opportunity to stop, let out a number of expletives, and watch the show go on. The beaming lights snaked up the trail to our right before hitting the packed upper hairpin as the tree line became like a strobe light as countless camera flashes went off. Flares and fireworks filled the sky, and I felt ecstatic. It may have been the lack of sleep!

By 1am, I had set up camp for the night. Parked on the side of another forest track, bed for the night was a sleeping bag in the back of a Peugeot 207 as per my WRC norm. Any prospect of an early night was dashed by the arrival of more friends from Cork, and the prospect of a few beers pushed me through hours 43 and 44 of waking. The next morning, after all 4 hours of cold, cramped sleep, the stages were beckoning again. By that evening, I was no more than a shell. Although the stages and action were spectacular, I had enough. Plenty of pictures and lifelong memories in the bag, it was time to finally pull on the last change of clean clothes, pack up the car and make shapes for the boat home. Someday I might take a notion to go and follow the WRC in comfort, or even god forbid I might actually fully plan out attending an event, but for now I still adore the sense of adventure that comes with these types of escapades. As a final treat to myself, the route from Brenig to Holyhead encompasses much of the vaulted Evo Triangle, a mecca for proper petrolhead geeks like myself reared on the excellent publication. Mile after mile of flowing driving nirvana, snaking ribbons of tarmac that proved the final reason to grin after a rather epic weekend. So, Monte next year eh…….