Chris Ingram’s desire to be Britain’s next World Rally Champion took on extra credence when he became the first Briton since Vic Elford to win the European Rally Championship, doing so in 2019 and ending a 52-year-wait to wave the British flag. With several World Rally Championship appearances to his name, Ingram was on the rise until rallying was paused. His father Jon was a decent national rally driver who began in road rallies during the 1980s, and it wasn’t long before Chris was hooked. Jon oversaw his son’s early career, and made the pivotal decision to head abroad so Chris could make his mark.
“God, it’s difficult in rallying. It always has been. My career has been one non-stop ride on a rollercoaster. The early days were so simple by comparison. Just Dad and I, tinkering with a little Citroën C1 in our garage, not knowing what we were doing but figuring it out as we went along.
We didn’t build it, but we did run it. Well, we turned up, pumped up the tyres and went rallying [in the Formula 1000 Junior Rally Championship]. Funny to think back and remember how fast the C1 felt; it wasn’t a simple car, it was like my World Rally Car.
I remember how nervous I used to get, way more nervous than I have ever been since. Some of the drivers were really talented, and it’s an amazing championship that’s got kids who are 14- to 17-years old into rallying.
After that, I switched to running a Twingo RS R2 for three seasons, and during the 2014 Circuit of Ireland Rally I wiped out in pretty spectacular fashion. The thing about that car was nobody could ever get it to settle. It had a short wheelbase, compared with the dominant Fiesta, and would bounce around like Tigger on steroids, which made it so incredibly difficult to drive. So I was learning, and crashing!
At the Circuit of Ireland, we were fastest on four of the first five stages and running eighth overall in the ERC. On stage 13, the Twingo bounced off the road and went end over end. The car was a write-off, and I thought: ‘That’s it, rallying’s over for me.’ There was no money left and a high chance I’d never rally again. Then I found out we’d been awarded the Colin McRae Flat Out Trophy. I suppose it was some consolation, but my future looked bleak. I didn’t have any more plans to rally that year. Then one summer’s day, I was sitting at my parents’ house when my phone rang. It was Chris Cheetham from Peugeot UK: ‘I’d like to invite you to a meeting to discuss your career.’
I prepared a mega presentation to sell myself, thought all about how I could try and convince Peugeot to back me, and it turned out they’d already made up their minds and wanted to know how much budget I’d need. It was a pinch-yourself moment.
With Peugeot and then Opel, I had to raise my game. It was a totally different experience. But the bad luck kept coming at me. In the first year with Opel, I was leading the championship [ERC Junior] on the last day at the last round when my car broke down, and my team-mate took it by a couple of points. That made me stronger for the next year, and we took the title [2017 ERC3 and ERC Under 27].
The end of that season was also when I first joined forces with Ross Whittock. I knew straight away that I could trust him. We paired up from Rally Rome, I was battling for the championship, and he’d never competed at that level before. But he wasn’t fazed, he was solid.
Someone else who has been a rock for me, the most important person I have ever met, is Serkan Duru of Toksport. I’d been getting quotes to graduate to ERC R5, and various teams were quoting me ridiculous sums of money, around half a million pounds. Then Serkan made me an amazing offer, and I sent him a message on WhatsApp: ‘Are you serious about winning the ERC?’ He sent one back: ‘Yes, or I wouldn’t have made you this offer.’ And now we’ve done it together.
But 2019 was tough. At the start of the season, I lost my lead sponsor, which had signed up for two years from 2018. I was scrabbling around for budget. My mum, Jo, set up a crowd-funding page. The pressure was massive, and I didn’t manage it very well.
I was seriously suffering from my mental health. I was so anxious I couldn’t sleep. I was turning up to rallies absolutely knackered, trying to hide it from everyone. Nobody really understood the pressure I was under to keep it all going. It was a very lonely place. By the middle of the season and Rally Rome, which I set fastest times on the previous season, I was nowhere. I couldn’t drive; I couldn’t feel the car under me because I was so tense. I shouldn’t have really been there, because I needed to find a way to lose all that stress.
My parents have always been supportive, emotionally. But for me it isn’t ‘just do your best’, it is about saving my career. And there’s only one option: to win the championship.
I got to the Barum Rally [round six of eight] and knew I had to find a way through the pressure. So I took a new approach. I just tried to take a step back, drive slowly and let it come to me – and it worked. Stage by stage, it just came back.
I think the fact that I went through all this was the best thing that could have happened to me. But the title as good as counts for nothing, I have to start from scratch again. There wasn’t a penny of prize fund for winning the European Rally Championship. I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to drive in WRC2 this season, the calendar is pretty depleted. I’ve expressed an interest in the new Extreme E series, but that’s also been delayed by the pandemic. But the cancellation of this year’s rallying season could be a good thing.
I think British rallying needs some time to think about the future. The organisers have work to do because the sport’s not growing, that’s for sure.
There’s no young people getting into the sport. And that could be the beginning of the end. I want to get together with Vic Elford. I want people to remember rallying and fall in love with the sport again. I want to make it to WRC and be Britain’s next world champion, like Colin McRae and Richard Burns. But boy, I could do with a helping hand.”
“I can remember taking Chris to watch a rally for the first time. We packed sandwiches and a Thermos and squash and trooped off into the forests of Yorkshire to watch a national rally, and I could see in his eye there and then that he was hooked.
My love of the sport began with road rallies in the mid-’80s, and the days of the Motoring News Rally Championship and the BTRDA Championship. I had a Talbot Sunbeam, a good little car but never quite as quick as the Escorts we were up against. After that I drove a Nissan 240 RS, and sometimes Jo, my wife, would co-drive with me.
I remember a big battle with a guy that used to run an MG Metro 6R4 sponsored by Leyton House [Robin Herd] and he’d arrive by helicopter and had this big crew preparing his car, and we’re there with our flasks and sandwiches. We couldn’t beat him in the end, and then off he flew!
Then the rallying was put on pause, as I got busy with a property development company I’d started. We were putting up luxury flats and building homes for footballers, the latter with indoor pools and the like.
“Ari Vatanen turned to me and said, ‘One day that boy will be world champion’”
Mad times and they didn’t last. In 2008, when the recession came, the banks destroyed our successful business. Up to that point, I had spent four years back in rallying, competing with cars like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VIII, Subaru Impreza S5 WRC and a Ford Focus RS WRC. As you can imagine, Chris was my biggest fan. He was 10 or 11 and would hang around rallies all day, and film everything on a video camera. By the end of each day, he’d be exhausted, but he made all these films that my friends thought were quite impressive.
I didn’t have any agenda to get Chris hooked on rallying or driving. He just took to it. By this stage, we’d bought a dilapidated farmhouse to do up from top to bottom, and there were some fields around it, so I bought him a 250cc off-road buggy and round he went, from 8am to 8pm. His car control was amazing, and I couldn’t get around as fast as him. I thought: ‘Bloody hell! Lad’s good.’
Later we got the Citroën C1 and then the Twingo. The Twingo was horrific; I was pretty handy, and I couldn’t drive it. It never settled and had so much power for such a little car. When we did the British Rally Championship, the organisers didn’t like me as a person. So even though Chris was driving his heart out, he was constantly overlooked for the Driver of the Day or Pirelli Award. So at the final awards event, I told them we wouldn’t be back, and took Chris to the Twingo Cup in France, and they couldn’t have been more welcoming. They liked that this kid had come from the UK, and if Chris spoke any French they’d give him a round of applause!
He did the Ypres Rally [in 2013] and his team-mate was Ari Vatanen’s son, Max. On the first stage, Chris came through 15 seconds faster than anyone else. I was standing with Ari, he turned to me, and said: ‘One day that boy will be world champion.’ We’re not far off from Ari’s prediction, are we? And the amazing thing is he’s done most of it himself.”