"Keep her lit"

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– rallying is far more loosely structured than circuit racing, and offers a rich variety of challenges, even for mere privateers • • •

After a while, the autograph hunters became a nuisance: we were trying to complete our recce and the importunate gangs of schoolchildren who descended on the car at regular intervals weren’t helping. If that sounds ungrateful a couple of unknown British clubmen ought to appreciate a little adulation it also indicates the standing of the 24 Hours of Ypres. It has a wider appeal than any other European Championship rally and the children knew exactly why a foreign-registered car was traversing the backroads of Flanders, even if they had no idea who the crew were. In that part of the world, any rally driver is a hero.

It is hard to explain the attraction of a rally made out of nothing. In theory, any good rally has two minimum requirements: challenging, enjoyable roads, in a thinly-populated area. Ypres cheerfully breaks both those rules and plenty of others. With the exception of the Heuvelland (‘Mountain Land’) stages crossing the low hills on the French border, the roads are largely if not completely flat and not a patch on say, the stages of the Manx or Antibes Rallies. Yet the fast, ultra-narrow lanes are immensely demanding and they are linked together in rapid-fire succession, 10-mile stages often split by five-mile link sections in a blast across the countryside that holds the population in the grip of rally fever for weeks on end; people actually watch rally cars practising at night.

To add to the fun, stages are lengthened by using crossroads twice, placing barriers diagonally across the road, and spectators throng to a three-lap stage round the industrial estate. As my co-driver, Chris Patterson, observed, in many ways it is a rally for spectators. Yet a 460-mile route that is more than 50 per cent competitive and the prospect of 170 or more cars, with strong opposition in every class, makes for a contest every self-respecting tarmac rally driver should do at least once.

The event’s reputation is such that the AC Targa Florio doesn’t lavish incentives on British amateurs as most Belgian organisers do and assistance for a Dunlop Metro GTi Cup crew was confined to 33 gallons of free petrol and half-price insurance of £175. It all helps of course, and Rover Sport assistance takes care of the insurance and adds £125 to the kitty. Taking that into account, on-event expenditure was around £775, including tyres – a tidy sum for an unsponsored amateur.

If one really wants to cut costs, one can still tackle a major international in the rally car alone, using it for a little practice if it’s a Group N car and putting a few spares in the boot. Metro rules make this easier, as contestants use the same Dunlop D84J road tyres throughout. However, rallying is a competitive sport, so we had a borrowed Montego for practice and a Fiat van with three-man service crew from Roman Camp Garage, near Bath.

We completed more than 800 miles of practice in two 18-hour days, painstakingly checking the notes provided by Rover and compiled by Roger Hunt, finishing at 03.00 on the morning of the start not that we would be going anywhere at speed until 20.30 that evening. As foreign friends had predicted, two days’ practice were nowhere near enough.

During the event, the long-suffering Montego became a chase car, which we met after all but four of the 37 stages, while the van guarded our precious parking spot in Ypres. A friend had told me that a reliable car was the main requirement for Ypres and he was right. Even during the second leg, which covers a much longer lap of the region and has longer road sections, there never seemed to be much more than five minutes for service. Rushing out of stages with a list of three jobs that needed doing, it soon became clear that most of them would have to wait: only petrol was essential. Even the end of the lap offered little respite. 20 minutes’ service looked generous until one worked out the time spent fighting past other service vans and hordes of spectators to one’s own service point, then back to the re-group. At a pinch, 20 minutes might mean 14.

To anyone brought up on road rallies, this is how all events should be run. My codriver is one of the talented new breed of Ulster pace note experts and doesn’t know a thing about road rallies, but he approved anyway. While he is more used to Sierra Cosworth power and treats 1400cc cars as light relief, we were not in Belgium to admire the scenery, although we visited it on a number of occasions. I knew that I was expected to “keep her lit,” which is Ulster slang for not lifting off unless extinction beckons.

Chris’s patience must have been sorely tried on the first night by a ragged start when I tried to make up for a three-month lay-off, persistently braked too early, slid stupidly into a ditch for 30s on some gravel, and survived a stage with only the handbrake for company after we ran out of time bleeding the brakes.

I expect he was grateful we got round that.

There are few experiences more depressing than sitting on the startline of a 10-mile stage knowing you have no brakes. One tries to keep calm, remind oneself it will only cost a minute, and not go off the road.

Things were going much better by the end of the night. On our best stage, we were only nine seconds behind Tony Pond in the works Metro, but erratic driving, combined with the 90s lost in the ditch and through the brake problem, meant we were fifth Metro Cup crew rather than third.

Fifth soon became fourth, as Chris Pope collected a house on the second stage of the second leg. Paul Northall was now in our sights and bothered by intercom trouble. I liked the hilly stages round Kemmel and Westouter and decided to step up the attack. To my disappointment, we set equal times on Kemmelberg, but Westouter – which starts with a mile long descent that would make a fine ski run – was going better until we were outwitted by a patch of gravel near the finish. To the spectators’ delight, we spun into a cabbage field. Better still, we needed pushing out. We had lost another 30s.

It was time to drive a little more neatly. 75 miles of stages remained and third was still possible. We were level again on the following stage, only to drop 10s thanks to an overshoot on the next.

Unfortunately, we set a good time on Sint Sixtus and so, a mile into the following stage, we were back in the cabbages, after a roll that unaccountably left the roof unmarked; Belgian fields are soft and well-tended! However, another 30s had gone and I had knocked the tracking out in charging the ditch to regain the road. We were no longer going to improve on third unless Mr Northall also went mad – and in any case, there is nothing like a roll to remind one that there is a finite supply of luck. Reluctantly, we settled for fourth, driving just quickly enough to keep our rival under pressure.

It didn’t dent the sense of achievement in finishing. We were 53rd overall, the small matter of 19 minutes behind Pond and ninth in class, but it is impossible not to enjoy a carnival, and Ypres was still buzzing long after dawn.

D K W

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