The editor had high hopes tons second outing as co-driver to Tony Jardine, before nausea, confusion and a ditch intervened
By Damien Smith
This was not how it was supposed to end. I was secretly hoping to return to the Motor Sport office with a little class-winning trophy. Instead, my second rally as co-driver to TV pundit and motor sport mover and shaker Tony Jardine ended in ignominy, against a hard rock surface on a bleak Scottish hillside.
Jardine had promised me a return match since our mechanically-induced retirement from the class lead on the Swansea Bay Rally last year. Now, here was the opportunity, the Colin McRae Forest Stages in picturesque Perthshire, which would allow me to polish up my pace note reading and, more importantly, give Jardine a sneak preview of the roads that will form part of the Rally of Scotland – a welcome new closing act to Britain’s motor sporting year.
November used to be traditional Rally GB time, but the World Championship finale has already been and gone this season. Instead, the focus will fall on another finale, north of the border, when the Intercontinental Rally Challenge rolls into Stirling and Perth on November 19-21. And with it will be Britain’s new rallying superstar, Kris Meeke.
Unfortunately for the new Scottish event, Meeke has stolen some of its thunder. It was billed as the title showdown between the 30-year-old’s Peugeot 207 and Jan Kopecky’s Skoda Fabia – but Kris has inconsiderately exceeded expectations by wrapping up the title early, with a brilliant win on the Sanremo Rally (see p88).
Never mind. A quick re-write of the script, and the rally becomes a ‘glorious homecoming’ for our new hero. Okay, he’s from Northern Ireland, but Meeke has strong ties to the east of Scotland. Early in his career he was picked up by Colin McRae, becoming not only a protégé to the legend but also a good friend. Which is where we come back to the McRae Stages.
A week after Sanremo, Meeke’s feet haven’t touched the ground when he arrives in Perth. He’s here to make a star turn on the McRae Stages in tribute to his old mate who lost his life in a helicopter crash two years ago. The McRae Stages has become a spit-pop-bang memorial to Britain’s greatest rally driver.
But there’s more than sentiment at work here. Meeke’s Kronos-run 207 is primarily entered, like Jardine’s Group N Fiesta, to gain team and crew a first sight of some of the stages to be used for the IRC round.
“They’re some of the best gravel forest stages in the UK,” Meeke tells me when I ask for tips. “They’re incredibly enjoyable and flowing. There are some really fast sections, but there are also some twisty and narrow parts, so it’s all about keeping up good momentum.
“It caught me out last year. I hit a big stone in the grass and that put me out. Punctures are always an issue on the McRae Stages. It’s easy to drop a wheel to straightline corners, but there are loads of stones.” Those words ring in my ears later in the day.
As it turns out, Meeke’s McRae Stages proves of little use to his Rally of Scotland preparations. His rally goes up in smoke – or rather steam – when his Sanremo winner splutters to a stop with an engine water leak just 500 metres into his first competitive run. At least Jardine and I get further than the new champ…
But not far enough. Here’s what happened. Be ready for the odd excuse, the odd act of total ineptitude on my part and a wound-up bloke off the telly forcing me to use the star key more than I’m used to.
First excuse: rally winner (and three-times British champion) Mark Higgins described the conditions as “absolutely horrendous”. He’s not wrong. We leave the Perth ceremonial start in the dry, but overnight rain has already wreaked havoc in the hills. The first stage, Craigvinean, is 10.9 miles of twisting, tortuous, muddy hell. On the pace notes, I am all over the place: too fast in some bits, too slow in others.
Diving straight in on these tough forest roads over a year after Swansea (yes, it’s the second excuse) scrambles my brain. The two-wheel drive brigade head the 120-strong field and we are running as number 22. Behind us a Vauxhall Nova rams a tree head-on, leaving the co-driver trapped in the wreck. We meet him later at the hotel bar, proudly sporting a huge cast for damaged ligaments. Lucky escape. For the rest of the field behind him the stage is cancelled.
It is heading out of Craigvinean where I make my worst blunder. Now, tulip maps for the road sections are very straightforward. But not for your cranium-fried editor. I am still getting over the trauma of SS1 when I send us down the wrong road for five minutes (yes, it’s excuse number three). I also feel car sick and threaten to give the stripped-out Fiesta an all-new interior (excuse four).
By the time we get back to the junction we are under pressure to reach the service area on time. Remember that TV programme where Chris Searle co-drove for Roger Clark on an RAC Rally in the early 1980s and got them lost? If you do, you’ll remember the tension in the car. This is worse than that. It isn’t helped by a stroppy police motorcyclist giving us the evil eye, then riding ahead of us – painfully slowly – all the way back to service. We reach the control with a minute to spare.
Then a long delay before SS2, Drummond Hill. This is the one Jimmy McRae – five times British champion and father of Colin – told me to beware of. He had a miraculous escape here in a classic Porsche a year earlier. Now he is back as course car driver, in his 1988 Scottish Rally-winning Sierra Cosworth.
When we are finally let loose through Drummond – shortened by two miles because of the bad conditions – I begin to find my rhythm. The sickness has subsided, too, and it’s going well – until a marshal with a red flag bravely stands in the road to stop us halfway through (pictured above). An Escort Mk2 has rolled ahead of us. We complete the stage slowly in convoy with three other cars. What a shame. It is a fabulous road, but we do at least get to enjoy the stunning views over Loch Tay. I like to think we wouldn’t have noticed them at rally speed.
By SS3 – Allean, or Errochty as it is more traditionally known – our confidence is up. Tony pushes from the start, aided a little more by my calmer, more measured approach to the pace notes. Until I get lost. I’m told it happens to the best of co-drivers, and it happened on more than one occasion on the Swansea Bay, but I get properly lost this time. The junction markers on the roads are in the notes and it is by these that co-drivers can get back on track. But what I see through the windscreen doesn’t match the notes. I still don’t know why (excuse five).
Tony presses on regardless, driving on sight. He later admits he should have backed off, but he’s a competitive old chap…
It is at a fast left-hander where it all goes wrong. Ahead of us we can see a crest, bordered on the right by a bank of rocks. Through the turn the Fiesta begins to slide. Tony has joined me as a passenger.
It could be worse. A ditch ahead of the rock face catches us and the side-on impact that is showing on preview in my mind’s eye never comes. Instead, we bounce through the trench, ugly crunches immediately telling us we won’t be going any further. The right front wheel has folded into the wheel arch and we are stuck.
“Ya f*****, ya f*****, ya f*****! Ya bastard!” screams a voice beside me. Is this voice talking to me? Am I about to be punched? I don’t know what to say – so I don’t say anything.
We’ve come to rest half out in the road, just ahead of the crest. Tony barks at me to get out and warn following cars to slow down. For the next two hours we stand by the road waving our arms in driving wind and rain to stop others slamming into the stranded little Fiesta. There are a few close calls, and at times I feel vulnerable as cars slither past my feet, but the feared collision (with both me and the car) never comes.
As the tow truck slowly winds down the hillside, ‘Terrifying Tony’ has morphed back into something more human and generously accepts all the blame. But I can’t help but feel I contributed. If I’d been reading the notes, we might have made it.
There had been no time for fear during the crash. My only feeling was despair that again we wouldn’t reach the finish. To my surprise and delight (yes, despite the traumas of the day), Tony says: “Third time lucky?”
You bet. Tune in next year.
Our thanks to ProSpeed Motorsport, Castrol, Kumho Tyres, Alpine Stars and Arai Helmets for their help with this feature.
Olly Marshall quit driving to launch growing rally firm ProSpeed
In all the excitement, I completely forgot about the little metal tube pointing back at Tony and I from the dashboard of the Castrol-sponsored Fiesta ST. It captured everything, and you can see the so-called ‘highlights’ of our adventure on www.motorsportmagazine.co.uk – all thanks to a genial ginger bloke called Olly Marshall.
Olly is the boss of ProSpeed Motorsport, the team that maintains and runs the M-Sport-built Fiesta for Jardine. You probably haven’t heard of this compact York-based company – but that could change in the years to come.
Marshall rallied himself, reaching junior World Championship level before hanging up his helmet at the end of 2004. ProSpeed became his focus. “We bought the Skoda Motorsport WRC Octavia cars and gear, and concentrated on renting out rally cars – but it didn’t make much money,” he says. “Now the only car we run is for Tony. We’ve moved into building rally cars – everything from Group N Subarus to Peugeot T16
Group B cars, which was quite an honour.”
Having initially grown faster than Marshall expected, ProSpeed has slimmed down to a taut four employees. But the expansion continues, the business being split into five divisions. It tackles everything from servicing Mitsubishi Evos and Ferraris to building FIA-registered rollcages.
All this, plus Olly’s growing enthusiasm for web-based sales and promotion. Hence the camera in the car, capturing our every move. Yeah, cheers for that, Olly.
A legacy of his own sides
Kris Meeke is a former Colin McRae protégé – and now a rally champ
“Kris is the closest driver I’ve seen to Colin. That’s what I thought the very first time I got in a car with him.” That’s Jimmy McRae’s verdict on the new Intercontinental Rally Challenge champion. Yes, he really does compare Kris Meeke to his late son, still the most famous, most celebrated rally driver two years after his tragic death.
The McRae comparison is one that Meeke learned to live with early in his career when Colin was his mentor. “No one can ever replicate Colin McRae – everything from his style of driving to the influence of his computer game,” he says. “He didn’t win every rally, but he ignited the passion for rallying in so many people. Comparisons have been made to me, but we never sat in a rally car together, so I don’t know. We certainly had the same attitude to the sport.”
Like McRae, the speed was never in doubt. And like McRae, Meeke made plenty of mistakes early in his career, sowing doubt that he could consistently deliver results. Now, with his performances for Peugeot UK in the IRC, those doubts have been banished.
“Getting a break this year came at an unexpected time, with the recession and everything,” he says. “We sat down with Peugeot UK at the beginning of the year and there were no expectations from anyone that we could fight for the championship in the first season. But I’ve gelled with the car, with Peugeot and with Kronos, and it’s worked perfectly.”
“In rallying nothing can compete with experience, more so than in circuit racing. I think the youngest World Champion was something like 26 – and I didn’t start until I was 21. I’m certainly handling situations better this year, understanding I have to score points for the championship. You have to serve your time.”
So the next step – the World Rally Championship? Actually, no. There are only two manufacturers in the WRC and he’s turned down an offer to run with a privateer. The IRC is a better place to be.
“I am very happy where I am,” he says. “I’m involved in a factory team and that makes a world of difference. You don’t have the negative pressure that comes with life as a privateer and I won’t consider the WRC unless it is a factory drive. Anyway, the IRC is better promoted, there is more TV and more exposure. It’s the perfect place to be.”
But surely the WRC will retain its position at the pinnacle of the sport? “Until the WRC regs are decided for 2011 we don’t know what will happen,” he says. “I think it is a fundamental error for the WRC to go against the Super 2000 regs, because there are plenty of cars already out there. But they are worried about using the same formula as the IRC. S2000 is a relatively straightforward formula. In comparison, it is impossible for a manufacturer to go into the WRC against Citroën and Ford because of their knowledge.”
At the age of 30, Meeke is his own man. Comparisons to his old mentor are meaningless. He’s writing his own legacy now.