Forest gumption

Wales Rally GB, November 15-17: annual showpiece returns to its roots (and routes)

Last month’s event report touched on the Wales Rally GB’s resurgent popularity, but skimped on some of the detail – a by-product of tight deadlines. So…

Saturday morning, Dyfi. There is apparently space to accommodate only four more cars when I reach the parking area, but I’m one of a fortunate quartet. How far is it to the stage? “About two miles,” a marshal tells me, “probably two and a half…” It’s significantly uphill, too, and I’m lugging two camera bodies plus assorted lenses. Approximately mid-trudge, I hear a couple of vehicles approaching from behind. For the first time since 1978, while trekking around north-west France, I stick out a thumb. It’s more reflex and hope than expectation, but a Range Rover pulls up. I’ve no idea how the driver talked his way past the bloke on the gate and don’t much care: he and his mate are present to support Irishman Eamonn Boland’s Subaru Impreza and are happy to transport me to the summit. Result.

It’s as packed by the stage’s edge as car park numbers imply, and marshals have their work cut out to control the crowd – or, more critically, keep them away from the firing line. I ask the post commander which areas he’d like me to avoid and he indicates several perceived danger spots. “If you’re towards the inside,” he says, “anywhere near that pile of rocks, you’ll be out of harm’s way.” As he points, Ukrainian Mini driver Oleksii Kikireshko looms into view, spins and reverses onto the very same rocks. I receive a shrug of acknowledgement and position myself elsewhere.

It doesn’t much matter whether the approaching car is Sébastien Ogier’s VW Polo or a standard-looking Renault Twingo, the audience response is similarly enthusiastic and the sense of anticipation never wavers.

At one stage, a knot of spectators gathers in a prohibited area and a marshal asks them to step back behind the security tapes. “I’m not moving,” says a fat bloke in a bright yellow jacket. “Fair enough,” the marshal replies, politely, “but there are several hundred people in the correct place, just over there. Would you mind explaining to them why we’re going to have to cancel the stage?” Fat bloke moves and the action continues – a triumph for calm governance.

Afterwards I ponder a trip to the Chirk Castle stage, but traffic, the need for a cheese sandwich and diminishing light persuade me to repair instead to the service area. It transpires that I’ve by-passed automotive bedlam: popularity and pandemonium are common bedfellows.

Sunday morning, Clocaenog. Not wishing to leave anything to chance, I arrive more than two hours before the first car is due… and the overflow car park is already overflowing. The walk is shorter and flatter this time, the route occasionally infused with the scent of barbecued sausage. I ask one of the marshals if he can recommend a decent vantage point and his descriptive precision is such that he might well be a co-driver in his spare time. “The first car arrives at 11.06,” he says, “but the proper ones don’t get here until 12.41…” He means the rear-drive Ford Escorts.

“The event has recaptured some of its original spirit,” another marshal tells me. “I know it’s still regional, rather than national, but this is classic Rally GB terrain and it hasn’t passed through here for years – that’s what caught the public’s imagination. We’ve also attracted marshals from other rally hot-spots, such as the North-East.

It would have taken them seven hours to get to the event when it was based in South Wales, so they didn’t bother. They can get here in about three, though, and have turned out in droves.”

The crowd is as boisterous and passionate as it had been the previous day and many stay until the last of the stragglers has passed through. As I squelch back towards the car, about five hours after parking, many a barbecued sausage is still being gently tweaked.

The Wales Rally GB needs that, too, but 2013 provided a positive step.