On the road with Simon Arron

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Greece is the word

Acropolis Rally, May 7-8: a weekend of firsts as the 2016 European Rally Championship celebrates its third different winner in as many events

The sound grew louder by the second. A series of crackles and barks preceded the arrival of a Skoda Fabia R5 partially obscured within its own dust cloud. It dispatched a right-left-right sequence of kinks with minimum fuss, maximum elegance and colossal momentum, its fading rasp soon replaced by the whooping and hollering of a small group of Latvians to my left. They exchanged hugs and high fives as the Fabia’s passage – three corners from the end of one of the world’s most celebrated rallies – all but confirmed an unexpected victory for 21-year-old Ralfs Sirmacis. It was the first time he’d done the Acropolis – and also the first that he’d driven the Skoda competitively.

It helped that pre-event favourite – and defending champion – Kajetan Kajetanowicz rolled his Ford Fiesta on the first stage. “There weren’t enough spectators on hand to assist,” the Pole said, “and those present were too busy taking pictures with their phones…” 

The incident cost him 14 minutes, after which he and co-driver Jarek Baran were comfortably the quickest crew, their spirited recovery carrying them to eighth by the end. That was enough to keep them in a clear championship lead after main title rival Alexey Lukyanuk mistook a tight hairpin for a quick right-hander and badly damaged his Ford Fiesta’s suspension in the ensuing accident. That left the road clear for the swift, consistent and promising Sirmacis, a product of the ERC Junior Championship and a symbol of systemic intent.

Although it lives in its global counterpart’s shadow, the FIA-backed ERC is the world’s oldest international rally championship – first run in 1953 – and features three separate classes plus bespoke divisions for juniors (which in rallying means drivers under 27) and ladies. Jean-Baptiste Ley co-ordinates the series for promoter Eurosport Events and says: “It is designed as an intermediary step between national championships and the WRC. Our 10 events feature a mixture of asphalt, loose surfaces and occasionally snow, although unfortunately there is less of that around nowadays. The events are spread across the whole of Europe, from the Azores to Estonia and Cyprus to Northern Ireland. Last season we had 120 different drivers taking part across the campaign, with a group of 30 or so contesting every round, and the vast majority are privateers. One of our primary targets is to keep things accessible for those with relatively limited budgets.

“We think a 10-event schedule is realistic given market conditions, so there are presently no plans to expand.” 

Once a world championship staple (although it hasn’t featured on the calendar since 2013), the Acropolis has a reputation for being hot, rough and dusty, although this year it was temperate, drizzly and dusty. At various points during the 12 stages, crews returned from the hills to a busy service park in Lamia, where the PA hammered out loud, contemporary R&B featuring language inappropriate for an arena packed with young kids, but they seemed more interested in collecting free hats and balloons than they were in the music.

Up in the mountains things were a little quieter, with ornithology providing much of the soundscape and a modest but appreciative audience lining the route. On the first morning, 1978 Monte Carlo Rally winner Jean-Pierre Nicolas offered three of us a guided tour (at the wheel of a rented Volvo XC70, rather than anything flame-spitting) and this confirmed the terrain’s challenging nature, with fast, smooth sweeps intersected by tightening turns and, occasionally, vicious ruts. It also underlined that, at 71, Nicolas retains a significant degree of commitment and fine car control. We were supposed to cover the opening three stages (each of which competitors would tackle twice), but picked up a puncture shortly after completing the first. Doing the second on a partially inflated space-saver spare might have been unwise, so we repaired instead to find an air pump and some coffee.

The problems affecting Kajetanowicz and Lukyanuk would later strip the event of some lustre, but Sirmacis’s impressive victory sprinkled a little of the feelgood factor that ever accompanies new winners. A word, too, for rising Polish star Wojciech Chuchala, who took his Subaru Impreza to a class-winning fifth overall behind an all-Skoda top four.

There was also a remarkable conclusion to the battle for the remaining podium spots, with local favourite Lambros Athanassoulas badly held up by a slower car on the final stage – to the extent that he thought he’d lost second place to Czech Jaromir Tarabus and burst into tears when he reached the end. It transpired that they were 0.1sec apart after 235.52 competitive kilometres, with the Greek still ahead, but circumstance led stewards to credit Athanassoulas with 32sec he didn’t need.

It would have been a much better story had things been left as they were.  

Into the unknown

Donington Park, May 1 & Darley Moor, May 2: two racetracks, about 25 miles apart, but one is rather less familiar than the other

Having watched the opening round of this year’s British GT Championship on the full-fat version of Brands Hatch, I had intended also to take in the second at Rockingham – a circuit that has been off my radar since Champ Cars roamed Europe. Such is the congestion on the UK racing calendar, however, that sometimes I set out intending to visit one circuit but reset co-ordinates en route. Aston Martins and Lamborghinis at Rockingham or older cars tearing around the East Midlands on three wheels? The dilemma of choice. Much as I believe that British GTs produce the most spectacular contemporary racing in the UK, the Donington Historic Festival it would be.

The northbound journey was inspiring, the radio airwaves containing little but news of Leicester City’s proximity to the Premier League title (a slight contrast to the fact that my own team, Altrincham, had the previous evening been relegated to UK football’s sixth tier), the circuit’s condition no less so. With each passing season Donington Park becomes ever greener, memories of the building site left by the previous leaseholder more distant.

It’s a fabulous setting for an event such as this, the circuit’s natural contours a perfect complement for the competing cars’ body language, yet I can’t help feeling that it would be better still if the action was compressed from three days into two – to create one of the finest, most intense historic celebrations on the planet. Saturday evening’s three-hour sports car race had attracted just 11 starters, which makes no sense on any level.

There were no complaints about the bits I saw, mind. The Nuvolari Trophy tussle between Calum Lockie (Maserati 6CM) and Michael Gans (ERA R1B) is likely to be as good as any race I see this season – and Lotus Cortinas remain every bit as appealing as they were when I was about four…

***

To the west of Donington Park, the A515 feels like an old friend – part of the route that once connected the circuit to my native Cheshire. Science is powerless to explain how I passed so close to the Darley Moor racetrack without ever realising it existed. Converted from an old RAF airfield and used for bikes and karts, often at the same meetings, it has been active since 1965, remains one of British motor sport’s great secrets and is not far from the stillborn Peak District road circuit Simon Taylor described in the May 2012 edition of Motor Sport.

Vaguely triangular in shape, with a hairpin at one end and quick chicanes bisecting two of the straights, it is a wonderful throwback, with scrutineering taking place next to corrugated sheds and the paddock mostly made up of gravel and puddles, which gives the circuit a sense of soul (even if there is a fairly fresh asphalt strip down the centre to facilitate access). It also had a remarkably high dog count, all of them safely restrained and unperturbed by the sport’s sights and scents. 

The Darley Diner looks unpromising from the outside – a hut that appears not to have changed much since the 1970s – but served decent food and coffee for a fair price and also had wi-fi. The £3 programme featured a table correlating lap times with average speeds (BSB race winner Peter Hickman set the outright record last October, at 102.54mph), something I haven’t seen in a car racing counterpart for many years, and there is very little in the way of fencing to obstruct anybody’s view – the accompanying photographs were all taken from public areas. The location is potentially bleak, confirmed by an afternoon downpour of such ferocity that my jeans were still soggy by the time I returned to Kent, but for £12 per head it’s an exhilarating day out.

People of a certain age often reflect that the past was a better place, so I’m pleased to inform them it still exists in the Peak District…