From stage fright to stage-struck

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Motor Sport’s editor Damien Smith experiences the highs and lows of rallying after being persuaded to turn novice co-driver for Tony Jardine

Co-drive? Who wants to co-drive? If you want to go rallying, you’ve got to be the bloke behind the wheel, surely. That’s what I’d always thought. So I wasn’t overly tempted when TV pundit and motor sport mover and shaker Tony Jardine began a campaign to lure me in as the latest in a long line of journalists to be his navigator.

Now, as a child I was regularly car sick, and I’ve never been able to read on the road without feeling queasy. Plus I hate being a passenger. It doesn’t add up to the perfect co-driver candidate, does it? But Tony persisted and caught me when I was vulnerable (yes, I had a drink in my hand). So I took a deep breath and said yes.

Did I live to regret it? To my great surprise, I did not. In fact, my day as a rally co-driver was the best experience of motor sport I’ve ever had. I discovered that being the passenger can be just as rewarding as being the bloke behind the wheel. Don’t believe me? Read on…

Jardine chose the Swansea Bay Rally in July as the place for my co-driving debut. I would join him in a Group N Ford Fiesta ST150 prepped by York-based rally specialists ProSpeed Motorsport, tackling six of the best special stages to be found in Britain. We’d be heading into Margam, Rhondda, Resolven and Walters Arena, all regular territory for Britain’s round of the World Rally Championship and adding up to a total of 63.59 stage miles. Crikey.

Jardine is always ready with a quip, but he takes his rallying seriously. He made his stage debut in 1975 and has logged up thousands of miles in the branch of the sport he admits is his first love. This year alone he has won his class on the Rallye Sunseeker and finished second in Sweden’s WRC round. He bent over backwards to put me at ease, saying this Swansea adventure was nothing more than fun. But deep down I couldn’t believe him. I had to do this properly, and I didn’t want to make an idiot of myself.

First I had to conquer my unease at the prospect of being bounced around a tin cab next to some loon keeping his foot flat to the floor through a forest. Tony had the answer. At the Goodwood Festival of Speed, a week before our rally, he hustled me into a couple of passenger rides on the special stage at the top of the hill. Group N Mitsubishi driver Rob Gill was the first to oblige, then national rally champ Marcus Dodd gave me a taste of WRC machinery in his 2003 Hyundai.

Next, a visit to see fellow journalist Maurice Hamilton, a regular Jardine navigator. There is so much more to co-driving than reading pace notes on stages, and Maurice spent a couple of hours talking me through time cards, road books, time controls – and the need for me to invest in a digital watch, something I hadn’t worn since my acne-ravaged teens.

With Maurice’s pep-talk swirling around my brain, I headed down to Swansea. I’d never been so terrified in all my life.

Saturday morning. Our start time had been listed as 9.44am, but that was a dastardly red herring. PR Jo had texted me the night before to tell me it had changed to 9.49am. If we checked in to start five minutes early, we’d have a penalty before we’d even begun.

At the start, my first job is to synchronise my digital watch with the official rally time. This I attempt to do – several times, with the friendly timekeeper – but I can’t work out how to synchronise the seconds. Idiot. Scuppered by basic 1980s technology. Oh well. My watch is 20 seconds fast, and I’ll just have to remember that.

OK, deep breath, tell Tony to pull up to the start at 9.49 – and we’re off.

I’m following the ‘tulip’ maps in the roadbook, made up of simple arrow diagrams for every junction. At my left foot is a little button working a distance ‘trip’ connected to a digital readout box on the dashboard. The distance is given between each diagram and all I need to do is tap my trip as I strike off every point on the road section. But we have our first problem. The trip is running fast and it’s of no use to me. I need to be alert and just rely on the road book.

Still, we have 34 minutes to cover 13.68 miles, a comfortable average of 24mph. Tony keeps to the speed limits as I warn him of cameras. The South Wales police are famous for their hardline approach to rally drivers, so it’s vital to keep our noses clean on the road sections.

We reach the start of SS1 in good time, but I double-check my arithmetic. A start time of 9.49am plus the 34 minutes allocated for the road section means we must check in at 10.23am. They allow you in a minute early, but I take no chances. I check my watch, remember my ‘rogue’ 20 seconds, then tell Tony to enter the control. Time card signed, we roll towards the start of the Margam stage.

Tighten the belts, check my helmet is fastened. Now I’m really nervous. My heart is fit to burst and my knuckles are as white as my pristine Alpinestars overalls. I’m not scared of Tony chucking us into the trees – I’ve got complete faith in him on that score. I just don’t want to screw this up.

Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Waaaarrrrrpppp! We’re into the stage. The thud of stones on the underside of the car, the rapid change of direction through the turns – it hardly registers. My mind is on other things. I’m reading professional pace notes for the first time in my life, at speed, on a road I’ve never seen before. “+ 4R Lg 4L + 4L 80,” I bark into my headset. (Translation: “And four right long, opens, 40 yards; five right into four left and four left, 80 yards.”) This is amazing. It’s all making sense as the road dips, rises and darts ahead of us. I grow in confidence, calling the notes as crisply as I can. This is going really well.

Then I’m lost. Maurice said this would happen – it does for everyone. “Lost!” I call to Tony, then stay quiet until I find my place. Luckily, I soon get it back together again.

The Margam roads are fantastic – I even let out an unprofessional adrenalin-fuelled whoop as we approach the big jump flat in fifth gear. Before I know it we’re through the finish. My first 13.28 miles of special stage are over. But I’ve still got a job to do. Tony gives me an encouraging pat on the leg, then reminds me to get back on the road book. Time card signed, we now need to find our way out of the forest, get back on the road and head to the next stage.

It’s at this point that I realise I’m feeling queasy. Helmet off, deep breaths, wind down the window and forget about it. The adrenalin is slowing down, but there’s still so much to think about. I must calculate our check-in time for SS2, Walters Arena, and get us back up the M4 and into the valleys. It’s down to me. Tony has no idea where we are.

Time flies. Before I know it we’re blasting into the short stage and the intensity builds once again. Towards the end I get completely lost and my confidence takes a knock. Never mind, remember the advice: just forget about it and move on.

We check into service and there’s a few minutes to take a breather. But I still have to give team boss Olly Marshall a list of jobs: sort my ‘trip’ readout, check the tyre pressures, check the fuel. I even have to give Jo a few quotes for her press release. This really is life on the other side!

As we leave to find SS3, we’re aware that we’re leading our class. We don’t say too much about it, but I can’t help but sense that underneath Tony’s typically jovial mood there’s a hardening edge of competitiveness. We can win this thing.

Then anti-climax. A car has crashed in SS3 and we park up with everyone else on a quiet forest track. I make sure we’re checked into the control, then mill about with the other co-drivers. We’re in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a rally, and all is quiet. A strange calm descends as the cars and crews are still. But soon we’ll be plunging into the Rhondda forest. We need to snap back into action.

The stage is wonderful and Tony is full of confidence, seemingly happy to trust my note reading and commit fully to all the fast bits. We’re flying.

Then we’re into Resolven, at just over 15 miles the longest stage of the rally – and we’re having a ball. Two miles in, I hear Tony’s voice over the headset. “We’ve got a problem,” he murmurs. I can feel the car losing drive – we’re slowing. Tony curses quietly, then lets rip with conviction. This isn’t the Jardine you see on the telly. I add a few choice words of my own as reality sinks in. It’s over.

Tony speculates it could be a clutch problem as power comes and goes. We complete the stage at half-speed, moving over as faster cars fly by. We pass numerous crashed cars that have succumbed to the demands of the glorious Resolven stage. More places we could have made up. The pain of disappointment mixed with the euphoria of adrenalin still pumping around my body is simply weird. I’ve never felt like this before. It’s fascinating to discover what racing drivers go through when they’re robbed by failure in the heat of battle.

The ProSpeed boys are waiting at the end of the stage and take a quick look. They tell us to nurse the car back to service – maybe it’s not over yet. By now I’m totally deflated, but I still have a job to do. We need to get back to the service park on time and avoid road penalties just in case the boys can work a miracle.

Back at service, Olly gives us the verdict. An input seal in the gearbox has failed, spewing oil on to the clutch plates – which explains the sudden loss of drive. It’s just too big a job to tackle in the service area and so my final job of the day is to notify the timekeepers of our retirement.

The ProSpeed boys are hurting as much as we are. The seal has a life of 1000 miles and it’s only done 500. It’s just one of those things.

As we pack up and head back into Swansea I reflect on how far I’ve come in a few hours, from pure fear to unadulterated euphoria. I’m frankly astounded that it was so satisfying. Every now and then I wince at the pain of not making the finish – and missing out on that class-winning trophy. But those feelings are overwhelmed by the memory of blasting through narrow forest lanes, getting into a rhythm with the pace notes and being part of a great little team. I’m tired, but happy – and I’m ready for a beer.

At least retiring from a rally early has one upside. It means I’ll just have to come back and finish the job. You won’t need to convince me next time, Tony.

My thanks to Tony, ProSpeed Motorsport, Kumho Tyres, Castrol, Arai Helmets and Alpinestars for all their help with this feature

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