Lombard Rally Newcastle
Author: Tom Magnay, Photo/Video: BlendLine Magazine
Organising a full blown rally post-lockdown is harder than you imagine. I know this because I have had a very small input on the organisation phase of a large BRC and BTRDA rally which takes place later this month, which will be the first proper gravel rally to take place in Wales since February 2020.
Stepping away from National status events though, and the smaller, single-venue rallies (ones where organisers can usher crews, marshalls and other necessary personnel inside and the shut the gates to lock out any spectators, avoiding big crowds) have, of late, enjoyed filled entry lists within minutes of opening up. Of course, this is much to the annoyance of loyal rally spectators, who have taken to their computer keyboards to utter their frustration at being left out of the fun.
Sadly though, these events do need to happen "behind closed doors" to prove that they can go ahead in a safe manner, so we can enjoy the larger, grandstand-filled events that we all know and love.
Typically, the smaller events that have been thriving have run on airfields or race circuits, and last weekend I was fortunate to have an entry in one with a good friend, Sion Ellis.
Sion is a car collector and has an enviable stash of rally, track and road machinery in his garage. The vast majority of the cars you find in his Automax workshop in Dolgellau are Subaru - you guessed it - Imprezas.
We meet late on a Friday night and Sion has loaded up tomorrows rally car of choice on to the trailer. Yep, you guessed it again, Impreza. The one we are using is a 1997 4 door Impreza STI, which was imported by Knockhill circuit some years ago and used for tuition and thrill rides there. You can read a little more about this car in a previous shakedown test we did last year, here.
This time though, the car is running a special livery. In a nod to the retro/nostaglia feel of the event we are running in, Automax has put the car into a period works livery of David Higgins from his British Championship Group N campaign of 1997 - Barretts Motorsport.
As the car is strapped onto the trailer I look around and take in the cars sat in the workshop. A tidy V-Limited Impreza road car, a 2 door GC8 Prodrive rally car (both Sion's) adorn one corner. Meanwhile a Hawkeye and a Blobeye, both rally spec wrapped in lurid vinyl, sit in another corner, these two belonging to music sensations John Newman and Sigala respectively. Yes, when they're not belting out UK chart top 10s, these guys do a bit of rallying, and Sion is charged with keeping their cars on-song. (Pun intended).
An M-Sport Fiesta R2 (being prepped for Goodwood the weekend after) and a collection of other retro cars are wedged into the workshop and yard, including a 106 GTI, a V8 Capri and a Austin Allegro Equipe...
We're ready to turn in for the night for some shuteye before an early start. By now, it's 11pm and the sensitive subject of what time to set our alarms for is broached by Sion. "It's quite a long way to where we're going, what time do you reckon...?" We check maps and sure enough, it's a long way north of Newcastle where the rally is actually being held. A subsequent conversation resulted in an eye watering 02:00 alarm being set on both our phones, I helped myself to a spare room in Sion's house and got my head down for literally a couple of hours kip.
What felt like moments later - probably because it was - my 2am alarm shook me into life and I found myself forcing "breakfast" down me ahead of what was definitely going to be a long day.
Fast forward a few hours later and we were a couple of hundred miles into our northward journey in the Transit van towing the rally car behind us. Chatting motorsport, racecars and other bollocks is second nature to Sion and I, so the eventual five and a half hour journey to Alnwick, Northumberland (not far from the Scottish border) didn't drag in the slightest.
Fast forward a little more and the car is off the trailer, we've done our "drivers briefing" (a very relaxed affair - 'don't drive into any one else, and have fun') and the Subaru boxer engine is thumping itself up to temperature ready for stage 1. It's 9am and we've been up 7 hours already, but the thought of a rally stage is keeping us far from sleepy.
Normally I'm found in the drivers seat, but today I'm tasked with co-driving. The big difference that separates the pacenotes in a single venue rally to a multi venue stage rally, is the pacenote system. On a forest gravel rally, co-drivers use pacenotes to describe every intricate detail of the stage ahead to the driver. One a single venue like today, we're given a stage map or diagram, showing chicanes, gateposts, hairpins and the general direction of travel, but there could always be more detail. After poring over the map for a minute or two, making a couple of adjustments and adding some distances from the areas we can see by eye from the paddock, I head off to the rally HQ to find out the amended start time. We're car number 27 and the cars set off at 30 second intervals so I work out we will start at 13 minutes 30 seconds after the first car. That's my first co-driver task taken care of!
We get suited and booted ready for the first stage, Sion and I jump in to the car and trundle off to the start line where we line up behind a Metro 6R4, a Porsche 911, an enormous amount of Escorts, and yet more Escorts.
A final tug on the harnesses and a check of the helmet strap and we're being counted down from 5.
I count down in sync with the starting marshall, and "GO!" The 2.0 turbocharged boxer engine cackles off the start line and launches us down a long straight, into a 90 degree left. "200, keep right into 1 left, 100 into hairpin left and immediate hairpin right." My voice carries over the intercom into Sion's ears. "Medium left opens, 100, into hairpin right round bales, opens into hairpin left."
A series of hairpins round hay bales and other man made furniture provided the thrills for the next few hundred metres, and then into a selection of very tight chicanes, which break up the long straights. Two and a half miles later and we're across the finish line. I'm scribbling over the map to make note of some adjustments we can make for next time (the stage is repeated shortly) to make our lines as clean and fast as possible. For example, there was a long 300m stretch of gravel which wasn't marked in the map, with gateposts either side of the stage and at either end. Useful information I can now relay to Sion next time we pass through.
My "medium" that I was calling "off-sight" could now be a "3" as I knew it was a reasonably fast 3rd gear corner, the area after one of the chicanes was definitely a "keep right on exit", and so on. Sion and I headed back to our service area chatting about the car and tyres. We're on half used Dunlop forest tyres, which were quite a soft compound and gave plenty of bite under braking and a little roll on the long tarmac corners. Brakes were working well and not trying to lock the wheels, the engine pulling cleanly too from low RPM out of the almost "full stop" chicanes.
Stage 2 and 3 used the same loop again, so by lunchtime Sion and I know the stage quite well, and Sion is able to let the car run a little wider off the notes I call and be a little more exuberant. I can tell he's enjoying himself! Lunchtime calls a temporary halt in proceedings, as we grab ourselves a Bratwurst roll and a coffee, thanks to both the German food stand - which was one of the catering suppliers - and the guys with an awesome espresso machine in the back of a Supercarry van!
A look round some of the display stands and clubs (a local Porsche owners club had bought some members and their cars down, as had Ford). There was also a Lotus/Jim Clark museum display, being fronted by some eager Scots, and a few other trade stands.
Spectators were welcomed in this instance, and were placed in gaggles around the perimeter of the stage. Having spoken to quite a few spectators who had come out for the day to watch, it was their first time coming to watch a rally event, because in their part of the world they are a long way from rally stages, the closest being perhaps Kielder, Greystoke, or West Scotland.
Stages 4-6 were the same stage but in anti-clockwise format, so everything that we learnt in the morning loop was only half relevant now, but we could carry some elements such as the big pothole in one of the 90 degree corners over to the afternoon stages.
During one of the breaks in between stages, we had a good chinwag with 2000s rally star Guy Wilks, who was out in a beautiful Porsche 911 3 litre. We exchanged words throughout the day and compared notes on the condition of the stage, as he was servicing right next to us.
Our car ran like clockwork all afternoon, a testament to the engineering skills of Sion & Automax Dolgellau. Other cars didn't make it all the way through, some of our fellow competitors sadly loaded up their cars early due to mechanical failure.
For both myself and Sion the day was very much a laid back event, to go out with a car we share an interest in, and ultimately to have some giggles. The laid back nature of the tour/festival type event is certainly appealing, and there are more and more of these types of rallies appearing on the calendar. It was also a rarity to be able to park the Subaru straight on the trailer, strap it down and haul straight out of there! We both said on the trip home that we would return to a similar type of rally day and have already sent in another entry for another one in October, and for us the appeal of an event which you can do everything in one day, was very strong.
Some hours later, and a fuel/coffee stop or two, we arrived back in Dolgellau, after leaving some 22 hours earlier.
The day after, by the time I had got back to Hereford, Sion messaged me to say that he'd posted the Subaru for sale online and it had already provisionally sold! So I guess we'll have to find something else for the Rally Revival in October...
Tom Magnay: tommagnay01, Sion Ellis: @sionellisautomax
BlendLine Apparel: @blend_line
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