PH GOES RALLYING: PART THREE
From Group B to grassroots in one step, and the latest instalment from Dan P and Chris's rally adventures
In this latest report we hear from both individually after a winter outing going the wrong way (intentionally) round Brands Hatch…
Update: for some onboard footage from the event see here or below.
Given that I was so anxious ahead of my co-driving debut, it does now seem odd that the moments I enjoyed most were when the stages were at their slipperiest. At times the grip levels were frankly comical, and it turns out that the sensation of a neatly balanced rear-wheel drive car sliding through a corner is very nearly as much fun from the co-driver’s side of the car. Chris spent more time on opposite lock that Saturday than a Formula 1 driver does in his entire career.
When the stages were dry, the BMW felt a little out of its depth as it shrieked its way through the wide, open corners of the circuit itself. The sense of jeopardy was gone, too, and I was surprised to find that I missed it. The biggest revelation for me, however, was just how much influence the co-driver has on the pace of the car and ultimately the stage times. Although my ownstint behind the wheel was my personal highlight , I’m sure I’ll co-drive again for the fun of it.
One of the reasons for embarking upon this rallying adventure was to explore the notion of affordable motorsport. £4,000 bought us a rally-prepared BMW 325i, and a further £800 was spent to get it through the MoT test (necessary for competition use). Chris already had a suitable tow vehicle in his eclectic fleet (although it wasn’t entirely dependable) and we borrowed a trailer for events. We both had access to helmets and race suits, too, but reckon on around £1,000 each for all the clobber.
We do now face certain basic maintenance costs as we aim to continue using the car, but across a gravel test day and two sealed-surface events, the BMW has been utterly faultless.
This exercise was about learning for me. I don’t doubt that I’ve learnt lots about competition driving and rally navigating, but of much more value is my newfound appreciation of just how much effort, frustration and dedication goes into getting to the start line of a clubman motorsport event. The amateur rally crew is a very hard working unit and the volunteers that enable the events to run at all are utter heroes.
Any sporting event immediately after the Christmas break always benefits from that slightly chummy beginning of term atmosphere, and so it was at the MGJ Stages. This is a single event rally that uses the Brands Hatch Indy circuit as a base, and runs four different configurations around the paddocks, pits and grounds of the circuit grounds each to be complete twice, making eight stages in all.
With the trusty Range Rover chewing 15amp fuses like Maltesers I thought it might be prudent to borrow a tow truck as well as a trailer, and in the spirit of budget motorsport I purloined a £97K Mercedes G350 CDI. Its upgraded leather and Alcantara interior was worth more than the rally car. Ironically, the Range Rover has been behaving faultlessly these past two weeks, so I probably could have used it after all.
By the time we arrived at 11pm the trailer park was a mud-bath and we retired to the Thistle hotel covered in oomska and with bleeding hands. There’s nothing more annoying than operating an unfamiliar trailer at night, in the lashing rain. I’m buying one for the next rally.
We parked ourselves next to some friendly types with a Rover 25, and as they put the final touches to their race package, we spent 20 minutes cranking the old 325 into life. I have never turned a car over for that long – I don’t know what was more ridiculous, the sight of two imbeciles trying to rouse the worst-prepared car on display or the remarkable cranking capacity of the car’s battery.
I was reversing and chatting to a couple of marshals when I felt the car stop quite suddenly and issue a large crunching sound from the rear. I had driven into a stationary Land Rover Discovery.
This wasn’t good, and the news deteriorated somewhat when we learnt that said Discovery was owned by the event Safety and Incident officer. I kicked the filler which had crumbled from the Bimmer’s rear panel under the car, stammered some apologies and scarpered. I didn’t scratch anything during a crazy year’s filming in 2012, but I couldn’t complete a three-point-turn in the rally car at walking speed.
Our tyre choice was limited to what came with the car when we bought it a year ago: full gravel knobblies or a set of Yoko AO48s. The amount of track mileage on the day meant we had to run the Yokos, but watching the lead cars come through on the first stage, it was clear that grip in the near-freezing temperatures was, er, limited. As in, lots of trick 4WD cars were spinning.
Stage two was a repeat of Stage one, so knowing the route and taking more liberties with the chicanes, we went 24 seconds faster, this time finishing 33rd.
I’d be lying if I said the thought of driving around in circles in an old BMW had fired my imagination pre-event, but after those first stages I couldn’t stop grinning. This was proper, timed motorsport for the kind of money Dan outlines in his piece. It’s a bargain and enormous fun too.
Later, when the track dried a little the car found some grip and was nothing like as much fun. All that lateral load made the thing creak and smoke was spewing from the transmission tunnel on long left-handers. Luckily, the dew began to fall fairly soon, and conditions quickly became lethal again. This exposed the 325’s main fault, which is the crazy slow steering rack with four turns lock-to-lock.
Check out Dan’s running costs analysis, but to me this event bore comparable costs to a track day in a 997 GT3. The entry fee was reasonable, it was very well organised and I would far rather compete properly against the clock than just drive around a UK track with other people in a converted street car.
We’re entering the Wyedean at the weekend. It’ll be a much sterner test, and I’ll have to kerb some of the flamboyance to try and make it to the end. The car is having a quicker rack fitted – because the slow one would be plain dangerous between the trees – and a general once-over with the chaps at Rally Prep Quite how it’s survived a full day’s hooning at Phil Price’s and two of these Brands events is beyond me. It’s built like a truck.
Now it’s time to study for the Wyedean.