Mikko Hirvonen in Ford Focus WRC
As I strolled through the entrance and into Castle Combe Circuit at eight in the morning, I could feel the anticipation immediately. One Lancia Delta Integrale pulling up beside several others, the club members frantically polishing their car’s flanks, desperate to own the shiniest car at the show. As if there were an award.
The hundreds of rally fans already there swapped nuggets of information, facts and statistics. “This car has over 450bhp”. This lot know their stuff.
The circuit grounds filled up quickly as I acquainted myself with the displays. The one that struck me first was the vast row of Impreza RB5s. About 20 now, it grew to over 50, all in tribute to the late Richard Burns, British rally legend. This man’s most important rally cars were sat right by; the Impreza in which he won the 2001 World Rally Championship, and the 206 in which he was leading the 2003 Championship before his illness struck.
The action was about to get under way, and I knew which corner I wanted to place myself at. Stood at Quarry, I heard the shriek of a car being driven in anger – the first of the day, the first of many. As it scaled Avon Rise, I saw that it was a white Peugeot 306, giving punters high speed passenger rides. I was utterly convinced that the hilarious angle of drift through Quarry must have been a mistake. As the driver did exactly the same for the next four laps, I realised it wasn’t at all. If this was the order of the day, we were in for a treat.
The most impressive car of the morning however, was the Ford Focus WRC, driven by young Finn Mikko Hirvonen. The car roared past at a ridiculous pace, glued to its line, leaving Evos and Scoobies for dead in its wake. The car would pass me once, and then pass me again on its next lap within what felt like seconds. The weather throughout the morning was roasting. Not sunny, but muggy. Coupled with my press tabard, which was apparently made of the most insulating material known to man, it meant that heavy perspiration was inevitable. The track action was just enough to keep me distracted.
The walk from Quarry to the paddock revealed a plethora of owner’s clubs. RS, Impreza, Evo, even Skoda. There were dozens of memorabilia stands, selling clothing, photographs, toy cars to young enthusiasts, and scale models to older enthusiasts. I grabbed myself a burger, the greasiest I’ve ever had while sober, and made my way towards the pit lane.
A minute’s silence in memory of Richard Burns, and Michael Park, who also lost his life last year, was about to begin. Once over, the 50 limited edition Impreza RB5s took to the track, lead by the first RB5 ever built. Driven by Burnsie’s father. Some had ‘In memory of Richard Burns’ written on the side. Truly a lump in the throat moment, one that seemed to unite the crowd.
Once the Imprezas were back in the paddock, and the ever impressive Russ Swift began his precision driving display, the heavens opened. Anyone without an umbrella got drenched, and the track began to look waterlogged. The raindrops were the size of grapes.
This is rallying though, so through it the drivers would battle. Once the feature rally stage had been constructed, using barrels and straw bales, the rain had subsided. The track was still soaking though, so the first few cars proceeded with caution. Not enough it would seem, as most of them had a wobble at some point.
While standing by the cars that were waiting to go out on track, I noticed a familiar face walking towards me. It was Mark Higgins, current British Rally Champion; his Mitsubishi Evo WRC sat in the background. “Which way does the stage go mate?”, he said. I gave him some dodgy directions – sorry, pace notes – and began to wonder, if he went the wrong way, would I be liable? I asked for his thoughts on the Evo WRC as he made his way back.
Having described it as “good”, he then went on to blow my mind, along with everybody else’s in the crowd, with his sheer speed through the slalom, his impeccable car control, and the tenacious grip of the Evo. Every other car seemed to be driving on ice while this Evo was on sand paper. Mark was a crowd pleaser, and he returned to the paddock amid a huge cheer.
The other WRC cars were similarly spectacular, each one slapping an impressed grin onto my face. Similarly spectacular, but for the wrong reasons, was the Norris Designs Evo. Boasting an alleged 900bhp, it made a massive noise, and was lightning quick. It also span off twice. This is a rally day, boys, don’t bring a mere show car next time.
A highlight for many would have been the reunion of Ari Vatanen, David Richards and their 1981 World Rally Championship winning Mk2 Escort. “I must have been a really good driver 25 years ago, this car is a real handful", said Ari after his run. Also tackling the feature stage were a host of other classics. Everything from Metro 6R4s to Audi Quattros to Porsche 911s. I’m not old enough to remember them competing, but it would be a bit special if you are.
Immediately after the last car ran the feature stage, the rain started again. How did it know?
Getting close to it all
Rallyday is all about getting close to it all, and feeling involved. It’s all about wishing that your father had more money and a passion for rallying when you were a kid. It’s all about wishing you could drive that car, that fast. It’s all about willing the drivers to go a little faster, to get a little more sideways. It’s about the smells and the sounds, and it’s about pretending that the explosion of unburnt petrol on a hot exhaust behind you didn’t just make you leap out of your own skin.
Rallyday is all about immersing yourself in the most intoxicating, thrilling and demanding motorsport around, and allowing it to become you.
Rallyday 2007? I’ll see you there.
Pictures by Dan Prosser