My best racing driver impression
It was as we slid sideways towards a row of parked military trucks that I realised I didn’t know what I was doing. At this point in time my most in depth experience of co-driving a rally car comes from a PlayStation and I’m starting to wish I’d prepared a little better.
I’d been assured by driver Donald Smith that he knew the course pretty well so even if I was lost hopefully he wouldn’t be. What he didn’t tell me was that over the four years he has competed in this rally mechanical problems have forced him out halfway. And that was before the organisers switch the course to anti-clockwise, which makes this circuit around an old airfield look very, very different.
Keeping eyes closed as long as possible
Now Donald needs my directions and having negotiated a series of bends I haven’t got a clue where we turn in to the right-hander before the parked army lorries and through a metal gate. Understeer makes way to oversteer and the sound of breathing through the intercom stops momentarily as we wait for an almighty bang. It never happens; Donald catches the slide and powers the Subaru Impreza sideways through the gate to our right narrowly missing the truck. In true cheating death fashion we start laughing manically before I call out the next '90 right' and we finish the stage.
Almost looks like I know what I'm doing
I’d always wanted to have a go at co-driving a rally car and when Donald offered the chance to join him at the Abingdon Car-nival one-day rally I jumped at it. I figured that it would be a case of shouting ‘hard left’, ‘medium right’, ‘over crest’, that sort of thing, and as long as I had my notes in my hand how difficult could it be? My chauffeur for the day had assured me that he had a pretty good knowledge of the circuit and that we wouldn’t be allowed to make our own pace notes, everyone reading from a map provided by the organisers.
I had arranged a run-through with his usual co-driver Marcus Bond in the morning and at 8am on a Sunday morning, with an hour to go, I’m listening to him talk about time cards, yellow signs, count-downs, chicane entry points, merges, the synchronisation of watches and service timings. I could go on but to be honest I stopped listening at the point when I realised my brain could take no more.
Confused expression says it all
Having made it through the relevant check point without any mistakes, my heart is pounding when we reach the start line. I’m giving Donald a 10-second countdown through the intercom but the nerves are making it difficult to talk and breathe. ‘3, 2, 1…go’ I shout and the Impreza catapults down the runway. I can barely think, let alone read out directions.
What Donald tells me later is that they’ve changed the layout and he doesn’t know where he’s going either. I’m firing out instructions and we almost make it around two laps before ‘BANG’ from the front right. We limp over the line and Donald has a face on him that can only mean it is serious. ‘I think the suspension’s damaged’ he says, fighting to control the car which by this point won't even go in a straight line.
Coming out of the grass
The good news when we get back to the service area is that it’s not the suspension, but rather the tyre has ruptured and has ballooned to twice its size. New wheels and tyres are put on but it becomes clear from the grinding noise that they have the wrong offset which means the tyres are rubbing against the struts. We make it through the stage again, with my directions becoming more confident and change the tyres again as the new ones have been destroyed, but this time I embark on some watch tapping at the crew because that’s what I think I should be doing.
By Stage 4 the organisers have even thrown in a small grass section into this tarmac rally and I’m getting into it. I’m hoping that at least some of my words are making a difference inside the car and I’m starting to feel part of the team. The great thing is there are all sorts of thrills and spills going on, and a constant stream of laughter, expletives and wisecracks coming through the headsets.
Smile says I'm getting the hang of it
By Stage 5 the course is going backwards and we have the aforementioned near-miss but Donald is getting quicker and more committed and by now it feels like the car is going to hold out. The Mark II Escorts are awesome around this fast tarmac stage but the flame-spitting Metro 6R4s are a fantastic sight.
The problem for a co-driver is this: You have to filter out the fact that you are sitting in a hard-charging rally car, in blistering heat, while overtaking and being overtaken by other machinery. You can’t notice that. What you do have to notice is which way the squiggly line on the piece of paper in your hand is going to snake next. Lose your concentration and you don’t have a clue where you are. Stop to look at the WRC Escort coming past your side-window and you’re history – it could take five bends to work out where you are again.
By the last stage (number 8) we are in 16th
place out of 100 and we agree that 15th
will do just fine. The car is running well despite the fact that the turbo has gone what the service team describe as ‘a funny colour’, and it looks like we are in with a shot at 14th
. As Donald pulls up to the last check-point I stick my hand out and tell him to stop. He is a minute early, and that’s a minute penalty, so it’s my job to stop him. It’s the most co-drivery thing I’ve done all day and it feels good. Donald can’t stop laughing, and I take it that ithis s from the relief of not being penalised. I look at my watch – ‘let’s go,’ I say and point forwards purposefully.
Perhaps this will make it go faster
The last stage is a quick one and having been in this car for a total of 80 miles now I’m exhausted and looking forward to just finishing this thing. The seatbelt has been cutting into my chest all day and I’m just glad we’re going to finish the rally. Then it happens. ‘We’ve got a problem,’ says Donald and I look over to see him wrestling with a savagely vibrating steering wheel. My heart sinks. All this and we’ve got a puncture in the last flipping mile.
Donald pushes on and although it’s getting worse we’re still carrying a lot of speed and getting ever closer to the finish. I’m waiting for the tyre to rip off the rim and then it really will be curtains. We’re still going but chunks of rubber are flying up from where the wheel should be.
I’m still calling out directions and Donald looks like he’s going to get this car over the line if he has to drag it with his teeth. He nails it across the line gripping the wheel tightly and we both look at each other laughing and shake hands – it’s a scene I’ve witnessed many a time on the rally footage on the TV, only this time it’s real and it feels great.
Getting the most out of a tyre
People are staring as we limp into the service area and when we get out we see the tyre has disintegrated and the metal innards have almost torn the wing off. But we made it and grabbed 15th overall and third in class for our troubles. I’m exhausted so I can’t imagine how Donald feels. I have that great sense of satisfaction that only comes from learning something new. Getting back in my car I fire up the sat nav. ‘Take the next right,’ it says. Well at least now I know how it feels…
Big thanks to Ignitionmotorsport.com and the guys Colin, Phil, Tom and Nicola for keeping the car going, as well as Donald’s sponsors BP Ultimate 102, Sparco, Castrol for Castrol Edge, AP Racing and Peltor for making it possible.