PH Goes Rallying: Part Two

After Chris Harris and I bought a rather used and abused BMW E30 325i rally car back in February and I travelled to a frozen lake in Sweden to learn high-performance driving techniques the following month, our budget rallying adventure was supposed to start in earnest with our first event in late June, the Mid-Summer Caerwent Rally in South Wales. Chris was due to co-drive and I was preparing to make my rally driving debut.

Pre-start storm brewing down below
Pre-start storm brewing down below
As if to crush our enthusiasm, though, the BMW failed its last-minute MOT in quite spectacular fashion. We had grossly over-estimated its state of health, and with no time to get it sorted, our entry was pulled.

Plan B
We switched our focus to the Hutton Kitchens Brands Hatch Summer Stages in late August. Not only did this give us two months to smuggle the 325i past an MOT inspector, the event would also be much more appropriate for a rally virgin like myself. Making use of the famous race track, the pit lane and paddock, the car park, the rally school and a load of cones and tyres, the organisers had designed an eight-stage single venue event of around 40 competitive miles.

Flaps minimise flow of lost engine parts
Flaps minimise flow of lost engine parts
Either Chris had grown increasingly anxious about my total lack of experience during those two months, or he genuinely was busy that bank holiday weekend but it transpired that I would have to find a replacement co-driver. Given that Chris hadn’t ever navigated before, I figured that any replacement would be equally qualified, even if I had to resort to recruiting my mother.

Equally clueless
Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. Instead, I roped in my mate Adam Gould, four times a British Rally Championship podium finishing driver, but also a total co-driving novice. We might not know where we were supposed to be going, but at least he’d be able to offer feedback on my driving.

Suspension in comfort mode
Suspension in comfort mode
The queue for scrutineering looked like the start line of the 1979 Lombard RAC Rally, with a wealth of immaculate Mk2 Ford Escorts waiting patiently. Quite a sight, which only served to highlight in humiliating high definition just what a shed our BMW was. It looked like I’d got lost on the way to the scrap yard. When the scrutineer passed it without a single complaint, my hair nearly fell out in shock.

I had been dreaming of the start line to a rally stage for years. As Adam and I sat waiting for the green light to illuminate, my heart was pounding out of my overalls with the sheer excitement and terror of the moment. I suddenly became utterly convinced that I was incapable of synchronising the release of the handbrake, the dumping of the clutch and the mashing of the throttle in time with the green light. When I successfully pulled away with a convincing race start, my surprise almost matched that experienced at scrutineering. I was similarly alarmed when the gear knob came clean off in my hand when I made my very first shift from third to fourth.

Adam eats special hallucinogenic banana
Adam eats special hallucinogenic banana
It came off in my hand!
The release of pressure upon reaching the end of the four-mile stage was so massive that, when repeated as SS2, I got through it 28 seconds quicker. There’s no doubt in my mind that a quicker driver could have wrung a lot more pace out of the 325i, but by the last stage I was starting to feel as though I was extracting the majority of the car’s potential. It was the most fun I’ve had driving a car, and Adam’s expert input was invaluable.

Given the minimal pre-event TLC that we lavished upon the BMW – not to mention the tough life it has led since it was first used as a rally car in 2005 – its utterly faultless performance throughout the day was staggering. Dynamically, it has its shortcomings; the steering is far too slow, the standard brakes fade quickly and the suspension set-up is far better suited to gravel than sealed surfaces, but when exiting a corner on a whiff of opposite lock none of that seems to matter. Having started 80th, we finished 47th overall.

The tortured scream of the stand-in co-driver
The tortured scream of the stand-in co-driver
Over to Chris...
Perhaps my abiding memory will be the joy of a deep bucket seat, a chest-crushing harness and a grippy suede steering wheel. When only your limbs can move independently of the car, you no longer need to use the steering wheel as a grab handle through corners. This helps immeasurably with car control and makes a complete mockery of many leather-seated fast road cars.

In typical budget motorsport fashion, the costs of our rallying adventure have spiralled beyond where we’d hoped. I’ll outline the full expense after the next rally, for which Chris will be behind the wheel. I’ve yet to decide if I’m too busy to co-drive.

Want to see the BMW in action? Video evidence here!

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (29) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Coldfuse 28 Sep 2012

    Very impressive result from 80th for novice driver/co-driver smile

  • OdramaSwimLaden 28 Sep 2012

    That looks fun.

    Good effort.

  • rutthenut 28 Sep 2012

    Glad to see you've got the car out onto an event, even in a single-venue (good idea for first entry really). And finished, higher than seeded. Good on you biggrin

  • Blackpuddin 28 Sep 2012

    Cracking story. The more accessible motorsport is, the more fun it seems to be.

  • MrFrodo 28 Sep 2012

    Nicely done. Some of those chicanes look a tad scary.

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