My rallying era is soundtracked by Propaganda's Duel and has Tony Mason standing in a dark and drizzly Grizedale, trying to interview drivers in the middle of a raging snowstorm while William Woollard or Steve Rider holds the fort back in the studio. The cars were real cars, drivers were real drivers, rallies were real rallies, modern WRC just isn't the same thing and all that.
Utterly disillusioned by F1, I've recently experienced something of a personal rallying revival, though. I've actually kept up with this season on Red Bull TV and, a few weeks back, I had a trip to M-Sport where I met Elfyn Evans and got a ride on a forest stage in a WRC Fiesta alongside Gus Greensmith. Mind suitably blown, I was totally fired up for Wales Rally GB and determined to see it for real. Turns out I was woefully underprepared for the reality of going to watch a modern WRC event. Here's what I learned.
You'll need to plan ahead
I knew I wanted a proper stage rather than one of the showcase events like the Oulton Park opener. But realised this was going to require some planning. Two things helped. First, the superb downloadable planner on the https://www.walesrallygb.com/ Wales Rally GB website, containing everything from stage maps to parking info and timings. Knowing the lay of the land around Llyn Brenig from various shoots over the years was also very handy, making this an easy choice. I also asked around for further advice. Should I stick to the officially sanctioned viewing 'pens' or go rogue? Were there any 'secret' spots to make the experience truly memorable? The PH view was a brutal reality check for my breezy assumption I could do it as a casual day trip with my six-year-old, most advising I'd need to get there the night before and sleep in the car.
Get up early... really early
Brenig's a couple of hours from mine and the first cars were due on stage just after daybreak. But the more I read about road closures, distance of hikes from parking to stages and all the rest, the earlier my start time got. The realisation I was actually going to have to leave at 4am was the moment rallying got real and my enthusiasm started to ebb. Given we made it to the stage barely five minutes before the first WRC cars I'll say we made it more through luck than design. Could have been worse, though - I could have slept through it all like the bloke in the folding chair a few yards from us. Gutted.
It's a bigger deal than you ever have realised
For most of the drive across North Wales I was kidding myself it was going to be a breeze and all this talk of huge crowds and nightmare parking was over the top. Wrong. With a few miles to the stages still to go a checkpoint and armies of marshals in multiple layers of hi-vis romper suits appeared out of the rain and gloom, similarly clad rally fans determinedly stomping from cars and camper vans lining the verges laden with brollies, flasks and folding chairs. Clearly, we were total amateurs. Maybe next time I'll sleep in the car after all.
Rally folk are a bit feral... but down to earth
I'm not saying rally fans are a bunch of banjo twiddling Deliverance types. But hiking up through a forest with folk spilling out of muddy sleeping bags and into three-day-old waterproofs it all felt a bit... wild. Friendly though, with a real sense of camaraderie and gritty determination to Have A Good Time whatever the challenges. I could sense the 'you weren't even there, man' response to our obvious day-tripper noob status. But everyone was super friendly and willing to share tips on good places to watch. Or bad ones. Having watched the first pass in one of the pens we stomped the stage in search of a new spot, a banking above a high-speed slalom between log piles looking appealing. "It's amazing. But I wouldn't watch from here with my kid, put it that way." said one of the guys already there. Our eventual spot beside a jump felt sufficiently different from the official viewing pen while still observing parental responsibility obligations.
Rally cars are bloody amazing
Foolishly, I'd written off the latest cars as technically impressive but a little sterile. Wrong, wrong, wrong. That ride in the WRC Fiesta gave me rare insight but, at our first viewing spot, the speed of approach, machine-gun like rattle of anti-lag and sheer violence of acceleration out of the corner was simply awesome. And at the second spot you could see the downforce pinning the cars into the ground, wheels squashed into box arches like they were on tarmac suspension before floating over the jump without even a lift. Chatting with Elfyn Evans at the M-Sport event, he accepted the new cars struggle to communicate their potency to casual viewers, though in the metal stun with their sheer speed. He has a point, but anyone who tells you modern rally cars are boring needs to get closer to them. Thankfully, with a little effort, you can - even in a safe spot we were near enough to be peppered by stones, smell the hot brakes, feel the displacement of air as the cars passed and see the drivers working at the wheel.
After the event we were milling around and somehow ended up 20 metres away from where Ott Tänak and Martin Jarveoja crossed the line and jumped on the roof of their Toyota in celebration of the win, before he and all the other cars drove through a car park full of fans en route to the 'proper' finish in Llandudno. Petter Solberg even stopped to chat. Money couldn't buy you proximity like that to F1 cars or drivers before, during or after a race. Against that, an early alarm call, muddy boots and a hike through the woods seem a small price. Do it.