FeaturesHow I navigated my first road rally

How I navigated my first road rally

Wrong turns, teamwork and teenage trophy winners

Charlotte Vowden takes part in her first road rally, in a car she’s never driven, with a navigator she’d never met. What could possibly go wrong?

The biggest vote of confidence you can possibly give your navigator when rallying together for the first time in a road rally is to go the wrong way. Even if you suspect the direction you’re being sent in isn’t right, by doing it anyway and suppressing the urge to ask “are you sure?,” (which is considered rather bad form in rallying), you’re proving to your co-pilot that you trust them, that you respect the boundaries of your roles. It is, however, much easier said than done.

Road rally decisions

“Are you sure?,” I questioned my navigator, Stephen Ratcliffe, as a convoy of cars we were competing against disappeared out of sight in the rear-view. Wincing at my inability to censor my thoughts, I hoped that maintaining the course of travel I’d been told to pursue would ease any unintended sting that had been inflicted by my doubt. A hesitant “yeah,” from Stephen soon followed, and then a prolonged pause, albeit not for dramatic effect; during a rally, every second really does count. “We need to turn round,” he said, mentally recalibrating our route. Our classic Mini’s cockpit was a sat-nav free zone. He’d made an error, but it didn’t matter. “We’re going the wrong way together,” I said with conviction, “we’re a team, honestly, it’s OK.” A team with little (in Stephen’s case) and no experience (in mine) of competitive motorsport, we had met less than 24 hours before.

Twenty-one years-old to my thirty-four, Stephen had agreed to be my human compass for HERO-ERA’s inaugural Rally for the Ages, a compact one day taster event designed to give the young and uninitiated an opportunity to experience regularity rallying, (more on what means later), by reducing the prohibitive costs. A complimentary tank of sustainable fuel was made available to each crew, (the collective term used to describe the occupants in a competing car), and a full refund of the £250 entry fee was offered to those with a combined age of less than 70 years when they crossed the start line at Bicester Heritage. Essentially, the grass roots rally was free.

Start of road rally
© Paul Freeman

To further entice a less typical congregation – boy racers need not apply – organisers took an open-minded approach to vehicle eligibility by dropping their typical pre-1991 age requirement, which meant a 2001 Peugeot 106 could share the same paddock as a 1934 Austin Seven Ulster. HERO-ERA also obtained approval from Motorsport UK, the sports governing body, to relax vehicle safety and noise regulations, with the caveat that cars must be road legal as well as in period, both in spirit and appearance. Anything heavily modified or that roared to the rhythm of a big bore exhaust would not make it through scrutineering.

With keys to a 1968 Mini Cooper, a size XS classic that dominated the rally scene in the Swinging Sixties, I had visions of romping to victory in a blaze of flashbulbs. I imagined a magnum of champagne would be involved too. Borrowed from HERO-ERA’s Arrive and Drive fleet, which is managed by a chap called Mark O’Donnell, it was my first time behind the wheel of such an iconic people mover. Another new challenge to add into the mix. BMC red, with a 1273cc engine inhabiting the bay beneath its bonnet, the 85bhp classic is capable of 0-60mph in 10.3 seconds and 98mph at top speed. Not that I dared thrash it. “You gave the car respect from the start,” said Mark, who choreographed the test drive and vehicle handover to ensure I was confident (and competent) enough to compete. My gear changes, I quote, were “spot on,” so we were off to a good start.

©Colin Green

Of the 90 crews that were on the rally, 55% were novices. It’s an encouraging figure, but with so many amateurs being let loose on Oxfordshire’s roads I have to admit I anticipated scenes on a par with Wacky Races. I needn’t have worried. Not even close to organised chaos, the logistics were well-oiled and the crews drove carefully and with respect, which is just as well because 18 of the rally’s participants were under the age of 15 and would probably have drawn a blank had I mentioned Dick Dastardly or Penelope Pitstop. Almost mid-way through my thirties, I’ve reached that elusive moment when you start to think, wow, I’m getting old. My co-driver hadn’t even heard of the Fonz(!), but to his credit, he managed to survive a day being strapped into a hot metal box on wheels with me. He’s even agreed to do it again.

Divided into eight stages, Rally for the Ages comprised a combination of four regularity sections on public roads and four special tests on Bicester Heritage’s private track. The former more sedate than the latter, which I discovered to be rally code for hurtling as fast as you can around a series of traffic cones against the clock. With adrenalin pumping through my body, I felt like I drove that Mini like it had been fired out of a rocket launcher on the final test of the day, “you really gunned it”, agreed Stephen, but then in a fog of anticipation for that glass of victors fizz (the magnum never did materialise) I stopped, “in a panic you hit the brakes,” inches shy of the finish line, of which I should have been astride. Not quite the finale to rapturous applause that I’d envisaged but my boo-boo did make us laugh.

©Colin Green

With the emphasis on driving with precision rather than at speed during the regularity sections, my ability to control a car came into its own. “You were consistantly brilliant,” (thanks Stephen), “but,” (there had to be a but), “you cut corners a couple of times on turns and that can knock down the distance.” It’s a bad habit to have if you want to do well in regularity rallying.

Equipped with a Route Book containing pictorial instructions known as Tulip diagrams, (if you don’t do your homework you might as well be looking at Egyptian hieroglyphs), as well as digit-filled tables and maps, Stephen had the unenviable task, in my opinion, of deciphering where we needed to go, at what speed and for how long. Penalties, it seemed, were easy to pick up. Arrive too early or late to the manned checkpoints, also known as controls, which were situated at undisclosed locations, (so mean!) and penalty points would be incurred. It’s incredible how intense, but exciting, driving a Mini at 22mph can feel.

© Paul Freeman

“The trickiest part is doing the calculations when you need to make up for lost time or slow things down,” reports Stephen, who in addition to being calm, composed and communicative, is pretty decent at maths. He’s quite keen with a florescent highlighter too, marking up important information in the Route Book is a navigator’s trick of the trade. “Whilst you have a common goal as a crew, you are in completely different headspaces,” he says. “Just try and keep on the right road, make it to the end and worry about the mistakes after – they will happen.”

Stephen and I were lucky, we enjoyed a sense of ease and camaraderie in each other’s company from the off, and I consider the fact that I didn’t make him car sick a personal win; I’m not sure I’d have been able to multi-task without feeling woozy. The day’s real triumph belonged to 15-year-old Jack Harvey, who took the top spot on the podium serving as co-pilot to his father, Jon, in a 1985 Volkswagen Golf. They are the reason why Rally for the Ages deserves to be deemed a success. After all, it’s the only format of motorsport where you will happily (and legally) be beaten by someone who isn’t even old enough to hold a driving licence. Start ‘em young and you might just inspire something that lasts a lifetime.

A beginner’s guide

Rally veteran and Riley specialist, John Lomas, shares his top tips for a flying start on a road rally:

  • Car preparation is key. To finish first, first you have to finish, so give your car a thorough pre-event check. It’s good practice to give your car a road test of at least 50 miles and check the trip/timing equipment you’re using over a pre-set measured distance.
  • Maintain a good relationship with your navigator. They are key to doing well and as a driver you need to be able to listen and work well with them.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. Remember that this is a hobby not your career, be competitive by all means, but make sure you enjoy it.
  • It is better to be in the right place at the wrong time, than the right time in the wrong place. For your first few rallies just concentrate on getting round the course without missing any control points, once you have done that then you can concentrate on the timing element.
  • Use a stopwatch. This is a really easy way to time yourself on the regularity sections.
  • Don’t get distracted. Look out for instructions that are over the page and keep focused, it’s easy to start chatting after a control to then find you have missed a turn. I’m still guilty of doing this now!
  • Never be afraid to ask for help. This is a very friendly sport and more experienced crews are always happy to share their knowledge and advice.

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