By Mark Talbot
After the Jack Frost it was apparent our car was underpowered, tall geared and liked to spin its cocked leg on the exit of every corner, despite having the softest compound tyres we could get. I knew with the standard gearing and open diff, a gravel event would be very frustrating so with only two weeks to go we took on the mammoth task of swapping out the gearbox and diff. That might sound like a straight forward task but we decided to go with a stronger gearbox from a different model which opened a whole world of complications. After changing engine mounts, gear box mounts, drive shafts, hubs, bearings, brakes, shifter, gear linkages and having to relocate various items including the power steering pump to inside the car it all started to take shape. All this work was carried out without a garage or ramp in a farm yard so many hours were spent lying in puddles and snow with frozen tools sticking to the ground when the freeze came in the evening and the portable lights came out. After what was probably the most stressful week of my life we got the car running the night before needing to set off to Thirsk! 20 mins before setting off to make it in time for Scrutineering the car was loaded onto the trailer with a cloud of unknowns hanging over its reliability. Scrutineering went fine and we got the stickers on ready for Sunday. At least it looked the part at this stage. First thing Sunday morning we were outside the B&B doing the final spanner check and fitting under body protection flaps. Clutching at straws perhaps but I felt I had to keep working until it was time to start.
The drive to Ripon confirmed I could at least select all the gears and nothing fell off. With the new gearing it became apparent that there would be no rest from the noise even on the road sections with the 1400 engine singing at over 4500 rpm to reach 60 mph in top gear. We arrived at Ripon square and remembered the tyre pressures were still at whatever was required to pop them onto their wheels so borrowed one from car 66 and reduced them down from 50psi to something a little more sensible. We lined up at the start after setting the Casio to rally time and headed out with Mandy following the road book for the very first time. We were on our first ever multi even stage rally!
We made it to the first stage in good time and lined up second to last car 69 out of 70. With no experience with the tyres, the plate diff, driving on gravel or following notes I was a little apprehensive setting off into the first corner which was marked as a fast right but very slippy then through mud. Hmm. Fast but Slow. Caution; Big Step. Do I just hit it flat out considering I’m only doing about 30 mph, slow down a little just to show I recognised its presence or approach it like a lowered sports car at a speed hump? Bang; the horrendous sound of the suspension bottoming out and the sump guard smashing off the concrete slab. I am surprised the 106 didn’t fold in half considering the affect small rocks have on WRC cars on TV. This isn’t going to be easy to get the hang of.
During stage 1 we passed car 68 who seemed to be having some issues but would eventually finish the stage behind up. I thought we were going to be the slowest out there and I was watching in the mirror for car 70 catching us. It never happened and to our surprise we caught car 67 half way through stage 2. Despite horn blowing and lights flashing he didn’t realise we were there so spent the rest of the stage on cruise mode. We did spend some time inches from their back bumper but decided at this stage of the rally it would be a shame to smash the windscreen or worse, bust a radiator as the Mk1 Escort threw stones at us. We didn’t really know what to do or what normally happened in this scenario but fortunately they took a wrong turn on the road section and we got to stage 3 before them.
We spent the next few stages getting used to the car and Mandy read the notes well and we got faster and faster every stage, slowly climbing up the order. There were moments on stage I was convinced we had a broken drive shaft or something was seriously wrong as I couldn’t keep the car in a straight line, but it turned out to be a mixture of ice, slush and mud playing tricks on me as the car tried to pull us off line into the many ditches. Something I realised I would have to get used to if we are to get any faster on the loose. At main service we increased the ride height at the front in hope it would stop some of the harsh bangs from the gravel to concrete transitions but with the limited amount of travel we had to play with it wasn’t to make much difference.
In the afternoon we had a second stab at the morning’s stages and we managed to go quicker by as much as 30 seconds which gave us more confidence. On each stage we started to see car 66 ahead of us which pushed me on knowing we were taking almost a minute out of them each stage. As the daylight started to fade and the adrenaline wore off I started to feel tired whilst on the road sections. We rolled up at the last stage with the intention of taking it easy, finishing our first gravel rally and just getting to the finish with no damage. With just 3.75 miles of stage remaining we would have made it. When we saw car 66 in the distance ¾ into the stage I pushed on wanting to actually catch them before the finish. We crossed the line right behind them and the times confirmed we made up the whole minute on them. I am not sure if everyone else was taking it easy but for some reason we took a massive step up the stage times with the 32nd Fastest time of the stage, beating others who were top 20in the overall classification. We finished on a high with 2nd in class and 44th Overall but with a final stage filling us with hope of things to come. It may have been a one off but we just hope we can start our second gravel rally the same way we finished our first.