Nerves. They can manifest themselves in many ways. For some, it’s trembling, clammy hands. For others, a marked jump in the frequency of bodily functions signifies the onset of an event that the brain isn’t 100 per cent comfortable with. Me? I’m currently experiencing both, and I can barely zip up my overalls thanks to the useless, quivering sticks that are supposed to be my fingers. Oh great, I need to wee again. Back behind the trees once more. Around me, I spy three or four helmeted and overall-clad individuals doing the same.
Despite what you may be imagining, I’m not working at an unusually stressful building site, or attending some sort of weird, recreational substance-enhanced Burning Man-esque festival. This is something altogether more serious. The sight of a neat line of brightly-coloured competition cars queuing up on a normally desolate Irish lane denotes this scene as the start control for a rally stage. The muted, industrial-sounding idle of various turbocharged R5 machines mixes with the lumpy, loud, aggressively-cammed note of a naturally-aspirated Super 2000-specification Skoda Fabia. At the head of the queue sits an old Impreza WRC, the air-ripping, uneven growl of the S12’s flat-four boxer engine unmistakable even from here. The smell is a pungent mixture of high-octane race fuel, warm rubber and warmer brakes. The last kilometre of tarmac leading up to this spot is painted thick with tyre marks, evidence of drivers attempting to get vital heat into their slicks before the attack on the road ahead begins.
Re-emerging from the brush and walking back down the line towards our car, I pass by Mitsubishi Lancer Evos emitting their ever-rising and falling fopple-fopple-fopple, their engine mapping and anti-lag systems crude by comparison with the more bespoke machinery ahead. The chuntering of dog gearboxes and blare of industrial-strength fans trying to keep highly-tuned engines cool signifies the first of the modified cars, a litany of Mk2 Ford Escorts and Honda Civics stretching back ten cars or more. The queue lengthens all the time, each new arrival heralded by the ignorant squealing of competition-spec brake pads. Just behind a ludicrously wide Super 1600 Renault Clio (deafening, even at idle) is our Mk2. The sun is beating down, and the choice of an all-black interior coupled with polycarbonate windows that open just enough to give gnats space to fly in and out promises a nice toasty atmosphere for its occupants. Us.
Today, I’m in the passenger seat, entrusted with deciphering the hieroglyphics that form the pacenotes. For an amateur, just understanding the code while stationary in the comfort of an armchair is tough work, but at 160km/h on a single lane road it’s a whole different ball game. Accurate and timely delivery is vital to ensure that the driver can paint a picture of the road ahead and command his steed in the correct fashion. Trust is also essential; I’m trusting him not to drive into a tree, and he’s trusting me not to tell him to drive into a tree… Luckily, we’re good friends, both brought up on a diet of spectating at Irish events and old VHS tapes of world rallies. His home-built car is typical clubman fare; fitted with a 1.6-litre engine coupled to a sequential gearbox, but the old Ford is prepared to the highest standard. Every nut and bolt has been checked twice and thrice, so there’s a good chance that nothing will fall off. I hope.
Recce came and went, the third pass over the loop of three stages as tedious as ever. Scrutiny was also a breeze, other than the usual kerfuffle over numberplate size. Vital for safety, those are. The morning of the event followed the usual pattern; get up, shower, eat three spoonfuls of porridge, drink a litre of water in one gulp, squeeze into Nomex underwear and my shiny white branded overalls (I like to at least look like someone who knows what they’re doing), walk around the yard aimlessly, check 15 times over that I’ve got the correct pacenotes, timecards and roadbook in the bag, then drive to parc ferme.
We amble into the service area, met by the usual friendly greetings from the service crew (made up of more rally-mad friends and family). “You’re getting too fat for those overalls.” A couple of bananas are consumed while the lads fuss over nuts and bolts and fluids and pressures. The excitement is palpable, and I check and re-check my notes for about the hundredth time today. With a couple of minutes left on the clock until we’re due out, we make our way towards the exit. One of the best parts of rallying is observing the sheer excitement that children get from seeing rally cars around the place, and plenty of waves and thumbs-up are exchanged.
The road section out to the first stage is a brutal symphony of mechanical noise, dominated entirely by the gearbox. It clatters and rattles and whines and bangs, so much so that you’d swear that it must be mere seconds away from exploding. That’s not the case of course, the racket a by-product of straight-cut gears and dog rings unhappy to change gear at anything but full throttle. I love racing transmissions. A couple of kilometres prior to the arrival control, the driver starts to stab the brake pedal repeatedly with his left foot to induce some heat into the brakes, the awesome stopping power causing the rear of the car to go light and the gearbox to rattle loudly as the four wheels lock up. Some deft weaving transforms the tyre compound from frictionless cold rubber to something approaching thick glue, and the engine’s readouts tell a good story. The beast is ready.
I’m now after my third comfort break, and it’s time to get kitted up. Balaclava on first, tuck it into the collar of my overalls, then pull the zip all the way up. I slip my helmet and HANS device on and immediately curse the decision to go for a full-face item. Sweaty already. One last check of the tyre pressures and bonnet pins and I’m ready to get in. Move the belts out of the way, fold myself like a piece of origami and slip into the secure bucket seat. I push my backside hard into the seat and do the lap belts first, then the shoulder items, ensuring they fit properly inside the guides on the HANS device. I pull the tabs on the harness down hard to the point where I feel like I’m about to become part of the seat. Intercom plug goes in with a loud prrrrp, and the loud racket practically disappears. “Can you hear me OK?”, “Yep.” Good to go.
This is the point where seconds feel like minutes, as we wait for our turn to start the stage. We inch forward every 30 seconds or so, as a distant wail and the odd screech of tortured rubber announces the departure of each car into battle. The heat from the transmission tunnel is almost unbearable, and fanning the door gives only a small respite. My seat is mounted low to help keep the centre of gravity down, and the combination of that with the side head supports, the lack of neck movement afforded by the HANS device and the narrow aperture of the helmet means I can see pretty much zilch.
It’s almost our turn, and I hand the time card to the friendly marshal at the time control. “You’re going on 32 lads, enjoy yourselves.” The ’32’ signifies our start time of 10:32 on this sunny Sunday morning. We see, hear and feel the Clio scurry into the stage with smoke pouring from its front tyres, and we’re up. Twenty seconds shows on the digital countdown clock. I call the first line of pacenotes to the driver to help him visualise the initial few corners; “6 left over bump, 130, 5 right goes up, 200, brake early for 2 left don’t cut.” Ten seconds. We shake hands, and the customary “best of luck” is uttered. CLANG, and first gear is engaged. The revs start to build. Five. Four. Three. The revs hit fever pitch. Two. The car strains against the handbrake as the driver feels for the biting point of the clutch. One. I wait for the light to go green before yelling “GO!”. We’re away in a flurry of noise, and the nerves are gone. There’s no time for nerves when you’ve got twelve pages of pacenotes to read during the next seven minutes of pure maximum attack.
Thanks to Ruaidhri Nash (@prodriver_555) for the photo.