The nerves have disappeared; now it's go time. Seven flat-out minutes on an Irish rally stage, as described by a co-driver.
I flick the button on my stopwatch a few milliseconds after the light turns green and we're moving. The engine gulps as much air as it can through its four individual throttle bodies as the sticky rear tyres find purchase on the dry tarmac, their task aided by the rubber laid down by preceding competitors. A squirm to the left accompanied by a flare of revs as the wheels start to spin necessitates the driver to feed in a little opposite lock, his right foot still pinning the throttle pedal into the bulkhead. The shift lights glow amber, then red for a fraction before he grabs the long, white-topped gear lever and yanks it backward. The micro switch at the bottom of the lever assembly commands the ECU to cut the ignition as second gear engages in the bowels of the gearbox and forward thrust continues, the throttle pedal still buried to its stop and the clutch pedal untouched. They say that quick gearchanges are actually better for the health of a dog gearbox, but the sheer violence of a full-throttle upshift is still something to behold. Unbeknownst to us, but clearly visible to the assembled spectators, a little gob of blue flame spits from under the rear bumper as unburnt fuel meets hot exhaust, aurally supplemented by a theatrically loud POP.
Fifty metres ahead is the first corner of the stage. “6 left over bump, 130”, I yell. The ‘6' equates to the gear (and hence, the speed) that the curve can be taken at, so this is flat out, while ‘130' signifies the distance to the next note in metres, then it's a 5 right (flat-out again, as we're still running up through the gearbox), followed by a 200-metre uphill straight to the first real corner of the day. The driver heeds my warning to watch the still-cold tyres and brakes and slows the car earlier than usual for the second-gear left-hander, the black marks on the road betraying where others have gone in a little hot and locked up. Even on rubber that's not fully up to temperature, the Escort's turn-in is lightning quick, and after a few months out of the hot seat it takes a couple of corners for my internal gyro to recalibrate to rally speeds. The first part of the stage flows nicely on wide, well-surfaced tarmac, a relatively gentle start to our day. I perform the customary fumble when turning from the first page to the second, but thankfully manage to keep my place in the notes without raising alarm. What he doesn't know won't hurt him.
I call the notes well in advance on this section, and ‘line' is frequently uttered. This tells the driver to set the car up for a sequence of corners and use every inch of the road. Grass verges and driveway edges allow further liberties to be taken, to the detriment of manicured lawns that receive a high-speed stamping by barely-treaded rubber. My job is relatively easy on these parts, the most important thing being to ensure that corners are called on time and emphasising the ‘care' or ‘don't cut' commands, with the odd ‘push' thrown in. The car is flying, buzzing into its rev limiter in sixth for a second or two on a couple of straights, skipping from apex to apex, the super-short gearing giving a top speed of around 170km/h. I steal the odd glance up from the notes to verify my location, and hedges and trees and spectators and houses shoot past in a blur. I subconsciously tweak my HANS device and tighten my belts again, although if I compress myself any further into the seat I'll hit the floor...
The heat was a noticeable issue as we sat on the start line, but now the draft from the sliding vent on my window that's refusing to stay closed is causing a mild annoyance. No matter. Technical section coming up. The ‘three' board (for 300 metres) signifies the onset of a man-made chicane, a necessary evil in an attempt to keep average speeds in check with regulations. Passing the 100-metre board, the driver throws out the anchors and the nose squats while the rear jacks up, squirming left and right as he simultaneously bangs the big lever forward to go down the gears, fifth-fourth-third-second. The hay bales have been gently widened by the passage of earlier cars, and he pitches the car in and through with staccato movements of the steering wheel. The door mirror on my side just grazes the last bale as we accelerate out again, the car taking on the classic Escort nose-up, tail-out angle of attack. Immediately ahead is a 90-degree junction onto a much narrower road. “Turn square right don't cut be neat, narrows from here”.
It's much tighter and bumpier for the next few kilometres, and every so often the sump guard hits the crown of the road, pitching dust into the cabin through slightly dubious seals and grommets. Amazingly, the ride could almost be called comfortable, expensive shock absorbers working their magic and soaking up the worst of the undulations while keeping the body in check. The revs flare occasionally as we hit some particularly vicious ridges on corner exits, the driver feeding in snatches of lock to sort moments out almost before they happen. Then, the big one. I look up, and spot the road rising up abruptly, almost meeting the treeline beyond according to my line of sight. “Double caution, stay middle over sharp jump wipeout!” You can probably hazard a guess at what wipeout means, and the throng of onlookers suggests that it's a well-known action spot. The driver brakes sharply and gets back on the throttle before the crest to lift the nose. We have take-off. Everything goes quiet for a second, and scuffs on the tarmac mark our landing zone. I tense up involuntarily as we land, but all is good, and we power on to the next near-miss.
Passing a stricken Evo pulled over in a gateway, its crew giving us the thumbs-up and the ‘OK' board, I smell the distinct aroma of combusted oil. The driver senses it too, his voice slightly unsettled through the intercom. A quick scan of the gauges confirms that all is fine under the bonnet, and the sight of dust lingering ahead suggests that we're catching someone. In the distance, I spy the shape of a struggling Civic. “How much left?” queries the driver. “Three kilometres”, comes my response. Catching someone on a stage is never ideal, and the need for the driver to concentrate on what he's hearing is never greater, as it's all too easy to blindly follow the guy in front into a ditch if they make an error. “Keep the head, listen to my notes and turn on your lights”. We swiftly catch the Honda, clearly in some sort of engine trouble, and I keep my toe planted on the footwell-mounted horn button. Luckily, they see us, and pull over to let us past. In the ensuing excitement, the driver brakes a fraction late for a second-gear left-right combination, failing to hear the ‘care, gravel' call. The rear of the car swings luridly on the small stones, glancing the high bank and collecting some grass, then veers back the other way like a pendulum, handily setting it up for the right-hander. We both elicit a little chuckle, the driver commenting “I meant that”, as we power towards the finish of the stage with spectators willing us on.
“200, turn square left widens, carry speed.” The last real corner of this test, then it's flat out back up through the gearbox as we pass the yellow boards, followed 100 metres later by the flying finish. “That's it, well-driven”. My stopwatch shows 00:07:02.5. We roll down towards the stop car, and suddenly everything feels extremely hot again. Squealing to a halt, the heat causes the windscreen to mist up momentarily, and I dig the timecard book out from the door pocket and post it through the window slot to the waiting marshal. “Good run lads, well done!” The short distance to the next stage means that there's no point in taking our gear off, and as I slacken my belts slightly I glance over at the driver and catch him wiping sweat from his brow with a Nomex-gloved hand. Only eight more stages to go.