Friday, March 28, 2008

Typhus Again

Napoleon's retreat from Moscow was plagued (sorry!) by Typhus

Yet another grant deadline is looming so there will be no more posts until after next Tuesday. I'm once again confronting Rickettsial disease. This age old scourge includes the epidemic typhus group of bacteria: fascinating bugs and nasty pieces of work to boot. Have a great weekend and wish me luck, you know what I'll be doing...

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Best Bass Riffs Ever: Top 20

Photo by Andrew Kepert

As a follow up to my post of two days ago, I've been thinking more about bass riff and below offer all time top 20. I came up with the ranking by dumping candidates from my iTunes list in a folder and selecting them on the basis of the number of plays. Hardly scientific or objective but hey...

A few other caveats should be stated.

The list contains some jazz and classical selections. I've put these at the end of the popular music section. Their ranking is semi-arbitary doesn't reflect the greatness of the music. Thanks everybody for your suggestions -apologies if your choices are not included.

Some songs have a great riff but the music is less impressive.

Other choices have a less defined riff but contain either a great bass line or an outstanding solo.

In other cases the riff is not solely bass but is joined in unison by the lead instrument (usually guitar). Several well known riffs were excluded because they had little bass involvement.

No apologies are made for the vintage nature of these tunes: they reflect the vintage nature of the author.

That said, here we go, David Letterman style, in reverse order:

Classical and Jazz

20. So What: Miles Davis
Another song in the simple but effective category.

Symphony #3, Op. 36, "Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs”: Henryk Gorecki
The slow bass build up is simply amazing. A true riff that is goose bump-inducing.

could only find this music being performed as a soundtrack to the 90s film, Fearless. To make matters worse it's dubbed in Spanish and in this clip the really deep bass is missing. But the poignancy of the music shines through.

18. Smokey Embrace: Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia
The most evocative jazz tango ever.

Smokey Embrace is #3 in this selection. Jon Hiseman counts in the 5/4 beat with great precision.

17. Haitian Fight Song: Charles Mingus

Unfortunately I cannot find a clip of Mingus' band playing this song however the Newton High School Jazz Orchestra do a great substitute. The bass player is astonishingly good. However if you really can go without an in-you-face solo by the Great Man himself, click here.

16. Symphony No. 5 In C Minor, Op.67: Beethoven
Surely a candidate for the best riff in the history of music.

Popular Music

15. Money: Pink Floyd
Very effective riff although not my favourite PF song.

14. Barracuda: Heart
I’ve got to get a Seattle band in here somewhere.

13. I'm Free: The Who
Yay! Let’s hear it for John “The Ox” Entwistle. Love it!

12. Whole Lotta Love: Led Zeppelin
Possibly the best known heavy intro riff of all time.

11. Psycho Killer: Talking Heads
Rhythmic rather than riffing bass but still excellent.

10. Smoke on the Water: Deep Purple
It’s all been said before!

9. Hey Joe: Jimi Hendrix
Not really a riff but Noel Redding’s walking bass line in the middle 8 is superb.

8. Heartbreaker: Pat Benatar
Simple and effective.

7. Blood And Roses: The Smithereens
A sleeper: does anyone except me remember this lot?

6. Eight Miles High: The Byrds
Another 60s classic.

5. Message In A Bottle: The Police
One of the catchiest riffs of all time.

4. 25 or 6 to 4: Chicago
Great 60s classic.

3. Had To Cry Today: Blind Faith
Superb playing by the late Ric Grech.

2. The Chain: Fleetwood Mac
What more can we say about this one (take note BBC)?

1. Bourée: Jethro Tull
JT swiped this from Bach; the bass solo is simply terrific.

PS I don't know how this happened but somehow I omitted Cream's Sunshine of Your Love. Its position in the list is of no consequence but it should be in there somewhere.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Gandhi's Revenge

Big Sur

I'm sure Mahatma must be laughing in his grave with the news that India's Tata Group have purchased the UK-based Jaguar and Land Rover division from Ford. There is something exquisitely ironic about the company which sells the World's cheapest car acquiring two of the most expensive marques frequently associated with upper class Britain. Who knows, maybe somebody will now be able to fix the electrical gremlins in my car?

All this excitment has made me hungry, chicken tikka masala anyone?

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Best Bass Riff Ever?

Bass guitar
The ever insightful OHara has taken issue with my statement that the bass line from Fleetwood Mac's The Chain is the best ever. She may be right. After a bit of deliberation I've come to the conclusion that while The Chain's mid-section sounds particularly good when juxtaposed with motor-sport footage, I don't think even the Fleetwoods think it's the best bass line ever written. So let's have your nominations for the title of "best bass riff in the history of music". Rock, jazz, classical, reggae, R&B, folk or techno: all music categories accepted (except Rap which doesn't count as music IMNSHO).

So let the nominations begin...

A Burning Question

Now that the BBC has regained the TV rights to Formula One racing after a 12 year hiatus, I'm wondering if they will once again use the middle eight of Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" as the theme music? Dum, dah-de dum, dah-de dum, dah-de dah dah dah de-um...

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Man for All Seasons

man for all seasons

I was saddened to learn of the death of Paul Scofield earlier today at the age of 86. He was one of the UK's great male actors on par with Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielguld and Sir Alec Guiness (Scofield apparently turned down the offer of a Knighthood on several occaisons)and his passing will leave a substantial void. I first became aware of him more than 40 years ago in the superb and needless to say Oscar-winning film Man for All Seasons and later in Hamlet and Henry V. I also saw him on stage although my aging grey matter cannot recall which play. It was definitely Shakesperian: Richard III perhaps? Or Macbeth, or even in Amadeus (although I think somebody else was playing the part of Salieri by the time I got to see it in London's Haymarket Theatre in 1981). It makes no difference. A true giant of the stage and screen has gone and will be sorely missed.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Teh Jaguar


As someone who owns a Jagwhar (as they like to pronounce it on this side of the Atlantic) I couldn't resist the above offering from the always entertaining LOL Cats site.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh

Blarney Castle
Blarney Castle: photo by MD, February 2007

All the eejits around here (Seattle, that is) are drinking green beer but any excuse for a party, I suppose.

Happy St. Patrick’s day everyone!

P.S. And here's some Clannad to set the mood.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Monte Carlo Historique Rallye 2008: Acknowledgements

Mini with Mural_2
Next year in Monte Carlo...

It's now six weeks since The Rally and it's well and truly over. The Mad Dog team has decided that we'll compete again in 2009 assuming we can obtain some sponsorship. A timelines chart has been compiled and we have another month off before work starts for next year. So all that remains now is for me to thank all individuals and organisations that helped us in any way in 2008.

Special thanks go to:
  • Our primary sponsors, Mini Sport Ltd. of Padiham, Lancashire, UK, and particularly Chris Harper, for their confidence in us.
  • Piper Cams, Folkestone, Kent, UK, for providing our camshaft and ancillary bits.
  • Jim & Juliette Wirtz (Sammy, too) and Stefan Sittner, all of the Luxembourg Mini Club, for their superb devoted efforts as our service crew.
  • John Griffin of the London & Surrey Mini Owners Club, also for sterling service work; Griffy was a last minute addition to the team and his presence turned out to be invaluable.
  • Neil Huband for Halda repair and advice above and beyond the call of duty.
  • Marilyn Connell for all graphics work (Marilyn, sorry to say but we'll need a new team brochure soon).
  • Deb Richards for incomparable hospitality.
  • All friends, family members, wives and partners who allowed us to partake in this adventure and supported us throughout.
Normal blogging will now be resumed although I will publish a collected Omnibus edition of these reports in the not too distant future.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Monte Carlo Historique Rallye 2008: Encore

Willy and MD
Co-driving legend, Willy Cave (L) and Mad Dog discuss the results and how we can improve our times next year

After our return to Monaco we decompressed a little. It was hard to believe that the excitement was over so abruptly. We organised a new steering rack and headlight to be sent to the hotel by express courier (thanks Stevie) and then made merry. For the first night in a week I had a decent night's sleep although I did feel pangs of disappointment about not being able to attack the Col de Turini.

The following day most of the crews congregated at Parc Ferme on the Quai Albert, where we drank coffee and exchanged war stories. Legendary co-driver, Willy Cave, treated many of the UK teams to a splendid lunch and wine was consumed. Willy is now 81 and his appetite for rallying and life in general is undiminished. How many octagenarians do you know that in addition to pursuing high level motorsport also go snowboarding and have won a BAFTA? A true renaissance man and a model for us all. Pleasant conversations continued and the contrast of the Mediterranean sun to the past week's harsh weather was profound. I was starting to unwind -a process which takes quite a long time. The event has now been over for just over a month and I'm only now having dreams which do not involve rallying. The aftertaste is really delicious: like a good wine it lingers on...

This was a brutal year. Apart from ourselves, other well known Mk1 Minis went out including Barker/Cave (carb problems) O’Nion/Wilkinson (coil) and the Belgian ladies champions Castellane/Schamp (withdrew after ZR2). Of the cars in Parc Ferme at the end of the event, probably 40-50% had picked up some kind of ding. Michel Ferry, President of the ACM, said in his speech at the Gala that it was “car fricassée”. He wasn’t wrong. The pictures below tell the story:

977 ARX on trailer
Peter Barker and Willy Cave abandoned the rally after ZR8 when they suffered carburettor problems on 977 ARX

Dinged MG
Mangled MGB GT

Dinged Opel
Smashed SAAB

Dinged Porsche
Pranged Porsche

Dinged Merc
Maimed Mercedes -this is going to be expensive to fix!

Dinged Alfa
Askew Alfa Romeo

We are now planning next year and will make a determined effort to complete the event -hopefully high up in the running order. Overall we were pleased with our performance despite the DNF result: we mixed it up with some of the best rally crews on the planet, including several former MC winners, and for much of the time we were ahead of them. But as the old saying goes, “to finish first, first you have to finish”!

Postscript: On the day after the festivities (Friday), Bill, Jim and company drove back to Selonnet where the Mini was garaged, hammered out the dented wing and fitted the new headlamp and steering rack. While this was going on I took myself off to the University of Marseilles for a business meeting. Jim & Juliette then departed for Italy for a few days well-deserved R&R while Stefan headed to Luxembourg. Bill, Griffy and I had one last night in Monaco and then drove back north in the direction of Dunkirk. On Saturday we caught the ferry according to our original plan. PRX 720B was dropped off at Bill's workshop and Griffy chauffered me to the airport. The following week I think we all had trouble adjusting to the daily routine. Roll on 2009...!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Monte Carlo Historique Rallye 2008: Finale

Racing in snow_2
ZR10 -another battle in the snow

The following day, Tuesday 5th February, we left the pretty ski resort of Briancon in a good mood. We now had our snow tyres and were still running with the pack. The previous night's performance on the ice circuit had elevated out spirits considerably. We had just two stages to do and then it was a straight run in to Monte Carlo. We were also relishing having another crack at the infamous Col de Turini later that the evening. Unfortunately this was not to be. The first of the day's stages, ZR10 Seyne les Alpes, was in a gorgeous location. Back in December we hadn't had time to do a reconnaissance of this section but from the start it didn’t look too bad. We raced away quietly confident and for the first two kilometers we were right on the clock. Then things went horribly wrong. We started climbing and the road surface comprised highly packed snow. Despite our studded tyres we lost momentum and came to a halt with the wheels spinning wildly. Cars were stuck all around us although an Mini Innocenti sped past without pausing. How on earth did he do this, I wondered? I got out of the car to help push and had an epiphany. One of our front wheels was spinning strenuously while the other was stopped dead; dammit my kingdom for a limited slip differential. Why did I ever think they were unnecessary? Note to self for next year -get a bloody Quaife. We struggled desperately to get traction and eventually got going with the help of willing spectators but we'd lost about six minutes. The stage was unbelievably treacherous and there were several nasty wrecks including a Porsche 911 that had gone off in a big way and was lying virtually inverted in a field. Bill went into 10/10 mode to recover this time and did indeed claw back one minute but we were pushing our luck (to put it mildly) and we clipped a bridge just 200 meters before the end of the stage and broke the steering rack. We actually completed the stage by pushing the car backwards over the line and then withdrew from the rally when we realised that repairs were impossible.

Jim and company duly turned up and the ACM officials called a breakdown truck. While we were waiting, a spectator informed us that we were the 6th car of the day to crash into the bridge. As he spoke, the 7th victim, a Porsche 356, tore off his entire rear bumper but somehow kept going. Following a quick review of our damage (it really wasn't bad but Minis are very fragile) Jim produced a bottle of 5 star cognac and we held an impromptu party at the roadside. After 30 minutes of relative hilarity Bill and I made our way to Monte Carlo in the comfort of John Griffin’s Ford Galaxy minivan for the various festivities.

Road Conditions
Road conditions on ZR10 were treacherous: this picture is at the end of the stage. The dreaded bridge is just out of sight. Earlier the road was hard packed ice

Pushed over the line
PRX 720B completes the ZR10 stage by being pushed over the line, backwards

Jim takes charge
Jim arrives and takes charge

Damage assessment
While we assess the damage, old friends Jackie Parkin and John Goldstone go past in their fab Mk 1 Jaguar. This was their first rally and a real baptism by fire (or is that snow?)

Broken steering rack
The steering rack has clearly sheared

Bill pensive
Bill looks pensive and a bit flat

Mad Dogs Depressed
Depression raises its ugly head

Do I look bovvered
However Griffy is not bovvered

Juliette and Jim come to the rescue again

Mood enhancer
Mood enhancing medication appears -never mind the Prozac, here's 5 star Napoleon cognac. Perfect!


Did you hear the one about
Did you hear the one about the actress and the rally driver...?

Next year we'll win
Next year we'll win! Really!

With the exception of the first picture, all other photos are courtesy Stefan Sittner.

To be continued...

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Monte Carlo Historique Rallye 2008: 3rd Movement "The Common Leg"

Mad Dogs at Valence
Mad Dogs preparing to leave Valence: note to self -the robin red breast race suit makes me look like the Michelin man. Photo courtesy Stefan Sittner.

On Monday 4th February we started the first part of what is known as the Common Leg of the rally. The previous day's "Classification Run" is now somewhat erroneously named. In the past it dictated the competitors' running order but this year we continued to go out according to our car number and thus we hung around in Valence city centre for quite awhile as 263 cars raced off in front of us at 1 minute intervals. On this day the rally took us over the Vercors plateau and on to the Haute Alps. The first regularity, ZR5, was a golden oldie run over the Col de L’Echarassone. Here we made a major mistake and went out on our intermediate Yokohama tyres instead of studded Hakkas. On our December recon run we had got over the mountain quite easily in our rented Peugeot despite snowy conditions. Six weeks later, however the conditions were horrendous. The stage was packed snow over hard ice and the effect of 263 cars (our running number was 264) going before us had caused a “washboard” effect in the packed ice which shook many cars to pieces and ruined our front tyres. Many cars went off altogether. We lost a lot of time and the front wheel spun constantly which caused the Halda reading to become wildly inaccurate. We somehow bumped our way to the end of the stage and pushed on to ZR6 at Les Nonieres. Our frantic text to the service crew requesting an urgent wheel was pinged back saying that conditions were so bad that the vehicle with our much needed tyres had itself got stuck in a snowdrift and had no traction. So off we went to ZR6, again without our studded Hakkas.
Battling the elements_2_2
PRX 720B tackles the Col de L’Echarassone on the wrong tyres

Memorial to French Resistance Fighters marked the end of ZR5

Conditions were also horrendous on the transit section and I know understood the old rally saying “See Vercors and Die”. Die is a small town at the bottom of the plateau.
Ethereal view from the Vercors plateau: the road goes down to the appropriately named town of Die

We had so many slips and spins on the way down I started to think that the heavenly view from the top of the plateau was going to become a literal one before the end of the day. So we did the ZR6 on our hopelessly inadequate intermediate tyres. We spun several times and eventually slid into a snowbank (we were towed out by a kind spectator). We did eventually find some grip and Bill shot over the brow of the Col and made the descent at terrifying speed. There were several hairpins on the way down and Bill just hurled the car into them doing dramatic handbrake turns on each occasion.
Extreme conditions
Extreme conditions persist on ZR6 and our tyres are still inadequate

We completed the stage, found the service point, Jim et al. zipped on our snowtyres and we made the time control at Mens on time and despite these two horrendous stages were amazed to find later in the day that our overall position had stayed almost the same. Everybody else had had a torrid time and many cars were damaged or abandonne.

ZR7 at Mens was a super stage. We whizzed around it with no difficulty bang on the clock and then found ourselves climbing back through the ranks. At the end of the stage marshals presented us with a note that ZR8 was cancelled due to a blizzard and we were to make our own way the Serre Chevalier ice circuit just outside the night stop at Briancon close to the Italian border. I was then forced to do some old fashioned “plot and bash” navigation -plotting the route while on the move. It wasn’t too difficult. We took a long diversion south through the town of Gap instead of going north and arrived at the Serre Chevalier in the dark. It was bloody cold and snowing.
Ice circuit
Arrival at the ice circuit. Photo courtesy Stefan Sittner.

We checked in at the time control and before we knew what was happening we were pushed out onto the ice circuit. Here a bit of hilarity ensued. We’d researched the ice circuit carefully and knew the layout. We were also aware that the result of this particular stage (and it was conducted as a regularity) didn’t count to the final rankings but it had its own trophy. As we were channeled onto the circuit I was unprepared to say the least: I’d only just got back into the car had my seatbelts weren’t on (this situation was rapidly corrected), the Halda wasn't zeroed and the chronometer was somewhere on the floor of the car. In front of us a BMW that was always zooming past on the road was spinning hopelessly. Bill, however, was in his element and went into full “Stig” mode. The Mini flew around the circuit and we overtook everybody.
On the ZR9 ice circuit we overtook everybody. Photo courtesy Stefan Sittner

Bill drifted through every corner and we were having a great time. The instructions said do four laps and exit but we were having such fun we couldn’t stop. After about eight or nine circuits Bill came out with the immortal line from The Italian Job “Try to find the exit, we can’t keep going round here all day” -we were giggling like naughty schoolboys when we eventually found the sortie and departed for the night stop back at Briancon. We’d placed 27th overall on the ice circuit and and we were actually first in class.

Porsche out of shape

Opel can't cope

PRX 720B avoiding a BMW

Mad Dogs frolick in snow

All video clips courtesy Stefan Sittner.

To be continued...

Friday, March 07, 2008

Monte Carlo Historique Rallye 2008: 2nd Movement "The Classification Stage"

Mini at St Julien
PRX 720B pushing hard on ZR1 at St Julien

After a good meal and a decent night’s sleep I got up early and reviewed my notes for Sunday’s four regularity sections (known as ZR stages). These comprised a loop over the Ardeche plateau in classic rally country and we were to finish the day back in Valence. This first day of serious rallying is usually pretty demanding and compounded by the fact that crews are nervy. We made our way to the first stage at St. Pierreville. The ACM describes this stage as follows:

"There is a downhill start at the exit of the village of St-Pierreville, followed immediately by a climb up to the Ardeche plateau, along a chestnut-tree lined road, at an average altitude of 650 m, on a narrow, but well-maintained, road. Then, at the D244/D261 intersection, at Foulix, competitors return along the old Moulinon / Antraigues route, another great Monte-Carlo Rally classic, which climbs to the Col de la Fayolle, from St-Julien du Gua, on a wider but more uneven road, to the summit at 877 m".

Poetic indeed but make no mistake, this was a bloody hard, unforgiving, stage that was fully intended by the ACM rally planners to sort out the men from the boys.

We shot off from the start confidently and our recon notes paid huge dividends as we launched into the first series of hairpins. We went past crews evidently phased by the relatively high speed of the regularity and there were signs of mishaps –dropped exhausts, broken lamp and reflector glass everywhere. I kept Bill on course and according to my calculations we were pretty much dead on time.

The Crew hard at work at a service point at Antraigues; they were amazingly quick. Photo courtesy Stefan Sittner.

ZR2, Burzet to St Martial, was long (40Km+) and with a fast target time. Road conditions were pretty demanding and we encountered some snow, ice and even freezing fog. Fortunately none of these conditions persisted and we again appeared to finish close to the target time.

White out
White out on ZR2

ZR3 and 4 were also completed satisfactorily. ZR3 at St Bonnet was flat straightforward loop and relatively unremarkable. ZR4 at Lalouvesec was notable for a very nasty descending hairpin about 14km into the stage (Bill did a spectacular handbrake turn to the delight of the crowd) which then continued into some of the narrowest roads I’ve ever encountered. They were really farm tracks. We lost about 20 seconds, the biggest deficit of the day, but Bill thrashed PRX 720B mercilessly and pulled us back on the clock. We were set to clean the stage but in the last half kilometer we were quite unbelievably baulked by a non-competing AWD car coming in the opposite direction. Heaven knows how the driver found his (it was a “he”) onto the rally route but he must have been terrified as he just stopped in the middle of the road effectively blocking our passage. We lost at least 7 seconds tiptoeing past this twit and were too close to the end of the stage to claw anything back. Nevertheless we didn’t feel too bad about our performance and made our way back to the Valence time control feeling fairly optimistic. Sometime over dinner the results were posted. I was a little disappointed to find we were running exactly in the middle of the pack of 305 cars. However there was a mere 50 seconds between us and the leading car and the standard of regularity driving was just amazing. When I first started rallying I would have been happy to complete each stage within a minute of the target time! Nevertheless we were running ahead of many high profile crews including former MC rally winners so we had everything to play for and turned in with eager anticipation for the following day’s competition.

Mini over the Ardeche
Mad Dogs cross the Ardeche plateau

To be continued...

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Monte Carlo Historique Rallye 2008: 1st Movement "The Concentration Run"

Concentration run
Map of our concentration run route from Reims to Valence: a long and winding road

On Friday 1st February, Bill and I were up early and met Jim, Juliette and Stefan for breakfast. Griffy popped over from his hotel and we made a plan for the day. The first thing to do was to get the car to the scrutineering sheds, do the necessary paperwork, get the technical examination done then give the car a full "bolt check", apply the competition numbers and rally plates and take care of any small details before the 7.30pm start.

We duly made our way to the exhibition centre and presented ourselves to the scrutineering officals. Our paperwork was in order (always a relief -I hate administrative faux pas) and after fairly cursory technical examination we got the essential "approved" sticker applied to our roof. Jim and Stefan put on the graphics, fixed the rally plates and then got to work doing a thorough mechanical check. Attention to detail at this stage pays dividends later: a flawed component may not be apparent in normal road driving but may let go in a big way on a stage and can cost the rally. To the immense credit of the team PRX 720B has hardly missed a beat on the three MCHs I've done to date (the exception is a minor hiccup -see below). Jim was concerned about one of our front hubs but fortunately we had a spare and changed the suspect part in almost no time.

Mini at scrutineering
Jim applies graphics, son Sam and Bill (on right) watch. Photo courtesy Stefan Sittner

At some point we grabbed some lunch and then went back to the hotel to change into our race gear. Classic rally driving doesn't require us to wear nomex but many of the competitors do so. My personal view is that it looks professional and is also very practical in that it's warm and it precludes any dithering about "what shall I wear today?". It's just a uniform. One or two drivers wear crash helmets but I think this is a bit over the top for regularity driving with the exception of the Col de Turini stage and thus we'd brought our skid lids with the intention of wearing them on this final nemesis section.

Wating for the start, Reims
PRX 720B parked up and waiting for "the off", Reims town square:Bill and I went for a quite cup of coffee. Photo courtesy Stefan Sittner.

At 4.00pm we got back to scrutineering area to join the convoy of cars to Reims town square. I love this part. The sight and sound of 100+ battle-ready classic cars preparing for action always stirs my blood. Actually, I'm pretty sure its a major reason why do this crazy stuff. Eventually we got lined up in the town square and waited for "the off". Bill and I said goodbye to the Crew who were leaving for the first service point, briefly attended a reception in the Town Hall and then killed half an hour drinking coffee in a lovely little bar as the cars took off at one minute intervals. Our competition number was 264 which meant we were running quite close to the back. This is no problem but does mean there's quite a bit of hanging around. Finally we got into the car and strapped ourselves in. I checked the maps and the stopwatches and we joined the queue to the starting podium. Waiting for the go is always surreal and an adrenaline rush. I was only barely aware of the cacophany of the brass band, the blaring loudspeakers and the roar of the crowd. I fidgeted with my equipment and clothing as we approached and eventually drove up on the podium and stopped at the start line as directed by the marshals. I took our time card, zeroed the Halda and heard, in an otherworldly way, our car being described over the tannoy system. My pulse probably doubled as the second hand of the clock ticked towards the zero. The marshal indicated 10 seconds. All I could hear was my hearbeat. The start of the film Le Mans describes this situation perfectly. And then we were off! I hit the stopwatch and countdown timer simultaneously and Bill gunned the engine. The crowd cheered and we honked and waved as we roared out of Reims. The rally was on!

The first leg of the event was a gruelling 20 hour, 1200Km, shakedown known as the “concentration run” from the start at Reims to Valence located in the Ardeche region. Here cars from the five diffrent start points across Europe converge for the stages. This has been a tiring but uncomplicated drive in the past but this year we encountered several unexpected challenges. We droned through the night uneventfully and met up with the service crew at the pre-agreed locations. However some time after daybreak we encountered significant snowfall as we were making our way to the time control in the delightful town of St. Claude located in a valley in the Jura mountains. Road conditions were poor and our progress became slow. We were in danger of not making our time. Bill pushed hard. A slow moving Porsche in front of us picked up the pace as we closed on its tail (there’s something about Minis that Porsche drivers just can’t stand –they don’t seem to be able to cope with our demented little buzz boxes nipping at their heels). Time became really tight and we flew down the Col St Claude in excess of 130 kph. Bill’s skill in the snow was astonishing and he demonstrated once gain why he has earned the nickname “Stig”. To this moment I’m still wondering how he controlled the car safely through a 180° spin at 80kph on a narrow mountain road. This bravery paid off and unlike many, we made it into the St. Claude town center with two minutes to spare.

Porsche drivers seem to particularly irritated by this image in their rear view mirrors. Ha Ha! Photo courtesy Stefan Sittner.

An hour or so further on we were not so lucky. I suffered brain fade around mid-morning as road signs apparently dried up. We got horribly lost and only after some headless chicken panic antics we got back on route but again we were running slow. Bill once more did some heroic (I didn’t say hooligan) driving and we got to the checkpoint at Bourgoin-Jallieu just one minute late. Annoying but not the end of the world. What happened next, however, was egregious. I recalculated our time into the next time control at Mauve. Needless to say our arrival time should have reset from when we left Bourgoin-Jallieu but in the heat of the moment I kept our original scratch time as the starting point for my calculations. As a result we checked into Mauve one minute early. This was a bad mistake as time in early gets a six-fold penalty over time in late (the Automobile Club de Monaco tries to discourage speeding). In the scheme of the overall rally these penalties don’t matter too much but this was the first time I hadn’t kept a clean sheet on a concentration run and I was more than a little irked by this rudimentary error.

Our final drama of the day was on the tripmeter calibration section just outside Mauve. There were a few traps on this 5km stretch –the rally designers love to catch out weary crews with confusing signage. Fortunately we eluded these pitfalls and were droning along quite nicely when 100 metres from the final marker the engine died. An incomplete tripmeter calibration would have been disastrous so I hopped out of the car and Bill and I pushed PRX 720B over the line. I recorded the distance on the Halda and then called in Jim and the cavalry as Bill started working frantically on the car. Amazingly the service vehicles arrived within minutes and the problem was traced to a faulty rotor arm and we raced off to the final stop at Valence. Once again we were behind time and now we were up against Saturday afternoon traffic and a major urban centre. At this point our driving started to resemble something out of The Italian Job as we tried frantically to get around traffic jams. I’m not sure how many traffic regulations we broke and I’ll say no more here in case the Valence gendarmerie are still looking for us. With Parc Ferme in sight Bill started to drive on the pavement. At this point I jumped out of the car and ran to the control with my time card. It seemed to me that we should have been five minutes late but fortunately the Control was in chaos due to poor traffic management (I seem to remember the same thing happened in Vals les Bains in 2005) and penalties were waived for all crews -the rally gods were smiling on us once again.
Mini at Valence_2
PRX 720B arrives at Valence

To be continued...

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Monte Carlo Historique Rallye 2008: Prelude

Bill at Reims
Bill at the scrutineering sheds at Reims doing mods to the rockers or something...

To the rally faithful, here's the first of the posts I've been promising on this year's 11th Monte Carlo Historique rally. It'll take a while to describe the event so sit down with a cuppa and enjoy. To my non-petrolhead readers I would ask your indulgence for the next few days; normal (non-rallying articles) will resume shortly. Anyway here we go...

Prior to the start of the rally on February 1st, my horoscope said "Mercury, your ruler, is in retrograde for the next three week. This transit will cause chaos in all areas of your life involving travel and communications. Avoid taking trips during this period if possible". Great, just the advice I needed before a long distance rally in a foreign country. In any case I packed my cases containing navigational paraphernalia, road book, maps, race suit, helmet and a tone of other miscellaneous gear and staggered off to the airport. I managed to check onto the flight without incurring a luggage surcharge despite being a good bit overweight and counted my blessings. I settled in the seat of the Boeing 777 (see my previous concerns) and 10 hours later landed at Heathrow without incident and made my way to Bill Richards' place. So far so good: maybe the rally gods were smiling for once.

Over the next two days days I did the usual car preparation. PRX 720B was cleaned, graphics applied, tools and spares sorted out and the tyres calibrated against the Halda. Back in November/December the car had been strengthened and upgraded. It was now fitted with FIA seats –not particularly pretty but much safer than the old period buckets. We had paid special attention to lights. Gone was the rack of vintage Lucas “flame thrower” spot and fogs which were quite ineffective despite new reflectors and halogen bulbs: in their place was a set of a full set of Cibié Oscars. The headlamps too had been replaced with the latest halogen offerings and were also a huge improvement over the previous units (also halogen but an older design). In addition, Bill had done an amazing engine tuning job –the 1293cc lump pulled to 8,300 rpm and had serious grunt most of the way there. Bill estimated at least 110bhp which is a lot in a car weighing aroung 600Kg. Finally we'd given a lot of thought to tyres. This time we had a total of 16 boots: four Dunlops for dry conditions, six intermediate winter tyres Yokohamas sourced in Austria by Jim Wirtz and six Hakka studded for snow. We'd never been this well prepared and overall felt fit, fast and confident.
Bill and John at Ashford
Mad Dogs await rally with eager anticipation

More important than any number of technical innovations is the service crew and this year we had a superb complement. Jim Wirtz was masterminding the logistics and was assisted by his wife Juliette and Stefan Sittner. All three were from the Luxembourg Mini Club and performed sterling service for us in 2005. In addition John Griffin (Griffy) from the London and Surrey Mini Club, who had originally intended to shadow us and write a story for an automotive magazine was press-ganged into the team. Thus our service team comprised four adults as well as Juliette and Jim’s young son Sam and three vehicles carrying what seemed like a ton of tools and spare parts.

So early in the morning of Thursday 31st January Bill and I met up with Griffy and we set off for Dover. And here our problems started. Overnight a serious storm had blown up. Wind gusts of Force 10-11 were being recorded and the Port of Dover was closed. The ferry office advised us to stay put they anticipated sailing at 1.00pm. Now it seems whatever way I elect to cross La Manche I encounter difficulties. Devoted readers may recall that back in 2005, Bill and I had caused the evacuation of the entire Le Shuttle due to a fuel leak. In 2008 I had opted to use the ferry system not only was it considerably cheaper ($60 vs $400) but it is more relaxing and less claustrophobic. And at the back of our minds we didn't want to encounter any officials that might have remembered us from the 2005 incident! At this point we considered making a run for the tunnel but received conflicting information as to whether there was any availability. In the end we decided to wait it out and eventually boarded and sailed around 3.00pm

The Channel crossing was actually quite mild considering the waves we'd observed earlier in the morning and we arrived in Dunkirk at 6.00pm. The three hour drive to Reims was uneventful although we did stop to change tyres and make another Halda check. Eventually we arrived at the Mercure Hotel, met up with Jim, Juliette and Stefan, scoffed some dinner and turned in for the night. Next day was going to be long.

To be continued...