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...

No comments: