Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Thanks to our Sponsors


Now with just eight days to go before The Rally, it's high time to acknowledge some of the help that the Mad Dog team has received from various sponsors and friends. First and foremost is Chris Harper and MiniSport, of Padiham, Lancashire to whom we are deeply indebeted in more ways than one, but especially for putting up with our dithering.

Honourable mentions must also go to the following who have helped us in a variety of ways:

Piper Cams

Marilyn Connell

London and Surrey Mini Owners Club

Mini Magazine

Neil Huband

In the next few days I'm sure other individuals and organisations will come to the fore and I will acknowledge them as appropriate.

Mad Dog Rallying is a supporter of the Kent Autistic Trust, UK.

Blogging: Technical Irritations

For non-bloggers, this post may be a bit meaningless but I'm getting really frustrated with some technical aspects of blogging.  Haloscan is a particular annoyance. It sometimes registers comments i.e. counts them and sometimes it doesn't. On other occasions comments disappear off into the ether. I suppose this is just a product of using free third party software. I'd welcome any insight. Also Blogger has its own frustrations. I'm thinking of switching hosts. When I come back from my trip I'll do some homework...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Confronting My Demons

Oh dear
Rauno Aaltonen and Geoff Mabbs invert their Mini Cooper on the Col de Turini in 1962.

It’s now just 10 days before the start of the rally. Preparations are going quite well although there is still a lot to do. I must confess that I’m now feeling the pressure to perform quite acutely. The great thing about being a beginner is that there are no expectations. But now that we can no longer claim tyro status this sanctuary has disappeared. I’m anxious about all sorts of things: a simple navigational error can cost us dozens of places in the rankings (and make me look very foolish) as can mechanical failures, bad tyre choices or driver error. The teams that win the Monte are those that make the fewest mistakes. Previous blunders still haunt me, notably our 100 metre skid on the downhill section of the Col de Turini which ended in an unpleasant collision with a very unyielding wall.

In an attempt to exorcise this particular demon, Bill and I revisited the crash scene when we did our reconnaissance back in December. It was a somewhat cathartic experience. The error was very easy to comprehend. A longish fast downhill section (there aren’t many opportunities to make up time on the CdT) quickly became a tight and then tighter left hander. And of course there was ice on the margins. Bill has been particularly self-critical but this was a classic trap. A couple of recent web trawls have revealed some of the Col’s numerous high profile victims. We are in illustrious company and I’ve been reminded why the Monte Carlo is the jewel in the crown of both historic and modern rally series. The WRC site says it perfectly in a couple of clips here and here. Enjoy!

Now I’d better get back to the mapping. I’m also going to keep repeating the mantra “we will not crash, we will not crash”. Feel free to join in.

Volvo on CDT
Altogether now, "We will not crash, we will not crash, we will not crash..."

Photos from the excellent Turini website.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Boeing, Boeing

Emergency vehicles chase the Boeing 777 on which MD
was a passenger, September 14th 2004 (view from window).

Last Thursday's crash of a Boeing 777 at Heathrow due to some kind of engine failure reminded me of my own hairy moment in one of these aircraft. Back in 2004 I was heading off to a conference in Singapore. I had boarded the aircraft at Seattle international airport (SeaTac) and after settling into my seat had started to snooze lightly. I was aware of the engines accelerating for take off and as we hit V1 I was jolted into hyper-vigilant awareness by a loud, all-permeating vibration. My mechanical intuition told me that something was deeply wrong. But the noise subsided, the plane levelled off and for awhile all seemed normal. Then, after 15-20 minutes I noticed that were no longer flying west but instead flying north over Puget Sound. A few minutes later the pilot announced that there was a problem with one of the engines and and that he was "doing tests".  As we continued flying it became very evident that everytime one of the engines was throttled up the vibration became apparent. Subesequently the pilot announced that we had a serious problem and that we were going to make an emergency back at SeaTac after we'd dumped our fuel load. He also urged us to remain calm. And thus we flew around in a big circle, on one engine, for more than half an hour while the flight engineer sprayed 40,000+ gallons of fuel over the Pacific North West. Some of the passengers were less than calm and there was a lot of praying, Bible clutching and frantic crossings going on. Eventually we landed back at SeaTac where we surrounded by a fleet of yellow emergency vehicles and firefighters wearing aluminium suits that will withstand temperatures close to the surface of the sun.

My fellow passengers and I were eventually evacuated (no fun inflatable slides, unfortunately), put up in hotel accommodation and flown out the following day when a new plane was located. I asked the pilot if the nature of the problem had been discovered. He replied that the fan blades on one of the engines had broken up and that this was a bewildering incident as that particular airplane was brand new. I continued on my journey without incident. By way of compensation, I was allowed to sit in the cockpit and wear the pilot's hat. Needless to say I was not particularly reassured. I think I may avoid Boeing 777s from now on...

Mad Dog Airways

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Searching for Bobby Fischer

Windmill on Poros 1972
Windmill, Poros, Greece, 1972

In August of 1972, I sat in the shade of a tree by this windmill on the Peloponese island of Poros and opened a nearly week old copy of The Daily Telegraph (I know, but it was just about the only English news broadsheet I could find). I'd been away from England for nearly a month and was desperate for world news and thus I devoured every printed word with gusto. A prominent news story at the time was the battle going on in Iceland between the steely Russian chess Grand Master, Boris Spassky, and American prodigy, Bobby Fischer. The world championship series of matches was played in high drama over the summer of that year and the antics of the two players held me captivated: chess had finally become a true spectator sport. So it was with sadness I read of the passing Mr Fischer yesterday. His genius was never in doubt but at the time of his death he was no longer the iconic figure from the 1970s but, to put it mildly, a highly eccentric individual with a more than messy personal life. He had turned against the land of his birth, and the American government was intolerant of his lack of patriotism and went after him with a vengeance. Possibly the American public, too. Overall a terrible shame considering the entertainment he had once provided.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Time, Speed, Distance

Mad Dog's on-the-road "office"

Various friends, colleagues and some bloggers have asked me what rallying is all about. The realisation that I'm regarded as an authority in some quarters is quite funny but I suppose I have learned a bit since my first, laughably useless, first attempt on one of the first days of the New Millennium. So here's a quick guide for the perplexed.

The overall objective of historic or classic rallying is to drive a specified route and collect the fewest penalty points. A few things are assumed (i) that a car must have a crew of at least two individuals and (ii) an age-appropriate vehicle must be used. Different organisations and different events will have varying rules which is quite confusing, especially when they dictate the modifications that can be made to the car or the equipment carried. Roughly speaking, the car needs to have only period modifications although some concessions are allowed for safety (modern seats, seatbelts, roll cages etc).

So as I was saying, the crew needs to drive from the start to finish along a pre-defined route in a timely manner. To ensure this happens, the rally organisers will set up check points to ensure that the competitors are not cheating and taking shortcuts. The crews must get to certain time controls on the exact minute as written in the instructions. This is usually not too difficult, especially if the section is longish -the organisers usually build in sufficient time to allow the crews to stop for fuel, take "bio-breaks" get coffee or do minor servicing and repairs. So the general idea is to get to a spot before the checkpoint (often conveniently located in a café) early and then check exactly on the prescribed minute (a task for the co-driver). An important point to make is that historic rallies are conducted at street legal speeds and are not races (usually). It's actually bad form to call the event "a race" as it gets the sport a bad name. The point is not to reenact the Gumball Rally. The American term "rally racing" is also misleading. It's fine for WRC kind of thing where the fastest through the stage wins but it's not what historic events are about.

OK, I hope that's clear so far. But I've only covered the easy part known as "transit sections". Up until now all that's needed is a competent driver and co-driver, the ability to drive to a route and organise the car to be at certain places on time. Surprisingly a lot of people get tripped up on the transit sections and if the rally planners scatter a few navigational booby traps in the mix a lot of crews can get caught out. But now the fun rally begins. The point of the transit sections is to convey the crews to the really nasty bits which are known as "Regularity Zones". Americans call this next bit Time, Speed, Distance which is a good description. At the starting checkpoint the crew will be assigned a speed. They then have to drive the route precisely at this average speed, usually between 42-49 KPH. The regularity stages vary in length from 10-40 kilometers. The degree of precision is variable from event to event but this year the Automobile Club de Monaco is doing the timing to 1/100th of a second! So how is this accuracy accomplished? Well the co-driver needs three items (i) a good stopwatch, (ii) an accurate mechanical tripmeter of the type used in the 60s and 70s -the Mini is fitted with a Halda Twinmaster; these devices were originally made for Swedish taxis and are accurate down to 10 metres and (iii) a large book of speedtables. Lots of excellent geekery is involved. As soon as the car is flagged off, the previously zeroed stopwatch and tripmeter are started and the co-driver starts checking the average speed in the book by cross reading elapsed time on the stopwatch vs. distance covered on the tripmeter. I try to do this four times per minute and call out whether we are fast or slow. If the car is bouncing over a bad road it's quite common to be able to achieve only two or three sampling times per minute. Oh, and the co-driver has also got to keep the driver on the correct route so some map work is necessary too. And before anybody asks, modern electronic tripmeters are illegal as are GPS devices and other such gizmos. Some rallies outlaw the use of mobile phones (one or two competitors phone back road conditions and positions of hidden intermediate timing points -usually a couple of marshals sequestered in a van- to their team mates) but it's virtually impossible to police their use. The ACM doesn't even try.

So just in case anybody is thinking that maintaining an average speed of less than 30mph is easy, let me point out that the stages are invariably narrow mountain roads frequently covered with snow and ice. Freezing fog is quite common too. To do well everything needs to be just right. The crew must have a harmonious relationship with each knowing their precise job, the car needs to be set up correctly and in the case of the Monte Carlo, appropriate tyres need to be fitted and the service crew needs to be at a spot where wheels can be juggled. If any of these variables are wrong, the crew will find the going difficult. Often it's so difficult to make the target time (usually set in optimum weather conditions) that the drive is a flat out blast until the end of the stage.

And that's about it. If you can maintain your concentration for four days, manage to drive all the transit sections on time, score a minimum of penalties on the regularity stages (the Monte Carlo has 14 this year) not crash or breakdown, avoid traffic jams due to bad weather, idiotic spectators or bakers giving away apple strudel* and not come to blows with your crew members**, you'll have a good chance of finishing in the points. In any case you'll have a lot of good stories by the end of the event and the Automobile Club de Monaco holds the best party ever.

P.S. Following a comment from the ever astute Little Cricket, I realised I omitted an important fact about the regularity stages. I should have mentioned how the average speed is monitored. Each car carries a transponder which registers when we start and finish the stage. There are also hidden intermediate timing points to stop cars accruing time on the easier sections and giving themselves a reserve for the harder parts of the stage. I should also out that this year, in an attempt to control the boy racer element in the rally (sadly there is one) the penalty points for being ahead of the target time are six times those for being slow.

* This happened to us in 2005. A baker in the village of Antraigues is famous for passing out delicious apple strudel to the rally crews. Note to the ACM and the local Gendamarie: it's a lovely gesture but please don't let it impede competeing cars. After losing 15 minutes due to crowd control, I wanted to stick the said strudel up somebody's ar was very stressed.

** Rally lore has several accounts of married couples getting so angry with each other en route that they've abandonded their car, flown home separately and filed for divorce!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Monte Carlo Countdown: Start -19 Days

Maping of Night Loop
Mad Dog is burning the midnight oil doing the mapping for the MCH

There's now less than three weeks before the start of the rally and the pressure is starting to gnaw at me. I've booked my flights to the UK and back. I've booked the cross channel ferry (let's hope we won't have any high jinks of the kind we had in 2005 on Le Shuttle). I've booked most of the ancillary accommodation. That just leaves a few bits and bobs to organise and that side of things is done.

On the car preparation front, Bill has rebuilt the engine and gearbox and PRX 720B is up and running and is working more or less OK but needless to say there are a few bugs to sort out. The front brakes are apparently leaking despite new seals; we'll need to get the calipers sleeved. Bloody useless things, just 43 three years old and they're knackered. You can't get quality products anymore. I sent the Twinmaster off to noted Halda guru, Neil Huband, for a quick service and he's just informed me that the internals have seen better days and it needs a full overhaul. More expense, I suppose but at this stage, who cares.

Technical and safety improvements to the car include modern FIA seats that hold the seatbelts securely (there's nothing  like a nosedive into a mountain wall to become acutely aware of one's mortality -see how WRC ace Petter Solberg did something very similar at almost the same spot the week before us in 2005). In addition, the period correct Lucas fog and spotlights have been replaced by a set of monster Cibié Oscars. Sadly those jokes that Americans love to make about Lucas electrics are largely true. Despite investing quite a bit on refurbishing the old Lucas SLR 700 "flame throwers" they just didn't perform well enough for a modern rally and now will only be used for shows. Finally the tyres have all been delivered. We have a set of six studded Hakka for the snow and ice: hopefully these will be a huge improvement over the wretched Colway M/S whose demise will cause me to shed no tears. In addition we have another set of six Yokohama intermediates for mixed conditions. Hopefully that will be enough and short of getting full works-level sponsorship I don't see what more we can do in that department.

The major task that remains for me is to complete the mapping and pace notes, Hopefully that will be done by next weekend by which time I should have completed our roadbook. Must go now, the Carte Michelin are calling...

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Well George, we finally knocked the bastard off*

SIr Edmund Hillary
Sir Edmund Hillary, 1919-2008

Damn! And there I was writing about him in just my last post. Rest in Peace, Ed, you were also one of my heroes. Wherever you are now, I'm sure you'll find some mountains to climb.

*Sir Edmund's comment to friend George Lowe, on returning from his conquest of Everest in 1953.

Friday, January 04, 2008

4th January

The Royal Albert Hall, London. Mad Dog first attended a classical music concert here on this day forty years ago.

The 4th day of the New Year seems to be one of those dates that has special significance in my memory. Forty years ago today was the first time I ventured to London on my own to attend a classical concert (Handel's Messiah) at the Royal Albert Hall. It was snowing and very atmospheric. Don't ask me how I can remember the date because these days I can't even recall what I did on the previous day. Somehow these formative experiences are etched on the brain.

On the same day the previous year (1967 if you're having trouble with the maths) one of my childhood heroes, Donald Campbell, was killed in the most dramatic fashion, live on television while attempting a water speed record on Coniston Water. I remember the film clip being broadcast over and over again while I watched aghast but with morbid fascination with his last words "...I've got the bows up, I'm going..." ringing in my ears.

Also on this day in 1986 the tragic death of Thin Lizzy frontman, Phil Lynott, came as a shock. This Irish combo was one of my favourite bands of the 1970s (yay, for a great concert at the Top Rank, Cardiff, c 1973). By that time I was living in San Francisco but tuned avidly to the BBC World Service for Euro news (some things never change).

Finally, I can remember clearly the news of Sir Edmund Hillary's triumph in reaching the South Pole by overland expedition in 1958. The first person to do so since Captain Scott in 1912. I was still in primary school and these kinds of achievements were applauded greatly in the grey post-war atmosphere still prevalent in the UK. To this day I've been fascinated by the Snowcats.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Carlos Who...?


As Bill Richards and I raced around France recently on our rally recon we noticed the billboard above on one of the stages near St. Agreve. So it seems to me that the Automobile Club de Monaco is so slack that it can't be arsed to plot a different route for our rally and that bunch of overpaid boy racers from the WRC who are drivng ahead of us by a few days (you know, cars with huge exhaust pipes, wings and stuff driven by rockstar crews who are constantly pampered, have groupies tending to their every need and don't have to worry if they can afford to buy a third set of tyres). Anyway my interest was piqued and I went for a surf on the ACM's site. To my surprise they've made an announcement that no fewer than four former winners of the MC rally will be competing on the Historique event. First there is Bruno Saby and Jean-Francois Fauchille (winners, 1988) in a Fiat 500. Hah Hah and LMFAO! Then there's 1978 winner, Jean-Pierre Nicolas, driving his Gitanes Porsche 911. I expect he'll be too busy smoking cigarettes to care about driving. Next there's Vic Elford and David Stone at the wheel of their orange Porsche 911. I'm frankly a bit worried about this pair as they broke the dominance of the Mini Coopers back in 1968. They are quite familiar with regularity rallys if they're not too old to remember how to read speed tables and David Stone lives near Valence (the nexus point of the rally), apparently. You don't think they could have been practicing, do you....? Nah, I'm being paranoid! Finally there's some bloke called Sainz. Never heard of him. He's from Barcelona (or somewhere close). A quick internet search reveals that he likes to drive his car greasy side up. He's clearly rubbish!  Bring 'em on, I say.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Welcome 2008

Photo purloined from Lolcats.

No the champagne isn't (wasn't) invisible. I drank it. Now if you'll excuse me I'm off to find the ibuprofen.

Happy New Year!