Friday, January 30, 2009

Ready for the Off

Land Rover

The Minispares-Mad Dog Rallying team is now safely at Reims and ready for the start tonight. Now we are about to do the technical and administrative scrutineering and prepare for the long drive to Monaco. By the time we get there we'll have been up for 36 hours. Daily progress reports can be found on the Bill Richards Racing website. I'll try to cross post here but I may not have time. I will however write a full report of the event when I get back.

Wish us luck...!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Riviera Calls


Monaco awaits. I'm heading off to the airport in a couple of hours and frantically trying to remember all the bits and pieces of my equipment and hoping I don't forget anything critical. British Airways says I won't be allowed on the plane with more than 71lbs. Seems like I have 71 tons. Hardware, software, treeware.  Roadbook, pacenotes, chronometers. Helmet, suit and gloves. Tuxedo, white silk scarf, bow tie (Hell, we're going to Monte Carlo after all!). Funny thing is it's snowing in Seattle. By the end of the rally I'm pretty sure I'll be sick of winter.

I'll try to post from the road but this will depend on my overall condition and access to wireless internet. However check the Bill Richards Racing website for daily positions. In addition, I understand that Minispares UK will be mirroring the reports.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Bill "Stig" Richards

The Stig
Bill "Stig" Richards at Monte Carlo

"Some say he leaves tyre tracks instead of footprints...."

I want to introduce the Minispares-Mad Dog Rallying team's driver, Bill Richards, who in the past few years has carried the nickname "Stig". No, he's nothing to do with the anonymous, race suited individual associated with the odious Jeremy Clarkson. In fact I only became aware of the Top Gear character about a year ago when I was watching TV in the UK. Nevertheless I am actually responsible for Bill's monniker. Back in 2005, I was marvelling at the manner in which he blasted, mostly sideways, through an infamous snow covered stage over the Col de Echarasson. Such was his skill and panache that I speculated that he must have some Scandinavian rally driver genes in body and that he should really be called "Stig". I had absolutely no idea about the mythological Top Gear personality at the time: I was thinking more of Swedish rally driving giant Stig Blomqvist and his ilk. I mentioned this in one of my rally reports and somehow the name stuck. Indeed the term has found broad use including in our pace notes e.g. "...very tight dangerous section for 500 metres, caution, no Stigging..." (meaning no racing heroics).

Anyway enough of all this. Simply put, Bill is one of the hardest charging, focussed and determined drivers out there. He can physically dominate a Mini like no one else. If you have any doubts just watch the video clip here in which he gives a masterclass in slipstreaming and uses the technique to beat a faster, lighter car (ignore the first minute, the action is a little slow to start but then really heats up).

Now Bill, let's kick arse next week and no Stigging unless I tell you...!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009



Only the Aussies could get away with this bit of opportunistic marketing in the Sydney Daily Telegraph. And if you don't know what Veet is (I didn't) you can find out here.

Fnarr! Fnarr!

Hat tip to reader Gilly for the viral email with this scan.

Irish Blog Awards


I appear to have been nominated in the "Best Personal Blog" category of the Irish Blog Awards. Interesting! I owe somebody a pint of Murphy's. Or a glass of chardonnay. Competition is stiff so keep your fingers crossed for me when the votes are cast on February 21st.

To mark this development I'm going to re-post my essay on Irishness that I wrote a few years back. You can read it here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Presedential Inauguration Day: Obama-mania


Celebrations for Barack Obama's presidential inauguration are in full swing as I write and the mood in the country is quite amazing. Nobody does optimism like Americans. My own feelings are more detached. As a white man I cannot experience the emotion of Black Americans who have lived to see the day when a African American is sworn in as the Chief Executive of the country. And as an ersatz American (read mere Green Card holder) I can't help but feel somewhat set-apart. Nevertheless this is truly an historic day and as a world citizen I'm delighted that the people of the US have elected as their 44th President an intelligent, articulate, mild mannered-centerist who can pronounce "nuclear" properly. Please enjoy the day Mr Obama; unfortunately the bumpy ride will start tomorrow.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Conflict Resolution

This story of conflict resolution is not as poetic as Miyamoto Mushashi’s duel at Ganryu Island but at least nobody died

Yesterday the spurious firing of some circuits in my neural network had me recalling an incident from a decade ago and giggling like an idiot. It's quite the funniest "how-not-to-do-it" management /conflict resolution story I know. Let me start at the beginning…

In the nineties I served for several years on the Council of a well known British learned professional society and for one year I was Chairman. During this period there was a backdrop of low-level ideological friction. The society was modernizing and had appointed a full time CEO who was continuing to prosecute an agenda of change. However this was not to the liking of many of the old guard council members who wanted to see the society remain as a low cost organization in its traditional style. Tensions increased over a period of years and finally it was decided to discuss the issues over a council meeting dinner to be held one evening at the annual congress.

Probably all the council members were aware that trouble had been brewing and this was going to be a difficult meeting. Nevertheless they all duly trooped in to dinner with not much joie de vivre one chilly December evening. Discussions started over the meal and wine was served. My job as Chairman was to maintain orderly proceedings in an impartial manner and minimise any conflict. In retrospect I would have done things a lot differently but then hindsight is always 20/20. As we skirted around the peripheral issues, the alcohol consumption increased substantially, maybe even alarmingly. Even so you’d think that a group of highly educated and allegedly sophisticated individuals could hold their liquor and conduct themselves in a mature, gentlemanly, manner. Well the events of the evening certainly blew that hypothesis to shreds. As the core agenda items were brought up discussions became a succession of bloviations, accusations and insults. Despite some entreaties by me, logic and politeness went out of the window and all attempts at constructivity were in vain. Finally tempers became so frayed that the CEO announced to the Council “you’re all a joke” to which one member, a combative American who was about as subtle as a lead pipe retorted “FUCK OFF, FAT BOY!”.

Now that level of sophomoric insult was the end of the dinner. Instantly! There was a momentary silence while the gravity of the epithet sunk in. Then the society’s secretary shrieked “MD, stop them, they’re going to fight”. As it happened I was sitting between the two protagonists so I put my hands around their shoulders and “Gentlemen, I suggest we adjourn” (or something equally jejune) and we moved outside and the proceedings were concluded.

The aftermath of the meeting was profound. Immediately afterwards there was a lot more drinking: most of the members were traumatized by the events of the evening and tried to anesthetise themselves from reality. One individual who had given up smoking a decade previously went off in search for cigarettes. But the resonances of the FOFB slur continued for a long time. The CEO went very quiet and eventually resigned invoking an interesting legal sequelae which took a year or so resolve. Other members disappeared back to their labs and were eventually replaced in the society by new blood. At a personal level it was my swan song as I was due to rotate off the council at the end of that year and my work there was done, constitutionally speaking. To this day the FOFB meeting is discussed by society alumni in the same way other generations talked about The Blitz. In retrospect it’s actually a hilarious story. Throwing around terms of revilement like FOFB in usually polite (and quite repressed) British society is so outrageously shocking that a humorous aspect becomes apparent. But other than the fact that my attempts at conflict resolution were an abject failure, the incident also taught me two things: (i) if a contentious issue ever arises between two parties, the likelihood of it being resolved while the consumption of alcohol occurs is minimal and (ii) lurking behind the urbane veneer of many academics and intellectuals there is an aggressive neanderthal waiting to go on the rampage -so don't be surprised when one pops up.

FOFB indeed!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

More Horsepower

Engine tuning guru Bill Richards tries to coax more horsepower out of our car

On our rally reconnaissance route in December I was reminded of the beauty of rural France and its wide diversity of flora and fauna. Here is some of the wildlife we observed en route:

  • Eagles (x2 -magnificent)
  • Hawks (multiple)
  • Rat (several)
  • Shrew/vole (x1)
  • Pine Martin (x2 -might have been Alpine Marmots)
  • Mountain sheep (a whole family with bells -poetic)
  • Deer (x2)
  • Hare (x1)
  • Rabbits (several)
  • Wolf (x1 -exciting)
  • Wild boar (x1, deceased; apparently hit by car -distressing)
  • Pony in middle of road, miles from anywhere, with no apparent owner (x1)
  • Random dog, off leash in middle road, miles from anywhere with no apparent owner (x29; a peculiar French phenomenon)
  • Random person walking/standing in road, miles from anywhere (x17 -comments as for random dog)
I mention this now because there will be no time for sightseeing next month!

Friday, January 16, 2009

About Time This Was Said (at High Level)

"...waterboarding is torture..."

Eric Holder (Nominee, US Attorney General)
Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing
January 15th, 2008

Thank you, Eric; the civilised World applauds you!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Be Seeing You

On no, another of my heroes has sloughed the mortal coil. Patrick McGoohan, who as Number 6 in the astonishingly brilliant series, The Prisoner, had me glued to the television set in my youth departed for the big Village in the Sky earlier today. RIP, Patrick (but damn, now we'll never find out the identity of Number 1).

Incidentally the show had me positively lusting after a Lotus 7. And in more recent years I always imagined myself handing in my resignation to pompous/incompetent boss in this fashion.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Musical Interlude: Sound Familiar?

My life story: 40 years of "Getting my motor running..."

It's very strange. I must have blinked and missed something. Like the past 40 years. Has it really been that long since I sat in a cinema in Leicester Sq., London, and watched Easy Rider? Apparently the answer is yes. Anyway in a moment of unashamed nostalgia I was listening to the movie soundtrack the other day and in doing so noticed something curious. Specifically this track from the album, a song by The Blues Magoos written in 1967 caught my ear:

Sound familiar? Maybe? Then listen to this track by Deep Purple:

Black Knight was a hit for the band in 1970; you can do the maths. Now I've commented on DP's apparent use of other artists' material in the past. But on this occasion things may not be as they seem. Listen to this 1962 rendition of Summertime by Ricky Nelson:

I suppose there's not much new under the sun: that bass riff has certainly been around for some time and it's a really great one, too...

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Rally Recon

An oncoming snowplow on a road in the Ardeche: these conditions are good!

Ten days before Christmas, Bill Richards and I set off on EasyJet to the south of France with the intention of driving the entire route of the Monte Carlo Historique. Or so we thought: the reality was somewhat different. Central and Southern France had a very significant snowfall and only about 75% of the so called ZR sections were passable and only then after we'd gone through the wretched process of fitting chains to the wheels of our little Nissan rental car. So we bumped around where we could and made notes. The Col de Turini was closed due to a rockfall. This must have been bad as the organisers have subsequently modified the rally route around this blockage. Overall it's going to be a very tough event. Some of the stages are old familiar opponents; others are new (to me, at least) and look very nasty. Very tight and slippy -some with 1200M drops to one side and no crash barrier. Scary to say the least! All of them were covered in snow and some had unplowed drifts of 2 metres. And I can't imagine the situation improving in the next four weeks -typically the snowfall is greatest in the first week in February. It's going to be interesting. Here's a brief video clip of one of the easier sections in the Ardeche:

Friday, January 02, 2009

Why Do I Do This...?

Mini Trigance
MD and Bill Richards storm through Provence, 2005.

In precisely four weeks' time I will strap myself into a 44 year old, 10' long, flimsy steel box, alongside another individual of questionable sanity and set off on a 2500Km high speed race through the mountains of France. I'm never quite sure why I partake in this crazy activity and I thought I'd reflect a little here on how I got started.

Since my teenage years when I followed the exploits of Mäkinen, Hopkirk, Aaltonen and Carlsson with rapt attention, I have always been interested in rallying. And shortly after acquiring a driving licence I discovered the fun of driving a Mini. At the time there was really nothing like it and to this day no vehicle has been able to match the Go Kart feel of these little beasts (OK, OK, before any of you start to harass me from the peanut gallery, I'm not talking about reliability or comfort -just handling ability).

Sometime around 1997, I was living in London and my daily driver was a 1992 Rover Mini. Back then I was constantly making trips to Bill Richards Racing in Ashford, Kent, UK, in a rather futile attempt to turn the Mini into a Porsche. It was on one of these visits I met a charming Frenchman, Partick Hesnard, who was campaigning a delightful 850cc Mini on the now defunct Monte Challenge rally. I quizzed him a lot about rallying and his reponse was "But you must try it: if I can do it anybody can". Well, Patrick, there are a lot of caveats that need to be attached to that statement but you certainly started something. I found advertised in the "For Sale" section of MiniWorld a very disreputable 1964 Mini Cooper offered for a mere £750 and the rest, as they say, is history.

It took a couple of years to get PRX 720B and me ready for rallying (which in the end neither were but that's another story) and on a raw January day at the beginning of the new Millennium I set off from Brooklands race track for the south of France. Pretty much everything about that event was a disaster. Neither my co-driver or I knew what we were doing and the car was ill-prepared and broke down at every opportunity. Heaven knows how we made it to the Riviera but somehow we did and finished 5th in class. Despite the debacle I was hooked and entered again in 2001 with a much better prepared car. To my complete astonishment we finished second in our class and I have a large piece of silverware in my basement prove it.

From there on I've enjoyed a post-Christmas ritual of mapping the route and attending to a mountain of organisational and logistical minutiae prior to setting off on the rally. I don't what it is about the Monte that makes it so alluring. Certainly the spectacle of 350 classic cars being used in anger is part of it. The breathtaking scenery of the Jura, the Ardeche Plateau, the Haute Alpes and Alpes Maritime is undoubtedly a factor as is the juxtapositon of the hideous weather encountered en route with the Mediterranean sunshine in Monaco. It all adds up to a very addictive formula and I shall probably keep attempting the event until either I'm too decrepit to be seriously competetive or I win it outright in which case I'll quit while on top. But then the Mille Miglia, the Carrera Panamericana and the Targa Florio also beckon -I suppose I'm a hopeless case!

PS By an amazing coincidence, Monsieur Hesnard, having disappeared for many years, has resurfaced just this evening and as it happens he lives just outside Monte Carlo. Patrick, it's a fine mess you've got me into: the least you can do is buy me a beer when we arrive in The Principality next month.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year!

Well it seems we are in for an interesting ride in 2009 if the pundits and talking heads are to be believed. What with global financial meltdown, climate change and several countries ready to nuke each other, it's all too much to absorb. My answer to the above is to keep a sense of humour and a bottle of cognac handy. And continue blogging, of course...

It seems fitting to note that today MD&E has had its 100,000th visitor. It took three years and four and a half months to get the first 50,000 and one year for the second tranche of 50k. My thanks to you all for dropping by: please continue to visit and I'll do my best to keep you entertained.

Peace and prosperity to all: my very best wishes to everybody for a fabulous 2009.