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.

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