White-knuckle ride in world of rallying
I’ve never been to New York and hailed a cab there – but I imagine it feels something like this...writes Lewis Cox
There stood these suped-up rally cars, bumper to bumper, waiting for us mere mortals to gingerly enter, waiting to pick up their passengers.
Another slight difference from the choice of transport in Manhattan is that, deep in the Cheshire wilderness of Cholmondley Castle, we were geared up with a helmet and a neck brace in preparation for a real rally experience.
I was invited on a media experience for the upcoming World Rally Championships GB Rally Wales later this month. Part of the package was a whizz around the ‘speed trap’ section of the Castle’s grounds. Something anyone remotely interested in cars can hardly resist.
A stage will be held there in October as the top dogs in rallying thrash their cars to the limit.
I’m far from a WRC expert but I watched enough of the Richard Burns era and even owned the renowned blue and yellow Subaru Impreza in Scalextric, so that qualified me.
Anyway, once the formalities were over in one of the many stunning grand castle welcome rooms and we’d got interviews out of the way, the real fun started.
As one of the helpers hailed me a rally car, I was shunted in the passenger seat without really taking in the vehicle I’d entered. One particular highlight was awkwardly clambering into position – a lot more difficult than getting into any ‘normal’ car – to the sound of an annoying high-pitched car horn.
The helper soon told me to ‘watch my foot’, because I’d had it jammed on the oddly-positioned horn button down to my left. Heavens only know why it’s there, I can only assume it’s for the co-drivers.
I eventually introduced myself to my driver, Steve Chamberlain. He told me I’d been racing in a Mitsubishi Evolution – or ‘Evo’ – 4 Group N rally car. That perked me up a bit.
I later found out, after the spin, that he was a swimming pool engineer. You couldn’t make it up.
It must be said, my driver – who lives in Hyde in Cheshire – was top class. Really friendly, welcoming and knowledgeable about the car and with clear experience. He had been rallying for 23 years and driven in amazing locations worldwide.
The Evo wasn’t exactly top-level WRC standard. But it had been tanked around many a competitive rally. I took in the car the best I could, the roll bars in the back, the extra gear-shifter and the mini digital computer in front of me for the co-drivers.
We had a bit of time to chin wag while we waited for the cars further up the rank to start. The beasts behind us were also slowly filling up with other quivering members of the press – not that I could see anything behind or even to the side of me, when you’re fixed into a rally car – you are really fixed.
Steve, an amateur racer who was well-versed in rally experiences like this and had completed a few laps already on the day, assured me of my safety by telling me his previous passenger was none other than the Lord Mayor of Chester. I felt a little bit more at ease knowing he’d delivered her back in one piece.
We reached the start point, where Steve was counted down. I had my phone in position in attempt to record a video of the flying lap, not strictly permitted, but holding it in position was a challenge!
He told me that it would be over before I knew it. It wasn’t the longest of circuits.
And suddenly, ‘bang’, you’re off. Nothing can quite prepare you for the acceleration. It makes your eyes pop, as my video portrays.
It started with a decent length straight before we hit a 90 degrees sharp left. Steve hammered his foot down and yanked on the cool, spaceship-style gear lever found inside rally cars, an extra-quick way to shift gear.
Breaking at the last possible moment we spun around the sharp bend and powered off again. The attractive green surroundings whizzed by. Although much of my focus was that we remained on the dirt surface barely wide enough to contain the 300 brake horsepower machine.
Steve had mentioned beforehand that the highlight of the short circuit, which was probably around a few hundred metres in total, would be the ‘doughnut’. Safe to say I was looking forward to that part.
He warned me as it approached before slamming on the breaks, yanking on the handbrake and spectacularly spinning 360 degrees around an obstacle on the track. It was astonishing.
A few more twists and turns and some stunning bursts of power completed the course. If anything, the standout memory was the roar of the car’s engine.
Because of the build-up of cars being thrown around the circuit we had a while to wait before reaching the taxi drop-off point. It was a good chance to chat with Steve and learn more about his background. He races at amateur level and won a rally of his own outright near Blackpool a few years back.
I was duly dropped off – managing to avoid the horn this time – and took a quick photo opportunity outside the car before handing my helmet and other gear back.
It was something of a relief to touch down on ‘terra firma’. Though I instantly wanted another lap...
It wasn’t until getting out of the car that I could take in its stature. A super-charged beast with its exterior decorated to look the real deal. All rally cars are road legal too, so don’t be too surprised if you see any flashing up the A49 towards the end of this month.
If that was a snapshot of what hurtling around a rally stage was like, I can only imagine the G-Force levels and the commitment that the top stars put into every bend of every stage. Their talent is staggering.