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Motorsport musings

May 2014 - My rally return trunk'ated by a Welsh ditch!

Fiesta STThe Plains Rally, a round of both the Welsh Forest Rally Championship and the BTRDA Rally Series, was the recent award winner for "Best forest rally" in both. For years this event used to be my "home" rally when I was based in Welshpool. And it was my firm favourite for a number of reasons; the weather is always good in May, the forests are some of the best in Wales, the organisation of this event is brilliant and the famous "woodyard" stage is a lot of fun… I should know, I was involved with the Jones family when it was designed and built.

Matt EdwardsEver since I first covered the rally, the year that a certain Geoff Jones almost ran me over in a Group A Subaru, I have had a burning desire to compete on this rally. When I lived in Wales I never had the chance as my 'day job' was motorsport photography and thus I had to be in the forests, behind a camera, to make a living.

Now, however, things have changed! Tired of constantly reading in the news back home about yet another poached elephant somewhere in Kenya and even more tired of talking to people who were totally ignorant of this poaching crisis, I decided that a visit to Wales was in order. The Plains Rally was an ideal opportunity to tick one off my bucket list and to help raise awareness for Hands off our Elephants.

ScrutineeringSix weeks before the rally, almost to the day, I received a tentative go ahead from our bosses that Kara and I could have the time off work. A quick email to Geoff Jones Motorsport and quotes came through for the hire of either a Mitsubishi Evo 9 or a Ford Fiesta ST. Now armed with an idea on budgets I approached people whom I thought would be supportive of the project and soon sponsorship deals began to come through. I was a bit surprised at some of the companies that I approached and the reasons why they couldn't support the project but was also very touched by those who did come on board, with more than a few individuals offering support from their own pockets, truly people who care a great deal about Africa and conservation!

Jamie and IThe choice of a co-driver was pretty easy. For years Jamie Mactavish had been coming out to rallies with me, in Europe and in Kenya, and had been surprisingly tolerant of my entertaining driving style and even now still wants to co-drive me in the famous Classic Safari Rally! I figured that having a novice codriver wouldn't be a bad thing as it would help keep my enthusiastic driving in check!

The six weeks flew by and before I knew it, it was the day of our flight to the U.K…. typical Africa I received my competition licence, passport and the final portion of the required budget all within about four hours of flying out of the country!

Seeing my mum waiting for us at the airport after four very long years was amazing and the trip back to Wales was full of catching up, today we could relax and enjoy the scenery but tomorrow (Thursday) was time to test my chosen steed….. I'd gone for the Fiesta as the budget was more affordable and also I thought the pressure of having a top car would be too much and would just enhance my chances of going off!

ScrutineeringThree hours of testing in Sweet Lamb sounds like a lot but in reality we only did 9 miles. Initially I sat alongside Matt Edwards, a good friend who is suddenly the talk of rallying since beating Steve Bannister and Nick Elliott in a head to head battle in Ford Escorts! Matt not only owns the Fiesta but is also a former pupil of Geoff Jones, so really knows his stuff. After a few laps with Matt driving to show me what the Fiesta was capable of, it was my turn. Three laps with Matt and then another six with Jamie calling notes to me gave me a good feel for the car, which was surprisingly fun and agile to drive!

Wayne EllisAfter a quick wash it was time to get the car stickered at CSG Signs in Welshpool. Wayne Ellis always does an amazing job but this time he truly surpassed himself and managed to make the car look good without being too busy. Signing on at the Royal Oak was a special occasion as, for many years, I had signed on here as media and now I was doing documentation as a competitor, nae, a driver! The only time I was a bit nervous was when it was confirmed that I was indeed going to run as car 35 on the road (all two wheel drives above 1400cc run with a "1" in front of their number. This meant that I was ambitiously seeded ahead of the current championship leaders in our class – hmmmmmm, no pressure then!

At the startStartAt 09:16 on Saturday 17 May 2014 Jamie and I were flagged away from Welshpool by the Honourable Mayor and headed for the opening stage, 9 miles of Hafren. I'm not sure why but I never suffer from nerves as a driver (as a co-driver I'm constantly on edge) and decided that, if the car behind caught us then so be it. Jamie was amazing, not just in Hafren but all day. No issues with early or late check in and although he got lost on the notes he quickly found himself again. My opening stage attempt was pathetic – I was so paranoid about putting the car in a ditch that I didn't really drive all that well but still, fourth in class was an ok start.

HafrenEach stage was more and more fun and by mid-day service our grins were enormous. My confidence in the Fiesta was improving, I was listening to Jamie more and, most importantly, we were having lots of fun! I mentioned to Matt about the rear end stepping out under braking and the brake bias was adjusted. I'm not sure if we went the wrong way but on the very next stage I had a huge third gear spin which was a bit of a heart stopper as there was a 300 feet drop on my side of the car! Our second run through the Cwm Cwelli stage was one of the best of the day and we were rewarded with a third fastest time and well under a second a mile off the fastest time on a stage lined with huge drops…

Off the roadOne real stage, Gartheniog 2, and the Woodyard were all that remained and grabbing the final podium position was achievable but wasn't the goal. I was pushing but not taking risks but then came that damn "medium right tightens"…. I heard the note in plenty of time. I remembered the corner. And then I just got out of line under braking, the rear end came around and we shot off backwards, down a very, very steep bank! I really thought we were going over onto our roof but somehow we stopped, completely unscathed but beached off the road. I was furious at myself and poor Jamie was absolutely apologetic, totally convinced he'd made a mistake. (We have checked the in-car and there is no way I can blame him at all haha). Ironically, in a stage which had been lined with spectators in the morning we now couldn't find a single person to come and help us back onto the road. Forced to sit there and watch everyone go past was incredibly annoying and I had to wait for Jamie to be out of earshot before berating myself and kicking a few trees! All I had really wanted was to finish the rally with the car in one piece and I'd done this really stupid thing!

RecoveryJumpThankfully the recovery vehicle was a Landrover and soon we were winched out of the ditch and back onto the road. Even though we suspected we had exceeded our maximum lateness we agreed to carry on to the final stage and put on a show. By the time we arrived at the woodyard I had calmed down and we agreed to have a bit of fun. Third fastest in class and, allegedly, the biggest jump amongst the two wheel drives, was some consolation and at least we got to drive back into Welshpool in a car that was, pretty much, unscratched. (We removed the rear bumper as a mounting pin had been snapped when we went off.)

Steve BrockingtonMatt EdwardsThe biggest thing for me was the support that the whole project received. Everyone we spoke to was so supportive and wanted to know what they could do to help spread the word about the poaching problems and this reminded me of the bigger picture… I had achieved my main goal of raising awareness and so to me this entire rally was a success… and it wouldn't have been possible without some very special people. Firstly my poor girlfriend, Kara, who is not really into rallying but has supported me no end, and then my mum who didn't actually get to see her only son as much as she was expecting… then there is my close friend Geoff Jones who really made things possible and to Matt who gave me a 110% reliable car (he even washed it himself!). It goes without saying that my sponsors were very instrumental in this project and I owe them all an enormous vote of thanks… As I was leaving Wales Geoff mentioned that maybe next time I could use one of his Subarus…. Hmmmm, maybe a rematch with the Plains Rally in 2015?

wildlife direct.orgTo join the fight against poaching should visit this link; http://hooe.wildlifedirect.org/