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Part 6 ~ Rally Leg-1

Jan 08,2006 by Julian Grattidge

Tense minutes fill each hour before the official start at 8.00pm. Drivers and navigators mentally prepare themselves for the test that lies ahead, whilst support crew see to any last minute gremlins, and no sooner have you grabbed a bite to eat and it’s a case of ‘stand by your beds’. The whole team wish the driving crew luck and are away, leaving the driver and navigator alone to their thoughts. The chase car makes its way to the first rendezvous point where it will meet the rally car after the first competitive stage has been completed. The Service barge will make the long trek down the island to the service area where it will then need to ready all the mechanical equipment, generators, awnings, lighting and suchlike, and those spectating will be away to get a good vantage point for the first night-time special stage.


During the event each rally car will be timed individually over a series of ‘special-stages’. These are basically competitive sections where crews are competing to see how fast they can drive from point-to-point. Each driver’s stage times are then added up and the crew with the quickest cumulative time will win the rally. However, in addition to the competitive miles the cars also have to adhere to strict time controls imposed by the organisers designed to keep the event running smoothly. Before and after each stage is a time control where the cars effectively book in and out of each competitive stage; any cars that arrive too early at a stage, or equally, arrive too late, are then given a time penalty, which when added to their competitive stage times will drop them down the leader board, thus the idea is to complete the rally with as few penalties as possible. The responsibility for time keeping is again with the navigator. The order in which the cars take to the stages is decided in advance through seeding; a system whereby the organisers take into account how good the crew are and how well (fast) they have been on previous attempts. Again this is done to ensure smooth running with the quicker drivers going first with the rest following on.


Paul Grattidge (navigator) books the car into time control at the begining of a special stage


8.00pm signals the ‘official’ start of the rally and the first car (usually the previous year’s winner) leaves the start ramp and makes its way up to the time control before the start of the first competitive stage. Once the car has booked in at the time control it then pulls forward to the start line proper where drivers must now don helmets and buckle-up for the competitive stage ahead. Driver and navigator are then given a countdown indicator from one of the rally marshals. First they will tell them they have a minute or so before their allotted time. Then they will signal twenty seconds to go... then ten seconds.... then they will countdown each second from; ‘Five... Four... Three... Two... One... and Go...’


A marshal indicates five seconds to go on the ‘Glen Aros’ special stage


What happens next is anybody’s guess! With luck you’ll bury the throttle, leave two neat lines of rubber on the tarmac and have a clean run through the stage to post a blistering time that others will find hard to follow. Making it to the end of the stage ‘intact’ depends on a great many things besides skill, luck, and judgement. But that’s rallying · you just never can tell who will get it bang on the money, and who will become the first retirement!


All the chase crew can do is keep their fingers crossed and hope that all the meticulous planning by everybody involved pays off. There’s no tension quite like that at the end of each stage as chase crews eagerly await the arrival of their own rally car. Although competing against other crews, there is great deal of camaraderie between one and all; nervous one-liners and wise cracks fly all around in a bid to break the ever-increasing tension. Then, a few minutes late (just to make you sweat) the top seeded cars begin to arrive. You know exactly where your car should be in the running order, so when the car a few in front of yours arrives you know it’s time to swing into action. Hopefully, within a minute or two your car arrives with both driver and navigator wearing ‘happy faces’. If all is well the car will either just keep going past you with thumbs-up in order to get to the beginning of the next stage, or perhaps stop briefly just to tell you how impressive their tail-sliding was through the Dervaig hairpins (a la Hopwood/Grattidge).


...Told you they were quick!


On the other hand you could be met with disaster from the outset. Your car might arrive with wrecked wheels, tyres or goodness knows what else. It’s then a race against time to make whatever repairs you can in the limited time available so that the car can make it through to the next stage on time. Of course if you’re really unlucky the car might not make it through to you at all · misfortune out on the stages is the nature of the beast and it’s a lucky car that makes it through the whole event without so much as a scratch, but hey, let’s not get downbeat - the car is fine, and the grinning occupants are now off to do battle on the next set of stages, at which point you make a few calls to the service crew to let them know the first stage has been traversed without incident. Text messages soon start to arrive on the mobile from friends out spectating... “You should have seen how $%*#@"&$* quick he went past us...” or words to that effect (you get the idea!), all of which adds to the atmosphere - there’s nothing like knowing your boys (or girls!) are going well.


The chase car then has to be loaded back up and you’re off again to do the same thing at the end of the next stage. During the first leg there will also be a proper service stop where the mechanics can get to work on the rally car and put right any problems encountered on the opening stages. Here crew and chase car have a brief rest and the pressure is transferred to the service crew who have to ensure the car is ready for the next set of stages whilst working against the clock. Time is flying by and cars are competing on stages all over the island, from Tobermory at the top right down to Bunessan at the bottom. Its gone midnight and you’re still in the thick of it, and there’s little chance of shut-eye yet. Although you’re tired it’s impossible to describe the buzz surrounding every facet of the event. Every time you stop you hear a new bit of news · somebody else who’s gone end over end, or some kind of giant killing performance on the last stage. On Mull nothing is sacrosanct, you just don’t know what’s going to happen from one moment to the next · and that’s the real beauty of the event. You’ll find none of the farce like formula-1, or the current predictability of the World Rally Championship. No, this is a place where twenty year old escorts set stage times equal to those of brand new WRC cars. The rule book can be thrown well and truly out of the window.


'The lads are on a charge'


If lady luck shines the car will make it through the opening leg which usually consists of seven competitive stages for a total time of around fifty-minutes for the top seeded drivers. The drivers now have a few hours rest before the Saturday restart. This gives time to make adjustments to the car and get ready for the next foray across the island roads. It’s not really until the re-start on Saturday that you know exactly how you’re doing. Friday night can be a little feverish and rumour has a tendency to run away with itself. Only the regular (and excellent) Mull Murmurs news bulletins distributed across the island will confirm or deny, but even then it’s still often unclear and times are always subject to final verification.

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