Andrew Coley is a motorsport TV commentator/presenter from Bexhill on Sea, Sussex, SE England, UK, specialising in rallying. He’s been a performance driving/motorsport instructor for around 10 years.
How did you first get involved in motorsport?
I’ve always loved cars; before cars had rear seatbelts I apparently used to stick my head between the car window and the headrest and was fascinated just watching my dad drive. I bought a radio controlled car when I was around 13 years old, a Tamiya Terra Scorcher. I can remember it was £123 and I had a sheet of paper ticking off the money as I earned it on a paper round!
Once I had the car, the local model shop introduced me to the idea of racing, and of course I was hooked immediately. Everything was upgraded; car, motors, batteries etc. I raced Tamiya products for a few years, and then moved onto Schumacher (nothing to do with the F1 driver!) and competed over the SE of England, with occasional trips to national RC car events.
In my mid teens my dad took me to see my first rally; it was the London International rally, a one off mixed surface event in the SE of England. The first driver I saw flat out in a forest was Malcolm Wilson, the now boss of Ford’s World Rally Championship Team. I can still remember that the speed he came through the forest at completely blew my mind; it was just SO fast. So fast in fact that my mum who was watching with us withdrew about 200 metres back into the forest!!
What got you interested in rally and what brought about the transition from tarmac to gravel?
That first rally event was key to it all I’m sure, but I’d had an interest in motorsport for years, watching F1 on TV, any rallying I could possibly see, and attending rallycross meetings at Brands Hatch where the Group B rally cars were still allowed to compete. Rallying just appealed to me more than any other motorsport, all my RC car racing had been on dirt, the rallycross was such a spectacle, all sideways and noise, and rallying was closest to that.
Once I’d passed my driving test I think it’s fair to say like most youngsters I drove too fast, though I can only recognise that fact now I’m in my 30’s! I continued to race RC cars but was constantly researching real motorsport and adding up how long my job as a lifeguard would take to save up for a rally car! Clearly noticing my enthusiasm, for my 19th birthday, my parents bought me a day at a rally school, driving MkII Escorts on gravel. I’d never driven a rear wheel drive car before, or on gravel, but loved the experience by the end of the day had decided that I was going rallying, come hell or high water.
It took me nearly a further two years to save up for my first rally car, a Vauxhall Nova 1600cc clubman spec, which basically means home built, not to FIA homologation rules but to UK MSA safety rules.
We focused first of all on tarmac single venue events, held mostly at disused airfields, racing circuits and vehicle test venues across the country. These events all featured central servicing and no public road sections, so keeping the cost down. I did 3 events in 1998 and retired from all three with mechanical issues; more on this later!
Our first event in 1999 featured 25 cars in our class; it was the first event we actually finished with no major problems, and we finished third in class, which we were over the moon with…I’ve still got the trophy! 1999 went well and we won our regional tarmac championship in our class, but my funds weren’t sufficient to move up to gravel events or to any of the one make championships which were being run by manufacturers at the time, Peugeot and Ford. I couldn’t really see a way forward at this point, felt we’d achieved all we could in the Vauxhall and resigned myself to another year of regional tarmac events.
Luckily the following year things took a turn for the better; I entered the Roger Clark Award, and was selected by the UK Motor Sport association for the ‘Fit to be Champion’ scheme. The combination of these two raised my profile, in particular to the organiser of the Roger Clark Award, who despite my not making the final suggested me to a new and very well funded rally team, 22motorsport. From being an underfunded regional driver I suddenly had a drive on the first round of the national gravel rally championship in 2001 and a chance to compete in the forests for the first time!
You’ve been selected for a number of driver programmes over the years. What are these programmes about? How are individuals selected?
There have been a few genuine ones (ie; not a company trying to make money) over the years, and the MSA here in the UK still run a scheme called MSA elite, where drivers and co drivers from various disciplines are selected for training to become professional drivers; PR, fitness, psychology, sponsor finding etc. It’s a great idea though doesn’t go as far as the French scheme’s which have actually provided funded for the rise of Loeb, Ogier and others through the ranks to the WRC.
In 2000 I was involved in the MSA’s first ever driver program, called ‘Fit to be Champion’. They selected 20 people from applications sent in from all over the UK to go to the Lilleshall National Human Performance Centre (where the UK’s Olympic gymnasts trained) 4 times over the year for training and assessment on various elements of being a professional driver. I worked very hard on my fitness, and met some great drivers who I’d looked up to the previous years. I think I was the only person on the scheme who wasn’t yet competing at national level, so it felt great to be among people who were ahead of me in their careers. I learnt a lot from the scheme and from my fellow drivers.
The second one was the Roger Clark Award; this was open to anyone, and I think around 100 drivers registered, which cost around £100. A group of sponsors was arranged y the organiser to provide a prize fund of £50k to the winner, and through the year you sent in reports to the judges, who included Malcolm Wilson and Richard Burns. Six people made the final and it was won by Niall McShea, who went on to win the PWRC quite a few years later.
Again I was one of only a few who were in the award and were only competing regionally, and I didn’t make the final. I did, however, impress the guy who was running the award, Richard Stoodley. He was at an event with the team I mentioned earlier, 22motorsport. He retired from the event and spent the day spectating, as did the team boss when he crashed his brand new Subaru. The rally was at a venue I knew well and I was pushing hard on that day; I had no idea at the time but several months later, just after learning I hadn’t made the final, I was asked to go and meet 22motorsport with a view to a drive in 2001. Fantastic!
Your participation in these programmes has enabled you to compete in multiple countries and conditions. Could you share a couple of your most memorable stories with us from these?
It was in fact a scholarship with the French MSA that allowed me to compete abroad for the first time, at the end of 2005. Nissan Motorsport, (NISMO) BFGoodrich and Eurosport TV were running a competition for experienced rally crews to win a fully paid up drive on the legendary Dakar Rally. Prospective crews were asked to send in loads of information, personal statements, references etc. 200 crews from all over Europe entered, and we were due to receive a call on a set date telling us if we were selected for the final ten, to represent our country in the competition.
It was around 8 o’clock at night on that date, I was a bit hacked off that we hadn’t made the final although I’d always thought it was a long shot. So myself and my then co-driver, Dan Pearce, were heading out for a few beers to drown our sorrows! As I was leaving the house the phone rang…it was the ASO, who organise the Dakar, telling us that we were in the final 10 and representing UK! We still had the beers…probably a few too many, it was a great evening!
We flew out to BFG’s test venue in France, and spent a gruelling weekend battling for a place in the final 5, sleeping in tents in freezing temperatures. Endurance running and mountain biking, navigation tests, mechanical tests, driving off road and at high speed were all assessed. The pressure was incredible, especially as Eurosport were there filming the whole thing. The producer had said: “Ignore the camera, you do your life” in a heavy French accent, but you couldn’t ignore the cameras, they were everywhere. We did well in the Semi Finals, and needless to say when we made the top five we were ecstatic!
The final was in Morocco, at an old French military town called Erfoud, where all the manufacturer teams still test for the Dakar. It was another extremely arduous weekend. We slept in tents in the desert (NOT warm at night!) and did more navigation, sand driving and learnt general Dakar rally skills. It took the judges four hours to decide a winner…
We came second. We missed the drive by one place. We were gutted. We’d been beaten by a proper professional driver, a guy called Tobias Johansson, who at that time was Fords WRC test driver and an FIA B seed. He’d done 9000kms of testing in the focus, and 11 rounds of the WRC in a Subaru that year. We hadn’t competed since 2001!! I was so proud we’d run him so close, but so gutted we’d lost out.
NISMO very kindly appointed us official reserve crew for the event, and we stayed in Morocco for a further 5 days doing the full Dakar training programme. I dug a lot of sand the first day; great motivation for learning how not to get stuck! I wrote a full article about the Dakar Challenge here: http://apcsport.com/PR/Dakar%20Challenge%20article.pdf
Tell us about your rally cars. Did you buy or build them? Any particular challenges or benefits stand out to any of these, looking back?
When I first wanted to compete, I got the MSA rule book, read it from cover to cover (which I’ve never done since!) and made a list of everything we needed. I then added it all up and got saving! After more research it became very clear that the best way to get value for money was to buy a car someone else had built, which was what we did.
When I bought my first car I knew NOTHING about real car mechanics. I had lots of RC car experience, but they were plastic and electric, and this was obviously not! On the first event the brakes bound on, and the engine overheated. So after this event, I learnt all about brakes.
We went to our second event, and had no idea that the binding brakes had caused the engine to overheat so badly that we’d melted a piston ring! So after this I learnt about engines. At the third event I span, and on full lock used full revs to pull away. The driveshaft blew to bits…so you can guess what I learnt about this time!
I didn’t have the budget to get the car prepared professionally so everything had to be done with friends, family, and on a steep learning curve, but I wouldn’t be where I am today without all that experience. Having said that, now I’m older, I would love to own just one rally car from brand new, build it myself with everything ‘just so.’ We’ll see!
You’ve worked as a motorsport/performance instructor, participated in new model launches, and now work as a rally commentator for Eurosport Television. How did this come to be?
My first instructing job came when I wanted to try my first rally car, a tarmac spec Vauxhall on gravel, so I contacted my local rally school to see if they would hire me the venue. They said no, but talked about my results and asked if I’d ever instructed. I said no but would like to; had an interview and so kicked off the next ten years work!
Over the years I progressed through everything from rally to off road to quad bikes, then circuit instruction, drifting and finally manufacturer work. Manufacturer work includes events training the dealer networks on new products, doing track experiences with prospective customers at vehicle launches etc. It’s nicer work, better paid, and less dangerous than blasting round circuits with novice racing drivers!
Anyone who knows me will say I talk too much, so at these events it would be me that did the briefings, awards and occasionally filming work that needed doing for the event. After doing a fair bit of TV and filming work, I put two and two together and thought there must be some mileage in presenting for work, and put a showreel together.
After a lot of emails, phone calls, interviews etc I landed a role with Eurosport TV as the ‘pundit’ for the IRC (Intercontinental Rally Challenge). We’ve just come back from covering an epic Rallye Monte Carlo; 12 out of 13 stages shown live by helicopters, in car cameras, roadside cameras etc, 14 hours of live TV rally coverage in 3 days.
I really enjoy the TV commentary and presenting; it’s a rush, with all the pressure, especially if you’re live. The biggest non TV event I’ve hosted was an end of season F1 event for Mercedez-Benz, including interviews with F1 driver Lewis Hamilton and a crowd of 15,000 spectators at the track; I was very nervous, as I am when I compete, but once you get into the event or the rally it all goes away and the adrenalin carries you through.
How many events did you attend/enter last year? Is that trending up or down? Why?
Zero as a competitor, which is down. In 2008 we won our class (A6) in the MSA National Gravel Rally Championship and did 6 events, but I spent all my savings (again!) and the recession hit the instructing work hard, so no money spare for motorsport for the last couple of seasons.
I’ve still got a rally car; currently it’s a Group A Peugeot 206 ‘Cup Car’; FWD, 1600cc (Semi Grp A) engine, 6 speed H pattern close ratio box, LSD, big brakes, forest and tar suspension set ups, fully under guarded, Peugeot Sport shell, LHD etc etc.
I’m considering competing on a few events in Belgium as they’re rally mad over there and close public roads for motorsport, which we rarely do in mainland UK. Belgium is closer to me than Wales, which is where a lot of our forest rallies happen, and it’s cheaper to enter events too as UK forestry is VERY expensive for the motor clubs to hire.
Spectators: How would you like to see them addressed?
You’ve got two groups; those of us who’ve spectated for years, are quite happy to walk miles to watch, want to be in our own space, and know where is safe to stand.
You’ve then got new fans, who maybe watch rallying on TV, and have no idea how to find the stages, want car parks and burger vans a one minute walk from the action, and really do need herding into an area to keep them from harm!
A good compromise in my opinion is to promote heavily an easy to watch spectator stage, like a stadium stage would be in the US, or one at a circuit or country park in the UK, and then leave the hardcore fans to their own devices in the forests.
How do you get local gearheads involved in rally?
We’ve had several people come ‘through’ our team, usually by volunteering to come and help in service on events. I always put press releases out to local press, and we try to support any local car events by taking the rally car along, people like to see it and it helps gain coverage for us too.
Two guys who came through the team have gone on to MUCH bigger things; one worked for Hyundai World Rally Team, and the other has just finished a long stint with PENSKE racing as an aerodynamicist. He’s left to go and work in F1; pretty humble beginnings working on our Vauxhall Nova in my garden!
What do you see is the most critical issue needing addressed by the rally community today? How would you address that issue if you were in charge?
Loss of venues. Noise issues and NIMBY’s (Not In My Back Yard) are closing venues left right and centre. Two amazing venues in the South East of England where I learnt my trade have gone because of noise. I’m not saying rallying needs to be quieter, although I think current noise limits are necessary, just that we need to get the backing of local councils sometimes, and stand up to an individual who makes a fuss about noise, and say I’m sorry, this event is long established, it’s one day of the year, it’s good for the local economy, etc.
Also in the UK the cost of hiring forests for rallying is astronomical. The MSA is currently lobbying our government to allow road closure for motorsport, already common in Ireland and on the Isle of Man for the famous Manx rally. This would mean we could have rallies anywhere, not just in remote forests, and really bring a benefit to the local towns. In Belgium rallies are almost universally welcomed; they take over a whole town for a week, like a festival atmosphere. I’d love to see that in the UK.
If you could enter any WRC event, which rally would that be? Why?
Monte Carlo or Finland. Monte Carlo because I’m fascinated by the event having covered it for Eurosport, the weather is just so unpredictable, an amazing event steeped in history.
And Finland for the jumps and the speed of the stages; you’d need to do it more than once to get your head around it at all.
Your favorite Group B car?
Metro 6R4. My first two road cars were dreadful Austin Metros, and the contrast between them and the Metro 6R4 group B is just amazing. Also they were instrumental in my love of rallying thanks to their use in the rallycross I used to spectate at when I was younger. If in doubt go and listen to one come through a forest flat out. Awesome.
We’ve all got a rally hero. Who’s yours?
Colin McRae and Richard Burns; both inspirations to a generation of fans and competitors in the UK, and both sadly missed. I’ve basically a soft spot for anyone who was competing when I was out watching the RAC; so for me that’s the Group A era of mid 90’s.
I was lucky enough to meet McRae and Burns when I was competing, and in recent years two more rally legends, Tommi Makinen and Francois Delecour. Both the latter were again while working for Eurosport; there is something very special about sharing a conversation about rallying with one of your rally heroes! I’m very lucky.
Do you have a local rally club? Tell us about it! (If not, why not?)
Yes, but I’m rarely around to go to any club nights; work is very time consuming and involves a lot of travelling for me. There’s a huge network of motor clubs in the UK, and a great way to get into the sport.
How often do you get together with other rallyistas to talk shop?
Whenever I’m working I’m with fellow competition drivers, so plenty of rally and race chat to be had! There’s lots of talk about who’s faster, race or rally, but it’s all light hearted stuff and for me there’s mutual respect both ways. Racing drivers do have shiny boots and wear their sunglasses a bit too often though!
Tell us about some people who have made your rally dream a reality.
My parents. They’re retired now, but were school teachers, so no experience of motorsport, and didn’t have money to throw at me. They always gave (and still do) any time required, even when they were working full time, the encouragement needed to stick at a hobby/career like motorsport, the patience needed when I was screaming at some part of the car that wouldn’t fit, the cold days in a cold garage with my Dad trying to learn more about why I’d broken the car again. More parts of engines have been on the kitchen work surface than any normal Mum would allow, I lived at home until I was nearly 30 as I spent all my money on motorsport! Need I go on?!
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from your time in the rally community?
That it’s a great, friendly community of people. When you’ve come into service and bits are hanging off the car and you’re struggling, you’ll have guys from the top teams right down to the bottom doing their best to help you fix the car in time. You won’t find that in all forms of motorsport.
Is there anything else rally-related you’d like to talk about, but hasn’t been asked?
No, but ‘tweet’ me with any questions and I’ll always do my best to reply.
Thank you for sharing your story with us, Andrew. From Tamiya to the Telly, it would seem you’ve had quite a ride. Press on regardless.