We’ve been after Cat Lund and Andy Rowe for an interview for a while now. They’ve been pretty busy this season, but Cat was generous enough to share this end of the season recap piece with us. In it, Cat paints a picture of the Flanders International Rally Challenge (FIRC). Lots of details!
After three consecutive years of enjoying the Tour of Flanders rally, we decided we’d like to do more rallies in Belgium and thought we’d have a crack at the new FIRC (Flanders International Rally Challenge) championship in 2010. The championship comprised five one-day rallies in the West Flanders region of Belgium and was open to any non-Belgian crews. Results were class-based and there was also a points multiplying factor depending on how many events you entered. To incentivise the foreign crews to enter, the organisers also offered reduced entry fees and Fairfield Motorsport sponsored the FIRC by offering the crews discounted ferry deals, so it seemed like an inexpensive way to go stage rallying on closed roads.
With the first round kicking off at the end of May there was plenty of time to get the car ready for the five FIRC events. As a shakedown – literally – we decided to enter the Turbo Centre Twyford Stages in April, at one of Andy’s favourite venues, Twyford Wood near Grantham. Twyford has a reputation for being rather rough but we had enjoyed rallying there in 2008 and we knew there had been some improvements to the bumpy roads at the former airfield.
The weekend dawned fine and sunny, a portent of things to come. Despite a power steering leak which dumped all the fluid and then a puncture, we won every stage of the rally and finished two minutes ahead of the field. What a great start to the season! It certainly put us in the mood for going to Belgium and taking on the other British, French, Dutch and German crews.
The first FIRC round was the ORC Canal Rally, based in Oostrozebeke and held on the last May bank holiday weekend. The format – as on all the rounds – was recce on day one, with the rally taking place the next day. This event had a format of three stages, with each leg run four times.
The rally had a strong entry, including Belgian rally legends Paul Lietaer and Patrick Snijers amongst the 130+ competitors.
The rally had a strong entry, including Belgian rally legends Paul Lietaer and Patrick Snijers amongst the 130+ competitors. We were seeded number 24, the Belgian rally organisers clearly not expecting great things from us, having referred to the car as “antique”! We surprised them all – and ourselves – with a 5th fastest time on the first stage.
The stages continued to go very well for us throughout the day, despite a traditional British-style bank holiday downpour, during which one of the favourites, Belgian M3 CSL pilot Andy Lefevre crashed heavily, writing off his Beemer and causing the cancellation of SS11.
We finished the rally in sixth place overall, scoring 10 points for being first FIRC competitor in our class, winning a trophy and a pair of Dunlop tyres, thanks to John Morgan of Fairfield Motorsport. Fellow BDMC competitor Rich Vincent was co-driving for Andy Thomson in a Ford Focus 4×4 turbo, but sadly the pair had a troubled run and failed to finish.
We did not expect a similar result on the next event, the Geko Rally van Wervik, as we knew there would be a strong entry from Belgian crews using the rally as a shakedown for the forthcoming Ypres rally which is not only a round of the Belgian Open Championship, but an IRC round as well. The rally was June 12th – just two weeks after the ORC – but as the car had run perfectly on the previous event a quick spanner check was all that was needed before setting off.
The format for Wervik was the same as for ORC with three stages repeated four times each, but this time with more stage mileage to get our teeth into, including a gravel section in the middle of SS2. The recce went well, our note making was improving all the time and may have been helped by the fact that the B&B we stayed in was on the first stage! In fact the recce went so well that Andy shot off like a rocket on SS1, finishing only 12sec behind Freddy Loix in his Fabia S2000 (and about 30sec in front of the co-driver!!!)
In fact the recce went so well that Andy shot off like a rocket on SS1, finishing only 12sec behind Freddy Loix in his Fabia S2000 (and about 30sec in front of the co-driver!!!)
We were lying 8th overall after the first leg and the second leg saw us moving up to 7th place, then things got exciting on leg three, as first of all we encountered a cyclist whilst at 100mph+ on a narrow 100-L1-300-C section towards the end of the first stage, then had a scary moment just missing one of the famous Belgian telegraph poles through the gravel section on the following stage. This same section claimed Bill Cook in his (previously) mint Sunbeam Lotus, putting him and Belgian co-driver Yves Brunyeel out of the rally with some injuries to the crew – and more to the car.
We finished leg three in 5th place overall and the fourth leg was thankfully without further incident, but we dropped a place as Paul Lietaer in his Subaru WRC just managed to overtake us. Once again we were the first placed FIRC crew in our class which gave us maximum championship points, earned us two more Dunlop tyres, a trophy and – bizarrely – a hosepipe! We had to wait until midnight for the awards ceremony as the Belgians believe in consuming plenty of beer before doing anything serious like collecting an award. We were not the only crew to win a hosepipe – the fastest historic man also got one and caused great hilarity by announcing that he only lives in a flat and doesn’t even have a garden! The evening ended in a haze at 5a.m. when we staggered into the apartment of a new Belgian friend whose name we didn’t even know…
We had to wait until midnight for the awards ceremony as the Belgians believe in consuming plenty of beer before doing anything serious like collecting an award.
Suddenly we found ourselves extremely popular amongst the Belgian rallying fraternity, to the extent that they seeded us at number four for the following FIRC rally, the Short Rally Oudenburg-Jabbeke. Such an early seeding confused the co-driver as there were now less cars to follow on the road sections! We are getting ahead of ourselves, however, as before our return to Flanders we entered another rally at Twyford, not sure why, perhaps to make sure that winning the first one had not been some sort of fluke.
It was another sunny weekend at Twyford Wood as we rolled up to take part in the Jane Cowling Memorial Phoenix Stages. There were hordes of 205’s as the event was a Peugeot 205 Challenge round, and we had a good craic with Pat Flynn and his cronies the night before the rally. Pat lent us a couple of boneshaker bicycles to check out the venue, something which the co-driver considered to be an act of deliberate sabotage the next day!!
After a night of ‘luxury’, sleeping in the service van, we were up bright and early to start the rally on a beautiful summer day. Sadly the good weather brought dust problems with it, so the organisers sensibly started the rally at 1min intervals, which was a good idea, but the continuing dust problems did mean that we unfortunately lost some stage mileage in the afternoon.
After a night of ‘luxury’, sleeping in the service van, we were up bright and early to start the rally on a beautiful summer day.
The roughness of some parts of the stages caused problems for all the crews, in particular bent rims, punctures and a few accidents. We were luckier than most but didn’t know we had cracked the front cross-member on the Evo, something which didn’t affect us too badly at the time but was to come back to haunt us later in the season. We also had a few bent wheel rims and a puncture, but that didn’t stop us from taking another convincing victory at Twyford, although we didn’t win EVERY stage this time!! Thanks to our performance – and Cat’s friend Paul Lawrence – we finally got a photo into Motorsport News which earned us a £200 Demon Tweeks voucher.
Back to the FIRC we were pretty confident in the car after the victory at Twyford and again only spanner checking was needed as we set off for Oudenburg. A Belgian ‘Short’ rally has limited mileage and this event had just two stages – one long one and one short one – run four times. We had a bit of a shaky start as within a mile we clobbered a chicane made of oil drums, causing a severe vibration which we thought must be a puncture. We eased off but after a few corners realised that all four tyres were still inflated. We carried on regardless with the problem and it was only after the rally that we found the vibration was caused by a damaged driveshaft.
The notes read 300-R1-400-LGC/Bridge-75-L4-250-R3; but did not mention the slight bump on the entry to the R3.
We were lying fifth overall with just one short stage to go and just 1.6 sec behind fourth place man Matthais Boon in his Impreza, when we decided that the only way to make up the time was to attack the early section of the stage flat out. The notes read 300-R1-400-LGC/Bridge-75-L4-250-R3; but did not mention the slight bump on the entry to the R3. Lietaer told us afterwards that this section is only flat in a WRC car, sadly the knowledge came too late for us to avoid a massive moment at 120mph. Going over the bump sent the car into a huge wag which Andy was unable to catch, which eventually sent the car backwards into a ditch and cartwheeling back onto the road facing the right way, neither of us are sure how. There was a quiet contemplative moment as we came to a halt, followed by Andy turning the key to restart the engine before driving carefully to the stage finish.
At the finish there was plenty of pointing and laughing from the spectators and as the oil light came on we turned the engine off and got out of the car for a better look. No wonder the oil light was on, we had mashed the oil cooler, the navigator’s wing was bent and there was some unfeasibly positive camber on the o/s rear wheel.
We still had to negotiate the three mile road section to the finish, and gratefully accepted the offer of the following competitor, Dirk Vermeirsch, to push us back to the final TC. He very kindly nosed up to the remains of our rear bumper with his Sierra Cosworth and expertly pushed us all the way to the TC. This allowed us to hold onto fifth place, not much of a reward for poor Dirk who we beat by 0.5sec. John Morgan was an impressive second overall in his Escort Cosworth which meant we finished as second place FIRC crew.
Fortunately the finish area was just across the road from a bar, where to recover from the shock of the ‘moment’ on the last stage, the co-driver was forced to consume several beers while the driver and service crew were getting the poor crushed Evo onto the trailer for the trip home.
Back in the UK there was some work to do on the engine and rear suspension, which no matter how we jiggled it was never going to be the same again. We also discovered the crack in the front cross-member, sustained at Twyford. All we could do was weld it together and hope it would stand up to more abuse. There were several late nights in Rockingham’s scrutineering bay which has a handy four poster ramp and many thanks are owed to Rockingham, as the loan of the garage and ramp saved us the cost of hauling the car up and down the A1 to Hull all the time. Andy also did a great job, working long hours into the night to get the car driveable for the next FIRC round, Short Rally Staden.
We have met some great people over in Belgium and a couple that have become good friends are Yves and Emy Bruyneel, who happen to live in Staden. They invited us to stay with them for the rally and as Yves is a regular Belgian co-driver, he was able to be of great assistance with the recce.
Despite having replaced the big end bearings and the hydraulic lifters, we started the rally with a worryingly rattly engine which felt a little down on power and did not inspire much confidence. Nevertheless we had a tidy and uneventful rally, even though overnight rain had made the first few stages of the day quite tricky, with eight competitors leaving the road at just one corner – a particularly muddy right hander with a large telegraph pole right in the middle.
The stages were in an area familiar to us from the Omloop van Vlaanderen so we soon settled in and survived the early dampness to put in faster and faster times throughout the day, but with one eye on the FIRC championship we were content with eighth place and another FIRC win.
Now there was only one FIRC round left to go – the Hemicuda Rally – and we were leading the championship. All we had to do was finish third to win! Before that, we intended to see if we could improve on 2009’s result in the Omloop van Vlaanderen – a non-championship round, but a fantastic and very popular two-day rally held just two weeks before Hemicuda.
Unfortunately we were without our loyal service crew of Eddie and Chris for this event – however another Belgian friend, Lorenzo Bossu, came to our rescue and valiantly serviced for us all weekend, even bringing his van full of his own Evo 3 spares and an assistant. It was just as well he had offered to help, as the night stages on the Friday saw us confounded by a rare mechanical failure when an injector broke, costing us about two minutes on the stages with a bad misfire and a 10sec penalty for a late exit from service. The following day the car stopped completely on the first stage for another few minutes due to a loose wiring connector, a result of the previous night’s hurried fix in service. The problem was easily rectified, but it was not so easy to get past the competitors who had gone by us while we were stopped.
After that we were out of contention to repeat last year’s 10th overall, so we relaxed and prepared to enjoy ourselves for the rest of the event. Things were going pretty well and we were having a lot of fun inflicting damage on innocent trees by sliding the car about flamboyantly, until we encountered some sneakily placed gravel on a square right. You must have see the pictures by now…. No? Well we slid spectacularly into a ditch as you can see from the photo.
After sterling efforts from the Belgian spectators, gathered on the corner for this very reason, we were eventually manhandled out of the ditch. There was accident damage to the front wing, headlight and bonnet, and also some strange knee-shaped dents in the bodywork on the opposite side of the car. We drove out of the stage, but there was no power steering and with the time we had lost (at least 15 minutes) it seemed pointless to continue, so we decided to retire from the event.
We had just two weeks to get the car fixed for the last FIRC round, Hemicuda. We were contemplating hiring a car for this event as we did not think it would be possible to fix the Omloop damage in the time available, however it would have been a real shame not to finish the championship with the car we’d started in, so with a lot of help from Eddie and some more late nights in the garage, we were able to get the repairs done in the nick of time. Interestingly the car’s MOT was also due and the MOT man must have been hard of hearing (or at any rate he was after testing the unsilenced Evo) because he wrote us a ticket just half an hour before we left for the rally! It seems that Andy has now perfected the dark art of getting the car ready at the very last minute.
There was a stronger than usual entry in our class, with former Hemicuda winner Dave Pattison in his highly modified Evo 6, John Morgan in his Cosworth, and Steve Hendy in his Focus WRC car. Unfortunately for us every foreign crew competing was automatically eligible to score FIRC points, and as we were unlikely to beat these three and still had to finish third in class, our chances of securing the title looked increasingly slim.
Continuous heavy rain overnight made the stages extremely treacherous and an enormous pool across the stage on the very first corner gave us some anxious moments, as the engine ingested copious quantities of water and misfired for the first mile or so. The stages became increasingly muddy from crews cutting across the corners and the ditches claimed several cars early on.
We were really cautious in the opening stages, refusing to take any risks and determined to keep out of trouble. By the end of the first leg we were only 14th overall, but staying well clear of the fourth placed FIRC crew. Morgan and Pattison were battling for the overall FIRC lead and Hendy did not start the event, so as long as we drove sensibly and stayed out of ditches we’d be on course for third place.
Towards the middle of leg two the rain cleared and this made the stages very tricky with dry sections suddenly changing into slippery mud baths, causing more accidents. We continued to drive very carefully and the end of this leg saw us holding third in class as planned with nearly three minutes over the next FIRC crew. By the end of the rally we had done what we had to do to finish third in the FIRC (and seventh overall), which meant we took the inaugural FIRC championship win.
We’ve enjoyed every minute of our season, although driving slowly for a finish on the last event must be one of the hardest things we’ve ever done. It just shows that winning championships are about using your head and all the hard work that goes on between events, just as much as they are about driving the car. Not having a huge budget, it’s also been very rewarding to win a championship with a fifteen year-old car. There’s a lot of satisfaction in adding up the value of the machinery behind you!
Our prize for winning the championship is free entries for the FIRC in 2011, so no doubt we’ll be taking part again next year. All we need now is a little bit of sponsorship to enable us to run a new (faster!) car for next season. Here’s to a successful and enjoyable 2011.
Thank you to Cat and Andy for sharing this epic story with us. We’re looking forward to keeping up with developments in 2011. Readers might also like to follow Cat on Twitter.
How about you?
- What’s the best prize you’ve won in rally?
- Ever slept in the service vehicle? Why?
- What’s the least amount of time you’ve had to prep the car prior to an event?