Darren Jones is a sound engineer/teacher from Bournemouth, England. He picked up his Skoda Felicia for £40 strictly for the gearbox, but ended up building a rally car. Just goes to show what is possible when you pursue your dreams.
What got you interested in rally?
Watching the Mazda Winter Rally in Bournemouth when I was 16.
Tell us about your rally car/truck. How long have you had it?
The car is a Skoda Felicia. I’ve had it since 2007; I bought it originally for £40 for the gearbox as it had a blown engine, and I needed a gearbox for my previous car (another Felicia). Once I got it home and took the gearbox out I realised the shell was immaculate and decided to build an FIA-legal car to do Rally GB in that year (2007).
Did you buy your rally car or build it?
I built it, including welding in the roll cage and just about everything else. A very hard six months, and in hindsight a character-building one.
What challenges did this cause? What benefits did you realize as a result?
Fitting the cage was a real trial – every tube needed at least an hour’s dressing to get it to fit correctly, and then welding in place. Then of course after that there were all the little things that every car needs to do that you dismiss before you do them, but then realise they’re at least 50% of the build time. The car wasn’t really ready for Rally GB 2007, and as a result a failure of a minor part (throttle body) led to a DNF as the car wouldn’t restart due to the throttle being jammed open and the ECU going into “no fuel to clear a flood” mode – this was after a first day where we lost the tailpipe and had to harvest bits from the recce car to keep the rally car going. It took about half an hour to fix when I got home, sadly a week too late.
Tell us about a time when you stuffed the rally car (or maybe had a nasty off).
I’ve been really careful so only hit a few bushes and so on; a lot of the time I drove the car to events, so wanted to get home, and I know that if I bend the car badly I’ll probably not rally for years. My first forest event was a baptism of fire though; I was all over the place and managed to avoid rolling very narrowly after slipping off the road and bouncing over some low-lying tree stumps – if we’d hit them, we’d have had a real nightmare.
Tell us about a time when you narrowly avoided a DNF. How did you press on regardless?
On the 2008 Rallye Sunseeker, the exhaust got taken off late in the afternoon – not just the tailpipe, but the middle too. The car sounded absolutely EPIC for a 1300, it was incredibly loud. I’m amazed the organisers didn’t stop us at service (we crept in as quietly as we could), as the end of the event involved a town-centre finish ramp. Other than that, losing the gear linkage steady and doing half an event with a choice of either second or fourth wasn’t ideal either, we ended up cable-tying it in place to get it working, but couldn’t do it until service as the sumpguard had to come off to do it.
What’s the most rewarding part of being involved in rally? The most challenging?
The most rewarding part is driving faster than I thought I would be able to on surfaces that I used to find really challenging – my first event on gravel was a complete disaster and I was ready to give up. It was only because our local “rally guru” persuaded me to try again and helped me out that I had another go and it went a lot better. So improving each time is good, and now I’m ready for a more powerful car (although my bank balance, unfortunately isn’t!). The most challenging has got to be doing Rally GB; a lot of people here seem to think it’s a piece of cake, but they all seem never to have done it; doing that on a shoestring is not easy, as the car has 210 miles or so of punishing stages to complete and keeping it going isn’t easy, particularly when you realise that our entire entry costs less than just the tyre bill of a front-running team.
How many events did you enter last year? Is that trending up or down? Why?
Last year, only 1, my local event Rally Sunseeker. We couldn’t afford to do Rally GB, and that was our main plan. For the last few years we’ve only done Rallye Sunseeker and Rally GB as there’s no way that we can afford to do any more; I fix the car myself on weekends and don’t have a garage so if it rains it makes it very difficult to get the car fixed quickly, and it rains a LOT in England! After 2010 the Felicia will no longer be homologated to compete in the WRC, so I’ll have to take stock then, hopefully after doing the last possible WRC event for the Felicia at the end of this year. I’m hoping to also do Monte Carlo in 2012 as it’s part of the IRC and the car will still be legal, but that’s going to take a lot of dedication and probably 18 months savings!
What kind of cash prize structure would entice you to enter more rallies or push the car harder?
This is something that always surprises people when they ask about rallying – they can’t believe that it’s possible to win your class at WRC level (as we have done a couple of times), and not get a penny in prize money. I would think that at a higher level seeing a proportion of your entry fee back would help out little guys like me, although the running costs of anything serious would mean that it really would just be a drop in the ocean. Certainly it would help pay (say) the tyre bill, and having fresh rubber makes all the difference in how hard you can push the car, even in a little 1300.
How important are car classes? What class/region do you race in?
How many competitors in your class at each event?
I think classes are important, and they should reflect not only CC, but also the car’s capabilities; the 1400 class in BTRDA events, for instance, is massively competitive, but there are some cars in there that are pushing out close to 200bhp, which is a world of difference from a standard 68bhp Skoda, for instance. Some efforts have been made to help this (with 16v and 8v sub-classes), but ultimately any class will have serious competitors who will take their cars to the limit of potential, while there are others who are just out to enjoy themselves. The Felicia competes in class A5 (Group A, under 1400cc), but there aren’t a lot of cars in that class, as most usually move up to N4/A8 4WD machinery.
What do you think about recce vs. pacenotes vs. blind rally?
Only the larger rallies in the UK (and of course Rally GB) have recce, and it’s a great experience; making your own notes is daunting at first, but with a bit of practice you can make really good notes that are meaningful to you which is the most important thing. Also driving the stage a couple of times before the event is hugely helpful in terms of both speed and safety; it’s amazing how many little bits you remember with a bit of help from your notes. Other people’s pacenotes tend to be geared to WRC-level and speed cars (as they are quite popular on UK national rallies) so in a 1400 they often seem over-done, and everyone calls things slightly differently anyway. I think blind is the greatest test of a crew as you need to balance speed with the desire to finish/the unknown, but it seems to be unpopular with many as there’s less chance to go flat out.
Spectators: Dream come true or worst nightmare? Why?
In most situations they are great; the traditional Friday-night opener for the Sunseeker rally is a drive through Bournemouth’s lower gardens, and it was a great time for spectators, with thousands packing the gardens to see the cars, and with them running at 30 second intervals in reverse seeding it made for a good time for them and the drivers. On Rally GB we have been pretty popular with the crowds in the past (due to the rather unusual sight of an everyday bloke driving a little Skoda he’d built on a budget), and they’ve been great. The only problems we’ve ever really had have been when spectators have caused stage delays or stoppages; I think that some could be better-informed or better behaved, but this is a tiny minority, most are great.
How do you get local gearheads involved in rally?
I think there needs to be more involvement with the kind of people who are currently spending huge amounts on cosmetic changes to their cars; a lot are young kids who think that rallying is beyond their budget, so promoting classes which involve cars they can afford to buy (and insure) would be a good start, then hopefully as they get older and have more money they can do something more serious. Certainly I know quite a few people who have lost more money swapping “normal” cars than I have actually taking part in rallies in a year.
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?
The decline in entries. I think that rallying needs to take a long, hard look at what it wants to be; traditionally rallying was an endurance sport where if you went out, you were out, and survival was important. While SuperRally means that you can keep going (and keep your sponsors happy while doing it) it does change the focus of the event massively. In addition the cars that people compete in now bear no relation to the ones you can buy from a showroom, and that makes a difference – both in terms of the average punter, but also that to compete at the top level takes millions of pounds to do. This means that the fastest and best drivers may never even get a start in the sport, and are doing something else.
Any championship which is only contested by two teams cannot be healthy, and the arms race that has happened in the WRC has led to that – two superpowers. I’d make rallying more production-based, and ensure that cars have more power than grip, meaning that driver skill would be paramount, and it would be spectacular (not dangerous) in the process.
How do you help out at rallies when you aren’t racing?
Marshalling – when you’re marshalling you not only get to see what’s going on (and help out when people have problems), but also you get to see how the other drivers go, and you can learn a lot from that. Plus standing in a forest for the day isn’t the worst way to spend a day off.
If you could enter any WRC event, which rally would that be? Why?
Rally Finland. It’s iconic, and is the WRC event I’d like to enter. We wanted to do it this year, but Paul’s having his first child right at the time that the rally is on, so naturally that takes priority. Hopefully somehow I’ll manage to do it in the future, but I guess that would take the event going into the IRC for us to be able to do it. Plus a LOT of saving up.
Your favorite Group B car?
Ford RS200. An absolute beauty of a car – even 25 years on, it’s still on my wall in my bedroom, and one of the few cars I’d buy if I ever won the Lottery.
We’ve all got a rally hero. Who’s yours?
Colin McRae. Watching him drive was always special – he was always so committed and so capable. Granted he made some crazy decisions in hindsight (his crash in the focus where he went a gear quicker than normal was probably the best example of that), but he just lived to drive like that. If you watch the in-car of Rally GB 2001, it’s breathtaking some of the things he does with the car, and it seems so smooth. A sad loss.
Do you have a local rally club? Tell us about it! (If not, why not?)
My local car club is Bournemouth and District Car Club, whose members’ (particularly Kathy and Steve) helped get me going in the first place.
How often do you get together with other rallyistas to talk shop?
Not that often, I don’t get a lot of spare time as I work fairly long hours plus have a lot on, between fixing things and making music!
Tell us about some people who have made your rally dream a reality.
Steve Colville – he was a local rally guru, an incredible driver and generous beyond belief. He helped us out so much in the early days (he doesn’t compete any more), and was always ready with a joke, a friendly comment and some banter. His help got me over my initial terror on gravel, and he was unusual in being so capable and competitive and yet so helpful and open – he’d always come and check the car over and make useful suggestions, some of which kept us in events later on.
Paul Burley – he’s my navigator, having been my friend for a few years before. He started navigating after me being let down by a previous nav, him deciding to have a go in typical “How hard can it be?” fashion. He’s very capable, calm and collected (quite the opposite to me at times), and I don’t think I’d have even thought about doing Rally GB if we’d not worked so well together. He’ll kill me for saying all that though.
My Mum – this might sound odd, but there aren’t that many people whose retired mother has helped prepare their rally car, surely? Whenever I’ve been fitting an engine or changing a gearbox, my Mum has been there to put in a bolt, let down the engine crane or help engage a clutch. If I’m pushed for time and out at work, I can leave her a list of things to get from local suppliers, and when I come home she’ll have got them for me. And she makes a great garlic pitta with cheese and marmite.
Thank a volunteer (or group of them) here.
All of the above, plus Ian Bowler, who I met on the Plymouth-Dakar rally, and who serviced for us in 2008 on Rally GB. We lost the tank guard, and I phoned him to ask if he could get hold of some metal. When we got back to service, he didn’t have one sheet ready for us, he had three of varying sizes, one of which was perfect (and was actually part of an Army Land Rover!). Fortunately that was about the biggest thing we had to do to the car (two wheel changes and fixing a strut top was the only other work), but he was always cheery and ready with lunch from the microwave when we got back. Pure Class.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from your time in the rally community?
That if you want to make a dream happen, you probably can. OK, it may not be in the exact form you think (i.e. in a Skoda, not in a Focus WRC), but that may make it all the more special. It’s amazing what you can achieve when you put your mind to it and work hard.
Is there anything else rally-related you’d like to talk about, but hasn’t been asked?
No, I think you’ve heard more than enough from me for one day/week/month! Aside, of course, from wanting sponsors for Rally GB for 2010 – with the coverage that we usually generate I’d think we would be very good value for a potential sponsor as we get a lot more interest than a much-more-expensive-to-run midfield 4WD car that no-one will take a second look at!
How about that. A gearhead picks up a car with a blown engine for the cost of gas money and decides to turn it into a rally car to run in the local WRC event that very year. Darren’s working on the car himself in the driveway because he doesn’t have a garage, and he’s making his rally dream happen. When he’s not racing, he’s volunteering. We love stories like this. Proof that, if you put your mind to it, you CAN rally.
Editor’s note: Darren is always up to something rally-related. You could say he’s been bit good by the rally bug. If you’d like to know more about Darren and his efforts to campaign a first-rate, crowd-pleasing rally car, check out his blog, Skoda Rally Blog. He’s always up to something!