We originally met Darren in July of this year. A little over a month ago, he entered his £40 Skoda Felicia in the Wales Rally GB, a WRC event. What follows is a story we suspect will really resonate with you.
How do the costs of running Rally GB, a WRC event, compare to those of the more common club event?
Overall, the entry fee per mile isn’t that bad – it’s about £8 per stage mile for my car, which compares well with an average club event, but the event has about five times the mileage of a typical club event, and of course that means a lot more to be spent on car preparation as everything has to be right and ready for three hard days of stages and road mileage as well.
Obviously there are other costs as well as the entry fee, and finding accomodation for the week, etc., as well as needing to take a week off work (I am self-employed so I don’t get any paid holidays). I could probably do four or five smaller events for the cost of doing Rally GB, but the big advantage for me of doing it is that you get to reach a certain level and maintain it, you don’t have a first rusty stage of the day as I normally do when I do smaller events, you get that out of the way on the recce.
How does inspection/scrutineering differ at an event of this level? Are there any requirements not found at the club level?
Scrutineering is largely the same, and I’m pleased to say my car has always been fine and good and safe! There is a lot more paperwork and so on (with the FIA underwear, HANS devices and helmets being marked with FIA stickers and so on, and the engine and bodyshell needing to be marked/sealed as well). I’m usually pretty well prepared, but this year we got caught out as the OK/SOS board has to be A3 size, twice the size of the one we already had, so we got fleeced £10 for a piece of printed paper that had been laminated!
What were some issues you had to overcome prior to the rally? How did you resolve them?
This year was probably the best prepared I’ve ever been for the event, so I was reasonably relaxed, aside from having to comply with some Health and Safety issues with electrical equipment which we were only told about the week before the event which made for a slightly difficult weekend before setting off for Wales. The car was actually finished weeks beforehand, which seemed really odd, as in previous years it’s still been in bits the weekend before.
How many competitors entered Rally GB this year? How many in your class?
There were 63 competitors, and no-one else in my class. Most of the other entrants were more ‘serious’ than we are, with career aspirations, although there were a few of us at the back who were in a similar position to me, doing it for the experience without thinking we’ll be the next Colin McRae.
How long was Rally GB this year? Number of days? Stage miles? Transit miles?
It was 3 days of stages (plus the evening before in Cardiff which doesn’t really count!), although the recce was a couple of days before that, and about 210 miles of stages (all gravel aside from 2 runs in Cardiff Bay which were about a mile each). Road mileage was about 1000 on top of that, so we packed the headsets for the road sections which I finally spent out on to save on ringing ears!
What’s the atmosphere like in the days/hours prior to that first time control?
For me, it’s electric. The week seems to build in intensity as it goes on; when you arrive for the first stage that you recce that’s usually the first time you’ve seen anyone else who is actually doing the event, and from then on you see the same faces who become familiar, get back into the groove of driving properly on gravel, and down to business. In terms of tension, probably scrutineering is the pinnacle for me, as it’s always a nervous time, in case I’ve mis-read the regulations or forgotten something on the car. After that, you’re committed, you’re doing it, and it’s just down to you, your navigator, your crew and the stages.
What was your plan of attack as you began the rally?
A lot of people look down on those who are going for a finish, but that was definitely the plan – I’d saved all year for this (and funded 90% of it myself), so I didn’t want to stick it in a ditch on day 1. But with that in mind, I didn’t want to just drive about, I had set a target of going well on each stage as in previous years I’ve been very up-and-down with good and bad stages, so making sure that we kept the speed up and committed to braking and cornering more so than before.
How did that work out for you?
I think I got it just about right, as we were going pretty well, and there were quite a few times when Paul said “You wouldn’t want to go any faster through there” and a few half-spins and near misses – there weren’t any points where either of us felt like it had been slow, although we can of course still improve… But overall, it was much more like being a proper rally driver, really!
How did the new engine work out? The rest of the car?
I think we had some bad luck – the engine had been running perfectly in the build-up, but we filled up after scrutineering and the fuel was clearly bad, the car lacked a lot of power and just wouldn’t rev out at all, but we didn’t find that out until setting out for North Wales on Day 1, and because of the placement of the fuel stations we had to run with about half a tank of it diluted with fresh fuel.
It got better as the rally went on, but we also suffered an odd part-throttle misfire (and indeed occasional complete cut-out of the engine) which wasn’t ideal. I’m yet to find out what it was, but we spent a lot of time trying to work it out, and that led to us booking in 20 minutes late to Parc Ferme on the Saturday night. I’m sure when I get that sorted the new engine will be a great improvement, although I’m hoping to use the 1.4 crank in the next version of the engine for a bit more grunt.
As for the rest of the car, the main revelation was the new suspension; years ago I got a set of Proflex which was in need of a rebuild, and I finally saved up enough to get it fixed. It wasn’t cheap at £1300, but it has totally transformed the car – in places where we were bottoming out it just smoothly drives through now – the difference is that marked that the in-car footage now looks like the WRC cars, really smooth compared to the bouncy ride before.
Unfortunately they didn’t tell me that the rear axle needs a small modification to save the rear shock hoses on full bump, which led to them breaking on Saturday night, and to us running road car suspension for the last day to finish the event – that REALLY highlighted just how good the new stuff is as the back end of the car was bouncy and had so little grip in comparison. I’ll never have another car with average suspension on, for sure.
In the end, how did you finish? In your class? Overall?
Well, we actually finished by pushing the car over the finish line – seriously! The engine died on the road section on the way back, just short of one of the time controls, so we had to push it there and then across Cardiff to the final control to be a finisher. Fortunately I found the problem with the ECU and sorted it (the kill switch was activated and had broken), allowing us to go over the ceremonial finish ramp. We finished 44th overall (last finisher, as you would imagine in a 1300 car that’s 13 years old compared to everyone else’s cars, the next newest of which was a 2005 model!), and first in class.
Many of our readers are located in the States, where there is no WRC. What makes this WRC event special for you?
It’s my home WRC event, which would make it special anyway, but I think the Welsh Forests are iconic to anyone in rallying, in the same way that Finland and Monte Carlo are; to me they ARE rallying, and it’s a privilege to have been able to drive on them at all, let alone on the same day as legends like Loeb and Solberg have done.
People often ask why I bother when clearly I have no chance of winning anything, but that’s completely missing the point – the experience is something that I’ll never forget, and there were quite a few stages where we really were going well. To see it the following week on the TV, and see the stages when the front runners are going through and to remember that stage, and how it felt, how slippy it was really makes you realise what you’ve just done.
I spent a LOT of my free time and most of my free money on getting ready for or paying for the rally. It took up about 8 months of my life with weekends spent on preparation, and quite a few times were really hard work, such as the THREE engine changes in a week, but as soon as we got going on day 1 I knew why I do it – it’s a magical feeling to be driving through a forest and knowing that the only thing that’s keeping you on the road is the car you’ve built and hopefully the ability you have (or not!).
On day 2, I vividly remember a downhill section on the Monument stage, we were driving into the sun, with the sky crystal clear and blue, and the car was revving out in 5th, so getting on for 95mph, and I can still close my eyes and see it, almost feel it. It’s difficult to convey how good it feels to know that I’ve done that.
This year we felt a much bigger part of the event because we had quite a bit of coverage in the motorsport press and also from BBC TV, and getting the stage results as they happened with the WRC app meant we knew what was going on all the time – like seeing the end-of-leg timing sheets you get, but one every stage; seeing that we’d “beaten” Ogier on the stage where he binned the car was another moment where it all became clear that we were doing the same event as the best in the world.
And then at the end of the day I got to park my little Skoda that originally cost me £40 in the same Parc Ferme as the WRC’s front runners, and I generally act like a complete tourist by taking lots of photos! I do think, though, if you’ve not heard, seen and indeed felt a WRC car in action, it’s hard to imagine what they’re really like in the flesh; make no mistake the machines are unbelievable, but the drivers are out of this world too.
Did you rub elbows with any celebrity drivers?
No, this year the service area we were in was miles away from everyone else, so we only got to see them when they drove to the service out control which was by us; we were about half a mile from the WRC teams, unfortunately, and that meant we didn’t even have much chance or time to wonder in (as our passes get us in there). That was a bit of a disappointment for us, although other things made up for it.
What is your favourite memory from Rally GB this year?
It’s difficult to think of just one, because there are so many good ones, and my favourite stages are on the event and we did them some justice this year at long last! Driving through Margam Park and passing the place where Saenz’s World Championship hopes evaporated as his engine expired is right up there though, I have a wonderful pic of the car with the house in the background, but overall it really has to be the finish, because it had seemed to be taken away from us with the car breaking down having done all the stages and road mileage, and pushing the car across Cardiff to finally get there, so although nearly everyone had gone home, it’s still a vivid memory for me.
And, now that you have two more years to run this chassis, whatcha thinkin’?
I’m thinking that I will have to do everything in my power to do the event again – I figure with an extra 30 horsepower (it’s currently only 100) then we could have some real fun in it. I’ll be honest, I almost feel like a fraud, because I’m sure a lot of the interest in us was because it was our last time, but a week ago the FIA extended the Felicia’s lifetime to 2012, which means I could do the event twice more before looking at doing an IRC round (which was my original plan, to do the Monte Carlo rally).
I can only say that it must demonstrate just how much I enjoy this that even now, in a near-freezing England where it’s raining right now, and the car is in the drive on axle stands with no suspension and an engine that doesn’t work properly I’m considering spending weekends out in the cold getting the car done, and saving for the next 6 months just so I can do it for 3 days…
And there you have it. One man’s WRC story.