The other day, as I was working on an article, I came across my second interview with Darren Jones; the one where he shared his experience as a regular guy in an older car racing with the stars at Wales Rally GB. You can imagine my surprise, when I noticed over half the epic pictures of WRC-level shenanigans he provided had been replaced with images from my interview with Ryan Gates!
This was a valuable lesson learned for me about the importance of renaming every image you upload so you don’t one day overwrite the images in stories you did three years ago because they have the same filename. Definitely something I’ll not soon forget. (I wonder how many other stories there are with mismatched images. Don’t have time to go through all 450+ of them!) Back to Mr. Jones, then!
Actually, it’s been two years since I last interviewed Darren. In that time, I’ve watched from the digital sidelines as his little £40 Skoda Felicia has had its FIA homologation extended and then finally expired, meaning it’s no longer eligible to compete in the big rally show – Wales Rally GB. Darren made one last go at it before his papers went bad, ran into some snags, and, next thing I know, he’s talking about Porsches and has a new, more powerful rally car in his driveway. I started off by asking him about the biggest obstacle he’s had to overcome since last we spoke.
“Not having the opportunity to have a final crack at Rally GB. I had some mechanical issues with the Skoda in 2011 which meant that I didn’t have the car finished in time for the entry closing date and the new navigator I had lined up didn’t want to commit without knowing 100% that the car would be OK – typically 3 days after the closing date the part I needed (an oil pump housing) was fitted and the car was fine. So I had a full year to get it tip top for Rally GB 2012, but I couldn’t find a navigator who was willing to do it, so that’s that for WRC-level Internationals for me, alas, as the Skoda’s homologation expired.”
I think we’d all agree it’s better to have a running, driveable race car all year than risk lightening the wallet by a couple grand only to not be able to start due to mechanical/logistical problems (looks like 2012 entry fees started just under £2,000 for amateurs willing to run slow cars with organizer’s choice of sponsorship livery applied). Still, that’s gotta sting. We shifted to the other end of the spectrum – achievement.
Darren told me the achievements have been a bit sparse. “Probably the biggest one was
having my sister (who lives in Charleston, SC, and was over visiting for Christmas) navigate for me on a rally, and driving wildly enough on slippy tarmac to make her so sick we couldn’t finish the event! I’m really having teething troubles with the new car (a Seat Ibiza), and in its two subsequent outings it’s broken driveshafts on both occasions – the last of which was a mile into my girlfriend’s first event as a navigator. I’m currently having stronger ones made for it, as well as making other improvements. Other than that, I guess still being committed to rallying is an achievement as I’ve not done a lot of it in the last couple of years, and when I have done it’s been mostly hard work and trouble!”
HOMOLOGATION: HOW IT WORKS
I know the Galant VR4 sitting in my garage was once homologated, and I’ve even got copies of most of the original homologation papers (which show all the original, factory go-fast bits), but I’ve never really looked into how homologation works. I asked Darren why expired homologation means he can’t enter Rally GB in the Felicia again.
“Homologation is the FIA‘s inspection of a car being to a given specification, usually a ‘standard’ (Group N) specification and a ‘tuned’ (Group A) spec. The car’s parts need to be to the spec listed, within the Group N or Group A rules, which themselves permit a range of modifications.”
“The Skoda ran in Group A – initially this was solely to allow the use of an LSD (as one wasn’t allowed for the Skoda in Group N as the cars never had one as standard or an option), but in later years I built a new engine to give more power within the regs; this was costly, as you are only allowed to use certain parts, such as the expensive inlet manifold I had to buy. (Rare as hen’s teeth, and took months to even find one!)”
“Usually a car expires from WRC-level International events 7 years after it is no longer manufactured (although the Felicia was extended twice to 11 years as there aren’t many cars being homologated as manufacturers aren’t so interested in motorsport), and from all Internationals a further 4 years after that. The Ibiza isn’t eligible due to its age but also its specification – it’s nothing like standard.”
Asked about my 1991 Galant VR4’s homologation, Darren said, “I think the Galants will be long gone, alas, so there’s no way we can enter events like this. However, Rally GB has a “National” event, which follows the same stages, but only runs them once rather than the two runs the WRC boys do. This means you can enter in a non-homologated car, and I have (vague) plans to do that in the Ibiza in 2013.”
WHY A SEAT IBIZA?
“To be honest, because it was cheap! I had a couple grand I’d saved up in my PayPal account from selling stuff I had lying about in the garage and also some old music recording gear when it appeared on eBay. It looked perfect. It wasn’t too far away from me, so I went to have a look. It had been really badly described on eBay; it had finished a rally with broken bumpers and a few other faults and been left for 2 years covered in mud – it looked a right shed.”
“Underneath all the mess was a really solidly built car – nicely done welded-in cage, lots of bespoke fabrication done to a high standard – pretty much the same size as the Felicia, but with about twice the power. I couldn’t resist, and got it at the right price with a shed-load (literally!) of spares. The guy said ‘bring a van and you’ll fill it,’ and he wasn’t wrong – the entire back was filled from floor to roof, and the front seats even got used on the way back.”
“The big draw for me is that it’s not really a hothouse flower, mechanically. It has a mildly-tuned 2.0 16v ABF engine, which will mean good power without big bills, and a gearbox that uses well-chosen standard ratios, so again it’ll be strong and reliable – once I can get these pesky shafts sorted out. The only crazily expensive bit on it is the front brakes, which hopefully I won’t have to replace too often as the entire kit including the calipers would cost more than I paid for the entire car!”
“Driving it for the first time on gravel was quite a learning experience (Sunseeker 2012). It has so much more power than the Felicia that it’s much more akin to riding a motocross bike – you float over the terrain rather than being in constant contact with it. Once I’d got a bit more into it, I liked it, but it was a steep change in terms of driving ability needed; the Felicia had developed in small steps (maybe 10bhp here or there), and this was completely different. I’ve not really had much mileage on gravel in it (or indeed at all), so next time out will be another school day for me, but it has the potential to be a really quick machine if I can get my act together.”
The non-homologated national events sound like fun, though. I mean, you’re at the same venue, on the same stages as the celebs, so you can still say you were there. Besides, it’s all about having fun, right? I would hope those nationals are less expensive than their bigger-billed, international counterparts. Here’s what Darren had to say about that.
“Yes, the national event is about the same cost per mile as it was for the full event, so the entry is about half the price. It’s half the mileage, but still a big challenge, and it’s the biggest thing I can do right now with the time and budget that I have, so it’ll still be great, I’m sure. If it has some of the ‘classic’ stages (for me) then it’ll be worth the entry for those alone, and as you say, it’s all about having fun. I’ve never had delusions of grandeur – or even adequacy – I’ve just been there for the experience that I love so much, and to have fun while doing it.”
FLYING BY THE SEAT OF HIS PANTS
Getting back to the new car, it sounded like Darren snagged quite a bargain, as the Mk2 Ibiza shares more than a few odds and ends with the VW Golf, which has proven itself a capable platform across multiple forms of motorsport. I asked Darren if he considers that a plus.
“Yes, that’s a big plus – the engine and box are a straightforward, known quantity here, as the Mk3 Golf had a big tuning scene (and still does to a lesser extent). Lots of the work needed to get good power from the engine is a well known factor, so I can be fairly confident of what’s needed and the cost. With the Skoda it was a far greyer area, and quite difficult to get the right bits; everyone has a story about an engine that makes loads of power, but when you want details, there’s nothing. With the ABF engine, it’s dead easy, and the bits are nice and cheap.”
LOOKING FORWARD: 2013
“The plan is to get the car all back together for June,” Darren said. “Myself and Tammie are going to re-enter the event we did about 1.5 miles of, and use that as a shakedown event. She’s not interested in doing it as such, it’s an experience so she’ll know what I’m rabbiting on about.” He went on, “Being an airfield-based tarmac event, it’ll be a low-budget affair for me, and a chance to get everything working in competition conditions.”
“After that, it depends on money and event timings – usually Rallye Sunseeker is at the end of February, but this year it’s moved to October, and that means a bit of a traffic jam with the Tempest being the first weekend in November, and Rally GB being mid-November. One or even two of those three may not happen, so I’ll need to see where I am financially and make a decision nearer the time. Paul (my friend and navigator) now has two young kids, and a crazy work schedule, so he’s not sure he can commit do doing Rally GB National and I know I want to have fun while I’m doing it; it’s impossible to know if you’ll get on with someone without spending time with them, so it may be that I don’t do it if he can’t.”
“Learning-wise, I’m going to have to do it all on-event. I just don’t have the budget to go testing, and there aren’t any venues near to me. I can think of nothing I’d rather do than spend a day driving the car on gravel and getting back in the swing of things, but it’s just not an option, so it’s the event learning curve for me.”
“In terms of improving the car, the biggest thing is reliability, which is mostly the driveshafts, but there were a couple of other things – the power steering failed twice on Rallye Sunseeker 2012 – amazingly, two different failures – so I’m looking to fix those issues permanently, and also the cooling was miles off. The car has a radiator from a 90bhp Golf at the moment, and it’s making around twice that. Bespoke radiators are expensive (I was quoted around £500 for one the same size that would cool it well enough), but there are standard options available for far less money if you’re willing to perform some modifications. As you can imagine, that’s the route I’m taking, as the saved money will mean another event can be entered instead!”
“Other than that, I’ve always been a bit of an electronics fiend, so I have a plan to get a pro-looking LCD setup in the car, integrating navigation and also car monitoring, but that will need a fair bit of development, which means time, which is something I don’t have a great deal of these days!”
THE NEXT MILE
Good and caught up (and learned a thing or two about how homologation works), it was time to set myself a reminder to check in with Darren again in the future. (So you, dear reader, can see how the only difference between success and failure is showing up and doing the work.) I asked Darren what his next milestone will be so I can set a reminder and get back in touch to see how he’s progressed. He told me, “The next real milestone will be getting the Ibiza back together and road legal. In the UK, a car needs an annual inspection (the MOT, named after the 1940s Ministry of Transport!), so the car needs to be all in one running, driveable lump to be able to pass that – not only for my road testing, but also it’s a requirement to pass documentation at a rally.”
“My work schedule is a bit hectic and combined with my fairly full personal life, so I’ve got to revise it. I’m also teaching a lot, which means working around school holidays, so it’ll hopefully be the end of the Easter holiday here in the UK, around mid April. If it’s not done by then, I’m in trouble and it’ll probably be the summer holidays (schools take six weeks off in the UK, end of July to beginning of September), but that would really be falling behind… So April it is!”
April it is, then! I’ve set my reminder and will be reaching out to Darren once again sometime in April. Will he get those axles sorted? Will the Ibiza pass MOT? Will he be running Rally GB this year? Subscribe to Gearbox Magazine today so you don’t miss out!
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