Some of the key problems were the cars braking system which needed another new master cylinder, despite having a new one fitted in 2016. When the master cylinder/brake booster assembly was removed some scuttle damage was found which required the attention of John White and his welding skills to sort out. The Corsa also required its headlights to be rewired to take uprated bulbs, and the spotlights needed wiring up. With a start made by Vlad I finished the wiring, resulting in properly functioning lights which would prove invaluable during this very tough event. With Ding working tirelessly in the background sourcing parts, and everyone giving their all at the barn, the car was finally MOT’d, road tested, and ready to face the gruelling challenge of the Preston Rally.
We left for Snetterton circuit at around 3pm on Saturday afternoon. We arrived at the circuit with plenty of time before Scrutineering, and this gave us time to sort some last minute issues. With the boot packed with all the bodging equipment we might need through the night, we were almost ready to go through scrutineering when a fellow competitor spotted the Corsa’s white number roundels on the doors and advised us to remove them - as one car had already been pulled up on it. Niall Geoghegan and I set to with razor blades and removed them, and we were then ready to be scrutineered.
First we drove to the noise test area, and the Corsa passed first time. Armed with our noise test slip we moved on to the large scrutineering bays in a shed at the far end of the paddock where the scrutineers gave the car a very diligent looking over to ensure it was safe to compete. After some confusion on Ding’s part with the headlight/spotlight switches we nearly passed scrutineering. However, the scrutineers had issues with the newly fitted LED reversing light being too offensive and recommended taping up two thirds of it. They also had reservations with the ‘Marshal Maimer’ - a mostly plastic flap under the headlights designed to stop too much mud making it onto the headlights and windscreen. However the device also included a thin sheet of aluminium to provide support to the plastic and the spotlights. The scrutineers did not like this as they felt the aluminium was a significant threat to pedestrians’ knees. We drove back to the van, quickly removed the aluminium and used cable ties to prevent the plastic sheeting being too flaccid. With the problems addressed the Corsa was finally passed and was deemed safe to compete.
Ding and I signed on where we also received our ‘Preston 40th Anniversary’ woolly hats and I dealt with some amendments to the road book. A few of the sections had been cancelled due to swine dysentery and one of the test venues being double booked with a shooting event. Next it was onto the drivers briefing with the usual talk of how the event would be run and scored. As well as a warning to all crews that a new division of the Norfolk police would be out trying to make a name for themselves, so we should ensure we conform to all traffic laws.
With the formalities out of the way, Ding and I had an 80 minute wait before our start time, so the team headed to the Grantham household to enjoy their much appreciated hospitality. After a lovely stew and plenty of crusty bread and butter, we all returned to the circuit to make some final preparations. With the spotlights adjusted, and the boot finally packed, everyone but Ding and I returned to the Grantham’s to stay the night. Ding and I would have a less relaxing time battling the Norfolk mud. We lined up to start at 23:09 and mentally prepared for the trials ahead.
The first few sections of the rally painted the picture for what the rest of the night would be like. The off-road sections were held mainly in farmers’ fields, with some taking place in forest trails. No matter the venue, all sections were incredibly muddy but the Hankook R201 tyres very kindly provided by Paul Phillips of Phillip’s Tyres of Oxford made good progress. Aside from the mud, the Corsa also had to contend with some incredible bumps, most of which caused wincing and exclamations of mechanical sympathy from Ding and I. The Corsa made steady progress through the slimy mud and Ding was intent on driving the car to finish. Sawing at the wheel and attempting to avoid the worst of the terrain, Ding was doing his best to give the Corsa an easier time than some of the other more gung-ho drivers who we began to pass, addressing their damaged cars at the edge of the stages.
As we approached midnight the heavens opened and the famous Norfolk mud got even worse. Illuminated by the spotlights, the track ahead of us looked dry, but the wipers had to work hard to keep the windscreen clear of rainwater and mud from all the water splashes. I was regularly reminded of just how muddy the event was, as at the end of every section I had to hop out and clean the lights and number plates to keep the car road legal. An indication of how bumpy the tracks were was the havoc caused to the Corsa’s electric windows. I had to open them at each Route Check and Time Control to hand the marshal my time card. Opening the window was fine, but trying to get it closed again was another matter. And with the rain coming down I was conscious of the water entering the cabin, causing fogging of windows and the dampening of paperwork. As I attempted to close the windows, every bump caused the mechanism to freak out and open the window again, often by more than I had managed to close it. The harshness of the sections meant the Corsa could not complete them in the calculated time - and from stories I’d heard, those that do complete the sections in the calculated time don’t have much of a car left by the end of the night.
About two thirds of the way through the first timecard I made a reasonably significant navigational error. I had forgotten the written instructions from the first amendment of the roadbook and consequently navigated us to the start of section 12 - where we found nobody. Sections 12, 13 and 15 had all been cancelled and we were meant to have driven from the end of section 11 straight to the start of section 17. Luckily, we made it to the start of section 17 before we were overtime late and successfully completed the last section for this timecard. Next stop: Petrol.
Arriving at the first half hour fuel stop, we were 15 minutes late, resulting in just a 15 minute stop in order to get back on time. We hurriedly filled the car with petrol before filling ourselves with coffee, chocolate, bananas and energy drinks. We also gave the car a brief looking over on the forecourt. We had felt no breakages during the stages, and there were no signs of any damage that we could see. So far, the Corsa had held up very well. We left the fuel stop back on schedule and proceeded to section 21.
The rain had stopped by then, but the going was no easier. Since we were seeded 80th in the rally, every section we completed had seen 79 cars plough it up before us. And the rain had softened the mud even more, resulting in ruts so deep that the Corsa was struggling to keep traction. A few times we got through rut by sheer momentum alone as the car rode along on its sump guard, the front wheels flailing hopelessly in the air. The effects of these ruts could be seen scattered throughout the fields, with stranded cars waiting for the section to be closed so that they could be towed back to terra firma. In one field we came across three cars beached within 50 yards of each other and were forced to venture off into the unknown to get around them. The next corner saw yet another beached car, but this one was not as easy to get around. They were stuck right on the apex of a right hand hairpin bend, so we didn’t even spot them until it was almost too late. Ding desperately threw the Corsa into the mud on the outside of the bend, hoping he would not suffer a similar fate. Luckily the plucky Corsa pulled us through the quagmire and we continued to the end of the section.
On the next section the Corsa was not so lucky, and the Norfolk mud bested its efforts. We were beached. Ding did his best to find some scrap of traction and pull us free, but it was in vain. No matter what he did with the controls the little Corsa was going nowhere. Luckily for us there was a tow vehicle nearby who came to our rescue, the Corsa was quickly hooked to the back of the Land Rover and towed to the next bend where the ground was slightly firmer. From here the Corsa soldiered on under its own steam, battling on over the horrific bumps, potholes and through that awful Norfolk mud. Somewhere along the way however we had missed a route check card and picked up a 5 minute penalty, our first of the evening.
We arrived at the end of the section at around 3am, and pulled up at the side of the road so that I could clean the lights and plates. As I jumped back into the car ready to proceed, Ding spotted some stationary headlights up ahead. We drove on as I tightened the straps of my harness, a device we were both grateful for given the sizable bumps we had faced. As we approached the headlights in the distance, they began coming directly towards us. When the lights were about 20 yards away, they were complemented by flashing blue ones. It was the police. Naturally Ding stopped the car and one of the officers approached his side window. It was at this moment we spotted that the officer had a sidearm hanging from his hip. We were both a bit confused as to why we had been pulled over, especially by gun toting armed police at 3am in the middle of nowhere. The officer revealed that they had been sent out in response to a call from a resident of a nearby housing estate. The resident had phoned about cars driving around at high speed in the fields, presumably mistaking the rallyists for joyriders. We explained ourselves to the officer and showed them the letter from the organisers explaining how the event was organised and had been approved by the local constabulary. He seem reluctant to believe us, but after noting some information down he let us go on our way. We continued to the next stage where we informed the marshals of the incident. Being a rally there is no time compensation for incidents like this, so we just had to accept that we had lost some time and carry on.
The Corsa continued its valiant fight against the conditions and successfully carried us to the second and final fuel stop. Again, we had 15 minutes of time to catch up, so that left us with only 15 minutes to refill, clean, and service the car. Satisfied there were no mechanical issues, Ding proceeded to clean the side and rear windows to improve visibility. Meanwhile I topped up the coolant and set to work adjusting the spotlights. Their aim had dropped due to all the bumps and I attempted to raise them to a more useful position. In my tired and rushed state, always conscious of the time, I snapped the left spotlight from its mount. A significant error and one which could cause problems with visibility, but with no way to reattach the spotlight I was forced to stow it in the boot and hope that the loss of light would not cause any major issues. We set off from the fuel stop on time, with the earliest signs of dawn approaching.
The last leg of the rally offered no reprieve from the terrible conditions, with the fields being just as muddy, just as bumpy, and just as rutted. Many more cars were seen stuck in the mud or retired at the side of the track, proving just how difficult an event this is, and how unexpectedly well the Corsa was doing.
As we made progress through the sections, we came across an impossibly deep rut which was too long for the Corsa to skate across, and it looked like we would be beached again. As the car slowed, bogged down in the mud, Ding kept his foot buried in the carpet. He was determined not to get stuck, and he frantically wound the wheel back and forth, hoping to find some scrap of grip amongst this mud. After 45 seconds of redlining, one of the tow vehicles parked 15 yards to our right started up, ready to pull yet another stranded rallyist from the thick Norfolk goo. The Corsa was having none of it, and at the sight of the Land Rovers headlights coming on, the plucky little car rose to the challenge and clawed its way out of the mud, eager to get going again. With a victory toot we passed the tow cars, thankful not to have needed their assistance.
The Corsa worked its way on through the final series of sections as the sun began to come up. We had rallied all through the night and were thankful to see the sun as it would lessen the effect of the lost spotlight. Even with the growing light, the rally proved tough. It is the Preston after all! We picked up our second and last penalty of the night, a 5 minute penalty for arriving too early at a control.
On one of the final stages we came across another unlucky competitor who had been forced to retire. The reason why was obvious; he was on his roof! We later learned that this car had been following the MG ZR directed by Alan Coombs. Apparently, the driver of the stricken car had been trying so hard to keep up he had overcooked it. The track bent round to the right with a hedge line on the inside and a copse of trees on the outside, and the car was on its roof at the apex. My working theory was that the car was travelling too fast and oversteered into, and up, the tree. So rather than being an impacted, crumpled mess it rode up the tree, stripping its bark and tipping the car onto its roof - leaving barely a car’s width for the following competitors to squeeze through.
The Corsa slithered and crashed its way through the remaining stages as the sun – and our expectations of actually finishing - rose higher. We made it to the end of the final off-road section and over the line, and with a cocktail of relief and elation we made our way back to Snetterton circuit. The Corsa seemed to be fine, and there were no strange noises or feelings through the steering wheel; the little car had done so well. We arrived at the circuit and I hurried into the restaurant to hand in the final time card which was clocked in at 07:43 - over eight and a half hours since we’d started, and just 4 minutes before overtime late.
We parked the car near the trailer and congratulated each other on a successful event. Climbing out of the car was accompanied by groans and sighs of relief after spending over 8 hours being violently shaken around in the cabin. As we lit victory cigarettes I phoned the rest of the team who had been sleeping soundly at the Grantham house and they made their way to the circuit. In the meantime, we went to the restaurant to claim the very welcome breakfast included in the entry. On the way we caught up with old friend Lizzie Pope who had been navigating in a Ford Focus until retiring before midnight at the end of section 7, with no brakes. Lizzie congratulated us on a successful event and me especially for keeping Ding in check. His reputation evidently precedes him!
Ding and I sat down with cooked breakfasts and hot drinks to rest and recuperate, and were soon joined by Alan Coombs and his driver Mark Peterson who had successfully piloted his MG ZR to a 3rd in Class finish. As we ate, we reviewed the night’s adventures and revelled in what we had just experienced. The rest of the OUMF team joined us at the table and gloated of their night’s sleep before joining in with the conversation and general banter.
Before long very long the results were announced, and Alan and Mark went to collect their trophies to the customary round of applause. The applause was broken by the classic British chorus of ‘Whey!’ - as Alan dropped his trophy before retreating to the table, out of public scrutiny. The entire restaurant thanked and applauded the marshals and the land owners for their efforts through the night. Massive thanks were given to the organisers of the rally, Brian Jaggs and Bob Blows who are finally stepping down from the organising of the event after 12 years. As such, this could be the last Preston as we know it. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to take part in it, even if it might be my first and last ‘One and Only Preston Rally’
The team left the restaurant and had a team photo with the Corsa before loading it onto the trailer and returning to Oli’s for bacon rolls and hot drinks graciously provided by Mr and Mrs Grantham, to whom we are all very grateful for their hospitality throughout the weekend. After refreshment, I - like a sane human being who’d been up all night bouncing around in a rally car - relaxed on the sofa with Oli, Rob Dawson, Ryan Gibbs, Isaac Jarmarkiez, and Niall, and drank more tea. Ding however, clearly unsatisfied with the effort he’d put in through the night, decided he would power-wash the Corsa for an hour or more (madman). With the Corsa cleaned, the team loaded up and headed back to Oxford…ready for the next OUMF adventure.
Thanks for reading.
Andy Doyle, Co-driver