Sunday 18th June
After exams finished we were flat-out at the OUMF shed for three weeks of rebuilding and prepping the rally Riley 1.5, from top to bottom. This included Vlad Ardeleanu’s design and build of an entirely new wiring loom; Dom Norman and Andy Parsons leading the team through an axle and two engine rebuilds (as a cam follower shattered on the Abingdon CAR-nival Stages Rally, which we used as a shakedown for the Ypres Rally); Andy Doyle engineered an ingenious reverse gear lockout, and me, Tolga Karabetca who helped overhaul the suspension, steering and brake systems. Getting all this done in time was largely due to the fantastic support we received with sorting the engine and its associated problems from ARP Bolts, Vibration Free, Init Racing, OCS Automotive Engineering, Kent Cams, THINK Automotive, Westwood Liners, Race Winning Brands Europe, 3J Transmissions, FPS Distribution, Cometic Gaskets, Powerlite, Dave Crisell, Dave Knight Engine Services, G & S Valves, Tony Hall, Wosp, and Fuchs Lubricants. Other heroic sponsors - Phillips Tyres of Oxford, Cartek Motorsport, Connector Concepts Inc., Helix Autosport, TOYO Tires, Lesonal, NGK Spark Plugs, Oxford Wheel Repairs, Mintex, SuperB, Lifeline, Classic Oils, to name just a few – helped us with the electrics, brakes, wheels, tyres, diff, extinguisher system, paintwork and clutch. Jim Morris at Lifeline Fire Systems and Julian Thomas at Racelogic respectively provided further icing on the cake by equipping the Riley with a superb 360 electric fire extinguisher system, and a VBox HD2 system to capture all the action. Though still desperately short of funds, we were committed, and it was now time for the big test for both the team and car – the notoriously tough Ypres Rally!
The Riley was back together and running just in time for our early Sunday departure from the Oxford HQ – as was the van. This was discovered to have run out of MOT a week before we were due to leave, and again Neil Davis of FPS came to the rescue with a new exhaust system, and Stuart Talbot of T&T motors with fitting it and an 11th hour MOT test too. Despite all these pressures, we made it to Dover on time to catch the ferry, with Ahron Becquart, James Martin, Andy Doyle, and Tolga in the recce car, and Vlad and Ding in the van, with the Riley on the fast dissolving trailer behind it!
After our arrival in Dunkirk in the blazing sun, we headed straight for the French/Belgian border to see our old friend Geert Hardeman in his shop on Mont Noir (The Black Mountain) for an ice cream in the 35C heat. Refuelled by this delight we thundered on to Chris and Patricia Verschaeve in Hollebeke, who (for the 6th year running) made the OUMF team very welcome.
Monday 19th June
On Monday morning the team arrived at our engineering base for the week, the Van Moerbeke Alfa Romeo garage. Thanks to Kris Van Moerbeke for allowing us space in his welcoming Alfa-filled garage workshop to work on our Riley.
As the record heat wave continued, with temperatures up in the high 30’s, the day was spent at the garage undertaking all the minor jobs still needed; sourcing and fixing an oil leak, fitting new regulation mud flaps and all the other finishing touches.
Tuesday 20th June
Tuesday saw the team head to the garage to continue fettling the Riley. Ding and Ahron went to sign on for the Rally and see OUMF’s long-time friend and supporter Geert Hardeman who kindly lent us his Hans device (a necessity for European rallying).
Once all the work was finished on the car and Ding and Ahron had returned, we set off to get the car tracked by the local expert at NV Verbiese Banden. He detected a 2-degree difference between the right and left caster which could not be fixed with simple adjustment. Using his years of experience he removed the brake reaction strut and modified it to bring the right hand side caster in line with the left. After a bit of careful realignment, the caster was adjusted to be perfect. Thanks to all at NV Verbiese Banden for spending the time to ensure the Riley’s tracking was ‘rally ready’.
Our next pit stop was to see our friend, the lovely Katrien Verstraete at the Lemenu TOTAL petrol station. She looked forward to seeing the Riley in action again and, in view of OUMF’s disastrous lack of funds, extended a generous offer of fuel.
In the evening we dined alfresco at Chris and Patricia’s, with the food enthusiastically barbequed by Vlad and Ahron. During the carousing Dom Norman and Andy Parsons arrived. They had been delayed by their graduation ceremony in Oxford that morning, and they were champing at the bit to put their hard won degrees to practical use.
Wednesday 21st June – Shakedown Day
It was an early morning for the team, as Ding and Ahron had to make it to the first stage by 9am to begin Recceing and constructing the pace notes for 5 stages. This took most of the day as the rally routes had been greatly altered since last year. Meanwhile the rest of the team headed back to garage to load up and prepare for the shakedown service. The record-breaking heat led to some last minute tyre pressure changes and other tweaks before the Riley was ready to conquer Ypres!
The OUMF rally pit crew headed for the village Boezinge, where the entire centre is turned into a service park for the Historic crews in the Ypres Rally. We secured an excellent place, right in the centre, adjacent to Steve Perez’s and his Lancia Stratos. Here we set up and awaited the arrival of the Riley to see how its first outing in anger would go after its recent engine blow up.
When Ding and Ahron arrived in the Riley it went straight to safety scrutineering – and it passed with no issues flagged. The car was then given a final once over while Ding and Ahron were fuelled and dressed, and the Riley left for its maiden Ypres 2017 run. The pit crew were entertained by a constant stream of noisy M3’s, Escort’s and 911’s weaving past us and through the large crowds towards the start as we awaited the return of the Riley.
10 minutes later a phone rang. Andy Doyle picked it up and told us “It’s Ahron”. Within a few seconds of Andy answering it was apparent what had happened. The Riley had taken a hefty impact and snapped an upright, crippled the suspension and caved in the bodywork - but thankfully both Ding and Ahron were uninjured. The Riley was in the process of being recovered to the end /finish of the stage.
We hastily packed the van and headed off to the finish line to assess the damage and recover the car if possible.
As we turned the final corner approaching the end of the stage, we saw the Riley lying battered, with the front right corner pulverised and misshaped. After a quick inspection of the suspension it was quite obvious that it would not be possible to get the car on to the trailer without fitting a complete front suspension on the side of the road. The entirety of the front suspension was bent, including the very robust forged lower arm.
We soon learned that the damage had not been restricted to the bodywork and suspension. The beautiful alloy GDM Coolers radiator had been punctured, the Thermex oil cooler was cracked, and the ‘A’ pillar and driver’s footwell had been pushed back by the front wheel - to the extent that the driver’s door wouldn’t open. However we were stunned at the strength of the TOYO R888R as both edges of the steel wheel rim were completely caved in, but the tyre was undamaged! Our spares box was emptied of all the suspension parts and we raced against fading daylight to get the car mobile and ‘trailerable’. The rest of the team soon arrived and Ding went to collect the trailer from Kris Van Moerbeke’s garage. The frantic activity around the crippled Riley attracted large crowd of spectators, fresh from appreciating the action on the stage.
Eventually, with OUMF’s favourite Q20 easing oil to help, we managed to get the severely bent front wing off and the suspension and steering into a state that allowed the car to be rolled up on to the trailer, and we headed back to Chris and Patricia’s house in Hollebeke where they were waiting to greet and commiserate with us. They told us that the Riley was one of only a couple of cars featured on the TV news, every half hour, going at full chat on the Shakedown (not the crash and its aftermath) which cheered us up. We were still more delighted when they told us, at the end of the rally, that the clip was used on every TV bulletin through to lunchtime the following day. This and the team’s quick thinking posts immediately after the incident were also creating a huge amount of interest on social media. Three hours after the crash there were already over 27,000 views by followers and supporters on Facebook, galvanising us into not giving up and to get on and fix it – somehow - before the rally!
We now had just one day to repair the car and put ourselves back in the rally. In Patricia’s words, ‘We have to do it the hard way’!
We decided that as much of our equipment and work lights were locked in the Van Moerbeke garage for the night, and there was only the unlit side of the road to work on the Riley, it would be best to get an early night and continue repairs in the morning, rather than attempting to work on the car in the dark.
The Racelogic Vbox footage of the crash showed the large pallet of slates (almost totally concealed in the hedge) on the exit of the 90 degree corner. The correcting of the Riley’s drift round the corner moved the car over towards the hedge on exiting the corner, at which point the edge of the wing had clipped the protruding corner of the pallet of slates, pulling the car in and round into a full on collision. Extremely sad, painful viewing - but with some excellent sound bites from our driver!
Thursday 22nd June
We were waiting to start repairing the stricken Riley at 9am when the Kris opened the Alfa garage. While Ding and Ahron set off to recce and note the remaining stages – in the belief we would (as always) fix the Riley in time for the rally – the rest of us split into teams, working to beat the wing back in to shape, pulling out the crumpled front panel, pushing the floor, ‘A’ pillar and footwell back, and fixing the door. Kris was extremely busy, but he still very kindly found time to help us with the repairs, using his hydraulic ‘dozer’ body repair jack to push the dented floor and footwell back to ensure the door opened and closed.
By the time the garage closed that evening, all the recceing had been done and we felt that the damaged bodywork had been sufficiently straightened and repaired to be deemed safe. As we couldn’t continue into the night at the garage due to insurance issues and lack of vital suspension spares, we phoned OUMF member Jamie Higgins back in the UK. He filled his van with the vital spares, work lights and a multitude of hammers, and predicted he would be with us by 2am!
So, with all our tools, spares and equipment in the van, we left the Van Moerbeke garage and headed back to Chris and Patricia’s, while James Martin and Andy Doyle gave Vlad and Ahron a lift to watch the Shakedown for the modern rally cars in Nieuwkerke.
With virtually no sponsorship and OUMF now facing even greater financial nightmares as result of the crash, we then had two wonderful and unexpected offers of help. Chris and Patricia - who were already hosting us for the week - responded to the gravity of our situation and generously gave the team an envelope containing 300 euros. Then Andy Parsons announced that his parents, Richard and Sharon, had reacted to our plight by offering help towards the rally entry fees – and kindly said they would treat us to a proper restaurant meal that evening as well! These amazing surprises lifted the team’s exhausted spirits skywards. We were so grateful for these compassionate gestures, and, unable to do much else before Jamie’s arrival, except unload the Riley on the roadside in a field about 100 metres from the house ready for a long night of repair work, we immediately set off to Ypres…to feast!
We found the centre of the town all around the famous Cloth Hall had been transformed; it was now an enormous service area, packed with the motor homes and marquees for the modern rally car teams, and thronging with thousands of people watching the rally pageant. Colourful, high-powered cars came and went from the shakedown in Nieuwkerke, with their loud exhausts rattling the windows all around the square, and reverberating down the narrow streets leading to it. Luckily we found a table at a restaurant in the square itself and were able to drink in the high-octane atmosphere while we enjoyed a delicious dinner.
Team morale was refuelled and revitalised as we returned to the house and planned the night ahead. It was decided that it would be best to work in shifts so that everyone was not totally drained for the rally on Friday. James Martin and I and took the first shift while everyone else got a couple of hours of sleep ahead of Jamie’s planned arrival with Nick Chrumka and the vital spares. We spent the shift building up part of the suspension before beginning to modify the spares we had to fit.
At 2am Jamie and Nick phoned us and said they were not far off, and we replied with “Yeah we can see your LED headlights from here!” …and five minutes later they arrived. After being blinded by the vans high intensity light bars as they approached, no time was wasted and the van was unpacked. Jamie and Nick immediately set to work. Jamie wrestled and hammered the front wing back into shape and position while Nick began installing the replacement radiator. Shortly after, Dom arrived ahead of schedule to lend a hand with fitting the troublesome suspension, and the rest of the team followed not long after, with faint signs of dawn already in the sky on the longest day of the year.
It was an incredible feeling at around 8am when we finally dropped the car off the axle stands and got it fired up. It badly needed its lovely Lesonal paint refreshed, but to see the Riley looking like a car again and hear it running gave us all huge satisfaction. The OUMF team had yet again defied all odds. We had managed to claw ourselves back in to the rally! Delicious, celebratory Belgian beer was quaffed - and smiles broke out all round.
With smiles on our faces we all returned to the house for breakfast. After deciding to stay up all through the night to get the suspension ready I ended up falling asleep on the lawn almost immediately after finishing breakfast, without even realising I had done so until I was woken some time later as we were about to leave!
Friday 23rd June – The Ypres Rally!
At 9am we headed back to the Alfa garage to collect the rest of our kit and to thank Kris for giving us garage space for the week, then drove on to Boezinge to set up in the service park for the remaining two days of the rally. Meanwhile Ding and Ahron took the Riley back to NV Verbiese Banden to be re-tracked; two hours and a lot of skilful fettling was required before the owner was satisfied. They then got it through rally scrutineering with no problems, and were quite surprised that the scrutineer didn’t notice the repairs until they were pointed out to him – which says a lot about the standard achieved by all our hard work!
When the Riley arrived at the service park, the dampers were removed and their settings were altered at Ding’s suggestion. However, the threads of one of the damper mountings sheared off while it was being re-installed. Luckily a spare damper mount was found and modified to fit on the car – but then the modification was found to be incompatible with our dampers! So it was back to square one... The old mount had to be repaired - and we had less than 15 minutes to do it. Ideas were thrown back and forth about how to repair the old mount, and eventually it was decided to cut the threads off, weld a bolt on, and use the bolt thread for the retaining nut. An easy enough job to do in 10 minutes?
Jamie’s welder was damaged and had no gas, but had a working wire feed - so we couldn’t use our welder. So we borrowed a welder from a competitor team. However, their welder had gas but not a working wire feed! So we ran over to the professional Geko Rally Team opposite us in the service area, and borrowed their gas and electricity to finally weld the bolt on. With the bolt welded and the mount fitted to the suspension, we then discovered we needed some large spacers for it to work - and now there was only 2 minutes of service time left! Thinking very fast, we drilled out some spare nuts, rethreaded them, refitted all the suspension as fast as we possibly could - and it worked!! With Ding and Ahron already in the car, the stands were removed, the jack went down, and the Riley shot off down the road and clocked in with 12 seconds to spare – so no penalties! Only after this did I fully understand the lateral thinking, adrenaline-pumping rush and excitement that rallying can give!
The day was warm and sunny again but to our crew’s relief the sweltering temperatures of the past few days had dropped to the mid-twenties, which was much more comfortable for all of us.
With the rally in full swing, the service area was constantly busy as cars that had crashed or developed problems were frenziedly worked on by their service crews. The OUMF team worked seamlessly to check everything possible during the Riley’s pressurised, time-limited service halts, but otherwise we had to address only minor issues and the rest of the day went smoothly - in spite of the condition in which the car had started. Dom was jubilant that his rebuilt engine was doing so well, even without the benefit of being set up on the Pitstop rolling road, and Jamie produced some great food on his gas-powered barbeque between the action-packed service stops when we all grabbed the opportunity to get some rest after the exertions of the previous days - and nights! We constantly followed the progress of the rally, and were excited to see Ding and Ahron taking the OUMF Riley up the running order for seven consecutive stages. On the first stage it was already up to 36th, and by the end of the first day we had climbed to 29th with no penalties at all. We had bettered our best finishing position in the 5 previous years by 4 places already – and we still had a whole day to go! But…while we had had a great start to the rally, could it be sustained?!
Saturday 24th June – Ypres Rally day 2!
The car had run perfectly during the first day, so the whole team had its fingers crossed for the second day. The battered Riley must survive double the amount of stages of the day before, but we were nervously optimistic about finishing the rally after all our hard work and perseverance.
After being checked from end to end, the Riley was out dead on time, and with Ding and Ahron immediately climbing from 29th to 27th on the first stage, the signs were good…
With us all getting into the groove and becoming ever more familiar and efficient with each of our allotted jobs in service, and working ever better together as a team, things were far more relaxed than the previous days; the first couple of services were problem free and completed in time. Ever larger crowds were gathering around us to watch our servicing and encourage us, and many of the other service teams and their managers came to see us in action and were very complimentary. It was really gratifying that the grizzled and highly experienced team principal of the large professional Belgian rally team opposite us spent much of his time observing our work, and repeatedly told Ding that he thought we were ‘excellent mechaniciens’! Each time the Riley zoomed out after service, we returned to answering the many questions from the crowds of interested spectators about all aspects of OUMF, the car, and the parts fitted to it, while giving out fliers about our sponsors’ equipment and events, and making sure all our supporters’ banners and logos were displayed to best advantage. As a newcomer to the team, I was surprised to find that the OUMF student team seemed to be the main focus of attention in the service park, with a constant stream of followers saying how much they liked our unusual Riley bringing variety to the rally, and wishing us success.
By the end of the ninth stage we were 26th, with three stages left to run, and we were beginning to dare let our hopes rise – but then following the tenth stage, the Riley came in to the service with Ding and Ahron reporting a violent vibration in the car at high speed – apparently unrelated to revs. It had been violent enough to shake the dashboard off the car, and they had had to temporarily hold it in position with cable ties on a transit section. While some of the crew reattached the dash, Dom suggested that the gearbox tail shaft nut might be coming undone, and he and Jamie scrambled under the car and began removing the prop shaft in order to get at it. Utilising every half inch spanner we had, Dom, Jamie, Nick and James got the prop off - and found the nut was indeed loose! They tightened it as best they could, refitted the propshaft, and sent the car on its way – again making the time control with only a couple of seconds to spare. It turned out that Dom had made a cracking decision and the vibration was greatly reduced.
The Riley flew on the final three stages, and our fastidious maintenance in service paid off as more cars retired as dusk fell. By the end of the penultimate stage the Riley was up to 22nd place Overall with the prospect of a Class award too! We were on for achieving the best ever result in the Ypres Rally – if we could hold our position for one more stage. The Racelogic VBox enabled us to follow its progress and see it complete the last stage – and we were absolutely overjoyed and the celebrations began as we waited impatiently for the Riley’s return!
However, we were completely unaware of the drama that was unfolding in the car...
Ding and Ahron had indeed reached the end of the last stage, and had held their position - in spite of very poor lights and the wipers packing up as it began to rain! They were exhausted, but relieved and jubilant as they set off on the last transit section back. However, they still had to make the final control on time to sign off and secure their place. The organisers of these rallies very often count on the exhausted crews dropping their guard at the end of the last stage, and do their best to further winnow out those who have made it so far and got so close to the actual finish. The rally road book had been composed with just such a ruse in mind, and Ahron’s understanding of the enigmatic directions led him to believe that the final control was in the main square in Ypres, some 15 kilometres from the end of the last stage…. But, as the Riley made its way in that direction in the gathering darkness on a small country road, Ding spotted a blue Mk2 Escort, which had been running directly in front of us on the rally, coming past us at high speed - but going in the opposite direction! Ahron immediately suspected something was up, and told Ding to turn round and try and catch the experienced local Belgian in the Escort while he rechecked the road book directions. He did so, but the Escort had been going very fast in the drizzle, and it had a healthy head start on the Riley - which was further handicapped by having only one effective headlight, no spotlights, and no wipers. Exceeding any speed reached on the rally, the Riley gave chase, but there was no sign of the Escort, and it could have taken any of the junctions they had passed. After a few hairy kilometres it became clear they had lost it, and while in the meantime Ahron had realised he had been deceived into using the wrong page of the road book, and had found the right one, the Riley was now probably ‘off route’ and he was unsure of exactly were they were and in what direction to go. At that moment the flying Riley passed a junction on the left – and they glimpsed a car stopped at a level crossing in the distance. Hope against hope, Ding span the car round, took the side road and pressed the Riley even harder as they watched a train pass, and, as the barrier began to rise, they saw that it was the Escort!!! Again it had a good start on them, and was even more behind time and therefore in more of a hurry than the Riley, but Ding was determined that there was no way he was going to lose it this time. There then ensued a car chase at unmentionable speeds and with scant regard - by either driver - for driving norms, regulations, or the many police and their speed traps that caught nearly 500 motorists round Ypres during rally week. An Escort v a Riley isn’t a very even match, but somehow they stayed with it all the way into Ypres, out again, then on to Boezinge, flew round the wet cobbled streets, through the service area without stopping, and made it to the final control – arriving and clocking in to the second and, to Ahron’s great credit, without a single penalty throughout the rally.
At the end of the rally the whole team made its way to the top of the service park to await the arrival of the Riley. Eventually the Riley appeared, and the real celebrations began. The team was overjoyed at having achieved a finish at all on the rally, let alone finishing in our best ever position, in the second oldest car! 22nd Overall and 3rd in Class - only bettered by a Golf Mk2 GTi 16v and a Vauxhall Nova – is a hell of a result for a car launched in 1957!
Seeing the Riley roll back in to the service park, draped in the both the Belgian and Union Jack flags, was the crowning glory of the rally, and as we celebrated our amazing feat, we all felt proud of the hard, determined work we had put in over the previous few weeks. Yes, we had suffered misfortune and serious difficulty, but all the effort had been vindicated by getting our best-ever result. Added to everything learned, and the great people we had met, we had drawn massive public, TV, and social media interest to OUMF (over 85,000 views on Facebook alone!), provided fantastic experience to the team, highlighted our unique initiative and our work, and provided much valuable media exposure and attention for our wonderful and loyal sponsors.
It has been a truly inspiring experience for me and a great OUMF team, and I cannot imagine how else I could have learned so much, in such a short time, in such a fun and exciting way.
Thanks again to Kris Van Moerbeke, Chris and Patricia Verschaeve, Katrien Verstraete, Alain Penasse, Superstage vzw, and the BRC for their tremendous support, Jamie for his mercy dash, and all our fantastic supporters and followers without whom this extraordinary experience on the Ypres Rally would not have been possible. We just hope our appeal to sponsors bear fruit…for funds towards the rally costs, and now for help to repair the car properly too. OUMF is in a very difficult place!
(1st year, Motorsport Engineering, Oxford Brookes)
Postscript: Since our return, the front of the Riley has been stripped to repair it properly, and damaged bodywork cut out - including 18 inches of the front bulkhead, floor and offside sill. It was painted with Rustbuster Epoxy Mastic when the car was restored in 2004. After 13 years of serious competition in rallies and races since, the area was found to be entirely rust free. What amazing stuff!!