I guess the Gunpowder Plot 12 Car rally really started during the previous Monday’s practical evening in the barn, with an overall spanner check of OUMF’s infamous 3 seater TOYO Golf Gti and the fitting of the new TOYO R1R test tyres so kindly supplied by Alan Meaker, TOYO’s technical and motorsport manager. At that point the weather forecast for Friday indicated that rain was likely, so we decided to change the superb TOYO 888’s for something with a bit more grip in the wet, and we were anxious to see if the rave reviews of the R1R’s were justified. This was done, and a further couple of problems were addressed with the brake lights and the feeble sound emanating from the horn. After a quick check in the workshop manual, we discovered the brake light problem was actually due to the brake light switch which was not seated properly behind the pedal. About an hour later, with a couple of well-placed cable ties and a couple of encouraging words, Theo managed to fix it - while new Mintex 1144 rear brake pads were being fitted, glass cleaned and levels checked - and we were set for Friday’s adventure.
Ding picked me up from Slade Park at around 18:20 for the drive to Abingdon to pick up top navigator Zip Zerihan en route. A couple of speedy overtaking manoeuvres later we arrived at the Tesco service station in Abingdon. Once we met up with Zip and filled up with petrol, Ding obviously needed his rally supplies - Jaffa cakes – supplemented on this occasion by a couple of bags of Biltong (due to my persuasive personality). As we sped towards Newbury, Zip told us about his exciting current projects – new offices, wind tunnel testing Indy cars, and more – and about 20 min later we arrived at the pub in Enborne where the Dolphin Motor Clubs rally organisation was in full swing. Once there Zip and Ding completed the necessary registration forms, and being given the choice to either to compete in the novice or expert class, Zip decided to have go at the expert class. However, a couple of comments from Ding later (reminding Zip about Paul Hardy’s historical penchant for unusually testing clues), we decided to go at novice instead. (I think maybe the decisive comment was “you have a better chance at winning as a Novice” from one of the organisers). A quick coffee and a coke later, we listened carefully to the driver’s briefing. We were informed there were no black spots on the map and that there were no speeding cameras on route, but there were a number of decoy code boards planted ‘off route’ i.e. along the wrong routes.
Getting ready in the car at around 19:55, we got everything into place to be flagged away as car 6 at 20:06. Everything got off to a positive start with Zip swiftly decoding the clues, and Ding enjoying the surefooted R1R tyres in the damp and leaf-strewn lanes. However, by Time Control 4 the clues were becoming a bit more complicated, and we had to park up on the side of the road for Zip to correctly navigate us trough the narrow and twisty roads of Berkshire. Shortly after a square left after TC 6, we were accelerating hard when we saw something unusual in the headlights amid the colourful carpet of leaves spread across the tarmac about 100 metres in front of the car. Ding quickly swerved left as we identified the unknown mass to be a large tawny owl just sitting in the middle of the road looking toward the powerful light beams being projected from the Golf. An owl playing chicken? It didn’t move a muscle; just glared at us as we sped past…
A couple of minutes later Zip mentioned he was beginning to feel rather uncomfortable. The serious concentration on the maps required by the unusual complication of the clues was getting to him. Ding adjusted his driving to ‘slower and smoother’ and we continued on with windows open, while collecting every code board we saw. At the end of the section we came round a corner and saw the board marking the next control point on a grassy triangle at a junction - just in front of the time control marshals. As we swerved left through the first opening, we realised that this was probably the wrong approach – and that we were supposed to be entering the control by going the long way round the triangle. Diving right to try and avoid entering the control, we span round – over the triangle? (it all happened so fast its difficult to remember!) - and backtracked for about 200 metres until we found a gateway to turn again. This time we entered the control the right way – and in a much more orderly fashion – but as we stopped at the marshal we found it was none other than Paul Hardy himself! He had observed our desperate attempt to save the situation, but as the organiser of the event, he had also noted it as being a possible infraction of the route. From this point of high drama, things did begin to slow down a bit as Zip – while extremely reluctant to admit it - was getting seriously struck by ‘mal de mer’. Clues were taking longer to decipher and the tempo was slightly decreased as Zip lost the feeling in his fingers and found himself speaking as if he had just left the dentist! Ding was feeling both guilty and very sympathetic about Zip’s condition, so he opened his window fully. This, added to Zip’s window already being fully open, did not aid in me feeling any better as there was now a decent draught in the back of the Golf. But the wind-chill was certainly going to keep me wide awake and vigilant for more code boards! In spite of all this distraction, we only suffered minor complications which necessitated reversing up a couple of times to regain the correct route. Suggestions to Zip that we might stop and give him some time for to recover were bravely turned down out of hand; he was adamant that he would continue and persevere regardless of his nauseous condition. To our great collective relief, we finally found our way to the last Time Control at around 22:20 – which was conveniently located back at the pub (Belgian rally organisers should take note of this fact).
We climbed out of the Golf, and I have to say, I have never seen a man physically shake from feeling sick. Zip’s face lacked any colour, his speech was slurred, and his fingers so numb that Ding had had to help him open the envelopes containing the clues at the last two controls. This was a truly impressive performance, as he did not once ask to slow down or stop during the rally – and in spite of the way he felt, he had somehow managed not to actually be sick. Once out of the car and into the pub, he began to warm up and recover quickly – as the rest of his crew enjoyed a quick cigarette and a couple of drinks to pass the time as the results were being calculated. We were pleased that the wet weather forecast had not been accurate – as it hadn’t rained at all – but as a result, it hadn’t really given us a proper chance to test the TOYO R1R’s – so there’s a further treat in store!
After about 20 min the results were declared and we joined the rest of the crews for the prize-giving. Unbelievably we were informed we finished in 8th place. A couple of minutes were added to our time due to late arrivals at TC’s and the picking up of one decoy code board, but this was hardly surprising given prevailing conditions in the Golf - which under other circumstances, and with a less stalwart navigator - might have led to our early retirement. Let Zip’s extraordinarily stoic performance be an example to us all, as it embodies the OUMF ‘never say die’ spirit. We had an amazing time (well, maybe not Zip!) - and a timely reminder that the fun of competition is as much about participating as it is about winning.
On the way home, Ding appeared to want to take a quick detour to South Wales for some reason - but was dissuaded – and we ended up back in the Tescos in Abingdon to drop Zip off at his car. I am happy to say that by this time he was back to his usual super-enthusiastic self. Hero!