One Tuesday evening, after a few pints in the Britannia pub at the weekly OUMF social, the question of entering a 12 car rally was raised. Ding Boston was encouraging new crews to sign up and fill what were at the time quite a few spaces on the next Dolphin Club event. The question was asked whether or not I would be interested in driving and I said ‘Yes, if someone lends me their car!’ - to which the reply was ‘What’s wrong with your van?!’ So what started as a joke in the pub about contesting a 12 car rally in my 1.9 litre, non-turbo, diesel Citroen Dispatch became a reality on the evening of Friday 8th November at the Dolphin Motor Club’s annual ‘Gunpowder Plot’ rally.
Andy Parsons had agreed (while in the pub on that fateful evening) that if I entered in a van, he would be my navigator. I don’t think he expected me to follow through on my word; however he has now learnt the consequence of trying to call my bluff! So the days rolled round to the Friday afternoon, and with my van still full of all the rubbish you would normally empty from a car due to lack of space, we decided to meet an hour early to ‘race prep’ the rally van. This comprised of checking whether it had oil, air in the tyres and emptying everything out to save those crucial kilograms. The plan was to meet the other two OUMF crews (Ding Boston, Tom Maitland and Greg ‘the Pole’ in the TOYO Golf, and Alex McKenzie and Theo Ensbury in Alex’s lowered Mazda MX-5) at the Brookes University campus, ready to drive down together. On the way we had the bright idea of treating the mighty steed to some lovely Shell V-Power performance diesel, just to give her that extra half a horse under the bonnet.
I think when we arrived, Ding was starting to feel the pressure of competition and realised that the mighty van should be taken as some serious opposition, as he was particularly cagey about explaining anything of the rally, refusing to give us a straight answer as to what exactly we do with a ‘code board’ or even knowing how long we should take to do a stage! His mood was not helped by the fact he was last to arrive, the Mazda taking a sneaky route to the start point (the Five Bells pub in Wickham - which serves very good chips and apparently a delightful soup concoction) and the van making a stunning overtaking manoeuvre past the golf on the M4! Upon our start time, neither myself nor Andy knew anything of what to expect.
We raced away from the start (after having to pause to let three cars pass on the main road), wheel-spinning out of the car park then immediately onto a narrow single track lane, where we immediately sped past one of the novice crews and onwards along the narrow, leaf covered lane. Andy was all the while giving junction directions and notifying me of any tight corners or ‘chicanes’. Blink and you missed it…a two or three letter number plate, poking out of the verge on the left hand side. That must be our first code board! We continued along this lane all the way down to a ‘T junction with the A4’, turning right onto this before almost immediately turning right again onto another narrow lane. We shot along this lane before slamming the brake pedal to the floor as at the last minute we saw a time check point! Andy throws his hand out the window along with our score sheet for the marshal, who duly circles our time of arrival. 20:18. Spot on time! This is when we realised that if we wanted to stay on time, it definitely wasn’t a case of toddling around the countryside at 30 mph as was made out by Ding, we would have to drive flat out for the entire route! So, straight across the crossroads at Hungerford-Newtown and onwards to TC3. TC3 had a diagram written on a piece of paper as it was a complex junction and the route to it was crucial. As we arrived, Andy spotted the distinctive road layout and pointed out to me the way we should go; turn left then immediately down to 2nd gear for a tight right then a tight left into the checkpoint, clipping all the apexes nicely. Again, perfect on time, with all our code boards collected. By no means an easy thing to do as we couldn’t go any faster! Immediately left towards the small village of Chilton Foliat where we were supposed to take a right turn. Oh dear - the road was recently closed for night repairs!
As there was clearly no chance of passing the road works we swung left then backed into a side road to discuss the next course of action. Shortly after parking up, we saw the Silver Ford Puma poke its nose around the corner and confront the same blockage we had come across seconds earlier. They quickly decided they would see if they could pass, and weaving between a few cones they were through! Not many more seconds passed before they were driving back towards us being chased by one of the workmen! Clearly this was not an option. Next we saw the MX-5 appear. Alex manoeuvred the car alongside us and asked what we were going to do. I duly gave him no useful advice (there’s no time for friends when racing!) and he and Theo shot down the road to take the long way around the road works. Next round the corner was Ding, Tom and Greg ‘the Pole’ in the OUMF prepared Toyo Golf. Ding also pulled alongside, and when I asked what they were going to do, he was every bit as useful as a thorn in the foot. No more than I deserved I guess!
We were keen to stay ahead of Ding on the road, so we made a quick decision to shoot back along the way we had come - along the shortest route to the next checkpoint. We overshot the first turning whilst following closely behind the Puma, but fortunately dived down the second - as they overshot it and sped to the next checkpoint. Upon arrival we had lost 3 minutes on time, got none of the code boards and arrived from the wrong direction. (However this was to be of no consequence as this stretch was later excluded from the results!) Not knowing this we fought the whole rally to try to make up the lost time. Despite a few hairy moments and some thrills and fights with other cars including both the Golf and the Puma powering past the gutless (but brilliant) van up one hill, we managed to only lose a further two minutes over the whole rally! These were mostly lost on a particularly wicked bend where my instructions were to turn 90 degrees right. The van aquaplaned on a puddle just as I was about to start braking. This meant my braking was too late! We locked up (even with ABS!) for what seemed like ages, while not slowing down. I tried to turn into the corner but all I could see was the hedge approaching fast, there seemed no way of us making the corner! At the last second I cranked the steering left, off the crest of the road and down onto a tiny gravel farm track. We skidded to a halt, reversed around and wheel span away, all in one swift movement! Everything was still in slow motion at this point and Andy was convinced he had died and gone to heaven. ‘I just farted, but I don’t think anything came out’, was all he had to say.
Upon our arrival back at the pub at the end, only minutes after the Golf, everyone had stories to tell and all thought their drive was the most heroic and their experiences were the most exciting. However I (and you now) know that no-one could top mine of course!! After around 20 minutes of waiting and coming down from the adrenaline high, Theo came racing through the door, with the Mazda’s score card. He was followed by a drained looking Alex – and I wondered if it was the concentration, or Theo’s navigation that had worn him out! He looked as bad as I felt! Two hours of unrelenting concentration really does focus the mind. I was a similar feeling to that when you finish an exam and have been working things out for a few hours solid. A drink was in order! An incredibly stiff coca-cola (remembering I still had the half hour drive home!) was soon followed by the announcing of the results in reverse order. Alex and Theo finished a credible 8th place on their very first rally, despite what sounds like a few excursions and a fair amount of time lost on their ‘long way round’ route at the road works. With every passing crew, myself and Andy were becoming more and more convinced that our score card had been lost! 7th, 6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd place were announced and it was just Ding’s ‘OUMF’ crew and the mighty van crusaders remaining! 2nd place was ours, on also our first road rally event! We were, as they say,’ well chuffed’ with that (and extremely grateful to the Dolphin MC and all the marshals who helped to make it such a great night out). I think Ding was almost worried he’d been beaten by the van for a few moments! So congratulations to Ding, Tom and Greg on their victory by a measly 3 points! All I can say is just wait until next time Ding!