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Wales Rally GB Report
photos: Jakob Ebrey

Tallest crew, smallest car..

This adventure started with a telephone call.. "Hello its Jim Holder here from Motorsport News. I've had a mad idea, would you like to do the final round of this years World Rally Championship, the Wales Rally GB with me?". It seemed such an easy, sensible idea at the time, probably because I was about to embark on a tour of the country on a motorised four-poster bed!

Back to the beginning where, codriven by Anna McColl, we won our class in the Safety Devices rally championship. From here we leapt into the Pirelli British Rally Championship where we again won our class and in 2003, were halfway through our defence of that same title. We had a yearning to do a round of the World Rally Championship but with a cap on entries even our Mini in its final year of FIA eligibility was finding room hard to come by.

After talking with Anna, we agreed to attempt the Rally GB with Jim. We were then faced with rounding off our PBRC season and organise a team for the Rally GB! Lists were the order of the day.

Sponsorship is always a hard game to play and motorsport journalist Jim was just discovering this! Despite having one of the most saleable stories it was still proving nigh on impossible to find investors until Ikea and Competition Car Insurance came on board. We had a budget! Sticking to this budget was one problem, the rapidly growing shopping list now included obligatory FIA refueling connectors (similar to F1), rather expensive regulation fuel and numerous other un-budgeted for costs.

Sponsorship confirmed and a entry firmly in hand, my life for the next short few weeks was going to be full of the rally.

First up was a respray. Mildred the Mini was beginning to look a little tired after two hard years in the punishing PBRC. This gave us breathing time to run around sourcing parts, preparing the press and generally panicking! Once Mildred returned from Langley Autocraft looking her shiny best, the work to prepare her began in earnest - fitting around photo shoots with Jari-Matti Latvala, a future World Champion and his works prepared Ford Focus ST WRC, and the world famous Paddy Hopkirk.

Ford and Mildred

Time flies whilst you are fettling Minis but whilst the rebuild was at full swing in deepest darkest Hertfordshire, Jim was plugging away on a.. ahem.. crash course at rally navigation, given by factory codriver Carl Williamson. Carl worked wonders on Jim, even inspiring him with confidence which must be a hard thing to find before such a big event for a relatively novice codriver.

After many, many hours work between myself, Simon Maxted, Clem Burgess and Paul Clark we finally reached the point where I had to leave for Cardiff. Trying to get to Cardiff at a respectable hour the thoughts played through my head yet again. Two little devils, one shouting "you MUST finish", the other "but you can't go slow" had been haunting me for some time now.

Thankfully the recce went fairly smoothly. We had borrowed the prototype of the new F1000 series, a lesson well learnt from a previous recce which swiftly killed off Jim's company car. The 1000cc Micra performed superbly, unfortunately the seats were horrendous - oh for the glamorous and very well padded Magnum seats which graced Mildred!

Pages and pages worth of scribbling (that I hoped and prayed Jim understood - especially the bits with 300 meter drops into reservoirs) later and we were done. Time to sit down and have a nice cup of.. oh no wait a minute.. Jim's dashing off to drop the F1000 car back, I'm collecting the first of our crew, Jo Holland and then meeting the rest at John and Julie Lloyd's (Mini Cooper Registers competition and regalia secretaries) workshop. Hours of final tinkerings and fitting of WRC GPS tracking unit with aerials by the weekends CBM Motorsport crew of Colin Harrison, Matty Gray, Mark Hall, Andy Croft, Simon Wallis, David Hardingham, Simon Moy Thomas, Tony Fidoe, Rob Wiltshire, Simon, Clarky, tea (ah finally!) by Jo and Anna and historic rally crew Chris Tennant and Kate Price.

Crofty gets a service

The convoy back to our accommodation was very much a scene from the Italian Job - four Minis classic and new (plus a snoozing Mildred), several fast sports cars and three service trucks to replace the Land Rover, doormobile and coach. We all wound our way up a forest track to the secret mansion like base for a good nights sleep before "The GB Job".

Mad dashing around to fill Mildred with the oh-so-expensive WRC fuel and then to fly though scruitineering then left us to idly wander around Cardiff town centre, do a photo shoot to find out how many short-skirted university lacrosse players you could fit into a rally Mini and generally find anything else possible to take our minds off that nights super special stage.

Finally we were off. Over the start ramp for the obligatory nervous mumbling about the event ahead over the PA system, then a wander through the complex streets of Cardiff to discover that the trip, now measuring kilometres wildly disagreed with the organisers. We made it there fine to play around the giant scalextric track that is the super special - unexpectedly to find the crowds going mad - but that was probably just our cast of 5000 service crew! The oh-so short first evening saw us getting lost on the road section back to parc ferme - first rule.. at least one of us must pay attention at roundabouts. Luckily we were spotted and found our way back on track to parc ferme.. much to the amusement of the organisers that had been following our "blip" on their high-tech tracking system.

Friday - our first full day. There were enough stage miles in this leg to complete a round of the PBRC, but it was only a third of this event and without anywhere near as much servicing. We were expecting huge ruts to be left by the four wheel drive cars and unbeknown to us, we were not expected to emerge from the first, rather long, stage. Thankfully the weather was being un seasonally kind to us. No rain had kept the stages in better condition than we expected and although the ruts and rocks were still there, they were no worse than we had encountered elsewhere. As a bonus our new under guards fitted for this event were working a treat. Not only did we survive the first day, but we had remarkably few problems with simply a shock absorber mount shaking loose. During the stages Jim noticed a flag.. not your normal McRae emblazoned St Andrews cross but a St Georges cross with "Go Neil B Mini" in bold letters. WOW!

Move over McRae!

Why does motorsport start so early in the morning? I think we all felt that on Saturday morning. Oh well no lay in for us, we had to be in Cardiff. There was obviously going to be more rally fans around today as some had also made the impressive effort to be up at this time in the morning. During the Friday we were aware that Mildred was provoking a good reaction from marshals and spectators alike - after all our crew could not be everywhere.. could they?! Like Friday, Saturday was going better than expected with interest from all of the factory teams during services by our highly professional bunch of Mini owners co-ordinated by Simon and Anna. Things were going very, very well. Infact things were going a bit too well for my liking... My fears were satisfied a little when I was told that one of the belts on our two-belt water pump/alternator system was breaking up and that a couple of crew members had been dispatched to meet up with Clem, who had been shopping for more spares.

Starting the penultimate stage of the day it was obvious that night would fall while we were in the depths of the forest. I knew our alternator belt was weak so I resisted using lighting as much as possible. Eventually, one third through infamous Resolfen, I had to succumb to the darkness with first the dipped headlights.. then full beam headlights.. then the alternator light.. THE ALTERNATOR LIGHT!! Damn - the belt had let go. But a quick check and everything else is ok. Well apart from the water temperature moving towards the moon. Lots of expletives later we coasted to a halt - no marshals post around the next corner.. nothing around at all apart from trees, lots of darkness, a Jim, a Neil oh and a few more trees.

Lifting the bonnet unveiled a scene of carnage. The first belt had completely mangled the fan, damaging the breather and radiator then taking off the water pump belt. The torn steel fan blade was incredibly sharp and soon took its frustrations on our fingers. Luckily a doctor had arrived on the scene by then so Jim was instantly attended to whilst my lesser injuries just added to the horror movie look of our engine bay. Lot of levering, swearing and 38 minutes later we were finally on our way. The water pump was working again but we had no alternator so we ran on dipped headlights hoping that the new battery would last the course. Driving a pitch black stage with dipped headlights and no pace notes when you know that if your time is not already up, it soon will be is not the most relaxing of past times - there was one particular hairpin that sticks in my mind as a moment of adventure! Luckily Jim managed to match his cryptic symbols to the limited view ahead. This made the job easier for me but the end of the stage could not come fast enough.

Stage over the plan was to drive out of the forest on side lights.. after finding ourselves in a bush we decided that flashing main-beam was a better tactic - one flash to see how far the next corner was, a second to confirm we were there and to get an idea of how tight it was. A hidden lorry speed-hump later I don't think I have ever been so pleased to see street lighting! A mad dash back to service and somehow we had made it on our minute!! After all that trouble we had just made it on time. Jim went to the medical centre for two stitches as the forewarned crew attempted to sort out the mess. By this time rumours of the Mini dropping out of the event were strife and on seeing us return to service the M-Sport Ford mechanics reported to Simon for extra assistance.

With the Mini, navigator and driver given the all-clear we were off again to the final stage of the day - the spectator stage for a third and final time. This time we were against The Sun journalist Rob Gill in his Impreza. Rob did the Mini proud and gave us a head start.. cut short when he saw us fly away from the line!! Nobly bowing to what we had began to realise was one of the most popular car on the event Rob backed off to let us win - much to the enjoyment of the audience and bemusement of the out-of-sight timekeepers!

Super special splash

Sunday morning. Yet another early morning but only three stages to go before we finally make it. I was quite happy with that thought until some kind fellow pointed out to Jim that it was still the same mileage as a round of a national rally championship. Joy. After the events of the previous night we just wanted to finish!

For the final day the punishing Rhondda stage was run, then a service, then Rhonnda again before a regroup and the final stage into Margam Park. At this stage of the game Mini preservation was of the upmost importance. Half way through the first stage of the day, poor Mildred was handling as if she had a rear puncture. We parked up next to the factory Peugeot of Harri Rovanpera and swung into action. I'm sure Harri must of thought we had an ant problem in the car as we both jumped out and ran round the Mini.. but there were no punctures to be found. We had failed to notice the bent radius arm but we would not of been able to cure that on stage anyway. Further through the stage we picked up a front puncture which then made the car very, very hard to handle. Out we jumped again and changed the wheel - in a sea of spectators - we were completely surrounded! In our rush it was hard to take in but the wheel was swiftly changed and we made it back to service again for a radius arm change.

Thankfully the second run through Rhondda was less eventful for us - although plenty of other cars had fallen fowl of the treacherous stage, following the likes of Marcus Gronholm, Carlos Sainz and Pentti Airikkala as retirements from the event.

There was one stage left - eight miles between us and an historic finish for the Mini and ourselves. The spectators and marshals had been giving us tremendous support throughout the event, but all reports surpassing the welcome given to McRae and Solberg as all fans joined together to spur us on. We kept "touching Mini" - far better luck than touching wood, trying to put thoughts of the finish out of our minds. All too soon we were sat with the lights counting down to the stage start. Eight miles. That's all it was. Eight miles.

Vroooom!

5...4...3...2...1...GO! Powering into the stage with the finish in mind.. Having to swerve around the large rocks and gravel surf over ruts big enough for us to get lost in for a week. No heroics on this stage - we just had to finish.. Imagine our surprise when along a particularly slippery, bumpy stage Mildred took a leap toward the countryside. Not any bit of countryside of course, but sideways into one that had been previously occupied by a huge log. Thankfully at the last split second we arrived back on track. Finally arriving in the final section was amazing - with wide open space with a huge number of spectators Mildred could not help herself but to show off! Hopping over jumps and charging through the water splash we flew through the finish gates and coasted to the finish.

Instantly chaos reigned! We were faced with a cheering crowd and were being asked to do a lap of honour around the lawn, previously only completed by newly crowned World Champion and rally winner Petter Solberg. After a radio interview and photos with some of our crew we were soon in convoy back to the finish ramp in Cardiff. The phone went red hot as we started to spread our news - we had finished!! We had a top 40 finish in a round of the World Rally Championship and also won our class!! Not a bad way to finish our first WRC event and certainly a finish worthy of the Minis competition history.

At this point I don't think it had really hit home that we had actually completed the event. It had been so long in coming that no matter how many times we told each other it was taking a while to sink in. This was before the finish ramp.. The path to the ramp was packed with applauding spectators. As we drove up the ramp to the tones of "The Self Preservation Society" confetti bombs and fireworks went off and we were joined by the majority of the crew. Petter who? We had won!! A golden chance to go loopy with a bottle of champers topped it off. The only other people to get such a send off were Petter Solberg, his co-driver Phil Mills and the Subaru World Rally team. There we were, Mildred, Jim, myself and the CBM Motorsport crew!

That night was a long, very well deserved party for all concerned. Not before the icing on the cake - congratulations from Subaru's Sporting Director and erstwhile Mini rallyer George Donaldson on having such a professional outfit - a reflection on all involved.

 

 

 

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