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