The Winter Challenge 2014 started from Race Retro in Coventry and over five days, travelled through France to arrive at Monte Carlo. I was in car number 7, a HERO Arrive and Drive TR4, with Patrick Burke.
On Saturday 22rd February, we made sure the car was scrutineered and our trip was accurately set for the measure distance, all ready for the start of the rally on Sunday. I was a little apprehensive as this was my first competitive event without my sister and I was worried I wouldn’t know what to do, as we work together as a team on the timing and speed. However, I didn’t have much time to procrastinate as I had maps to plot and regularities to understand.
Before we knew it, Sunday morning had arrived and I spent ages sorting out my side of the car, checking I had pens and pencils accessible and my maps were easily found. I have always struggled with timing on these events, but thanks to Brantz, my trouble would soon be over. The Brantz rally timer displays rally time and a stopwatch and are fitted in front of the navigator. Not only is it easier as it frees your hands from holding stopwatches; its display is LED meaning you can keep a record of time, even at night. I can honestly say we would never have finished in the top ten if it weren’t for the timer.
Day 1 Race Retro - Portsmouth
It was time to be waved off the start line to commence The Winter Challenge 2014.
Kicking of the start, we headed over to the National B circuit at Race Retro, to do a lap as our first test. It was a huge thrill throwing the car into the corners and I felt a bit like a professional team with Kev Haworth making announcements across the audience. Straight after this exhilarating start we made our way south to Portsmouth via Fosse Way. This is one of my favourite roads, as it is a roman road, which goes on for mile after mile making it a great road to drive. However, we soon turned off to start our first regularity of the event, Pillerton Prior.
One thing we noticed was that due to the torrential rain a few roads were flooded but still passable. This meant that we had to wade though sections of water and I started to think maybe we should have been in a boat instead. However, it didn’t change our spirits as we headed to coffee. It was noticeable that our coffee stop in Newbridge at the Rose Revived Pub, had been affected by the floods, and the River Thames next to us was on the brink of bursting its banks once again, luckily the rain had subsided for a few days meaning, we could all enjoy the views and a fresh cup of coffee.
The final regularity of the day brought high spirits to the car of number 7 as we only picked up a few seconds penalty, cheering me up and proving to myself that I can actually navigate. Taking us into dinner (on time) we enjoyed our final British meal before heading to the ship in Portsmouth to take us to France by morning. Although, as we had to wait for the ship to load, Patrick and I found ourselves amusing each other by practicing our accents for the next day. I don’t think I am quite a native Italian yet!
Day 2 Caen - Bourges
As the angelic harp music began to play, I realised that I was no longer in a dream and had to wake up at 5 to begin the French section of the Winter Challenge. After spending a few hours the night before comparing maps, we all had minimal sleep. However, the thought of a fresh continental breakfast at Bénoville was a motivational step for my sleepy mind.
It was then time to restart the rally with a series of short regularities. I thought they would break us in gently, but I was wrong. The navigation off the Michelin 50,000 maps was extremely difficult; meaning cars were driving everywhere to find the correct route. This did mean that you could determine the accuracy and concentration of the navigators. This wasn’t the only difficultly, when navigating with someone new, you must discuss how you wish things to be called. I didn’t realise that left and right changed depending on what mood the driver was in. This proved rather difficult when navigating, but we soon came up with hand gestures to decipher the correct direction.
The tests were definitely a highlight as we were able to test the cars limits by going around two different Kart circuits. We were pretty quick on the first test in Aunay Le Bois at Ouest Karting by only taking 42 seconds to go round. There was a fantastic atmosphere at both test venues especially at Circuits de Val de la Loire. This was because the sun was shining and as coffee looked over the circuit, we were all able to watch each other drive the lap.
Lunch at Rest L’Arbors was an inspiring one as it was situated on the Mulsanne straight. As the sun was beating down, we were all able to enjoy this historic spot and also grab some time to do some plotting on the roof of the cars.
It was soon time to make our way through the Loire valley with a selection of regularities. As this part of France is relatively flat, the navigator had most the work, analysing the roads and making sure we went the right way (difficult when your map doesn’t show every road). I was relieved when I found out that I wasn’t the only one having difficulties with navigation, little did I know, this was the easy bit.
Day two came to an early finish (compared to the following two nights). Even though it was only 7pm, we were all looking forward to our beds. However, not all of us had an early finish. Car 16, managed to get a puncture on the final road section on the motorway to the hotel and ended up being over an hour late, not only racking up penalties but also meaning a late night for them too. At this point, we were running 9th overall and I was so happy as I felt we had dropped time and were running behind. Luckily, so had everyone else, meaning we were in the top 10!
Day 3 Bourges – Valence
Before the sun rose over the hills, we were up and raring to go. The lack of sleep was starting to get to me, but I had to make sure I stayed on top form, which can prove difficult when reading a map in a car for 14 hours a day. However, I didn’t want to let anyone down, as we were doing so well. Thirty minutes before our check out time, we were given the route for the day, and I sat down and started plotting. It is so exhilarating, knowing you have only half an hour to plot but unnerving if you don’t plot it all or don’t understand it.
As there were no more tests on the Winter Challenge, the majority of the work lay on the navigator to decode the map and direct the driver in the right direction. Not only this but, I had to make sure we were on time, one thing I have always struggled to do as a navigator. Little did I know that this rally would teach me how to master timing and to understand how or why we were early or late. This was an asset to my skills but was only relevant when we were on the right road. Let’s just say it was extremely easy to get lost, but that was the challenge.
Not only did you have to follow the maps, you needed to make sure the route was on there. Sometimes we were given handouts in the morning containing the regularity route, meaning you had to remember to transfer across to that sheet. Not only this, but you need to make sure you acknowledged the regularity start and read the information as they were not always where you presumed they would be.
Most of the day’s regularities were sneaky and needing expert concentration. The fourth regularity through Vernusse took us through farms and woods to find hidden timing points. Although they were fun to do, I was relieved when they were over and that we had gone the right way. The hardest part for me, after overcoming the complexity of the maps, was dealing with the speed changes. On regularity six through Pouzol, we had to change our speed half way through. This completely confused me and we ended up making a wrong turn and picking up a minute penalty. I was not amused, but you must make mistakes to improve.
Just before dinner and as we started to head up some mountains, we had a short but complicated regularity. Membrun, Reg eight, consisted of three speed changes, fading light and intercut navigation and boy was it hard. Trying to work out our speed and at what time we would make each speed change, I was able to calculate the correct time to change speed, (finally sounding like I know what I am doing) however remembering to start the stopwatch at the right time proved to be harder than it seemed.
The night section through Lalousvesc, shuffled the competition around, as it was extremely tough. Not only was it dark, but also we were tired and loosing motivation. Keeping the driver motivated it one of the hardest things I have had to do as you are concentrating so hard yourself to make sure you are going the right way. Then the fog set in! We couldn’t even see the white lines on the road in front of us and when you make a wrong slot, you have no hope, because turning around in the dark is terrifying as you can’t see behind you. However, seeing a marshal standing down a tiny road just after a hairpin to go over a bridge makes you the happiest navigator in the world. You know you are on the right track.
Amazingly we hit every checkpoint, admittedly after getting extremely lost and managing to navigate us out of many situations to get us on the right road again. (Don’t tell my driver). Somehow we ended up being 6th overall. Ecstatic, I made my way to bed; motivated for the rest of the rally, as I had proved to myself I could get through anything.
Day 4 Valence – St Raphael
A new day brought more challenges and as it is called the Winter Challenge, we had to find the snow! We didn’t just find snow, oh no, as we headed up into the Cols, the snow became deeper and deeper. So deep in fact, that some regularities were canceled because the roads were impassable. This was a real challenge for drivers and I completely respect them for not only driving in such tough conditions but also not taking it out on the navigators. The most difficult part for the navigators was over; it was now the driver’s turn.
Hairpins in snow are not easy, every driver felt the back end go at some point, even changing gear was a challenge and for us, and as we headed down to coffee at Vassieux-en-Vercors, a little slip and we spun into the snow bank. Luckily there was a just a field the other side. We tried everything we could to get ourselves out, but we were wedged and facing up hill making it nearly impossible to push ourselves out. We thought that maybe putting the snow chains on would help the situation but this ended up with Patrick covered in mud. As luck would have it, we were only 2km from the coffee break so we were able to call on assistance to pull us out. The mechanics saved the day, towing us out and by chance my sister, Seren was helping the assistance crew, so it was a nice opportunity to say hi before whizzing off to catch up time.
This meant we had picked up penalties, but this was the last of our troubles, as about an hour later our clutch failed as we began the fifth regularity of the day through Saint Benoit en Diois. Despite all this, we managed to only get a 1o second penalty. We spent the rest of the morning going up and down the Cols, pumping the clutch to find the bite to change gear. Difficult enough on its own, but with snow, ice, hairpins and tiredness setting in, we had to stay focused. I cannot believe the control Patrick had of the car on the snow and with no clutch. Even though he is not a fan of icy conditions, he made it look so easy and was able to correct a slight slide just like any professional rally driver. One day I hope to be as skilled, so I can share my knowledge with others.
At lunch, in Le Motte Chalancon, Dave and his mechanical crew managed to fix our clutch and we were on our way to St Raphael. Adrenaline was running high at this point as we didn’t know how much more snow there would be, but we did know that there was going to be a lot more hairpins and a lot more steep mountains.
We seemed to be on top form, by only picking up minimal seconds. Over the four regularities through Col de la Pigière and L’Asse we only picked up 27 seconds and even cleared L’Asse regularity. It was a fantastic afternoon, however as night set in once more, we had the challenge of tackling darkness making the evening a completely different story. We made a wrong slot on the final regularity through Claviers, meaning we ended up being on our minute putting us down to 9th.
Day 5 St Raphael – Monte Carlo
The final stretch of the Winter Challenge took us up the Cols to the finish at the famous Col de Turini. With only seven regularities, we were able to enjoy to stunning roads, views and company. Even the sun had come out to give us extra spirit on the final day.
The morning section was superb with only a few seconds collected on Tanneron and Logis Neuf. We zeroed a few timing points, and hurled round corners on mountain paths to tiny villages located on the top with spectacular views keeping us in high spirits and urging us on to the finish. We even began to sing in the car!
My favourite regularity of the event was Aiglun. It was located on a narrow, twisty road on the side of a mountain, which dodged in and out of the side through tight tunnels. It was exhilarating to drive through, but difficult to keep up speed. This was no match for Patrick though, as we cleared the regularity and were able to enjoy a quick coffee in the village at the top, looking over at the top crews completing the regularity.
The last regularity up the Col de Turini was upon us, with 4 timing points, it would be difficult to stay on time. As we surged up the twisty road, we became submerged in snow, portraying just how high we had climbed. The higher we climbed, the harder the reg, however we managed to make it to the end of the regularity with only 34 seconds! Not only this, we had made it to the finish of The Winter Challenge 2014.
As we arrived across the finish line, there was a joyful crowd of supporters who had gathered to congratulate all those who had made it, and it made you realise just how challenging this rally had been. It was a thrilling rally, with many challenges that you never could have imagined.
Although it wasn’t over yet!
We had all made it to the top of the Col de Turini, but what goes up, must come down. As we had to get the cars onto a transporter in Monte Carlo, we decided the best decision was to convoy back down the side of the mountain. It was spectacular. Five cars weaving their way down the side on the mountain, hairpin after hairpin until will entered Monte Carlo.
As Monte Carlo is quite intricate with roads slipping into mountains, it would have been almost impossible to navigate off a map, so we moved onto our first tulips of the event. It was strange as I found it a different way of thinking from maps, and I had to quickly adjust to being told the information.
As we made our way onto the Motorway, it was a chance to pick up some speed; however, Car 1 quickly put their hazards on and pulled over to the hard shoulder with car troubles. Luckily for them, the rally had finished, but it ended up just being out a fuel, so no major mechanics were required, just a leisurely tow down into the city of Monte Carlo. The issue with classic cars is the fact that they are so unpredictable, but that is what makes the sport so different and competitive. Not only is it the skill of the crew, but also the endurance of the car. Every car breaks down at some point.
Eventually we dropped the car off and caught a local bus down the road to the Hermitage Hotel. We arrived with just enough time to have a quick tour of Monte Carlo and the Formula1 track before changing into our black tie attire for our dinner at the Café du Paris. With views of Monte Carlo and a well deserved drink in hand, it was a picturesque way of finishing of a tough, yet exhilarating rally.
Patrick and I won two awards; best mixed crew and 3rd in class, ending up 10th overall. It was a fantastic experience and I have learnt so much about navigating and even driving in such extreme conditions. I just hope I can put everything I have learnt into practice.
Thank you to all the marshals and organisers for putting up with the elements at its worst and to all the navigators who answered my silly questions when I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be doing. As well as my sister for motivating me this far and for not giving up on my navigational abilities. Not forgetting Brantz for the amazing rally timer that assisted me with my superb result and of course the mechanics for keeping everyone on the road as best they could. None of this would have been possible without any of you. Last but not least thank you to Patrick for putting up with me for five days straight, there is a competitor in him yet!