When I was a kid growing up on the Black Isle, every year I used to go out into the front garden and watch the cars on the Snowman Rally heading to the next stage. One of the road sections ran right past our house, so the cars would rumble past each February on their way either to or from the Millbuie stage. At its closest point, Millbuie is only three miles from my parents’ house, and yet this year’s Snowman Rally was only the second time I’d gone there to spectate.
The thing that amazes me about the Black Isle stage on the Snowman is the range of different ways people get to the forest. As well as the usual tactic of parking at the side of the road and walking in, we also see knackered old four-wheel drives and field cars bumping their way along farm tracks, quad bikes and mini motorbikes buzzing around, and swarms of locals mysteriously emerging out of the deep forest after seemingly walking for miles to get there. A number of the spectators sport grimy high-visibility jackets, many of which feature the logos of construction companies or fluorescent white strips. And although it’s only ten o’clock in the morning, more than one bottle of beer is being chugged back.
The weather makes the stage itself interesting. At the junction I arrive at – the one closest to the road running along the spine of the Black Isle – the sun is high in the sky, the clouds are all hiding and the road is brown and loose (stop sniggering). It could be any Scottish Championship round, a ninety-degree right-hander in among a clear-felled section of forest, with a ditch on the inside and a steep bank on the outside. The first few cars slide past without event and I decide to make my way up the hill to the next junction.
Three minutes of walking over a combination of ice, tree roots and low vegetation – with associated trips onto my backside – later, the road presents an entirely different story. The stage proceeds into some dense forest, and, shielded from the sunlight, the heavy snowfall of the last few weeks remains undisturbed. By the time I’ve rounded the next S-bend, I could to all intents and purposes be in Sweden. There’s a thick layer of snow, rapidly turning to ice, on the road, the ditches and banks are filled with snow, and the branches of the pine trees bend in a concave pattern under the weight of the thick white stuff covering them. Even though I haven’t seen a single car since I arrived in this section of deep snow, the tyre tracks leave me in no doubt that the change in surface is causing trouble. Alongside the shiny white and brown lines that mark out the accepted route down to the next corner, a number of tracks veer off into the scenery, including one alarming set halfway along the straight that run halfway up the bank before coming to a sudden halt with two splodges of mud.
I arrive at Junction 9 just in time to see former 205 Challenge star Scott Murray scare the life out of the crowd in his newly-acquired Lancer Evo 6. The Evo jiggles left and right as it brakes for the square right, and Scott flicks the car into the bend as soon as he’s passed the narrow gateposts situated just before the corner. The car slides forwards and sideways on the ice, practically coming to a standstill right on the apex of the corner. As the former MotoX champ plants his foot to the floor, there’s a big pop from the anti-lag and a sizeable cloud of sooty smoke blasts out, leaving the already startled species on the outside of the bend furiously trying to fan the black smoke away.
The frontrunning four-wheel drives deploy a whole range of techniques to get round the corner, ranging from steady and sensible early braking and turning under full control, through to planting the right foot to the floor and exiting in a wild spray of understeer and snow, and right through to locking up under braking and stalling mid-corner to the sarcastic cheers of the assembled Teuchter crowd. Steven Ronaldson in the ex-Jon Burn Metro makes an expensive mistake, clattering a nasty wee mound of frozen earth on the outside of the corner and damaging the front bumper, but after an extended search for reverse that would have necessitated the use of police dogs had it gone on for any longer, the 6R4 gets back on track and howls off over the hill and out of sight.
A very, very cautions Evo comes into view shortly after, and it doesn’t take long to figure out why it’s hanging around. Its engine power has quite obviously been drained by the amount of horn-honking it’s doing. At that kind of speed there’s no danger of the car running into any sort of trouble at all in the treacherous conditions – which is maybe the idea – but the Mitsubishi continues to beep-beep-beep away until every last speccie has been acknowledged.
Despite keeping the crowds entertained with their antics, the early runners are having a less welcome effect on the crews running behind them. This is perfectly illustrated by Ross Hunter and Eildon Hall in their brand spanking new Honda Civic Challenge Car. Ross holds the car perfectly level as he traverses the gate under complete control, positions the car flawlessly and drives round the bend without a hint of under- or oversteer. The exhaust note suddenly steps it up three notches as the revs rise and the VTEC works its magic – but the Civic goes nowhere. The skinny ice tyres scrabble furiously for grip on the polished road surface, which has turned from snow to ice under the weight of the preceding vehicles. The Honda engine can be heard inbtermittently screaming its lungs out long after it’s disappeared from sight, Hunter blipping the throttle in an effort to gain traction on a very unfriendly surface. Not long after, he goes off irretrievably and has to be extracted with a forklift truck.
The other Hondas meet similar fates. Colin Smith and Craig Chapman in the newer Civic are going great guns through Millbuie in spite of the lack of grip, but on a later stage Colin gets carried away on a double right-hander and puts the car – in the words of the next car behind – “well off”. Graeme Schoneville and Phil Coulby in the distinctive Jordan Civic are pushing on – the noise of the Honda powerplant makes it easy to figure out who’s really trying – but visit the scenery at least once on every stage and end up well down the order by the end. The important thing, though, is that they’re delighted with the car and are now targeting a very strong result when normal service resumes on the Border Counties.
With people in sixty grand Evos sliding into ditches, clouting banks and thwacking gateposts at our corner, it’s down to young Steven Smith in the venerable Peugeot 205 to show everyone how it’s done. Now, I know the words ‘neat’ and ‘tidy’ get bandied around far too much when driving styles are being discussed, but there really are no better words with less than twelve letters in them to describe Steven’s technique. No revving, no wheelspin, no shrieking from the excitable crowd. Just constant forward progress under the watchful eye of hugely experienced navigator Russell Fair. Over the last few years, Steven Smith has been one of the unluckiest drivers I’ve ever encountered, his rallies ending in a number of undesirable outcomes ranging from mechanical failures right through to outright sabotage, but with a class win under his belt and a superb start to the season, the signs are that 2010 is going to be Steven’s year in the 205.
One of the things I love most about the Snowman is the variety of vehicles you get to see. There are a lot of cars that seem to get hauled out of the garage every February, driven until they finish, crash or break (whichever happens first), and then shoved back in the workshop until the next Snowman comes around. In fact, I once managed to convince a friend that they still made Ford Sierras in Dingwall, because the Snowman is the only place you ever see more than one road-legal (or thereabouts) Sierra within a three-month period. The locals cheer energetically as a battered rusty-orange Capri comes through the gateposts on full lock, lunges for the inside of the corner and spins clockwise through about four hundred degrees. The Capri nearly spins round again as the driver gives it full welly on the combination of ice, gravel and mud, and is last seen jerking from side to side as it disappears out of sight at a considerable rate of knots. A brave or daft – you decide – soul braves the conditions in a first-generation Toyota MR2 decked out in works Castrol colours*, and a red and blue Land Rover Defender towers imperiously over the slush. You just don’t get these kinds of cars out in the woods anywhere other than the far north of Scotland, and it’s one of the things that makes the Snowman so unique.
Having one bad eye and one good eye, I often struggle with judging depths, angles and distances, but thankfully one of the last runners is on hand to help me get a measure of the width of the gate at the entrance to the corner. It’s the same width as the length of a Talbot Sunbeam, plus two centimeters. A, to put it politely, well-used Sunbeam comes through the gate facing the complete opposite direction to the one it wants to go in, its front wheels at right-angles to the edge of the road. Miraculously the driver catches it and makes the corner without hitting or breaking anything, leaving me delighted with the knowledge that I can now make my rally write-up that little bit more accurate.
The Snowman Rally is a big part of life in Inverness and the surrounding area. All the boys in my mum’s primary school class wrote about it in their stories on Monday morning, and the electrician rewiring my folks’ kitchen started at the crack of dawn on Saturday so that he could get away to catch one of the early afternoon stages. Nearly everyone knows someone, or knows someone that knows someone, that is involved, and the local radio and papers give it a fantastic amount of press coverage. You can try all you want to make people interested in rallying by shipping in superstars and high-level championships, but if you really want to get folk out in the woods and talking about rallying then it’s crucial to have a strong local presence in the entry list. The sooner we allow for this in our top-flight series the better.
*this made me laugh at the time, but it turns out Toyota did build a Group B MR2 concept in the mid-eighties