The Honda Civic: a rally good opportunity

You generally don’t have a lot of choice if you want to go two-wheel drive rallying on a budget in Scotland. Apart from the 205 Challenge cars or a cheap Corsa or an even nastier Mark 2 Escort, there just hasn’t been a precedent for using anything else in recent times. I did a quick calculation based on the entry lists for last year’s Scottish championship rounds, and worked out that a staggering 66% of the field was made up of just four models of car – Subaru Impreza, Mitsubishi Lancer, Peugeot 205 GTi and Ford Escort. Add the Vauxhall Corsa/Nova and the Fiesta ST into the mix and that figure jumps to over 70%. In other words, when you come out of whatever vehicle you started rallying in and want to move up to something else, there hasn’t been any real viable option other than to shell out for something costing well into five figures.

It’s for this reason that the events of the Border Counties Rally could have triggered something of a mini-revolution, for at the head of the front-wheel drive field were six shiny new Honda Civic rally cars. Yes, that’s right, six of them, three times the number of M-Sport Fiestas out on the same event. How did this happen? Well, after much head searching, hand scratching and soul wringing, the organisers of the Brick and Steel Challenge decided to take the plunge and launch a new one-make series for the Civic to run parallel to the very popular 205 championship. It was a massive step into the unknown, but one that seems to have paid off.

Civic Challenge Cars line up for the start of the Border Counties

When the Civics rolled away from the ceremonial start in front of Jedburgh Abbey, nobody knew what to expect. A few oddballs here and there notwithstanding, nobody had really had a good go at rallying the Civic on gravel in Scotland, at least not in controlled specification anyway. Would the VTEC be able to deal with a loose surface? Could the young drivers, many of them fresh out of Peugeot 205s, get to grips with the increased weight and electronic sophistication? And would the untested new Challenge cars get through the first stage without conking out?

I was in the Challenge’s mobile base (i.e. Mercedes Sprinter) as we sipped our coffee anxiously and waited for the times for the first stage to come through on Deputy Co-Ordinator Stephen Smellie’s iPhone. As we talked about the drivers of the Civics and their various skills and experiences, I could sense there was a big elephant in the back of the van that everyone was skirting round. Nobody said as much, however the thing I could tell we were all worrying about – but that nobody dared say – was that the much cheaper, older and less powerful 205 cars would still be quicker than the Civics. After all our hard work in plugging the Honda and convicing at least eight brave souls to give it a go, if the new cars got mashed by the Pugs in Kielder no amount of excuses or bull would disguise the fact we’d made a mistake.

Our doubts were blown out the water in a swift five seconds. The time for Carl and Rob Tuer, a quick and experienced crew in an equally rapid (but expensive) MG ZR S1600, came through at exactly the same moment as the time for Euan Duncan and Peter MacInnes. A small cheer went up as we learned the Civic had gone faster than the MG, and to prove it was no fluke, it transpired in fairly short order that Euan and Peter had also beaten Alasdair Graham’s trick Corsa and Stewart Davidson’s Proton kit car. We’d come up with a specification and formula that enabled a good driver in a ten grand car to beat competent crews in vehicles worth two, or three times as much.

Grant Inglis and Billy Davidson's machines receiving mid-rally fettling

I reckon the six Civic competitors who headed out into Kielder can be divided into three categories: those who were glad of some competition, those who were pleased to reach the finish of a rally, and those who were just happy to be out rallying full stop. In the first category are Euan Duncan and Ruary MacLeod. Euan Duncan set the 205 Ecosse Challenge alight back in 2008, finishing third overall in his first ever season of rallying and winning two championship rounds. It was clear he was some driver, and for 2009 he opted to stick with the 205 but move up to the 1.9 class. He spent the entire year in something of a no-man’s land with only the occasional Jonny Smith to compare himself to, and as fearsome a competitor as Euan is, his motivation and times seemed to dip by dint of having nobody he could realistically compare himself to. Ruary MacLeod, meanwhile, spent the 2009 season floating around in a left-hand drive Honda Civic, and with no comparable machinery to go up against could usually be found in the botton third of the results sheet or on the retirements list. After only three stages I could sense the difference in Euan’s demeanour.

Before he’d even parked at service, I heard the red Civic parping its horn furiously as it tried to get past another crew’s management car that had stopped and blocked the access road to service. There was nothing majorly wrong with the car, just the resurgence of a sense of urgency and drive that only having serious competition in comparable machinery can bring out. The competitive spirit continued as Euan flung open the Honda’s door and made a beeline for the results sheet. How was Graeme Schoneville doing? Did our heating problem cost us too much time? How hard do we need to push on the last two? The Euan Duncan I’d seen driving a wrecked 205 through the Grampian woods to third in category on the Granite on only his fourth ever rally had returned.

Ruary MacLeod too was relishing a bit of competition. Class 4 in Scotland is a bit of a weird one, in that the quickest cars usually cost as much as a good Group N car to buy if not to run. It’s the preserve of Super 1600s and pimped up Corsas, so it’s easy to imagine how you could lose motivation if you’re struggling to come fifth in class against many more expensive cars. With rivals in the same kind of car to fight against, though, Ruary was really going for it. He’d made it up to third Civic Challenge car on his own merit, and took the decision to really go for it on the last stage and see how quick he could be. It ended badly as he slid irretrivably into one of the notorious Kielder ditches, but what is impressive is that the level of competition had given the son of Scottish rally stalwart Calum MacLeod the motivation to pull out all the stops and launch a bid for glory.

In the second category lie Graeme Schoneville and Ross Hunter. Graeme and Ross both spent more time propping OK boards up against their back windscreens than they did driving in 2009, very rarely through fault of their own. Okay, Graeme did have a fight with a small tree on the Granite and Ross had a huge accident on Mull, but for the most part these two young gents fell foul of reliability gremlins affecting their Peugeot 205 and Mitsubishi Lancer respectively. It should therefore not come as too much of a surprise to learn that both Schoneville and Hunter were chuffed to bits to still have working, driveable cars by 4pm on rally day.

Using the car on gravel for the first time, Graeme was still learning about the ups and downs (boom boom) of Proflex, and admitted his speed suffered accordingly. What mattered most, though, was that Graeme had reached the finish of a rally two events in succession, something that happened very rarely last year. New co-driver Phil Coulby admitted he would have been happy with a top three the week before the rally, and with the reliability back in the Andrew Wood Motorsport-run car, it won’t be too long before we see the Schoneville name back at the top of the timesheets.

It’s maybe a wee bit of a fib to say Ross Hunter finished the rally, because he did end up OTL after becoming a semi-permanent feature of the north east England forest landscape. A rear caliper on the Civic sheared off, sending Ross and co-driver Eildon Hall lurching into a Honda-sized gap between two log piles. It took the combined effort of Eildon, Ross, some loose logs and four spectators to get the blue and white motor back on track, by which time the maximum lateness had elapsed. Nonetheless, the St Boswells Mowers machine did make it to the finish, giving Hunter and Hall a moral finish at the very least. Just as importantly, Ross was chuffed with the pace and driveability of the car, and showed a great turn of speed despite spending most of the last three years competing on a sealed surface.

In the last of my categories are Grant Inglis and Billy Davidson. Grant Inglis is one of the most enthusiastic and approachable guys I’ve had the pleasure to meet in rallying circles, and one of my lasting memories is seeing how chuffed he was to win Class 6 on the Border Counties in his yellow Escort back in 2007. Given his speed in the Escort and ability to run the likes of Calum MacKenzie and Malcolm Buchanan close on a good day, I was simultaneously surprised and excited to see Grant had signed up for the Civic Challenge. He was, after all, going to be in a car with the wheels being driven at the correct end (I’m young enough that the front wheels are the wheels that I think a car’s supposed to be driven with) – and he didn’t disappoint. Despite taking some time to adjust to the rigours of Civic driving – Grant admitted he’d set the car up for a hairpin in the way he would an Escort and had gone ploughing on in the directon of the boondash as a result – Inglis and co-driver Robert Gray worked their way up to third by the end of the event. There’s still an Escort in the garage and final judgment is being reserved for now, but Grant reckons some of his initial scepticism towards the Civic Challenge has been blown away. Let’s hope he stays with us, because if his Escort results are anything to go by, when Grant Inglis gets up to speed he will be a two-wheel drive force to be reckoned with.

Billy Davidson was equally pleased to be behind the wheel of a rally car and out enjoying himself with co-driver Martin McCabe. Even the terrifying thought of having to drive a 160bhp car at speed just inches from sturdy trees with no brakes wasn’t able to dampen Billy’s enthusiasm. “Let’s just say if it was your road car you wouldn’t drive it,” he told me whilst sporting a massive grin. “I’m having to call the big bends well in advance,” added Martin. “You wouldn’t be wanting to do an emergency stop, that’s for sure!” The previous night, Billy and Martin had been zipping in and out of the pub in Melrose as they tried to at least get the anchors into a usable condition, and declared themselves satisfied with their work once they’d demonstrated their ability to perform a semi-emergency stop outside the Burt Hotel. The last-minute repair job was at least good enough to see them through the first loop of stages, but their preoccupation with braking issues had seemingly taken attention away from another equally important area of the car. There’s no way of putting this gently, so I’ll just say it as it happened, leave it at that and move on. They ran out of petrol.

Euan Duncan and Peter MacInnes celebrate a good day in the Civic

All in all, then, a good weekend for the Honda Civic Challenge cars. Three finished, and of the three that didn’t, two and a half of those were due to human error rather than mechanical failure. Euan Duncan ran cars worth two or three times as much as his close on several occasions, and believes there’s more pace to come out of the Honda as he gets used to it. Graeme Schoneville too thinks he can go faster, and all of the other Civic drivers have the potential to take Challenge wins as they get used to the cars. One of the biggest problems with using a car that isn’t already established in rallying circles is the lack of knowledge about parts and setup that is often needed to turn an ordinary road-going vehicle into a class-winner. Whilst I’d be lying if I said that the competitors and us as organisers hadn’t faced these issues over the winter, what is good is that we’ve all been learning together and nobody’s been left trailing in the dust as the result of taking a different approach to building and preparation to someone else. Above all, though, we’ve seen that in spite of all the uncertainty and inexperience around the Civic, we have a very strong and competitive foundation upon which to build our new championship.

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