Key to the success of any skilled young driver is the person in the passenger seat. If you look at any of the world’s top rally drivers, nearly all of them have stuck with the same co-driver year on year – Gigi Galli excluded. Just as Scotland is something of a hotbed for young rallying competitors at the moment, so a significant number of excellent navigators are coming out of the northern part of Britain. And as you might expect, the Brick and Steel Ecosse Challenge is riding right on the crest of this wave of talent.
It goes without saying that the perfect model for any aspiring Scottish co-driver is Kirsty Riddick. She already has a Scottish championship title to her name, and is out competing virtually every weekend – most notably with former national gravel champion Paul Bird in the Ford Focus WRC. What you might not know, though, is that there’s another very exciting junior female co-driver in Galloway, and she nearly, very nearly, has the same name. Kirstie Marshall started rallying a matter of months after her sixteenth birthday, and is now in her second season on the stages. Under the guidance of her near-namesake, Kirstie (with an ‘ie’ at the end) has developed into one of the best co-drivers in the Challenge – and is known widely in Scottish rally circles as ‘Kirsty Riddick’s Protégé!’ In fact, so impressed were the Border Rally Sport team that they have recruited the young Marshall to partner Duns teenager and 205 Challenge title hopeful Garry Pearson on the stages this year. Despite a challenging day on the Border Counties Rally last month, Garry and Kirstie hit it off and are looking forward to contesting the rest of the season together. (It’s also worth mentioning that Kirstie is a very talented young journalist, so her name could be appearing at the start of rally reports as well as in the results in years to come!)
The funny thing about co-drivers, I’ve noticed, is that the really good ones just have an air of competence about them. Even if they’ve never sat in a car before, there’s something about some folk that gives the impression that they’re switched on and are going to do a great job. Craig Chapman was one of those people. I first met Craig at the 205 Ecosse Challenge’s 2008 shakedown at Knockhill, and even though he hadn’t set foot in the car with his then-driver Euan Duncan, I could sense Craig understood the demands of the task ahead. Whilst the other cars attending the test day were either on their trailers or parked outside the rally lodge, Craig had already got Euan to park the car down at the arrival control for the mock rally stage, and was sitting down reading through the championship regulations and schedule for the day whilst he waited for the briefing to start.
A year and a half later, Craig was celebrating success in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge after guiding Colin Smith to second IRC 2WD spot in the Rally of Scotland. The result was in no small part down to Chapman’s efforts in organising Colin and the Honda Civic Type-R’s crew. Various people had told me in the weeks leading up to the rally that the IRC was going to be nothing like anything Craig had experienced before, but the finance adviser from Westhill took the whole thing in his stride, reading every piece of paper that came his way and asking the right people when he wasn’t sure. The reward for his efforts was not only a good result on the Rally of Scotland, but also a four-event international programme alongside Colin in a Honda for this season.
Stuart Loudon is another who is going places after cutting his teeth in a 205. Stuart shot to prominence by virtue of turning up at every rally with a massive stash of Tunnock’s produce, but proved there was more to him than chocolate, biscuit and marshmallow when he helped Graeme Schoneville’s stage times to tumble during a difficult 2009 season. For 2010, 205 Challenge champion and Ford Fiesta R2 pilot John MacCrone has recruited Loudon to support his British Rally Championship campaign. But that doesn’t mean Stuart has permanently disappeared overseas, because he’s keeping himself busy this year by co-driving for Jordan Black in the rebuilt 205 Challenge Car. In a game of musical chairs fit to rival Formula 1’s close season, Jordan’s former co-driver Stephen Williamson has teamed up with Jamie Watson for this year, whilst Peter MacInnes has joined forces with Banchory Civic driver Euan Duncan after Peter’s previous driver decided to hang up his helmet temporarily. Both Stephen and Peter had a good first day at the office, helping their respective drivers to podiums on the Border Counties.
It’s not only young co-drivers who are doing great things in the Challenge, though. Steven Smith has developed no end in recent times, and a very large part of that is down to the man in the left-hand seat – Russell Fair. A very experienced navigator and no mean Westfield racer in his own right, Russell has brought bags of experience to Steven’s car. Even out of the car, Russell adds value to the Smith team, helping to build morale and keeping everyone in good cheer – the car turned up at the Border Counties with ‘P Ranger’ on the rear passenger side window in place of the co-driver’s name, a nod to Russell’s race suit that apparently made him look like a Power Ranger. Likewise, the mature, calming influence of Iain Robson paid dividends on the Border Counties Rally as son Sean took his maiden 205 win with his dad alongside him on the notes.
Former Challenge champion navigator Ewan Leeming has returned to the 205 fold with Graeme Sherry for 2010. We haven’t seen a lot of Ewan on the stages in the last few years as he’s been concentrating on training to become a maths teacher, but he’s back on the notes for this year and sitting with one of the most driven and competitive guys in the Peugeot field (and yes, he did become a maths teacher, and a damn fine one at that). Speaking of former champions, Eildon Hall is also back this year, keeping Ross Hunter on the straight and narrow in the Civic, and Tom Hynd – who played a massive part in the formative years of Scottish rallying shooting star Alick Kerr – has now got his teeth into helping young Neilston driver David Brown make the difficult transition from asphalt circuit racing to tarmac stage rallying.
Elsewhere, the Civic and 205 Challenges have had a notable part to play in helping to solve one of the biggest difficulties for any aspiring co-drivers, either young or old – finding a regular sheet. Phil Coulby and Gary White are two fine examples of competitors who popped up sporadically on entry lists in recent years, but are now out rallying and honing their skills with Graeme Schoneville and Sarah Hunter respectively. Paul Cummins too is installed alongside Alex Pirie after spending much of the close season hunting for a ‘seat’, and Robert Gray looks set to contest the full championship with Grant Inglis in the Civic. One-time 205 driver Jane Nicol looks set to come back to the fold later in the season with Lauder farrier Nick Thorne.
Both Alison Crozier and Martin McCabe have come into rallying through pre-existing associations with drivers. Alison was pulled in at very short notice to sit with her half-cousin Dave Crozier on the Scottish Rally, and less than 24 hours later was celebrating Dave’s first ever finish in the 205 Ecosse Challenge. Martin McCabe too was drafted in to help out his pal Billy Davidson in the Honda Civic, and despite getting stuck behind an on-fire car and crashing into a Subaru Impreza within two months of starting to compete, he hasn’t been scared off yet and his enthusiasm remains infectious.
One of the things I really like about the Brick and Steel Challenges is that we take our co-drivers seriously. Since the series’ inception, we’ve tried to make a point of always interviewing the driver and co-driver together, and as far as possible we make sure the two crew members’ names appear alongside one another in our reports and publicity. Sadly it doesn’t always work that way elsewhere – I still think the Scottish Championship could figure out a junior co-drivers’ championship (but I do appreciate the difficulties in doing so), and the WRC needs to go back to the days of having both the crew members’ names on the rear side windows of the cars. With tight controls on car specification, what our championship perhaps can help to do is show much more clearly the difference a good co-driver can make to a driver’s stage times in comparison to his or her rivals. In a motorsport world where the guy holding the steering wheel is increasingly the one claiming all the glory, it takes a brave soul to decide to be a co-driver. We should be giving them all the support we can.