The Rally of Scotland Whopper

It’s a real shame only 24 cars entered, because like last year the 2010 Rally of Scotland was just fantastic. Stunning scenery, cracking stages, competitors from every corner of the globe and a massive TV crew broadcasting the event to the world over. I hadn’t planned to be there, but having been called in at the last minute to be a Competitor Relations Officer I’m glad to say I was part of it.

My weekend started at 4.40am on the Friday, when the alarm went off and I headed for the shower before catching the first train to Perth. Fellow CRO George Donaldson picked me up from the station and we made our way out to rally headquarters at Perth Airport, where I had a second breakfast of coffee and croissants and was issued with the varicose vein-blue tabard I was to wear while on duty for the next few days.

Although the event was promoted by the Motor Sports Association and was considerably more commercial than the kind of events I’m used to, I was reassured to see lots and lots of friendly faces in Rally HQ. The first heads that popped up when I wandered into the breakfast room were my Scottish Rally colleagues Garry Headridge and Craig Webster, on radio communications duty for the weekend, and a few minutes later a blazered-up Jonathan Lord strolled in to avail himself of a cup of tea before commencing stewarding duties. Over in Rally Control, the whole operation was being overseen by fellow Highlanders Iain Campbell and Andy Jardine. Had it not been for the Peugeot and Skoda works trucks in the service park, this could have passed for any Scottish Championship rally.

The media centre, however, was a wee bit different. The rally wasn’t due to start until the evening, but already various media folks were sitting swilling coffee whilst tapping away on laptops, representing media outlets as diverse as Motorsport News, Autosport, the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, World Rally Radio and even Peugeot Sport Turkey. There was a real buzz to the place, aided no end by the small cluster of scribes periodically found standing round the front door puffing on a crafty cigarette. The printers and photocopiers were clattering away almost as fast as the keys on the keyboards were being tapped, and all the while a projector beamed results and Eurosport highlights onto a big screen at the front of the room.

I’d never been a Competitor Relations Officer for any kind of rally, let alone an international one, so to say I was nervous would be a massive understatement. Thankfully George went through the basics with me, and we worked out the schedule of who was going to be where for the next few days. No sooner had we finished than a mild-mannered Ulsterman came over to our table, said hello to my fellow CRO before turning immediately to me and introducing himself with a firm handshake. “Hi there, Niall McShea,” he announced. This was former Production World Rally Champion Niall McShea, a man awarded an MBE – the same as Lewis Hamilton – for his services to motor sport. And he was a thoroughly nice guy. A good chat with Niall and his publicist, the journalist Simon McBride, followed before I headed off to have a look round the service park.

The theme of the familiar among the exotic continued in the service park, where, just minutes after being offered a coffee in the truck of one of the teams running a Peugeot 207 S2000, I met DIGB carrying a bag of Scottish Sun t-shirts. Our former Ecosse Challenge stars Colin Smith and Craig Chapman were back out in the Honda and, as the only all-Scottish crew doing the IRC, The Sun had got right behind them to the extent that two scantily-clad Page 3 girls were dispatched to the service area to have their pictures taken next to Colin’s car. Colin and Craig were anxiously awaiting the start of their home rally, but unlike last year they at least managed to refrain from putting on their race suits before lunchtime.

The entire rally base was situated at Perth Airport, which, whilst a bit out of the way, was a perfect place for the rally headquarters to be. Personally, I would have preferred it if the rally base had been brought into the town centre like they do at Ypres in Belgium, so that the public can see what’s going on and get interested in rallying, but logistically the Airport couldn’t be beaten. The headquarters, restaurants, accommodation, service park and main time controls were all within a five-hundred metre radius, really cutting down on traveling time and making logistics much, much easier. This was confirmed when Craig Chapman came hammering past me on a quad bike as I walked down from the service park to check in to my hotel room, the official rally notice board being only a short hop from the service park.

Quads were obviously a key theme of the Smith-Chapman team, because only a few minutes later I encountered the team’s driver squealing down an access road on a half-size quad (see picture below). The top works teams all had scooters for the crews to get to and from their vehicles, and whilst Colin and Craig didn’t quite have those they certainly had the right idea. At this juncture, Monty Pearson (the dad of 205 Challenge star Garry) popped out of the scenery, confirming that although this was an international rally, we were definitely still in Scotland.

My official duties for the Friday night consisted of being at the pre-start holding control at the airport, and then hopping over to Parc Fermé where the cars would be locked away for the night after the spectator special stages down at Scone Palace (that’s a palace pronounced ‘Scoon’, not some kind of American dessert parlour to rival the Cheesecake Factory). All the crews arrived at the holding area on time, and returned later at night without any major issues to report. Shattered and needing to be on duty at 6am the next day for Parc Fermé out, I headed to my hotel room, of which I remember precious little other than that the duvet was too short, forcing me to sleep diagonally and resulting in the pointy corner of the duvet poking me squarely in the nostril at 3.27am.

Alarm, shower, breakfast, jacket on, tabard on, walk to Parc Fermé all followed in short order, and one by one the crews turned up to collect their cars. A freezing Kris Meeke was leaping up and down to keep warm, doing impressions of car starting sounds to amuse himself as he waited to be allowed in to get his Peugeot. With all the cars safely away, I headed over to refueling to make sure everything was in order before the competitors made their way out to tackle the famous forests of Perthshire. The last car (coincidentally that of Colin and Craig) fuelled up, scrutineered and away from the compound, I made my way over to the media center where I availed myself of a bacon roll and latte courtesy of Skoda UK and fired out a blog entry. After all, the complimentary hospitality was supposed to be for journalists, so I figured I should produce something meaningful to justify availing myself of it.

At this juncture, I realised it would be rude not to try out the Skoda car I’d been given the use of for the weekend. Off I went to the officials’ car park, and pressing the unlock button on the key I spied the indicators on a glacier blue Superb Estate flashing. Those were my wheels, and they were awesome. As the journalist John Fife said, calling a car a ‘Superb’ is very risky, but this car more than lived up to its name. The big diesel lump under the bonnet was stupendously powerful and torquey, and I surged out of the car park and round the airport’s roads. Given that I’m more accustomed to driving underpowered, decaying hatchbacks, I was practically hanging on for dear life as the Superb strode forwards at a confident and ever-increasing pace. I took a trip up to the service park to deliver a short message to the Proton Team Principal, and even at the sedate pace of 13mph I was bricking it, petrified I was going to prang the car or that it was going to take off on me. I held onto the steering wheel for dear life like an old granny taking a Metro to the shops, so much so that I wasn’t even able to gesture back at the Hankook truck when Andrew Wood took his cap off and pretended to bow as I passed.

The afternoon shift entailed a lovely drive up to Aberfeldy to have a presence at refueling, giving me a chance to enjoy the Skoda’s comfortable interior and tremendous cruising capabilities. The estate was a vast, vast car, easily capable of furnishing a flat in a single trip to Ikea whilst still seating five adults in comfort. It’s basically a Volkswagen Passat estate, and felt just as classy and robust as its German counterpart. The drive to Aberfeldy was completed in record but completely legal time (quiet roads and no tractors) and the refueling passed largely without incident. A co-driver asked me how much lateness was allowed, but before I’d had a chance to get the regs out of my bag and show him the text that gave the answer, he and his driver had decided they were going anyway and shot off in a cloud of dust. Last in was Keith Cronin, whose windscreen had shattered when his bonnet flew up mid-stage, but there was no sign of Colin and Craig – their gearbox had given out at the end of the previous stage and it was game over.

With it being Saturday afternoon, on the driver back to Perth I turned on the radio and indulged in my one guilty pleasure – football. Raith Rovers were playing away to Cowdenbeath, and just as I turned back into the airport John Baird hit home a late equalizer for the Rovers. By the time I’d gone into the media centre and ordered food, the game had finishes and Stephen Simmons had snatched the win for my team at the death. A brilliant cheese and bacon panini fulfilled the function of a late lunch, then it was back out to service in to make sure the crews knew where to get their next set of timecards and how to ‘do’ flexi service. Thanks to the very high quality of competing crews, though, there were no serious questions to answer and everyone zoomed off to service happy. Parc Fermé in was equally straightforward, then it was off for tea with George and his daughter. Completely shattered and with another crack-of-dawn start on the Sunday, I retired to my room at 8.30pm with a can of coke, ran a bath and then headed for bed. Living on the edge.

By now, the ‘Marimba’ tone on the iPod Touch I used as my alarm call was getting really irritating, so much so that every time I heard it being used on someone’s iPhone as a ringtone during the day I got a little bit angry. At breakfast, Norwegian shooting star Andreas Mikkelsen and his co-driver Ola Fløene were sitting at the next table over – despite piloting a split-new Ford Fiesta S2000, they were staying in the same accommodation as me, and were no slower for it. Parc Fermé out was again at 6am, with yet another familiar face as Donnie MacDonald from Culloden hopped in and fired up the opening car. A full cooked breakfast with the Donaldsons and World Rally Radio Editor Greg Strange got the morning off to a proper start, but no sooner had I popped the last chunk of black pudding in my mouth, it was time to get in the cars and head up to Aberfoyle for remote service. The Superb again excelled itself on the various motorways, A-roads and B-roads between Perth and the Trossachs, proving remarkably agile and easy to drive in spite of its size. A scary detour through Doune was the result of my misreading of the map book, but other than that the journey passed without incident. I thought I was driving like an old dear and was petrified of holding up the traffic on the twisty roads, but found myself pulling away from rally leader Juho Hänninen on a road section so realised I can’t have been going that slowly.

Meeting new people and taking on new tasks is an exciting, fun and rewarding but draining process, so I almost cried when I passed the field of llamas and turned into the service park behind the Aberfoyle Wool Centre – because the entire area was crewed by a combination of the Ecosse Challenge and Edinburgh University Motor Sport Club. Fraser Jones – sporting a fetching fuscia tabard (apparently senior officials don’t wear pink) – directed me into a parking space, then Andrew Pemberton wandered past as I exited the car. DIGB emerged from between two vans at exactly the same time Ewan Leeming, Hannah Cessford and Lucy Fryer trotted down from the regroup out control. Completing the set, Richard Welsh rounded the corner in his familiar red Yaris. This was just like a test day for the Challenge, except that the service crews were getting ready for some of the top rally cars in the world to come in. The service again ran like clockwork, and the cars refueled, re-tyred and returned to the stages without incident. That’s what happens when you have EUMSCers and 205ers on your marshal teams.

My last duty of the rally was to do the final control at Stirling Castle, where I was to hand out letters ordering the leading crews to go to scrutineering. The plan was that I would drive up to the Castle, meet a motorhome with a printer there, collect the letters and then give them out to the crews. Simple. Unfortunately, the problems started when I got to the castle where, despite the big red ‘Access All Areas’ pass fused to the Skoda’s windscreen, the over-zealous private security guy refused to let me in, instead directing me to a park-and-ride a mile and a half away. Further confusion set in upon arrival at the park-and-ride, because the motor home I was supposed to meet at the castle had also been decamped to the boondocks. Several moments of confusion followed before it became apparent that both the van and myself were in the same place, and that all I would need to do would be to hop on a shuttle bus with the letters once they were printed. Phew.

“Oi! Why the hell have they given you one of those?” came the booming voice from inside a Volvo as I went to get my things out of the Superb, at which point I realised I really was at a Scottish rally. All weekend I’d had an inkling something was fundamentally missing, but hadn’t been able to put my finger on it until now. John Fife. Yes, despite the ‘Intercontinental’ bit in the title, this was at base a Scottish event, complete with the rich tapestry of characters that make Scottish rallying great.

Following a tense wait, the letters from Rally HQ were wired through, I lept on the shuttle bus and arrived at the castle…with far too much time to spare. Rain, wind and a marching pipe band all passed before the rally cars arrived and started jousting for a chance to drive over the finish ramp, but crucially the important duties had been done. Unfortunately, the podium celebrations were kind of spoiled by the fact it was still light – rendering the lengthy fireworks display all but redundant – and by the pretty small crowd that had gathered, barely three-deep. The rally had been hard on the cars and crews, meaning that once the leaders had been siphoned off for scruntineering, only five vehicles were left to be locked away in Parc Fermé at the castle until the results were declared final. I’d be lying if I said this didn’t look a bit tragic, particularly because the times for results publication were fixed according to FIA rules, meaning three of us had to stand guard for two and a half hours before the crews were allowed back to take their rally cars away. I had to apologetically explain to Italians, Estonians, French, Irish and English that they couldn’t have their cars and did my best to direct them to Stirling’s finest eateries.

I’d swapped vehicles with the rally’s Press Officer John Horton, who was going to take the Superb – which I’d grown very, very attached to – back down south, leaving me to take a Volkswagen van back to Stirling. This did, unfortunately, mean I had to try my best to relax in a van until the results were finalized and the crews came back to get their cars. At seven dead, a text from George confirmed the cars were allowed to go, which was followed immediately by a call from Ford’s cheerful Peter Martin to make sure Andreas Mikkelsen had secured second place, which in turn was followed by the chorus of high-powered engines being revved as the irate crews retrieved their motors. The two Frenchmen who’d been sent to collect Turkish driver Burcu Cetinkaya’s Peugeot provided welcome entertainment as they struggled to turn round a car that was jammed in fourth gear and move it through a series of narrow gaps, giving a stunning demonstration of the Pug screaming its lungs out.

The last job for the day was to get back to Perth and join the troops for a meal. We were in the same restaurant as Kris Meeke and the Kronos team, and as soon as Clerk of the Course Iain Campbell had finished his thank you speech, Kronos boss Mark van Dalen stood up to give a similar talk to his charges. A corking meal was followed by an unscheduled trip back into town from the Airport with me driving the Volkswagen minibus, because in all the excitement we’d managed to leave three Teuchters at the restaurant. Highland and 63 Car Club members retrieved, the minibus dropped off and the van returned to the right car park, I collapsed into bed for the last time. A short trip to Edinburgh Airport to drop someone off, a drive back to Perth in an empty car and a train journey back to Edinburgh later (!) and I was done. Phew.

As you’ve probably guessed if you’re still reading, it was one heck of a weekend. I’d never done a job like this before, so I want to say a special thanks to Iain and Andy in rally control for patiently answering all my questions and being around to keep me right. And of course, a massive thank you to George for showing me what to do and how to do it. Above all else, it’s nice to know that there’s something else to do at a rally other than being in the media centre. Just don’t expect me to stop writing reports afterwards.

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