Scene one. A Western-style steakhouse in suburban Tokyo. The air is thick with grease and smoke from the restaurant’s main product. Black-suited salarymen hunch over their tables, hacking away at juicy steaks with their knives and swilling food down with gulps of beer. Outside, commuter trains clatter past on the raised railway line, the horns from the expresses periodically interrupting the conversation. I should be enjoying a giant slab of meat and potato salad with my fiancée, but instead I’m watching my phone anxiously. Every time it vibrates, which is on average once every five minutes, my heart sinks because it means I have to either rack my brain to write a message in Japanese, or bash out an English email on my Japanese phone’s rubbish tiny keypad. It’s three days before Christmas, and I am trying to arrange a shipment of snow wheels from England to Japan.
Scene two. A somewhat overwhelmed and bewildered Japanese rally crew stand in front of a muddy Honda Civic. They have just stepped out of their vehicle to chaotic scenes. A stocky man in a rally branded jacket has come over to visit them three times, on each occasion bringing a different set of trophies wrapped in a different kind of packaging. People are jostling with each other to get the best spot for shooting photos, service crew rubbing shoulders with national media and professional photographers. The team’s interpreter is trying to help the event commentator conduct an interview with the driver for the event whilst telling the crew which camera to pose for and picking up the various bits of trophy wrapping. The Japanese team truly are the stars of this rally.
These two events took place two and a half years and six thousand miles apart. What started as a recommendation for a supplier of hard to obtain car parts turned into a regular business relationship, eventually culminating in the first Japanese competitors in nearly five years coming to contest a round of the British Rally Championship. My first encounter with the K’s World Rally Team was back in 2009, when my wife and I went to visit a rally in Nagano Prefecture of which team owner Kazuya Suzuki was Clerk of the Course. My first meeting with EuroRallye and their owner Iain Shirlaw came a few months later, after Ecosse Challenge competitors Colin Smith and Craig Chapman hired Iain’s car to contest the Intercontinental Rally Challenge round in Scotland. I was impressed with Kazuya’s vision and Iain’s professionalism in equal measures, so when Kazuya contacted me in winter 2010 to ask if I could help him import snow wheels at a fortnight’s notice, I knew exactly who to email.
Several boxes of wheels, a number of high-quality race suits and numerous pieces of roll cage advice later, the ultimate question was asked. Kazuya wanted to hire the EuroRallye Civic for a British Rally Championship round on behalf of a customer, and the round they wanted to do was the RSAC Scottish Rally. With me acting as an intermediary, a deal was sealed, flights booked, and an entry under the name of K’s World Rally Team went in for Motoharu Kaseya and Kohei Izuno. The team would fly in to Edinburgh on the Wednesday, do seat fitting on Thursday, test on Friday, rally on Saturday, see the sights on Sunday, and go home on Monday. It was going to be an intense few days.
At six o’clock on Wednesday evening I was standing at the international arrivals gate of Edinburgh Airport, holding a sign that had the legend 石田 KWRT printed on it. One of the mechanics, Ishida-san, was arriving on a different flight from the rest of the team – and having never met him before, I finally got the opportunity to be one of those people you see at airport arrivals with a sign bearing a mysterious name and/or organisation name. An exhausted man who bore an alarming resemblance to Nissan Le Mans driver Satoshi Motoyama came over to my sign – having just done a 15 hour trip and with the prospect of a 45 minute wait before he could even leave the airport, Ishida-san needed no convincing to let me buy him a coffee. The rest of the K’s crew arrived en masse about an hour later, and we proceeded to the airport rental car station and then onwards to the hotel.
My alarm went off at 5am the following morning, for I had to get back out to the Airport Travelodge in order to meet the crew for breakfast. I arrived to find the hotel on the brink of evacuation, with smoke billowing out of the toaster in the breakfast room. World Rally Championship class winner and eighties Japanese rally legend Motoharu Kaseya had forgotten about the croissant he had left under the toaster seven minutes previous. Proving that rally teams the world over are identical regardless of language or nationality, an appropriate period of piss-taking and winding up followed whilst Kaseya-san attempted to salvage the remains of his cremated pastry.
Seat fitting in Perth
I was presented with four bottles of Calpis, my favourite Japanese soft drink which is neither obtainable in the UK nor describable within the confines of the English language, as a thank you for my efforts in helping the team get to the UK. The cars were loaded up, and we headed off north to Perth for the first piece of serious rally business – seat fitting at G&M Mechanical Services. SD52 DCU was on the ramps when we arrived, still bearing the awesome white and red livery it had been decorated in for its last outing on the Jim Clark. The previous sponsor stickers had been removed and replaced with those of K’s World Rally Team, and a freshly painted set of brand new Compomotives sat on the floor awaiting tyres – it had been decided the Type R looked meaner with dark grey alloys, so new wheels were sprayed accordingly. The seat fitting progressed apace, but so small was Motoharu that by the time the seat had been moved forward far enough for his feet to reach the pedals, young Scott was the only member of the service crew able to fit between the seat and the steering wheel – and even then his knees were up past the indicator stalks. Mechanics Ishida-san and Kakegawa-san also took a keen interest in the proprietors’ tool cases, photographing the spanner trays from every conceivable angle. Apparently they are not available in Japan.
After a brief tour of the premises from Scott senior, we left Perth and headed off down the A9 in the direction of Glasgow and subsequently Dumfries. A brief lunch halt at Happendon Services introduced the K’s World Rally Team to proper British cuisine. Ishida-san was intrigued by the mysterious brown sauce in which his sausages were swimming, Kaseya-san discovered that if you don’t specifically ask for your pannini to be heated up it will be served to you cold with a frozen bit still in the middle, and Kakegawa-san was shocked to learn that a sausage roll means just that – a sausage in a roll with no salad, tomatoes or extras.
First job in Dumfries was to pick up the recce car from the hire place before it closed at six. Messrs Kaseya, Izuno, Ishida and Kakegawa were dispatched from the Travelodge with two sheets of A4 paper and an address to put into the satnav, whilst I stayed in the hotel with Suzuki-san and his wife Michiko to prepare the documentation for the following day. Six o’clock came and went with no sign from the Dumfries contingent, but eventually the black Astra hire car and freshly-acquired Land Rover Freelander recce vehicle rolled into the car park. The reason for their delay quickly became apparent – they’d been to Tesco to stock up on food for the recce, and had filled six bags with food. By the look of things, Izuno-san planned to sustain himself for eighteen stage passes with three packs of iced buns and a two litre bottle of Irn-Bru. It was not taking that boy long to adjust to Scottish rallying.
That night’s dinner took place at a downtrodden but delicious Chinese restaurant in Dumfries town centre – an eatery that, much like a rally car that had been repaired after a mid-rally off, was held together with electrical tape. Our table was equipped with a Lazy Susan, which was just as well because Kohei seemed to be hell bent on polishing off everyone’s leftovers. The twenty minutes I spent explaining the idiom ‘empty legs’ in Japanese proved to be time well spent, because unwanted food being passed in the young co-driver’s direction at meal times was to become a recurring theme of the weekend. For future reference, ‘tabeteowachatta?’ translates loosely as ‘you wanting the rest of that?’
K’s World Rally Team service area
Friday started at a ridiculous hour for Motoharu and Kohei. They had to be at Clatteringshaws Forest Car Park for 7am for the recce start, so their alarms went off at 5am. The rest of us had the luxury of a lie in, before heading to the service park to see the setup. On the way, Kakegawa-san again proved that service crews the world over are exactly the same, coming within metres of wiping the pair of us out after blipping the throttle on a roundabout and shooting out in front of an HGV. At service Kazuya and Iain finally met face-to-face, and we headed out of the downpour into the G&M hospitality suite to discuss the weekend ahead. With the aid of a pad of paper and pen (which were to come in handy later in the weekend), Iain explained the importance for Motoharu of keeping out of the ditches if he wanted to avoid punctures. Kazuya then took the paper and pen and, to reassure Iain, drew a line on the diagram some distance before the bend. “This is where Motoharu brakes,” he explained. “There is nothing Kaseya-san hates more than crashing out of a rally, so he will be very cautious”.
“But this”, Kazuya continued, marking a cross right on the apex of the bend. “This is where Izuno brakes because he is young and has no fear. That’s why he rolled out of the APRC Rally in Hokkaido last year. I know – I was the co-driver that day”. Ishida-san and Kakegawa-san fell about laughing at Kazuya’s recounting of the tale.
Adjusting the suspension at shakedown
“Next car up will be car twenty, a white Honda. You can talk to the crew if you want, but I wouldn’t bother because neither of them speaks a word of English. We have an interpreter down at signing-on though”. My former Scottish Rally colleague Alan Dalziel was manning the radio at shakedown with his trademark dry sense of humour, and invited us to partake of some of the Barony College’s finest buffet food whilst we waited for the car to come back round from its installation run. Over four passes of the shakedown stage Kaseya-san got the car set up to his liking, a neutral and stable setting that wasn’t going to throw him off into the scenery. We headed to signing-on, got the start time (8.21am), and hit the hay in view of the massive day that lay ahead.
So nervous was I on Saturday morning that I was awake well before my 6am alarm clock. My chest felt tight and my stomach was turning. Today I’d be responsible for translating Kaseya-san’s feedback on the car into English and relaying it to Iain and the service crew. I don’t think I was even this nervous on the morning of my own nuptials – at least on my wedding day, nobody was going to be driving between trees at 100mph in a car set up based on my word. I resorted to doing press-ups and squats in my room to take away some of the adrenalin. The fact I was doing exercise voluntarily is a pretty good indication of how much I was bricking it – or kinchō shimasu as they say in Japanese.
Fired-up on the morning of the rally
Commentator Bob Milloy nabbed me at the start to help him interview the K’s crew over the PA system, and rather anxiously asked if I’d be there at the finish as well. With the Civic safely away on the road sections to the stages, we hung around until the historics were through so that Kazuya could take some photos of the Porsches for Motoharu, then made our way to Ae for some spectating and the K’s World Rally Team’s next Scottish culture lesson: midges.
The wee buggers were out in full force on account of the slightly damp undergrowth and relatively high temperatures. These were not ordinary midges, either. These were midges with tackety boots. By good fortune the KWRT polo shirts we had all been issued with out of Kazuya’s suitcase had big collars and zips that went right the way up, so with judicious use of hats and coats we were able to seal the insects out. We reached the bottom hairpin in Ae just in time to see a ferocious Renault Clio Maxi pop, scream and bang its way round the bend, and before long the wail of the VTEC was ringing through the trees. Kaseya-san and Izuno-san came down the hill in a controlled fashion, neatly rounded the hairpin and accelerated off down the road. Unspectacular but steady – and quicker, let’s not forget, than all of the people that overshot, spun or stalled in their do-or-die attempts at cornering. Just as we were figuring out that Motoharu was faster than the R1 Twingos, and therefore not plum last, Kazuya spotted something that was to make his day. A giant tail of dust was rising over the saplings at the top of the hill, a brilliant white machine exploding out of the gap in the trees. It charged down the incline at full pelt, stones flying as it locked up its wheels under braking. The driver yanked the steering wheel and hurled the car round the hairpin, the engine emitting a low growl as its four tyres reconnected with the road and propelled the vehicle onwards. Suzuki-san had just had his first encounter with Major Alan Paramore in the lead Armed Forces Rally Team Land Rover. The K’s guys were flabbergasted when I told them these vehicles were crewed by members of the armed forces.
By the time we got back to service via the Heathhall spectator stage, the Type R was up on the jacks with Iain’s head in the door. The first words I heard were “we’ll wait until Leslie gets here, okay”. Perfect timing. One quick conversation with Kaseya-san later, Scott and Iain were able to set about softening the rear suspension and moving the brake bias slightly rearwards respectively. The cars settings were adjusted, mud scraped out of the wheelarches, wheels rotated and the crew sent on their way again. They’d be back again in an hour to go through the whole process again.
Through the water splash at Heathhall
The next two stages were a repeat of the first pair, Windy Hill and Ae. With a sense of Groundhog Day we went back to spectate, Kazuya this time cheering and clapping the Land Rovers, then raced back to service. I was relieved to see the adjustment requests I translated for the service crew had been what Kaseya-san wanted. The K’s team were taking a cautious approach, gradually building their pace and staying within their limits (although when I saw the in-car later on, I have to say Motoharu was putting in a fair old shift for someone competing in the UK for the first time). I had a chat with the driver to make sure everything was going okay and that there were no problems, at which point he broke into a massive grin and declared he was having lots of fun on the stages. With that fact established and requiring no translation, everyone was able to relax a bit and concentrate on getting Kaseya and Izuno the finish they were aiming for.
Afternoon service had the potential to be the killer, though. The cars were heading to Clatteringshaws Forest for the final three stages, almost an hour’s drive west of Dumfries. The problem was that the remote service area was accessible to only one car per team – a car I would not be in. Remote service was also two miles from the road, making it impossible for the support car of Japanese speakers to walk it in the available time. In short, remote service was going to be have to be done over a language barrier.
Waiting at remote service
But while standing in the road waiting for the EuroRallye car to approach the service in junction, I devised a cunning plan based on Andre Villas-Boas’ football tactics at Spurs. I would listen to Motoharu and Kohei’s feedback on the car, translate it into English, and write it all down on a bit of paper. This note would then be given to the co-driver to pass on to the service crew up the hill, thereby giving the mechanics full and complete guidance as to what was do be done during the twenty-minute halt. This plan, however, rested on the fundamental assumption that the rally car would stop at the point where we were waiting to talk to us. The crew were running late and the Honda sped past us at full chat, charging straight into the time control and disappearing into the trees before I had time to flag it down. The control marshals (one of whom was Scottish Rally stalwart Ian Mackenzie) were none the wiser as to what had happened either, telling me the only word they could get out of the pair was ‘delay’ over and over. Mercifully, the Army Land Rover crew waiting for their minute had seen Motoharu and Kohei in stage, the friendly soldier behind the wheel informing me that the pair seemed to be changing a wheel. No problem, then – a shredded Hankook speaks for itself
In the interim period, we had been led to believe that the K’s car had retired from the rally. Standing in the middle of the road staring at the bend round which we expected the car to appear, Kazuya and I were hit with the horrible feeling any true rallyist knows all too well – the moment when, after a long wait, the next car to appear is the car running behind yours. Oh no. I bounded over to the conveniently-placed radio car – which happened to be crewed by yet another weel kent face in the form of Merrick Stages Rally Manager Allan Marshall – and asked after car twenty. “I don’t know to be honest”, came the voice from inside the car. “Oh wait I do, they went off and had a small fire. But they’re okay”. Rubbish. Retaiya shimatta rashii desu. Kōsu auto nochi moeteshimaimashita. Off we went down the road in the direction of the stage, utterly bewildered at the thought of Motoharu being out of control enough to have an accident that resulted in a fire. Ten thousand kilometres, a great morning and then a retirement on the last loop of stages. Gutted didn’t even start to cover it. But just as we reached the Clatteringshaws junction, a distinctly un-burnt Honda came out of the stage sandwiched between two Land Rovers. It was the other car twenty – car twenty in the field for the Scottish ‘national’ rally rather than the international – that had gone off and had the fire, and thankfully the driver and co-driver of that car were okay.
Waiting at the end of SS9
After a detour to Dalry for petrol, it was back to the end of Clatteringshaws to await the arrival of the ‘R at the end of the competitive action. I walked up the access road with Suzuki-san, Ishida-san and Kakegawa-san, and when we realised it was too far to reach the stop control we decided to camp out in a layby. By this time the cars were passing us one by one, Korhonen, MacCrone, Cave, and it wouldn’t be long till we knew either way what was happening. With the mist descending and Kakegawa-san and I engaging in conversation about how Japanese-style hair has a nasty habit of trapping midges (don’t ask how we got onto that), a white vehicle with a red sunstrip bearing the legend ‘KRT’ rounded the bend. They’d done it. As we fought to reach into the car and shake hands with the guys, one of the Land Rovers gave us a congratulatory toot of the horn as it passed, much to Kazuya’s delight.
Next stopping point was the finishing ceremony back in the centre of Dumfries. The cool late afternoon air smelled of cheap champagne, and the announcer’s north Yorkshire tones battled for supremacy with the petrol generator that was keeping the inflatable arch upright. A white Honda-shaped blob rose over the horizon in the distance, and at exactly the same time I felt a sharp tug on my arm. DIGB. “Right, your Japanese is really going to get put to the test here”, the Ecosse Challenge founding father turned rally finish coordinator instructed me. “You need to go down there and explain to them they’ve won the Spirit of the Rally”.
Excitement coursing through my veins, I raced down to the car to pass on the good news, arriving at the same moment a large black jacketed and tartan bunneted figure withdrew from the driver’s side window, the page on his notebook nearly blank. “I got punctures and no more than that. I’ll just wait for your press release, okay!” Kaseya and Izuno had just had their first proper encounter with legendary Scottish rally scribe John Fife. Apparently they don’t teach Scots in language classes in Japan, let alone New Stevenstonish.
Kaseya-san admiring his trophies
Once the British Championship ceremony had been concluded, the Honda was summoned forwards and the chaotic scenes I described at the start of the story unfolded. What the K’s World Rally Team had actually won was the Bandeath Trophy, a historic award presented annually to the person or people the rally organisers deem to be the Star of the Rally. For someone on their first trip to Europe to stay out of trouble, beat two cars and have a damn good go of it – as the in-car I saw attested, they certainly weren’t hanging about – the ‘Star of the Rally’ accolade was very fitting indeed.
At this juncture I’d like to get serious for a minute and give a big shout out to EuroRallye, G&M Mechanical Services and Andrew Wood Motorsport. It was their combined thinking to put two spare wheels – one more than normal – in the boot of the Civic on account of the high probability of punctures on the rough Dumfries and Galloway forest roads. This smart thinking probably kept Motoharu and Kohei in the rally, because in the seventh stage they hit a big rock that had been dragged out and punctured both right-hand tyres. With two spares they were able to continue on their way, make it to the end of the rally and collect both the class award and the Star of the Rally Trophy. A fabulous reflection on the professionalism and attention to detail of all involved in the car’s preparation.
I woke up the next morning with a splitting headache. Not on account of excessive alcohol, but out of sheer relief that the K’s team had made it to the finish and had a good rally. A relaxed day of sightseeing followed, during which the Nagano team members photographed the scenery, pretended to fire cannons at Edinburgh Castle, ate haggis and drank whisky. By 5pm I’d had three drams yet perversely my headache had disappeared.
Warning: international rallying can be seriously enjoyable
The most satisfying moment of all was getting back to the computer, opening up the memory card on my camera and looking at all the photos on Facebook. For there was photo after photo after photo of Motoharu, one of the most gentle, humble and modest people I’ve ever met, unable to take his eyes off his giant Mario Kart-style Star of the Rally trophy. I don’t know what the Japanese translation for ‘dog with two tails’ is, but it’s weekends like this and the Jim Clark experience with the Australian Targa crew that have really helped to restore my enthusiasm for motor sport over the last few months.