Masters of Disaster
With no prior rallying experience, Octane publisher Geoff Love and best mate Craig Bithray tackled the London-Lisbon Reliability Trial. Guess how they got on…
On the evening before the rally was due to start I found myself wandering the streets of London with my co-driver, utterly lost. In just a few hours, we would be waved away from Greenwich by people who expected us to be able to find our way across Western Europe to Lisbon in Portugal. We couldn’t even find our hotel for the night. This did not bode well.
By morning I’d already threatened to divorce my co-driver, and we hadn’t reached the startline yet. It had been many years since Craig and I had last shared a room, and he’s developed a snore that would embarrass a rhinoceros. Of far greater concern, however, were the five volumes of apparently essential but indecipherable route information with which we had been presented. They might as well have been written in a foreign language, but I nonetheless volunteered to navigate for the first day.
In Wales a few weeks earlier we had tested a number of cars from the HERO ‘Arrive and Drive’ fleet before settling on a green Porsche 911, and we were re-introduced to our steed at scrutineering and nervously began to count the minutes until the off.
The knot in my stomach soon disappeared on an opening stage designed to ease the 50 crews into the rally. With no timings to worry about, we made a good start and arrived at the first stop in high spirits and with a growing feeling of optimism. A regularity section soon sorted that out. The checkpoints on a regularity are placed at very small distances from one another, so a lapse in concentration can have a considerable impact, and we arrived six minutes late at the final checkpoint thanks to a single missed turn.
Next up were two tests at Dunsfold, home of the Top Gear test track. Both appeared relatively straightforward, requiring the crews to drive a set pattern around some markers. The first was absolutely fine, but on the second we ended up meandering drunkenly through, rather than around, a set of traffic cones, and the penalty points began to accumulate alarmingly quickly.
Also costly was an ill-advised stop at a village shop en route to a mandatory checkpoint (some checkpoints were merely advisory) at a pub called The Cricketers. I blame the time it took for the shopkeeper to weigh out the barley sugars and pear drops, while Craig maintains that it was the fetching of the millionaire’s shortbread that really set us back. Either way, we arrived at the pub some eight minutes late.
As we began the final stage of the day and headed towards Portsmouth to catch the ferry to Saint-Malo in France, we resolved to learn from our mistakes, and on the final section we finished within a few seconds of the designated time, giving us a modicum of hope. Perhaps we could master this regularity rally thing after all. Perhaps.
Sleeping on the top bunk in a cross-Channel ferry cabin is akin to sleeping in a coffin, but despite this I woke refreshed. My hastily acquired earplugs seemed to be doing their job. The cars were driven off the ferry to rendezvous for breakfast at Domaine des Ormes, where we also received our results for day one. To our surprise we found ourselves fifth in class and 28th overall, which is obviously rubbish but better than we had expected.
Craig and I had agreed to swap roles on day two, which proved to be a huge tactical error. The first test was a 10mph speed trial along the edge of a golf course. Never having navigated before, Craig managed to lose our position within 100 metres of the start, and we eventually ended up driving up a narrow lane onto the ninth tee, a long way from safety and facing a few bemused looks from French golfers.
Due to the French not wanting foreigners to enjoy themselves too much, timed regularity sections are banned in France, so for most of the day we had to settle for navigation or code board sections (sections where you answer questions about road signs). These are relatively straightforward, and the long distances between checkpoints allowed us to get to know our fabulous Porsche a little better as we hustled it between a number of very pretty villages.
The final section of the day was a timed run towards the hotel, with the HERO team on the lookout for disgruntled gendarmes. I hopped back into the navigator’s seat at this point and Craig got back behind the wheel, and a decent performance reinforced our sense that this was the best arrangement.
Before heading deeper into France we checked the previous day’s results and to our dismay discovered that we had managed to clock up nearly 2900 penalty points. Schoolboy errors were to blame: 720 points for arriving late at the first checkpoint and 1800 points for failing to enter two answers into the correct boxes on a code board section. As people kept saying, though, you only make that type of error once… or twice…
The 540km journey from Poitiers to Pau through the wine regions began with a timed regularity of 15km followed by a combination of navigation and code board sections, and on arriving at the Château de Mirambeau in the heart of the Cognac region for lunch, Craig and I felt quietly confident of a good morning’s work.
In the afternoon, the heavens opened just in time for a test at the Circuit Paul Armagnac in Nogaro. We were again instructed to move the Porsche through a series of bollards in a specific manner. Head towards A, pass through B, then C and on to D. It doesn’t sound difficult, but add to the mix an eager driver, poor visibility and no agreed signals between the navigator and pilot, and you have a recipe for disaster. This we duly followed with considerable aplomb…
We disgraced ourselves further that evening by forgetting to hand in our End of Day Time Card – an unforgivable offence – and although I left dinner to throw myself on the mercy of the organisers, there was no reprieve and a further 1800 points were needlessly picked up. But the most concerning thing was that this really annoyed me – a sure sign that I’d been bitten by the rallying bug.
It might have felt like we were making progress, but team Octane had clocked up a grand total of 6656 penalty points by the end of day three. To give this score some context, Michael and Simon Baker, also in a Porsche 911, were at this stage in first place overall with a total score of… seven. The only crews positioned below us either had not turned up, or had suffered a complete catastrophe during the event.
Angus Forsyth and Marcus Atkinson of Hagerty Insurance had lost two days due to the broken suspension of their Austin 7, while Tomas de Vargas and Seren Whyte had been temporarily laid up by a ruptured fuel tank, and Michele Di Paolo and Igino Angelini in the Riley 12/4 Blower Special had spent an entire night under the bonnet of the car, manfully trying to repair a disintegrated supercharger. All, though, to their great credit, were back on the road and determined to finish, and seemed to be enjoying themselves to boot.
A seasoned competitor had mentioned to me that while a pre-war car is your best bet if you want to be noticed, a 911 is the only choice if you want to win, and as the rally crossed into Spain via the Pyrenees, we truly fell in love with our short-wheelbase Porsche: it had caught our attention in the Welsh countryside, but here, with the switchback roads and sweeping bends, the Porsche was in its element. It was completely surefooted at all times, and flattered the driver prepared to push it to its limits. Despite the damp surface, the winding roads and the inexperienced pilot, this normally tail-happy car was very well behaved.
Determined though we were to avoid foolish mistakes on day four, the first regularity trial was strewn with them. We set off confidently, but I forgot to set our tripmeter so had no way to check actual distance against expected time. Not only that, but we were using my mobile phone as the stopwatch to monitor our progress, and halfway through the 13km section someone decided to call my number. In rejecting the call, I managed to lose the timings, which left us making it up as we went along. Points were undoubtedly accrued. We would have to wait to find out just how many.
Each morning Craig and I had been handed our results sheet with a mixture of sympathy and pity, but on day five there was a look of incredulity from the organisers as we were given a piece of paper showing a points tally for the previous day of just 96. This was, in our view, a remarkable achievement, and we began the day’s 465km route with renewed enthusiasm.
The scenery, again, was stunning. We crossed into Spain via the snowcapped peaks of the Picos de Europe on some of the best driving roads I have ever encountered, but there was little time to stare out of the window with miles to be eaten up and maps to be read.
Just when we thought we were getting the hang of regularities, the organisers decided to throw in an additional complication: speed tables. Instead of providing for each waypoint the exact time it should be passed, a speed table requires you to take the speed at the start of each section (speeds are changed at various points throughout each test) and work out for yourself how long each section should take. We muddled through, with our few blunders earning us 229 points for the day.
Others fared much worse, with the Morgan of Phil and Laurette Macwhirter unfortunately crashing out. Nobody was hurt, but it was a real shame to lose a car, particularly since all the pre-war entrants were still chugging along, just about – the Austin 7 was pushed into Leon, prompting co-driver Marcus to announce at dinner that drinks the following evening would be on Hagerty if the car finished the day.
Unlike the potholed abominations that criss-cross the UK, most Spanish roads are a joy to drive on, and the 911 purred along the smooth tarmac on day six and didn’t miss a beat in the mountains, although its crew occasionally did.
After a strong showing in the morning, we took a wrong turn on the afternoon section and found ourselves stuck behind a herd of cows. I had also zeroed the stopwatch by mistake and was soon completely lost. A competitor car had passed us so I did the only thing I could think of and resorted to telling Craig to ‘Follow that car!’ We somehow managed to escape that particular trial with eight penalty points, and pulled into the Parador de Santo Estavo Hotel near Ourense having taken futher baby steps towards respectability – no thanks to me.
Point to point, the journey on day seven was just 110km from Ourense in Spain through to Vigo in Portugal. The meandering route taken by the rally was measured at 430km. Our kilometres for the day: 300.
We arrived at the UNESCO world heritage site of Bom Jesus for lunch in high spirits, which apparently angered the rallying gods, for as we headed down the mountain towards the starting point of our next regularity test, the car suddenly died. A faulty fuel pump was initially diagnosed by the fantastic support crew, but it turned out that a blown main fuse was the real problem. It was replaced in short order but we decided to cut out the next three sections in case the problem recurred, and nursed the car to the afternoon’s coffee stop. Although we rejoined the rally for the day’s final stage, we had amassed a colossal number of penalties by missing so many stages, and ended the day on 11,597 points. The first-placed car finished day seven with just 31.
The opening regularity section sent us back into the mountains and up to Portugal’s highest point accessible by car, the Torre on the Serra da Estrela, where we were surprised to find a ski resort in use. The day’s test, though, was the real highlight – a hillclimb at the famous Caramulo circuit. The event had been advertised beforehand, so there were a few hundred spectators lining the 2.5km course to see what the rally participants could deliver. Unfortunately, our Porsche had developed a timing problem, one consequence of which was a tendency to stall easily.
Not an issue, you might think, on a hillclimb, but in their wisdom the organisers had decided to place five sets of cones along the circuit, at which drivers were expected to stop momentarily. I crossed my fingers as the marshal counted me down and shot from the starting line with far too much tyre squeal and wheelspin. The sound from the exhaust, though, was fantastic, and the crowd roared me on around the first bend. To my embarrassment, I then proceeded to stall the car on every set of cones, resulting in a large penalty score.
On the second run we tried a different tactic: ignore the cones and just boot the 911 to the top as fast as possible. This was much more fun, and the expressions on the marshals’ faces as we raced straight across their stop lines were worth every one of the 300 points we picked up.
The final day consisted of just one regularity and a single test – and a good thing, too, because we were both exhausted. The day was primarily about getting the competitors into Lisbon for a police-escorted convoy into the city and then on to the awards dinner at the Olissippo Palace Hotel in the historic centre of the Portuguese capital.
Although we had become pretty proficient by this stage and the air in the car was a little less blue on the average section than it had been a week earlier, even on the home straight we managed to make a bit of a mess of things. We somehow got separated from the main convoy as it headed downtown from the site of Expo ’98 and, while everybody else was being cheered home by the crowds that had gathered in the city centre, we found ourselves driving through the port. Brilliant.
We eventually found our bearings and crossed the finish line, elated, at 17:30, having driven 2386 miles and completed 25 navigation and regularity sections and a dozen tests. Our joy at making it to the finish in one piece was matched only by our admiration for the pioneering spirit of the pre-war crews who battled gamely all the way to Lisbon… and kept us off the bottom of the leaderboard!
If you must know, we ended our adventure 11,939 points adrift of the winners Michael and Simon Baker, who somehow managed to accumulate only 39. I guess they didn’t stop for pear drops.