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Olympic rower Jonathan Walton wins on rally debut with his wife Molly navigating

After a mixture of classroom training and road sessions, the Novice Trial event, which is aimed at bringing fresh blood into the sport, produced an extraordinary result from the huge cross section of entrants.

Olympic rower Jonathan Walton wins on rally debut with his wife Molly navigating

Youth prevails as new young navigator Freya Clarke finishes second with father Lee at the wheel

David Creech and Chris Wilks switch to new roles and take final podium place

Victory for HERO-ERA Arrive Drive as their TR3 triumphs and all 11 cars finish the event

In a contrasting result that combined an entire age and occupation range, a former Olympic rower who finished fifth in the 2016 Olympics men’s double sculls, with World Cup and World Rowing Championships medal wins to his credit, successfully swopped disciplines and as he said, ‘found a new sport.’ His wife Molly equally was in new territory but took to the art of regularity rally navigation with aplomb, the pair were unfazed when their first choice HERO-ERA Arrive Drive Fiat 124 didn’t accommodate Jonathan’s lanky frame, instead they switched to the fleet’s 1956 Triumph TR3 and made it into a winner!

Lee Clarke just made it in time for the Saturday training session to work with his young daughter Freya after a dash from New York. Their Triumph TR4 had just had the engine rebuilt after a blow up so the car was nearly late to the party as well. In her very first event, navigator Freya was second overall ably driven by her father, but a new talented navigator has emerged.

Chris Wilks may think about switching roles to navigator permanently after swopping seats with David Creech in their Volvo Amazon, after the pair agreed to the transfer when David endured a torrid time navigating on LeJog last year. After learning the new roles over the course of two days, the crew took the final podium position.

HERO-ERA Arrive Drive Manager Mark O Donnell was delighted that his near record entry of 11 (the record was 12 on LeJog) all finished the event. Their 66 year old, beautifully prepared Triumph TR3 took victory in the hands of a totally novice crew whilst the Volkswagen Golf GTi of David and Sam Hewitt was second in class with the Arrive and Drive Porsche 911 SWB third in Class 3 driven by James Sharp and navigated by Hangar 136’ Oliver Gatland-Pendleton. Both were newbies to the sport and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

The youngest crew to succeed on their regularity rally debuts were 22 year old Ben Maidment and his navigator, 23 year old Alistair Hastings in their 1967 Riley Elf. Not only did they finish fourth overall but Alistair was delighted to learn afterwards that they had been the best crew overall on the regularities. They dropped just 29 seconds and vowed to be back soon in their new chosen sport.

Fifth place overall was the all female crew of Helen Lomas and Anita Wickens in their VW Golf GTi. This was another extraordinary result as Helen is the wife of John Lomas, the boss of Blue Diamond Riley Services, and whilst she supports the class winning navigational efforts of their young daughter Natasha, Helen has never really had the inclination to compete.

Once Helen decided to learn the ropes and entered Novice Trial, she was supported by Anita Wickens, who normally navigates for partner Malcolm Dunderdale, and the pair also won Class 4. Anita started her navigational career on beginner events like Novice Trial and has since progressed to class winning efforts with Malcolm on the tough Flying Scotsman.

It was also great to welcome the Superyacht duo of skipper Gavin Print and his wife Emma who works as Head Chef on board, back to Bicester Heritage after all their efforts to learn both in the class room and on the road. At the end of ‘A Novice Trail’ they were 14th overall but more importantly to Gavin and Emma, second fastest overall on the tests in their Mazda Eunos Roadster.

Seren Whyte, Clerk of the Course of A Novice Trial and rally classroom course leader along with her sister Elise Whyte, summarised her feelings after the event.

Seren, “It's so great to see so many happy smiling faces coming over the finish line, especially after starting from scratch. Some of these people have never done anything like this before and you really see the start of them taking on the knowledge and then trying it out. When they to come to the end of the event, they understand more, they finish and they've succeeded on the route. It's just absolutely fantastic.

“We had a high proportion of finishers and a low proportion of mistakes. From what I've seen of the results we've had all the cars that started this morning finished, and we've had a huge improvement on results. There were very few mistakes, especially this morning, which is absolutely brilliant to see. The best is that people are thinking about coming back for more, from what I've heard, people want to try more of our events which is really, really exciting. Just to hear that some have got the bug for the sport that we all love is heartening.

“And finally what a fantastic age range of competitors we had!. It was really great to see such a huge range of competitors, we had youth, twenty somethings, middle aged to mature crews, male, female, plus lots of different cars, which was so great to see.”

1st overall, Jonathan and Molly Walton, 1956 Arrive and Drive Triumph TR3

Molly “Thank you, I don't know how this has happened. Genuinely, we've learned so much. I think we've just been drinking in all the information that the people here have provided, it’s just been incredible, they have been feeding us knowledge and then the competitive spirit kicked in. It’s been an incredible journey from turning up on Friday night not knowing anything then a steep learning curve. The people here have just been incredible, everyone was so friendly. And yeah, we are absolutely thrilled, it's been an amazing, amazing experience.”

Mark O Donnell had to say to Jonathan that he couldn't fit into the Fiat 124 as he was too tall. But then Arrive and Drive came up with the TR3. Jonathan’ “Yes the Triumph TR3 has done us proud as it certainly been an absolute beauty, I absolutely loved driving it. No, it was clearly one of those things that was meant to be!

“This is a totally different game to rowing. Molly said to me, you're so competitive, but you're only as competitive as your navigator. So we are obviously absolutely buzzing to win this. I have seriously loved finding this new sport and hopefully we can do lots more events. I think we're absolutely hooked.”

Molly; “ Jonathan did drive well but one thing that I said at the weekend is that you have to listen to me and he did. So we're still friends at the end, still smiling.”

Jonathan; “I can't say enough about Molly’s work from classroom through to translating it into winning the event. It was a bit of a joke when we turned up on Friday that Molly thought we just follow the car in front and she'd be here just having a bit of a jolly around the countryside. So I think yesterday was a huge learning curve, and we made a few mistakes yesterday but I think we really learned from those today and yeah, absolutely smashed it today.”

“Well, I guess it was something that I always tried to do during my rowing career which was to try to do the basics really well, and I think that's what we did today. We really did just nail every single thing that was in our control, and the rest of it took care for itself.”

2nd overall Lee and Freya Clarke, 1962 Triumph TR4

Freya, “ It’s quite a surprise but obviously we are really, really pleased, we can't really believe it. One thing is that we beat my brother’s result when he did this event, so I am happy with that! I am sure there will be more events now – especially as we have done quite well here!”

Lee, “Freya did really well, she didn't put a foot wrong. I think it's going to become a family tradition with Freya following in her brother’s footsteps. I don't think there were any sticky moments, some of the timings we probably could have done a little bit better with, but we were miles behind the team in front.”

3rd overall, David Creech and Chris Wilks, 1963 Volvo Amazon

Christopher and David, took the final podium with third place on A Novice Trial, after they swapped places in the car for this event.

Chris- “After four gruelling days and nights on LeJog last year, David said to me at John O'Groats, how he’d not enjoyed the experience, whereas I had loved it. He didn't see anything of the country, ‘are we actually in John O'Groats?’ he asked. So I said, why don't we swap seats and I'll get your experience and you can have mine. So we promised ourselves we'd go back and do the Novice Trial as complete novices in each other's seats. And it's true. I've never navigated and David has never driven a rally car. So it was a first for both of us, as you would expect we are delighted with the result!

“It was pretty intensive and at times stressful. It's given me a completely new respect for all the navigators and David in particular.”

David, “It's been great. I was living my best life this weekend, it's the most relaxing weekend's rally we've ever had, I think, and not a little amusing to hear my navigator shouting and swearing and saying all the things I normally say back at me, it was fantastic!”

5th overall, Helen Lomas and Anita Wickens, 1983 VW Golf GTi

Helen, “Amazing, we are absolutely thrilled, I absolutely loved it - brilliant. John said you'll get the bug you will want to do it again and I think I do as Natasha wants me to do one with her. John's in America, for one of them so I think we might do one together.”

Helen’s husband John Lomas runs Blue Diamond Riley Services. He's a driver of some repute with the Lomas’ young daughter Natasha already a successful navigator. John and Tasha were marshalling and supporting Helen when they could during the weekend.

Anita Wickens who navigated Helen to fifth place started herself on Novice Trial, with her partner and regular driver Malcolm Dunderdale, so what does she think about this event as a platform for moving up to other events?

“It's very good for people who don't know, it's very interesting and the team give a lot of details. I've never done the walking tests, or the walking regularity before so that was quite amusing but good, especially for Helen who's never been in the car before, to actually experience that communication and get it right, it was good.”

4th overall, Ben Maidment and Alistair Hastings, 1967 Riley Elf Mk 3

Alistair, “We got used to the car and it's driving style, on a rally which we've never done before, so we should be pleased.

Ben, ”And we managed a first, a first in class! We've got a first at some point, that's all that matters!

The crew were then told that they had been the most successful team over all the regularities with the least time lost at just 29 seconds.

Ben, “That's amazing, it’s great, did we really?” Alistair, “That’s brilliant but I still feel a bit bad due to the time on one of the tests, we missed something. It’s amazing though and we will definitely be back for more!”

14th overall and second fastest test pilots, Gavin and Emma Print, 1990 Mazda Eunos Raodster

Gavin “We had we had a cracking event, we really enjoyed it. It was superbly organised and we learned a lot. I think it's fair to say at lunchtime yesterday that things weren't going swimmingly.”

Emma, “My head was falling off, judging by the evening yesterday, I was in bed by nine o'clock and it was just overload with an awful lot of work and an awful lot to take in.

We finished in the top 20 and were second overall quickest in the tests so that was a phenomenal result today.”

Gavin, “In a 1.6 MX5, I'll happily come second to a V8 MG. That's fine.

We spent a bit of time thinking about how we wanted to communicate on the tests. We wrote some pace notes, so we were saying ‘my side and your side’ and apparently Guy Woodcock uses that method with his daughter, when she is navigating. A lot of people told us we were doing it wrong, but I think we did it right.”

With a certain amount of pressure and precision required Gavin was asked if there was any comparison to his life on the waves as a Superyacht captain?

“I'm used to parking 50 tonnes of boat in a high crosswind that is worth five to 10 million. And that puts your heart in your mouth especially when you're doing it in front of the boss. So when you're on the start line, and it's your own car, and they're just cones, but you've got a little bit of jitters because it’s your car and preparation costs, but I'm used to that feeling.”

Guy Woodcock, Competition Director HERO-ERA

Guy; “I think it's absolutely brilliant, we had 47 crews who turned up I think there was about 75% have never ever done anything before. I did the main control at the end and to see the elation and relief on the faces of the competitors as they came over the line was great and, nobody said that was too hard, they enjoyed it. Yes they made mistakes, but that's what it's all about. It's a learning curve.

“We want to bring new people into the sport and then get them to graduate from here.

There's people already talking about Summer Trial, HERO Challenges and at some point somebody suggested they wanted to do LeJog.

“It's interesting. I sat last night with Alistair who won the Novice Trial two years ago and he said we're doing the job this year. So there is a natural progression for people to take.

“The team has done marvelously to put it all together, Seren has driven the event with Elise on the training and then the rest of the team pulling it all together, so overall I’m very happy.

The next event for HERO-ERA is the Summer Trial, which is in the middle of June, but there’s lots of planning going on. People are off all over the country and all over the world. We've got a team going off to recce the European leg of P2P tomorrow. Andy and I go to Greece in the middle of June, and the RAC Rally of the Tests and LeJog are kicking into life as well. So it's a big busy time for the team over the next three months.”

View the final results here

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