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Syd Stelvio, Peking to Paris 24 | Day 29 – Ankara top Istanbul – 480km

Syd Stelvio, Peking to Paris 24 | Day 29 – Ankara top Istanbul – 480km

‘Welcome to Europe’, read the sign as we crossed the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, across the Bosphorus Strait and made the significant step out of Asia and into the final week of this most extraordinary of automotive adventures. The time has flown by since we left Kazakhstan, and here we are, about to begin the last seven days.

Those that have made it this far, anyway. Yesterday, early in the 480km journey from Ankara to Istanbul disaster struck car 69, when a speeding driver struck the nose of the Volvo as it slowly crept out of a junction, the crew unsighted by a tractor that was parked in an awkward position, and the driver of the local car that hit them going far too fast to avoid the collision. The impact spun the Volvo around, leaving it with severe front-end damage, but thankfully, Steve and Charlie Gray emerged unscathed. It was a cruel blow to the father and son crew, who had made their way into the top ten of the leaderboard and so close to the finish as well. Giving up isn’t in their nature though, and they had already begun the process of repairing the car on the side of the road, whilst they waited for recovery, and will be spending today’s non-transit day in Istanbul doing all they can to be back on the road to Paris in the morning.

It won’t matter much to them at the minute, but the incident also stopped them from enjoying one of the best driving days of the rally so far. The roads were tremendous, a glut of twisting, turning and flowing mountain stretches, that climbed and descended in the midst of incredible scenery, far reaching views and gargantuan rock formations. Anyone with an aversion to heights may not have enjoyed it quite so much, but for those who were brave enough to peer over the edge as we drove the visual reward was magnificent.

It was cooler, too, with the baking sun that seems to have been with us constantly since Beijing, broken by cloud and, in some instances, gone completely. The cars even drove through the middle of dark rainclouds at one point, as the cloud billowed across the road, and day became night. The cooler conditions were much kinder on the vehicles, as they tackled two uphill regularities, that followed in fairly quick succession. The first was mostly on tarmac, broken in places and with some wide sweeping bends. It wasn’t too steep, but steep enough that balancing momentum with keeping to the correct average speed was a challenge, and out of the front runners it was the number 37 Chevy that bested the chasing number 9 Bentley by a few seconds. Matt Bryson also had a good run up the hill, in the powerful Leyland, the big block helping to balance speed vs time.

The second regularity was an even steeper climb, and this time on gravel and with only one timing point at the summit of the long ascent. It was tight and twisty, with huge drops to the side of the road and a seemingly never-ending road that continue to rise around each corner. I daresay if the pressures of time weren’t on the crews, they may have enjoyed it more, but it is certainly one of those roads that I would jump at the chance to drive again. Only 6 cars managed to zero this last regularity, which were predominantly made up of pre-war cars, including the Dilliers in the Chrysler, Alex Vassbotten and Bas Gross in the Alvis, Peter Zernial and Kai Fleck in the Chevy Roadster and Paul Day and Alun Jones in the Ford Coupe – no mean feat for those in this category. Rainer Wolf and Hans Geist and Ben Smith and Rob Lumley were the only crews in the classic category to achieve the same feat, with everyone else dropping seconds on the tricky reg.

Paul Day and Alun Jones had the honour of being best across both regs, picking up just four seconds of penalty, a prize they shared with fellow vintageant runners Manuel Dubs and Luca Arrigucci and the classic crews from car 64, Canadian father and son Tom and Dan Kinahan in the diminutive Austin Cambridge and Franc Hoefermann-Kiefer and Tom Schorling in the more powerful Datsun 240Z.

Once the regularites had been concluded a run across the plateau of the mountains served as entertainment, followed by a drop down to the valley floor and then a run along a three-lane motorway for the first time in a long time. This was an experience in itself and showcase some of the most terrible driving we have seen across the entire trip. Speed, along with aggression and a serious lack of talent was on display from many of the locals, with plenty of examples of undertaking on the hard shoulder, and instances of drivers filtering between lanes at speed, as if they were on motorcycles. It was like something out of a computer game, and for those in the less powerful cars, such as Wim Van Gierdegom and Arne Quinze, it must have been somewhat terrifying. Special mention must go to the Belgian pair in car number 3, the tiny Chrysler Roadster, not just for braving yesterday’s highway, but for persisting with the route in a car whose speed could be described as modest at best. There is little protection from anything for them, from poor road surfaces, from the elements or indeed from other traffic, and yet here they are, into Europe and still with a Silver in the medals table.

After the test of the highway, an actual Test followed, at the Korfez Circuit, an hour or so outside of Istanbul. The cars seemed to set a wicked pace on the way to the track, with most arriving early, I guess they were anxious to arrive in Istanbul and enjoy their non-transit day. The tests are a real opportunity to put a bit of space into your nearest competitors, particularly for the faster or more nimble cars, and for those with a bit more circuit experience than most. In the fight for the overall win, Richard Walker would have certainly fancied his chances of putting a bit more daylight between him and Andy Buchan in second place, Andy driving the heavier and more cumbersome Bentley. He would, as well, finishing 18 seconds faster than Andy and going 28 seconds better on the day to extend his and Faith Douglas’ lead to one minute and nineteen seconds, which, heading into the final week is still only a mistake away from being overturned.

Fastest overall was Matt Bryson, increasing his lead as well, helped by Lars Rolner spinning the Porsche 911, the car in third place overall still finishing the test just 6 seconds slower than Matt, and pulling back some time on second placed Martin Belvisi and Andy Lane across the day.

Today is a rest day, though no doubt there will be little rest happening as the crews prepare the cars for the final seven days. Tomorrow, we head into Greece, and from there it won’t be long before we are in Italy and then France. In a week’s time, the cars will be heading to the ceremonial finish, but that is still seven days, three borders and 2800km away. So near, and yet, so far.


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