From Countdown magazine.
Having read the account of the most recent PRESTON ROAD RALLY in these pages, Robin Herd was stirred sufficiently to submit the following narrative concerning the 1986 version.
Do you ever have one of THOSE days? You knew the ones I mean; the ones where, at the end of the day, looking back on it you wish that you'd killed the alarm at it's first threatening and intrusive chirp and rolled over... missing out those 24 hours totally. I often have them. I had one in 1987 and, consequently, inflicted the same symptoms on my navigator as well. However, despite it being one of those days, it never seems to upset him at all. He never complains; never calls wrong slots; never causes an overshoot; never gets grumpy... In the five events Mike Wise and I did together, he never threw a wobbly. He did get close on one event; it was called The Preston Rally.
We found ourselves in Cambridge on the Saturday, for a day of gloriously sunny, tourist-type weather. This, looking back, was about the only consolation. The city was at its most beautiful that day, even to a biased Oxfordian.
Richard Dix, a splendid Wessex Wit, had warned us that the Preston would be bumpy. With this in mind, Mike suggested a 5-mile warm-up before the start, including a 3 mile white. This trip, and some previous knowledge of the event, confirmed Richard Dix's prognosis. Our team pep-talk included the phrase "Yes, it's rough but, if the car finishes the event and you don't make any driving errors, it and ourselves would finish in first place. His forecast was right. The car DID finish and we DIDN'T win. The following will assist you to reason why.
My first uneasy feelings about the Preston cropped up when I discovered that our Rally Management hadn't even entered us for the event! Sweet talking by Mike saw us squeezed in at number 28 - the last Expert crew.
Could be that this would be entertaining in itself.Section 1 was a ten-miler, with the route handed out at the start of the first competitive section. After 1.75 miles, we caught an Avenger and, after a further 0.5 mile, we both caught an Imp. It isn't that I was over 30 seconds a mile faster than the Avenger driver (Who I since find was Mr Phil Hanson-Abbott!) but Mike was 30-plus seconds a mile faster than the navigator in the Avenger.
One of the pleasant aspects of rallying in the top ten is that, if you ever caught a car (too rarely in my case, I must say), they do move over... at once. I can't blame them, as I'd get out of the way pretty quickly too. This, it seems, didn't happen when running in the late 20s and we proceeded unbelievably slowly, in convoy, behind the Imp. It was only for 2kms but felt like 20! Eventually, the road widened at a T junction and, with the sort of driving that brings rallying into disrepute, both the Avenger and our Escort shot past the Imp... At last! Just why do people create these frustrating and selfish situations?
By now, we were up the Avenger's chuff and he was behaving like the Imp only faster. We wanted to get by but the road was too narrow for any heroics. After a couple of kilometres, Mike called - "Turn left 120 ... there may be a short-cut where we can overtake him!" There was, and we did. How Mike knew beats me. It wasn't marked on the map by Ordnance Survey or even by Mike. Inspired guesswork?
Four miles of yellow roads followed. We caught and overtook a courteous Alfa and then entered a couple of miles of muddy white. Here, we discovered how following other competitors too closely can affect you badly once you ARE past them. Our lights were covered in gunge and the efficiency was somewhat reduced. Despite cleaning the lights at every opportunity, this problem was to be repeated on every one of the fifteen sections.
So, here we are, on a narrow, muddy white and the lights are really quite poor. I had always preached to myself that I should never ever drive beyond the limit of my visibility and I believe that I've always obeyed myself... until this night.
If I had kept to my own rule, we would have been driving Along at under the 30mph speed limit, let alone the 60mph limit! Mike spoke. "It looks dead straight on the map!" I checked his map later and he was right, it did look dead straight on the map. Velocity increased, we arrived at a muddy 30 right at about 80. Off we went but not far enough not to be blocking the track. We were stuck; couldn't move the car forwards or backwards. I was about to get out when I heard the Alfa approaching.
It was an interesting moment as I waited for the enormous accident to happen... but it didn't. Instead, there was total silence. Had the accident occurred? Was I in Heaven or was I in Hell? No, the Alfa driver had gone off too and the reason we hadn't had a closer metallic encounter was that his car under steered and had gone off in one direction whereas our over steering Escort had gone off in another. Eventually we both extricated our-selves but there was a massive time loss on Section 1.
Section 2 was just 4 miles and turned out to be the white we had tried prior to the start of the rally. There was no driving skill required here. Massive bumps and deep puddles meant that we simply abused the car. Speed was not one of the options, as it was in the air after the bumps and had so little traction after me puddles that we were accelerating nowhere Nevertheless, the red mist descended and any good intentions of preserving the car had disappeared. Looking back on that night and reflecting on the number of time that I've remonstrated with my team's race drivers about red mist, I secretly get quite ashamed of myself!
It seems that we are doing this section at 8 million mph and there is no way that the car will take much more of this. Was I being just stupid in attacking it so hard? Apparently yes, but there was only one other driver who was even more stupid - and faster on that section. Meanwhile, derelict cars from the earlier runners were beginning to appear alongside the track. Suddenly, it's over. Like stopping banging your head against the wall, it was over.
Section 3; 4.5 miles of smooth, all-yellows. Joy! No problems apart from the fact that it was now getting very icy. Seems we'd be mixing it with either mud or ice from here on in... maybe both.
Again, Section 4 was all yellows but they were hardly any better than the whites I was more used to in the Aylesbury area. During the 5.5 miles, the car in front of us disappeared off at one corner - safely. The ice was getting worse.
Section 5, four miles. This rally seems to be going on forever - and we've only just started! Mike commented that it was the combination of the long non-competitive sections and the short competitive ones. Bit like a stage rally, really. On the 'make-up' section before the start of Section 5, a few 'old friends' of ours appeared in front of us again, and me same would happen thrice more during the event. We had to start at 28 on five occasions. Once into the competitive part ahead, there were two cars suddenly coming TOWARDS us. It seems that someone had gone off in a REALLY BIG way and there was no way through. We left with much sympathy for the 'fallen' and I hate to leave people like that behind, with no offer or even possibility of any real help. However, he seemed to be well catered for by some others.
I'd always wanted to go to Ely. Not necessarily in the middle of a wintry night, though. A non-competitive section took us via Ely to Section 6, a 3.5 miler. Just before we started, a Police Car left ahead of us and we were the first car to follow him. Mainly whites, the bumps were unreal and I then noticed that the car was beginning to handle very peculiarly - different characteristics right to left. Just then, we met the Police Car - coming the opposite way along the white. I was VERY polite to him. He seemed very friendly.
Many more whites were to come. Section 7, 5 miles, had more and the yellows are even fiercer. The car is now handling even more strangely. Is something about to break? Feels like it. It's SO peculiar that I have to slow down. At slower speeds, its even MORE peculiar; we're all over the road and even more out of control than normal. I suggest to Mike that we'll probably make it to the Halfway and then we'd have to retire with broken suspension. As I'm saying this, he shouts "TURN LEFT 100!" Yes, Mike CAN shout if suitably provoked. As we were doing a speed that is best not mentioned, there was no hope that I'd manage to slow enough in time. A driver-induced overshoot - by quite a long way. I had been on mental walkabout. Mike had been calling this at 100 yard intervals for the last 500 yards and I was so preoccupied with the handling that the brain hadn't absorbed his instructions at all.
At the end of the section, l checked the car over to try to find the major suspension breakage. With a very red face, I changed the flat tyre.
The car is now perfectly driveable again as we start the 5-mile Section 8; the last section before Halfway. Under way with a competitive car again, it was rather frustrating to have to pull over and stop to allow an oncoming car to pass. Rubbing salt into an open wound, it turned out to be MY road car, towing a broken-down competitor! Nevertheless, we were fastest by 3s/mile.
Halfway Halt. 42 competitive miles gone and 70 more to come. Amazingly, we were leading! After all that aggravation, we were bloody first! The starter motor has failed, though, and we philosophically figured that it would not be a problem. "No problem, Mike", I said. (Remember this, more later!)
All we have to do is to keep the engine running if we're waiting at Controls. Mustn't stall it!!
The 3 miles of section 9 were all on proper roads. A nice section and we were fastest by 4s/mile, which particularly pleased me as I usually drive like an old lady after Halfway/Petrol halts. The traction was noticeably better on this section and perhaps things are 'on the up'.
Section 10 was very special. 28 miles long and quite a test. A 6 km white is arrow-straight on the map. The puddle splashes have blotted out much of the lighting power yet again and, again, I do not observe my 30-mph sight limit. So, on this dead straight white, there was an unmarked right./left kink. You see it AS you hit it. Yes, we hit it at... more than 30 mph. From the tyre marks in the soft ground, the cars ahead did exactly the same - all over the place.
At the end of this white, we are up behind a Saab as we go onto a long, straight yellow. I can't catch the Saab! I reckon that my Escort - as seen in more developed form in later years in the hands of Simon Galliford, Sarah Johnson, Mark Herd, Bill Gwynne and myself on the stages - was not exactly the slowest of rally cars in those days, especially in a straight line but, for the life of me, l just could not stay with this Saab. Eventually, twists and junctions gave us an advantage and we passed it. Briefly, his lights were there in my rear view mirror before he suddenly disappeared, never to be seen again. Will I EVER know just what happened to him?
Our final lateness reducing make-up section precedes Section 11. We have a 2-minute lead and the worst of the rough stuff is apparently over and we must be nearly ¾ through the event. One problem raises its ugly little head as we wait; we have to wait for almost 20 minutes and, with the need to keep the engine running, the temperature creeps towards the inferno end of the scale. What a dilemma I don't fancy having to try and restart a hot engine just as we are due to start. Gently simmering, we leave the start and I take second gear... and third. The engine cuts dead, fires up again and then misfires for a painfully slow half-mile. The Gods appear to be with us again, though, as it clears its throat and all is well. Again, we catch the courteous Alfa just as it arrives at a Passage Control - in the middle of a 15-yard wide lake! Really! The Alfa gets itself stuck! We wait patiently while three splendid marshals push it down the road until it can pull off the track.
That over, we are two miles from the end of the section, still with a comfortable lead, and with just 28 miles of competitive motoring to complete. So, I excel myself.
Approaching a Give Way Junction, I spot another competitor travelling, incorrectly but speedily, along the main road to intersect us. As I brake, I feel the sheet ice underthe tyres; you must know the sickening feeling. Ourcollision course couldn't have been better timed by Mission Control at NASA. There is a 'convenient' bank on theleft hand side of our road, up which I drive to slow thecar; stalling the engine in the process. While I haveavoided a potentially very nasty accident, Mike and I arenow forced to spend the next seven or eight minutespushing the car forwards and backwards to free it fromits predicament and to try and bump start it. First objectiveachieved, we couldn't restart it. I suggested that we push it into the next white, blocking the route and so forcing the next car along to help us on our way. Mike is a gentleman and disagrees. As we idly stand by, many competitors pass by, including one Adrian Gladwin! Thanks, pal!
Eventually, after more Herculean efforts, we get the engine bump-started.
The 10-mile section 12 was on the standard Preston whites. Down one such beauty, the next Passage Control marshal informs us that there has been a nasty shunt ahead, causing a traffic jam. He's right, of course, but as we arrive, the initial cause has become sorted and we become the postillion of a six-car convoy, travelling pain-fully slowly along some whites that afford absolutely no opportunity for passing. Just as we reach a yellow, a Police Car cruises past the junction! Aaaarggh! It was one of those Police Cars. For the next mile, we were in a 30-mph convoy until the next mile, when we were in a 20-mph convoy! Honestly!
As the Police car turned right, all six of us dived off left. Every car seems to be faster than the car ahead of it and we are back in the narrow whites again. Can't pass! No one will willingly pull over and let the following car by. The carnage that should rightfully occur does not. Why not? Don't know.
At last! Section 13; 4.5 miles, no whites and we are fastest by 3 secs/mile.
Section 14; 3.5 miles, no whites and we are fastest by 4 secs/mile.
Section 15.8 miles. We are only five minutes off OTL and this is the final section. Only eight miles to go. Anyone with ANY wits at all would know just what the best tactics would be. Not this panda! My first example of sheer brilliance is to arrive at a hairpin right, packed with spectators. Braking hard, and deftly tweaking the hand-brake, my brain says select first and my hand selects reverse. Great. Just the stuff that heroes are made of. Except for a couple of times in the average event, I reckon that hand brake turns lose you about five seconds when compared to some intelligent driving. We now average a hand brake turn once every ten miles and Mike mentally gives me a minute deficit at the start of every rally. Thus, I vow to avoid the hand brake like it had 4 million volts up it but, at the sight of all those cameras and seried ranks of spectators .....
Red-faced again, l engage first and thank the Lord that my foul-up hadn't caused any of the spectators any injury.
Now... the piece de resistance! We are just 300 yards from the end of the event, rapidly approaching the final slot which will take us into the final Time Control... The wheels locked up and the hand brake is SOLID. I stall the bloody thing! Rivals pass us with no thought of offering help to a stricken comrade. We can't get it started! Mike seizes the Road Book and Time Card and sets off at a sprint towards the final Control ... running at full tilt through a deep ford! I manage to fire the car up and I arrive at the final Control at exactly the same time as a rather damp and breathless Mike. The marshal looks confused! Can you imagine his predicament? One navigator-less rally car pulls in at the same time as a wet and weary pedestrian claiming to be a competitor.
It had to be, though. We were OTL by one solitary sodding minute!
At the Finish, and despite our Fail for being OTL, we end up at 8th overall, some three minutes behind the winner. Personally, our last 300 yards effort should have led to our disqualification, which would have been a most fitting finale.
My congratulations to Mr Biss, who demonstrated his manifestly superior intelligence, not to mention his very able driving.
As for the Preston Rally, I really did enjoy it all! Work schedule and co-driver willing, and especially after having read of the 1991 Preston in Countdown, we'd love to do it again. As a road rally, it's different. It sure is different. One event of this type per year is fine, but only one. It was courteously and efficiently run and our thanks to Chelmsford Motor Club.
Mike Wise and I did five road rallies in 1986, giving final placings of 6th,1st,1st, 3rd and 8th. This SHOULD read 3rd, 1st, 1st, 1st and 1st but four examples of driving lunacy and mental lapses on my part - stalling twice on the Preston, a mental walkabout on the New Cedar and a major sideways on a white with an inevitable puncture on the Wessex made a nonsense of it all. Sorry, Mike.