London to Cape Town World Cup Rally 2012

The Long Way Down - Against the Clock


Beaune, France


Battle-report from the Western Front

Day Two of the World Cup Rally starts at 5.0am with the Captain of the P&O’s Pride of Canterbury demonstrating how to perform a handbrake turn with 40,000 tonnes of cross-Channel ferry into his narrow parking slot inside Calais harbour.

Dawn breaks over the depressing scene of concrete as we disembark down to the empty plastic sentry-boxes of the immigration officials, and on past the vast truck-parks that sweep the visitors to France out onto the area of rolling pastures sliced in two by the main north-south autoroute to Reims.

Often on trips like this we have found ourselves asking the question: What does it take to use the amazing network of gravel tracks that criss-cross the fields on either side of this boring road for a spot of rallying?

It was on a trip through northern France that curiosity simply had to be answered by taking time out… and so here is an inside-account of how some things are clicked together for events of this kind. We wanted to know how to talk to the Mayor of the village, he would know the answer to the question that was on the forefront of our minds. A tractor ploughed up and down the lonely furrows of the big field before the village, and we stop. Let’s walk across and ask the farmer!  The ploughman turns off his 200hp John Deere engine, and swings two Wellington boots over the side to slide down and shake our hands. “You want the Mayor? Well, I am the Mayor!” We explain the strange request.  Ah, says the Mayor, you need a permit for that, come to my office in an hour, and I will write it out for you. And so, 60 minutes later, we find ourselves sitting on the concrete steps of his office in the centre of the village. The Mayor arrives by tractor, still wearing the muddy boots, and sits at his desk…scribbles out with a felt-tip pen the permit, and suggests we take it to his mate, the Mayor of the next village, for him to copy out the same wording on his notepaper, while waving a finger over the big map on the wall.

“I will be away at my cottage in Le Touquet ….so regret I will not see you racing past my house,” he says apologetically, “please don’t break the speed limit.” Er, what is your speed limit?  Well, its 90 kph. Is this fast enough for you?

You just couldn’t find such on the spot co-operation back home.

And so the day has come. We return to the Mayor’s village, houses boarded up with wooden shutters, peeling paint giving up the battle of keeping out the wind that whips across this vast open plain of what was once called The Western Front.

Today, a different kind of conflict is taking place. The gruff deep-throated growly of the 400 bhp V8 BMW engine of Robert Belcher is chased by the howl of Porsche 911 engines, and the baying six-cylinder Datsun 240Zs, all with crews cracking the whip in the hope of turning the tables at the front of the leaderboard… while wondering what they have spent in recent months in preparation, only to be beaten soundly on the opening leg of this competition by the cheapest cars on the entry-list.

The morning mist hangs low around the copes of trees at the top of a hill where the remains of a fort from the battle between Napoleon and Wellington once saw troops dug into the mud here.  You flick 90-left and then 90 right around the fields to climb up to this spot, long straights in between, overnight rain has sliced up the mud with rivulets of running water… now this is more like it.  You charge across a big open landscape, no hedges or fences divide these fields, just great gravel tracks, with deep pools of water that thump under the wheel arches. You apply the spurs to get a good clip on up the summit, running now in front of the fort in the wood, hook it right now, on mud-covered gravel, slip and steady up, you slide over wet grass, fall into the ruts of another long track, and this time there is grass growing up the middle, and the ruts are getting deeper… and then it’s  now into a series of blind crests, sudden drops, another blind crest, into another sudden drop, needing power to slither up the other side… hardly good ground for a small front wheel drive hatchback. The 4x4 drivers are delighted with this, but power is no answer, as anything but a disciplined right foot sees momentum take over… the tracks of the early runners show plenty must have had a white-knuckle moment just missing an early ending stuck in a field, giant S-shaped lines are carved in wet mud.

At the end of it all, Paul Heal from the Shaftsbury Motor Club is clicking away the stop watch, hunkered down out of the wind, propped up on a faded green barn just next door to the empty Mayor’s house.

The MG of Owen Turner keeps the lead to head the results table today, but second place was snatched by a good run by Andy Actman’s Toyota tonka-toy, the Maestro Girls slipping down to third. Rachel Vestey and Suzy Harvey keep their 9th spot, suggesting a finish in the top ten by Cape Town is going to see a right cat-fight… the Mercedes of Owain Lloyd and Peter Scott lose a place, and the very British Land Rover now nudges into the top ten.

A few go up, and a few go down… conflict in the mud of the Somme first thing in the morning was always just so.  And so the order changes some more after the giant-killing acts of the sprats of the rally the previous night.

Walking wounded? We hear that David Gough in the Peugeot 504 has cured a mysterious engine problem that saw him running on two cylinders through the Kent lanes to Dover… and talking of Peugeots, the 205 from the father-and-son team, Mark and Ben Munne, from Holland has found someone to fix a wheel bearing problem first thing in the morning.

With no sweeper mechanics and no service crews allowed on this event, you have to be quick-witted to find spares and help to stay in the game. The Dutch are looking happy with themselves in the bar this evening.


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