…But sometimes a helicopter comes along and crashes into all of your shit
We entered our first European Championship event, The Circuit of Ireland, started last, did everything (nearly) perfectly, and finished 2nd in our BUZZ SWEETS Fiesta R2. This was quite similar to all the other events we had done to that point. Turn up, kill it, go home; no problem. But sometimes, a helicopter crashes into all of your shit..
..and somehow, I missed inserting that line item into the three and a half week movement schedule I had to put together for trying to compete in an event in the middle of the Atlantic ocean (in an archipelago called the Azores) several ferry trips away from home, all on our own logistically. The team knows that if something is going to happen, it should be in the movement schedule up until the point that everyone is back at their doorstep, even if it’s Risto Immonen force feeding your driver shots of Finnish vodka until he ends up lost in the back alleys in Lisbon before turning up at the port to find all of his equipment smashed to bits. The point is if there’s a time, a location, and participants from the team, it’s supposed to be in there. Every decent navigator knows that.
Anyway, this was the scene of our equipment when my driver, Alex Parpottas, went to pick up the van and trailer from Lisbon after it took a 5 day trip halfway across the Atlantic from Rallye Azores, which served to cap off one of those weekends where surely one must have committed some cardinal sin against the Rally Gods to deserve such treatment. Azores was our second European Championship event, and obviously, the first event for us since my relocation to Europe that didn’t go perfectly as (un)planned.
(how can an island that looks so pretty be so cruel? This was taken from my camera phone FTW)
Despite a recce where the owners of the rental car company detained us for a couple of hours after discovering used Pirelli rally tires fitted to their vehicle driving around town (oops), the remainder of the recce seemed fairly natural on some really crazy roads on this Jurassic Park-looking archipelago called Azores, made famous for probably the most ridiculous-looking stage in the world, Sete Cidades. It’s a stage that runs along a ridge straddling a plunge into a volcano on one side or the Atlantic ocean on the other, and shown on live TV.
However, our notes did just leave a bit to be desired. The roads are extremely narrow and tricky with tons of short corners, lots of surface changes, and ridiculous elevation changes on the climbs and descents, and maybe, it just wasn’t all in there. It’s a tough judgment call to make on roads this tricky because there’s just so much you need to know but you can’t be entirely sure what you’ll be able to just sort out when you get there. To be fair, we only started making our own pace notes less than 8 weeks before the event. If we weren’t competing at this level, we wouldn’t already be forced to notice that there’s still a good bit of progress to be made. Still, we felt fairly confident going into our sole gravel rally within the European Rally Championship, and by all TV standards, our notes looked like some serious business.
So anyway, in Azores we set off on a good, aggressive pace on the first stage. Everything was going really well actually despite a whole 4km of gravel testing we completed. We had no dramas as we climbed one side of the mountain, drove through some pretty flowers, and descended down the opposite end toward the ocean. The downhill continued to get steeper and steeper as we ran a tad wide here and there, but it was nothing alarming. I slowed Alex down just a tick – inflecting a bit more, repeating a bit more, calling notes a little earlier. As we make our way into the finish, Alex sets the car up sideways for a tightening right corner down the hill; the rear sits out on some fresh gravel nicely graded onto the road between recce and the event (wonderful), and the car just doesn’t slow down like it’s supposed to. We clipped the bank and got sucked around in a tilted spin that nearly tipped us on our roof, facing the wrong direction on a road entirely too narrow to turn around while still carrying enough momentum to be traveling on backwards down the road.
I knew the next corner was right at a T-junction onto tarmac, so I advised to reverse down the hill onto the access road, and blast across the finish. However, after the car finally restarts with the engine having turned backwards (engines don’t like that too much), it’s clear from the dull rattle underneath the floorboard as we try to accelerate that we’re not going anywhere. We’re out already. Months of planning and two weeks traveling across Europe and the Atlantic to an island halfway home to America, and it’s all over on the very first stage..
Well ain’t that some shit.
One of the most disturbing parts of having rallied for over a decade as much as humanly possible is that you can instantly cite several examples of being in this exact same situation before, all the way back to the beginning, literally. My first rally was over 11 years ago at an event called Sandhills/Sandblast in Cheraw, South Carolina. At that time, I had been waiting my entire 16 years of existence to compete in a rally, and we go off 2.5 miles into the first stage. Donezo. I slept the whole 12 hour journey home from the event I was so depressed. It is a cruel, cruel sport, and sometimes, the only solace is that you’ve gone cold from so many disappointments over so many years, yet you’re still here. You’re still doing it, and at this point, all I can do is convey to the younger Alex that rally life still goes on. It’s as simple as shit happens; keep your head up and continue in a way that you know is right because often times in rallying, you really are just rolling the dice, and inevitably you’ll get snake eyes. It’s that simple
And when we succeed, it’s totally just talent and skill. No luck involved, EVER
Then, after binning it, comes the inevitable waiting. It doesn’t matter how high up you are in the rally world. When you crash, you sit in the dark listening to the velociraptors circling above you on this godforsaken island that must have provided the original inspiration to all three Jurassic Park movies. This is, until someone gets you, in which case you can sort out some brute-force, Bear Grylls’ style solution for extracting the car and getting it on the trailer. Some things never change.
Regardless, we certainly weren’t the only junior team going off at this rally, or even, at this particular corner. Our fellow competitor , Risto Immonen, managed to validate our accident by then rolling the car himself at exactly the same place, the second time through the stage, as shown below with various other bits of carnage.
Plus, looking at the time elapsed in the video and comparing that to the time left within the stage, it looks like we would have been 3rd or 4th on the first one, right in line with our typical objective of getting on the podium.
Seeing as the damage was minimal, we restart Leg 2. Unfortunately, Leg 1 consisted of Thursday (when we went off) AND Friday, so technically we wouldn’t be able to restart until the next LEG, which was Saturday. We did try to run provisionally on Friday at the back of the pack for experience, but whenever the FIA is involved, you’re never going to get to a liberal interpretation of the rules. As soon as I was pulled into the dark, windowless halls of the FIA office on Friday morning to defend my inquiry, I knew I wasn’t going to be met with warm smiles and empathy. If you’ve ever watched the movie SENNA, you can understand how the interaction usually goes as a competitor. Long story short, we went spectating for the day.
Despite being a competitor, I still love spectating. I get to hike the most beautiful mountains, grab a beer, and as soon as I’m about to get bored..rally cars. It is a good holiday, so we and all the crew did just that. We headed out for a beautiful day on the famous Sete Cidades stage, balanced a massive wooden pallet on a 10 foot wall (our crew chief, Matt Beebe, assured me it was sound) with a view of the volcano, the ocean, and 1km of stage road. I’m still bummed I didn’t get to do it, but even if I did it, I’d still want to spectate it as well at some point. I just expected that I would watch it when I was older and well..on the downslope of my career. Anyway, I’ll be back.
Restarting a rally after you’ve already gone off two days ago just make it bit tough to get back into the groove when everyone else has been in the rhythm of the event for an extra day, especially when there’s cows in the way. We try new things with the setup, but it’s just not quite right, and our confidence just isn’t quite right, so we’re slower at first. We finally get back on pace even as our tires are worn to nothing, even if somebody forgot to secure the boot pins
Then, on the last stage of the rally, our tires go completely bald on the descent of Tronqueira (the 2nd live TV stage). We slide wide on a slow corner, and knock the control arm back so that the tire is rubbing in fender. We finish the stage, but the Michelin spec tire is so massive that we can’t precisely bend the control arm back to where it perfectly needs to be in order to fit on a new tire. We drive on it, but not surprisingly, it eventually explodes and takes some of the wiring harness with it.
It’s game over on the last transit, just to rub a little salt into our fresh wounds and make absolutely sure that we miss the party. There we were again, sitting in the jungle watching the sunset, waiting for someone to come extract us as we achieved the oxymoronic feat of retiring on both the first AND last stage of the event.
After we all fly home, Alex realizes there really is no one else pick up the van and trailer from Lisbon when the boat is due to arrive later on in the week, and after it arrives a day late from a storm, Alex wakes up to the beautiful image of a sideways helicopter that smashed through the entirety of our setup and spends the remaining portion of the day talking to insurance surveyors and arguing with the organizers and shipping company to provide some sort of support to get him home. They don’t. And as I spend my weekend chilling in London with my friends I haven’t seen in a month and catching up American friends Matt Johnston and Tanner Foust at Lydden Hill, Alex drives all day, all night, and all day again in a dilapidated van and trailer with no brakes and no trailer lights as Risto Immonen (our fellow competitor who managed to validate our accident by then rolling the car himself on the same corner) acts as his trailer lights. He even makes sure he gets all the way to the ferry crossing in Calais. Fortunately, the other part of rallying that never changes is the sense of community and rally spirit, especially when you most need it.
As with these international events, the planning starts months in advance, and there is consistently work to do in relation to the event every single day for a month leading up to it. After Azores, I try to give Alex a week to recover from his nightmare as I take care of everything for Ypres in just a few weeks.
For anyone unfamiliar with the ERC, probably the most competitive and popular event on the calendar is the Ypres Rally, and after the Azores fiasco, it was a welcome relief logistically. As it’s on the west end of Belgium (and even runs a bit in France), it’s actually closer to London than most events to us in the UK. Thank God.
Azores was also a wake-up call that we needed to get a bit more serious about our preparation, so we set out to the clearly define meaning of the terms we use in our pace notes, discuss any misunderstandings or ambiguities with the terminology we use, go through our on-boards, fix the notes that were wrong, and understand why, and practice recce as a skill on its own. We went down to Belgium a day early, spent a few hours discussing precisely what each terms meant and when it will be used and what different language we would introduce to deal with some of the nuances specific to Ypres (specifically for the massive cuts, dirt on the road, and unmarked junctions). We then spent a day just practicing doing recce so that when we arrived at the first stage, we were already in the rhythm of making notes and not just warming up to it halfway through the reconnaissance. It’s somewhat disturbing to think that many competitors DON’T do that, including ourselves up to this point, and we end up almost accepting that the notes on the first stage you recce will just be a bit shit compared to the last stage you recce (although I believe even Latvala came across this problem recently). Anyway, at this level, that’s just not acceptable, and at least we realized we could no longer get away with it.
So next time..stay tuned for Ypres to find out if/how we manage to get the BUZZ SWEETS Fiesta R2 out of this one!