Once a year members of the great British public (those with a mixture of petrol and mud in their veins) pack their waterproof trousers, sling their camera bags over their shoulder, and head off into the forests of North Wales to watch the WRC heroes compete for one of the biggest prizes in rallying.
This year GRR decided it might be about to time to follow them into the valleys and see what all the fuss was about. So, armed with Volkswagen‘s mighty Golf R hot-hatch, we zipped up our jackets and began the trek up the M6.
In its current form Wales Rally GB is based at the very top of Wales, with teams convening at a Toyota plant in Deeside, just to the west of Chester, before heading south to tackle the stages in a series of loops, each taken twice.
While the days of a trip around the entire country under the guise of the ‘RAC Rally’, with drivers of the ilk of Jim Clark, are long gone, what has emerged from a few years of relative turmoil is a more focused event. The drivers are undoubtedly the best non-circuit racers in the world and the stages are the greatest that Britain has to offer. Could there be a better way to end the rallying year?
Since we only had two days to take in the full Rally GB experience we figured GRR should head to two iconic stages. After some deliberation we plumped for Myherin, the longest stage on Rally GB, and Sunday’s morning trip to Dyfi – run in its full form for only the second time in 15 years.
There’s something special about arriving in Wales on that first evening, the night before it all kicks off. Seeing old friends you haven’t seen since last year’s event, tucking into a pub dinner before heading back to the B&B ready for what will be an hilariously early start.
The next day the sight of that first rally car hoving into view will provide quite possibly the most satisfying sight in motorsport. Simply because of the effort taken to get to your first viewing point.
Myherin, our starting point, is one of those iconic north Wales stages that many a driver eulogises about. Sprinting through the twisting gravel roads that normally host nothing more than a few ramblers, the odd forest ranger and an assortment of deer, before plunging out, into the sunlight, as the stage weaves its way in and out of giant wind turbines. It produces some incredible TV shots as the uber-talented helicopter pilots navigate within a matter of feet of those white behemoths to bring footage of the stage to the world.
An obvious place to start GRR’s visit to Rally GB. That early start? 5am. Which made the charms of the 300hp R seem all the more endearing as it sliced through the rain-drenched early-morning countryside before hauling itself into the gravel tracks that become the car parks during the rally.
Thankfully what had turned into a downpour of monsoon proportions abated, allowing us to slip out of the car, into our wellies and head off into the stage. The forests at 7am are an incredible peaceful place. You build a sense of camaraderie with your fellow spectators like no other sporting event can evoke. Each of you is dressed to the nines in noisy waterproof gear, and sometimes drenched below that. But each man and woman is of one single purpose, all yearning for that perfect viewing spot. The one that those who lingered in bed, corralled into the pre-set viewing spots, will miss out on. In the case of Myherin that is the windswept spaces outside of the trees, where each car can be seen for upwards of 30 seconds.
The location precludes access to information from the outside world, plunging you back to an motorsport age when each spectator kept their own grasp of who was running where. Days of lap charts and sharpened pencils may be long-gone in the tech-heavy world of F1, but in the forests even they are no real use for judging positions. That’s what makes it one of the most pure spectating experiences you could find. All you can do is watch the cars pass, cutting their way through ruts and over bumps, gravel tyres tearing away at the previously pristine surface like a demented lion.
Some of the more hardcore attendees can split their days into a couple of stages, hopping out of one forest section and into another in an attempt to fit as many in as possible. At GRR we elected to savour each stage, with all being attempted twice by the WRC cars. This involves a fair amount of standing around waiting, but also allows for multiple viewing points to be taken in. In the case of Myherin, it also allowed us to watch the part-time heroes who contest the ‘Network Q National Rally’.
These hardy bunch of mostly self-funders attack the same stages as the big boys with as much, if not more, gusto. Piloting an array of machinery that a major championship could only dream of. From the legendary Jimmy McRae and his Chevy Firenza to multiple Imprezas, Mitsubishi Evos and of course a phalanx of Ford Escorts. It’s like a short trip through time. Muddy, muddy time.
The second and final, day of our odyssey to Wales led us, and the trusty Golf, whose mix of power, grip and comfort had grown on us massively over the space of a few days (more on that later), into the forest of Dyfi.
Remember that rain that had so kindly eased? It was back, and back with force. The weather took such a turn for the worse that organisers even thought about abandoning several stages over the weekend – high winds forced Sunday’s Great Orme stage to be closed to spectators.
News from France had sadly rendered the rally a partial sideshow, but in what could only be seen as a triumph of human spirit over adversity, the crowds returned and French rally star Sebastien Ogier continued to battle his way to a victory he would dedicate to those who lost their lives in the dreadful events in Paris just hours before.
While the names of those who compete for the World Rally Championship of today may not draw the same awe that the likes of Vatenen, McRae et al managed from the general public, do not let that fool you into thinking they are in anyway lesser drivers.
The proliferation of television channels available in the 21st century, coupled with the move to smaller, slightly less exciting, cars, has meant the incredible vision of a rally car at full opposite lock has been lost to large amounts of viewers. But that does not mean those who pull on their fireproof overalls and chuck down a couple of the strongest brave pills are any lesser talents. Indeed the winner of this last rally of 2015 now stands second on the all-time list of rally winners and, some will argue, could have taken on the greatest of all time, Sebastien Loeb, if Citroen had allowed him to earlier in his career.
These heroic pilots still have more than enough talent to leave you astonished, amazed at the complete lack of concern they show for the steep drops that the Wales mountains proffer to them, gravity inviting them down to sea level at the slightest mistake.
It’s the astonishing magnitude of talent and the all-encompassing spectacle of sight, sound and scenery, that makes a rally spectating experience so involving and engaging that you don’t even notice that your clothes are about to become more water than cloth and that you still have a four hour journey home. Who cares? You’re taking in one of the greatest scenes that man and nature have created together, and the Golf R has heated seats.
Will we be back again in 2016? You bet your bobble hat we will.
Photography by Ben Miles