Adamanda's SIDC @ Catalunya '98

Thurrock ... Friday afternoon ... Glamourous or what?

VIP pass On 17th April, four cars of the Subaru Impreza Drivers Club met for the trip to Northern Spain for round five of the '98 World Rally Championship, the Rallye Catalunya.

SIDC committee members Pete & Stuart drove Stuart's silver '98 (laden with Prodrive goodies), Mike & co-opted co-driver Richard were in Mike's green '97, Stuart and his brother Gavin drove their blue WRX STi II, and Amanda & I made up the quartet in our red '96.

Pete distributed excellent photocopied route maps and schedules, while Stuart cleaned the service station out of sandwiches and snacks. Pete's scheme was for the non-car-owner to drive most of the way to Andorra so the owner was fresh for the fun roads, but Amanda & I planned to swap over roughly every fuel stop, effectively tossing a coin for who got to drive across Andorra.

Breaker, breaker, you on the one-nine come back?

The original convoy-plan was to keep in contact with GSM phones, but we didn't all have them - and besides, the roaming charges make your eyes water.

Instead, Pete rented four walkie-talkies (at £15 per unit per week). With a line-of-sight range of a mile or so, they made travelling in convoy much easier ... as well as allowing us to discuss routes and warn of turn-offs, it was a lot easier to keep the group together by keeping track of who was stuck in traffic.

We later found, to our joy, that the radios had a much more useful function on the twisty mountain roads ...

Of course, the essential first task was to choose "handles" for ourselves, and spent the first 20 miles of M25 squabbling about who'd be Scooby, Shaggy, Fred or Daphne. 20 miles later we'd given up because we were too thick to remember who was who, and went back to using names.


Most of us hadn't used Le Shuttle before, and we were impressed with how quick, smooth and painless the trip was. The trains go every 20 minutes: you just drive on, stand around the cars chatting for half an hour, then drive off.

We filled up with fuel just outside the Chunnel terminal, and set off at a steady pace towards Paris.

The rain in Spain falls mainly on Northern France

It variously rained, drizzled and poured to Paris and beyond, but we still made good progress. The only people overtaking us were lunatic bikers heading for Le Mans, wearing huge rucksacks and doing 120mph in and out of the traffic.

Pete had given us some Rain X on the train, but I'd only had time to treat the drivers side of the windscreen. This made for weird travel - Amanda could see perfectly without wipers even in heavy rain, while for me in the passenger seat it was like looking through "bathroom glass".

The Blast to Andorra

We went clockwise around Paris and then headed down the Autoroute past Tours, Poitiers, Bordeaux and Toulouse.

As the weather cleared, the pace picked up as we drove through the night, and despite the length of the journey and the lateness of the hour it has to be the best motorway journey I've ever done - at no point did I feel tired or bored. Neither did we see any police, which was a good thing as we averaged a little over the limit. Stuart assured us that the legend of péage booths calculating your average speed and handing out tickets was untrue!

The sustained speeds and a headwind hurt our economy, as I saw my worst-ever fuel consumption, at 16mpg for a tank of motorway. The WRX, with it's shorter gearing, predictably had the highest fuel consumption. The '96 and '97 cars were in the middle and indicated identical usage, whilst the '98 car showed noticeably lower use. French petrol prices for a litre of 98 RON unleaded ranged from about 6.1 to 6.8 francs (typically about 65p compared to 78p in the UK).

We discovered that the joy of péage booths is to allow Imprezas with rorty exhausts to provide aural entertainment to other motorists! None of the four Scooby variants had a noticeable advantage in these acceleration-from-rest tests.

By the time we got to Toulouse we were well ahead of schedule, and were clearly going to get to the mountains of Andorra before dawn, so we had a tactical rest. Compared to the '98 car on superunleaded, our car was noticeably lacking in torque, so we used the stop to disconnect the battery for a while and allow the memory of crappy supermarket fuel to drain from the ECU.

A tank of fuel later we were past Foix and away from the 24-hour services of the autoroutes. Driving ever-slower past a succession of closed garages, we stopped in Tarascon at 6.30am to wait for dawn and fuel. An hour later we refueled and breakasted on croissants, and were ready for Andorra.

Those mountain roads

Scoobies in snow We ignored a few signs insisting on snow-chains for access to Andorra - after all, we all had four-wheel-drive :-) - and were very soon in slush and snow. Following slower cars up hills at low revs, it was great fun to hit the gas and feel the engine gradually come on-boost, at which point all four wheels would spin and the car would go interestingly sideways! It was a good practical demonstration that 4WD isn't much help on snow without blocky tyres.

When the other cars stopped to put chains on, we decided to go for plan 'B', which was to do a few doughnuts in an icy car park and then skirt around Andorra on clearer roads. From this point, the roads got better and better, carving up and down the mountains and hugging the contours of the hillsides, with sheer drops to one side and walls of rock to the other.

I quickly realised that all the driving I'd done in England counted for nothing, and that this was the first time I'd really driven the Scooby. I was really crap to start with, but I could feel my driving getting better as the bends passed. It was amazing how tiring it was to drive full-on for even a few minutes at a time ... it seemed that without warning my cornering would get ragged and my head would suddenly be half a corner behind the car, and I'd realise that I'd allowed myself to be distracted by some scenery, or by the back of Stuart's silver scooby disappearing into the distance!

As with my previous biking trips to the Western Pyrenees and the Californian Sierra Nevada, I was massively jealous of the fantastic scenery, and of course the quality of the roads: challenging; superbly surfaced; virtually empty of traffic; and perhaps just as importantly, allowing tens of miles of fast driving but without the frustration of a 30mph limit every few miles, like we have in England.

In the next few days, everyone's driving improved perceptibly, and by mid-week the limit was no longer my attention span but the life of tyres and brakes :-)

It was hard to understand how the SIDC members who had the opportunity to come on the trip had managed to refuse! We wondered how many cars would accompany us in '99 once we'd spread the word about what a great trip it was ...

Finding the Limits

Something immediately apparent was that the standard scooby gears were far too widely spaced for the mountain twisties. Second gear was about the best, but it was a bit low to get to the end of many straights, and we were often caught between holding it on the limiter for the last few yards, or slipping into third for a couple of seconds. At the same time, second gear was too high for pulling out of tight corners, and there was a lot of embarrassing off-boost chugging to be endured! What we really needed was a close ratio 'box with 1½, 2 and 2½ gears ... a WRX RA would be a really useful tool on those roads.

Scoobies with no brakes Gearing notwithstanding, it was a lot easier going up the hills than down, because gravity helped to control corner entry speed. The brakes can only take a few miles of spirited downhill driving in the twisties, and sure enough we finally caught up with Stuart, who'd stopped to let his brakes recover. Even with Mintex pads they'd faded right away. The smell was fantastic! Most of us were to generate our own smells from sudden brake-pedal-to-the-floor moments in the week to come :-)

On the grippy road surfaces, the tyres (including my 17" P-Zeros) often overheated too. Initially it's quite good fun, as they give beautiful, controllable four-wheel slides around corners, but as they get hotter and hotter they lose more grip, so the only solutions are to back off, or preferably (so as not to waste the lovely road!) stop and have a mass brake-smelling and tyre-feeling session. I was amused to see this behaviour isn't just restricted to bikers after track-day sessions!

Clear ... Clear ... Clear ...

Having the radios was a godsend on the twisty roads. Although traffic was generally light, safe overtaking opportunities were quite rare even for the explosive power of a scooby on boost. However, once the first car had gone past, the co-driver was able to radio-back the oncoming traffic enabling the other cars to go through.

Needless to say it took a while to build up trust in the caller, and it was often still very hard to pull out into a blind overtake even when you knew it was clear with no side-turnings for another mile. It seemed to cause some consternation among the overtakees who occasionally honked their worry about our apparently suicidal manoeuvres:-)

Fastest Point-to-Point Car?

It's often said in the press that the scooby is the fastest "point-to-point" car (whatever that means). Maybe for the superlative driving skills of a motoring journalist that's true, but in practice we found that enthusiastically-driven "normal" cars - I won't embarrass us by identifying them - could often keep up with us on the clean, dry roads.

Personally, I wouldn't put any money on a scooby against a Lotus Elise in those conditions, and I feel that a sports bike would be hard to beat too - at least in part because it's easier to keep a bike in the power through the bends. To me, the scooby often felt very wide on the smaller roads, and I later sympathised with the Subaru and Mitsubishi WRC cars which looked quite a handful compared to the Corolla, and especially the stunning F2 cars.

Of course, once the surface got wet or dirty we'd be long gone ... :-) Lloret de Mar

Lloret de Mar

Coming out of the Pyrenees, the roads returned to normality and the temperatures rose. We finally reached Lloret Saturday lunchtime after stopping for a drink at Prodrive's luxurious clifftop hotel, and got two apartments right on the seafront for £25 per person. That's £25 per person per week of course!

In the evening we wandered around the rally village set up on the seafront just yards from our rooms, and stocked up on programmes, stage maps and t-shirts.

Prelude to Rally

Scoobies in the sun We spent Sunday "acclimatising", or dossing on the beach as it's otherwise known. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't made sweeter by the knowledge that folks back home had freezing temperatures and sleet :-)

In the evening we went to scrutineering and got a taste for the local enthusiasm for the event, as the pavements and roads were crammed with people. The drivers had to part the crowds with their bumpers in some places ... Sainz & Moya and all the SEAT competitors are heroes, and got huge cheers from the onlookers.

After extricating our cars from their ultra-secure underground parking (£6 per car per week!) and negotiating the traffic jams caused by scrutineering, we headed for the charmingly-named Tossa de Mar to clean the mountain road salt off the cars. The coast road was excellent with stunning views, but could evidently bite - as the owner of the crunched and inverted Ibiza we encountered would no doubt testify.

A Rude Awakening

Colin1 It's not every day that we're woken up by World Rally Cars burbling past our window, but I wish it was. For one thing it would be a lot harder to oversleep!

After watching the top seeded drivers line up at the start, Pete & Stuart disappeared to VIP with Prodrive for the day, while the rest of us plebs headed off to mountains northwest of Lloret for the first stage.

Shortly afterwards, stuck in traffic in Vic and making mental notes to book an earlier WRC car for our alarm call, we realised that stage 4 might be a better bet after all.

Driving in stages

The Rallye Catalunya is held entirely on public roads, which while losing some of the sideways action of gravel rallys, gives higher-speed thrills and, of course, the opportunity to drive the stages.

The stages were closed to the public 90 minutes before the first rally car, and reopened immediately after the last car.

Stage 4, where we arrived with an hour of public access still available, turned out to be some of the most challenging tarmac I've ever encountered. Our three scoobies in flight, which attracted a lot of attention wherever they went, were hugely appreciated by the fans waiting in their mid-stage vantage points, and our rorty 'zorsts, whistling turbos and tyre-sliding antics got a lot of appreciative grins and waves :-)

Reaching the end of the 20km stage still with plenty of time to spare, we were so fired up with adrenalin that we could do nothing but turn around and drive it all again. This time the onlookers were even more pleased to see us, although we weren't sure how thrilled the marshalls would be with us tearing up their stage.

We needn't have worried - we got big smiles from many of the marshalls, and at one point when we slowed for a blind crest, the marshall at the crest waved us on to say it was clear! We could just imagine English police doing the same, but only if his partner was waiting with a laser speed gun over the hill :-)

Of course, when we got to the end of the stage this time, we were in the wrong place - what dimbos! - so there was no choice but to do it all again :-) The spectators were even more pleased to see Amanda caning the scooby, especially when she got a nice tail-out slide on one particularly well-spectated corner ...

Finally, the Rally

SS4 This time our smoking brakes advised us to resist the temptation to have another go, so we parked and walked a mile or so back up the stage to find the best vantage point and get in a bit of sunbathing.

For most of us, this was our first rally. Amanda, Rich & I had been to the Millbrook stage of the RAC, but were aware that it didn't "really count" as a rally stage. We were soon to find out why ...

A while before the stage started, a SEAT saloon marked 000 came through our chosen left-right-left sequence at a brisk pace. A few minutes later, another SEAT marked 00 came through a bit faster and looser. Presently, a third SEAT carrying a 0 number came through absolutely on the limit. We were impressed.

"Wow", we all agreed ... "that was pretty fast!".

God, those things are awesome

The sound reaches you first.
The distant bangs of an anti-lag bouncing off the rock faces.
The rising scream of a thoroughbred turbo engine being mercilessly thrashed.
The scraping and squealing of slicks on the limit against the hot, dry tarmac.
The crashing of bodywork and undercarriage on kerbs.

Corolla Suddenly it's upon us. You wouldn't believe a car could move so fast and stay on the road. It's an assault on the senses, a flash of colour, a gorgeous cacophony of mechanical noises. The World Rally Car changes direction impossibly quickly; finds unbelievable grip; somehow hooks an inside front wheel in the rut at the side of the road, and instead of destroying the suspension, gets more speed ...

... and then, five seconds later, it's gone, a receding screaming and banging trying hard to convince us that yes, Auriol really did get that Corolla through the tight corner fully 60mph quicker than we'd managed it two hours before.

No amount of TV viewing can prepare you for your first up-close and personal experience of a World Rally Car in flight. And just to prove you're not hallucinating, Loix does it just the same. And then Makinen. And then Richard Burns does it faster still, and smoothest of all.

Colin2 And then the sound we've waited for, a boxer beat, further distinguished this year by the (regrettable) absence of an anti-lag. The deep, deep blue paintwork shining in the Catalunyan sun, McRae and Grist howl around the corner, the back of R9 WRC working as a pendulum through the S-bend, and our heroes disappear around the next corner.

Bloody hell. It's just as well they don't come around for another lap or I'd collapse from excitement!

306 F2 We watched the rest of the WRCs (the Escorts sound best of all), and then the F2 cars started to come through. Those things were really moving, visibly faster than the much heavier WRCs, the FWD no handicap on dry roads. They look and sound superb too: the 306 Maxi must have 10,000 rpm and a carbon can ... we honestly thought it was a racebike when we heard it first. The 306 has got to be my favourite of all the rally cars, but the Xsara and Megane kit cars are fabulous too.

On to the next stage

By the time the works F2 cars had gone through and we were into the privateers, we decided to make for the next stage. There were no footpaths, so the form was to watch a car, dash to the next corner, watch another etc. If we thought we might not make it to the next corner in time we had to guess which was the least dangerous part of the track to be standing ... we usually guessed right!

The timing and positioning of the stages was such that it wasn't really feasible to see more than about one stage in three, so we headed straight for the last stage of the day, run on the coast road into Tossa. The map indicated an access road to the middle of the stage, where we found (yawn) yet another lifetime-top-ten road. This one was quite narrow and spectacularly rock-lined, however what little traffic there was was all going in our direction i.e. towards the stage, so it was possible to make good progress. After 10 miles of this we started to find parked cars, first a few and then as the road widened every spare surface was covered in parked spectators cars, and this over two miles from the stage! We parked tight against the armco on a left-hand hairpin with a fantastic view across a deep valley and through a pass to Tossa and the Mediterranean beyond.

A distant helicopter following a mysterious path told us that the stage had already started, and by straining our eyes we could catch glimpses of the muscular Corollas as they disappeared and reappeared from the folds in the hills. It wasn't great spectating though ...

... better sport was provided by watching spectators cars coming up the hill away from the stage. There was a real squeeze with the traffic coming down, and when they tried to restart, the steep uphill of our tight and cambered right-hander was too much for their FWD transmission and drive-squandering diffs: the inside front wheels spun uselessly, and they went nowhere until they rolled back a bit and took a longer run-up. Two wheel drive - what a daft idea :-)

Back to Lloret

Mike wanted to stay a while longer and drive back without a nervous passenger, so the rest of us returned to Lloret. The roads were made more enjoyable by the fact that all the spectators were, almost by definition, driving enthusiasts, which provided some sport for us. To the credit of virtually every driver we encountered during the rally, they quickly spotted the scoobies closing in their mirrors and moved over at the first opportunity for us to pass.

We just had time to get a shower before the cars paraded back into town past our window to the parc fermé, and then headed to pub & club.

We learned that Mike's solo return trip had been a bit too exciting, and he'd somehow grazed solid objects with both front wings. The car would have been OK, if a bit unsightly, but Mike preferred to play safe and took a back seat for the remaining days. He was flown back and his car recovered by Subaru Assistance (the three-year European recovery service standard with all new Subarus).

Rallye Catalunya, Day 2

Up before the Drivers

The first and third days of the rally were fairly close to Lloret, but the second day was over 100 miles away, in the hills around Tarragona. Consequently it was Pete and not Freddy Loix who provided our alarm call sometime before dawn on Tuesday. Surprisingly - we're not "morning people" - Amanda & I were wide awake and ready for action. I was especially surprised that Amanda was so sprightly after her activities in the club. The others proved impossible to rouse and spent the day on the beach, leaving the silver and red scoobies to fly the flag for the day's stages.

Another fun Motorway trip!

By the time we'd recovered our cars from the bowels of the earth, collected a set of BBC stage notes from the Prodrive hotel, and hit the motorway, the drivers were on their way too. In fact, they were going our way, and it wasn't long before we found ourselves sharing the road with Loix, Makinen and Richard Burns. The WRCs cruised with the traffic at about 90, but every now and again would get bored and blast away, then back down into the traffic. Richard Burns paused for a chat with us across the toll booths, and then engaged the warp drive after depositing his coins ... we weren't slow, but we might as well have had the handbrake on compared to the way his Carisma took off!

Stage 9


After driving through some early morning fog, we reached stage 9 shortly before it was closed. This road was quite a bit narrower than stage 4, with narrow, stone-lined bridges and quite a bit more traffic. It was still a superb 10 miles drive though, and we got an excellent parking place, just beyond the end of the stage, which allowed the maximum number of rally fans to ogle our cars :-)

Our vantage point here was excellent for showing the effects of the cars cutting corners, with clouds of dust billowing behind, and the edge of the tarmac being seriously gouged under the assault of the cars' sumpguards. The big WRCs were getting kicked well out of shape by the reversing cambers of a straightlined right-left-right (although again, Burns handled it the best) but the F2's just blasted through, soaking it up.

The Road to Heaven (and Stage 12)

The drive to stage 12 will be one of my longest-lasting memories. Again we chose to use an access road to the middle of the stage, and found ourselves on a tight, generally unbordered pass which wound around several hills and offered breathtaking views into the valley below. The potential consequences of a mistake were never more serious than during one descent, where we approached a left-hand hairpin at the redline in second. Normally I focus on the road and don't notice the drop, however this time I clearly saw that the road had no border, and neither did it slope gently away ... put one tyre wrong and the next solid thing you'd touch is hundreds of feet below!

We kept a good pace and passed most of the traffic, yet there was one who showed us the way - a Prodrive team Legacy Turbo, 4-up but still devastatingly fast.

Turning on to the access road we found ourselves alone in a superb descent into the wooded valley, the highlight being an outrageous triple-S bend which we were able to drive straight through the middle of, the cars bucking and twisting all the way. Unfortunately this finally did it for Amanda's still slightly delicate constitution, and she had to make use of the in-flight sick bag. I was forced to reduce the pace for the last couple of miles to the stage: the last thing we wanted was the contents of that bag getting loose! :-)

SS12 The access point touched the stage at a hairpin on the edge of a village, with a dry dusty football pitch providing ample powerslide practice, er, I mean car parking. The village football club had spotted a fund-raising opportunity, and stands of home-made burgers, sandwiches and cold drinks provided welcome refreshment in the scorching mid-day sun.

The hairpin was obviously expected to provide a good spectacle, as this was the busiest place we saw all rally, with crowds bringing stepladders to get a good view of the proceedings. Even an hour before the first car we couldn't get a spot. Well, I say we ... Pete & Stuart VIP'd their way right to the roadside. Amanda & I went a couple of bends further round and found the shade of a tree to allow Amanda to recover.

E in Cinquante, destra ... eek!

When the cars came through the hairpin, the crowd really appreciated the drivers antics and gave huge cheers to the slidiest cars. Richard Burns and Carlos Sainz got the biggest applause, and Colin on his frustratingly gripless Pirellis was at least able to give the spectators a thrill. The Escort, as ever, sounded most dramatic of the WRCs, climbing away from the hairpin with a scream BANG scream BANG scream BANG scream BANG screeeeam ... enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. I love motorsport!

There was a worryingly big gap back to the second Subaru, and sure enough Liatti & Pons' R10 WRC came limping around the corner with a front right puncture and a destroyed rear right wheel.

We picked up and went to see the car which had pulled off the stage, and found Piero and Fabrizia standing around the car, which was surrounded by spectators. Fabrizia was happy to chat to us and tell us how they'd swerved to miss a big rock on the inside of a left-hander and ended up clouting a milestone on the outside. It was easy to tell she'd had enough ... as soon as she got a signal on her GSM phone she was booking her flight home!

They had trouble reaching the support crew on the car radio, so we offered Fabrizia a ride back to Lloret. She very nearly came with us too, but Piero said they should stay with the car and then they managed to talk to the team. Ah well, we were nearly famous.

In the car park we met a Spanish WRX owner. We found that the International Language of Scooby made for effective communication as we peered under each other's bonnets and mimed turbos and ram-air :-)

The Final Day

Day 3 ran the same stages as day 1, and we were back to full strength personnel-wise, if not car-wise. We got the cars from the nuclear bunker at 6.30 and headed for the second stage.

Suicide SEAT

Driver of the week for us was the guy three-up in a tiny SEAT, absolutely flat out and dead keen to get past us. The bod in the back was hanging onto both grab handles and had a look of terror as he overtook us on the inside lane of a long sweeping bend at 100mph. We wondered if it was some Catalan separatists torture squad, as up the next hill he pulled out from the crawler lane, to the shared middle lane, and finally, desperate to maintain momentum, into the oncoming traffic to overtake a van.

Easy Right, into JCB

Somehow we got lost, and at one point hit evidence of works ahead, with new armco laid out at the roadside to protect future drivers (but not us!) from the sheer hundred-foot drop. Rounding a corner, we were blocked by a huge road-eating machine. Lucky we always drive so we can stop in the distance we can see to be clear :-)

After the delays we were in a hurry to make the stage, and the access road was once again a joy to drive, even in company with other traffic. It was great when we had the road to ourselves, but when we encountered other rally fans it was just as much fun to be in a convoy of a dozen or more enthusiasts all going for it to "try to make the stage".

We made it with seconds to spare, and got to a great spot on the inside of a bend just seconds before Auriol screamed past. Unfortunately for Subaru, McRae was 45s off the pace after breaking a driveshaft and subsequently retired from the rally.

From the second stage we headed for the fifth. I'm running out of ways to describe the roads, the views, the weather, the huge pleasure in driving - and being driven. I'm not a great passenger, and I never thought I'd enjoy sitting beside someone going into a downhill hairpin on the ABS and then power-sliding out of the corner - especially if the driver was giggling her head off at the time! - but I trust Amanda's driving. Better still, the passenger experience gave me the confidence to drive briskly without worrying about how I was shaking Amanda about, as I knew I could be comfortable at that speed.

Another memorable experience came as we followed Stuart on an open road, with Pete radioing the passing places. Suddenly the road changed character, and we heard "It's clear guys, clear, clear ... bend ... jeeeeeeeeeeeeesus" and further expletives deleted, above which could be heard Stuart's tyres scrabbling and squealing for grip as he hurled the car through the series of tight bends.

Another hairpin

Stage 5 provided another hairpin and a natural vantage point, as a motorway bridge passed directly overhead. Police and marshalls were organising parking and controlling spectators on the bridge, and once again we wondered how this would be handled in England. We didn't stop on the bridge, but armed with the BBC's stage notes took a small and twisting road down to the hairpin itself. We were evidently hours too late to get a good spot at the roadside, but got a good view from a nearby bank. Stuart and Pete VIP'd to the perfect spot and were able to join the world's press in flinching when the cars overcooked it :-)

Pete had borrowed Phil Daws' DV camera for the event, and the BBC bods suggested he bring the tape to their edit shed in case he had any usable images. It was a shame he was too depressed to video Liatti's misfortune, as no-one else had got it and it would've been worth serious dosh. Ah well.

The Rally's Over

Race bred

Heading back to Lloret for the finishing ceremony, we spotted a lot of familiar blue vehicles, in a compound near the team hotel. All the service vehicles were there, and the two cars were loaded on to a transporter. Amanda helped pull the cover over Colin's stricken car and then manoeuvred ours into place for the essential photo-opportunity :-)

The team were taking the cars straight to Corsica for more testing - it obviously paid off as they had a fantastic result, putting them top of the constructors and drivers championships.

The Finish and the Party

Finish We watched the finish from our balcony, had a good meal and headed for the pub for a couple of hours. A couple of Irish guys we'd seen all week were talking to Pete about Brembo's, but I don't know how much information they managed to retain as they could barely stand. On to the Official Rally Nightclub, just like a normal nightclub except that they had TV screens showing rally highlights. And all the teams were there in their regalia.

We met Richard Burns coming out of the loo, and congratulated him on a great drive. He remembered us from the motorway: "Ah, the Subaru drivers! Are you coming to get lashed?". Pete, swaying gently and struggling to focus, somewhat unnecessarily replied "I'm already lashed Rich".

After the Rally

Day of Rest

Lloret2 We spent Thursday relaxing, mostly lying on the beach with the occasional foray across the seafront for food and drinks, and wandered along the bay just for fun. Ah, this is the life.

We had our team dinner in a restaurant, and did some packing in the evening ready to head our separate ways in the morning.

The Return

We got up early on Friday and separated. Micheal headed to Barcelona ready for Subaru Assistance to fly him home. Pete, Stuart, Stuart and Gavin left at lunchtime and blasted back up the way they'd come, getting back to Le Shuttle around midnight.

Rich, Amanda & I took a more leisurely route, up to Chateauneuf du Pape for lunch and wine, then to Lyon for a bit of tourism and finally to Dijon for a look around and a superb meal.

On Saturday we eschewed the autoroutes and used mainly N roads, often following the Seine as it meandered through picturesque rolling countryside. I can think of worse places to live.

We got to Calais about 6.30pm, loaded the car to the bumpstops with booty from the hypermarché, and got on Le Shuttle at 8pm.

The End


The Joy of Rally

Piero As this was our first proper rally, I didn't know what to expect. I've been to circuit races before, so I was interested to compare the experience.

In common with circuit racing, the best place for following the race is in front of the TV. You can only be in one place at a time, and a bod - often in a crowd - is no match for multiple camera positions, zoom lenses, in-car cameras, tracking helicopters, instant replay, on-screen graphics ... however, for atmosphere, sound effects and the essential sense of sheer speed, danger and commitment, you can't beat being there.

An odd thing about rallying is that the cars only go past once, then you have to go and find them again. Another is that there's no direct competition between the cars. I think this is made up for by the huge variety of corners and vantage points you get to watch from, and from the extreme close-ups available. The hundreds of miles of stage means that there's very rarely a crowd and you are virtually assured of a perfect viewpoint.

It was great how friendly and accessible the drivers were, and encountering them on the roads between stages adds an extra dimension. Of course, the roads between stages have a huge appeal of their own.

The fact that there's no head-to-head competition between cars isn't really that different from other car racing, as there's almost never overtaking in F1, and not as much as there used to in Bumper Cars ... oops I mean Touring Cars.

For me, World Superbike is still the most exciting form of motorsport, but World Rally is by far the most exciting car racing. How F1 can describe itself as the pinnacle of motorsport, I don't know ...

We'll be at the RAC in November, but whether Wales in winter, on overcrowded, over-policed roads will be as good an experience remains to be seen.


How Many Next Year?

The Catalunya Rally is now a firm fixture in our diary. The rally is really a bonus, the main draw for me is the opportunity to drive the roads, and to swap a week's English "spring" weather for the Costa Brava. I hope we can make it a really big scooby outing in '99. Petrol in Spain, incidentally, was 125pts per litre of super unleaded. That's about 50p.

For folks planning to go next year, I recommend packing the following: