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.
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.
We filled up with fuel just outside the Chunnel terminal, and set off at a steady pace towards Paris.
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".
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.
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 ...
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.
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!
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:-)
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 ... :-)
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.
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
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.
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 ...
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!".
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.
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!
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
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 :-)
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).
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.
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! :-)
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.
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 :-)
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.
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.
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.
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
We had our team dinner in a restaurant, and did some packing in the
evening ready to head our separate ways in the morning.
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.
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
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.
For folks planning to go next year, I recommend packing the following: