It’s not all grandstand seats and five course meals in hospitality you know.
There are the rally boys and girls.
These are the real bedrock of any national motorsport scene, and what I love about this disparate subset are the fans. Sitting on the windswept banking of Silverstone watching a two hour F1 race once a year doesn’t qualify you as a real proper petrol head I’m afraid. That sort of fandom just takes money, the ability to carry a cool box of beer for half a mile to your chosen viewing spot and a willingness to queue for three days to get out of the car park.
No, what sorts the hospitality ponces from the muddy scum fan is a willingness to cling to the edge of a windswept hillside for six hours watching a ramshackle collection of historic cars and yesterdays international high tech machinery slide around a freezing wet muddy forest track which usually after the first half dozen cars, is less a track and more a rutted ditch of mud and gravel. These are my kind of people, the ones out in all weathers, standing around chatting to each other, jovial voices raised in laughter between snarling, spitting Imprezas and Mk2 Escorts
With circuit racing you roll up to the windswept disused airfield in central
sit watching race after race spin round the circuit for lap after lap. It is
all presented nicely for you and there is no real need to move away from the
cool box full of beer and sandwiches. It is all too easy. The toilets even have
comfy bum bog roll in (well during the morning at least) and the burger van
still has some sugar left for your brew England
To be a spectator of a national rally, requires skill, daring and a willingness to stand around a damp forest with little to no idea of what, when or if the next car will arrive.
There are no signposts in the forest, other than the odd length of tape to stop the stupid from getting too close to the action. The event website might have a spectator guide for you to download, but that usually just points you towards the expensive car park next to the health and safety approved spectator “entertainment” zone.
The diehard rally fans can be found clambering over lichen covered fences and jumping putrid ditched of mosquito-infested water deep in the forest. Now and again a ragtag assortment of orange jackets “marshals” and mates of a mate of a mate who knows someone whose co driving car 131 will be positioned at a junction or tricky corner and they will point out the the best place to stand and not get killed. You’ll smell them before you see them, little knots of usually bearded men gathered around battered Land Rovers or ancient Subaru, a grimy primer stove cooking bacon sarnies and brewing endless cups of tea. A crackly walkie talkie sputters into life occasionally with updates on when the next car might appear.
You can stop to chat, check what time the next group of cars is due past and from which direction. A marshal with a clipboard and wearing 15 coats will remind you to keep away from the outside of corners and not stand in the way of the gravel spraying from the back of the cars., then everyone smiles and the you moves on to continues to hunt for that perfect view deeper in the wood.
Once you find that perfect view, you wait. There is no race radio to listen too, no diamond vision screen to show replays of practice and the season so far. And don’t expect to purchase a glossy spectator program to keep you informed. The marshal told you when the first car is supposed to be due through, but this is club rallying, time is flexible round these parts, a 3.20pm start time could well mean 4.30pm. Therefore, you stand or sit and while away the time checking your camera settings, cursing the alleged waterproof rating of your trousers/jacket/boots and wonder why you are not at home in front of the TV and warm.
Then the sound of a distant marshal’s whistle breaks the silence, people get to their feet around you and cameras are clicked to ready. You wait, tense and quite, listening for the first car.
A low insistent mechanical noise starts up, a growl and a pop floating on the wind, indistinct through the wet trees.
Then a bang like a firework going off and the sound of an engine angrily demanding the use of a higher gear, grows rapidly nearer. Travelling fast through the tunnel of trees, the noise bouncing back and forth, the turbo chatters and whines, unspent fuel igniting in load flashy pops and bangs, the engine barks as a foot is mashed to a bulkhead.
Suddenly there it is, rushing headlong towards you, lights blazing, flames erupt from the turbo exhaust as the driver lifts off, dabs the brake to lift the rear of the car urging it all to swap ends, then hard on the loud peddle the rear digs back in showering the road with mud and gravel powering it on towards your vantage point. You raise your camera ready to capture the ferocity of this fire breathing beast that thunders towards you faster and faster. You catch your breath, squeeze the shutter button, capture the moment, the light and noise explode around you, turn away quick or get a face full of gravel spray, red tail lights flash past, then gone, the engine still protesting deep into the dark forest.
The next car will be here in a minuet or so, do you stay put or move, always looking for that perfect picture, the picture that convey the majesty of a car dancing through a dark wet forest.
This is how a proper petrol heads experiences motorsport.
This weekend sees the annual Tempest rally around the Aldershot military land. It's easy to go and find and definitely worth the effort.
Check out the website for start times and maps of the special stages.
Take a coat and water proof shoes, its muddy out there.