It feels like forever since I last wrote one of these!
Before I begin, I apologise in advance if I don’t give a particularly full account of every class and award winner on this year’s Autumn. It was a pretty intense event for Andy and I, and to include absolutely everything that happened would make this a very long report indeed. What I’ve done here, as was the case in some of my earlier reports, is tell you what happened to us on the night.
To be completely honest, it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster since the Border 200 back in May, with a few more “downs” than “ups”. A fairly substantial accident on the Plains Rally, which left my driver with eleven fractured vertebrae and a broken femur, was followed by another – the weekend after – on the Night Owl. Thankfully IDZ emerged from that with a few dented panels and a punctured tyre, and nothing more, but my confidence was shot to bits.
A scrappy run on the PK Memorial on my return to the passenger’s seat, on which our progress was impeded by a 4×4 coming towards us on the biggest ‘dropper’ of the night, left both Andy and I more frustrated than satisfied, and a very unfortunate puncture on the Pacemaker alongside Mark Lennox in the screaming Honda-engined Mk2 (followed by us losing our jack!) meant that I wasn’t really in the mood to put my thoughts into print… and I’m not going anywhere near the two road rallies I competed on between then and the Autumn…
Overshadowing all of the above, however, was the untimely passing of Chris Summerfield.
Chris was someone I looked up to enormously; indeed, I still do. I first got to know him when I lived in Cardiff in 2008 and attended Hovac club nights on Thursdays at the Rhymney Brewery Club. We’d spend ages putting the world to rights at event starts and on the phone afterwards, and he’d be the first person I’d call to discuss whatever the latest controversy in Welsh road rallying was.
He was an excellent judge of character, never afraid to tell it like it is, and gave excellent advice – even if the recipient didn’t particularly want to hear it. His sudden demise has left a hole in Welsh road rallying that will be impossible to fill. More than an official, however, he was a good friend, and I will miss him terribly. I know I’m not alone in thinking of Abi, Mike and Florence at this difficult time, and hope that their good memories of the great man will get them through.
In between all of these misadventures, Andy had invested in a new gearbox for IDZ in a final “this had better work!” attempt to cure the transmission woes that put us out of the Border on the first night, and so nearly cost him and Max Freeman a finish in Donegal, as well as blighting several of their stages. Our abortive attempt at Rali Môn hadn’t given us much of an opportunity to see how she would perform, so we headed to the Autumn feeling cautiously optimistic.
After unloading, making our way through noise and scrutineering, then enduring a 35 minute queue for a KFC, we got to the start. Paul Jones of Barcud MC kindly volunteered to marshal for us (we love leaving it to the last minute… diolch Paul!), allowing us to sign on with around 45 minutes to spare before the competitor briefing. I finished plotting my supplementary information (blackspots, quiet zones etc.) in the mart canteen, cut the covers off my maps, and was just starting to look forward to the night ahead, when I received a text from Andy informing me that we had “big problems”. In our infinite wisdom, both of us had forgotten that we needed fuel! After the competitor briefing, Andy had to dash to Tesco to top up on ’99’, much to the bemusement of most of the competitors and spectators in the start car park.
With about ten minutes to spare before I collected my route card, Andy returned with a full tank of petrol. With the “problem” solved, we were free to get down to the serious business of plotting the most technical route of 2018 so far. IDZ isn’t the most comfortable car to plot in – the angle I like to have my legs at once we’re moving isn’t really ideal for putting the route down in the car park – but I’ve worked out a way of crossing my legs that gets me close enough to the map when necessary… it’s not elegant, but it works!
The Autumn is renowned for not giving competitors much time to hang about between MC0 and MC4, and this year was no different. I finished plotting with around 5 minutes to spare – just enough time to highlight and stick the triangle diagrams onto my map board, put my hats on (I’m still sporting the revolutionary two-hat system), fold up my maps and put the batteries in my Roamerlite. The first ‘half’ was more like a first two-thirds, with plenty of tricky slots, tracks and a couple of three-metre controls just waiting to trip competitors up. After the petrol halt, the remaining mileage was on much more familiar ground for myself, having delivered and collected post around there for a few months. We decided, therefore, to go fairly steady on the earlier sections, concentrate on not making any errors, then get the hammer down after petrol.
As a result of Kevin Davies / Andrew Edwards’ last-minute withdrawal from the event, despite having number 3 on the car, we were second on the road. Last year’s winners were first away, two minutes ahead of us, while Irfon Richards, who I’d navigated for on the 2017 Autumn, started off behind us with Cadog Davies navigating. Reigning WAMC champions Mark Roberts and Dylan Jenkins started at 5, while local favourites Kevin ‘Penclaw’ Jones / Dafydd Evans, and Huw Jones / Daniel Jones started at 7 and 9 respectively. These crews were sure to pose a threat, and although Huw is arguably more famous for his exploits in an autograss car than a rally car, if he and Daniel could stay in touch in the first half, the second half – being basically in Huw’s back yard – was likely to play into his hands.
A short run out along the A40 took us to TC2, and the start of the first competitive section of the rally. After briefly exchanging banter with Wyn ‘Slim’ and Edryd Evans, we were away into a very slippery, technical and challenging section, timed to the minute. Climbing past Nantyrhebog farm, we were almost immediately into a wet and muddy farm track. IDZ is, of course, four wheel drive. However, on Dunlop A2s, you could have twenty driven wheels – it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference! We negotiated the wettest section, got back onto the concrete, and started to push. We were especially careful on the give way at the end of the track – wet concrete, muddy tyres and trying to stop downhill don’t always go together so nicely. We stopped comfortably in time and in the right place, got Geraint Richards’ signature (and nod of approval) and set off to the time control. We pulled up to the marshal with seconds to spare before dropping into the next minute – tidy! While filling in our time card, Sioned informed us that we’d taken a minute out of car 1. Game on!
No time to waste, however, and straight into another fun, technical section with lots going on on the map. We kept the intensity up, while making sure not to overstep the mark at give ways and passage controls, and made it into Daniel Lwni’s time control on 1:43 dropped, representing a net gain of 28 seconds on last year’s winners over the two sections. Once again, there was no time to switch off, and we were immediately into another fabulous section, running anti-clockwise through the warren of lanes around Coomb House, finishing just after a spectator point hairpin right. With seconds to spare, we made it into the time control, clean. If there’s a better feeling in road rallying, I don’t know what it is! We picked our way through the final section, a relatively easy run back towards Llangynog, and cleaned it by a good margin.
At the end of the first standard section, our total of 2:43 meant we had a very slender lead of 5 seconds over Dafydd Evans / Emyr Jones, running back at car 18. Irfon and Cadog had managed to make it through the first two sections in a time of 2:49, but Irfon noticed that the engine in his hired Escort had started to get tight and make some unpleasant noises, and so elected to pull out shortly after TC4. Craig Judd and Jon Hawkins performed admirably in the slippery lanes, posting a total of 3:03 to sit third. One of only five crews to come through the first section in less than two minutes was the semi-expert pairing of Daniel Williams and Shaun Richards, comfortably heading almost the entirety of the experts, semis and novices, not to mention numerous masters, at TC6.
It should be noted at this point, that – unless something dramatic happened after we had passed through – the first section was anything but rough. It was wet, muddy, slippery… three days of unusually heavy (even for west Wales!) rainfall can be blamed for this. But rough? Absolutely not. Andy and I have used roads ten times rougher so far this year on various events; if one were to compare this section to the M4 past Swansea, then of course, it wasn’t THAT smooth. I hope prospective entrants to next year’s Autumn Rally won’t be put off by some of the entirely unwarranted comments posted online concerning this.
A short neutral section, along the old main road near Bancyfelin, brought us to the start of the dropper we’d been most apprehensive about before the start – a fearsome six-miler from TC8 to TC9, Merthyr to Talog, taking in three tracks and one very deceptive triangle. We knew we couldn’t afford to take it easy! We changed from 159 onto 145 here, and the change in character of the lanes was palpable.
Away we went from Chris Hand’s control (where a sad looking Alan James sat watching, after the course car he had been navigating pulled out after snapping the clutch cable), pushing on down Cwm white, which was as fast and straight as I remembered it. We safely negotiated the following few give ways and passage controls, absolutely nailed the slot into the triangle above Posty Isaf, and headed back up the hill towards Talfan Isaf. It was here, however, that things went a bit wrong…
I’d never used the track we were looking for, and tried my level best to work out where we should be turning in. It seemed that we were looking for an entrance on the left next to a house or building, around 150 metres or so after a 3L. The correct junction came up much sooner than I’d expected, so I urged Andy to go on past it. It was soon clear I was wrong, so we turned around fairly quickly and headed back. Upon arriving at the correct junction, we missed the correct junction and turned right into a field entrance… with the clock ticking, we both cursed our mistakes, although we were equally glad IDZ now had a gearbox that didn’t jump out of reverse!
The mistake behind us, we attacked the track in an attempt to make back a bit of the time we’d just lost. I know the patch above Abernant reasonably well from my days as a postman, so the confidence in my calls was pretty high, and we got the next slot into Talog white absolutely spot on, only to find we could do nothing but slide along the very muddy track. Our tyre choice was always going to be a compromise, but we didn’t expect things to be so slippery! We made it to the bottom of the rollercoaster lane, into TC9 on 1:44 dropped. Balls.
Never mind! One thing road rallying has taught me is that mistakes need to be put out of your head and behind you, pretty much as soon as they happen. Learn from them by all means, but don’t let a mistake at TC9 haunt you all the way to the end; it only leads to even more errors. Our task now was to keep further mistakes to a minimum, limit the time loss to the rest of the top ten in what was left of the first half, and be in a position to push back after petrol.
We passed through the next few time controls, from Blaen y Coed to just below Maniwan, with relatively little incident, dropping no time. Two cautions, the first for a possible six-berth caravan in the road and the second for some loose cattle, didn’t knock us out of our stride, as we tried to rebuild a bit of the confidence we’d lost on the section over to Talog. We had around a minute in hand at TC13, and took the opportunity to have a bit of banter with the marshals before heading into a section that looked like a bit of a dropper.
Indeed, despite having a couple of quick bits, the run to TC14, and from there all the way almost back to Talog and TC15, were very tricky, and demanded complete focus and commitment. We found the slot into Blaenparsel with ease, had a good push up the track back to the tarmac road, nailed the entrance to Via 1 (I managed to record the code board without Andy even seeing it – his peripheral vision isn’t quite as sharp as mine!) and made it into Mark Weller’s control with seconds to spare. The board was in his hand at exactly ’00’ and, after signing, we were away again, down the fast but narrow lane towards TC15.
The slot into the track above Penrhiwlas was a beauty, and had apparently only been reopened that evening by Elgan Penclaw, after sitting overgrown for years. We picked our way down the hill, beset as ever by our lack of tyre grip, got the signature at PC40, and made our way back to the tarmac road. From here. apart from stopping for a passage control, the road is almost completely flat, but we were in no mood to take any undue risks – and what is “flat out” in a 1.3 CDTi Combo post van isn’t necessarily so in IDZ…
We arrived into Tomos Whittle and company’s TC15 on 1:06 dropped, which felt pretty decent. Behind us, Kevin and Dafydd set a very competitive time of 45 seconds dropped, while even further back, at car 19, Martin Curzon and Rob Thomas went an incredible 17 seconds faster again, stopping the clock on 28 seconds. The rest of the top 20 (well, those still running) came in somewhere between 1 and 2 minutes dropped, the sign of a well-thought-out, competitive section.
Yet again, Carmarthen MC were in no mood to let us relax, throwing us straight into yet another fabulous section, the last of the first half, through Felin Pandy white, around the track at Ty-hên, and finishing just short of the B4299.
After “successfully negotiating” the slot hairpin left above Fachddu, we found the slot into the next white with ease (since there were about 50 people watching there!), took it easy on our slightly-less-than-ideal A2s down the muddy track, and up into the farmyard for the passage control. After a brief disagreement with the marshal (no, Aled, you definitely were PC46 and NOT 47… no damage done!) we were away up the slimy, greasy tarmac, performed an agonising three-point turn on the impossible give way hairpin right at the end, safely negotiated the track / farmyard at Ty-hên, thanked the Silver Fox Nigel Phillips at his DSO point, and finally made it into TC16. A time of 31 seconds felt reasonable, all things considered, and both Andy and I felt relieved to have made it to the halfway point.
At Tenby Road service station, we took a moment to take stock of how things had gone, and work out what we’d need to do to win. Car 1 were shown as leading at half way (though this would later be amended to reflect two timing errors they made on the first section) with our time of 6:04 being almost a full minute behind them. As enormously frustrating as this felt, our admiration for the efforts of Kevin Penclaw / Dafydd Evans and Martin Curzon / Rob Thomas was greater still – local or not, knowing the lie of the land or not, both driver and navigator need to step up to the plate once the clock starts ticking, and both crews had certainly done this!
Another impressive performance was that of Rob Stephens and Nathan Summers, sitting just 4 seconds off us at halfway, with HOVAC madman Craig Judd / Jon Hawkins a mere 9 further back again. Similarly happy at the halfway point was autograss superstar and occasional rally driver Huw Jones, partnered by the very-not-local Daniel Jones on what is probably the southernmost rally he’s done in a while… as short as the second half was in comparison to the first, the results were delicately poised – anything could (and indeed would!) change, and Huw would have been keen to show what he was made of on his home lanes.
A longer run-out, through Idole to Towy Castle lane, gave us a chance to prove to Dyfed Powys police that, contrary to popular belief, we were capable of obeying a 40 miles per hour speed limit. This first section of the second half looked like it might be tight – some tricky lanes, and a run through Iscoed Home Farm, meant that we couldn’t afford to take things easy. The section passed without incident, save for a bit of a scare for me when I happened to look up just as IDZ got a bit light over a crest-5L… not the most pleasant sensation in the world, when you’re not expecting it! We took our time to stay on the right track through the farm – as well set-up and arrowed as every white was, Iscoed demands concentration, with a couple of branching lanes that would be easy to go the wrong way on. After almost sliding straight past Gino Mangano as a result of low grip and even lower visibility, we made it into Dan Irving’s control with around 30 seconds in hand, where Dan’s glamorous assistant was willing to wipe our lights clean with an old driving glove Andy had found in the back of the car.
With the majority of the top 30 cleaning this section, our performance here was by no means an illustration of what was to come. However, most importantly, something had clicked inside the car, and this good feeling was to be key on the remaining sections.
A slack-ish standard section, heading mostly eastwards, was unfortunately to prove decisive for Martin Curzon and Rob Thomas. A slight miscalculation at the first of two crossroads saw them lose just over 4 minutes, and any chance of the overall win. Nevertheless, they regained composure following this error and kept going, a credit to them – many others have been known to give up, or go off trying too hard, after such an issue.
The section itself featured a tricky “cow track” white above Broadway, a brilliant spectator point three metre control, and some very technical lanes, not to mention a lot of junctions. Accurate and efficient navigation was the order of the day here – and our navigation was seemingly so efficient, one spectator couldn’t get his brain around what we had done. A favourite photograph of mine of the event shows us negotiating the three metre I referred to above, IDZ perfectly poised going around the outside of the ‘triangle’ Andy perfectly in control, with my eyes fixed on the codeboard, Roamerlite in hand to illuminate the board further. I even remember, as I sit here typing it, the numberplate – W652CBO. Despite this subsequent photographic evidence of us absolutely nailing it, this spectator has seemingly delighted in telling people he “saw Gilbey missing the codeboard at RC4”, since apparently crews need to stop to get them. I hope this, and the photo, are enough to nip that little story in the bud, as funny as I find it that people don’t believe you can read a number plate from a moving car…
Anyway, on with the story. From TC19, we went into a section that would prove key in deciding the winner of the event. Pumped up after a good couple of sections, we attacked Wern white and Alltycadno with relish. Andy by now was fully in tune with this new evolution of IDZ, using the new gearbox exactly as intended, our braking and handling performance better than I could ever remember. We arrived into Llangyndeyrn on just 10 seconds dropped – a time that only Kevin / Dafydd and Huw / Daniel would be able to beat – where Gareth Evans informed us we’d just taken 46 seconds out of car 1. Oh yes! We went into the next neutral section high on life, fully back in love with road rallying.
A short neutral section up the hill out of the village brought us to TC21, the start of yet another brilliant section. The lane to White Hall is one I’m fairly familiar with – a good friend of dad’s, Ian Lloyd, lives at a farm along the lane, and I can recall many evenings using it, as we went down to help him rebuild his Darrian. The slot into the white itself is one that’s haunted me for over a decade, having missed it (badly!) on the 2007 Morswyn Williams Memorial Rally with Alan Gaunt. So this was my chance to put that one to bed…
We attacked the first part hard, with Andy keen to demonstrate his pace to the watching Tony Bach, who was manning a DSO at the end of the natural ‘triangle’ around a mile up the lane. From here, we safely negotiated the small maze of lanes below White Hall, before heading east, slotting into the track, and powering along to TC22. A time of 41 seconds dropped was to prove almost unbeatable, with only that man Huw Jones going quicker on 37 dropped. Significantly, we took 15 out of car 1 and 20 out of Kevin / Dafydd, setting the stage for a decisive last section. Craig Judd / Jon Hawkins endured a setback here, dropping nearly three minutes, though not enough to drop them out of the top ten.
A section that looked slack on the map followed, through Cwmisfael, with just two code boards to collect. This led on to one of my favourite sections of the event, through Tygwyn white, to the last time control of the rally. By now, whatever had gone on in the previous months since the Border 200 was well and truly out of both of our heads. IDZ was performing beautifully, Andy had fully regained his confidence, and I’d actually navigated competently. In this kind of form, we feel pretty unbeatable, and so it was to prove on the last two miles of the event. We pushed on up the lane to the slot into the white, which I am familiar with from my postman days, and threw IDZ at the track.
A particularly hard landing after getting a bit of air over a cattle grid caused the front right damper to blow out and leak, making Andy initially suspect we had a puncture, but we carried on regardless. His heroic commitment along the muddy (but thankfully more grippy) farm lane was a joy to behold, and we arrived into the last clock of the night with around ten seconds to spare. Clean! I suppose it doesn’t matter where or when you finally get your act together and move into the lead – but to do it on the last section feels pretty exciting!
With even more delight, we made our way back to the finish, unaware at the time that we had snatched victory on that last section, but feeling fantastic either way. There are few better feelings, in any branch of the sport, than getting to the end of a tough section on a road rally and banging in a fastest time, so the mood in the car was pretty high!
We stopped just outside Pibwrlwyd, where car 1 had parked up with their bonnet open, their car apparently suffering with overheating. After making sure they were ok, and showing them what times we had put in in the second half, we cruised back to the show ground.
Before too long, results were published, which showed that we’d done it. However, the fun was only really getting started, as a flurry of queries – in a bid to deprive us of the win – began to fly. It really isn’t worth going into detail about it; everyone involved in the episode who needs to know what went on, knows. To discuss it here would lend some legitimacy to the individuals doing the complaining against us. All I will say is that it’s a shame that this procedure delayed the results somewhat, and wasted so much of the hard-working club’s time, and caused our friends who had stayed until the end to go home, frustrated at waiting so long.
Nevertheless, we were absolutely delighted to pick up our trophies and say our thanks at the finish. Gareth, Alan and all of the relatively small gang at Carmarthen MC put on an absolutely immense event – it’s not an exaggeration to say it had everything a competitor might want from a ‘modern’ road rally. If they aren’t rewarded with yet another capacity entry next year, there’s no justice in the sport.
I’d like to thank the club, marshals and volunteers once again for their efforts in putting the event on, and making it run so efficiently. To Paul Jones, our last-minute marshal, thank you for stepping in – would have been embarrassing having to go home, or even worse, go begging people in the car park – as a result of my inability to find someone to sign on for us.
My fondest thanks, however, go to the reasonably talented and massively committed man sat to my right all night. His efforts in preparing and driving a front-running road rally car are a pleasure to behold – no compromises, no nonsense, just getting the job done, in some style. Thanks a hundred, mate! Let’s hope for a few more this year!
Michael Gilbey, Navigator – Car 3, Subaru Impreza – 1st Overall
Thanks to Aled Evans Photography (www.facebook.com/Aled-Evans-Photography), Joseph John Gilbertson (www.facebook.com/joseph.j.gilbertson) & Motion Media (www.facebook.com/motionmediauk1) for all of the images. Make sure you check out their pages for more examples and for details on how to purchase yourself a copy!