Rali Gogledd Cymru 2018 Review

First of all, I’d like to apologise for the delay in delivering this report. A run on the Cambrian meant I had to cram a week of uni work into three days before pace note preparation and the pre-event test on Thursday… but you aren’t on British Road Rallying to hear about any of that stage rallying stuff, so I’ll continue with the Gogledd.

Having barely caught up on sleep after the previous weekend’s Rali Mike Darowen Bro Ddyfi, and still with the voice of a man smoking 40 Marlboro a day, it was off to St Asaph for Y Rali Gogledd Cymru.

We were pretty lucky to get a run – I’d submitted an entry without a driver the week before, and got completely distracted by my preparation for the Mike Darowen. It was only thanks to the patience of the organising team, who’d put me as a reserve and gave me time to get my act together and actually find a driver, that Gavin and I were able to pair up, find a car to use, and take the place of an unfortunate crew who had withdrawn.

Photo by Joseph John Gilbertson, http://www.facebook.com/joseph.j.gilbertson

I’d forgotten how easy a run it is up to the north coast – it always looks a long way on the map – but the roads are wide and fast from Dolgellau up, and even with a trailer carrying an Escort behind, it was less than three hours from leaving home to arriving at the trailer park, and we arrived at St Asaph with plenty of time to spare.

Weather conditions were fairly atrocious at the start, a strong wind and freezing, almost sleet-like rain making many question why they’d left the comfort of home and another exciting Saturday evening of TV talent shows… too late to change your minds now, boys and girls! I’ve not been able to compete on the Gogledd (or indeed any road rally on maps 116 and 117) for a few years, so once inside the shelter of the leisure centre, it was nice to catch up with plenty of familiar faces who I’d not seen in a long time. The leading locals are as friendly as they are fast, so it felt good to be back up in the ‘far north’.

After collecting our route handouts, we made our way out of town to plot and get ourselves ready to go. The route plotted really nicely, meaning we had plenty of time once we were done to double- and triple-check everything. Navigators had to be careful with several of the plots, with a number of tricky junctions / loops being used. As nicely as it plotted, you needed to be 100% concentrated, from the word go.

Photo by Joseph John Gilbertson, http://www.facebook.com/joseph.j.gilbertson

A short run out, up the A55 and through Rhuallt, brought us to the start of the first standard section. We used this section to try to get used to the car and each other; Gavin had used Tsalta Motorsport’s blue car to win the JJ Brown last year, but GTA is a slightly different animal, running a standard Duratec engine rather than the traditional Pinto, and of course no two cars are ever completely the same. Also, I normally use a 1 to 9 system of calling bends, 1 being fast, 9 being tight. Gavin asked if I could call bends using a 1 to 6 system, which was more familiar to his stage rally experience, with 6 being fast and 1 being tight. No problem… I like improvising on the fly!

The first section looked tight, so as much as we had no idea what each other or the car were capable of, we decided to have a bit of a push and see what we could do. The first lane up the side of Moel Maenefa was really, really tricky, just as muddy as last weekend had been down on 124 / 135, and didn’t read very nicely. However, immediately I could tell Gavin knew what he was doing and the car worked really well, so I was confident we’d set a half decent time. A tricky give way, a really nice slot hairpin right and a triangle at PC1C brought us onto a nice flowing road, and the run into the clock. We stopped with the marshals five seconds before our due time, and waited for our minute. Clean! The marshals informed us we were the first crew to clean it, which felt pretty good, but there was no time to relax – we had another standard section before we could take stock of how things were going.

Second fastest on the opening section were Gary Roberts / Darren Ikin in their rapid little Peugeot 205, stopping the clock at 0:12 dropped, three seconds faster than Simon Summers / Alan James’ Escort. The majority of the top twenty came in around the one minute mark or less, the sign of a really nicely thought out and organised section, with nothing excessively difficult or deceptive. Proper!

Photo by Joseph John Gilbertson, http://www.facebook.com/joseph.j.gilbertson

A couple of tricky little triangles on the next section to SF1 would have been very easy to get wrong, so concentration was vital. We had a decent push along the incredibly wet and muddy lanes just above the A55, and reached the clock with a little bit of time to spare, the car smelling of that indescribably wonderful mixture of petrol, ‘cow mud’ and hot exhaust. We’d have been happy enough if that had been all we got to do!

A short neutral through the brilliantly-named Pant y Wacco brought us to the second standard section, a four minute loop around Saith Ffynnon, which represented the furthest north point of the route. Here our night almost came to a premature end, with a lurid slide on a deceptive, tightening right-hander just after the first passage control – Gavin, just as Kevin had done the previous weekend, gathered the slide up effortlessly, and similarly like last weekend, we had a bit of a laugh about it at the next passage control with Brynli Thomas. I don’t know what it is about me and right-hand bends, I’m just grateful I keep sitting with lads who can deal with a sideways Escort!

A simple triangle and two more passage controls – one of which manned by a slightly scared-looking Howard Price, apologies again if our line into you was unusual! – brought us around to the finish at Carmel, which we managed to clean by around 15 seconds, which felt pretty good. We certainly wouldn’t have got away with taking it easy! Most of the top twenty were clean here also, though complimentary of the challenge the section posed.

Photo by Joseph John Gilbertson, http://www.facebook.com/joseph.j.gilbertson

A short run through Gorsedd brought us to the third standard section, a ten minute loop down towards Caerwys and back to Brynford. Looking at the route on the map, it appeared cleanable, so Gavin and I took no risks. One particular part of this section, a loop off a wide yellow, caused a number of crews issues, the approach to PC3C being absolutely critical. This was to cost Gary Roberts / Darren Ikin their chance of a podium place – not that I’m singling them out for criticism, since a fifth of the entry picked up a fail for incorrect approach here. It’s no consolation, but it was definitely very, very easy to get it wrong. Indeed, we found the slot in to the loop, but the road back to the one we’d just slotted off wasn’t obvious at all – completely not as map. It happens to the best of us, really unlucky.

Despite the trickiness of PC3C, most of the experts and semis made it to SF3 without dropping any time, with a couple of novices managing the same. From here, yet another short and well-timed neutral brought us to one of the very best sections of the night – a standard section right up there in quality with the very best, anywhere in the country.

From the start control on Holywell Common, a nice flowing road quickly gave way to a very intricate section, passing under the A55, through Dolphin (with a VERY tricky, deceptive slot hairpin left off the old main road that car 4 were unfortunate to overshoot and come back on route behind us), down to a very technical triangle guarding the A5026, around a pair of not-as-map hairpins off the main road that I’d made a mental note of when doing my usual pre-event map checking. We were pushing as hard as we dared, GTA dancing around the tighter bends, knowing that this section was going to be touch-and-go for us dropping time.

Photo by Joseph John Gilbertson, http://www.facebook.com/joseph.j.gilbertson

The last mile, though without any triangles or difficult junctions, was no less technical. The Landranger wasn’t reading particularly nicely, and nothing destroys a driver’s confidence in you faster than when you call what looks like a long left-hander on the map, that has an extra right-left in the middle of it in real life… Gavin wasn’t fazed, and pressed on to the clock. With the section being a straightforward start-to-finish type, I already knew the time we needed; on sections with intermediates, I’ll normally be working the time out as we approach the control. We needed 01:05:00, and I knew it was going to be close!!

We crossed the board with four seconds to spare, my board in the marshal’s hand at precisely 01:05:00. If there’s a better feeling in rallying than exactly cleaning a section as challenging as that, I don’t even care. In that moment you feel like a superhero – even though it was mainly Gavin’s efforts that got us there in such good time. Leaving the control, we were curious as to what other crews had done through there, though with car 4 rapidly approaching the control, we didn’t have time to stop and chat!

Our clean run was fastest, with definitely-not-father-and-son rally team Martin and Rob Lloyd second fastest on 15 seconds dropped. Mal Acott and Roger Evans’s immaculate red two-door Escort Mk2 set a time just 2 seconds slower than the Lloyds, with Roberts / Ikin and Guto Ifan / Max Freeman a further 7 and 8 seconds back respectively.

Photo by Joseph John Gilbertson, http://www.facebook.com/joseph.j.gilbertson

The intense, challenging nature of this section is reflected in the time penalties further down the entry list, with a wide range of time loss. A notable performance was that of car 24, the semi-experts Craig Bowler and Chris Whittall, on 59 seconds dropped, a time that wouldn’t have looked out of place among the experts.

An enjoyable section, timed to the minute, to the east of Rhosesmor, brought us to the end of the second half. The first 26 cars cleaned it; we’d decided the best approach to the rest of the rally now would be to push on at about 90% commitment, there would have been no sense in taking things too easily and getting caught out. It’s easier to go off the boil and make mistakes if you relax too much on the easier sections, and the lanes were certainly technical and muddy enough to catch out the unwary.

At the petrol halt in New Brighton, I was a bit reluctant to let anyone know we’d cleaned the first half – for one thing, it was no reflection on the efforts of RDMC to get time out of us, and for another – contrary to popular opinion – I’m not really that arrogant. A few polite enquiries later confirmed we had a lead of 36 seconds over Gary and Darren, with the rest of the top 5 on or around 50 seconds dropped. A minor drama occurred when we went to start the car to leave the filling station, and nothing happened… the starter had failed… this would make for a nervous second half!
At halfway, a battle which could in theory have been between six crews for the honours in the Semi-Expert class had already been affected by fails. Fastest crew Craig Bowler and Chris Whittall had unfortunately incurred a fail for early arrival at SS3 – it’s a pain I know well, and normally you’ll only ever make that mistake once… similarly, Iwan Parry Jones / Aron Jones and Craig Jones / Gordon Davies picked up a fail each at PC3C, which took them out of contention for a class award. Leading class, therefore, was car 19, the Vauxhall Nova of Rhys Morris and Catrin Davies. 9 seconds behind, Steven Owen and Al Gwilliam’s Subaru Impreza occupied second place, with local crew Mike Webber and Nick Meredith a further 7 seconds back.

Photo by Joseph John Gilbertson, http://www.facebook.com/joseph.j.gilbertson

Similarly, fails played a big part in deciding the Novice class positions, where once again the fastest crew, Aron Roberts and Dylan Richards in car 38, picked up one fail, demoting them to 4th place. Only three novice crews made it to halfway without fails, with road rally returnees Lenny Evans and Peter Dale over three minutes ahead of second-to-last-on-the-road Mark and Peter Morris in second. Huw Gwyn Jones and William Hughes completed the class podium.

Time recovery at Theatr Clwyd was a bitterly cold and rainy affair. Perhaps we should have taken GTA into the covered car park! As it was, we’d left her in an easy position to bump-start, given our loss of starter. After around half an hour of huddling in the sole bus shelter on the exposed hillside next to the theatre, we were away to start the second half. Our strategy was simple: go like hell!

That strategy, however, didn’t apply to the run out to SS6, out of Mold and down to the B5444, which I badly mistimed and ended up being a minute late for. I’ve been an outspoken critic of crews who deliberately drop time on neutral sections, for various apparently tactical reasons, so to do so here felt annoying, and hypocritical. Granted, the impact of dropping a minute here didn’t cause the organisers as many headaches here as early on on 90 car events, I still felt bad at the end for doing so.

Photo by Joseph John Gilbertson, http://www.facebook.com/joseph.j.gilbertson

Section 6 was a relatively straightforward run over Nercwys Mountain to Llanarmon-yn-Ial, with a quiet zone past a busy farmer with newborn lambs to deal with, certainly more of a matter of life-and-death than any road rally. One very technical section – a good push up the hill past Cae Gwydd – and another fast approach into a tricky triangle, meant crews couldn’t afford to switch off. The top ten emerged without any penalty, with a few down the order dropping some time, but no fails. This was to be as far as the flying Nova of Rhys Morris and Catrin Davies were to go, with battery problems put them out of the event.

A short neutral through Llanarmon village took us to SS7, the start of a very enjoyable run across what’s known locally as “The Shelf”. The first part, to STC7A at the entrance to Gelli Gina Farm, was relatively easy to clean; the section to SF7 certainly wasn’t! The road is almost hilariously not-as-map, with deceptive crests hiding lovely tightening bends, the kind of road I’d already realised that Gavin loved… I remembered bits of it from marshalling here on the Bryniau Clwyd in 2011 or 2012, briefed Gavin as to what he could expect, and instructed him that we need to attack!

The first part, along the valley side and through the cattle grid, was a ride to remember, with Gavin attacking as hard as he dared, GTA singing along… around the 90s by Graig farm, past Pentre Coch and into the triangle at PC7D, absolutely nailing every braking point and manoeuvre… there aren’t many feelings better than when a dropper goes perfectly to plan, and this one was absolutely sublime. One last stretch, around the final tight 90 left, and into the time control – clean! With two seconds to spare, Gavin pulled GTA up next to the marshals and I asked for our time. Absolute magic! By now, whatever criticism the Gogledd had attracted in the past had, for me, been completely overcome. Any organising team capable of putting a section like this together clearly know what competitors want, their return to an all-tarmac format had been vindicated, in fine style.

Photo by Joseph John Gilbertson, http://www.facebook.com/joseph.j.gilbertson

Three of us managed to clean this one, and all of us by just a handful of seconds. Guto / Max and Simon / Alan pulled away from SF7 with the same broad grins on their faces as Gavin and I had! The quality and straightforward fun nature of this section shows in the results – every crew in under 2 minutes dropped, a good spread of time dropped, which wouldn’t look out of place on the results sheet of any Welsh championship event. Craig Bowler / Chris Whittall put in another noteworthy time, on just 13 seconds dropped, well worthy of the top ten, belying their start number of 24.

You’ll probably be aware by now that I LOVE short neutral sections, and the Gogledd continued to satisfy me on the run to SS8. Most of the field cleaned the section through the Clwyd Valley and over Moel Arthur, but what a fun section it was! A fine mix of fast, wide B roads and yellows, more technical stuff through Llanynys and over the mountain, using the car park triangle (that we almost missed, since we were enjoying the lane so much!) and a few jump bridges thrown in for good measure, it was an interesting flavour of the sort of section crews might have faced in the 80s, though with modern clocks and timing less susceptible to being fiddled with by the organisers… it was certainly an enjoyable run through lanes that are just a bit too fast to be able to get time out of modern crews.

Perhaps I was enjoying myself too much, since I completely lost what little navigational ability I had at Glyn Price’s PC8D. I had to rely on Gavin’s instincts to firstly stop for a give way which I’d looked at on the map, processed, then completely neglected to call, then secondly to prompt me “Mike, there’s a marshal here”, which got a reply something along the lines of “oh sh!t, really??”… I have absolutely no idea what was going on between my ears for the ten seconds I should have been navigating, but wasn’t… lesser drivers would probably have lost what little faith they had in me at this point, but Gavin took it in his stride, checked I was ok, then cracked on. Diolch Gav, a cool driver really makes navigating easier!

Photo by Joseph John Gilbertson, http://www.facebook.com/joseph.j.gilbertson

A notable feature of the rally, that I’d noticed and appreciated by this section of the event, was the excellent allocation of manpower. There had been fears among competitors at the start that controls would have been given out in chronological order, meaning with a 40 car entry, we’d have nothing but code boards towards the end of the event. Well, between the selfless double-manning of some marshals, and careful use of boards where appropriate, nothing could have been further from the truth. Going into the ninth standard section, it was clear that the organisers had been smart with their resources, a major contributing factor to the quality of what, on paper, could easily have been a much less enjoyable rally.

The ninth section was, at last, another one that I was familiar with. A short triangle at SS9, onto the wide yellow from Hendre to Moel-y-crio on the far eastern edge of 116, continuing along the lane that I’d wrong-slotted GT up on the 2012 Bryniau Clwyd (I’m not lying when I tell people that, the only way I get decent results now is off the back of years of making daft mistakes and learning from them), heading west then south, back down to STC9A below Glust farm. The entire field, save for those cutting route to avoid going OTL as a result of car problems, cleaned this part, timed to the minute, which served as a prelude to to a lovely section to SF9.

We knew we wouldn’t get away with hanging about on the narrow, technical lane to the finish of the section. Taking in a tricky triangle above Gelli farm (another lane I’d marshalled on on that fun night in 2011) and past two of my favourite farm names on Landranger maps anywhere in Britain (Ffagnallt and Mwccwd, since you asked), to a tricky give way, and west to the finish before the B5121 near Walwen. We just crept in with ten seconds to spare, after attacking this section hard. The rest of the top ten all came in with 20 seconds’ penalty or less, with several also clean. Notable among those clean were car 28, Lorenzo Lee and Lewis Griffiths, a fine performance by the semi-expert crew.

Photo by Joseph John Gilbertson, http://www.facebook.com/joseph.j.gilbertson

Yet another blessedly short neutral, around the village of Nannerch, took us to SS10, the start of the penultimate section of the rally. Another mix of faster yellows and some really tricky, technical bits – including a keep-right-over-crest with a track straight on, that had “overshoot and stall” written all over it – made for an enjoyable run. Indeed, the way the route appeared to me on the map through Pen-y-felin meant we had a really good push. It was clear that any mistake would have cost a lot of time, and it’s ALWAYS better to get to the clock early and wait on a standard section anyway, so on we pushed, getting to Dion Bee at SF10 with just under a minute in hand.

One last two-and-a-half-mile neutral (I can’t overstate just how much I appreciate short neutrals!!) and we had arrived at SS11. One last push! It’s another section I’m fairly familiar with, having wrong-slotted at least twice in grid square 1073 on various Farringtons over the years… I was determined it wasn’t going to happen again tonight!

We knew we’d need to push hard on this last sting-in-the-tail section, and it nearly all went wrong between PC11B and PC11C. A tightening right-hander, covered in mud and gravel and with a deep ditch on the outside, seemed to come out of nowhere; Gavin had the sense not to try to hang on around the corner and slide off, and instead just about got GTA stopped before the ditch. A quick adjustment and we were away, for the loss of a handful of seconds. For the first and only time of the night, I asked him to tidy up a bit, and he was more than happy to comply – he already knew. By all accounts this corner very nearly caught out several of the top 10, and others through the field – it’s definitely logged in the memory bank for future events!

Photo by Joseph John Gilbertson, http://www.facebook.com/joseph.j.gilbertson

Without any further issues, we made it around the loop near Aelwyd Uchaf and down to Tremeirchion, to SF11, the last control of the night. We’d finally dropped time, which was almost a relief, given the efforts of the organisers. Our time of 23 seconds was second fastest, to the hard-charging Ian Lloyd and Cyril Jones. Guto and Max were third fastest, five seconds ahead of Martin and Rob Lloyd.

The shortest neutral section of the night brought us to the Salusbury Arms in Tremeirchion, to a welcome breakfast and the awards presentation. We were barely able to believe just how trouble-free our run had been, our final winning margin to Guto and Max stood at one minute and two seconds. Nevertheless, the Mk1 pairing had performed brilliantly to keep all of the rapid local crews at bay, and earn Guto a long-awaited top three result in the lovely PUX400M.

In third place, and 22 seconds off second, Simon Summers and Alan James were very pleased to have made the long journey north from Carmarthen. Their margin of just 2 seconds, over fourth and fifth placed crews Ian Lloyd / Cyril Jones and Mal Acott / Roger Evans, is certainly one of the closest battles for the top 3 I’ve seen for a very long time, with the local crews’ fine performances especially in the closing stages of the event almost enough to supplant their southern rivals. Just 1 second further back, 100% definitely-not-related, not-father-and-son duo Martin and Rob Lloyd were the first non-Ford Escort home, and on another night could just as easily have been 3rd. The margins at the sharp end are very fine indeed; one event you’re behind by a handful, another you’re ahead. It’s another demonstration of the generally high standard of crews that, after five droppers, such little time could be found between them.

Photo by Joseph John Gilbertson, http://www.facebook.com/joseph.j.gilbertson

The Semi-Expert battle was finally settled on the last section. With the demise of halfway leaders Morris / Davies, it was a straight fight between Owen / Gwilliam and Webber / Meredith for class honours. Going into the last section, Webber and Meredith had a slender 5 second advantage, and delivered a fine performance through the muddiest lanes of the night, taking a further 11 seconds out of Owen and Gwilliam, to seal a 16 second class win, and ninth place overall. In tenth overall and second in class, Owen and Gwilliam didn’t seem too disheartened, with their performance certainly nothing to be ashamed of at all. The Ford Ka of David Edwards and Paul Dolby rounded out the class awards, a fine performance from the last car away in the class (and arguably the smallest!). Fourth in class, David Ricketts and Dick Jones picked up the Under 1400 award, while father-daughter pairing David and Grace Pedley’s night was rewarded with the Mixed Crew award, bringing their Mazda MX5 home in 24th overall.

In the novice class, the top 3 at halfway held station to the finish. Lenny Evans and Peter Dale took a popular class win, though Mark and Peter Morris had cut the deficit from over 3 minutes to just 14 seconds with a string of times that would have been equally at home among the Semis or Experts, with Huw Gwyn Jones and William Hughes happy in third place.

A lot has been said about me “doing the double” on the Gogledd, and while I’m not blind to a navigator’s contribution, my job was made very easy by Gavin Edwards. One of the most natural drivers I’ve had the privilege to guide around the lanes, totally laid back, and a bloody good laugh as well. If every last-minute call up went this well, I’d be a happy man indeed. Diolch Gavin, I’m already looking forward to the next one!

Photo by Joseph John Gilbertson, http://www.facebook.com/joseph.j.gilbertson

Similarly, a good crew is nothing without a good car, and what a car we had. GTA669V is a total babe – Gary and Linda Thomas (Tsalta Motorsport) have got a car available to hire that’s capable of winning any event in the country, in the right hands, and I’m immensely grateful for their efforts in the week to get her ready, and for the lift up. I’d not hesitate to recommend anyone looking to hire a car to give them a call.

On behalf of Gavin and myself, our sincerest thanks go to Rhyl and District Motor Club for a proper, no nonsense, thoroughly enjoyable road rally. You were well aware that you had a job on your hands, to deliver an all-tarmac event that would restore the reputation of a rally I’ve always enjoyed competing on, but in the present climate of more restrictive tyre regulations and ever-decreasing disposable income, suffered for it’s use of gravel tracks. Simply put, if you don’t fill 75 places next time this rally runs, there’s no justice in this sport.

To any competitors reading this, if you’re in any doubt as to whether you should enter the Gogledd, don’t even think twice. Get yourself to St Asaph, support this fine motor club and their excellent rally. I admit I had my reservations before the event, but by breakfast on Sunday morning, I had no doubts. Paul, Michelle and team, thank you once again, and I can’t wait to see what you’ve got in store for us next time – you can count on our entry, and I’d be saying that regardless of whether we finished 1st or last.

Michael Gilbey, Navigator – Car 5, Ford Escort – 1st Overall

Thanks to Joseph John Gilbertson (www.facebook.com/joseph.j.gilbertson) for all of the photos. Make sure you check out his page for more images and details on how to purchase yourself a copy!