Writing a rally review is very much like trying to win the Welsh Road Rally Championship… it’s important to start strongly, but that isn’t easy to do!
Both Kevin and myself were really fired up for this year’s Rali Mike, so much so that Kevin had withdrawn from December’s Pembrey Christmas Stages in order to keep the car in mint condition (more on that later) for the challenge of opening the road on the first round of the Welsh. After a somewhat frustrating early bath on January’s epic Bagger, I was keen to deliver a good performance on the maps; this ambition was made even stronger by having my girlfriend over from Norway to watch her first ever road rally… no pressure eh! After all, Talladega Nights taught me that winners get paid, and winners get… something else…
The route plotted really nicely, with nothing amiss apart from one give way in Tabor that was swiftly amended. The allotted hour and a half flew by, and we we were off to Forge to start the event, with both of us greatly relieved that we weren’t facing the sub-zero conditions of 2017 again!
The first section, up the tarmac white past Brynllwydyn and back to the Dylife road, is a lot of fun, and one we both know pretty well – we found the slot into the muddy farmyard of PC4 with ease. We reached TC2 and Ian Roberts / Gwawr Hughes with something like 30 seconds to spare, though most of the top 20 (and the odd hero further back!) also cleaned it. From here, a relatively easy run along the Dulas valley took us to TC3, and the start of what would prove to be a very important section for most of the field.
We knew that a good time here would set us up very nicely for the rest of the night, so we pushed hard. Kev absolutely nailed the tricky “Aberhosan impossible” slot hairpin left, negotiated the farmyard at PC7 with ease, similarly nailed the slot hairpin left at PC9 and then hairpin right at Allt Goch, and had a clean run up the hill to Ty Mawr. Here we suffered the ignominy of messing up the slot in (most likely a result of Kev not being able to see through my big head!), which probably only cost us around 15 seconds or so. I hope Ralio won’t show the footage on national television – anyone watching would probably come away with the impression any old idiot can win a road rally!
Whatever we lost messing up the slot, we made back up with a real hard push along the very not-as-map section from Ty Mawr to Melinbyrhedyn. I remember being blown away by Kev’s commitment down this narrow, undulating and technical road in 2017, and it was more of the same this time. We came into Howard Davies’ TC4 on 1:32, giving us a penalty of one minute. No complaints from either of us, and no chance to draw breath, away we went into the equally technical and enjoyable section to TC5.
Behind us, all hell had broken loose already. George Williams and Dan Stone broke a drive shaft and were forced to retire halfway through this section, while Andy Davies and Cadog “frustrated driver” Davies suffered a puncture soon after leaving Ty Mawr, dropping three minutes more than us, instantly putting them out of contention for the win. Leading DVMC crew Dafydd Post and Carl Slate kept out of trouble and matched our fastest time, with 9 of the top 20 dropping two minutes, and others dropping significantly more.
Out of the frying pan, into the fire… the run to TC5 was just as technical and very muddy. The tricky junction in Melinbyrhedyn has claimed many a navigator’s scalp over the years (including mine, twice) and I was in no mood to mess it up again. Kev opted to rein JLJ in a bit on the white, in order to avoid punctures / getting stuck, though we attacked the tarmac section back to Tal-y-Wern as hard as we dared – it reads pretty well, so we felt confident. We were glad to see a friendly face at PC14, since the loose chippings after the C board made it tricky to stop next to them! A time of 1:43 dropped with Dorian Evans felt pretty handy.
Our time may have been handy, but it wasn’t fastest! Mark Lennox and Ian Beamond had a stellar 2017 (living up to my prediction in my 2017 Mike Darowen review, taking not only their first win, but a few others as well!) and went 3 seconds quicker than us here. Defending WAMC champions Mark GT Roberts and Dylan Jenkins came in 10 seconds down on them, with Andy and Cadog a further 14 back – the same time as Sean Crowley and Rich Ty Capel. Gary Thomas / Will Parry and Einion Williams / Darren Ikin also put in strong times through here – the latter crew’s performance a warning of what was to come in the small-door Ford Escort…
The road along Nant Gwydol, heading out of Tal-y-Wern towards the slot hairpin right for Darowen, has two right-handers over crests, the second of which very nearly proved our undoing – after all the hard work we’d done on the previous droppers. In the way all dodgy bends do, it jumped out on us, and within a split second JLJ was traveling at a ridiculous angle, barely on the road at all. They say your life flashes before your eyes, or that you instinctively shut them… mine were wide open and all I could see was the right hand hedge… Kev remained calm and collected (honest) and gathered her up with an armful (or two) of lock. We reached PC15 and burst out laughing – it’s about all you can do really! – with the marshal observing it sounded like we were enjoying ourselves. We were, honest!
The rest of the section passed without incident, and we (along with most of the top 20) arrived at TC6F with plenty of time to spare. At last, a chance to draw breath, clean the spots, have a drink and take stock of how things had gone. At the end of the first standard section, we had a lead of 27 seconds over Dafydd Post and Carl Slate, with nearest championship rivals GT and Dylan another 40 back. Not too shabby, but no point getting complacent. Nothing causes you to lose a lead faster!
A short neutral through Cemmaes Road and onto the B4404, took us to the start of section 2. From the start, immediate 7 right under the railway bridge, then into a triangle… we had a slightly scruffy approach, but got in eventually (it’s tough running first, no braking marks to follow… hope nobody else followed ours!), then over the Ddyfi, slot right after the bridge, up the valley, slot right, nice and quite through Cemmaes, staggered crossroads over the A470 and into TC8. We cleaned it by a decent margin despite our slightly scruffy triangle, and tried to get “in the zone” for a dropper we (ok, by “we” I mean “I”) had made two daft mistakes on in 2017.
No such errors this time. We pushed hard up the hill to PC21, didn’t try to slot into the wind farm white, nailed the approach to the triangle for RC6, carried good speed down the hill, got the as-map triangle spot on, pushed as hard as we dared on the muddy lane all the way down to the finish. We passed the control board with three seconds to spare, and my board was in the marshal’s hand at exactly 00:55:00. Clean! Andy and Cadog’s recovery drive was well underway, with a time of 0:17, while Einion and Darren’s strong run continued, 0:19 and third fastest no more than they deserved. Heroes down the order included Carwyn Pughe / Llion Tractor on 0:30, and Elliott Stafford / Lewis Sim’s MX5 on 0:36 – only two down on Lennox/Beamond. Post and Slate suffered with gear selector problems through here, dropping 1:17 and out of second place.
A short neutral through Llanbrynmair, and an easy standard section up Cwm Tafolog, brought us to petrol and the halfway halt in Mallwyd. A lead of 1:41 over Einion and Darren felt good, but with that lovely Cross Foxes white to come, nothing could be taken for granted.
We’ve talked a lot about the masters and experts… in the semis, Bryn Jones and Ryan Griffiths (Ott Tänak’s best mate!) had a lead of just over a minute over James Evans and John Aspland, with BMW drift enthusiast and Targa rally superstar Dan Williams and new nav Shaun Richards in third, a further three minutes back. With plenty of rallying still to go, including all the famous sections along the north edge of Cadair Idris, there was everything still to play for. This was also the case in the novices, with three crews negotiating the technical first half without fails – Will Carlyle / Matt Hill, just over a minute ahead of Gethin Price / Tomi Williams, who were almost nine minutes clear of David Barrowclough / Mark Atherton.
The second half began with a fairly easy run through Dyfi Forest, along that horrible central tarmac road (where I NEARLY crashed dad’s Astra in 2012) through Aberllefenni, and onto the road where I really did crash dad’s Astra in 2012… most crews cleaned those two time controls, which served as a gentle warm up for the savage lane to TC15F.
The map was as good as useless (as ever) on this section, with most bends either missing or obscured by cycle path markings, so Kev did what he does best – improvised! JLJ danced between the rocks, I kept my head down and didn’t dare look out the windscreen, and eventually we made it to the clock. 0:40 dropped, no punctures, and all four wheels still on the vehicle. I’ll take that, thank you very much, now let’s get off this awful, awful road…
Behind us, Einion and Darren’s fine run was still on course, matching us over the mountain. Andy / Cadog on 0:46 and Sean / Ty Capel on 0:49 had clearly enjoyed themselves, with most of the top 20 coming in within ten seconds of the 1:00 mark. With no triangles or junctions to get wrong and a map that might as well have been scrawled in crayon by a toddler, it’s very much a driver’s road – I certainly can’t claim any role in our joint-fastest time, I was too busy having flashbacks of 2012 anyway.
Another short neutral section, down the A470 towards Dolgellau, brought us to the famous section through Tabor. After a brief exchange of pleasantries with Mark Lennox’s parents, away we went. The first part is a nice tarmac road, before slotting onto the trickiest white of the night. It’s certainly not to everyone’s taste – Kev hated every second of it – and we caught a rock with the left rear quarter, almost a mirror image of the damage the right rear quarter of JLJ sustained in 2017. Nevertheless, we kept our heads together, got her back onto the tarmac without any major time loss, and attacked hard to TC17. A time just one second faster than Andy and Cadog, and fastest overall, was worth the battle scar.
While the white itself is fairly difficult, it was made much easier – after feedback from competitors in previous years – by the welcome addition of an arrow to denote the “hole in the hedge” that all but the most experienced crews tend to miss. It’s caused all manner of difficulty in the past, and I’m sure the organisers would have been tempted to leave it up to the crews to find it, and thus get more time out of us. While I’m all for making the navigation a challenge, I’ve always thought this slot was a bit deceptive, so fair play to DVMC for arrowing it.
Fastest semi crew through Tabor was Daniel Williams / Shaun Richards, the duo benefiting from the misfortunes of Jones / Griffiths and Evans / Aspland to move into a class lead they wouldn’t surrender. The pair stopped the clock at 2:51, a time that wouldn’t look out of place among the experts. The novice class had also been decided, with only Gethin Price and Tomi Williams coming through fail-free, they would similarly hold onto their class lead until the end.
A short, cleanable run to TC18 and Irfon Richards took us to the start of Kings, a section that takes no prisoners – from the tricky slot at the top, the muddy farms, bends that suddenly tighten, narrow walls and sharp rocks inside corners waiting to puncture a misplaced wheel – it demands total respect, and even then, a driver could easily be caught out. We pressed on as hard as we felt safe to, and dropped 0:58. Frankly I wouldn’t want to go much faster. Andy and Cadog came in 3 seconds down on us, with GT / Dylan and Craig Judd / Dafydd “my delivery route depends on which map the next rally is on” Evans a mere 5 seconds further back.
Elliott Stafford / Lewis Sim’s rally came to an end on this notorious section, sliding out of 12th position, with the ensuing recovery operation taking much manhandling of their trailer; thankfully the pair weren’t injured in their excursion. Better luck next time lads, hope to see you back out again soon.
Another mercifully short neutral section took us to Arthog, and the famous dropper around Llynnau Cregennen. We were almost caught out by the first bend, a deceptive tightening 9 left, though regained our composure, attacked up the hill, picked our way around the public car park triangle, around the hairpin right and twisty section back to the give way onto the Dolgellau road, and into Phil Pugh’s TC21. At 0:30 dropped, on a road I don’t remember ever dropping less than a minute when using it uphill, we were both pretty satisfied.
Dafydd Post / Carl Slate had finally succumbed to their gear change issue, dropping out of the top 3 and the rally itself. Both Einion / Darren and Craig / Dafydd put in strong times, stopping the clock at under 50 seconds, with GT / Dylan and Sean / Ty Capel coming close to doing the same. Andy / Cadog’s difficult night continued with a broken driveshaft just after the car park – over half a mile on a twisty road with barely any drive is not helpful for setting good times – needing a push from Phil to get going again afterwards.
The organisers made the correct call to scrub the next section to TC22F. All I’ll say is, I understand the reason for the control being in the wrong place, I certainly don’t blame anyone for this happening, but while the argument “it’s the same for everyone” might well apply, it’s certainly not unreasonable for a crew to query this in the event of something happening to them on that section. We very nearly came to grief at a not-as-map bend after the point where the TC was supposed to have been – we would have been clean if it had been in its proper place – with Kev on total max attack in an attempt to make some time back. Before it was scrubbed we’d set a time more than 30 seconds faster than our nearest rivals, so it had worked! But scrubbing the section was a big decision, which I feel DVMC got spot on.
A nice little section from Llwyngwril to Rhoslefain followed, which we cleaned along with most of the top 10. Across the A493 and down to the old main road and TC25F, we successfully negotiated the bend we’d climbed the bank at (going the opposite direction) last year – Kev was relieved I wouldn’t be able to take the mick out of him for that again. The majority of the masters and experts got through without penalty, with 4 semi / novice crews managing the same feat. Novice class leaders Price / Williams had a scare here, dropping over five minutes, but retained their lead by virtue of remaining fail-free.
Another of those lovely short neutrals took us through Llanegryn to start the penultimate section around Birds Rock and back to Dolgoch. Just like the last two, we cleaned it fairly comfortably, though we couldn’t afford to switch off. Similarly, almost all of the masters and experts, along with a handful of semis and novices did the same. The organisers here had been hamstrung by losing a classic Mike Darowen / Bro Ddyfi lane, so we appreciated their effort in giving us something to enjoy rather than a long neutral back to the finish.
Bypassing Tywyn to the east on a slightly longer neutral, we made our way to Happy Valley for the last standard section, through Cwm Maethlon. We took our time – neither Kev nor I were in the mood to throw all of our hard work away (having almost done that in Darowen earlier!), and were very glad to see Meilyr at TC29F. Job done, a quick handshake, and back to Mach. The vast majority of crews cleaned it, with no controls or junctions to negotiate.
Back at the White Lion, over a pint of orange juice and lemonade (since I had to drive to Gatwick in a few hours!) we waited for the rest of the crews to make their way back, filmed a quick spot for Ralio, waited for the results to go final, and collected our awards.
Our sincerest thanks go to Linda, Annie, Telor, Meilyr, Rhodri and the numerous DVMC volunteers, marshals and landowners who contributed to this fine road rally. Congratulations to all finishers and indeed award winners, that was a tough one to get around without fails or problems – but all the more rewarding for it.
I said last year that this was an event well worth doing, and I stand by that, even more so. It’s a rally run by competitors, for competitors, and fully deserves a 90 car entry in 2019. We’ll be there, no doubt about it, and would have been regardless of our result. To be able to run as car 1 once again is an honor!
Michael Gilbey, Navigator – Car 1, Ford Escort – 1st Overall
Thanks to Photo by Aled Richards (www.facebook.com/aled.richards) & Joseph John Gilbertson (www.facebook.com/joseph.j.gilbertson) for all of the photos. Make sure you check out their pages for more examples and for details on how to purchase yourself a copy!