When Maggy and I lived in Suffolk we had marshalled on The Preston for several years, usually with my pal Rob Philp, who used to navigate Targa rallies for me, and we would usually do three controls through the night. Every time we went, Rob and I said that we would have to have a go sometime but it never happened whilst we were living down there. Nearly three years ago Maggy and I moved up to Cumbria and shortly after Rob moved up to Lincolnshire and although we kept in touch occasionally, we hadn’t seen Rob since we moved and any thoughts about ever doing The Preston soon disappeared with all the things going on with house moving and settling in to our new area, and, of course, taking part in all the events which we have been doing in the North of England since moving here. However, when I saw on facebook that this year’s Preston may be the last after 40 years a decision was made to contact Rob, see if he still wanted to have a go, and if the answer was “yes” then to get an entry in.
After a few hours of messaging the decision was made and I filled in an entry to find that they already had 90 entries (the limit) and it was only a couple of days since entries had opened, however, as not all entries had paid at that time, and I paid online, we got in as only 70 odd people had paid at that point. The e-mail telling me the entry was accepted was received with much trepidation but it was too late to pull out by then. That was it then, two road rally virgins attempting our first road rally, with me at the tender age of 65, in a 30 year old car, in what must be one of the toughest events out there, what could possibly go wrong?
Plans were made, hotels were booked and we found ourselves on the Friday before the event trailing the car down to Ipswich for our hotel for the next few days. The rain was pretty persistent throughout the journey and the Preston does have a reputation for mud if it’s wet, but it would be, what it would be. The car had been sorted out after our little skirmish with a tree in the Saltire and I had been over as much as I could to try and ‘Preston proof’ the car before our baptism of fire.
Fortunately Saturday was mostly dry and we eventually got up to Snetterton circuit about 5:30 to unload the car and get Maggy to marshal’s signing on as she was going to spend the night with Howard Joynt out in the woods somewhere. Rob turned up shortly after we did, only to announce he had left his reading glasses at home but it was too late to think about that, we would get over it somehow. Scrutineering went well and we were soon signed on, looking at the road book and getting something to eat. Time passed slowly until our start time of 23:08 but at least the rain was holding off and wasn’t forecast until about 1:30 am Sunday. I’d bought some Colway copy forest/grass/gravel tyres for the front which I hoped would give us a bit of grip.
Start time came soon enough and we left the circuit via the A11 south to try to find NTC2. I always have a morbid fear of missing the first test or section on an event and am always more settled when we find it. It was about 4 miles down to a yellow on the left and in to the section where there were a couple of cars waiting. The first quarter of a mile was dipped headlights as we were running alongside the A11 but it was on a decent hard surface farm track. This was all right, and it was, until we turned right on to a dirt track and it got very bumpy. About a mile or so in Rob said “Did you think it was going to be this rough” I just said “It’ll probably get rougher”, I was not wrong. The first section was about 3 miles or so in length but we were glad to get to the end of it with the car still in one piece. We learned later on that some cars did not even make it through the first section.
Five miles or so of road work saw us to TTC4 in to Harling Forest for another rough ride over farm and forest tracks which was going to be the theme for the rest of the night. Section followed section with each one seeming to get rougher than the one before. We were running as car 79 so we could see where everyone else had been, which was sometimes useful, but the downside was the ruts were deeper and the holes were bigger by the time we go to them.
We got through the first 4 sections and were still in the event when we made our first error of the night. A slight mix up with the map saw us missing TTC8 and ending up in Rushford. We had been meant to go over one crossroads and turn right at the next but we turned at the first one, ended up in Rushford village and actually got to IRTC9 on the road. However, once we knew where we were we were able to retrace to TTC8 and get in to the section before it closed. We were running a bit late by the time we got there and went in behind car 90 so were probably last on the road.
The Euston section completed, shaken and stirred, we headed off down to Euston for section 5, Foxpin. This was a long section, with lots of sand, big bumps, sliding about and a final last mile where it was impossible to drive round the holes to mitigate the hiding that the car and it’s occupants were enduring and we were relieved to see the end of it.
Fortunately for us sections 6 and 7 had been withdrawn due to a last minute refusal by the land owners to allow the rally through so we had a longish road transfer up to 8 at Mildenhall which allowed us to claw back our time lost on our wrong slot which meant we arrived at TTC16 on time and had a short wait behind a car waiting to go in the section.
The section started well with a nice bit of fire road, at last we thought we were going to have a good run, then we turned left on to a narrow dirt track with trees flashing by in close proximity and the resumption of the “rock and roll” that we were, by now, getting used to. We managed to avoid any arboreal contact and made it out of the section and in to first petrol at Barton Mills bang on our minute for a welcome break for 30 minutes for fuel, coffee and Rob’s first cigarette of the night. A brief check of the car (kick the tyres, lift up the bonnet to make sure the engine was still there), coffee, a much needed toilet break, a stretch of the legs and we were checking out of petrol to continue our nocturnal activities in the Norfolk countryside.
From petrol we headed south to section 9, Bay Farm, more farm tracks, and then on to 10 at Worlington for more of the same. It was becoming a bit of a pattern. Every time we finished a section there would be a moments relief followed by, “Well it can’t get much rougher than that”, only to find, when entering the next section, that it could. Fair play to the organising crew, they said it would be tough, they were not wrong, our biggest surprise was that the car was still in one piece and that we were still talking to each other, and even, in between the “ouch” and expletives which could not possibly be printed here, we were actually having quite a few laughs, if only to numb the pain.
Section 11 was on the outskirts of Red Lodge at Park farm followed by the Herringswell section. Section 13 had been cancelled due to an outbreak of pig disease which allowed us a long road transfer up to Section 14 in the Kings Forest. This section started off well, usual bumps, sliding and avoiding tree contact and we were following the arrows as usual. Suddenly we ended up in a bit of a clearing with 2 other cars and shortly after were joined by a third. There was a large bomb hole which we had narrowly avoided dropping in to and we pulled up to check the diagram, which was what everybody else appeared to be doing as well. No one was moving so we decided to move off, roughly in the direction we had been heading in because the last arrow had been pointing straight ahead. We moved further in to the forest followed by one other who soon stopped and turned back and in the end we did the same. It was difficult to retrace our tracks but luckily we managed to get back to the bomb hole where we stopped again. We could see no other option than to go back the way we had come, even though it would be against rally traffic and see if we could at least find our way out. On retracing our route in we saw the arrow to show our route out! Unfortunately an earlier car had demolished a right turn arrow which was why we had all missed it – it wasn’t there. Much use of expletives followed along with the usual attempt at trying to claw back some time. We got to the end of the section and reported the problem but by then were running late again.
Luckily it was only a few yards from the end of 14 in to 15 at Ingham and we went straight in. It was a long section, seeming to go on and on, leaving us wondering if we would ever get to the end of it. As on other sections there was a lot of going round and over stubble fields which by now were fairly well cut up resulting in some interesting “fish tailing” in the car as I’d just kept the usual road tyres on the rears to help with the use of the hand brake. We eventually exited the section and made our way to 16 which was a rerun of Foxpin but in the reverse direction. This time the really bumpy section was at the beginning and actually eased a bit the further we went in. However as we got to the end of the first part to make a right to go round a field we could see three cars over the other side, stationary with their hazards on – not a good sign. We duly pulled up to be the last in the queue and could see the recovery crew up ahead trying to move a car out that was blocking the way. The minutes ticked by as we sat there whilst the crew worked hard to get the car out which was stuck n the deep sand. They eventually got it on it’s way after about 10 or so minutes and we waited to see what would happen next. The first car in front went off and just made it up on to the field followed by the next car. We started moving and headed for the same route but I didn’t give it enough right foot and we just couldn’t make the climb up on to the field. To get that far and not finish was not an option and luckily with a little help we got up on to the field and made our way to the end of the section, late but still in the game. We came out of Foxpin and had a longish road transfer up to petrol 2 which allowed us to claw back a little time and arrive at petrol on our due time out!
I decided to take a 10 minute stop instead of 30 minutes, not realising that we would be penalised for it, not being familiar with road rally timing rules, so that we would only be 10 minutes late in to the next section to try and stay ahead of OTL. In the end it stretched to 15 minutes when we left petrol and headed off to 17 at Croxton. This was another forest section of rough tracks through the trees but by now having spent all night being thrown about we were getting used to it and as we avoided any tree contact we were happy to get out at the end and on our way to 18 at Wretham.
The farm tracks of 18 were of the usual standard and there was beginning to get a little light in the sky as it was past 6:30 am and we were still going. A short run out of 18 got us to the start of 19 at Larkshall which was mostly farm tracks with some forest dirt tracks thrown in, for good measure. It was here that we came across a car on it’s roof just after point 12, a 90 left through gate followed immediately by a 90 right. The crew were both out and walking round and there was just enough room to get past. We went to pass and were waved down by one of the crew. We naturally stopped and opened the window. “Can you tell us where we are?” came the request. We told him his position, politely suggested that perhaps his navigator should have been able to tell him, and then gingerly went to pull away on the soft sandy soil, whilst both of us wondering how he had managed to flip the car over in such a tight space.
Out of 19 and we could smell the finish. We were heading back toward Snetterton with only three sections left. We soon got to Hockham which passed without incident but then, unfortunately, wrong slotted on the way to 21 at Shropham. A retrace saw us arrive at TTC46 behind the car that had been trailing us for a while. We followed them on our minute only to have to make a diversion in to a field to get round them when they stopped in the section. We got through and just had Larling to get through for a finish. I think we arrived at Larling as the last car through, but knowing there were several we had passed during the last few sections. The course closer was waiting to go through but we had got there just before his due time. We got through the final section and found ourselves out on the road with a short run to Snetterton and MNTC50 and breakfast. The car was still running OK despite being a bit noisier, ( as a result of the sump guard forming itself round the sump – as I was to find out later) but we had made it, we had got round the “One and Only” at our first attempt, for our first road rally and were pleased and relieved that we had made it.
There had been 90 starters, 34 had failed to finish and we ended up 51 out of the 56 finishers. We had made the mistake of missing some route check boards at the beginning of the night so in the end decided to ignore them and just concentrate on getting round which resulted in a huge amount of penalties but we weren’t bothered by that, the main object had been to get a finish which was what we set out to do and for many a finish in The Preston is a win.
There is no doubt that this was the toughest motor sport event we have ever competed in. We did have some idea of what it would be like but it exceeded all of our expectations and the bruises were still coming out several days later. Still the car made it in one piece and after washing about 2 buckets of sand off the underside and another bucketful once I got it back on the lift, it seems to have survived the ordeal quite well. I’ve had to buy a new sump guard and perhaps I should consider buying one of those limited slip diff thingies which apparently can be quite helpful in those conditions, but, overall, a hell of an event, a great experience and a most satisfying achievement.
A big thank you must go to the organising team, the brilliant marshals who stand out all night, the wonderfully decorated controls with Christmas lights and to all involved in this amazing event which creates this wonderful unique atmosphere which draws competitors from all over the country and beyond, such is it’s reputation.
Geoff Bateman, Car 79 – Peugeot 205 GTi, 53rd Overall
Thanks to M&H Photography (www.mandhphotography.co.uk) 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!