Many years ago, when the Group A Subaru Legacy was at its raucous height on the Irish stages, my boyhood heroes Kenny McKinstry and Robbie Philpott visited Barbados for a Caribbean rally that was little known to us rally fans at that point.
That was until King Kenny reigned supreme on his debut on the island.
From that moment on, a legendary event was embedded in my consciousness and I have always wanted to visit. And I fully expected it to wow the way it has now I’ve finally made it to Rally Barbados. Right off the plane, it was joyful to hear the motorsport-mad locals asking you right away where you are from, waxing lyrical in their own musical tone, “Man, you know McKinstry? You know he won this rally?”
The legacy left by the Banbridge crew holds so firmly here.
This week I’m here to compete, and so I get to fulfill a boyhood dream and follow in the wheel tracks of my co-driving idol Robbie Philpott as we race around this beautiful island. Much is written and known about just what a paradise this island is and how welcoming the locals are, but the matter in hand for me is the rally and I am here as part of a four-car team from the relatively closeby Turks and Caicos Islands.
That is another tropical paradise, and is where the father-and-son duo Stan and Ben Hartling are based. They, along with fellow drivers Paul Horton and Pierre Beswick, have formed a Turks and Caicos team of three Ford Fiesta R5s and a Peugeot 208 R2. The team also boasts a multiple British Rally champion in Matt Edwards as he switches seats to the codriver’s seat (a regular occurrence for him) and sits alongside Horton, making it quite the diverse line-up.
Ben is in his first event in an R5 car, having done a few small events in a two-wheel-drive Citroën C2 previously, so I am looking forward to guiding him around the island without the time to admire the scenery!
One of the many unique things about this event of course is King Of The Hill, the pre-event run that is akin to a qualifying stage and used to set the start order. Ben and I managed to get acquainted on that stage over four timed runs and were a respectable 17th. But now the main event is almost upon us.
Recce is often a hard slog where you win or lose the event but, here in Barbados, you have a relaxed week-long opportunity to see the stages and make your notes over many passes.
Typically this rally has many short stages but, in a departure from that, this year there are just three main stage locations that are run in one direction on day one and in reverse on day two. For the locals, that means a new experience in having stages as long as seven kilometers. I expected them to be simple, short and sweet. I underestimated the challenge!
Stage one, Pickering, is based through the sugar cane fields in the north of the island and it has fast, flowing wide sections. But where it is tight, there is plenty of gravel on the road and some residue from the recent sugar cane harvest – and we have the Lamberts rock cut-through to negotiate. There is no room for error.
The middle stage of the loop is the one everyone’s talking about: Dark Hole. It’s only 5.6km but, wow, what a tricky stage. It climbs up through small hamlets over some of the fiercest bumps and compressions that the island can torture you with. Make no mistake, it is a challenge, and it will certainly be the stage to turn the rally on its head.
We'll join the Barbados party on Sunday night, which I'm reliably informed will not finish until well past MondayMartin Brady
The grip is so varied on the stage that if you have a bad feeling and no confidence in the car then obsessing over the stopwatch will cripple your progress. Watch for the big jumps on the stage, they are going to be photogenic!
Then the longest stage, Kendal, at seven kilometers. But it feels like the shortest to me by comparison because it is so fast and aggressive.
It has lots of long flat-out sections broken up by square or slow corners with plenty of vision, so it seems simple, yet it has claimed some big scalps in the past. Jeffrey Panton and Micheal Fennel had a significant exit on this stage in their Ford Focus WRC some years ago, so we know it needs treating with respect. We close the rally at Bushy Park circuit, where it will undoubtedly be packed to capacity by the thousands of passionate fans here.
We’ll join the Barbados party on Sunday night, which I’m reliably informed will not finish until well past Monday. For many years I have been eager to be part of the Barbados experience and we plan to enjoy every mile. We may not hold McKinstry fame, but we can try!