I’m not sure if I’m supposed to feel ecstatic that it happened, or depressed that it’s over. I imagine I’ll flicker between the two over the coming hours, days and even weeks.
Right now, I’m sitting in the second camp. By the time you’ve finished reading this, I’ll probably have switched back to the first. My emotions have been that much of a rollercoaster over the last 18 hours or so since finishing my first ever rally as a driver and sitting down to write this feature.
I’ve taken my sweet time to commit to this, as I really do not know where to begin. This is a brave admission for somebody who is paid not just to write for a living but to write about rallying, however I feel completely lost for the right words.
How on earth can I possibly summarize the best weekend of my entire life? I don’t feel like I can.
But maybe that’s it – it was the best weekend of my life. And to be honest, I’m really not sure what I can ever do with however much time I have left on this earth that can better it.
I even bore myself when I explain to anyone how I became the obsessed rally man that I am, so here’s the short version.
The Jim Clark Rally is my Monte Carlo or Rally Finland. My pinnacle.
Growing up in the Scottish Borders, it was this closed-road event that really introduced me to, and engrossed me in, rallying. British drivers Colin McRae and Richard Burns tearing up the world stage and therefore making it into my living room on a regular basis via mainstream television played its part too, but watching Andrew Nesbitt, Tapio Laukkanen, Eugene Donnelly, Mark Higgins, Gwyndaf Evans, Neil Wearden et al eat up the asphalt on my local roads was the real hook.
Never did I watch any of them and think that, one day, it would be me. It wasn’t even a pipe dream, it felt that intangible.
But standing stage-side last year as the current crop of British Rally Championship stars lived out my fantasy, I distinctly remember thinking to myself: ‘Why not? What’s stopping me from doing this too?’
As ridiculous a thought as that may seem for a man who’d, at that point, never driven a rally car before let alone started a rally, I’d convinced myself it would happen.
Obtain a license? Check.
Find a car and co-driver? Check.
Get tuition at DirtFish Rally School? Check.
Obliterate my bank account. Definitely check!
And just like that, there I was last Friday, lining up a Ford Fiesta R2 in the very Duns town square I used to have my lunch in at high school, ready to join over 100 fellow drivers on this year’s Jim Clark Rally.
If the scale of this moment was somehow lost on me, I was thrown a sharp reminder when my mother approached the car to wish me good luck but broke down into tears.
Containing myself there and then was tricky, but I had to bottle it as the daunting 11.78-mile Abbey St Bathans (technically Longformacus but it’ll always be Abbey to me) stage lay in wait.
(By the way, I’m back to being absolutely beside myself that this actually happened to me.)
Before I dive a bit deeper into the competition itself, it’s time for a segue as it’s criminal that I’ve got this far into this and not mentioned Alex Waterman or EDSL Sport.
It’s difficult to have friends in motorsport as a journalist, but I’ve always considered Alex as one.
As any mates do, that means at least half of the conversations we have involve ripping each other to pieces, but last week I saw a different side to him.
I first came across Alex back in 2018 when I was working for the title sponsor of the British championship, Prestone. Once a BRC driver, now more of an occasional competitor in historic cars and the managing director of his own team, hiring one of his 1600 R2 Fiestas was an obvious decision for me. Having Alex in the car with me as my co-driver however… that was much more of a curveball!
I’m actually quite ashamed to admit that Alex wasn’t my initial first choice, because I couldn’t have got that more wrong.
From as early as picking him up from Edinburgh Airport on Wednesday ahead of two days of recce, I just had the best time possible. I hope he did too.
But it wasn’t just the craic, it was the work ethic. There was no real need for Alex to apply himself to the task in the manner in which he did considering my abilities, but his commitment was absolute. Arriving with all the gear I sort of just assumed he wouldn’t have that much of an idea, but he was mega. Particularly considering the only co-driving he had done before this was two single-venue rallies.
We both really got into it. Alex had warned me that recce can be an arduous process, but I lapped it all up. This was the first, and potentially only, one I’d ever do as a rally driver, so not enjoying it simply wasn’t an option.
I’m proud of the work we did, adapting the pre-bought pacenotes to a simpler style that would suit me as a rookie, and correctly identifying danger spots that would prove rally-ending for others.
We even managed to share intel with multiple British Rally champion Keith Cronin. As we both stopped to analyze a hay-bale chicane that was marked differently on the road to the roadbook, I suspect the last two people co-driver Mikie Galvin wanted to see when he stepped out of Cronin’s recce car was us pair of muppets!
But with his usual charm Mikie smiled, compared notes and treated us as if we knew what we were doing. Fake it until you make it!
This, though, is an element of rallying I’d underestimated – mainly because I’ve never had the chance to experience it until now.
The relationship you build with your co-driver is something truly special. Ultimately you are trusting each other with your lives, so there’s an insane connection there that was really quite humbling to build up with somebody.
And silly little memories help create a bond that now feels unbreakable for life. Listening to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind at this very moment as I type, it’s all flooding back. It’s a song I never used to like as it always reminded me of a time of my life where I was never particularly happy, but now it takes me right back to one of the road sections last week where everything was just perfect.
Then there’s Blood & Glitter by Lord of the Lost. To me that’ll never be Germany’s 2023 Eurovision Song Contest entry, but the official anthem of the 2023 Jim Clark and Reivers Rallies.
I’m aware I’m getting very emotional now, but it makes me happy. These are memories I’m desperate to cling onto that should last me a lifetime. I can think of few other sports, or pastimes in general, that give you that sense of camaraderie like rallying does.
Daft little things like joining all the EDSL Sport boys for dinner or being included in the ‘rally team’ WhatsApp group are probably standard practice for competitors on rallies, but it meant a huge deal to me. I couldn’t have felt more included in this little team and, as somebody who often takes a while to come out of their box, I love them all for that.
Lewis, Sam, Harry, Henry, Bill – you’re all legends and I hope you weren’t too embarrassed by my slow driving! Same goes to our team-mates Mike East and his two co-drivers for the two events, Glyn Thomas and Emily Easton-Page. It was a privilege to share the service area with you.
The real highlight of the service area was the car though. I’ve done one rally before as a co-driver around Oulton Park, so the feeling of seeing my name on the side window wasn’t as mind-bending as it might otherwise have been. But clapping eyes on the car for the first time on Thursday evening, all stickered up in DirtFish and Diabetes UK colors, was special.
Actually driving it for the first time, however, was far more stressful than it was special. Taking her out for a quick spin on the road was the only opportunity I got to learn the car that launched the careers of drivers like Craig Breen and Elfyn Evans, and I’m not ashamed to admit I was very intimidated.
It didn’t feel right that I was trusted with a machine this capable.
It proved invaluable though, as come Friday morning I had one less thing to worry about. What I did need to learn though was how to drive at competitive speeds. Shakedown was up first, and let’s just say I’d had a few unscheduled bathroom breaks in the lead-up!
Pulling over half a mile from the start of the stage, it all became very real as Alex passed me my helmet. It was time to buckle up. Pulling my balaclava on, my mouth went dry. Helmet on and fastened, HANS device clipped, my heart was racing. I could hear it pounding in my head.
Belts tightened, gloves on, first gear was engaged and I gingerly pulled away. The rest, I confess, is a blur. Seeing some faces I knew at the startline didn’t do much to help my nerves which were shot to pieces.
I’d been told that as soon as the green light appeared, the red mist would descend and the entire rest of the world would pale into insignificance. And that’s exactly what happened.
I sent it.
Well, that’s probably not quite true. It at least felt like I sent it.
The stage wasn’t timed, but I must’ve been spectacularly slow. But sitting there, engine singing as I pulled the sequential shift in anger for the first time, I felt like a speed demon. Eyes fixated on nothing but the road, ears tuned only into the frequency of Alex’s description of what was coming next.
We’ll not talk about the section where he simply stopped talking and forgot to call a couple of corners… we were both learning on the job!
It surprised me how natural it all felt though. A morning spent with Nate Tennis at DirtFish Rally School definitely helped as I had some form of experience to work with, but I didn’t expect it to feel so comfortable to be driving at high speeds down the narrow, bumpy and extremely fast country lanes that define the Jim Clark.
I thought I’d be terrified. But, as I rather cringely posted on my Instagram story once back in service, I had found my new happy place.
All weekend long, I couldn’t wipe the grin from my face. My realization of a boyhood dream had prompted a full-scale entourage of Barrys to come and support me, and they all told me they’d never seen me as happy.
I felt it, too. I love my job here at DirtFish, covering the World Rally Championship and all other things rally related. But ultimately it is still a job that comes with pressures and demands. Last weekend was simply a utopia that I’m struggling to comprehend was genuinely real.
I took in so many things that will make a big difference to my job going forward though. I like to think I know my stuff when it comes to rallying, but nothing tops first-hand experience. And I experienced a broad range of emotions, and conditions, that all competitors will go through.
Take the end of the first evening for example. The Longformacus stage was the one Alex and I were most worried about given how busy and treacherous it was – so it wasn’t ideal that it was first! As mega a piece of road as it was, it packed a proper punch and didn’t allow for much breath in the notes.
But things went far better than expected, and we came off the stage a ridiculous second in Junior BRC after Kyle McBride crashed and Max McRae unfortunately pulled up with technical trouble.
We couldn’t contain our giggles. Intoxicated on adrenalin and having swapped stories with competitors around us in the seeded order that I would otherwise likely never have spoken to, I was completely hooked. Absolutely loving the buzz of it all. It was everything I could have wanted and more.
But then there was Saturday’s first stage, where I made a bit of a dog’s dinner of it – specifically one junction around a tight hay-bale chicane. To make matters worse, as I was finding reverse, I was caught by another car. That’s 30 seconds dropped in just a few miles. Naturally, the heart drops.
I spent the following road section castigating myself, vowing to do better. Considering I was essentially competing for nothing, I can now fully appreciate why proper drivers get so frustrated with themselves over mistakes.
That was all then immediately contrasted by the feeling of getting it right. Granted I was still backing off far too much and braking way too early, but I was really quite proud of my final stage of Saturday – Fogo 2. I just felt more in the zone, more committed and determined to produce something decent.
And at the end of it was the biggest treat – a Junior BRC podium.
I have to thank championship manager Reece Tarren for first of all finding a way to incorporate me into the BRC, but then for ensuring I had my moment. Runaway leader Kyle White and Kyle McBride were miles up the road from me, both in terms of stage times and the running order.
And that was the other thing that was utterly humbling for me to realize. Kyle White’s Peugeot 208 Rally4 is a more capable car than my older R2, but for him to beat me by three and a half minutes on the first stage was a real eye-opener as to just how rapid front-running pace on a rally really is.
White and McBride couldn’t be held at the finish forever and they weren’t, so the last thing I was expecting was to come back to Duns and be met with my own podium celebration with official photos on the sills of the car and the traditional champagne spray.
I want to bottle that feeling, because I just felt amazing. It didn’t matter that I was 15 minutes down on the winner, I had achieved something and the BRC was keen for me to drink it all in – literally.
Sunday’s Reivers Rally was therefore a bit of a bonus. Originally, I had wanted to try and step it up a notch and go for a slight push, even though the thought of any mistake adding even more pounds to my bill meant I always chickened out.
But a couple of accidents on the first stage realigned my priorities. I took it very steadily before the rally gods then decided I should experience another aspect of it all – mechanical gremlins.
Approaching an extremely tight junction around a grass triangle, I threw the car in but, all of a sudden, the power-steering broke. The stage had been going really well up until then, so I was gutted.
Thankfully at the end of the test, turning the master switch off then on again cured the little R2 and we were able to continue into the afternoon.
The penultimate stage, Scott’s View 2, was a cracker with a really nice flow, and I punched in what I felt was my best stage performance of the entire weekend – quicker than 17 other cars.
That made me determined to finish on a high on the second pass of Eccles, particularly as I never got a clean run at it the first time around.
Lining up in the most exciting queue in the world, ready to head onto the stage, Alex and I exchanged fist bumps.
“One last ride.”
First gear selected – and by the way that mechanical clunk as you engage the box never, ever gets old – I pulled up to the start-line. But then…
And this time the reset didn’t work. Panic set in (at least on my side), and we begged the marshals for another 30 seconds to try and get ourselves sorted. But there was nothing for it, we had to just crawl through the last stage. It was a monumental anti-climax.
I did my best to see the light side of it on the stage – that it was another important aspect of rallying to feel and I even cracked a few jokes. But I must profess I slipped into a bit of a sulk afterwards.
Perhaps I’d built the moment up too much for myself, but I just could not hide my disappointment. It felt like I had been robbed. Again, I can only imagine how galling this is when you are actually fighting for something.
Shamefully, I almost let it ruin the end of the weekend. Alex assured me this is all just part of it and that I should be happy I made the finish of two events with no damage to the car when so many others hadn’t, but I was struggling to see things that way. I was just too emotional.
Truthfully, I think no matter how that stage had gone I would still have felt flat as my ticket to dreamland had just expired.
As soon as I was back to service, the team photos were taken, the car was packed in the trailer and the EDSL Sport lads began their long drive south. It was all over in an instant.
I didn’t really know what to do with myself. Keeping my race suit on for as long as I could to try and not admit to myself it had ended, I drove to the local Coop and sat in the car park for the best part of an hour – feeling lost as I tried to compute what I had just experienced.
That’s a process that’s still ongoing as my brain gradually downloads it all – as you can no doubt tell by the erratic nature of my writing today.
It’s taken me genuinely over six hours of pondering and editing to reach this stage, so I’ll spare you all from any more as you’ve done mightily well to make it this far!
But I do want to close with one final key point.
If you have a dream, don’t ever lose sight, or grip, of it. No matter what it is, find a way to make it happen for yourself.
There are a million reasons why me driving the Jim Clark Rally was improbable. Some even told me so. But rarely is anything genuinely impossible. With enough desire and determination (and fortunately, in my case, enough tucked away in my savings account to just about justify it) I’ve now officially been a rally driver – with an eWRC-results profile to boot.
No matter what your Everest is, life is for living. If events of the last few months have taught us anything, surely it’s that.