International rallying in mid Wales. Think Dyfi, Myherin, Hafren, Sweet Lamb. Gorgeous gravel stages, iconic in name and by nature.
But not last weekend. Nope. Try Devils Bridge, Llanfihangel, Bont Goch and Pendam instead.
Rali Ceredigion is, quite simply, breaking new ground. Forget the gravel forest roads, the only international rally that now exists in Wales is held on the black stuff.
Ask this author (who will happily die on the mast that Tarmac rallying is better than gravel rallying) and that’s a superb thing. But, to be more serious for a second, it’s an undeniably big shift for a country that has, prior to Rali Ceredigion, only ever hosted asphalt rallies on the Epynt military ranges rather than closed public roads.
Rali Ceredigion was born in 2019 after changes to the Road Traffic Act allowed UK rally organizing teams to suspend it and host an event on roads closed off to everyday road users.
Initial plans to run an event were hatched where all good ideas are crafted.
“I think six, seven, eight of us got together in a pub down in Aberaeron and basically we started talking,” Phil Pugh, former professional co-driver and chairman of the Rali Ceredigion organizing committee, tells DirtFish.
“We said ‘well it’s going to be a big job, we can’t do it ourselves so that’s where we got the idea of four motor clubs going together’.”
So whereas most rallies are organized by one or maybe two motor clubs, Newtown & District Automobile Club, Aberystwyth District Motor Club, Lampter & District Motor Club and Teifi Valley Motor Club are all involved in pulling off Reli Ceredigion.
“We took the route to Motorsport UK in the September of ’18 and we were told ‘you can organize one for 2020.’ And I said ‘no, we’re going to organize one for 2019,'” Pugh continues.
“They said ‘you won’t do it’ and I said ‘you don’t know us, we’re hard-working buggers and we’ll do it.’ So by the end of November we’d done the setup books for the stages and we sent it to them and they said ‘aw OK we can see where you’re going’ so 2019 we ran out first event.
“It’s taken a lot of persuading all along if you like, people see something new coming and they’re a bit weary.”
Rali Ceredigion certainly came in with a bang, as the early editions have attracted plenty of attention.
Year one was a success, but this year’s event upped the ante as it doubled in stage mileage, became a two-day event and was inducted as a round of four championships – including the British Rally Championship and Tour European Rally – to compliment its international status.
That’s no mean feat for a rally that had only run once before 2022.
“When the pandemic came along the goalposts were changing all the time, but at the end of 2020 we made the decision that ’21 wasn’t going to happen anyway, so we put it on the backburner but then we came up with the idea of the Aberystwyth street stage because it wasn’t in our original plans,” Pugh says.
“So we thought we’d make it bigger and better, which when we’re only a one-year-old organization anyway was a fair ask. To get some extra funding onboard, we had to go for international status and then that took a lot of persuading because we didn’t have the experience as an organization.
“We’re basically four motor clubs that came together to do the first national event, so we had to go, not cap in hand, but go and ask the right people with the right experience to join us. And to be fair, it didn’t take much, which was great because maybe they saw what we did in ’19 and thought it was worth a punt if you like.
“They have definitely given us their experience and bettered the event, so that goes down to Andy Gilmore our clerk of the course from Northern Ireland. He’s run the Circuit of Ireland in the past and he runs his own successful Down Rally, and then you get somebody onboard who’s had years and years experience of Rally GB Andy Smith on the safety side of things, so utilizing their experience has helped us along.
“We just had to learn from them. That’s sort of how it went along, and then Charlie Jukes on the marketing side did his magic with the councils and sponsors and what not to convince them that Rali Ceredigion was worth doing.
“I think it paid off.”
The size of the crowds in Aberystwyth on Saturday night was clear proof that the effort had been worth it. But while the atmosphere in the town thrilled the crowds, it was the lanes out in the moorlands that thrilled the drivers.
DirtFish didn’t quite get the chance to have a proper recce of the country tracks, but when Hayden Paddon – a World Rally Championship winner – ranks them as the best Tarmac stages he’s ever done, we’ll take that as a positive sign!
The roads were incredibly narrow, undulating, technical, fast and unforgiving. When a rally can claim a scalp like four-time British champion Keith Cronin (who hadn’t properly crashed a rally car since 2017 prior to last weekend) then you know it’s a challenge.
And the stages are steeped in history too. Maybe not (yet) in stage rallying terms, but in the road rally scene they’re iconic. It’s where plenty of Welsh rally legends cut their teeth.
“I’ll tell you, most lads road rallying have always dreamt of rallying down those roads, so basically this is just a progression of that,” Pugh explains.
“That was my dream. When I was 24, I’m 52 now, I did a proposed closed-road rally and I’ve still got the maps!”
And Pugh was kind enough to share those with DirtFish (see below). You can certainly say his dream became reality, even if he was inside Rally HQ instead of out there himself.
But the feedback he got was very encouraging: “It’s massive and I had a text yesterday from somebody who’s competed on Ypres before, and to me as a business and a commercial venture Ypres is one of the best in the world.
“And he compared it to Ypres, and said it was as good as if not better than Ypres and I was like ‘jeepers.’ But to me, and this is the sickening part for me, I put all this hard work in but I never saw a stage. I was in Rally HQ!
“So I didn’t quite see that and feel it, so I’m just relying on people telling me. But it’s great to hear, and I had a couple more this morning from other people and it’s very nice to see to be honest.
“Humbling – in a word, humbling.”
The reference to Ypres as a business adventure is paramount in understanding what Rali Ceredigion aims to do.
Since it first ran it’s been unwilling to just be another rally, but instead has strived to make a real impact.
That’s why it became the first UK national event to implement dedicated fan zones in 2019 with park and ride bus services offered in a bid to drive down carbon footprint, and this year implemented media zones too.
With a real push to make the rally as environmentally friendly as possible, there were even plans to go completely paperless, with iPads hired out to all competitors instead of any booklets.
“Motorsport isn’t as green as it should be yet, but we’re trying to get there,” Pugh reasons.
“We’ve probably cut down a third on our paperwork from 2019 so that’s a good step but we can go a lot further, so that’s still progressing. We’ve got to persuade MSUK that you don’t really need all this paperwork.
“We even thought about hiring iPads for everybody so that everybody’s got one, and a tablet’s a good size – there’s no ‘I couldn’t see it on my phone.'”
But the attention-to-detail spreads to the smaller things too, like the branded arches akin to what you’d see on a WRC or European Rally Championship event at the end of some stages.
In short, the organizing team is greatly ambitious.
Rali Ceredigion isn’t just a rally, it’s a commercial venture. And that’s no accident.
To me, a rally is a business. It's commercial. It's 200% a businessPhil Pugh
“I think the biggest downfall in British rallying at the moment and why a lot of events have been lost is because, to me, a rally is a business. It’s commercial. So you need a commercial manager,” Pugh says.
“Charlie Jukes – he’s done an absolutely fantastic job of bringing the event forward like that you know. And other events maybe have stagnated because, I don’t want to say it’s old school but they haven’t thought of the commercial side so much and that’s when they’ll struggle.
“Maybe when people look at our books – because it’ll all be online because we’re limited – they’ll think ‘Jesus Christ they spent a lot of money.’ But we may have made a bit of money as well, whereas if you go and ask many events, they don’t make money.
“It’s a balance that way, but it is a business. 200% it is a business and you’ve got to face the fact that that’s how it is.”
When DirtFish puts it to Pugh that the entire organizing team appears to be placing a great onus on not just doing what’s been done before, Pugh adds: “I think that’s credit to the personnel who are in and around us.
“There’s a lot of experience there, maybe not from actually organizing a rally but from people who know what they want to see and have competed for many years abroad, I competed for 12 years abroad.
“So every day’s a school day, and the things you’ve seen you try and take onboard and implement into the event. Yeah, like you say it’s quite easy to stay still but we are progressuve, but we don’t want to get too far ahead if you know what I mean.
“Especially as we know what’s coming in the next 12 months with hardship for everybody, and that’s maybe another factor where we’ve got to temper our ambition a bit and make something realistic.
“Because that is the reality of 2022 and the here and now: people are going to have hard times now, so we have to be very mindful of that. Plus we did a fantastic job with our environmental aspect, getting the FIA accreditation – apart from Rally GB we’re the first event to have that.”
What is that ambition then? Pugh says the team may need to temper it, but what might it have been?
A lot of service park talk has linked the rally to the ERC, potentially as early as next year. Is that really on the radar?
“We’d have probably said yes, and like I said going international helps us commercially,” Pugh admits.
“Sure if we can get a bit of funding, get some other partners onboard, then probably yes the progression would be ERC. But, everybody knows it’s a massive step – not from probably how we’ve run the event but from a funding point-of-view it is massive.
“So we’ve got to think long and hard but not overstretch ourselves in our ambitions. And we’ve got to keep true to the clubmen as well because we run interclub and international status, which you saw the massive variety of cars we had which was great.
“It’s the only sport probably where you can have a go at a world championship winner. Hayden Paddon, Rally Argentina winner, and you’ve got Joe Bloggs having a go at him.
“That side of things I think is brilliant and we need to continue that going forward.”
Rali Ceredigion, then, is here to stay. As Pugh said earlier, sometimes a new thing can make others cautious or even suspicious, but the direction this organizing team is going in simply has to be applauded.
It would be easy to just follow the crowd and put on a solid closed-road rally, but that’s not the Rali Ceredigion’s team style. They’re determined to break new ground and think outside the box at a time where rallying in the UK is perhaps in the weakest state it’s ever been.
Who knows where it could all go, but maybe, down the line, Wales won’t be missing from rallying’s global calendar forever after all.