DirtFish’s David Evans shares the sights and missed sights of his co-driving adventure at the Network Q Chester Rally Revival…
Derek Ringer couldn’t help himself. The Scot’s smirk became a laugh. And a long one at that. The sight of Ian Gwynne and I wearing the once regulation pink Subaru jackets brought memories – good and bad – flooding back.
“At least you don’t have to wear the mustard trousers as well,” says Ringer, just about finding an upside to the period clothing which accompanied the glorious Group A Subaru Legacy RS, the boot of which they had come out of.
Moving beyond the pink jackets, Ringer cast a wistful eye across the Legacy’s obviously Nineties lines at Chester Racecourse last Friday night. It’s big, boxy, angular and, injected with super-unleaded, angry.
“I always liked this car,” says Ringer, who last rode this particular piece of Prodrive perfection to second place on Rally Sweden 28 years ago. “It was always nice to have a lot of car around you…”
A few months on, across the border from Sweden into Finland and Ringer would be very grateful for having a lot of Legacy around him as he and Colin McRae cartwheeled and rolled their way between 1000 lakes to eighth place in Jyväskylä.
Back to Sweden, back to this Subaru. The 1992 event was only McRae’s third start on the WRC’s snow round (Ringer’s second – he was replaced by Mike Broad after breaking a rib in a recce accident when the Scotsmen were making their Swedish debut in a Vauxhall Nova five years earlier) and his first foreign WRC round since signing to drive a Subaru just over 12 months earlier.
“Not too much was expected of us,” says Ringer. “Ari [Vatanen] was in the team, but then he crashed quite early in the rally and suddenly there was just us left.”
McRae and Ringer defied their lack of experience in the snow and settled into a podium position from the first stage proper. Fastest time on the second stage of day two elevated them to second place, where they remained for the next three days, trailing Mats Jonsson’s Toyota Celica GT-4.
As a result, McRae’s Swedish ’92 score is often overlooked, but it was an absolute masterclass in measured maturity from the then 23-year-old reigning British Rally champion.
“It was a very good result,” says Ringer, “in a very good car.”
The Legacy was born in the days of a 38mm (became 34mm in 1995 and then 36mm in 2017) restrictor on the air intake on the turbo.
“We had plenty of power,” says Ringer, “we’d have been up around 380bhp and, don’t forget, we were in pretty much the perfect conditions with the cold temperatures. We’d done the Arctic Rally as course car a few weeks before, but I don’t know if that was in this car or a test car.”
Settling into the Legacy for the Chester Revival Rally, the history’s all around, the red dash, the big rev counter which sits bang in the middle, right in McRae’s – and now Gwynne’s – eyeline. There’s a bunch of buttons for heated screens, hazard flashers and various other mundane aspects of life on the road, along with fuses for just about everything beneath.
In front of me sits the very same Halda Rally Computer which Ringer would have logged five fastest times on his way to what was then (and would remain until New Zealand the following year) his best ever WRC finish.
Safe in the knowledge the trip was no longer hooked up, I pushed the odd button and my imagination ran riot.
It’s Sunday February 16, 1992, out of the Mitandersfors stage and the #7 Legacy’s quickest, closing to within half a minute of the lead…
“Aye, good days,” smiles Ringer. “But it’s time for a glass of wine now.”
Talking through the various switches and dials, you might have noticed there was no mention of launch. That’s because there wasn’t any. Not even a different engine map. You drove up to the line, dialled in a few more revs, dropped the clutch and got on with it.
Even with the headset or helmet on, the noise from the off-beat boxer up front was stunning. And only bettered by the odd bang when the 7200rpm (cut out of kindness from the 8000 McRae would have had back in the day) limiter is found.
I talked about co-driving in and around Chester last week. I didn’t. What I actually did from that famous seat in that famous car was navigate Gwynne along a touring route that took in a couple of classic old RAC Sunday stages in the shape of Weston Park and Oulton Park. I grew up plotting my way around 1:50000 Ordnance Survey maps and always loved the challenge of guiding my father from spectator point to spectator point in Britain’s four corners.
And I thought I was pretty good at it.
Now? Not so sure. The first control out of Chester was at World’s End, a famous road rally selective that I must admit was new to me. I’d got no idea where it was. The A roads were straightforward enough, but onto the whites, it quickly became very, very confusing. The roads and routes all looked similar and I made that fatal mistake of thinking: “Yeah, they probably meant that telephone box to be on the right hand side of the road and that left-hander’s not quite as tight as they’ve made it on the map. So, we’re definitely in the right place.”
No we’re not. Here’s a tip: the Ordnance Survey’s never wrong. You are. I was.
It’s incredible how quickly you feel isolated in the co-driver’s seat. When things start to go wrong, the best thing you can do is front-up immediately. At least tell the driver you’re not sure. I didn’t want to do that. This being the first section of the morning, I wanted to fill Ian with confidence. It didn’t happen. When things are going wrong for a co-driver, a rally car can very quickly become a fairly hostile environment. Don’t get me wrong, my driver couldn’t have been more accommodating, but when you know things are starting to go south, everything closes in. Suddenly, you notice how hot, how noisy the car is. That pencil that came to hand easily 10 minutes ago is a stretch to reach, then your driver wants a drink of water and to know what time the next stage is.
This is when a proper co-driver prioritises, gets themselves sorted and, absolutely 100 per cent, doesn’t panic.
Me? Panic central. Panic was, pretty much, the order of the morning.
By the afternoon, confidence from the right-hand seat had grown sufficiently that I was happy enough to deviate us from the route in an effort to avoid traffic. Happily that feeling of slight nausea every time we left a control and the car ahead (a comfort blanket that really shouldn’t be trusted, but definitely fell under the auspices of a problem shared…) disappeared leaving Ian, this most beautiful of Group A rally cars and I alone in the lanes eased.
The flip side of being alone in the car is the arrival at a control. When we came into Rednal – a kart track near Oswestry – for the first stage of the day, people were absolutely everywhere. Suddenly, you go from being out, alone with your thoughts, calculations and permutations and then you’re in a goldfish bowl. Everybody staring into the car as you’re trying to figure out where the control is, wondering if there’s time to nip to the loo and contorting yourself into a spine-bending reach behind the seats for the crash helmet.
That last bit’s made me sound all moany. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I had an absolute ball alongside Ian in the Legacy and would be back at the drop of a hat. But not on the maps.
I’ve never competed on a road rally and I now know I don’t want to. If I had one word of advice – and this was a common feeling from the field – for the organisers of the Chester Revival Rally, it would be to run with a conventional roadbook.
I’d take tulips over trying to fathom contour lines upside down (I’m a map-turner, I’m afraid) any day of the week.
All of that said, sitting where Ringer had sat all those years ago, was a proper pinch yourself moment for me. It was an honour, a privilege and another insight into what genuinely unsung heroes folk like Derek are.
And always will be.
The view from the driver’s seat
Friday, February 28 and it was time to travel from BGMsport’s Brackley base to the Chester Revival Rally.
David [Evans, co-driver and DirtFish.com senior staff writer] called me first thing in the morning.
“What do I need to do?” he asked.
“Nothing David, I’ve done all your co-driving duties for you, everything is sorted. All you need to do is turn up at three and I’ll go through it with you then.”
“Great mate, looking forward to it. See you at three.”
When I arrived I got unloaded, scrutineered, signed-on, all the usual jobs that a co-driver does for his driver! Text message from David: “So sorry, running late, car has broken down and going to get the train shortly, see you about six. Sorry I will be late.”
No problem I thought, but eventually arriving at half-nine, was quite funny. He was stressed. I wasn’t and showed my normal sympathy when things don’t go to plan… all he received from me was a bunch of laughing emojis on his phone. After all, the plan was to have fun! And that fun and micky-taking had started and carried on over a couple of beers.
After arriving at breakfast on time, David said: “Right, what do we do now?”
I asked David what exactly he had read about the event, I mean the regulations, the final instructions, you know all the things a co-driver does for his driver.
“Er, nothing” he replied.
It’s a good job I had. I ran through the plan for the day.
We started at 08:02 from the racecourse and headed off to the first venue, Rednal, in Shropshire. Now, please bear in mind David is quite local to this event and lives in Shropshire.
“Where’s that?” he asked.
“All on the maps in your pack mate” I replied, a little surprised.
He was a little anxious, didn’t want to screw up and get us lost. We headed off on the first road section. “I can’t hear you David!” I shouted. “Plug your bloody intercom in, it’s not wireless!”
Once I could hear him, I told him to chill out. We’d caught up with the two cars in front, Jimmy McRae and Pauline Gullick in car one, and Nicky Grist and Matt Edwards, car two. Yes, British Rally champion Matt Edwards, is in the wrong seat, and so is Nicky! What could possibly go wrong?
“David, you can relax now, we will just follow Jim and Nicky.”
Ten minutes later, yep, we are lost, all three of us! Wrong slot went car one and the two sheep behind followed – that made David feel better and gave us a bit of a chuckle.
Once I had educated David in plugging his helmet intercom in at each stage start and then plug in his road head-set every time, I taught him the basics of left and right. All was good.
David said: “Thanks for arranging this and getting me through the morning, really enjoying it. Mega fun, but you’re probably thinking you would have been better off doing it all yourself!”
I replied “Well I have done so far, so may as well carry on as we are!”
We had a blast, I’ve known David for over two decades and fully respect his writing, and extremely happy he is now working for DirtFish. We have done many test drives in the past for him to write about, but these are generally quite short. Spending the whole day with him was great, catching up on old times, discussing the future and generally talking rubbish (when he was plugged in!).
Oh, yes, and then there were the stages we drove! We were there to put on a show, to slide and skid around, entertain those hardy spectators who endured chilly winds and have some fun. Boy oh boy, did we have some fun around the Rednal kart track, Weston Park and Oulton Park. Some huge skids, long drifts. What a pleasure to this with David, he really enjoyed it – as did I.
After all, what’s not to like about being asked to drive this fantastic Subaru Legacy Group A car. It is amazing. Big thanks to Steve Rimmer and DirtFish and of course to my old friend David for eventually turning up and being so helpful!
Hope to do it again sometime soon.