It was as if nothing had even happened. Tom Woodburn got up on Monday morning and started his 12-hour shift as a maintenance technician at 7.30am as normal. It wasn’t until he got home that evening that it really started to sink in.
“What the hell has just happened there then?”
Twenty-four hours earlier, Woodburn had been standing in the middle of Ypres town center next to Jan Černý and their Ford Fiesta Rally3, spraying champagne in celebration of a World Rally Championship class win.
From there, it was off to the ferry from Calais to Dover, and then the long drive north to Morecambe where Woodburn was back in the door at 2am.
It was all a bit of a blur, but that’s not even the craziest part. One week earlier, Woodburn had never even met Černý before.
Three days before that, he didn’t know he was definitely going to be doing the rally. And he stepped in to help a driver pushing for the WRC3 title that hadn’t competed with English pacenotes before.
This was a truly sensational scenario, and an even better result.
Černý heads into his final round in Spain right there in the championship (one point behind Sami Pajari and level with Lauri Joona) while Woodburn scored his first WRC class win on just his third-ever world championship start outside his homeland.
So how did it all happen?
“Me and Jan had been talking on and off through the year, nothing major, and then I just went out to my car at work and I had a message from him saying his co-driver is potentially tied up with work, you might be required,” Woodburn tells DirtFish.
“That must have been either the Tuesday or the Wednesday before rally week. I was like: ‘All right, I’ll speak to work, see if it’s going to be possible’.
“I started trying to do as much prep work as I could in the short time, and on the Friday it was actually confirmed. Jan Tománek couldn’t make it; ‘Are you available to do it?’”
The heart was screaming ‘Yes!’; the head had to be more cautious. Ever since a run with ‘Crazy Leo’ in WRC2 on last year’s Acropolis, Woodburn has been itching to get back onto the world stage but he couldn’t just sack off his responsibilities and get on the first boat to Belgium.
But those who know Woodburn know he’s got the gift of the gab – he’s the first to admit it. So faced with the challenge of “persuading” his bosses, there was only going to be one outcome.
“The ferry was booked for Monday morning. Thanks Jon Pride, Brad Diamond and Sammy Askew.”
But with one challenge dealt with, the real one was just beginning. Woodburn had to prepare for possibly the biggest rally of his life, and had just days to do it.
“I had the best part of about three days to prepare for it before going out there with a team that I’ve never met, a driver I’ve never met, he’s never had English pacenotes… Sound, why not?,” he laughs.
“He’s only fighting for a WRC3 title this year…”
No pressure there, then.
But co-drivers are rigorous by nature (see Woodburn preparing for the event before he was fully set to go, just in case he was called up) so where there’s a will, there’s always a way.
One thing working for in his favor was he had at least done Ypres Rally twice before, winning the RC4 class with James Williams in a Fiesta R2T back in 2019. “I felt lucky really, that did sort of ease the pre-event apprehension,” Woodburn remarks. “It wasn’t as if I was going in blind.”
He arrived in Ypres on Monday evening thanks to a lift from Černý’s team manager, Jan Novacek, and at a team dinner Woodburn and Černý met for the first time. Of course, they’d exchanged the odd message on WhatsApp, but you don’t really know somebody until you meet them.
And understanding somebody’s character and how they operate is absolutely pertinent in rallying where each member of the crew must have ultimate trust in one another to execute their job faultlessly.
How do you get to know somebody at such short notice?
“I’m sure you’ve probably gathered by now that I can talk to a brick wall. Luckily it didn’t take much,” Woodburn smiles.
“It was just a bit of general chit-chat, get a feel for him, what does he want to achieve? Just a bit of everything, stories from rallying in the past. You don’t really want to be sat there as if you’re on a first date asking, ‘So, er, what’s your favorite color then?’
“I don’t know, just have a bit of craic. I like to think I’m pretty easy to get on with.”
Černý tells DirtFish: “Honestly, normally I like everything to be 100% prepared and to spend a lot of time together with a co-driver, but this time it was completely different and I have to say Tom did an incredible job.
“He is so nice as a human and he’s also a really good co-driver, so all was perfect!”
It was looking back, but certainly not to begin with. Tuesday was when the work started, and because recce didn’t kick off until the afternoon, that did at least afford the new pairing a chance to gel.
Woodburn talks about it all in a fairly blasé manner, but the difficulty of the task cannot be underplayed.
Driver and co-driver had only known each other for a matter of hours, let alone competed together. And although Černý had done some recce practice in English with 2019 European champion Ross Whittock earlier in the year, he’d never done it for real.
“Yeah, so now that you say it, it seems a bit mad, but there and then we both just thought: ‘This is what we need to do,'” says Woodburn.
“It was literally a few hours before recce was actually due to start, he wanted to try numbers and then directions, so like six right, four left. But I think in Czech notes he uses description first.
“So we did a couple of runs with this number system and then he thought… it was almost as if it was an inconvenience for me and he said: ‘Can you do direction first?’ But it didn’t bother me, I’m just going to read the paper, whatever’s on it.
“But even on recce practice we were still trying to discuss terms he would use in his English notes to describe not only where he wants the car or what note he wants but also something he can understand, so that when he’s getting two or three corners delivered to him, he’s actually going to understand what that means.
“We spent a couple of hours doing that and it seemed to come off. A couple of hours before going into a WRC event, why wouldn’t you be trying to make your own pacenote system?!
“It worked, to be fair. As the recce went on and the rally went on also, the notes just got better and better – just naturally really.
“But from the first run of recce practice to the last stage of recce you could see that he was starting to understand it, add a little bit more description in and feeling more comfortable with the English notes.
“It always helps I guess in rallying if you can understand your pacenotes!”
Perhaps it was no surprise he adjusted so quickly, as adaptation is nothing new for Černý.
He’s started four WRC rallies this year and Woodburn was his fourth co-driver. And the weekend in between Finland and Ypres he was racing his Škoda Citigo in the European Rallycross Championship at Hell, Norway – and finished fourth in RX3.
But with a new language to adapt to, naturally Černý did find it difficult to adjust to at first – to be expected, given modestly he describes his English on just a general conversational level as “not the best”.
However it was a transition he had already accounted for, considering linking up with Woodburn in Sardinia before settling on Ypres.
“Belgium I think is the best race to start with it because you can see a lot of straights and you just need to know at the junction which way to turn,” Černý explains.
“The left is quite OK because we have ‘levá’ in the Czech language, but the right is ‘pravá’ which is like completely different. Numbers are quite OK, so sometimes I had to think about the right corners.
“We did a first pass on the shakedown and when he started to speak, like ‘200’, it was something completely new.
“But there are a lot of notes that are better than in Czech language because in less words you can know exactly the situation, and he was super cool with the timing because he knew that I needed more time to prepare for everything.
“We tried to do the pacenotes as simple as possible, so for the first time on English pacenotes on these difficult roads with grip changing and a lot of loose gravel on the road it was really good. And we had really good fun in the car, I enjoyed it.
“The speed wasn’t the highest because I already knew we needed to just finish the rally as I knew if we did that at a normal speed we could win, and that’s what happened.”
They didn’t just win, Černý and Woodburn won 19 of 20 stages in WRC3 and cruised to a comfortable victory. But that was exactly what the doctor ordered. Anything less than the full 25 points, and Černý’s shot at the title would’ve been rather bleak come Spain.
“I have to say it’s a great situation, we can go to the last race and we can fight for the victory and this is what I really want,” Černý says.
“I knew that if I finish and I win I can go to Spain and we can go as flat out as possible. But this one was a bit crazy!”
Perhaps the result meant even more for Woodburn though, who was parachuted in at the 11th hour, yet he refused to be thrown by the current and was rewarded with the best result of his developing career.
“I think so,” he says when DirtFish asks if this is the peak of his career to date. “I say I think so, too right it is.
“At the end of the day I’m just me from Morecambe. Dad was never involved in rallying or anything like that so I’ve just come into the sport and just taught myself all the way through.
“So when you sit back and think about it like I did in Calais ferry port waiting for the ferry, ‘I’ve just done a world championship event’. That’s the top step of the level you can do in rallying, and then I thought: ‘We’ve just been spraying champagne for winning our category.’
“I’m just looking at the trophy now, it’s a pretty good feeling, to be honest. Because it was a rush after the podium to get to the ferry and then driving home and everything, when I got back home from work on Monday night, I was sat in my living room and thought: ‘What the hell has just happened there then?’
“The week before I was thinking: ‘I wish I was doing Ypres Rally’. Three days before I travel out I get the call to say, ‘Yeah, you’re doing it,’ and then less than 24 hours before I was sat on this sofa, I was spraying champagne on a world championship event.
“I’d say it’s the best result so far. Hopefully a few more to come, but we’ll see.”
Černý is keen to work with Woodburn again, but isn’t sure if it’ll be as soon as the championship showdown in Spain.
“I want to cooperate with Tom in the future, definitely, but I’m not sure for the final race – it’s a bit different,” he reasons.
“If I had the budget to prepare myself and Tom for Spain, like do some smaller events before the rally, spend some more time together in the car with the pacenotes, then I definitely choose Tom because he’s a really good guy and he’s a super co-driver.
“But now, I really want to push in Spain and have everything prepared and everything ready. It’s the last race of the season and really important for me, but I’ve not decided yet. I have one or two weeks maximum to decide, but as I said before I would like to cooperate with Tom in the future.”