A 3.45 am alarm call is never a pleasant experience. Even if it’s for the very best of reasons.
And this was the very best of reasons, as thanks to Škoda Motorsport, I was heading off to get my first taste of the World Rally Championship’s Rally1 era, live and up close at Škoda’s home event – Central European Rally.
Thursday’s dawn isn’t even close to breaking as I stumble out of my hotel and into terminal two at London Heathrow airport, looking like something straight out of DirtFish’s Haunted Hot Laps.
‘Coffee. Need coffee’ I think as I slowly navigate the self check-in machine.
Thankfully it wasn’t long before I was sitting aboard my flight, suitably caffeinated and feeling back amongst the living, and able to think about the amazing four days that lay ahead of me.
Four days chasing the world’s finest drivers across central Europe, stopping off to take in the action stage-side in each of the event’s three countries, beautiful scenery to take in, numerous local dishes to sample – not to mention the local beer…
This was going to be my kind of European grand tour.
After touching town in Prague on Thursday morning, I was met by our fabulous hosts from Škoda and soon handed something that I’d never seen before. A WRC media pass, with my name on it. It was the first of many pinch-myself moments during the weekend, but this was no time to get sentimental.
Before long I’m standing in Hradcany Square, just in-front of the beautiful Prague Castle, peering over some rallings for a glimpse of the drivers I’ve admired for so long from behind my TV-screen. There they are, standing around, chatting to each other about goodness knows what as they wait to go over the start ramp.
As awe-struck as I am, it isn’t long before I’m hassling our Škoda hosts to jump back in our bright yellow Octavia VRS and get across town in time for the opening superspecial.
“It’ll be tight,” says Denis, our lovely driver, as we navigate our way through the crowds and out towards the Chuchle Racecourse, the venue for SS1.
Local knowledge and a few shortcuts get us there just in time, and I pinch myself again as I see a queue of Rally1 cars waiting to start the stage, parked up outside a KFC.
Of course they are. This sport is just something else.
The atmosphere in the stadium is electric, and as I exit the lift on the fifth floor of the main grandstand, I glimpse my first ever sight of a Rally1 car in anger.
The car in question is the M-Sport Ford Puma of Ott Tänak, and as he completes several donuts around the haybale in front of me, the noise of the 1.6L turbo engine is just superb. Pops and bangs galore, and I can’t hold back the smile as I stand and drink it all in for a moment.
Then, Denis insists we set off right away for Klatovy and that evening’s second test. Cue some interesting moments dodging rally cars in Prague’s rush hour traffic – pinch myself moment number three – before eventually ditching the highway for the country lanes as we neared our destination. It would pretty well be the last time we’d see a dual carriageway all weekend.
We were in the heartland of the rally now. The lush and green hills and forests of western Bohemia, which would soon give way to the ever-more dramatic landscapes of Bavaria and Upper Austria in the foothills of the Alps. Quite simply, this is a stunning part of the world.
As night fell over Klatovy, I trudged through some fields and shuffled my way through the crowd to get a good viewing spot for SS2. This was the first ‘proper’ stage of the rally, and provided a spellbinding sensory experience as the sounds of the cars echoed up from the valley in front of me.
Headlights ablaze as he approaches the corner where I’m standing, Elfyn Evans slams on the brakes in his GR Yaris Rally1… and goes straight on! Wow! This was drama unfolding right before my eyes, and it wouldn’t be for the last time.
By 7pm the top cars had all cleared the stage, and I had just enough time to scoff some dinner and carry my bags to my hotel room before my body well and truly crashed, and I got some much needed rest.
Friday morning was all about sustainability. Škoda was hosting a workshop at our hotel, and had invited a number of its partner organizations along to showcase their sustainable solutions across all aspects of motorsport
It was a really interesting session, and these companies crucially see motorsport as a vehicle for fast-tracking technical innovations which will shape the future of mobility for us all. That’s great news if you’re a motorsport fan, and even better is the fact that rallying is absolutely at the forefront of this movement – look out for more detail on DirtFish soon.
But before the event had even started, it was time for yet another pinch-myself moment. As I munched on my muesli in the breakfast room, in walked none other than Grand Prix winner Heikki Kovalainen – who has been driving for the sustainability-focused Secto Labs team in this year’s Finnish Rally Championship.
“Hello,” said Heikki.
“Umm… err… GOOD MORNING,” I very awkwardly replied.
After dusting myself off from that embarrassing moment, the afternoon soon rolled around and it was time to head off to the stages again – this time in the big Škoda minibus (which was actually a Volkswagen Transporter, but let’s ignore that detail).
As I took my seat on the back row, I began to chat to the elderly gentleman next to me about all things motorsport. ‘This chap seems to know his stuff’ I thought to myself. Turns out that ‘this chap’ was actually Hans-Joachim Stuck – another ex-F1 driver and two-time Le Mans winner.
You guessed it, another pinch.
After a very long drive, we arrived at the Zvotoky stage for the afternoon’s second pass, and Hans and I again hunted for the best viewing spot. Being quite a tall gentleman, he had the benefit of being able to see over the swarms of people gathered in the fan zone, but I once again shuffled through the crowd to find myself a nice spot on the outside of the hairpin-right.
As the now familiar Rally1 scream approached, I thought I’d try and decide once and for all which car sounded the best. They’re all great, no doubt about that, and importantly all have their own distinctive tone. But for me, the boisterous roar of the Puma Rally1 takes the prize.
But the loudest roar from the spectators was reserved for Erik Cais, and experiencing the genuine passion and excitement all around as the local hero passed through was something quite special.
Friday was rounded off by yet another delicious meal from our Czech hosts, before turning-in for the night ahead of what was to be our longest day on the road yet.
Saturday was border hopping day.
We set off in the early morning drizzle, bound for Germany and the now infamous Bayerischer Wald stage. The journey took over two hours, and I must admit the twists and bumps of the country roads in our Octavia left me feeling more than a little queasy once I stepped out onto German soil for the first time.
Some fresh Bavarian air soon made me feel much better as I took a wander around the fan zone on SS11. With its beer tents, big TV screens and plenty of mud, I immediately felt like I was at a music festival rather than a motorsport event.
The crowd let out a collective “oooh!” as Evans missed the turn and then disappeared from view
That’s not a complaint though, this place was seriously cool. The spectator area offered up numerous viewing points and there was plenty to do otherwise in between the scheduled two runs of the stage. I was really impressed, and could have stayed there for hours quite happily.
The WRC parade soon arrived, and the event was about to be turned on its head. Watching the cars as they sped away from my viewing point, several of the early Rally1 runners were looking a bit twitchy as they passed through a left-hand kink before entering a slightly sharper right-hander and disappearing behind a house.
Then along came Elfyn Evans.
The Welshman had a little moment as the back-end of his Yaris stepped out through the fast left kink. The car hadn’t settled by time he hit the brakes for the upcoming right hand turn, and the crowd let out a collective “oooh!” as Evans missed the turn and then disappeared from view.
Five seconds later, I could see steam rising from behind the house which hid from sight the barn into which the Yaris had crashed, and three minutes later – once the TV coverage had caught up – the full extent of what had just unfolded became clear.
The title fight was all-but over, and I’d just witnessed a piece of WRC history.
The Škoda hosted grand tour continued with lunch, consisting of a ridiculous portion of Wiener schnitzel followed by a delicious Apfelkuchen, and then our first excursion to Austria for SS13 in the afternoon. This stage couldn’t match the drama of the morning, but did offer something else that I was extremely pleased about.
The sunshine! It was the first time I’d seen it all week, and thankfully it was here to stay.
The plan for Saturday evening was dinner in CER’s host-city Passau, but after having enough food to last several days at lunchtime, I instead took a detour to the service park – located in a less-than inviting industrial area on the outskirts of town – to meet up with my DirtFish colleagues for the first time all week.
“James!… JAMES!” I heard someone shout as I stood outside the entrance feeling slightly out of place around WRC team members, media crews and event organizers.
“David!” I exclaimed as I caught sight of Mr Evans, our head of media and journalist extraordinaire, and I wandered over to meet him along with Eliot Barnard and Colin Clark.
I’d just about had time to say “hello” before Colin clipped a microphone to my jacket and told me I’d be on that evening’s DirtFish highlights video! My anxiety levels peaked as I chatted to David on camera about my week so far, but I thankfully survived the experience to make it to the evening’s media zone.
Here, I pinched myself yet again as I was introduced to the great and the good of the WRC, including the soon-to-be-crowned world champion Kalle Rovanperä. This trip was just getting more and more surreal.
A beautiful dawn greeted me on Sunday as I sat outside my hotel and awaited the arrival of the DirtFish mobile production unit, or Toyota Land Cruiser as it’s better known, for what turned out to be my favorite day of the whole CER experience.
The terrific trio of Eliot, David and Colin are absolute pros and, alongside Luke Barry and our other brilliant writers, work incredibly hard to bring you the world’s best WRC coverage on every round of the championship. I don’t mind admitting that it was a real honor to work alongside them at CER, and being a part of this team is something that is still making me smile everyday.
A bit more filming for YouTube (including reminding Colin what country he was in), and a few coffee and donut stops later, the rally was over and we had a new two-time World Rally champion. For us, that meant heading back to Passau one last time to catch up with the drivers.
Thankfully, the slightly underwhelming service park was ditched by the organizer in favor of an altogether more pleasant media zone on the banks of the river Danube into which WRC’s finest would be welcomed.
Seeing Kalle step from his GR Yaris and receive the applause of the crowd who had gathered to salute him was a magical moment, and I was struck by how cool the Finn was as he spoke to DirtFish a few moments later. There’s no doubt he was genuinely thrilled with his accomplishment, but Kalle has an aura of calmness around him that is truly mesmerizing.
He’s one of a kind, that’s for sure.
It was all too soon time to say goodbye to my DirtFish colleagues, and climb back aboard the Octavia VRS one last time for a highway blast down to Munich airport.
As I sat absolutely exhausted and waiting to board my flight home, the whirlwind of the weekend finally hit me.
What a trip. What a sport. What a job! I truly am very lucky.
So thanks again to Škoda for inviting me out to their home event, for ferrying me across three countries and numerous stages, and for putting on some of the best catering one could possibly hope for.
And, if you’ve made it this far, thanks to you for reading! I can’t wait to bring you lots more coverage of rallying, and I hope it will be for a long time to come.