Neil Watterson, LRO’s deputy editor, heads to the Scottish Borders to compete in the Berwick Classic Rally 2016.
‘Aaagh, I don’t understand it – I can’t work out what I’m meant to be doing.’ We’re six minutes into our first regularity stage on the Berwick Classic Rally 2016 – one of the UK’s premier classic events – organised by the Berwick and District Motor Club [http://www.berwickmotorclub.co.uk/] and have just checked in to our first intermediate control. I’m totally baffled by the whole thing – this is the first time I’ve ever done a road rally.
We’re using the LRO 1.8-litre Land Rover Freelander for the Targa event. The Targa runs alongside the Berwick Classic Rally allowing newer vehicles to be used – so we’re up against BMWs, Toyotas and even a Suzuki Alto. Eligibility criteria is quite strict, but as the Freelander has the 4-cylinder, non-turbocharged engine, it’s fine for the event. And the fact that it is fully equipped for cross-country speed events should mean it will cope with the terrain – after all, some people are competing in Minis! But obviously, we need to know where we’re going – and get there at the right time.
Phil Griffiths is driving – and I’m telling him where to go and what time he should be there. Or, at least, that’s the idea. I’m fine with the navigation, just struggling with the timing. Fortunately, Phil has done one or two of these events before, so guides me along and we don’t arrive too far off the mark – getting in early is far worse than arriving late.
Unfortunately, I miss-read the notes on the next section and we do nearly arrive early. So we slow down to recalculate, but by the time I’ve comprehended the information, we’re a minute late to a control. That’s a lot of time.
Still, we’re on the right track and we’ve already decided that this will be our familiarisation event – we’d be happy finishing in the top half. Mind you, if we did happen to win something this year, we wouldn’t be disappointed!
All smiles and waves
Houses along the route have been informed about the event and we’re amazed – and humbled – at how many residents are out to cheer us along in the warm evening sunlight. That said, many aren’t sure what to make of us in the Freelander – it’s only when they catch sight of the small rally sticker on the bonnet that they really show their enthusiasm.
We make it to the first of the two evening tests – driving round a course marked with cones in farmyards. Our Freelander normally takes its speedo reading from an ABS sensor, so we need the ABS working for the road sections. Unfortunately, we forget to remove the fuse to disable it for the first test, and it slides all over the place on the cow pat-covered farmyard. We’ve lost more time and worse – have nearly hit a cone.
We finish the test and quickly remove the fuse for the next one. This time we’re much quicker, though Phil does send a cone flying – the last time he drove a Freelander was a dozen years ago, so I’ll let him off.
The day ends at Norham village hall and the village green is surrounded by a vast array of classic cars – we could have travelled back in time a few decades.
We’re not the only Land Rover in the rally: Donald and Eilidh Urquhart are competing in Donald’s 1976 Series III station wagon. They’ve missed a control, so have picked up a 20 minute penalty already, effectively putting them out of the event. If they hadn’t they would be 30 seconds ahead of us.
We drop into Berwick for dinner and get a table next to Tot and Maureen Dixon, regulars of the event who are marshalling this weekend. Having discussed our problems with the regularity, Maureen offers some advice she was given as a navigator: ‘it’s better to be on the right road at the wrong time, than the wrong road at the right time.’ That’s food for thought and I mull on that as I try to get to sleep that night. If only I could grasp the regularity concept.
I have a Eureka! moment at about 05:00 – I grasp exactly how it works and make a plan for the day’s three regularities, leaving Phil to handle the tests. But when we get the roadbooks at Torness power station, the instructions are given in a different format, so my cunning plan is thwarted.
A cone slalom in the power station car park kicks off the day before we rag the Freelander round a farmyard and lorry trailer park. Then we go to the start of the first of the day’s regularities.
It’s a fast start and we pass a farm with spectators pointing which way we need to go. We’ve got to turn right at a T junction and turn left at a crossroads. So, when we reach a crossroads we turn left and meet other competitors coming down the hill.
Where had we gone wrong? We head up the hill and round the field-edge tracks to get to another track and get down to a farmyard, where we can pick up the route. But what if we’ve missed a control? We retrace our route and find our way down to the point we’d been eight minutes earlier. The control was just after the farmyard… Well, that’s us out of the running. Still, we’re on the right road, just not at the right time.
Times are out the window, so we just go to try and catch up now. Another test is done, followed by a gloriously-scenic regularity, but we arrive some 16 seconds early – we’re not quite sure how as our trip meter/clock suggests we are spot-on. Anyway, we’ve two more tests before lunch at Oldhamstocks village hall, where we can regain a little time and plot the route for the afternoon. At least there’s only one regularity left.
And boy, what fun that one is. The section on the public roads sees us bumbling along at 30 mph, but though the next section is set at an average speed of 25mph, it’s on tracks and we’re redlining the engine in 3rd gear to make up time lost at the intermediate control.
A short dusty climb through a farmyard on the next test makes the Freelander’s engine work hard, but it’s nothing compared to the following one – a long drag down a dusty track. Codeboards that you have to note down have been placed on the test to make you slow down – missing them is a 5 minute penalty – but we’re still getting into 4th gear between them. And despite getting airborne at one point, we’re quicker than the Ford Escorts on this test…
We’ve nearly made it!
Cars are starting to struggle now and the event is held up while a couple of breakdowns are recovered from tests. Even Donald is concerned about his Land Rover’s engine; it’s using water but at least he’s still going.
The penultimate test is shortened – it’s too wet and the likelihood of an off is too high. ‘It’s a shame,’ the start marshal tells us, ‘it would have been ideal for you. At least the shortened section – on a grassy track round the edge of a field – is still an absolute hoot to drive in the Freelander.
We finish off with a tight and twisty test through another farmyard and the Freelander’s size becomes a hindrance. Phil’s really got to grips with the handling and drifts it neatly between some steel stanchions, making it look easy and we finish in good time.
Rally end is at the East Links Park, where we get a decent meal and a chance to discuss the event with other crews. We’ve finished in 29th (out of 58 starters). Donald is much further down the table, but would have finished 17th had it not been for that penalty…
The morning’s navigation issues put us out of the running for a trophy, but we’ve certainly learned a lot – and we know where our weaknesses are, so we can work on them.
Overall winners were John Ruddock and Roger Burkill in a Ford Escort Mexico, while Craig Wallace and Clifford Auld were first Targa in a Toyota Corolla G6R.
It’s such a well-run event – there have been some 80 marshals out keeping things running smoothly – and the driving has been that good: we’ll definitely be back next year.
Berwick Classic Rally: http://berwickclassicrally.co.uk
North of England and Scottish Classic Rally Organisers: http://www.nescro.co.uk