Confessions of a course-closing-car navigator

LRO editor Neil navs on the Devils Own Rally

 Matt Warren/Andy Pullan, Ford Escort

Matt Warren/Andy Pullan, Ford Escort

‘Ey-up, Neil,’ said Phil Griffiths, who I often navigate for in motorsport, ‘how do you fancy doing course-closing on the Devils Own Rally in Cumbria?’

Run by Kirkby Lonsdale Motor Club for vehicles of a specification pre-1986 and with a route of 170 miles, eight tests and loads of regularity sections, it’s a test of both driver and navigator. Sounds fun. And as we’re just a course car, we don’t need to be in an eligible vehicle – though we each own one.

After literally moments of thought, we concluded the LRO Freelander would be the ideal closing vehicle. Fully roll-caged, with bucket seats, harnesses, massive sump guard, Cibie Super Oscar driving lamps and BFGoodrich Urban Terrain tyres, the otherwise-standard 1.8-litre Land Rover also has a drop-down rear window, making collecting marker boards a doddle. We’d be able to press on when needed and may be able to assist others.

 David Ruddock/Nick Cooper, Vauxhall Viva

David Ruddock/Nick Cooper, Vauxhall Viva

If you’re not into the scene, road rallies are about as grass-roots as you can get with motorsport. All you need is an eligible vehicle, a navigator and off you go. You don’t need to make any mods, though more competitive drivers will often fit a sump guard and a roll cage, just in case. The only thing that is now becoming an issue is the cost of the vehicles on this sort of event – pre-1986 cars are gradually increasing in value and many owners simply won’t want to risk their pride and joy.

But for those who do, there’s plenty to go at – and the vehicles competing on this year’s Devils Own Rally range from 1930s Bentleys to 1980s hot hatches.

Being course-closure means that we’re the vehicle the crews don’t want to see. We start off just behind them and as long as all of the vehicles get through the time controls (TCs) we can continue after them. But if one goes wrong, we need to wait a certain amount of time for them to find the correct route and for this event, it’s 15 minutes – any later and they’re Over Time Limit (OTL) and have fallen out of the rally, though they can rejoin further along.

 Rob & Amy Henchoz, Volvo PV544

Rob & Amy Henchoz, Volvo PV544

So, we watch the vehicles through the first test on a farmyard half a mile from the start, then head off. We’re the second closing car, picking up the boards; there’s another in front of us collecting the timing clocks.

All competitors make it through the first two controls, but we’ve lost one by the third, so we wait for OTL and close the control. Now it becomes difficult to regain time. Although it’s not a race – the vehicles have to average set speeds below 30mph – as we have to stop and collect the boards, we can easily fall behind time. At least we have marked-up maps showing our route, and where the controls are; the crews have to plot their routes from information given.

 Elliott Dale/Charlotte Ryall, 1937 Bentley Derby

Elliott Dale/Charlotte Ryall, 1937 Bentley Derby

We arrive at the next test at OTL, so Phil and I drive it, blasting the Freelander round the cones in a quarry. We’d be nowhere near the times of the top crews, but it builds the adrenaline nicely.

Some of the vehicles are falling behind and by the time we arrive at Test 6, we’ve managed to get ahead of five, but as we’re not collecting the clocks, we hold back – so they all get to drive it. Elliott Dale in a Bentley Derby is running very late, having bust his rear diff on a previous test – he’s rebuilt it by the side of the road and has rejoined the rally.

 LRO 1.8 Freelander gets a quick break

LRO 1.8 Freelander gets a quick break

A quick coffee break is followed by a run that takes in Winster Ford. When we arrive the recovery crew are stowing their ropes – with the water level about 350mm deep quite a few of the competitors have needed their services but the Freelander shrugs it off, though the brakes do suddenly dissipate all of the heat that has built up.

Some tricky navigation lies ahead and we find a competitor by the side of the road, struggling to plot. We point out that we’re the closing car and he elects to follow us, getting a time at the next control, then heads off in the wrong direction…

 Matthew Smith/Richard Clark, 1966 Morris Cooper S

Matthew Smith/Richard Clark, 1966 Morris Cooper S

A maze of lanes follow and I’m calling the junctions thick and fast while Phil concentrates on the road.

‘CROSSROADS,’ I yell, and Phil stamps on the brakes and we skid to a stop just short of the junction, before the Give Way line. Phew.

Another test in some woodlands sees us catch up with the tail-enders, then it’s on to the Lakeland Motor Museum for sandwiches and a short break. It also allows us time to jettison some of the boards that are rapidly filling the load area.

 Ian Crammond/Matthew Vokes, 1968 Mercedes-Benz 280SL

Ian Crammond/Matthew Vokes, 1968 Mercedes-Benz 280SL

It’s getting dark now and the lights are coming into their own. We get to the start of a regularity only to find we’ve lost another car, so have to wait. And Roger Powley in his Porsche 911 has managed to get bellied on a greenlane, off the rally route, in Grizedale Forest – could we help?

We head in and have a look. We assess it and decide it needs to be winched, so leave it for the other closing car to remedy, while we become clock car and board collector. Now the pressure is really on.

We make our way through the empty Grizedale Forest at a sedate speed (probably) and exit – a long transport section beckons and as Phil drives, I work out our timings – we should get to the TC in time, then be slightly ahead.

 Roger & Leigh Powley, Porsche 911

Roger & Leigh Powley, Porsche 911

We close it down, and start on the next phase of the event. We’re about to close a passage control, but get passed by a competitor – how did we overtake them? We’ll have to wait until OTL now.

Nine passage controls in the space of three miles means we’re not even getting out of 2nd gear, but we have to do the entire route, just in case. Direction boards through farmyards need to be unscrewed and stowed, and we’re starting to fall way behind – the marshals will wait for us to reach them, unless they need to move onto another control – so we need to be prompt.

Then fog starts to descend, reducing visibility. Phil is a native of Cumbria, but doesn’t know these roads well enough to risk going quickly, but fortunately it clears as we drop down off the moors.

 Les Andrew/Gary Evans, 1977 MGB GT

Les Andrew/Gary Evans, 1977 MGB GT

The air is damp and the Freelander’s screen is misting up – the persistent light rain is clinging to everything and the hardy marshals are very pleased to hear the magical words: ‘closing car’. They can get home and into the warm; we’ve still got 90 minutes to go.

We enter a corner on a farm track quickly, only to find a cow in our path. We patiently wait for it to move, then gingerly continue, opening it up again once we’re over a cattle grid. Despite all its reliability issues, the 1.8 Freelander can take a lot of stick and we redline it in first, second and third to get back up to speed on the mud track.

 Sue Shoosmith/Sandy Campbell, 1962 Sunbeam Rapier

Sue Shoosmith/Sandy Campbell, 1962 Sunbeam Rapier

The route takes us into another forest and we’re asked to assist the crew of a VW Golf GTi who have fallen off the track into a ditch. We don’t really have the time, but we have a go – and because we’re working fast, I make a mistake, catching my thumb between the Freelander’s tow pin and hitch. I attach rope and Phil attempts a recovery, while I find a plaster to stop the claret leaking from my digit.

We can’t get it out – the Freelander’s clutch won’t take it and we’re just pulling it along the ditch. We’ll have to leave it for someone else. With hindsight, we should have built a ramp for it – or maybe the club should have asked for volunteers to assist from the local 4x4 Response group before the event.

 Thomas & Roger Bricknell, 1983 VW Golf GTi

Thomas & Roger Bricknell, 1983 VW Golf GTi

We close the section and are on the home run, and as I start to relax, I make a navigational error, missing the final test of the event. We retrace our steps and find it – but I’m so tired I can’t decipher the test diagram, so we decide to visit the marshals and close it, rather than driving it.

I look at the clock. We’re just over 20 minutes behind schedule – not too bad, really, and it’s a relief to hand over the score cards and clocks to the organisers and grab something to eat. We’ve struggled even with marked-up maps, no wonder some of the crews found it very difficult.

It’s been a great event – challenging navigation and testing driving. Apart from the first test, we haven’t seen any of the competition and very few cars en-route, so we’ve no idea how anyone has done. It’s been exhausting, but great fun.

Now, I wonder whether they’ll invite us back next year?

 Overall winners Guy Woodcock & Ali Cooper, Ford Escort 2000

Overall winners Guy Woodcock & Ali Cooper, Ford Escort 2000