Last weekend saw the culmination of Race2Recovery's 2011 stage rally programme, as two cars took part in the national Wales Rally GB, the finale of the FIA World Rally Championship. Captain Tony Harris took the wheel of the team's regular Land Rover Freelander, partnered by Andrew Smallridge while Corporal Tom Neathway once again joined the Armed Forces Rally Team, co-driving for Ewen Christie in a Land Rover Wolf.
The team members' induction into the world of the WRC began days before the rally when they were invited to join former World Rally Champion Petter Solberg and co-driver Chris Patterson as they prepared for the forthcoming event at the official shakedown. Petter was finalising the set-up on his privately-entered Citroen DS3 WRC but was kind enough to take time out to speak with the team and offer them words of encouragement as he and Chris approached the 2011 finale.
The team was also able to see, up close and first hand, the standard of work and facilities on the WRC. Both Team Manager Andrew Taylor and Mechanical Manager Dave Reeve were impressed by the scale of the operation and the attention to detail, something that they are keenly aware can make all the difference. The team was also treated to a tour of Stage One Technology's on-site HQ. The company manages the huge amount of data and communications required for a WRC event, including safety tracking of all the cars taking part and timing information from the stages, often hundreds of kilometres away.
The team was also delighted to meet Richard Parks, who is undertaking the 737 Challenge. The former rugby international had been invited to take a passenger ride with Stobart Ford driver Matthew Wilson and as the Race2Recovery team was enjoying a coffee in the stunning Ford Abu Dhabi WRT hospitality unit, Tony Harris and Parks reminisced about the time they climbed Pen-y-Fan in Wales together.
The team finished preparing the Freelander for the event and despite a few last-minute modifications were ready for the off, mid-morning on Friday 11 November, just ahead of the two-minute silence to mark Armistice Day. At 11am, both cars pulled over to the side of the road in silence, to honour injured and fallen comrades.
The national event was using the same stages as the International, running once between the two passes of the WRC competitors. The first day was typical Welsh rallying weather; damp, cloudy, drizzly and by the last stage, foggy. Tony and Andrew approached the event with a slightly different tactic to most; the aim was to finish and gain maximum experience towards the 2013 Dakar Rally, so they tackled all four stages without using pace notes, driving blind as the team will do on the Dakar. Even without the notes, the day proved extremely rewarding. Tony and Andrew were right in the thick of the class B3 action and brought the Freelander back to Builth Wells and the overnight service halt with no problems.
Once the R2R mechanics had checked the car over, it was ready for the second day of action, this time comprising three longer stages, including the classics Hafren, Myherin and Sweet Lamb. Day two dawned bright and clear after a night of heavy rain yet the roads seemed drier than expected. Again, Tony and Andrew ran without using the supplied Patterson route notes and gained further additional experience as a result. They eventually completed the event with no problems, a huge achievement in only their first season and the second of three back-to-back competitive outings.
Back in the AFRT, Tom Neathway also enjoyed a superb start to the event, they set consistently competitive times, particularly against their AFRT comrades and were looking good for a class podium result as they began the final stage of the event, the fearsome Myherin test. However, it was not to be. Approaching a hairpin bend, Christie cut the corner slightly too much and this launched the Land Rover onto its side, then its roof. Tom thought it might continue and right itself but sadly, it came to rest on its roof with Tom and Ewen hanging in the harnesses. The Wolf was eventually righted but by this point, they had lost too much time and were forced to retire from the event.
Commenting on the weekend, Tony Harris said, 'Rally GB was an absolutely brilliant experience. The event was so well organised and the support we received, from the public as well as the organisers and of course, the marshals was incredible and we had a fantastic time. It was really good to do some longer stages than we had been used to, to get a better feeling for how you have to maintain concentration, for example. It was also a superb opportunity for the team to settle into its responsibilities, working in frankly horrible conditions and with the pressure on. From that point of view, it was absolutely perfect.'
He explained, 'The first day was the kind of weather everyone warns you about for Rally GB but the second day was lovely - bright sunshine and this brought so many spectators out. We had a lot of fun in the Sweet Lamb stage, getting some air under the Freelanders's tyres and the crowds seemed to enjoy that. I and the entire team are so grateful for the support we received - it's fantastic to see that people are behind us.'
Neathway also enjoyed his rally, despite the less than ideal ending, 'Rally GB was an excellent experience. The conditions were really tricky, especially with the fog on Friday evening but both Ewen and I enjoyed it and I learned even more through the process. Of course, it was a shame that it ended the way it did but luckily it was on the last stage, so for me, I still got the experience I was hoping for. And after spending some time upside down, some experience I hope not to repeat!'
Summing up the weekend, Team Manager Andrew 'Pav' Taylor, said, 'Wales Rally GB has been the highlight of the year for us so far, without a doubt. The reception we got, from the WRC community, the organisers, marshals and the public was amazing and as a team, we learned so much to take forward into next year. Tony and Tom enjoyed a great event and their skills and experience will have improved enormously. The team also got the first real chance to work under pressure and I'm delighted with how that went - everyone got on with what they were supposed to, communication and teamwork were excellent and I couldn't have hoped for more.'
He enthused, 'The rally community also accepted us completely. It was amazing to meet with Petter, Chris and the rest of the PSWRT before the event and get some really useful advice from them. They all offered to help us in any way they can in the future as well, which was unexpected but very welcome. It was also very interesting to see behind the scenes of how safety is maintained on the WRC and how the sport is brought to the outside world.'
There will be little time to reflect though, as the team now heads north for its final competitive outing of 2011, on this weekend's Borders Hill Rally, which will see the team running two Qt Wildcats for the first time. It will see the return to competition of Captain Matt O'Hare back from his honeymoon, partnering Harris in one DKR500 with Neathway co-driving for Benn Gott in another DKR500.