To Hel and Back :: Edit your Template To Hel and Back: November 2002

Monday, November 25, 2002

Three go off in Wales

A road trip such as this would require a strong and nimble beast. A car with power steering, gripping tyres, and reliable brakes would be necessary to match our capable driver. The gravel roads of Wales would be slippery and demanding and they would test our driver, our nav, and the “spare wheel’s” ability to sleep through anything…

It was with this in mind that we smiled wryly at the steed before us: a clapped out Renault minus interior light, several hubcaps and decorated with key scratches.

“It’s got a CD player in it,” said Basil Fawlty enthusiastically – the owner of Alternative (read “Dodgy”) Rentacar. A last minute booking meant that we were left with Fawlty’s “reserve car”, while his son was bundled out of the car, and left stranded on the road side yelling “I’ve got to be somewhere in ten minutes.”

But the car seemed somehow appropriate for the abuse it was going to take and besides it was 7.30pm on a Friday night. Colin McRae, Tommi Makinen, Petter Solberg and more had already exited the rally and we needed to get to Wales to see what looked to be Richard Burns’ first WRChampionship title.

So with a few lies about our age:

Adrian, “yeah I’m 26”; Chris “yeah yeah course I’m 25”; Rowena, “and I’m 18 [bimbo giggle]”;

about our destination, “so you guys up to Wales for the Rugby?”;

and about our intent for his car, Adrian “while we’re in Cardiff we’d like to have a look at the outlying scenery. What’s the situation with gravel roads and marks on the car.? [bats eyelids innocently] “; Fawlty, “there aren’t any gravel roads in Cardiff son, so it won’t be a problem”; Adrian [meekly] “I’ve never been so I wouldn’t know…”

we were off to Wales

Well not so fast. First there was the problem of finding reverse, a necessary gear, particularly when parked across the breadth of a narrow through road with nowhere to go but into the side of parked cars. There it is. No that was it. No move the gear shift backward then lift up, at the same time, blow through your left nostril and tap your right foot. Rally drivers only go forward apparently. Then a quick trip through north London, a detour through Wiltshire, Berkshire, Hampshire… as we approached Stonehenge we decided to swing a big right and get back on track for Wales.

The Renault proved a beast in Adrian’s hands and we were in Cardiff by the end of the night. At the bell tolled twelve we found ourselves rubbing clear patches in the steamy windows, staring forlornly at the start ramp outside of Rally HQ. “I guess there’s no point going in…? documentation…? “ Chris trailed off, his nav instincts propelling him to get some paperwork. Adrian was silent. His eyes fixed on the start ramp, his hands gripping the steering wheel, the Renault metamorphosing into a Subaru, and an urge to turn left and mount the start ramp and head towards the gravel roads. Virtually inaudible, a sigh emanated from his lips, a tear in his eye as he realised it was not to be… Only the sounds of the snoring “spare wheel” broke the moment…

Our accommodation that night was a lovely seaside hotel in Penarth. Cynan was already there testing the draft flowed well and with that and a bottle of wine under our belts, we retired for the night giggling like teenagers on a school camp until sleep overwhelmed us.

The intention had been for an early morning rise. But the f*cking loud obtrusive hideous alarm that Chris had set failed to wake him with its fog horn-like noise and none of us had a packet of frozen peas handy to get him out of bed (an old co-driver trick for waking service crews apparently) Similarly, without our nav telling us what to do we all felt a little lost, and more inclined to sleep a little longer.

When we did hit the road we decided to head straight to the service park. It was easy to find, as we came over the crest and into the approaching roundabout, we were only metres away from the colourful tents and the growling noises of the Swansea Service Park. Pirelli and Michelin flags fought in the wind, large tents of blue, silver, red signified the service areas, rows of stalls and simulators hinted at the fun that could be had. The boys were transfixed, delirious and focussed – on everything but getting to the service park… Like children having lollies snatched from them, their faces moved from ecstasy to agony as the service park faded from sight and they coasted off the wrong exit and onto some motorway heading for France.

Service Parks are usually about changing gearboxes and grooving tyres but rallying is a big business in a nation suited to anorak and bobble hat wearing, so the park was littered with stalls selling jackets, scarves, badges, coasters and small Eastern European children emblazoned with the team of your choice. Three trips to the car later (and they say women can shop!) and the boys were ready to get under the bonnets of cars.. after a few pitstops to take promotional material from the hands of the Pirelli, Michelin, Ford and Subaru gals. I don’t know why the teams employ beautiful women to give away promotional stuff as I swear the guys didn’t look at them once other to see what goodies they were proffering. I did think at one time that
Adrian was putting the hard word on the Subaru girl (Are you taken? Lets dance!) but she was merely chastising him for dropping his Subaru flag in the mud when he asked for a new one (actually he’d knocked it out of the hands of a small child in desperation to own one).

Highlights of the service park included: changing Mark Higgins’ Focus’ gearbox; Roman Kresta’s wreck of a Skoda; coming a breath away from being mowed down by Gregoire de Mevius’s Peugeot; and holding the jackets, coffee, flags and purchases of the boys while they took photos and ran in circles like Jack Russells.

Under the groaning weight of our purchases (that’s the “spare wheel” groaning – not just the Renault) we headed off for our first bit of rally action – SS12 Trawscoed. Chris had studied the Ordanance Survey maps with a diligence that can only be attributed to a co-driver and had worked out a top spectator spot. Specatating in the UK is different to Rally Oz, as you are allowed to walk into the stage and find your own spot and so long as it’s safe, the marshalls don’t have a problem. Chris led us across narrow ridgeways, down treacherous banks, across muddy ravines. Adrian frequently stopped to check on the “spare wheel” and mutter words of encouragement. And then there it was… the clouds parted, and a sliver of sun shone down on a wider clearing by the side of the stage. A log lay on the grass inviting us to sit and watch, the leatherman in Chris’s pocketed itched to cut down some flora, and the “spare wheel” proved useful and brought the thermos and chocolate out. Spectators set fireworks off into the air and the sound bounced across the valley – a wonder that never ceased to amaze the boys. Air horns resonated; Adrian was in his element. We made friends with the marshalls, with Chris telling stories in his best Dubbo accent about how we had flown all the way from Australia for this moment. We had the perfect spectator point and were even blessed by mild and dry weather.

And then the Gods got angry. Carlos Sainz had an accident on the previous stage, taking a right turn instead of a left and ploughing into a radio control and a heap of spectators. Two Medivacs were on their way, and the FIA were checking every spectator position on the following stages. Our friendly
marshalls from “oop narth” advised us to crouch in the bushes and look, well safe. The FIA approved, us the Marshalls winked and then the word came… “the stage has been cancelled.”

The bitter sound of agony and despair echoed across the Welsh hills. And that was just Chris. Beanies pulled down over our bottom lips, we hoped in vain that the cars at least would run the stage at road pace. It was not our day. Amongst jibes of “how much were your airline tickets guys?!” we found no choice but to retreat.

It was on to Abergavany to find our accommodation in the famous Brecon Beacon National Park and to hear Chris try and pronounce Abergavany, Llanlleido, Llandovery etc. Our B and B that night was a lovely little house all decked out in white with fluffy towels and heated towel rails and not really the kind of place you normally stay at a rally but lovely none the less. Chris named our room the nursery and with “mum” and “dad” in the beds at the top of the room, the “baby” went to bed reading cartoons on his quilt. The “spare wheel” went into a quick and easy slumber; having been unable to sleep the previous night on account of sleeping so much on the drive to Cardiff.

5am might seem like an early start but when you’ve come all this way to have a stage cancelled on you, nothing is early enough. Sitting in the carpark for our first stage of the day, with lesser cars than Escorts and Subarus sinking into the boggy mud around us, and smart packs of spectators spreading tarpaulins between cars to make shelter, we found we were not alone. Breakfast was being cooked on camping stoves and there was a feeling of camaraderie and insanity abounding. At one point, someone tested their airhorn starting a cacophony of car horns and tunes from around the spectator point.

We spectated at two stages that day – and both times were lucky to not have to take Chris’s idea of hacking through the woods with a leatherman and a mini mag-lite. On the first stage, Chris went to check out what lay over the crest, and Adrian and I found satisfaction in a spectator corner. As Marcus Gronholm came bearing down upon us, Adrian’s face broke into joy and with Richard Burns’ Subaru grumbling only minutes behind, the boy from the Sunshine Coast could say he died a happy man. Splattered with mud and a few rock bruises from Petter Solberg’s brother, we moved onto the next stage, walking stiffly as our jeans were soaked through and only Thredbo Man had the sense to wear waterproofs.

At the next spectator point, Chris again led an expedition across the Welsh hills, punctuated by fireworks on a background of constantly drizzling rain. It was a brilliant spectator point where we could hear the cars approaching long before they came into view, watch them fly down a straight, and over some gentle bumps. We were soaked to the skin, with rain permeating every little gap in our clothing, and gloves and beanies useless. But it was all worth it to see Burnsie come flying down the straight and get air on the bumps before leaving us breathless and grinning madly waiting for the next car (despite how much Chris wanted to see him go off and miss out on the Championship!)

Satisfied, we headed back to Wales to see the finish and to see the Ginger Whinger take his crown. A wrong turn in Cardiff (how Mr Plod did not recognise us as rally traffic and direct us in the direction of roadgoing WRXs I don’t know) meant that we virtually stopped mid-traffic infront of Marcus Gronholm. All too much for Chris to bear, he jumped barefoot out into the traffic (thank god the “spare wheel” had put her pants back on by now or who knows what the people of Cardiff could have seen?!).

Burnsie was wiping down his car and sticking World Rally Champion stickers across it and bag pipes were blaring to remind us that Robert was a Scotsman. It was a pretty special moment. We let Chris stand in the mud a while more then decided it was time to join the 72,000 rugby spectators try and find their way out of Cardiff. Hours later… we were still doing it.

Our first WRC spectator trip was virtually over and there were promises to do Monte together, talk of Sweden, Deutscheland, Cyprus, Finland the Autosport International Show and even competing. But there was still the trip home and Adrian felt the need for sleep. Chris got the joy of driving at snail’s pace down the M4 and the “spare wheel” even managed to stay awake for the drive home. Until that is we ended up in Staines and realised our navigator really needed to navigate so we could get home for some rest and dry clothing.

But Adrian has never been a man to just let things end. He likes to savour a moment, to drag it out for as long as he can. He likes the time for home and bed to be as late as possible. So this is how he found himself hugging both the spare wheel and the “spare wheel” next to midnight on the north circular, with trucks bearing down on the Renault’s flat tyre, no tools, and a mechanically inept assistant and no end in sight…

But it’s what makes it all worthwhile…

Email from Australia

My first group email… a sign that I am turning into one of those young Contiki trippers with stories of Mcdonalds and beer on foreign shores or am I just simply lazy… ?

Australia was a whirlwind, on the ground for only eight days. This time I noticed more than usual how distanced I felt from my fellow compatriots. Why does everyone move so slow? Why are they so happy? Do I *know* the girl behind the check out counter and if not, why is she talking to me? Why am I the only person that jay walks? I took my confusion as a sign that I should get out of London as soon as my contract ends.

As I get very little time with my parents when I’m home, I accompanied my mum to the weekend flea markets despite landing only hours prior. It’s a tradition that goes back to when I was a baby, and it allows all the old time stall holders to pinch me on the cheek and ask if we’re sisters while they talk to my mum about the flowering of gerberas and where to get good pirate cds. I love it because I can immerse myself in suburban Australian junk – the very things that made up my youth. Remember Choose Your Own Adventure books; ice cream containers; the Sale of the Century board game; Dolly, Cleo and surfing magazines; kanga cricket sets…?

The rally was fine – what can you say about something that everyone else thinks is super exciting but for me has become a regular occurrence?! Yes, I had breakfast opposite Francois Delecour and his stunning girlfriend the day after his horrific accident; and yes I got a free meal by hobnobbing with the Mitsubishi drivers, flanked by Marlboro girls. But it’s all in a days (or four days) work. Unfortunately missed my ride with Australian star Ed Ordynski because the format of the event is concentrated so that the press day is now the same day as the start of the event, and I was busy climbing under tables in a pair of “you can’t afford me high heels” trying to network a bunch of PCs, rather than squealing into an intercom and lauing my legs over roll cages.

The rally was a bit of a walkover for the winner but my work was cut out on the last day when every other position turned on its head, communications went down (again) and I was understaffed. All good stuff to pave the way for a post event drinking session. The event organizers have now realized that volunteer, media, driver or groupie – everyone just wants to get pissed in a big tent full of booze and soft grass – so it was arranged. With my YCAM heels sinking into the turf and the free battery acid wine sinking into my stomach lining, it was set for a big night. Simone – fellow field media and groupie disliker – was unable to walk before we completed the first bog lap of the venue which saved me the embarrassment of walking into poles and falling into the hands of lesbians (but that’s last year’s story!).

The party moved onto the Sheraton for some bad dancing to Kylie and Shakira and some shameless winking at old, bald Peugeot mechanics who couldn’t even afford my shoes, let alone me… The field media girls taught me to be a toilet bitch (though I still don’t know why girls go in pairs – in my case it was for first aid as someone had danced on my feet) and I convinced a poor little Subaru boy to take me to Fast Eddys in search of a burger at 6am.

The recovery of these combined activities took days.

From Perth, loaded with wine, bundaberg rum, explorer socks and twisties I bid a teary farewell and stopped over at Singapore. My mother had lined up a local friend to take me around so I could avoid the more expensive shops at Orchard Road and head for local malls instead. It took a great deal of restraint to ensure that I didn’t bring back loads of summer dresses and scrappy red high heels all at the price of less than a burger! In the evening, we toured the Muslim area – Geylang - that comes alive at the break of fast (my visit there coincided with the first day of Ramadan). Geylang was a spectacle; the streets were illuminated with strings of light, and roundels of flashing colour. The air was rich with the smell of all my favorite foods, young boys called out the price of satay, curry puffs, fried chicken… I was in heaven (the food not the young boys).

Being part Asian, it’s not just possible for me to simply visit Singapore for I am in some way related to every Malaysian in the country. I know this because a representative from each family came to the airport to wave me off, press cookies into my hand and wipe away tears as the “pretty girl” departed (I love this country as I am tall and well endowed compared to the locals which lands me some sort of undeserved supermodel tag!)

So here I am back in London, nursing a dislocated knee (occurred somewhere in the sixth and seventh paragraphs), dodging rain drops and being stuck in traffic. Call me soon, we’ll have a bundy and cookies.