Brands Hatch – a place usually associated with panel-bashing touring car races and dicing motorbikes. Last weekend, however, the famous Kent circuit swapped its racing lines and overtaking for Scandinavian flicks and handbrake turns as 90 cars lined up for the Brands Hatch Summer Stages Rally.
Among the 90 were the intrepid AOL Cars team starting only their second event. Beginning in a lowly 75th place, Mike and James hoped to avoid the wheel-wrecking concrete chicanes and treacherous gravel sections and bring their trusty Peugeot 206 home. Driver Mike Askew takes up the story...
It didn't start well. Coming into a tight section of road, we're clipped by a faster car trying to get past. Plastic and bits of bumper flew everywhere as I wrestled the car to a halt. We'd expected this to happen of course... but not on the A354 from Weymouth to Dorchester with the car still on the trailer.
Thankfully, our Brian James trailer comprehensively out-muscled the front end of our assailant, and after swapping details, we left our over-optimistic friend to pick up the pieces of his Golf at the side of the road.
The rally, by comparison, was considerably less fraught... to begin with. Having learned valuable lessons during our first outing in May, co-driver James and I lined up at the start with all the essentials covered. Unlike our first rally, I'd brought enough petrol with us this time and even had time to bolt in a couple of cameras. James had bought a new pen. I won't bore you with a corner-by-corner description of the first stage as the video does a far better job of showing what it's like to drive Brands Hatch backwards!
Being a race track, Brands Hatch isn't what you would call a natural rally venue. The vast run-offs and smooth surfaces are a bit alien to the rally crowd, who are more used to gravel and trees whistling past their windows at 100mph. That said, the organisers did their best to shake things up in the form of countless tyre barrier chicanes and a hilarious gravel section that took crews around parts of the rally school and through a short section of forest.
Team AOL Cars - Brands Hatch Stages SS1 from LaikaCreative on Vimeo.
For those who don't know, a rally is divided up into stages – a fixed distance around the track that everyone is timed over. The faster you go, the quicker time you record. The team with the shortest time at the end of the rally is the winner. Simple, yes?
After a pretty steady run through the first four stages – we even managed to overtake a Talbot Sunbeam on the first – things were looking good. We'd managed to master all the splits (junctions where the road divides and you're required to repeat certain sections two times) and we'd not hit anything. We were up to 39th on the leaderboard, with only a few cars of equal power ahead of us.
As we entered the afternoon stages, however, my brain started to go. We walloped a tyre barrier on stage 4, and had two nightmare moments at the hairpin when the handbrake failed to lock the rear wheels and we slid into a kerb at about 2mph. I then stalled the engine... twice.
Rattled by this loss of rhythm, I then tried to push on the rest of the stage – with predictable consequences. Missed apexes, graunched gears and a couple more whacks on the tyre walls followed as we careered through what was a pretty dismal stage six. Even co-driver James – usually full of encouragement and positive vibes said, "blimey, that was a bit scruffy".
Having dropped four places on the leaderboard, we entered the last two stages determined to climb back into the thirty-somethings. We bolted on our four best tyres (which we'd been saving all event) and lined up for our final shot at glory. Despite a clumsy start to the stage when I sailed off into a field, we recovered quickly and posted a time decent enough to lift us into the 30s again. However, our tilt for glory was dashed on the last stage when a car broke down in the tunnel just ahead of us, blocking the road. The organisers chose to cancel the stage (rallying's equivalent of the red flag in racing) and our times from the previous stage were used to calculate the final result.
When the dust settled, our final result came through from the timing crew – 36th overall and 10th in class. A fair result for only our second event and plenty to improve on for the next. Let's hope the hairpins are few and far between...
Author: Mike Askew