Severn Valley National - MSA Gravel Championship Round 4
June 3, 2006
by Robin Hernaman  
Car 2: Craig Middleton/Robin Hernaman
Matador Tyres Hyundai Accent WRC

My outing started on the Thursday before the event (for a 'one day' event!) with the trek across to Llandrindod but of course the prep started about a week before that as I wove our WRGB etc pace notes into the official ones. An entirely legal process I assure you and the effort was to prove highly beneficial as some of our calls were two grades up on the Patterson's version, some of our "cut" calls are a bit adventurous/advantageous too ;-)

The format of the event was just 7 stages totalling 62 gravel miles; Crychan, Cefn, Gwibedog, Halfway, Brechfa 1&2 and then a reformatted Crychan again. It was clear the Brechfa stages would be crucial, totalling 23 miles (14 and 9 respectively) without any management service between them. Ok, ok so we are usually pampered I know ;-) They are two very tricky stages at the best of times so I was glad we had run over 50% of the layout last September. We know the rest of the stages pretty well also, so were looking for a good result despite the fact that we still have only the standard WRC engine not the big valve head version, ie a paltry(:->) 320bhp instead of the 340bhp Marcus Dodd, Roger Duckworth and Barry Johnson have; these 3 being our most likely competition.

When I reached Llandrindod there was a little pause at the Matador Unit while final(?) prep of the cars (Craig's and Damien Coles', the latter being X22 our old car that Craig now runs for Damien, primarily in the BTRDA and Welsh championship rounds) was completed. We then headed up to the Phil Price Rally School for a shakedown test on some gravel. At the test venue the usual procedure was followed, with the ex-MSD engineer Phil sitting in for the early laps to check everything was ok, then I hopped in for the quick laps for refamiliarisation and the proper shakedown/up.

The conclusion from the test was that all was more or less ok but the data logger revealed the wastegate relief valve was leaking, so boost pressure was oscillating. A little dashing around saw us source a replacement on Friday afternoon but this was to have some unfortunate repercussions ...........

Fast forwarding to the Friday saw time for a stroll around the Elan Valley in the morning, in glorious sunshine before I had to return to rally mode. Scrutineering in the afternoon was a breeze, as was documentation but we were regaled with a few more stories about marshals reactions to our fire on the Manx. I'll tell you more over a pint or two sometime ......

Friday evening gave us another opportunity to run through the notes against the DVD, resulting in only a few final tweaks, then it was to bed ready for an early rising for the short run down to the 08:00 start at Builth Wells on Saturday morning. The start saw us unusually organised and the weather unusually bright and sunny. Surprisingly, despite the weeks of preceding rain, as soon as we turned into Crychan forest it was clear dust was going to be a big problem. So Marcus running at car 1 was immediately gifted a big advantage and the rest of us co-drivers started our games to get 2 minute gaps ;-)

Anyway, running at 2, we watched Marcus blast off the line and crossed our fingers as the dust slowly, slowly settled again. However when we started, almost immediately we realised we had other problems to worry about ........ low power, arghhhh!!! Basically for some reason which I still don't understand, an incompatibility between our engine map and the new wastegate valve meant that we weren't getting anything like full boost. This was particularly noticeable coming out of slow bends of course but also meant there was much reduced torque to pull us around the bends too. I have to say Craig drove his heart out through Crychan and Cefn but it was a very lively ride as he was carrying more speed into the corners than usual to compensate, as a result we had a few runs wide and several bank riding moments. After one memorable near miss he said it was a very strange experience to be heading straight for a tree with his foot flat on the throttle waiting for the power to drag him round; sometimes drivers can be too informative don't you think ;-) Through these efforts he did brilliantly to only lose about 2s a mile to Marcus through the first two stages but this still meant we were already 30s down by the time we got to first service ........... did I mention we'd more or less lost the front brakes too?

At service the brakes were restored through a quick bleed and a new engine map was quickly conjured up. So with gritted teeth we decided to have a real go in the next couple of stages, all went great for the first mile of Gwibedog and then the power disappeared again! However, despite both this and Halfway being very quick stages we managed to limit the damage to 'only' another 9s in 14 miles. Again the ride can be described as somewhat lively .... particularly that long downhill bit in Halfway which is full of slight left/right kinks, flat in 6th in a WRC ;-)

Back at service the problem was found to be the wastegate had worked loose, probably as a result of all the activity in the area. So this was rectified and at last we had full power ......... just in time for Brechfa! Interestingly, Phil (the ex-MSD guy) couldn't believe how well Craig had gone with so little power and he's accustomed to working with the likes of Freddy Loix etc.

We had a chat inside the car and I reasoned that with us sitting in 4th just behind Roger Duckworth, a tidy but aggressive run through the Brechfa stages should see us overtake him and hopefully put some pressure on Barry, who was laying 2nd about 20s up on us. I also thought at least one of them must have a problem. Little did I know just what the script had in store! In deference to the stage mileage and the lack of management service we carried two spares, with a view to changing the fronts to a softer compound after the first stage. Well, of course you'd all change the tyres after 14 miles anyway wouldn't you? Especially when you are sponsored by Matador!

We went at the first Brechfa in a pretty aggressive manner, with our marked "cuts" proving useful and some of the "cautions" even more so. Sure enough about 5 miles in we came across spectators waving us down to find Barry's car upside down on top of a tree; they were both out and ok so it was foot hard down again and at the finish of a pretty clean run we found that at last we'd taken some time out of Marcus ....... 1.2s in 14 miles, that's more like it! While changing the tyres near the end of the stage I also commented that Roger, who was running immediately behind us on the road, hadn't come through. It transpired that he'd picked up a puncture and lost about a minute to us. We then went into Brechfa 2 with the fresh front tyres to find, about 4 miles in, that Marcus had pulled over with engine problems. We also took a further 14s out of Roger and he had the added excitement of crossing the Flying Finish backwards ;-)

So suddenly what had been a pretty tedious and hard work day looked a lot better; we were leading by 1min 18s with only(!) 12 miles back in Crychan to go. Fortunately Craig stays pretty cool in these situations and I've learnt to handle the excitement ;-) But the car still likes to keep us on our toes ........ Sitting on the start line of the final stage we saw oil smoke emerging from the bonnet vents, so to be safe we decided to run without the anti-lag. The first 7 miles went pretty quickly, without too much drama but then Craig told me we'd lost 4th gear and started asking how far it was to the finish, I do hate it when he say's that ;-) Round about this point the car also seemed to be filling up with dust or was it smoke? And I was sure the back of my seat felt warm again ......... I couldn't see any flames this time, so stayed calling the notes rather than reaching for the fire extinguisher; just to add to the woes the intercom started to pack up too but Craig heard most of the calls, mainly the "Go's" I think! But it was a very relieved Craig and Robin that reached the stage finish and we actually set another fastest time taking a further 5s out of Roger. The 'smoke' was in reality just dust, as my door turned out to be only on the first catch! Now it was just the 15 mile run back to Builth for the finish ramp.

You know all those clichés about hearing every rattle and clunk, well we lived them all, particularly as 1st and 2nd gear started to go as well! But we made it. Phew!!!! And the attached photo shows a couple of happy chappies spraying the champagne again!

So, the win puts us back on track for the championship, if you drop the two non-scores we are actually leading it in fact. So all we have to do is finish the Swansea Bay, Park Systems and Bulldog with another couple of wins and maybe a 2nd and we've clinched it, easy init ;-)

Next outing is the Swansea Bay at the end of July (22nd); I seem to recall that tends to be a bit hot and dusty though ..........
Apologies, it looks like this has been rather like one of my reports of old, with rather too comprehensive coverage but I hope it's kept you amused for a few minutes! Further apologies for the fact that I've given no mention of Craig Salter/Preston Aires who were doing the historic section of the event. Our paths didn't cross, so I can only tell you that I think they finished 6th in class, probably going a lot more sideways than us!

Send your rally reports to Ray Crowther