It was sometime in the afternoon. Quite sunny for a change as I recall. I opened the door to let the dogs out for a snippet of fresh air, but they chose to get lazy and lie scattered on the floor - after all the big walk was due to commence a few hours later. I went outside to enjoy - much to my own surprise - the sunshine I had not valued at all before, as we had plenty of it on the continent, and Bristol, UK was short of such feature. I was pondering whether I should get my second fixture of coffee for the day when it struck me: it could be through the pipeline. I went back for the mailbox key and the notifier. I didn't hear the postman coming since we had the bell broken for a few days, but right in the nearest post office it indeed there was my two tickets to the Welsh edition of the 2012 World Rally Championship season.
When my wife and I moved to the UK, we swore to ourselves we would actually be spending money on some fun, and my ticket to fun was going to a major motor sports event. As we never (or rather I) could make it big financially to go - say - to a Formula 1 race and I was much disinterested in the series at the time, it was a toss-up between the renewed World Endurance Championship and the World Rally Championship. For sure, for the limited budget we had, the better value for money would have been a free practice of #WEC - as far as number of cars seen per GBP invested in it, but not quite the challenge I would have liked to see. I had been to rallies before - mostly local rally sprint events and eventual hill climbs, but nothing of the volume as this. Funnily enough you would know it was a world championship event because it featured World Rally Cars. No fancy stadiums, no historic tracks, no grid girls, no tracks announcers, no cameras, just some stretches of road on a hillside, spectators and the weather - what rallying is all about. Of course one just cannot go to all stages, even if he tried hard. It is easier to choose a stage that offers the best view of the action and relative easy access - especially when you do not own a car. My choice was hence an obvious one: close to home with a good view. Something of this value:
image courtesy by Carwyn Lloyd Jones
This is the Celtic Manor. A golfing resort in South-East Wales, just opposite Bristol across the Bristol Channel, home of the 2010 Ryder Cup. It was meant to be a short blast through the golf courses in the valley. Quite a special place for 300bhp rally cars sprinting through the otherwise calm and quiet resort with their turbochargers sucking in all the fresh air the Welsh countryside has to offer. Also, the timing was very special, too. It was on the 15th September, which marked the fifth anniversary of the passing of Scottish rally legend, Colin McRae, and this would be his de facto home world rally event.
The main entertainment feature of the stage would be its tarmac surface on which the competitors would drive through with loose surface-spec tyres and settings - courtesy of the forest stages preceding this final one for the day. Further fun at the rally was coming from Top Gear shooting a segment with Kris Meeke and James May driving a Bentley through a gravel stage.
We got to Temple Meads railway station, took the train to Newport, then on a bus to Christchurch and from there we took a walk up to the resort. From there it was another walk through the courses to arrive at a B-road crossing Celtic Manor. This was the place alright with the appearance of marshals in WRC-vests. The funny thing is, no one ever asked for our tickets. "Are you here for the rally?" "Yeah." "Got your tickets?" "Of course" as I was taking off my backpack and she stopped me "Alright, no worries. There are just people trying to sneak in, you know." That sort of conversation repeated, like, twice before, but I never got to show our tickets to anyone. Wales, a bunch of friendly people. There were some cones, a small parking lot, a tiny lake and that beautiful, BEAUTIFUL scenery.
I'm not much of a photographer, especially with a cheap camera, so I snapped a few shots as we were running out of light and waited patiently for the drivers come through. A siren wailing in the distance, the course car was coming up the hill.
"Okay, here we go." A Mini was rushing straight up the stage with my camera still on my eye. Completely missed it. Went back to the parking lot, which was the end of the stage, finishing a hard left, followed by a few metres of straight and a sharp, almost 180-degree turn. Tried to take a few shots, but realized I had a bunch of guys filming and making pictures around me, so there was no need for me to add to the cloud. And this is what I practically saw:
Soft rubber screaming on tarmac, cars rolling on their also soft suspensions as some menacing Group B car on the videos, the small cars - now seemingly huge - came in as shouting dragons caressing some angry cat. DAAAAA-grrrrrrrr- DAAAA-grrrrr-DAAAAAAAA-grrrgrgrgrrr-WOOOooo-do-do-do... Tyres smoking, huge drift around the corner, black lines painted on the tarmac. After Mikko Hirvonen got through, my wife turned to me: "Dad! [She calls me dad. For the record: she's older than me.] The other one we've been to was a lot better than this one. She refers to the Gumball 3000 event in Zagreb, Croatia we had been to the year before. "This is a while different ballgame." I explain to her. "This is actual competition, not showing off." "I see." I can tell she doesn't. "Tell you what. When I say pay maximum attention, you keep your eyes wide open, okay?" "Okay, what am I supposed to see?" "Just keep looking." Mads Ostberg passed through, and a minute later another Red Bull-liveried Citroen jumps into view. "THAT car!" I shout. The Citroen drifts through as the rest of the cars, no fancy tyre-burning, just a clean line. "What about that car?" she asked after the few seconds the car passed. "It's not the car, it's the driver." "Who was it?" "He's called Sebastian Loeb." I tried to put that cheesy movie-tone in my voice to emphasize the weight of my words. "Who is he?" "The guy is driving towards his ninth World Rally title, a true legend, and this is one of the last occasions anyone sees him driving in the World Rally Championship." "Why?" "He's switching to the World Touring Car Championship." "How so?" "I don't know. Maybe he simply got bored being the best in history at what he does and in need of a new challenge, possibly." "He's going to drive against Norbert Michelisz, too, in two years-time." The name of our local hero rings a bell to her. "Ah, okay..." But she isn't that interested. I keep looking at the WRC cars, Solberg, Latvala, etc., then the S2000 machines, powered by screaming, normally aspirated engines swinging into the corners with visibly less pendulum than the big World Rally brothers, followed by some local FWD cars, but my vision is blurred, my mind wanders elsewhere. I just saw Sebastian Loeb at speed, for one of the last times in a World Rally Car at a world championship event, making absolute legend. The guy who started as a gymnast, who started off in the Junior programme in WRC at Citroen, got to be team mates with Colin McRae AND Carlos Sainz at the same time, and ultimately won NINE consecutive World Rally Championship titles and smashed the all-time record at Pikes Peak less than a year later. Eventually, Jari-Matti Latvala won that rally in Wales - only one of the few that hadn't been won by Sebastian Loeb - and I am still in awe thinking about it: Sebastian Loeb just did a drift at an arm's reach away from me, competitively.
Brief moment, huge historical impact. A celebration of the longest living form of motor sports.
Have you bought your tickets to the nearest rallying event yet?
This post also appeared on Oppositelock.