Wales Rally GB 2019
Now that the Wales Rally GB 2019 seems a distant memory, the rally blues have well and truly kicked in. It always feels like an eternity waiting for this event to come round, and if you do WRGB right. By the time you reach the end of the weekend, you’re sure glad for it to all be over! WRGB for me and my friends starts months before you leave the door. Spending hours upon hours watching on-board footage from previous years to find the perfect spots or planning out the kit list, as we have to make sure it is as light as possible (especially when you are carrying an extra 20kg of camera equipment around all weekend!). But all is worth it in the end when you land shots like this... am I right?!
Wednesday afternoon soon rolls around and it’s time to get on the road. We headed off for Betws-y-Coed and the Gwydyr Forest for some exciting early morning action the next day at shakedown. Our plan came together perfectly, to start with. We intended to use a local campsite near the forest trail entrance which on arrival, was a huge field in someones back garden with an honesty box. As honest as always, we paid our £10, gathered all our belongings, and headed off into the forest with what we thought was plenty of sunlight to get camp set up. But getting up to Llyn Parc proved to be somewhat difficult when we decided to take what we later found out to be one of two clearings in the trail. Of course, we chose the wrong one for our ascent, and in all fairness only finding the alternative the following da after some local knowledge of a fellow photographer shooting for Gus Greensmith was shared (thank you!).
Always craving a challenge, we chose the way we did which resulted in what we thought should have been a 40 minute hike, into a 2 hour vertical scramble for 200 meters through the dense Welsh pine forests that has held its home in some way to this spectacular event for the last 80+ years. In the process, we did manage to stumble upon some picturesque waterfalls but the terrain was difficult throughout. Changing from deep soft moss beds to 7ft walls to climb, and the typical Welsh slate made slippery by the again, typical Welsh weather. After several short breaks and in moments to preserve energy, by leaving kit behind to walk ahead to scout any new potential routes. With sunset in full force by now, we managed to find the track and head towards our spot in just enough light to get camp set up for the night.
Now just to clarify something here, we do not choose these options in order to avoid any ticket costs or parking; we pay for our tickets online well in advance. It’s just that the rally to me and my friends is almost like an early Christmas present, the rally for us is camping as close to the stage as possible, ready for the next day. Not so that we can ‘claim it as our own’, if anything like this year the more we share that spot with the merrier (as far as marshal safety can allow it). It’s so the next morning is made a lot easier by getting the bacon and coffee on in enough time for the zero car, and prolong the alarm sounding till as late as possible. Because let's be honest, I'd love to know the total alcohol consumption spanning every car park and stage all weekend! That extra hour in bed the next morning is us not sitting in car park queues, walking the 3km track from the back of the car park just to get to where that track meets the stage, before walking the stage to your spot in enough time (which could be another 5-10km away).
So with that cleared, 5 am has soon rolled around and the excitement has inevitably started to build. As you lie their in your bivvy all cosy and warm, not slept a wink for the brightness of the stars shining down, or the hourly disruption of marshals cars arriving at their section of the stage. You generally know it’s time to get up and get the bacon on, cause you’ll hear the voice of that one invariably jolly Welshman in the first FIA safety vehicle. You know the one, he is full of chipper at any time of morning or night. Sharing his rally cheer through the megaphones welcoming the fans that have travelled far and wide to set up flags and make their own coffee, after their morning dawn ramble. If anyone knows who this man is, please let me know! I’d love to share my appreciation for all his efforts. Whilst the coffee and bacon are cooking, it’s a great time for me to start getting my camera equipment together. So to test I got everything in working order, I go back to my comfort zone in photography and shoot some landscape; but it would be a crime in itself not to have given where we had set camp up overnight…
Tucking into my bacon sandwich, I see a few folks appear by the corner we have chosen to stand on. It was the TV crew for WRClive and as mentioned before, photographer. We got chatting over coffee and couldn’t quite believe the coincidence, that given the location we had all chosen to picture and film. We were also originally all from the same 5-10 mile radius back in Birmingham. A few exchanges of insults for those who supported what football team, some friendly advice given on camera settings and it was time for the first car.
I’m sure as most rally fans will support that no matter how many times you hear that first car of the day, creeping around the corner of a pine forest tree-line. It never gets old! The sheer thrill alone is enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, knowing how close you are to a moving vehicle at up to near speeds of 120 mph. First on the road Ott Tanak, Championship leader and what I have to say I felt before the rally even started, Wales Rally GB 2019 winner. Quickly followed by the next, and then the next, and then the next. Unlike most stages across the weekend, shakedown has a whole other advantage to it. You get to see these drivers hurtling past you time, and time again. From 8 till 11 in the morning, none stop!
Several hours and many conversations with other photographers and jovial fans later. It was time to pack up and head back down to the car, via the other route we had been told about that morning. A much more gentle and leisurely stroll back down through more wanderlust waterfalls, and we find ourselves back at the car in a measly 20 minutes in comparison to our previous days efforts. Having paid our honesty box already, and not even used the camping facilities. We did however factor in the luxury of being able to use their facilities for at least one day of the weekend! A shower and straight back on the road to Bala, where we headed for Aberheirant.
Unfortunately with Wales, there aren’t many huge open three-lane motorways to get around the countryside to get to places in a hurry. Fortunately, their slow winding roads did offer some of the most breathtaking scenery of Snowdonia you could wish for from a car window when the suns shining. You don't get many days like that in Wales at the best of times but fortunate for us, for two days in a row we were graced with dry weather. When you know the inescapable rain is coming your way, you have to make the most of what you can on a rally weekend when it comes to the weather.
As we pulled off the main road outside Bala, you pick up this incredible long open landscape track across the lake towards the Aberheirant forest that hugs it. As we had left shakedown fairly sharpish we knew we would be early to the car park, and rightfully so as we had planned it that way. Not least so it was less distance to carry kit from the car to stage in order to set up camp for friends arriving later that evening post work. But so early we were first in the queue was a welcomed surprise, allowing us to get camp set up quicker than expected and enjoy a well-earned beer. Weather had turned rapidly since leaving shakedown from bright blue skies to an onslaught of downpour. You know the kind, the one that soaks your kit through but not your spirit kind of rain; there's still too much of the weekend left for it to ruin your mood at this point.
With camp set up early for another evening, it left us a little time to relax with a beer and wait for the boys to arrive. Who extended that relaxation time by an extra hour by going to the following day's stage location instead of ours. A few sniggers and lots of blame game over more beers, it was soon forgotten about. And with that the time was too, as their late arrival meant starting to drink later, so it was soon 5 am before anyone hit the hay. But again, we had accounted for that in our planning and we didn’t need to rise again until at least 10 am the next morning should we have wanted to.
It felt like only twenty minutes before I put my head down, and I awoke to the sound of voices outside the tent, and not just a few of the early birds from our group. But in the distance and plenty of them, and with peering my head out the tent you could see a fair few other rally fans on-board video research had paid off too! The Belgian’s were out in full force in support of Thierry Neuville, to back his efforts of keeping the chase for the Championship from Tanak alive. We knew this would be a quick part of the stage because we were here two years ago when it ran in the opposite direction. It was quick back then, but when it ran in reverse and it's downhill this time, they must have had a clear running of nearly 200 meters straight. Revs hitting the limiter way before we even see the car appear in the distance, and way until after the car has left our sight.
Marshalls were early arriving as usual from 6 am to reccy out their spot for the day. Even with all the years of rallying experience combined, they could never have anticipated the sheer numbers of fans that arrived that morning. I say that in full confidence because inevitably if they had, they would have taped it off as a no go zone and sparse those spectators over a bigger section of that stretch of the stage. That’s just my logical brain working out a solution to a problem they found themselves in only a few hours later. For now it was rinse and repeat, bacon sizzling, water boiling and the smell of coffee drew me back to camp till the zero car comes through once more.
To set the pace for the day championship leader Tanak got first dibs through and boy did he look like he had a point to prove. Touching on 120 mph on a wet, slippery gravel track we were set for an incredible morning of pace. There must have been over fifty fans that had happened to pick the same spot for the Friday morning, with full expectations met when it comes to choosing a spot for speed. We had chance to see seven of the best before it was brought to an abrupt end for safety concerns, and after witnessing the exact incident that on-board cameras from Kris Meeke caught first hand; I can’t really criticise the FIA for doing so. A moment of pure idiocracy is enough to get yourself killed when watching this sport, and there are plenty of signs warning you of the dangers when entering a stage from any direction. Whether you’ve parked in official car parks, or decided to wander into the forest by another trail to suit your spectators spot, they are everywhere! And neither should the warnings be taken lightly and here is why…
I took video footage at all of the spots we chose over the weekend, and again - logically thinking! I knew these spots were going to be quick, after all that is what me and a friend base our scouting on year in, year out. Just as much as the next rally fan who like technical one right hairpins, or those who pick big open valleys so they see as much of the vehicle for as long as possible. Therefore, in order to get the best footage without putting myself at risk; step one invest in a sturdy tripod for your phone that can withstand the wind and dirt these cars generate when zooming past. Step two, have your battery fully charged up and camera settings ready by the time the zero car comes round. So then all you have to do is step three, head to your spot by the stage and place your tripod down, click the record button, and get straight back to your safe location for viewing. You watch it well after so you can enjoy the cars yourself
Myself and friends did all of the above in one way or another; one even cable tied his GoPro to the end of an umbrella for the extra reach without putting himself in jeopardy. Yet, said Belgian fans that morning were on a mission to spoil it for everyone. Most likely not stopped drinking from the moment their campfire was lit the night before, their presence was well known by all in the area. Marshalls had already asked them to stay behind the tree-line (just as they did to us) before the first car came around, and again after the first few cars had been passed. I can appreciate that the thrill these cars give people going past so fast so close, is enough to make you feel as alive as it gets when it comes to motorsport. After-all, from the days of Colin MacRae and Group B cars are not exactly quicker, but neither do they need to be with the drivers behind the wheel these days. But the moto I tend to repeat in my own head (and I doubt it will be too dissimilar to anyone other sane person), is as amazing as the footage and photos could be, I still want to make it home to edit and showcase how incredible of an event this is. You heard peoples Chinese whispers in the distance about how ‘they aren’t real fans if they do that’ or ‘probably friends of a fan who knows nothing about the sport’; and I’d be inclined to disagree. These individuals that got the stage cancelled are more than likely globetrotters watching the sport in multiple countries each year, and the thrill-seeker who gets comfortable with watching strives to see how close they can truly get. That being said neither am I advocating it to be a good thing, but maybe that logically thinking moto isn’t so logical after all. As some people still need re-educating from time to time, and cancelling stages like this is a lesson well learned for all fans including those not even directly involved.
There are still tens of thousands of fans across multiple locations throughout Wales that weekend that seemed to do everything right. You can’t jump to rash conclusions that all rally fans are idiots just based on the minority. We just as much as every other fan who had slogged it to that stage early that morning was annoyed at them, and I’m rather sure the message has soon been learnt by them for future events.
With the mornings WRC entertainment finishing up early, the day was still young as you have over an hour of the Nationals coming round. This for me is time to practie with settings on my camera, as I don’t get out to rallies nowhere near often enough to just turn up and shoot the images I want. With the best of the nationals pushing on WRC2 times anyway, I get a good hour of watching some pretty spectacular modded versions of Porsche’s, Audi’s and even a Nissan Micra! Combine that with opening a beer without checking your watch to see if it's acceptable time to open one, pals and the outdoors. By the time Monday rolls around again, I seem to get those same blues you get when going back to work after a week skiing. Even more tired than the start of the week I booked off, but glad to be back somewhere warm where making a coffee is as simple as boiling a kettle. Here are some of the best from the Nationals...
Night time creeps in quick on you in the forest, as you are surrounded by nothing but 50ft pine trees in every direction. Daylight in Wales is sparse at the best of times but when you add weather conditions and time of year into the equation, you really are crossing your fingers and hoping for the best by the time a night stage starts. And just as if someone knew how terrible this stage was two years ago, they lifted the submerged valley of thick clouds away five minutes before the stage started. Revealing fog clouds rolling over the trees in the distance and a moonlit sky full of stars. After this morning's misshapen and a long day of withstanding the rain, it was as if the rally God’s granted us with perfect conditions for the return of night stages back in Wales once again! Two years previous, you couldn’t even see the person you were talking a few meters away for how bad the fog was. To think how poor those conditions must of been for the drivers in 2017, it is then even more impressive to know they completed the same stage that year in such conditions at night three seconds quicker than they did in the day time! This year it made no difference with them completing it in a competitive time similar to that of two years ago. And I remember someone telling me one day this wasn't a sport ...
With day two all wrapped up it was time to head back to the cars (already packed as we had some spare time between stages *cough cough*) and make the jaunt across Snowdonia in the dark to our next stage, Sweet Lamb Hafren.
Sweet Lamb Hafren
Sweet Lamb is a real challenge for the drivers, and subsequently a no doubt favourite amongst rally fans to pick for the Saturday. As a heartland pick for the Wales Rally GB calendar for nearly as long as its existence, it is a known stage inch by inch to the drivers resulting in some clean sweep times across the board. Giving any Championship contenders the opportunity of closing the Saturday leaderboard down going into the final day.
For the morning we picked a long sweeping open six left which gave them a good 100 meters worth of the accelerator before having to make any kind of turn into the corner. Albeit a dry morning, the clouds were settling in thick whilst we hiked up early doors. But as if the rallying God’s had known we had suffered enough weather this weekend as it was, it began to clear in just enough time again for the first car through. With the likes of Breen coming through with body damage early on, we knew the drivers had already been hit with the weather that had cleared up. The forever changing grip conditions from hard to soft gravel, or dry and compact to wet and slippery, means if the leaders could just get through the day unscaved. They knew they would be within a shout of a podium spot. Tanak set a calm and collective leading time with 1 minute 57 seconds which all but secured for the Estonian. As a Tanak fan I was super chuffed to see him hold a major lead with such facile comfort, topped off that morning by capturing the money for shot the weekend. Every photo after that felt merely substandard in comparison… what do you think?
With no nationals till after the second running of WRC cars, we decided to change our viewing spot for the final time of the weekend. Now when you consider this stage is a little over 25km long and you decide your next viewing spot is near the end of the stage, it is a good job you have the time to kill. It’s okay if your name is Seb Ogier and you have a powerful Citeron to take you there in a matter of minutes. But for us rally fans, I opt for listening to the three o’clock kick offs on 5Live whilst plodding along at a in comparison snail's pace. Depending on the fitness ability of your group or the amount of kit you have you could be talking hours of walking! Especially when you were left with all your camera kit, plus 10kg of mince to feed the army we had brought along with us. A whole Brighton vs Spurs shock result later and we had made it to our final spot, right next to where we need to be back for the car after the Nationals too. Always nice when a plan comes together. Given all weekend how wet then dry we had been, or carrying more stuff in one go rather than having to go back to the car for any other kit. Simply knowing that all we had left to do was cook up a hearty chilli and wait for the entertainment to start for the final time was a warming enough thought in itself.
All fed, warm and the last of the cold beers opened. Excitement started to build for the last time as we knew we had picked the perfect spot. Cars in the distance turning the corner and giving them at least 200 meters downhill, approaching our tight four left with the sound of the limiter hitting back from top to bottom. Seeing your friends face when Meke makes a correction last minute to turn before nearly sliding into a telegraph pole at over 110 mph is something I will treasure for years to come. Here is the exact moment...
Although by now the clouds and fine rain had disappeared, its outcome giving the gravel that wet polished surface as described before. This has a dramatic effect on the cars grip subsequently resulting in 30 seconds difference in time when compared to their morning runs. Considering how you sometimes end up finding yourself wishing for the rain to stick around so it optimises the sport, is a bizarre conundrum like the enigma code that I am still yet to understand. Whereas the drivers make it look like nothing has barely changed since the last time they drove through just a few hours before.
Another blink of the eye, just like the rest of the weekend. The nationals had been and gone and our weekends fun for this year came to a close. So glad to finally catch sight of our own car, around the last of the never ending winding corners of the car park - it was time for home. Starting back with our trek up to shakedown on the Wednesday afternoon four days earlier, we were totally spent! After spending twenty minutes just getting the heaters to warm up on full, we joked about setting the satnav and heading to the Orme for the Sunday. Looking back at it now we were chuffed we laughed off the idea, as the stage ended up cancelled due to safety concerns from rough sea tides. It does however leave us left with the challenge of completing a rally weekend start to finish, not that we need much persuading to come back next year. But after three years of learning on the job so to speak, in order to even think of completing a weekend start to finish - camping at our stage spots the evening before would need to be limited down. If not for preserving energy to use for across the rest of the weekend, but when you have a 20m2 heavy duty tarp, cars and telescopic poles. With enough pals, beers and firewood to help dry your feet from that days swamp wading. For the extra hour in bed... I think I would rather see the extra day of rallying, after-all it only comes round once a year!