Wales; Rain, Sheep, Thick accents, Funny words on the signs, Cardiff. Maybe this is what you think of when you hear Wales, but it's much more than that (I await an angry email from a Welshman), as the guys found out last month, it's full of fantastic landscapes and tarmac draped over it to create some amazing driving roads. It's also the home of the Wales Rally GB, an event that has been dying a slow death in recent years, but for 2013 it was moved back to North Wales, to some stages many think are much better, and the public responded, with some stages seeing attendance far higher than the organisers expected.
Luckily for me the stage I had chosen to visit,, Myherin, didn't suffer from this. After rising before the sun, having my low tyre pressure warning come on, and driving some great roads with the occasional pace note shouted out for good measure (having pumped my tyres up of course), I was stood in front of some breath taking scenery, the crisp silence in the air soon to be shattered by the wails of the latest crop of WRC cars, antilag banging through the valleys.
This being my first proper rally stage (not counting the Goodwood stage I covered earlier this year) I'm not really sure what I was expecting, but what I saw was exhilarating. Watching the top flight of WRC drivers flying through the course, balancing their fire breathing machines carefully between sudden drop on one side, banking and spectators on the other, speeds that just do not seem possible.
My heart was in my mouth for the first few cars as the drivers seemingly ignored the laws of physics right before my eyes, I was also quickly learning how to shoot these beasts, many of the things I'd learnt seemingly didn't apply here, but I found my feet soon enough and started exploring the stage for vantage points.
The spectator areas are obviously very safe, and set within a slower section of the stage, but they offered some great places to watch, and unlike most circuits, you're not separated from the action by big fences and runoff areas.
As with most motorsport events, you see about 10 seconds of car, and then wait, but the cars are staggered enough that there's no real downtime, it was an enjoyable pace, allowing me to move between cars to keep the shots from becoming too similar.
After the WRC teams have done their runs, the WRC2 cars are next. It must be great as an up and coming driver to be able to follow the main series, with the only real difference between the 2 being the cars, everything else is run very similarly.
There was huge support for Elfyn Evans, the local driver, even the small groups I was near erupting in to cheers and horns as the youngster came hurtling through the course, and went on to win his first WRC2 event, perhaps the local advantage helped?
After a long gap whilst the cars tackled the other stages for the day, I began to wander, the track was cold so you could wander down and I wanted to get a look at more of the stage that they had tackled in the morning.
Wandering away from the spectator areas I started to see what I would consider to be a 'purer' rally experience, small groups of spectators dotted in the foliage, years of experience telling them where to be. I'm not sure on the official view on these 'unauthorised' areas, but later in the day the safety car was only telling people to move to higher ground, not to move back to the marked areas. I kept going and found that the cars had to manoeuvre through a high speed up hill section to get to where I was this morning. The trees opened up around a swooping bend to reveal just how sudden the drop was to one side, and also how steeply the landscape rises to the other, the road truly being carved out of the hillside.
I saw more spectators dotted within the trees, small portable stoves to keep the cold out, I wish I had one for a warm lunch. It was at this point, that I wish I'd seen a safety car calling me a moron and to get back up the stage, sadly, there wasn't, and thus, begun one of the most exhilarating moments of my life so far.
Suddenly, I heard the roar of something turbo tearing the calming silence to shreds, I knew what this meant, I was currently stood on a live stage, with no easy safe place visible. It was getting louder, the odd bang, almost like it was taunting me, I scrambled up the verge as much as possible, the sudden realisation that wet grass isn't grippy at all, I tucked in and got ready. Suddenly a Focus RS emerges from the corner, throwing gravel from behind, I'm fairly confident in where I'm stood, but I wasn't going to relax. It comes flying by, it felt like I could touch it, I curled up and brought the camera to my eye, this was too good to miss. My heart was beating, I was a bit tenderised by gravel, but I was alive, and the shot, well it was usable.
For the next half an hour, I began a slow climb to the next safe place, before taking cover for the next car to come through. It was the national rally group, so luckily not quite as quick as the WRC boys, but just as good to watch, and also meant I could see some of the older rally cars in a similar way people would have when they were brand new.
I eventually found a place I felt was safe enough to stay, and managed to get some great shots to really mix up the set. My heart was beating almost as quick as the engines, but it was amazing.
I really can't imagine what it used to be like, we've all seen the videos of Group B cars flying through a sea of spectators, and we all know it's insane, but after that experience, you really have to respect how much people loved this sport, enough to put themselves in what could be life threatening danger. But hey, #JoyOfMachine right?
After my heart racing ‘pure’ experience of rally, I decided to retreat back to the designated areas for the second run of the stage for the WRC, maybe the clumps of people would help fight off the cold and wind from being on top of a hill?
Fighting desperately to keep my hands warm enough to operate the camera quickly (note to self - buy fingerless gloves) I continued my search for interesting viewpoints from an area that I knew would be heavily saturated with images, trying to stick to the method of avoiding my fellow L lens toting brethren
The silence once again broke as the sound of the dense Welsh air being compressed and torn apart by a turbo filled the forest, here came the Polo of Latvala, much quicker than before, no doubt the tyre marks and this mornings experience making it far easier to tackle the stage.
It really is impressive, even at the end of the day, to see how the drivers expertly dance the fine line between a quick time, and a mistake. I’m not an inexperienced driver, but I have no idea how they do this. It did start to make me wonder if the courses can be driven however, but it’s something I should probably leave well alone, I doubt my insurers would cover my estate being chucked down the side of a twisty rally course.
Darkness began to descend, and being in the middle of nowhere meant this was proper darkness, it also meant big spotlights!
And even some LED lighting setups, they’re definitely brighter, but don’t have quite the same cool look of a set of 4 big lamps strapped to a bonnet.
It didn’t get properly dark, that was only the first stages on Thursday, and having viewed footage, that is true man stuff to be pushing hard in a pitch black forest.
And just like that, it was over, silence fell once again, and everyone started their walk back to the car. I was looking forward to some comfort, a dry place to sit down, and warmth, but what a day, I’m hooked, I have to do it again, nothing on a circuit can come close, it’s just so different and exciting.
A quick Red Bull and it’s time to start my 3 hour drive home to end my 20 hour day, careful not to imagine I’m the next rally star on the brilliant Welsh roads.
Words and Photography by Matthew Dear
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