Well it’s finally arrived, after months of planning and preparation and with the van loaded and fuelled we set off on the 14-hour drive north to Oban. The journey was split up by various stops to pick up spares, refuel, sleep and eat. We arrived in Oban at 9pm on Sunday night, and as the ferry wasn’t until 7am we retired to one of Obans watering holes. After such a long drive and now fuelled with alcohol we had no trouble sleeping, but were rudely awaken by the paper delivery at 6am. Once boarded the ferry journey was short and uneventful so much so we had just finished breakfast when we were docking.

The journey to Tobermory was short but interesting, the main road turned from two-way traffic into single lane with passing places, which were shorter than the van and trailer. Which made meeting traffic from the other direction awkward. Once we had found the drill hall that was to be our home for the week, we dumped the van and trailer and started the long and daunting task of recceing the route. The route for the rally was 150 miles on closed roads not much wider than the car and having never been here before I wanted as much time on the roads as possible. Neil and myself had never used pace notes before so we had bought some to make life easier. Now most peoples reaction to KR>50 C®ML/C 60HpR would be “WHAT???”

As was mine to start with, but as Neil was reading the notes to me whilst driving the road he was describing it began to make sense. And after 2 days of solid driving in daylight, covering all the stages we were to compete on. I had a lot of confidence in what Neil was telling me and started to go a little faster. Now just to add a further complication to the new language we had just learnt, we went out in the dark as all but 8 stages would be between the hours of 8pm and 5am. What a contrast, the first problem was the fact I couldn’t see round corners anymore and with the headlamps trained on the trees and bushes it doesn’t inspire a committed drive. Sometimes the lights were pointing out to sea as we drove along the coast road, the majority of which didn’t have Armco barrier. The next mishap was a puncture on the recce car at 12.45am at the furthest point on the island from anywhere. I had cut a corner and clipped a rock, which tore a 3inch hole in the sidewall. Neil was not happy, as he had just put 2 new tyres on before the event. We changed the tyre and continued more cautiously as we still had 100 miles to do and we didn’t have another spare. At least we could add to the pace notes about corner, DON’T CUT!

Thursday was spent finalising the preparations on the Nova, fitting the lamps, applying the stickers and checking the levels. We also picked up the rest of the service crew, Richard and Gavin and had one last drive through the longest stage, a whopping 22 miles.

Friday morning came and with the worst weather I have seen this year. The rain was lashing down and the sky didn’t look like it was going to clear. This brought more problems to the already difficult route, mud being dragged into the road by the front running cars. Also after 10 mins in the car the windows steamed up due to the damp, hampering visibility severely. After scrutineering and documentation we had a long wait until our start time of 10.36pm. This was a very frustrating time as after a week’s preparation we just wanted to get going.

By 9.30 we had had enough and got dressed and drove down to the car park where the start ramp was. It was packed with spectators and service crews watching the cars over the ramp. All getting very wet as the rain hadn’t eased off. At last 10.36 had arrived over the ramp we went, after a quick chat with the bloke commentating on the cars and crews we set off up the road to the start of stage 1. Upon arrival we put on our helmets and tightened the belts, only to be told at the start control the stage had been cancelled and we would be driving through it uncompetitively. What an anti climax! All because a drunken spectator had fallen off a wall and twisted their ankle. A weeks worth of preparation just to drive through slower than we had on the recce. So on to stage 2, less than a mile into it the back end stepped out on a 90 left and we were looking out of my window travelling sideways down the road. Luckily the rear wheel hit a big rock and bounced us back into line and we continued. Then at around the 5 mile point we encounter a guy stood at the side of the road with a SOS board, so we stopped to see if he was ok and if we could help. The crew of the Astra were ok but the car was blocking the road, another stage ruined. After spending an hour in the stage waiting for the rescue crew to move the car, we finally set of to first service. This was cut short to just 20 mins, due to the delay. Luckily the car didn’t need any work as it had only done 13 stage miles and there was no damage from the encounter with the rock. The only thing that was bothering me was the rumbling noise that started coming from the gearbox as we drove out of service. We had an hours road section to listen to it and come up with the hope it was just a bearing and nothing serious, besides we couldn’t hear it on a stage with our helmets on anyway! Stages 4 & 5 were the shortest of the rally and were the same stage repeated. Plus these were the stages were got the puncture on the recce. About a mile into the stage we came across a triangle warning us of a car off the road ahead. Sure enough an Astra had gone straight on at a 45 left and the driver looked unusually cheerful as were drove past him. Then at the next corner the stage resembled a very expensive scrap yard, 6 cars littered at various angles off the road. As we continued and rounded the corner of a barn there was a car-sized hole in the fence, but no sign of a car. At the end of the stage we were astounded at the amount of cars off in a stage that was only 2.7 miles long. The last 3 stages of the night were relatively uneventful and we past through the last time control at 4am, but we still had an 18 miles road section back to the accommodation.
Saturday morning we awoke at 9am and it was still raining we set to checking the car over and getting it ready for the afternoon stages. We removed the lights and gave it the once over, the gearbox was still grumbling but everything else was ok. The afternoon stages ran at 30-sec intervals and we had been reseeded to start position of 118. An Escort Cosworth had had some problems on the Friday night and was now 2 places behind us, not good. About 4 miles into the stage 8 I caught a glimpse of a car in my mirror, it was the cossy he had already passed the car between us and was catching me. As I came up on a wider section of road I slowed to let him past and Neil asked what I was doing but I didn’t need to answer, because as the cossy past he blew his horn to thank me and Neil jumped out of his skin. We didn’t loose much time and didn’t encounter any more cars that afternoon as we had relatively evenly matched cars around us again.

We got back to the accommodation at around 4.30pm and started prepping the car for the night stages again. After some food and rest we set out for the start. Our start time was 10.41pm and we now up to 101st overall. It had now stopped raining and because the sky was clear it had turned very cold, but at least the roads were drying. The first stage of the night, stage 16, was the longest of the rally at 22 miles. By the end of it we were both knackered, it seemed to go on forever. No rest though as we only had a 1-mile road section to the start of stage 17. 6 miles into the stage we came across a car in the road but it was laid on its side. Both occupants were stood by it and were ok.

On the road section to service we noticed the gearbox noise had stopped. This meant it had fixed it’s self or it was about to let go. We just hoped that if it did, it didn’t lock up and spit us off the road. We didn’t have time in service to change the gearbox so we carried on regardless. We only had 3 stages to go and all passed with out incident until about a mile from the end of the final stage, where we encountered fog between the trees. This was a little disconcerting, as we couldn’t see with the lights, on due to glare, or with the lights off due to the dark. So as not to throw it all away so close to the end, I slowed down. We lost about 25 seconds but a least we finished. As we entered the car park for the final time control, all the gang were there to cheer us in. We had done it, we had finished the longest and toughest rally we had ever competed on. We were 87th overall and 13th in class on our first attempt and no damage. I’d just like to thank all the people who helped with this event, RAFMSA for the financial help and accommodation, MT for the van, Richard, Gav and Chris for servicing in the atrocious conditions. And lastly to Neil for having the bottle to sit beside me and guiding me through the stages.

Phil Bruce