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Tiptoe through the tulips – Learning to Rally Drive.

I picked up a bug when Hyundai got me to ride shotgun with Hayden Paddon, the Rally bug. I guess that the thrill (and tinge of fear) of travelling at excessive speed over loose surfaces has been there since first getting behind the wheel in old blighty but Hayden brought it to the fore and showed me what real speed was. Prior to being his passenger, I had assumed it was all arm and legs frantically working together (and sometimes against) as they struggled to keep the vehicle on the road – but having watched him drive (on the odd time my eyes were open) it seems that once again, I was the opposite of right.  

On top of all this, the whole rally experience got me thinking about NZ roads in general. According to the road code, there are 3 types of road surface in NZ. Asphalt, Chip seal and Unsealed (namely clay, pumice or gravel – loose metal) and it’s the unsealed that really interested me. The figures maybe slight dated but around 30% of NZ roads are unsealed and yet to my knowledge the driving test takes you on none of them. And when you add in snow and rain; all surfaces require more thought and more expertise, so this piece is not only me having fun blatting through the forest in a rally car, it’s a safety message too!

The good sorts at Rally Drive NZ decided that it was high time I got some ‘metal’ skills under my belt and invited me to deepest darkest Waikato to Learn to Rally Drive (and drive controlled on gravel).

A group of seven of us (with backgrounds varying from lawyers and bankers, builders and IT engineers) arrived early at Rally Drive HQ, all with different objectives in mind. Some were involved in rallying and some were just keen, one was a defensive driver that wanted more confidence but all of us were interested in having the additional driving skill.

Day 1 was more of a classroom bound affair, that was made doubly interesting because the information would help us sit a Rally licence – oh yeah. We were taught the nitty gritties about rallying, some behind the scenes expectations, (how to prep a car), how to enter a rally, safety, flags, some touring stage navigation theory (which included our introduction to tulips diagrams – little ‘stick’ route figures) and time cards. The bookwork seemed relatively easy (ahem), so feeling relatively cocky we headed out to the local roads to navigate a loop back to the workshop. As it turns out, being a navigator is quite a tough role, keeping an eye on the road signs, hitting the reset button at designated markers, calling out instructions watching the clock and reading tulip diagrams takes skill practice and brains – and this is BEFORE the fast stuff starts!

After we all (finally) got back and had lunch we set about learning driving theory, cornering, Apex’s, braking, throttle control, gear changing and driving position – all of which we forgot the moment we headed out to the paddock to put into practice. Motorkhana time test’s of ‘cloverleaf’ and slalom runs had the adrenaline flowing and the cars slipping about in all directions – it really was a lot of fun – but with a serious side – there was plenty of room there in the field, but remember not so much on a cliff face or forest.  

The next morning we headed to Maramarua forest, the day brought the sun and with it plenty of anxiety. We would be putting the book work to the test on a real rally stage, complete with (as we found out on the reconnaissance run) lots of big drops and trees that wouldn’t end well for car or driver.

We had two recon runs, first at slow pace as Dale (in his very non sporty SUV) talked us through road lines and braking points, then at a pace that was a little surreal in the big truck. The message of the day was stay in the tracks and let the car flow. Reading the road is not as hard as it sounds (especially when other cars have been ahead of you) but it does take concentration and observation. Essentially you are looking for the tracks in the road, the more compacted lines, these are the the ruts you want to keep your wheels in regardless of pace. The other tip was anticipation, you should be looking as far ahead as possible and anticipating the next corner – again a lot of this can be sorted by following the tracks. Braking is to a large degree your enemy and should be conducted on the straight before the turn in (anticipation) and only accelerate on/after the apex when you can see your way out of the corner.

With our minds in information overload, we suited and helmeted up and took to the driver’s seat. My first ride was in a very powerful and very capable Evo 6. None of the day’s stages were going to be timed but there was a sense that you didn’t want to be the slowest (regardless of how nervous you were). With an experienced rally tutor beside me, (who would be talking me through the entire route) I hit the gravel. Gear selection was moved up to 4th as quickly as possible for better traction and in what seemed like seconds I was into triple figures (just) on the speedo. It was exhilarating. Putting the skills learned over the past day or so into practice seemed to just click. Reading the road, looking ahead, braking on the straight (when told by the tutor) and not braking as we ‘hurtled’ downhill, felt almost natural.

We arrived back safely and I felt ALIVE. Adrenaline pumping through my body and brain working overtime but confidence was way up high. We went straight back out and upped the speed! Once back again, it was a quick debrief (I did overcook a couple of corners) and then a car change to an Evo 3.This car offered up more of a fight and took more concentration, I did venture out of the tracks a little and was penalised with a loose rear end (in more than one way). Corrected with small adjustments rather than big ones – remember it’s a smooth dance not a rave.

Last car was a front wheel drive Mirage, different beast to drive without power to the rear wheels but I actually had the most fun with it. The front wheels dragging the rear round was quite the experience.

With our drives over for the day, there was a chance for a hot lap with a pro, we all jumped at the opportunity. It was a mad dash around the course and the speed and car control was sublime, it was both astonishing and a little humbling as I realised how much I still need to learn. I know we weren’t supposed to time the runs but it took me a shade over 3 minutes to complete the run, it took the pro 2mins 18.

Rally driving is a skill that I am still in awe of, however I now know some of the secrets behind making the car dance – it’s road reading and anticipation. I may never become a WRC champion (although I’d certainly like to have a go at an NZ rally stage) but far more importantly, I’m going to be more confident when faced with one of NZ’s unsealed roads. I doubt that there will be an extension to the license process to include gravel but I would urge anyone that feels unstable to get some training. Now I need to get back to the navigation side and master the tulips.

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