A couple of middle-aged female stage rally novices versus the Get It Sideways Stages Rally 2021? What could possibly go wrong? Well, how long have you got?
From an outsider’s perspective, stage rallying is a complex and rather opaque motorsport discipline; a tangle of timecards, ever-changing routes, challenging conditions, and seventy or so teams and countless dozens of staff engaged in a day-long four-wheeled ballet, trying to make sure that everything runs like clockwork.
As such, we (driver Lucy Wigley and co-driver Emma Cooper, who combined form Team Lunicorn) arrived at Down Ampney at 6:30am on Saturday morning tired, stressed, and – despite having prepared as diligently as possible and done all our homework – still rather unsure what the day would hold. For the prior fortnight, Lucy had spent almost every waking hour working her hardest to get Nicole (Team Lunicorn’s 2007 Renault Clio Cup) in tiptop shape, ferrying her back and forth to Rentune Motorsport in Hinckley for engine work and general rally preparation, and getting her hands filthy in her garage sorting out the hundreds of mechanical details that needed attention. Emma, on the other hand, spent that time sitting on her sofa reading every word of the mountain of paperwork involved in entering a stage rally, not really getting her hands dirty at all. Co-drivers, eh?
The division of labour seemed to work though. After spending the Friday loading up the truck and putting Nicole in the trailer, we were sure we had everything we needed to meet our goal for the event – simply finishing. Wiser, rally-hardened folk had sagely advised us that getting through the first event with Nicole and ourselves in one piece would be challenging enough, and after a rather sleepless night and an early start, with great relief we pulled into the trailer park at Down Ampney. We’d arrived on time and in the right place; the first hurdle successfully overcome. Not for the first time that day, Lucy uttered the words, “Emma, what on earth are we doing?”, because it had suddenly all become very real indeed. What started a couple of years ago as a casual conversation at Caffeine & Machine about how we’d both like to go rallying – a lifelong motorsport goal for each of us, although one we individually hadn’t been able to undertake until recently – had escalated to actually doing what we’d set out to do. There was no backing out now.
We soon found out how much we had underestimated our needs. Our service area consisted of the truck, Nicole (finally looking like a “proper” rally car in her stunning new livery thanks to our lead sponsor, Redware), a tarpaulin being held down by our four spare wheels, a couple of toolboxes and containers of jacks, pumps, and so forth – and a tea kettle. We thought we had it covered, give or take. Looking around, we saw vans that were essentially mobile workshops and bedrooms, service crews busily preparing the vehicles, and tables and chairs, portable grills covered in nourishing sausages, and levels of dedication to rallying that we never knew existed outside the WRC. Most teams looked very relaxed indeed, quite at odds with our worried selves. After a soothing cup of tea and a wander down to see where the morning time control was located plus a short visit from the most helpful scrutineer imaginable (Martin Ford), it was time for the first stage.
When it comes to rallying, it seems that nothing really becomes clear until you actually experience it for yourself. Although knowing the time control procedures in theory, going through it without incurring a penalty that first time was a huge weight off Emma’s mind. The cheery waves and smiles from the marshals manning the controls were greatly appreciated and went a long way to reassuring us that we were indeed in the right place at the right time. The twenty or so seconds at the start line were both the longest twenty seconds of the day and the shortest. A quick word of encouragement to driver Lucy, a reminder of the first two corners, and we were off.
Lucy took the stage in her stride. A confident yet cautious first drive of the day, and Nicole responded extremely well indeed to her command, a credit to the work Rentune had performed. The track itself was a surface we’d never experienced before; semi-broken concrete covered in thick dust is the best way to describe what we found. The straights were long and the obstacles were far too close – a far cry from the test days and shakedowns we’d done previously on comparatively manicured and short circuits – and the lack of traction was challenging, but Lucy handled Nicole carefully and with precision. The relief inside the car was palpable when we reached the end of the stage, and once back in the service area, we finally realized that we’d done one tenth of the event without incident or penalty. Repeat that nine more times and we’d complete what we set out to do. Easier said than done.
Stage three brought the biggest drama of the day. Nicole’s rather light back end contributed to a spin under heavy braking in a bumpy area, and we ended up worryingly close to some rather thick pine trees. We know it’s called Get It Sideways, but there’s a time and a place for doing so, and this certainly wasn’t it. The car was fine, although the confidence of the crew took a hit, as did our stage time due to the thirty or so seconds lost. Back on track, the stage was successfully completed, and after branches and twigs were picked out of the undercarriage and the car inspected for any signs of damage, we were back for stage four.
The goal was to finish the rally. Delays meant that stage eight was the penultimate stage, and stage nine would be the last of the day. Halfway through stage eight, disaster struck. After hitting a pothole, the car’s steering lost all feel and accuracy. Backing off a little, Lucy calmly wrestled Nicole to the end and we hit the service area disheartened that we may have to retire from the rally after getting within touching distance of completing all the stages semi-successfully. Up on a jack, wheel off, and driver-cum-mechanic Lucy started to investigate what the damage was, whether it could be fixed, and whether we should withdraw for safety reasons.
And at this darkest point of the day, the rallying community shone through. Three teams opposite Team Lunicorn in the service area – guys from Lampeter & District Motor Club and their service crews – noticed that something was amiss. Without us even asking, they came over, asked us if we needed help and they had the car’s front end up, wheels off, and diagnosed the problem as nothing more serious than an alignment issue. Within ten minutes, it was fixed and we were back in the game, within a cat’s whisker of our “service out” time.
And for us on that day, that’s what it was all about. It’s a bunch of people stuck in a field or a forest somewhere miles away from help, with a mutual love of cars and racing and a common goal of getting to the finish safely. Without cooperation between teams, rallying could become nothing more than seventy cars breaking down in the middle of nowhere.
You have no idea how exhilarating the final stage of your first rally is unless you’ve done it yourself! A mess of adrenaline, extreme concentration, emotions, nerves, total exhaustion, and dust and sweat and Emma shouting “Careful!” at even the slightest hint of a corner, and even more dust and Lucy calmly handling Nicole like an absolute pro, making Emma feeling absolutely privileged to be sharing a car with somebody so talented. Reaching that final stage finish line was like nothing else we’ve ever experienced on four wheels.
From arrival at Down Ampney to departure, we had a solid twelve hours or so on site in the company of the nicest people in motorsport, bar none. It was stressful, confusing, and unfamiliar at first, but we left feeling like we’d found our niche. I think it’s fair to say we’re starting to understand why you lot are happy to drag yourselves out of bed in the early hours of the morning when it’s cold and wet and muddy to go rallying. I doubt anything else compares.
To all those who stopped by to say hello and offer their support and encouragement – thank you! Apologies for not remembering all of your names (the day was an absolute blur), but we’ll see you again at the next event, and the next, and the one after that, and we’ll introduce ourselves properly; you’ve gained another two extremely loyal followers who owe you a huge debt of gratitude. Despite being immensely hard work to get to this point, and a day that was a unique and heady cocktail of huge highs and deep lows, it’s addictive. Nothing else we’ve ever done compares to this – not even close – and there will most certainly be many more next times ahead.
Newcomers to the British rally scene, Team Lunicorn – consisting of driver Lucy Wigley and co-driver Emma Cooper – are entering their first season of stage rallying. Call it a midlife crisis, or call it finally fulfilling a long-standing dream; both are equally applicable. Do stop by and say hello if you see their pink and blue helmets in the service area! You can find out more about the team via @teamlunicorn on Instagram and Twitter, or by visiting https://lunicorn.racing for in-car footage YouTube and links to social media.