Motor rallying in wild Wales
PUBLISHED: 00:55 27 February 2012 | UPDATED: 21:06 20 February 2013
The wilds of Wales are the place where future world champs are made, says Jon Desborough
Its not the museums and castles that world champion rally drivers like about Powys. Its the forests and their dangerous gravel tracks.
Like, that is, until they crash in them.
In rallying, you wont become a world champion without having taken on and tamed the forests of mid Wales.
And at the end of this month, the latest generation of wanna-be champions are heading to Welshpool to make a name for themselves.
March brings the second round of the British Rally Championship to the Powys town and among the contenders is an 18-year-old from Machynlleth.
British rally fans are crying out for a new hero to follow. Its now 17 years since Scotlands Colin McRae became the worlds youngest world champion and 10 years since Englishman Richard Burns ruled the world.
Now, Osian Pryce is starting out on that road. No pressure then?
Blame my dad, says Osian. He was a co-driver when he was young.
Think of rallying as Formula Ones reckless younger brother. Each car has a crew of two and the best professionals will have to tackle the most dangerous forests, tarmac roads or frozen ice that the world has to offer.
And when it comes to forests, Wales is right up there.
You name them, theyve been here, 2003 World Champion co-driver and Newtown resident, Phil Mills explains.
All the big brands and top factory teams have come here to test their cars Subaru, Ford, VW, Nissan.
If you can win here, you can be successful anywhere in the world.
Motor sport is a big contributor to Britains jobs market. More than 4,500 companies are involved in the countrys motorsport and performance engineering industry. It turns over six billion pounds a year, 3.6 billion of that is in exports.
But by a cruel twist of circumstances, teenagers like Pryce, starting out on their careers find it hard getting their hands on any of that money.
Who pays for all this? I ask him.
Dad, he reveals. Im lucky to have him and his family and business behind me.
Because, otherwise, it probably wouldnt happen.
Pryce already has his own website. It declares his ambition to one day mimic McRae and Burns and become world champion.
The first step was a place in the Fiesta Cup part of the British rally championship. For this, the second leg of the season, the Pryces are investing in a new Citroen DS3, with a 1600 turbo engine. It could very well debut on the Bulldog event. But for all of that, family Pryce need to find an annual budget of 50 000.
Im fortunate that my familys passion for rallying is mine as well, continues Pryce.
At the moment he is studying motorsport engineering at Swansea university.
But at the weekend he drives back up to the family home in Powys and to the view that gives him the best example of a sporting home advantage.
The event could be decided on the competitive stages set in the Dyfi forest.
Do you know it? I ask, innocently.
Know it, he giggles, I can see it from the living room. Our house is right on the edge of the forest.
Its such a special place to rally drivers around the world. But I used to go up and down it on a bike as a kid.
A rally car at full pelt is a sight to see.The top-specification Subarus and Mitsubishis will accelerate from a standing start to 60 mph in less than three seconds. Much of the time is spent sliding sideways, the co-driver barking out instructions from his pace notes to encourage the driver to go faster still.
In places like Dyfi, you can hear them barking and wheezing through the trees hundreds of yards before you see them. If they dodge the piles of logs and stay out the ditches, they fly past in a streak of colour.
This years running of the Bulldog is more than 90 miles long. Like all rally events, its a race against the clock. The fastest one home is the winner.
Nicky Grist was co-driver to Colin McRae in 1997, when, together they won the Welsh-based British round of the World Rally Championship.
He wonders if competing in the famous forests of Powys is getting too expensive.
Keen to put something back into the sport, he runs his own event in July. Its based in Builth Wells and takes competitors deep into the Crychan Forests.
Mid Wales is a great challenge, he says, a real challenge to get right.
It has mixed-speed corners, the likes of which you dont find anywhere else in the country. Watching cars slide through them is a great spectacle.
But rallying is now a costly operation to put on. My event is run over just 45 miles. The event costs me up 30,000 to put on. And thats money that goes to the Forestry Commission to pay for the right to use their land.
There is a desire to compete on public roads. And that, says Nicky, could include some of the best tarmac stages in the country and be a lot cheaper.
The infectious humour of Dolgellau-based electrician, Phil Pugh, has brightened up the Intercontinental Rally Challenge for the past three years.
He recalls his first attempt as a co-driver on the Bulldog rally.
He thinks back to 1997. The last round of the Ford Ka championship came to Welshpool that year, he says. We pulled up at the beginning of one competitive stage and discovered that there was no car in front of us and none behind us.
And so Phil, guiding driver Ed Pugh (not related), spotted his opportunity.
Weve had such a bad day, he grizzled to the official in charge of the timing.
You wouldnt consider giving us a 10 second head start on this next section, would you?
The Pughs got no answer. But Phil suspected he had pleaded his case well.
You see, its only you, me and the driver. No one needs to know I jumped in the car and warned the driver to get ready.
And sure enough, at TEN on the countdown, he let us go!
No one found out, Phil claimed, as he finished his story, and the pair won the event by a country mile.
Who's Who and the ones to watch
DRIVER: Marty McCormack
NATIONALITY: Northern Irish
LIVES: Magherafelt, Northern Ireland
CAR: Citron DS3 (R3)
Marty came to prominence in the British Rally Championship in 2009, winning the Citron One make series, the C2R2 Cup, along with the British Junior title and the Irish Citron title. He continued to succeed in the C2, taking runner-up spot in the French series in 2010.
In 2011 he took a supported drive in the BRC at the wheel of a new Citron DS3, blitzing the opposition to take the Junior title, the Formula 2 Championship and winning the BRC section of the Ulster Rally outright in a two wheel drive car. His momentous victory came despite missing Rallye Sunseeker, but with another Citron-supported season in prospect, he will be difficult to beat.
DRIVER: Mark Donnelly
NATIONALITY: Northern Irish
LIVES: Omagh, County Tyrone
CAR: Renault Clio (R3)
Mark successfully contested the Fiesta ST series in 2009, where he set some impressive stage times, also finishing runner up in the FST Shootout. He returned to the Citroen Racing Trophy UK in his C2R2 Max in 2011 following a great 2010 in which he was runner up in both the one-make series and the British Rally Championships Rally 2 class. He switched to a Renault Clio after the first round, Rallye Sunseeker and won Formula 2 in Wales, proving an ultra competitive package with former British Champion co-driver Barry McNulty alongside.
DRIVER: Callum Black
LIVES: Brackley, Northamptonshire
CAR: Suzuki Swift (R3)
Having started rallying in 2008, the Brackley-based engineering student moved from the BTRDA national championship to the British Rally Championships BRC Challenge support series in 2010. His debut in the ultra-competitive championship at the wheel of a highly-tuned MGZR netted victory and with it free entries in the main international series. A Formula 2 podium on Rallye Sunseeker boded well for the youngster, repeating the feat on the final round and finishing a creditable fifth in his debut BRC season at the wheel of the awesome sounding Suzuki Swift.
DRIVER: Jukka Korhonen
LIVES: Siikajrvi, Finland
CAR: Ford Fiesta (R2)
Jukka came to prominence in Finland at the wheel of a Honda Civic, but soon switched to the Finnish Fiesta Sport Trophy, winning the series in 2011. His prize of a test drive in an M-Sport Fiesta World Rally Car took place at the end of the season and coincided with the UKs Pirelli Star Driver shootout. His place in this prestigious competition came after his outstanding debut and one-off appearance in the British Rally Championship on the Pirelli Rally, where he led Formula 2 until the final stages. Victory at the subsequent shootout secured a funded drive in a koda Fabia R2 and with his undoubted pace he is likely to be at the sharp end from the off.
DRIVER: Osian Pryce
LIVES: Machynlleth, Powys
CAR: Ford Fiesta (R2)
Having started junior rallying in Latvia at age 16 in 2009, the Welsh teen finished all but one event in 2010 including a class win on Britains round of the World Rally Championship. He switched to the British Rally Championship in 2011, contesting the Fiesta SportTrophy and snatched victory on the final round with a win in the hotly contested one-make series.
* Jon Desborough is sports presenter for Sky News. Hes also a bit of a petrol head with a love for rallying.Rallying has taken him around the world covering the sport for Channel Four, ITV and ESPN. And whereever he goes, rally drivers he meets like to talk about the forests of mid-Wales.