Monday, February 05, 2007

A trip to the Swedish Rally, part 2 - Friday

Yesterday I began the story of my trip to the Swedish Rally in 2003, a 5-day, 6500 mile, sub-zero trip to one of the most remarkable rallies on the planet. When I last left off, my father and I had just reached the town of Hagfors, the hub of the whole rally, halfway through Leg 1...

Once we reached Hagfors we decided to take a look at the service park which was located on the runway of the town's airport, thankfully closed to aircraft for the weekend. Although most of the cars were out on the stages, some of the crews from further down the order were still in service. The buzz in the air was palpable, and we picked up the results of the first three stages of the rally before heading into town to meet up with our house host.

Our accomodations for the next two nights consisted of a small cottage with one bedroom - basically a freestanding apartment. Our host Maria was leaving to stay with friends whilst we were there. She was happy to move out in order to make some money off the rally and we were happy to have a comfortable place to rest our heads.

Time had passed us by whilst we were finding the apartment and grabbing our burger lunch, so we dashed out of town to catch SS4, Malta. This was the closest forest stage to Hagfors and we were there in a matter of minutes. Luckily the rally had slipped slightly off schedule, so as we ran from the parking area across a snowy field to the spectator area, we were unaware that time was on our side. Moments later we reached the treeline, climbed a bank and found ourselves in the middle of a massive crowd of bundled up rally-goers. Flags were flying, fires were burning, songs of support for various drivers were being sung and everywhere was the delicious smell of sausages cooking. So this was what the Swedish Rally was like! We dashed across the road and staked out a spot on the inside of a medium left-hander over a crest, perhaps 30 seconds down from the start line. The sound of a helicopter was suddenly present, and then the unmistakable crack-pop-crack of the anti-lag system of a rallycar at the startline of a special stage. A roar of engine revs signalled the start of the stage, and the only clue we had of the proximity of the car was the helicopter - engine noise was bouncing off trees making it impossible to tell how much longer we had to wait.

The clock ticked. My heart raced. I hadn't been to a WRC event since 1986 and back then I wasn't anywhere near as passionate about the sport as I had become by 2003. The crowds cheered. Then the helicopter was overhead, the closest marshall blew his whistle and around the corner came a flying, barking, snow-throwing red monster, a Citroen Xsara in the hands of Sebastien Loeb. The car settled itself after the crest, cameras flashed, and then the Frenchman muscled the Xsara into the next bend, a right hander that emerged into a clearing. Then he was gone.

My father and I looked at each other, speechless. Nothing would ever be quite the same after that. A moment of irresponsible tomfoolery had gotten me infected with a powerful disease for which no cure existed.

Fifty seconds later it started all over again. This time the cheers were louder, the car faster and more sideways. This was Colin McRae, and there was no doubt that he was remarkably exciting to watch, like the energetic frontman of your favorite band putting on a superb show.

The next 45 minutes passed like a series of small sumo tournaments. Step into the ring, determined to withstand the inevitable power, and every single time get pushed out, landing on your ass, desperate for another go.

As we edged further down the order the cars slowed, the crowd thinned, the singing and chanting became less emphatic. Time to go, but the inevitable question was "go where"? A growing suspicion I had had during my lengthy preparations was now confirmed: you cannot watch every stage. How I had thought it would be possible I will never know, but as the crews headed off to SS5, Sagan (which was ultimately cancelled due to an accident involving Francois Duval), we returned to Hagfors. The final stage of the day was the Hagfors Sprint, located around a local sports complex. Not quite a Superspecial, since crews ran one-by-one, but a compact stage easily accessed by spectators. In fact, the ease of access turned out to be a guarantee of giant crowds. We struggled to find a decent spot to view the top runners and ended up next to the rowdiest group of Estonians you could ever hope (?) to meet. Once again the sausages were cooking and the fans were singing ("Tooooommy Maaaa-kin-en, Tom-my Mak-in-en"). The startline was visible from our vantage point, and we could see the crews lining up, now with huge banks of lights fitted the front of their vehicles. Finally it was time. With a flick of a switch Loeb illuminated six HID lights, turning the slate-grey twilight into a stark vision of bright, bright white before disappearing off around the back of the sports buildings. Two minutes later he arrived at our part of the stage, snow flying off the studded tyres, flames licking out from the exhaust and those piercing xenons destroying our night vision. It was a dramatic, visceral experience, our senses heightened by the bitter cold.

The completed passage of the top drivers freed up the crowds enough for us to move to another part of the stage, and we soon found a way to get very close to the actual stage road on the other side of the complex. Although these crews were slower, the proximity was thrilling and we watched a number of drivers (who were extremely talented in their own right) negotiate the tricky sprint.

Eventually the cold was victorious, despite our triple layers, laying claim to our toes first. Reluctantly we headed for the car, and five minutes later crashed out in the warm surroundings of our apartment. The physical demands of the day had taken their toll and we relaxed in front of the TV, before growling stomachs finally motivated us enough to seek out some dinner. Back into the egg-shaped Ford, we headed for the centre of the pretty little town. On one side of the town square we came across a pizza restaurant, crammed full of beer-swilling rally fans, ravenous from a day on the stages. We decided to get in line rather than try to find another restaurant, and were well-rewarded for the decision. Before long we found a place at one of the benches with a couple of other Brits, and we talked motorsport and drank Heinekins whilst we waited for the pies to arrive. When they finally did we made quick work of them, and sat in a warm, self-congratulatory glow of achievement. Before leaving we looked at the itinerary for Leg two, and started to formulate a plan for the day. We decided to aim high, confident in my father's driving skills and my navigational abilities, and planned for three stages. Sadly, they didn't include Vargasen, the site of "Colin's Crest", named for the incredible air that Colin McRae achieved at that spot in previous years. Still, we were going to head for Fredriksberg, one of rallying's most fearsome stages, up there with Finland's Ouninpohja and Wales' Resolfen.

A warm bed beckoned and an early morning loomed.

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