London to Lisboa
The overall winners of London Lisbon 2022 are:
1. Dick and Harry Baines – Mini Cooper S
2. Nick Maris and Henry Carr – Datsun 240Z
3. Tony Sutton and Bernard Northmore – Porsche 911 SC
Time is a funny thing, a fixed constant, but seemingly one that speeds up and slows down at will, usually in conflict with the direction with which you require it to go! Throughout today the competitors on the London to Lisbon rally would have experienced this, the anticipation of the start under clear blue skies causing time to retard itself, the seconds ticking by at a fraction of their usual pace. Anticipation will do that you see, but regardless of how slow time seems to be going, it never actually stops and so, eventually, the flag did drop and at 10:31 am rally time the adventure to Lisbon began!
Of course, in rallying parlance time is king, dictating success or failure and even at this early stage for some the clock would be less than kind. Before that though there was the escape from Brooklands to contend with, and a fast-paced test that began upon the legendary banking would provide an early release for drivers who had undoubtedly built-up dangerous levels of energy in their right feet.
Out in the lanes and things moved at a much calmer pace, although there was plenty of traffic to contend with, especially early on. Sadly, whilst the route planners can take measures to escape other road users, in the south of England traffic is part of life. Near calamity would strike early on, as a road closure would force a diversion that would then lead into another road closure, and with heads being scratched a solution to the problem would come from an unlikely source, the media teams own Gary Williams. It is a fact that Gary isn’t known for his powers of map reading, but today our protagonist would transform into Gary Garmin, path finder extraordinaire and lead the cars back to the safety of the route. Not all HERO’s wear capes…
Back on the leafy lanes of the south downs and the competition would continue, over the often hedge-flanked roads there were fields of Rapeseed sparkling yellow in the sun and with the trees in full blossom overhead there was a real feeling of spring and new beginnings in the air. The countryside was punctuated by idyllic villages, with many out enjoying the cars in the sunshine as they picked their path towards tonight’s destination of Portsmouth. Very soon time would remind us of just how quickly it can move when it wants to, and suddenly it was late afternoon, the last regularity of four was finished and the overnight ferry to St. Malo was beckoning.
For many this first day is a prologue to the adventure proper, when we can get some foreign miles under the wheels and really feel like the exploration has begun. That day will begin with the Austin Healey 3000 of Ken and Sarah Binstead at the top of the timesheets, Dick and Harry Baines second, with Nigel and Sally Woof hot on their heels in third but tied on overall penalties. They will all be eager to improve upon their first day’s successes and the chasing pack will also be keen to close the gap. Mostly though, everyone involved will be looking to the distance and the anticipation of the incredible roads to come, particularly as the levels of traffic begin to fall away as we head south, and as the altitude begins to increase.
The mountains are still a long way off though, but as long as the wheels keep turning, they will come. There are many miles to enjoy first, and they will become memories as quickly as they arrive, time ticks on, and you cannot leave time behind without leaving a piece of yourself. Best then to ensure the anticipation is kept in check, and great memories are made along the way.
La France! ‘The’ France. You have got to have some confidence in your country to prefix it like that, but today France lived up to its own estimations. Yes, for the French language anoraks amongst you I realise I am using a little artistic license with the translation, but the point remains, for a day that was about covering ground, the ground that was covered was ‘très superb.’
The competition did not begin until a leisurely 10 am, but before that there was the exodus from the ferry to contend with and the unreasonably early alarm call that was not sweetened in the slightest by the instrumental musical arrangement piped into the boats cabins to awaken travellers that had probably not slept terribly well in any case. But, with groggy drivers and navigators the cars emerged one by one from the ship and made their way to the fabulous start location, on the banks of Le Linon and under the gazed of Château de Combourg and, most importantly, with everything lit up by the morning sun.
It is a lackadaisical way of life in this part of rural France, sorry, La France. You might even say laissez-faire, but this is in contrast to the rally, that as discussed yesterday exists on stringent time constraints. Try telling that to the French farmers though, particularly those that stop for a chat at a timing point, as overnight leaders Ken and Sarah Binstead found out early on the first competition section of the day. The first regularity threatened to catch them out a second time as well, perhaps thrown by their frustration with the local tractor driver, but they made the right call at a turning just at the last moment directly before a timing point.
Despite this they still retained the lead at lunch, which, due to the late competition start was very early in the day’s itinerary. Our competitors ate in the ground of another grand chateau, and this would be a theme for the day, as the route picked a line between the grandiose architecture of these buildings from a bygone era. They were impressive, even the ones that were in a state of abandonment and with the sun beating down overhead it was an extremely pleasant day to be thrashing about in a motor car, on the roads of a foreign land.
Post lunch and the day really got going, with some serious mileage to cover before the evenings stop at Poitiers, punctuated by three regularities and a test to finish off the day with. The ground around here is largely flat, but the region, named the Pays de la Loire, unsurprisingly features several water courses including the stunning Loire itself and the countryside within the region is, as far as I am concerned, some of the most beautiful in the country. The roads are also rewarding, particularly when you get off the beaten track, which is in the nature of these rallies. There were plenty of narrow ribbons of tarmac that plotted courses between fields, through forests and over rivers and the odd unsealed road to keep the drivers on their toes. Occasionally the odd bit of traffic would be found, but largely this playground seemed to be reserved for only us, aside from those families that had gathered on the sides of the road and in their gardens to wave the competitors past.
By the end of the day the top spot of the leader board remained in the possession of Ken and Sarah Binstead, but now with only a four second advantage over Dick and Harry Baines in second place. Third now belongs to Graham Platts and Neil Ripley, in Grahams superbly turned-out Healey, a climb of three places on the days starting positions. One pairing that suffered during the day were Porsche pair Stephen Owens and Pete Johnson, who were caught out on the last regularity of the day and shipped a minute after a missed turn, but such is the experience of this crew nobody should rule out a fightback.
Tomorrow is another long day in the saddle, although not quite as extensive as today, but France being as large as it is ground needs to be covered. By the end of the day the rally will be nearing Toulouse, with the promise of Andorra on the horizon and many rally miles under the wheels. There are another four regularities to be contended tomorrow and anything could happen to shift the order around. If today is anything to go by though, the miles covered will likely all be entertaining, as the target of Lisbon creeps ever closer into view.
The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain, and in France, sorry La France, it falls on the Dordogne. All of it. Almost all day long. As you might have inferred from my opening gambit, today it has been mostly wet. The signs were there this morning, as the so far clear sky was filled with menacing clouds, but on the horizon, there was hope, with the atmosphere looking much friendlier, but any optimism was sadly short lived.
At first it was a miserable mizzle, the kind of rain that is neither hither nor dither but the kind of weather that seems to suck the colour from all of the surroundings. Even the incredible château at La Rochefoucald, the location for the morning’s coffee, was lacking some of the sparkle of the examples that had been on display the previous day. Coffee would be vital for the competitors today, as it was another long stint behind the wheel in an effort to pull the mountains of Andorra closer, but despite the worsening weather the day got better the farther we travelled into it.
Two regularities split the morning mileage and by lunchtime not much had changed between the top three, although the plucky Baines Mini had closed a second on the first placed Healey. There was some conjecture that Dick and Harry had made an error, spotted on the road charging through part of the second regularity, but if they had it made little difference to an excellent morning for the pair.
The hardest chargers of the am session were Stephen Owens and Pete Johnson, clearly keen to repent for the error of the previous day they had managed to catapult themselves back up the leader board into fourth place, and within seconds of Graham Platts and Neil Ripley in third.
For anyone who was suffering rain induced blues they would surely have been cheered up by the sumptuous surroundings of the Michelin starred lunch halt in the shadow of the magnificent Abbaye de Brantome, and with an extra long break awarded to take in the grandeur of the place, there was half a chance of recharging before the long afternoon. The sun even made an appearance, but as the Benedictine Monks of the Abbaye may once have taught, beware false profits. Sadly, the precipitation would return before too long, and it would come back in force.
The run to the post lunch regularity was a long one, and the rain sought to heap misery on what was a wonderful drive and it continued to increase in intensity as the competition section began and sadly the now heavy precipitation would be bedfellows with the route for the entire afternoon. In contrast to the morning though, there seemed to be more colour about the land as the lush green of the vegetation fought back against the grey, and the forest roads resembled something closer to Borneo than France.
The rain increased the levels of concentration needed by the drivers ten-fold and some even claimed that they were working as hard as the navigators, although the jury is out on that one. Either way, it required an effort from both parties and the afternoon pit-stop would have perhaps felt like it was never going to come as regularity number three came and went. They say one Swallow doth not a summer make, but at the impressive double bridged crossing of the Dordogne at Limeuil there were hundreds in the air, scooping up the insects from the surface of the water and poking fun at the less than summer like weather, offering encouragement to the soggy crews, who were now so close to refreshment.
The coffee took place in the grounds of the colossal Château de Biron, standing like a beacon of hope over the rain drenched land, so conspicuous that even the most talent challenged navigators (or more likely, cloth-eared drivers) couldn’t miss it on the horizon. It loomed large, like Castle Grayskull, guiding weary competitors towards the energy inducing coffee offered in its sanctuary.
Just one regularity to go then, and what a task it was at the end of a long day. 26 km’s through some of the tightest roads yet, it was a thrilling roller-coaster from start to finish, followed by a wonderful run in to the final time control along tree lined roads so typical of the French countryside, not even rain could spoil the timber soldiers stoically flanking the final few miles.
At the close of play the top two had not changed, although there was now some daylight between them. Third place however belonged to SO and Pete Johnson again, after a storming leg, equalled by John Evans and Tristan Judge in the Alfa 1600 GT Zagato, who had also climbed an impressive 6 places during the day. Tomorrow the finish location is Andorra, and the promise of that will no doubt spur everyone on, but before the terminus of the day is located there are more miles to cover and, for the first time this trip, many metres of altitude to climb.
This morning’s run out to the first regularity was possibly some of the most flat and non-descript countryside seen so far. The grey skies certainly didn’t help, and neither did the constantly changing French speed limits, that seemed to punctuate the route every few hundred metres. They’re a bugger the French limits, half the time they seem pointless but with the French Gendarme being a master of disguise and willing to hide anywhere to catch out an unsuspecting motorist, particularly one with British plates, it’s just not worth the risk. After all, more time will be lost being frogmarched to the nearest cash point to pay the fine, than may be gained by ignoring the 50 metres where the limit randomly drops by 10 kph.
Once we had broken free into more sparsely populated terrain though, the only was up and in the afternoon that would prove to be true in a big way. First though there was the mornings competition to settle, and with the starting order of the day done in reverse alphabetical order of car marque there was every chance the leaders could be tripped up by less experienced crews ahead of them.
The regs were tricky and narrow in places, and on the first competition section in particular cars began tripping over themselves and appearing from all angles. One crew that struck trouble early in the day were Dick and Harry Baines, who had been flying in the Mini up until now. It wasn’t traffic that did for them though, but a flat tyre and by lunch they had lost a heap of time on stand alone leaders Ken and Sarah Binstead. Indeed, they had almost fallen into the clutches of third, that was now occupied by Nigel and Sally Woof who had enjoyed their morning in the Alfa Giulia, jumping a few seconds ahead of Owens and Johnson in the 911.
A test finished off the mornings action, at a decent sized kart circuit. The circuit was surrounded by spectacular views of the mountains, hinting at what might be to come in the afternoon. This may have caught a few drivers wandering, and one or two had hefty spins. I’d hate to embarrass them by dropping names, but you 911 drivers know who you are!!
Post lunchtime refuel and the only way was up. The scenery changed almost instantly as the group travelled through the beautiful mountain village of Puivert and then emerged onto the first regularity of any altitude. The sun shone in an azure blue sky, and the whole thing looked like a scene from The Sound of Music, or perhaps The Great Escape, one or two drivers certainly emulated the scene where Steve McQueen deliberates which direction to take!
Up the cars went, with snow capped peaks in the background and the sound of engines bouncing off of rock walls as they climbed. This was the stuff! This is what it’s all about and I’ve no doubt the drivers were having a superb time, although spare a thought for the navigators who can barely afford time to look up as they are thrown from side to side.
This theme continued for the rest of the afternoon, up one side of a mountain and only ever finding the other side to career back down again. Once through the border crossing into Andorra and the altitude hit the highest that it will on the trip, and what people saw at the peak of 2500 metres is largely dependent on the state of the weather as they travelled through. The wind was whipping the cloud across at a tremendous rate, one minute the sun lit up the descending road in golden light, snow lined and beautiful, with the odd whisp of cloud adding an ethereal feel to the whole vista. The next second and the entire mountain was cloaked as the cloud dropped and visibility reduced to almost nothing, with rain and sleet materialising in front of our eyes.
The final regularity of the day was the cherry on the cake though, an incredible set of narrow switchbacks that carried the competitors from valley floor to mountain top. The road was covered in chalk markings from cycle tours and snowy peaks stood proud in the sun that now touched everything below. Dick Baines, clearly keen to keep to time, found himself overtaking a group of motorcyclists that were enjoying the climb, the Mini running rings around machines that ought to be far quicker off the mark. I’m not sure if he was enjoying it or not, but it certainly entertained anyone else who was watching.
At the close of play unsurprisingly the Binstead’s were still in the lead, and as we head to the midway point it is going to take some effort, or calamity to stop them now. Anything can happen in rallying though, and with a run down into Pamplona in the offing tomorrow, we may yet find someone capable of running with the Big Healey.
A Trip Advisor review of Andorra might read something like this: “Andorra, small, densely populated, blink and you’ll miss it. Plenty of fuel stations though.” Almost as soon as we had arrived in the tiny mountain country, we were out of it again and into Spain with the promise of the most stunning roads yet. The sun was out again, and snow-capped peaks loomed large in almost every direction you cared to look, yep, it was going to be a good day.
For some of us at least. Others were already suffering problems in the morning, such as car 16, who whilst on their way to the test that began the competition for the day, saw rally cars heading back towards them and wrongly supposed that they had all gone wrong and so turned back, missing the test entirely! The test too was causing some consternation, as some competitors were failing to understand the concept of completing two laps of the circuit, instead deciding that they had clearly shown off their driving prowess in one pass.
Any morning mishaps would soon have been forgotten though, as the road that carried us up and over the southern Pyrenees was as spectacular as it was long, a fast-paced rollercoaster of bends and tarmac that hugged the topography and lifted the drivers skywards, before the descent towards the days first regularity. The contours were tightly spaced again for this challenging reg, and it followed a similar pattern to the rest of the morning, only on much more constricted roads.
For anyone that did manage a look out of the window they would have been delighted by the panorama out in front and behind, indeed to each side as well. There were huge Vultures circling overhead, an imposing sight and a reminder that the world around us is natures creation and we are merely passing through.
Speaking of passing through, has anyone seen car 18, last seen travelling up a goat track into the mountains, possibly lost forever. It’s unfair to single them out, as plenty were caught out by the various options presented through the mountain passes. It wasn’t a mountain that caused most confusion though, but a run through the tiny hamlet of Noales. The narrow-cobbled streets were almost too slender to slot some of the bigger vehicles down, with the threat of the angular stone buildings gaining in ferocity the deeper one travelled into the labyrinth. The claustrophobia inducing buildings must have put some crews off, as one after the other they took the wrong right turn, causing much amusement to the locals watching out of windows.
Others were suffering mechanicals, including overnight podium sitters the Woofs. Their transmission had failed them on the first mountain climb, and possibly derailed their entire rally. Car 32 was also in strife, and indeed started a trend as other cars joined them on the side of the road whilst they were being patched up by the mechanical assistance, leaving the Spanish roadside looking like a pop-up garage. There was trouble too for Graeme Presswell and Phil Cottam, this time though the culprit was user error, as the Golf was reversed into a ‘car sized ditch’.
Almost as soon as the morning had begun it was over, with competition for the day concluded at lunchtime. The distance covered felt vast, but we were in the cars for just a few hours, although with the constant company of switchbacks it had felt like a proper workout.
As the scores came in, the lead at the top had been stretched further as the Binstead’s had only dropped 20 seconds all day. With the demise of the Woofs, second was again occupied by Dick and Harry Baines and Stephen Owens and Pete Johnson had put yesterday’s difficulties behind them and climbed back into third. The rally has reached the halfway point now, and the long descent south now becomes a few days heading west across the top of Spain, and the incredible roads of the Picos de Europa and multiple parts of the Camino de Santiago, the Pilgrims Trail. Anyone who hopes to beat the Binstead’s over the next few days will need some faith themselves, as that lead is certainly a mountain to climb.
To paraphrase the late and very great Murray Walker, in rallying, anything can and probably will happen. Today, as the trip meters ticked past the halfway point, there was a seismic shift at the top of the leader board, as the wheels fell off, or more precisely exhaust, the Binstead’s challenge for the win. Our leaders from the very first day of the rally suffered mechanical catastrophe, as their exhaust jettisoned itself and their time at the top came to a cruel end.
It was a bitter blow, but potentially threw the door wide open for those that had been squabbling over the remaining podium places, to now contest for the win. But before any sorting out for that could happen there were five regularities to contest, on the longest half day I think I’ve ever had.
A long concentration run to the hills just above Bilbao started the day, all non-competition and largely along the Spanish motorways. The reward for the distance covered was a start location at the incredible Torre Loizaga, a beautiful Tower House with an even more beautiful collection of Rolls Royce cars amongst other exotic automobiles.
I’m sure many could have strolled around the collection or sat in the sun in the grand grounds all day long, but at 13:01 the first car rolled out of the time control and the days action began. Running in order of engine size from smallest to largest, the first car on the road was second placed Dick and Harry Baines in the diminutive Mini. Early during the first reg Dick and Harry may have noticed that they passed a bull ring, and in their much smaller car they may have felt like Matadors against the more powerful machines in the ranks, particularly as the roads being to point up as the day continued.
This part of Spain is quite simply beautiful, with the alpine roads punctuated by small villages almost always dominated by a Church at their centre. There is also very little traffic in this part of the world, but today the lack of cars was more than made up for in the number of animals on route. Dogs in particular seemed to line the route, with many giving chase and barking at the cars as they went through their territory. Best not to mention Dogs to Neil Lawson-May though, the driver of car 32, as he quite clearly isn’t keen on our Canine friends and, when set upon by a pair whilst passing a farm they gave him such a fright that his Lancia ended up in a ditch, and he and navigator Richard Williams were forced to evacuate the vehicle and wait for a tow out.
Cows would also play havoc, with a number of cars getting stuck in amongst a herd just after the afternoon’s coffee stop, attempting to meander through the chaos caused by the beasts, as the Cows and their Calves, as well as an extremely large Bull, did anything but follow the instructions issued by the Herdsman. There was no contact thankfully, but Tony Sutton is now after a new clutch for his Porsche!
Once free of the tangled cattle the crews encountered what was surely the highlight of the day, as the route fed through the Machucos Pass, easily the most spectacular road I have ever had the pleasure of driving. It isn’t the highest that we have been on this trip, but it certainly offered the greatest views, as the evening sun filled the valley below with golden light and the snow-capped mountains glistened against the horizon in the distance.
As the afternoons competition drew to a close the Baines were now in the lead, after the Binstead’s spiteful misfortune. Having said that, Dick and Harry have driven brilliantly the entire week so far, and have survived their own mechanical misfortunes, so nobody can say that the lead is unjustly inherited. They now have a lead of 39 seconds and when tomorrow beings go from hunter to hunted. Spearheading that hunt will be Nick Maris and Henry Carr, two names that haven’t featured much so far this week, but they have snuck up on the podium positions and swiped one for themselves, leaving Stephen Owens and Pete Johnson in third position, scratching their heads as to where the big Datsun came from.
With four days of action left the competition has been blown wide open, with five cars now separated by a minute at the head of proceedings. Today is a lesson in just how quickly things can change in motorsport, and those at the top of the tree will be leaving nothing to chance if they can help it.
Day seven of the London to Lisbon Rally, a week on the road non-stop and very nearly three quarters of the way to the finish. Endurance athletes hit what they call ‘the wall’, a mental barrier as exhaustion kicks in it seems almost impossible to continue, smash your way through that wall though and everything is downhill on the other side. These rallies are no different, and whilst there are longer events out there, after a week of muscling cars with no power steering around treacherously narrow roads, with the added mental stress of concentrating on the trip meter and keeping up with the route book, both driver and navigator are getting tired.
The cars too are suffering, this is a workout for them, and any weaknesses will be exposed, as we all saw yesterday. 37 cars went through this morning’s time control, the attrition is starting to hit, but, if cars and crew can make it through the next day or two the finish is but a few miles away…
Not that I’m expecting any pity for any of them, this is an endurance and reliability event after all, this is what we have all signed up for and it remains the fact that the roads we are being treated to are some of the finest in the world, never mind Europe. That trend continued where it left off, after a bit of a concentration run along the Cantabrian coast to jettison the rally right into the middle of the good stuff in the Picos de Europa. Regularity one was a tricky affair, all narrow streets and villages. Then it was time to gain altitude again, with two competitive sections over the Alto la Torneria, the first part of which gave the crews their last glimpse of the sea. The next time they see it they will have made it to the finish.
These hills and mountains are still fairly wild places, punctuated by villages that looked like something from a Spaghetti Western, with tumbledown houses in a state of disrepair, sometimes half built, sometimes half fallen down, but always centred around a magnificent church or chapel. The roads themselves matched the towns at times, often hemmed in by vegetation and home to all manner of animals seemingly roaming free. These animals also include Wolves and Brown Bears, so it would pay dividends not to stray from the chosen path too far and anything that these hunters didn’t finish would soon be snapped up by the Vultures and Eagles circling on the thermals overhead.
Thankfully, nobody succumbed to the region’s apex predators, before lunch at least in any case, but there had been some cannibalistic hunting between Porsches, as Tony Sutton and Bernard Northmore had pulled ahead of Stephen Owens and Pete Johnson, who can’t seem to make their mind up about whether they want to stay on the podium or not! With three regularities and a test in the afternoon though, there was plenty of competition to do a bit more sorting out.
What an afternoon as well, with a bit more climbing on the twisties, just encase anyone needed more practice, there was also some excellent runs through the bottom of gorges, alongside the Rio Tuerto and into the Ponga National Park, with another climb under the gaze of more snow-capped peaks before another descent to the vast Riano Reservoir. Sadly, the iridescent turquoise water was dulled by the inclement weather and cloud overhead, although the mountains on the far side of the body of water had an altogether ethereal magic about them as they leered out of the gloom.
The rain didn’t last for long, and by the time the cars pulled up for their second test of the day at a kart circuit in Vidanes, that followed a coffee break, it was dry. The first drivers out onto track then had their coffee, making a good audience to observe the next crew’s skills. The track was quick, and as usual the Porsche drivers were keen to push the limits of adhesion, thank fully this time everyone kept the wheels pointing mostly in the right direction!
At the end of the seventh day Dick and Harry Baines remained in the lead, now with an advantage of nearly a minute over nearest challengers Nick Maris and Henry Carr. Third place had, possibly predictably, changed hands again, with SO and Pete Johnson back in third place, but only by 9 seconds over Sutton and Northmore, with the Robinson’s not too far back in their trusty TR3.
Portugal beckons tomorrow, and I for one will be sad to leave Spain behind, but there is no time built into this competition for sentimentality. The clock is ticking, just three days now until the finish is reached.
This time last week the competitors on the 2022 London to Lisbon were scratching around the lanes of southern England, today we were touching the heavens and enjoying the best roads of the trip thus far, this is a rally that keeps on giving.
One person, however, let’s call him Andy Jointer, almost missed out on the day completely after a navigational mix up travelling between hotels this morning left him standing at Leon station, either that or he had decided that the company in his car wasn’t up to snuff and so a train direct to Lisbon was the best option. Either way, after being pointed in the right direction balance was restored, and all it cost was a little bit of pride.
Out on the road and the sun was shining, but at the altitude we were travelling it was certainly chilly and the walkers on the Camino de Santiago pilgrims trail were wrapped up against the elements, staring in wonder at the array of motor cars passing them in the early morning light, possibly taking it as a sign.
The signs were certainly good for the larger cars chasing down the Mini, finding the towering ascents much easier going with their more impressive power plants, but it takes more than power to win an event like this and by lunchtime the bigger machines had only made small impressions on the lead of the Mini.
To be honest though, with the calibre of the mountain passes this morning everyone’s minds were likely far from the timesheets, and up in the clouds. The competition sections were sparse in any case, with long transit sections as the rally crossed the Alto de la Cruz and the Puerto de El Morredero. The Puerto de los Portillinos, at damn near 2000 metres was one of the highest points on the route, and the most memorable, with its steep ascent, which at some points was 19.4%. Everyone made it up though, including the American LaFrance and anyone who took the opportunity to gaze at the views from the top would have been treated to a panorama of the Montes de Leon, and on this clear day views for hundreds of miles.
Post lunch and the border crossing into Portugal was the next main event, a blink and you’ll miss it experience as we travelled in surrounded by a lunar landscape with boulders and erratic’s deposited by glaciers many eons ago. Aside from the transforming geology, the only other indicator was the sudden change in road surface, which for the first kilometre or so at least was extremely well rendered.
In contrast with the morning the altitude had dropped, although we were still reasonably elevated in the hills of this part of Portugal and the ascents and descents would still prove challenging in places. The competition sections increased in frequency, with three regularities to up the ante a little in our new country of residence, all of around 19 kilometres in length and each offering something slightly different.
The last one in particular took place in one of the more populated locations of the day, darting in and out of the small villages that make up the area, and their associated myriad of junctions, just the thing when to spice things up after the largely linear route that had been present on the most recent competition sections!!
As the last part of the day drew near, cobbled roads welcomed the cars to Vidago and the extremely salubrious Vidago Palace, a hotel befitting of the heavenly roads experienced during this leg. But what of the competition, had any divine intervention taken place on the pilgrim’s trail? Well, as it happened second placed Nick Marris and Henry Carr had halved the gap at the top, dropping just 32 seconds all day and, just for a change, Porsches 44 and 14 had swapped positions again, with Tony Sutton and Bernard Northmore getting custody of third place overnight.
The mighty Mini of Dick and Harry Baines continues to hold station at the top though, but with a reduced margin Marris and Carr will have hope and both cars will be hoping for kindness in the Douro Valley on the penultimate day tomorrow.
One thing you can be assured of on the road is change, as the miles tick by nothing stays the same for very long, even if sometimes it feels like a recurring pattern is set. Today the scenery changed yet again, in the constantly unravelling tapestry that charts our progress from London. The elevated roads of yesterday and the previous few days were left behind and where once snow-capped peaks and hardy high-altitude flora were all that could be seen from the window, today the countryside was much more verdant and lush.
The mountains were still there, but distant and hazy in the early morning sun and the route now climbed up and down through the terraced farms and vineyards of the Douro Valley, with the irrigate slopes abundant with vines and olive trees and punctuated with stabs of colour from the lavender that grows here.
Not that the drivers and navigators would have had much time to take all of that in, as whilst we were competing at a much lower altitude, the ascents and descents were still plentiful and in some cases the switchbacks were proving tricky to make it around in one go. Off the beaten track was certainly a phrase that sprang to mind, as the notes took us on a tour of some roads less travelled, and in some cases not well maintained!
By lunchtime the leader board was also becoming a little more constricted, as the more powerful Datsun 240Z was taking chunks of time out of the Mini on roads that favoured its more formidable powerplant. Third place had also changed hands again, as after a good morning, Stephen Owens and Pete Johnson had claimed back third place. The white 911 was looking masterful in the bright sunshine and sounding glorious, but then so were many of the machines, which at this late hour is a marvel after so many miles have been covered.
The afternoon had some more up and down regularities, but the main event was a return to test action at the historic Caramulo Hill Climb, always a favourite for the drivers whenever we visit this part of Portugal and today there would be two opportunities to tackle the ancient asphalt. First up the hill was that white 911 of SO and Pete Johnson, with the Armco reverberating to the six-cylinder orchestra in the boot of the Porsche, a soundtrack that was repeated by their nearest challenger, Tony Sutton in his Porsche. In the middle of those two were the hard charging second placed pairing of Nick Maris and Henry Carr, with an altogether different soundtrack, albeit still with six pots still.
These three looked visibly fast, and all posted times in the 2-minute thirties, around thirty seconds faster than the Mini of Baines Jr and Sr, and this would equate to another five seconds back into the pockets of Maris and Carr. Fastest time up the hill though would actually be claimed by David Coxon and Phil Hawkins in the number 17 Healey, and bragging rights at the bar this evening secured after posting a 2:26, the only crew to get under the 2:30 barrier.
It was a great way to conclude the penultimate day of action and when the scores were posted top spot hadn’t changed, with Dick and Harry Baines still out in front. Their lead though, that was looking quite healthy a few days ago, is now a mere 8 seconds leaving everything in the balance for the final days competition.
Anything could happen tomorrow, and in truth it would be cruel for the Baines to lose out on the win at this late stage, but the Maris/Carr pairing have also driven beautifully over the past few days and have made a strong case to take the triumph. Neither deserve to lose, but it will all come down to the last few miles and a final day that has 5 tests. It is set to be a nail-biting decider.
And the winner is..!
Not so fast, this hasn’t been one of those one horse races, far from it. Over 2000 miles, five countries, land, sea and, with the heights reached on some days, we may as well throw air in their too. It has been a colossal adventure, with a tremendous route that has generated competition throughout the field and a tussle for the top spot of the podium that has gone down until the last day.
Over the past ten days the cars have climbed 41,000 metres in total altitude, that’s 25 miles or, almost into space. A galactic achievement for our Galácticos that have made it to the finish of this epic, and their machines. Many of the cars are of an age where they ought really to be enjoying an easy retirement, but instead have been used as they were designed and pushed hard. Not everyone has finished of course, for some the route has taken its toll, this is an endurance and reliability trial after all, but even those that haven’t made it have got involved in other ways, diving in to help with marshalling for example, and for that we thank them.
There must also be thanks given to the marshals for doing their bit to ensure the rally can be run at all, for the most part they have enjoyed fabulous weather conditions, but they have also endured torrential downpours and long hours in remote locations, all to ensure we can enjoy our sport. A special mention to the Warboys, for the efforts at camouflage, often hiding their control to catch out unwary crews. I do however feel that they took things too far, when yesterday they hired a local farmer to help conceal their timing point, complete with his tractor!
They weren’t quite as concealed today though, and even had they been our front runners were on their A game, determined to finish with a flurry. Tony Sutton and Bernard Northmore were really on a mission, and it turned out best in class and therefore pipping Stephen Owens and Pete Johnson to third by the smallest of margins.
So, to the head of the field, and in the end the Baines boys in the super Mini dug deep and held firm over the final three regularities, pulling a small margin on Maris and Carr in second before the final tests, just enough of a margin for them to hold off the charging pair in the Datsun who have pushed so hard over the past few days. I daresay both pairs would say the other car deserved to win, offering each other plaudits in the sporting manner that befits such a sporting competition.
At the finish a heroes, or should that be hero’s, welcome greeted all of the cars involved, but the biggest cheers were adorned upon the winners. The champagne was sprayed, and Harry Baines in particular was soaked, not that he cared, a special moment for the young navigator, shared with his father. Dick may not say much, but there was no hiding the pride in his eyes, speaking volumes all on their own.
So that is how it ends, an unexpected victory and a new name on the trophy, for a crew that this time last year were preparing for the Novice Trial event at Bicester Heritage. For so long it looked like Ken and Sarah Binstead would win it, until mechanical gremlins forced fates hand. But that is rallying and irrespective of the positions in the final results table, the one thing we all have in common is the enjoyment of the adventure, the spirit of exploring a road less travelled, opening our eyes to parts of these countries seldom seen by their inhabitants, never mind foreigners, and in the same breath sharing our sport with the residents of these parts of the world. But now it is time to close the route books and celebrate the miles travelled. This journey has ended, but you can be sure a new one is just around the corner.
This event runs under the regulations of the Fédération Internationale des Véhicules Anciens (FIVA)