It is hard to capture many things from our youth, although a great deal of us try. It is surely why the midlife crisis was invented, as an explanation for our desperation to cling onto the freedom we only experience but once in our lives. Youth is wasted upon the young, or so the saying goes, and in many ways is true. But, for a privileged group of us, today the excitement and fervour of youth was very much recaptured as the final preparations got underway for the 2021 HERO-ERA Classic Marathon, the event they said could never, would never and should never run. Well, this afternoon those of us lucky enough, or perhaps determined enough, to make the start put cars through scrutineering and began to look forward to the off-tomorrow morning at 9am very much indeed.
A first day of the school holidays feeling was very much evident throughout the camp, as cars arrived fresh from the ferry and the increased border checks, all safe in the knowledge that health checks had been completed and processes had been followed to the nth degree. Some crews retired to rooms for a siesta, whilst others enjoyed tapas and the odd shandy in the best of Spanish traditions in the square opposite rally HQ. The locals seemed pleased to see us, with much interest in the wide and varied entry of cars, with the pre-war Fords, Bentleys and Cadillac’s naturally garnering most of the attention. Indeed, the no 3 car of Christian Mueller + Roger Vogel, a wonderful Cadillac Series 314 V8 Racer, was captivating the competitors as well. It felt like a special moment, as whilst our sport has been stopped in its tracks by Covid, the community of the small town of Las Caldas, reliant on tourisms and visitors to the settlements Spa, must also be cautiously pleased to see visitors back and seemed to have had their imaginations captured by the automotive metal on display.
“It’s fantastic!” said HERO-ERA Managing Director Patrick Burke, echoing the sentiments of every single entrant and member of the rally organising team, who have all said what a joy it is to be travelling again and, as Patrick put it, “back out on the road doing what we do best.” Alluding further to the team effort involved in getting the rally to this stage, Patrick went on to say, “It is an event where the whole team pulled together and put in an incredible number of hours and work to keep it together and get us to where we are today.” Whilst the sorting out amongst the crews will happen over the coming days, for those behind the scenes this is the culmination of 18 months of sheer determination.
The setbacks and struggles have not just affected the organisers of course, with the politicians in various countries changing legislation right up to the eve of the event, it has been no small effort on the crew’s part to get out here to the hills above Oviedo. 29 will take the start tomorrow, setting off on a 6-day adventure that will cover 2000 miles. The first day will see 335 kilometres covered before the final halt in Ponferrada, as the compass takes us south and inland. Four regularities and two tests await, and the crews will find themselves climbing up to heady peaks, as well as dropping down through the lonely farms and villages that occupy the valley floors before reaching the days terminus.
There are many within the field that could challenge for the overall win and an eclectic mix of machinery that spans the full age range of cars that are eligible for these events. The competition will, as ever, become more intense as the rally clocks up the miles, for now though all of us will dine out on the good feeling in the camp, that will no doubt keep everyone involved elevated, even without the influence of the high altitude passes that will keep us company for much of this wonderful event.
Often, the first thing that one notices when awaking in a new place is the bird song. The vernacular of the local fowl is full of idiosyncrasies that point to the fact that you have arrived in a new location, and whilst most of us couldn’t tell our Tits from our Boobies, the colloquialisms of the resident warblers is plain as day to all but the most tunnel visioned of us. Bird song is also intrinsically linked to a new dawn and new beginnings, an experience all too rare in the past 18 months, when most of us have gotten used to the repeated impact of false dawns. But not today, as this fourth of July for a lucky few of us the the daybreak was greeted with the song of foreign birds for the first time in many months and, shortly thereafter, the morning chorus was split by the sound of rally cars competing in HERO-ERA’s first international event for nearly 500 days, The Classic Marathon.
Paul Crosby led the field away, in his trademark green Porsche 911, with Andy Pullan sat in the map seat. As winners of the previous Classic Marathon, they had the honour of passing the starters flag first, although the Spanish sun would not smile on them quite so favourably as the God’s had last time out in Greece. Before any sorting out could be done though, four regularities and two tests had to be navigated on a 335 km route that would see the train of 29 cars head south, away from Las Caldas, and finish in Ponferrada.
Trouble would hit the crew of car 3, the majestic Cadillac 314 Racer of Christian Mueller and Roger Vogel almost before the first regularity, with the Peking to Paris destined machine becoming lost in the Mountains south of Oviedo and leaving them with almost 100 minutes of penalty points by the end of day one. Still, far better to iron out the creases now, before tackling the 8500-mile adventure from Beijing next year.
It was a shame that they missed out on the sections of route that they did, as the mountains that stood sentry over the roads that would take crews into the Trubia Valley were almost as spectacular as the driving itself. The early stages largely set a theme for the day, as ranges were climbed and valleys descended into, with the regularities gradually gaining in difficulty.
Regularity four would provide one of the first of ‘traps’ set for competitors, a cheeky little deviation that took crews off road and up a steep incline to the first timing point and would catch out a number of crews, including the Bentley of Reto Mebes and Mike Cowburn. The deviation must also have upset the rhythm of Klaus Schaffrath and Andrew Duerden, as they clean missed the next turn after the timing point completely, the Alfa Romeo Giullia finishing the day in 18th.
At the summit of the leader board on day one was the returning, not to mention resplendent, Jaguar E-Type occupied by Marcus Anderson and Matthew Lymm Rose. The instantly recognisable big cat is celebrating a special anniversary this year, but the way in which Marcus threw the car around the days final tests showed that the old girl is still a very nimble performer. The substantial crowd of spectators gathered at the Cabanas Raras Kart Circuit roared with appreciation, as they did when Malcolm Dunderdale threw his much newer Mercedes 190 around the bends a few minutes later, largely with the DTM bruiser rotating around the bends on three wheels. Despite the flamboyance, he and navigator Anita Wickens finished the day in the midfield overall, whilst the remaining top three places were occupied by Mark and Sue Godfrey in their baby blue MGB and HERO Cup and Golden Roamer winners Paul Bloxidge and Ian Canavan, in Paul’s Golf GTi, all separated by a meagre ten seconds.
Of course, anything can happen in rallying and the real shape of the leader board will become apparent as the week draws on, with the chasing pack headed up by current HERO Cup champion Jayne Wignall, sat nicely in fourth place just a few seconds adrift of the top three. The real result today though, was the resumption of international competition amongst the HERO-ERA community, and the smiles and fist pumps on display at the final control of todays proceedings were evidence of the satisfaction, relief and sheer joy experienced by everyone involved today, competitors and event staff alike. Onward to tomorrow, and the rallies arrival in Portugal!
The thing about blowing away the cobwebs, is that you’re never quite sure exactly what you will find underneath, and whilst day one of this rally may have carried that fresh out of school feeling, some competitors on day two were finding that the initial sensation of freedom may perhaps only have been skin deep, and that hiding under the gossamer coating were spiders waiting to bite.
The day began with cars 14 and 33 reneging from engaging in the days action, the pair of Alfa’s needing some TLC, with Marc Kingsley-Curry and Rob Simmonds in the 14-car taking their Italian machine all the way to Porto to sort fresh wheel bearings, the pair hope to be back at this evening’s rally HQ sometime in the early hours of the morning. Wheel bearings were featuring in Bill Cleyndert’s morning as well, “I hear your wheel bearings are knackered” said Paul Crosby, almost unable to hide the glint in his eyes, it’s all friendly of course, but karma is a fickle mistress, and the Porsche mans day ended in uncertainty with suspension problems of his own. Another Porsche in trouble early on was that of Stephen Owens, 7th on day one, day two began with a flat battery that spiked his clocks, giving navigator Nick Bloxham a headache, that he didn’t need.
As the day wore on, with ever more challenging regularities, so the problems for competitors machines became more complex as well. Sadly, at lunch it seemed the gods of fortune still weren’t smiling on Bill Cleyndert and Leigh Powley, as whilst the lashings of grease used to remedy the wheel bearings were holding working like a charm, a failed head gasket was threatening to end their rally early, particularly as the heat had burnt a hole in the cylinder head. “I’m gutted” said Leigh, “It was just starting to get really good”. However, a joint effort between crew and mechanics saw the head fixed, with the help of a local welder, and the Ford Model A Special will be back in action again tomorrow.
Mechanical problems aside, the competition had stepped up a level as the route had headed south across more mountain passes, advancing upon the Portuguese border through four regularities that traversed through the great variety of terrain afforded by the changing landscape. An extremely narrow in places regularity three slotted into a complex fourth regularity, that was matched in its length by the number of speed changes encountered by the crews, on a route that challenged not just the navigators but the drivers as well.
By lunch the chasing pack had been shaken up, with ground gained by Crosby, Walker and England and ground lost by Wignall, Britschgi and Owens, and their respective navigators. At the sharp end the event leaders, Marcus Anderson and Matthew Lymm Rose had been overtaken by the lunch halt, with Mark and Sue Godfrey having 11 seconds in hand over the Jaguar E-Type, that itself seemed to be having some wheel bearing issues. Any potential mechanical gremlins didn’t halt the progress of the big cat though, as despite the loss of time in the morning by close of play Marcus and Matthew had regained top spot, and more besides, with a healthy 18 second gap over the challenging Godfrey’s. It was somewhat fitting that the days final regularity ended with the Jaguar chasing the MG B through the luscious vineyards of the Douro Valley, with the cacophony created by the multitude of cylinders echoing off the amphitheatre like slopes of this port producing region.
Of course, a rally cannot be won in a day, or even in two, and everyone will be aware there is still a long way to go. With a field crammed full of so much talent, the win could still be anyone’s, and if nothing else today serves as reminder that to finish first, first you must finish.
Today was also a day in which our own dear Bob Rutherford was in everyone’s thoughts, with Ian Canavan summing up the feelings of us all when, after being asked about his and Paul Bloxidge’s chances of success, he quickly quelled any talk of competition and simply said “We want to finish this rally for Bob.”
Climbing was very much the theme of the day on the third leg of the Classic Marathon, as the competition had its only full day in Portugal. Climbing up to the summit of one of Portugal’s greatest driving roads, climbing up the famous Caramulo hill climb and, for some, climbing on up the leader board.
After a short regularity to stretch the legs on the escape from Lamego, the Tulips transported the competition away from the hustle and bustle of the lowlands and into a regularity that rally regular Paul Bloxidge declared was “the best regularity I think I have ever done.” It was a tricky affair and maintaining average speeds must have been a challenge up the sinuous roads, with their tight switchbacks and ever so steep gradients. Travelling through the belly of the regularity, one could have been forgiven for thinking that we weren’t in Portugal at all, as at times it looked more like Borneo, but as the altitude quickly increased the Eucalyptus trees cleared and the summit opened up onto views for miles.
The peak marked the end of regularity two, and the beginning of what will undoubtedly be a trip highlight, a link section across the infamous Portal do Inferno, or the Gateway to Hell. This high ridge road that splits the Aviero and Viseu Districts, cuts a slender path at an altitude of some 3000 feet, with abrupt drops either side, not a place for those with a disposition to heights!
If driving the Portal wasn’t enough to get the adrenalin coursing, a short hop up the road the speed junkies amongst the group had a chance to flex their throttle leg and tackle the Caramello Hill Climb, under closed road conditions, not once, but twice! Now whilst the Marathon isn’t really about the tests, I’m sure deep down everyone in the group wished to set a good time up the famous stretch of tarmac. Pretty soon though, it was the spirit of cooperation that was in evidence at the climb, rather than the spirit of competition, as the Godfreys turned fairy Godparents for the stricken MG B of Cliff England and Peter Rushforth, who with their excitement at tackling Caramulo’s ascent had managed to snap a half shaft in two off of the start. A spare was duly lent and with more heroic work from the sweeps, with the help of a local workshop, the car was fixed and no 19 was able to tackle the hill at the second attempt.
One pair who were certainly enjoying the hill were the Porsche partnering of Paul Crosby and Andy Pullan, and after some nail-biting moments wondering if they were able to continue after mechanical problems on leg two, on leg three they were flying. Their ascent up the leader board continued throughout the day, and by the close of play they had moved into second place, 32 seconds behind perennial leaders Marcus Anderson and Matthew Lymn Rose in the Jag.
Further back in the fight for the top ten both Jayne Wignall and Kevin Savage, and Stephen Owens and Nick Bloxham had leap frogged Cliff England and Peter Rushforth, perhaps taking advantage of the latter crew’s mechanical problems, but both are still some two minutes short of challenging for the top three.
As well as those fighting for top honours, those battling for pride were also having a better time of it, with both of Tuesdays stricken Alfas back in the hunt and on song, as well as ‘Betsy’, the Model A that never says die, with occupants Bill Cleyndert and Leigh Powley chugging along with smiles on their faces again.
With the halfway point reached, and a trip back over the border into Spain again tomorrow, it isn’t just the roads and the competition that are on the up, but the fatigue as well. This is, after all, The Marathon, and with 340 km’s in store for leg four it isn’t getting any easier. The fortunes of anyone in the field could change with each click of the trip meter, and undoubtedly will. Expect the unexpected and take nothing for granted, we might be halfway, but this is far from finished.
‘McRae Land’ read the sign, backed by a giant Saltire, daubed on the house size rock overlooking the otherwise innocuous road. This tremendous rock is one of many that dominate the landscape around Fafe, standing sentry over the road that comes alive to the sound of WRC cars when the world championship visits Portugal. Rallying is everything to these people, and the bright blue tribute shows their regard for a man that captured the imaginations with his rumbustious approach to piloting a rally car. Today though, these roads were tackled at a humbler pace by our own regularity rally stars, although mistakes meant that there would be some change in the celestial order of things.
Controlled as the pace may have been, the day began with a much higher energy assault with a test to kick things off. The sun was still low in the sky as the first cars took to the tarmac of the Baltar kart circuit and finished up on its famous rally cross loop. We’ve said before this one isn’t really about the tests, but who can resist an empty circuit and a pass to go fast? Indeed, not even the lesser spotted number 3 Cadillac could withstand the lure of the track, and trucked round with the noise and the presence of a Panzer Tank. Post circuit antics and Regularity One was followed by Two and Three in quick succession, with barely time for the competitors to grab their breath between them. The roads in this part of Portugal were extremely quiet in comparison to others that had been experienced, with only the wind farms that dominate the hills here as company, standing on the shoulders of giants and keeping watch over the cars as they made progress, and, for some, made mistakes.
By lunchtime the green 911 of Paul Crosby and Andy Pullan had made more ground on the E-Type that has sat atop the leader board since day one. Stephen Owens and Nick Bloxham, and Graham Walker and Sean Toohey had also made progress, gaining two positions each in the topsy turvy battle for the top ten. Whilst the morning had been enjoyable, but reasonably sedate, the afternoon would cause one or two headaches.
Perhaps thoughts were drifting the England match this evening, or maybe people were distracted by the impending PCR test and a scrub-clad man unceremoniously stuffing a swab where it wasn’t wanted, or maybe it is just that we are now four days into the marathon, with many miles under the boots, whatever the distraction was mistakes were beginning to happen.
At the afternoon coffee stop Kevin Savage commented that he thought that he and Jayne Wignall had been having a tough day, but that actually “compared to some we’ve done quite well.” It shows how tough a day has been when operator such as Kevin and Jayne are losing time, but still gaining. He was right as well, by close of play the raucous Sunbeam Tiger had clawed its way back to sixth, after dropping two spots during the morning. Level pegging with them was the white 911 of Stephen Owens and Nick Bloxham, after they had posted the second-best time of the day, both driver and navigator clearly having no thoughts for the evening’s activities.
The big news though was at the summit of the leader board, with a change of first position. The eagle eyed would have spotted that into the afternoon the Jaguar E-Type of Marcus Anderson and Matthew Lymn Rose that has done so well this week, was out of position in the running order and was tabbing about in the middle of proceedings after leading the day off this morning. It seems a navigational error had cost them and had caused them to pick up a day total penalty of 1:59, dropping them not just one place, but two and into third behind the blue MGB of Mark and Sue Godfrey.
This of course could only leave one pair at the top of the order come the end of the day, the green Porsche of Paul Crosby and Andy Pullan, a car so close to needing to retire just two days previously. Best on the day with 57 seconds of penalties, they now have a lead of 26 seconds, and look to be in ominously good form, slotting into their groove just at the right time. But this is motorsport and who knows what could occur as the competition heads into its fifth and penultimate day tomorrow, back across the border in sunny Spain. With eight regularities to contest across tomorrow, as the route skirts the Iberian coast, it is all still to play for.
The definition of marathon in the dictionary is a ‘long lasting or difficult activity’, and leg five of the Classic Marathon surely qualified on both parts. With over 400 km covered today, and ten hours or more on the road it was certainly long lasting, and, with 8 regularities to tackle in various different terrains it had plenty of difficulty. A quick glance down the penalties for the leg show the strength of the task faced by crews today, but more on that later.
I’m sure that spirits were high this morning, if not because of the football result the previous evening then certainly because of the glorious sunrise out across the Vigo Bay that greeted everyone as they filtered out to their vehicles. It was an idyllic sight, and a reminder of the power of nature, if there had not been enough reminders so far on this trip. With the penultimate, and longest day ahead though, it remained to be seen who could harness their own powers of navigation to secure success on the day.
By lunchtime four regularities were already under the belts of the crews, as the maps took everyone north in the mixture of terrain that skirted the coast. It wasn’t the prettiest of days, but this was about endurance, not what you could see out of the window. The weather had turned decidedly grey throughout the morning, and the mood amongst the boys in the E-Type also seemed a little glum, as they had continued to drop out of contention with the top two during the morning, and in fact had been over-taken by experienced hands Paul Bloxidge and Ian Canavan in their Golf.
It was no surprise that they, and others, were dropping seconds, regularity four in particular had an especially difficult start, combining blink and you would miss them turns with incredibly narrow lanes and tricky surfaces. It was catching out plenty of people and resulted in cars heading in all directions as mistakes accumulated and rally traffic split all over the warren of roads in this area.
Mark and Sue Godfrey were having the best of the morning, holding a good command of the maps and of their MG B as they dropped just 19 seconds and closed the gap on Crosby and Pullan in first, although it must be noted that they weren’t exactly having a bad day either.
The afternoon continued to provide ‘difficult activities’, with the marshals communications signalling the troubles of many cars, with missed controls and other such problems and by the time the final regularity was completed, and the end of the day was in sight, I’m sure many were welcoming the chance of some rest before tackling the final day of the event tomorrow.
Before thoughts could turn to far towards that though, the small matter of results on the day needed to be assessed, and they leave the event with a few intriguing battles as crews contemplate the last leg. Marcus Anderson and Matthew Lymn Rose had managed to put their slight blip in form behind them and had recorded an excellent innings in the afternoon, only dropping a further 19 seconds, which was enough to move the pair back into the podium placings, albeit with just 11 seconds back to the duo of Bloxidge and Canavan.
The chasing pack now seem to be cut adrift, with Jayne Wignall and Kevin Savage fighting with Benno and Nina Britschgi for fifth spot, although with many in the top ten recording over two minutes of penalties today, the order could still shift about plenty yet.
At the top end of the table there appears to be a two-horse race for the overall win developing, with Paul Crosby and Andy Pullan still leading, but with a slender gap of just 6 seconds, after the Godfrey’s posted the best performance of the day, the only squad with less than a minute of penalties, to close right up on the tail pipe of the eponymous green 911.
There is now just one day for people to get their moving and shaking done to sort out the final order of things, when the caravan of cars returns back to Oviedo tomorrow evening. Before that checkpoint is reached though, there are a further five regularities to conquer, with plenty of opportunities to drop time, and there will no doubt be a sting in the tail somewhere, the question for the crews is where?
After 2000 km’s, 6 days, 36 regularities and 5 tests the Classic Marathon 2021 has come full circle and finished back where it started, in Las Caldas. It feels like an age ago that the starters flag was dropped on that first morning, but the event has also gone by in the blink of an eye. To the victors, the spoils, to all who competed, the elation of completing an international event again. Before the finishing gantry came into sight for the competitors though, there was still some sorting out to do, and plenty of miles to cover.
Unfortunately, the first bit of sorting was out of anyone’s hands, and the dreaded virus that has controlled so much of our lives in the past year, intervened in our sport, much in the same way as it has in other sport recently. The rally has fastidiously followed the procedures and protocols placed upon us by our own governing bodies, and the authorities in the localities that we have visited, and as such all of our competitors and personnel on the event had taken a PCR test within the time frame needed for return travel to home countries. Four tests returned positive results and those affected, as well as those sharing vehicles with them, were immediately asked to remove themselves from the rally, and isolate whilst a second test was prepared for them. All are currently in isolation and awaiting results of the second test.
Back in the thick of it and for everyone else the day began with a tricky regularity that contained 7 timing points, if this was the sting in the tail then it was being deployed early, and further up the road several cars tabbed along the transit section out of position, with some continuing to lose their way along the long, linear climb up and down the mountains that took crews to the second regularity of the day. Anyone looking out of the window could have been forgiven for thinking we were travelling through Switzerland, so lush was the vegetation, and Marc Kinglsey-Curry and Rob Simmonds, competing in their Swiss registered Alfa must have wished that they were there, as they encountered more than their fair share of traffic issues on the second reg. If it wasn’t a tractor, it was an oncoming van, or a slow-moving car. The frustration was clear as arms waved out of the window in mock defeat. Neither of them should get too exasperated though, as despite languishing at the bottom of the time sheets, their efforts this week have been spectacular and despite the rallying gods not adorning them with much luck they have pressed on regardless.
Theirs is a story familiar with many not stealing the limelight this week, but in truth, much like most of those who compete in the Isle of Man TT, success is measured on their own achievements, rather than with first place trophies and for many, just getting to the end of this rally is a tremendous success. Especially so for those whom this is their very first rally, such as Simon Blaxland and Simon Nelson, who, by their own admission, didn’t have a clue what they were doing or what they had let themselves in for at the start of the week. It would have been easy to bow out and give up, but they, along with our other first timers, have stuck at it and will have plenty of stories to share with friends when they arrive home.
By lunchtime not many of our party had made it through the morning without dropping more than a minute, but the star performers were the Godfreys, who dropped just 20 seconds and had leap frogged Crosby and Pullan into first place. Further down the order there was an excellent morning performance from Malcolm Dunderdale and Anita Wickens, joining the few in the sub minute club in the big Mercedes with a total penalty of 49 seconds.
The maps had taken the cars along part of the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrims walking route that passes through the area and even the most hard-nosed atheists might have considered whether there really was a God or not as we traversed some of the most spectacular mountain passes seen on the trip. Up here we were able to touch the clouds and see the Spanish Imperial Eagles soaring on thermals far below us, it was an ethereal experience and perhaps, with our proximity to the heavens, those chasing hard for the win were tempted to pray for a helping hand during the afternoon.
Just two regularities were all that was left for any position gains, just two opportunities for the long-time leaders of the rally in the E-Type to pull off a miracle win, or for Crosby and Pullan to regain the lead, or, indeed, for the rallies new leaders to make a mistake and let glory slip away.
As it was it would be a mistake from the Godfreys that would settle it, they had been exemplary all morning, continuing the previous days good form, but somewhere, early on the post lunch regularity it all went wrong, and they posted 20 seconds at the first timing point. The Porsche of Crosby was ruthless in its consistency during the afternoon, and ultimately, he and Andy Pullan would come out on top, but only by 10 seconds. Considering the distance covered, and the lead maintained by the Jaguar E-Type for most of the week (who finished third), it was a tiny margin, and but for a single error would have been a different story. “I feel exhausted” said Mark Godfrey at the finish, “we’ve had a great week, but missed out just at the end, but we are very pleased to be on the podium and are delighted with the whole event.”
To the victors go the spoils though, although Paul Crosby was in a reflective mood at the end of it, “It’s been a real roller coaster week, we’ve made mistakes, we’ve broken down and this morning Sue Godfrey was on fire, popping in zeroes for fun, but then this afternoon it all turned around and we are delighted.”
Of course, despite the elation of everyone at the finish, and the enjoyment of all throughout, there is a sombre tone to this edition of the Classic Marathon, with the loss of our own Marathon Man Bob Rutherford in the build up to the event. Bob is on all of our minds, and whilst covid restrictions prevented a group tribute to the man who was everyone’s friend, I’m sure all will raise a glass to a real gentleman this evening. The final word at the finish went to winner Paul Crosby, who simply said, “This one is for Bob.”
Photos by Will Broadhead ad Blue Passion
*The Shires host Round Two as the Challenge Increases