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.
*The Shires host Round Two as the Challenge Increases