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.
*The Shires host Round Two as the Challenge Increases