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 Shires host Round Two as the Challenge Increases