January is surely the most miserable month of the year, after the echoes of Auld Lang Syne fade away the hangovers clear to reveal a long, cold month. The trees are bare, the landscape grey and the soul is residing in a post-Christmas malaise, like the unwanted item in a January Sales bargain bin.
But what’s that in the distance? It sounds like the cold metal of a rally engine rotating into life in the mirk of a January morning, the familiar smell of enrichened exhaust fumes wafting through the wretched atmosphere. But surely not, the season isn’t due to get going this early, it never does. Well, this year things are different. Throw off the car covers, un-shackle the battery from the Optimate (other brands are available) because this year, the season starts now and starts with a bang.
The bang is Per Ardua ad Infinitum. The second coming of the rally that provided such a wonderful swan song to the truncated and punctuated 2020 season. This time though it is the season opener and will make landfall in the West-Country, striding forth into the constricted lanes of the region caring not for the cast iron cold ground underneath and frigid mizzle hanging in the air. The month of melancholy will soon be bought to life with two days of intense and impassioned competition, 17 tests and 15 regularities shoe-horned into the scant daylight hours, with some night time running as well. It’s schedule is part LeJog, part RAC Rally of the Tests and part Three Legs of Man. It is a red level event, but that does not make it a poor cousin of the aforementioned classics, underestimate it at your peril.
If the first year was the smash hit debut, then this is the difficult second album, but my hunch is that it will be a classic ensconced into the hit-parade for years to come. It will be 300 miles of tough competition, but also 300 miles of smiles that will begin at lunchtime on Friday the 7th of Jan and continue until dusk has enveloped Devon on the 8th.
On the entry are plenty of regular faces, Stuart Anderson and daughter Emily in the crowd favourite Bentley Derby, although their friends (or is that sparring partners) Elliot Dale and Charlotte Ryal will this year be taking on the event in their MK1 Escort, and with Elliot’s reputation for throwing his usual Bentley around like a ragdoll, the Escort will be one not to be missed on the tests.
HERO-ERA Cup and Golden Roamer winners Paul Bloxidge and Ian Canavan will be raring to go at the start in Paul’s Golf, with returning Golf campaigners Thomas and Roger Bricknell surely aiming to give them a run for their money and both being early tips for the win, particularly as the rally takes place in their neck of the woods. Both crews will have first seed and the inaugural event winner Paul Crosby to contend with however, as he and navigator Andy Pullan will no doubt be raring to go to defend their PAAI title and start 2022 as they mean to continue.
There is a phalanx of Volvo’s entered, the most popular marque by far, with Chris Wilks and David Creech out in the LeJog finishing Amazon, looking to build on their ever-increasing experience. One Volvo man who is looking for a return to form is Alan Pettit, navigating for Kelvin Bromley and will be hoping for a mechanical free rally after DNF’s in his last two outings, perhaps the switch to Triumph machinery this time will leave his recent Nordic Nightmare behind.
The field is full of potential tussles, as crews wrangle not just with the challenge of the route, but with each other as well. One highlight will no doubt be the tongue in cheek grudge match between current HERO Challenge champions Alastair Leckie and Matt Outhwaite and regular BMW combatants Angus McQueen and Mike Cochrane, who narrowly lost out to the burgeoning Saab crew in the competition after forced withdrawals from the last round of the 2021 competition. Both pairs have been impressive and could well be in the mix for the top step come close of play on the Saturday, with the still relative newcomers Leckie and Outhwaite riding high on their Challenge Success and McQueen and Cochrane class seven winners on the 2021 LeJog, missing gold by a nats.
The route is the work of local boy George Mullins, and he’s excited for all comers to experience his route, but what can those entered expect? “Well, without wanting to give the game away there are some old favourites, as well as a new venue. There are tests after dark and a challenging TC section, plus the navigators will have a tough time as it is all on maps, with some tricky slots to contend with. But from the lowlands just above sea level to the higher ground of the moors, there is just about every kind of road, and most of them are covered in mud!”
Plenty to look forward to then and with a lifetimes experience of scampering around the narrow lanes, George will no doubt have a trick or two to spice the competition up. Whoever emerges from the lanes victorious it is sure to be a bristling battle between the hedges and will kick off 2022 in some style.