The overall winners of the HERO Icelandic Saga 2019 are:
1. Owen Turner and Rachel Vestey – Austin Mini
2. Seren Whyte and Elise Whyte – Standard 10
3. David Liddell and Edward Liddell – Triumph TR4
…and So, The Saga Begins…
Speak of Iceland and your minds eye is immediately drawn to images of ethereal landscapes, smouldering and searing water vapour and gasses from the earths very core into the atmosphere, like a sleeping Dragon. Thirty-four crews are set to tackle this beast over the next few days, but for now the Dragon remains in slumber as the rally cars of the Icelandic Saga wait to pen their own tale in the streets of the Islands capital, Reykjavic. Although the mountains do loom upon the horizon, here we are very much integrated amongst the architecture and people, but thoughts of adventures to come will not have been very far from the minds of the competitors as the cars went through scrutineering.
At dawn we gather at the Presidents house, ready to tackle 1223 miles (1968 km) of stupendous roads, backed by even more staggering scenery. Of course, as enticing as the blacktop will be, all involved will do well not to fall foul of the countries strict traffic laws, a fact reinforced during the drivers briefing, those wishing to pedal will need to wait for the various tests scattered throughout the days of competition.
No, Iceland is a country best enjoyed at a more sedate pace, not least for one’s own safety, as the spiteful winds can whip snow and ice onto what was a clear road in seconds, but also to take in just what a wonderful environment surrounds you. Even the urban sprawl of the capitol has its attractive highlights and in a land of old sagas it is somewhat fitting that in pride of place amongst all of the steel and concrete is the Harpa, Reykjavic’s luminescent opera house. The composition of our own saga begins at 9am, as we head for the wilderness, the story it will tell and how it will end are unknowns, for now, but rest assured there will be heroes, villains, jeopardy and jubilation, all played out on one of the greatest natural sets the world has to offer. Stay tuned to see how our story will unfold.
The Icelandic Saga didn’t so much as erupt into action this morning, as gush forth like the geysers that litter the landscape here. The land of fire and ice seemed a long way off as car 1, the Ford Coupe of Jean Steinhauser and Anne Steinhauser-Collard, sped off into the murk to begin seven days of rallying through what is surely one of the most picturesque locations for a competition in the world. Today though not much could be seen of the famous landscape as the rain clouds descended upon the island, with a deluge of the wet stuff that would have been more suited to Noah’s Ark than classic cars. Theological references aside, the rain was truly biblical and whilst there was some respite, it would get much worse through the afternoon and towards the end of the day.
Still, it hadn’t put our starters off, and neither had it deterred Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, the President of Iceland, who had braved the rain to wave our teams away from the line with gusto, a gesture that I’m sure was not lost on all present. As the rally waved goodbye to the populous of Reykjavik, after a test of course, we began to see signs of the countryside that might await us as the route took us deeper into rural Iceland. Travelling out alongside the Nesjavellir hot water pipeline, that stretches for a cool 27 km’s between Nesjavellir geothermal powerplant and Reykjavik, the road began to get wilder as the landscape, and ever threatening clouds, stretched out before us.
A brief break was had to take coffee and discuss the atrocious weather at the Pinegvellir Visitors Centre, where a huge crease in the ground can be seen as continental plates collide, a stunning sight and surely the first of many but as the gathered tourist ooh’d and ahh’d at what lay before them the rally cars headed out for another test and regularity.
At lunch Seren and Elise Whyte lead the field in their Standard 10, but with just four seconds between them and second place pairing of Owen Turner and Rachel Vestey in an Austin Mini things were predictably close, to be expected with the rally still very much in its infancy. The afternoon sadly bought much more rain, making conditions extremely treacherous, particularly on the gravel roads of the regularities with their soft verges causing handling problems even for us in the media bus.
The rain continued and got heavier, bouncing noisily off of the windshield like an over-active Geiger Counter and as the teams reached the last test of the day, just a stone’s throw from tonight’s hotel, I’m sure all were glad to have made it. The marshals too, who had endured the less than pleasant conditions, will also have been glad to reach a close to today, as we all look forward to what will hopefully be better driving weather tomorrow.
As it was the day concluded with Rod Hanson and Clare Grove top of the timesheets in their Ford Escort, followed lunchtimes top two Seren and Elise Whyte and Owen Turner and Rachel Vesty.
Day two of this years Icelandic Saga began with a repeat of the test that closed the first days competition, but all minds, competitors and officials alike, was focussed more on the days weather forecast, with many a sun-dance being completed after the deluge that had blighted the first round of competitive action.
As it was the rain hadn’t cleared completely, but there was change in the air, with patches of blue-sky filtering through the grey and even the threat of sunshine. It was an improvement and all of us were finally treated to some of the scenery that we had come here for as todays route took us into the more remote regions of the Island. We were headed towards Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that had caused chaos in 2010 when its eruption grounded flights around the world, but sadly the cloud obscured it from our view. The same cloud though was providing dramatic skies that filtered the ever-stronger sunshine into thin fingers, lighting up the landscape in dramatic fashion.
Today was only a half day of competition, with the afternoon set aside for the crews to indulge themselves in the landmarks and the activities on offer in the area, from Glaciers to Skidoo driving, this is a rich tourist area that, in the coming days, will seem a long way behind as we head further into the wilderness. Before that though there was a mornings worth of regularities and tests to conclude, which seemed to advance at a pace, although perhaps that was an illusion created by the lift in spirits that ran in tandem with the lifting cloud.
Todays regularities were more challenging than the ones that eased the crews in yesterday, and whilst they will never be extremely difficult tests of navigation (there are a limited amount of roads in Iceland), the ever changing road surfaces, constant undulations and unpredictable wildlife put the drivers through their paces. Change seemed to be the theme of the day and as the results from the morning tumbled in there was a change in the leader board as the Whyte sisters regained possession of the top spot that had been relinquished during yesterday afternoons action. Owen Turner and Rachel Vestey followed suit back into second in the plucky mini, with yesterday evenings leaders Rod Hanson and Clare Grove dropping to third, albeit with very little daylight between them.
As the crews hurried away to spend the rest of the day doing as they wished, it fell to Clerk of the Course, Nick Reeves, to summarise the day:
“It’s great that we have got over the massive handicap of yesterdays weather, in fact we’ve even seen blue sky today! Everyone, teams and marshals, seem to be in better spirits and it’s great that the competitors have some time built into the schedule to enjoy some of the wonderful activities in the area as well as the driving, looking forward to tomorrow.”
You aren’t the only one, Nick. With tomorrows route taking us into even more secluded regularities and some great tests to boot, it’s likely to be a memorable day of competition.
‘This is too much to take in’ remarked HERO cameraman Gary Williams as we threaded a course past the incredible Skarðsfjörður during this morning’s concentration run on day three of the Icelandic Saga. His words echoed those of rally front runner Owen Turner, who at the days beginning had articulated the exact same thoughts whilst describing the previous days running. The marathon run towards the first regularity of today though almost eclipsed everything we had seen yesterday, if only because we were starting to leave behind the reams of tourists that had come in search of the same stunning scenery that we had. Of course, we are here as tourists of sorts as well, but with progress to be made to reach our destination on the east of the island, keeping a brisk but legal pace was at the forefront of everyone’s minds.
Good progress was made as well, on these most impressive of roads. The blacktop swept and cascaded through the landscape, following the ever-changing topography of this place in a flowing and un-stuttered way that rewarded smooth driving with the most magical feeling of locomotion. You see you don’t need to drive quickly in Iceland to enjoy the roads, in-fact the opposite is true, especially with the inspiring panorama through which the tarmac rolls.
Inspiration waited around every corner with views that stirred and moved the soul, this was exactly what we had come here for. Then it was time for todays pairing of regularities. Whilst there may only have been two, they proved to be some of the finest I have ever had the pleasure of giving chase to rally cars on and as we departed the tarmac and began the almost alpine ascent on loose gravel of the first reg, I had a feeling the next few hours would prove immensely enjoyable. The competitors seemed to agree, Alastair Caldwell declared them to be ‘lovely roads with great scenery’ and Rob Henchoz, described the steep inclines as ‘Fantastic but tough, you had to really be on the ball with the gears.’ He was right as well, the gradients were steep, as well as slippery but once ascended the run through to the other side was a rousing rollercoaster across a loose surface that bought gigantic grins to one’s face.
The theme of loose surfaces continued with a fabulous test this afternoon on an old gravel airfield, it certainly beat the usual locations of carparks with an incredible backdrop that was only superseded by the action of the test pilots themselves. The band of gathered drivers and navigators who cheered each other on were clearly enjoying the spectacle, and if it was even half as much fun in the car as it was spectating out of it, then I’m sure all will have revelled in the opportunity to let loose. The third test of the day followed immediately, with a Le Mans style start testing the navigators running skills and raising their heartrates. Special mention has to go to the crews that assisted the Henchoz in their Volvo, who without a starter motor needed a push start to get going, a wonderful display of teamwork that is always so prevalent on these rallies.
Of course, teamwork aside, this is a competition, and at the end of the day the yesterdays top two had switched places again, with Owen Turner and Rachel Vestey back in front of the Whyte sisters. “It’s Rachels first time as a navigator, so we aren’t thinking about the competition” said Owen, “It is all going better than we thought it would, but for now we are trying not to think about it”. We will see if he is still saying that in the days to come…
If variety is the spice of life, then today Iceland provided the adventurers on the Icelandic Saga with a bounty befitting of a King. The longest day of the rally so far, albeit with an extended lunch break built in to enjoy the delights of the Myvatn Nature Baths, the view from the road has been that of an ever-changing landscape.
After the delightful weather of day three, this morning the skies took on an altogether more threatening appearance and thick fog greeted the crews as they set off this morning. Indeed, this was the story all the way through the first reg and onto the steep inclines that guided the cars up towards reg two. So high did we climb that it wasn’t long until we disappeared into the gloom with nothing but the snow poles lining the sides of the road warning us of an impending drop and certain doom, although the view out across the Lagerfljot and out to sea was something to behold before the low cloud enveloped the crews.
This regularity, on loose gravel, felt decidedly sketchy and understandably people were taking their time, but the misery of the murk was about to become part of Iceland’s magic as the descent from the mountain brought the cars back into daylight and rewarded the journey with one of the most spectacular views, and roads, the country must have to offer. With clouds skimming below and the sun high above, the crews descended into a series of curvaceous switchbacks, that dropped straight into the valley floor.
Another regularity took the route further through farmland, but the landscape was taking on an altogether more volcanic outlook as another climb began and soon the horizon was dotted with a myriad of volcanic peaks and sparse swathes of black rock. This lunar desert was somewhat of a land before time and propelled the rally ever onward to its lunch-stop, via more areas of volcanic activity at the Geothermal Pools of Hverir, with bubbling mud and great sandy mounds that were more resonant of something Martian than anything Earth born.
It all capped a tremendous mornings rallying, and one could be forgiven for forgetting that there was indeed a competitive element to all of this, but a post lunch test and two quickfire regularities that fired the teams onto the evenings stop soon reminded everyone of the contest. The last regularity of the day was a particular highlight, on another of Iceland’s marvellous gravel roads that have more of a stage rally feel about them than a transit route. It transported the cars through a wonderful rollercoaster of peaks and troughs and turns, finishing up next to the Husavik Kalina geothermal powerplant.
The steaming plumes that rose from the plant shot high into the air and the noise sounded like a squadron of Chinook Helicopters rotating into the sky, although the other big noise today was coming from rally leaders Owen Turner and Rachel Vestey’s wheel bearings, who by lunchtime today had pulled a small amount of daylight (for this rally at least!), with 6 seconds back to second placed Whyte sisters who had a further thirty seconds in hand over new third place runners David and Edward Liddell in their Triumph TR4. With this evenings results delayed slightly it remains to be seen if the mechanical gremlins have slowed Turner up at all, although when asked by fellow competitor Rob Henchoz about the Mini’s bearings being somewhat diminished he seemed non-plussed and replied “Well, it all depends on what your definition of diminished wheel bearings is.” Confidence indeed, but could it come into play over the last few days of competition, especially on Iceland’s rougher roads?
After six days, somewhere close to 1000 miles, 26 regularities, 17 tests and what feels like a million incredible views the Icelandic Saga is reaching its concluding act as crews prepare for the final day and the run back into Reykjavik. The arrival at Hofdi House, where Gorbachev and Reagans pivotal cold war meeting took place all those years ago, will complete the circle and signal the finish of the adventure through this land.
Before that though, there is still some driving to do and some sorting to be done. Today was the longest of the rally, just encase anyone was expecting an easy finish as we left the town Akureyri early this morning. The QE2 was docked in the port town yesterday evening, but anyone expecting a cruise was soon snapped out of their reverie as the seven regularities today were conducted on some of the most challenging and boulder strewn roads yet. The views too didn’t abate, despite us dropping into some of Iceland’s lower lands, with the mixed weather wowing us with huge skies as the systems swept across distant peaks.
By close of play today the ever present top two of Turner and Vestey vs. Whyte Sisters were separated by a mere 10 seconds on a day that saw the plucky ‘Stanley’ Standard 10 claw time back on the equally dainty Austin Mini. With five regularities still to go tomorrow, I wouldn’t like to be picking a winner just yet…
Of course whilst those at the top of the pile get a frequent mention, there are class battles going on throughout the field, with HERO’s very own Christian von Sanden leading the scrap in class two, and not a million miles off third place overall as we head into the last day. Phil Burgan and Des Wood sit second in that class currently, in the hard charging Ford Lotus Cortina, with a spirited drive from Emma and Rob Henchoz in third, who have completed the week minus a working started motor. Mind you, rumour has it that Rob could be seen, spanners in hand, picking through the vast array of scrap cars scattered around the Skagafjodur Museum of Transport earlier this morning, whilst all the other crews enjoyed the coffee and exhibits inside.
David and Jane Cottam, driving a Triumph TR4, sit astride the top of Class 3 this evening, whilst stable mates and fellow TR4 drivers David and Edward Liddell occupy third overall in the standings. Far be it from me to say they look safe at the top of their class, and turn fate against them, but with a big gap to second and third they look reasonably safe. Elsewhere it is a similar story in Class 4, with the Escort of Rod Hanson and Clare Grove top of the pops, some four minutes ahead of the Alfa of Richard Leggett and Julian Green but things are a bit closer in Class 5 with leaders Stephen Hardwick and Ashley Bennet having only just over a minute in hand to nearest challengers Patrick and Astrid Liedtke piloting their delightful 911.
Of course, nothing is ever guaranteed in rallying, and who knows what twists and turns tomorrow might have in store. One thing is for certain, the roads that everyone has enjoyed over the past week are some of the finest anywhere, set against the most awe-inspiring of backdrops in a country where the roads are not nosed to tail with traffic. The Saga is nearly complete, but how it will end is still to be determined.
After 7 days and 1200 miles, two seconds is all that separated Owen Turner and Rachel Vestey from second placed crew, Seren and Elise Whyte. Despite a valiant effort from the sisters over the final two days of competition, which saw them close a gap of nearly a minute, the top podium place was just out of reach. Third place was taken by David and Edward Liddell, who had fought hard to climb back up the leader board after a tough day one.
Of the victory, Owen Turner said: “Rachel has just done such a brilliant job, especially as it is her first Rally. We’re delighted.”
Elsewhere in the field there were class victories for Hero managing director Patrick Burke and Keith Gapp in class 1, Christian von Sanden and Patrick Hudde in class 2, David and Jane Cottam in class 3, Rod Hanson and Clare Grove in class 4, and Stephen Hardwick and Ashley Bennett in class 5.
“What a brilliant event!” declared Hero MD Patrick Burke as he went across the line, and whilst it is said that self-praise is no praise, all who have been on the event would be inclined to agree. Whilst not as testing or as competitive as some of HERO’s blue riband rallies, what is has been is a wonderful adventure through Iceland’s prehistoric landscape and wonderfully empty roads.
It has also been a truly international event, with excellent assistance from the Icelandic people, headed up by Icelandic liaison Tryggve Thordarsson as well as competitor entries from England and Wales, Italy, Holland, Germany, Hong Kong and Australia amongst others.
Of course the event couldn’t go ahead without the dedicated support of the volunteer Marshals, who have stood tirelessly at controls and tests in all of the weather that Iceland could throw at them and thanks must also go to Dave Smith and Rob Dominy for the superb mechanical support to keep the competitors trucking on.
As the dust settles on the past weeks rallying and the competitors load their cars back onto containers at Reykjavik’s dock, we can all look back fondly on a fabulous journey around the land of fire and ice. This particular Saga has come to an end, but the stories that have unfolded within it will doubtless be told for a long time to come. We hope to see you all on the next journey that HERO undertakes.
Photos by Blue Passion Photo and Will Broadhead