THE START OF A NEW ERA
As mentioned in the previous delivery, secret notes and practising of stages by certain drivers and teams, made things on the rally scene very unfair and another even more important aspect was that navigators did not really form part of the team – let me rather rephrase, they did not play the role they should have and in some cases they were transported through events so that someone could take the blame when things went wrong! I am serious!
I decided to retire from the sport after a stint in one of the most exciting but at the same time unreliable cars I have ever driven – the Nissan Sentra 4×4 – ex-works, ex-many other things car.
Francois Jordaan and I went over our own front wheel once at about 200km/h and landed half in a dam on another occasion when the steering mechanism broke. Francois suggested we drive it into the dam and leave it there – but somehow I managed to keep it on the wall and we got away with another close call.
Later the same year that car tried to kill us both when it refused to go around a long sweep and I drove it down the mountain on the Osram Mountain Trail – simply because we used an “unknown compound tyre” that turned into slicks about 14kms from the start of the stage. I have to add that while those tyres lasted it took us around corners at speeds we never knew we could make it around. Don’t ask me what they were, but they looked so impressive Serge wanted some for the Toyota.
So – happy to get another chance at life – and after discovering that I was not scared to die – I decided to call it a day and try to concentrate on other things in life. This was about 1997.
Then it happened again – after three rallies of the 2002 season were run, I got a call from someone I have never met in my life, Chris Grobler the CEO of Subaru Pretoria. Chris wanted to know if I would like to drive a Subaru in rallies.
“Subaru” I thought – the car that won the World Championship – the car that can drive on water and cannot be beaten!
Yes, of course I would love to drive it!
I competed for the rest of the year and won the championship by one point participating in only 5 from 8 events.
While getting this opportunity I decided to use it to prove that anyone could win the championship in a half competitive car on a shoestring budget and also that we needed to step up our local game by introducing pace notes.
To do this, I had to prove that navigators truly did not play much of a role in the car and I decided to use as many as possible different navigators in the five events in which I was going to compete. I used four different ones. Danny van Vuuren, Gerry Gericke, Wiley Harrington and Francois Jordaan, while Carolyn Swan sat for me on a regional rally in Natal.
The first rally in this car was the 2002 Sasol Rally and the service crew still prepared it while we towed it to the event and the first time I drove the Subaru on gravel was the first stage of the event.
The scrutineers wanted to have a look at our helmets and we all looked at each other. There was one helmet only in that car and that was not mine!
A frantic call to Pretoria and the rally car owner Chris Grobler said that he would send the helmet with a biker friend – not to worry!
We all knew there was simply no way we would get that helmet in time to start the rally – but we stood around pretending that nothing was wrong.
Twenty minutes before the start – we heard a motorcycle coming into Sabie at what must have been around 16 000rpm. The town went quiet – the screams of the nearing machine became louder!
We must have looked lost as the rider with a matt black helmet with a thin visor-strip through which he looked – much like one of those Petterbuilt Trucks with the narrow windscreen – drove straight to me and stopped – looked at my famous name on my overall and said, “I am Angel – here is your F$#%$ helmet!” while removing the helmet from behind his seat and hung it in my hand still extended to thank him.
He flipped the visor – threw an A for OK thumb – and blasted away back to Pretoria! Forking hell – I stood around for a moment or two – still trying to grasp what just happened.
Angel – his name was Angel! That was no lie!
The next year I decided that I had enough of racing against money instead of talent and called it a day after almost dying during the first two events for the 2003 season, taking absurd chances to try to defend my title and to stay with cars costing up to two million Rand and more, while driving a stock standard car worth about R400K fitted with Drummond Shocks and road going mag rims!
The sponsor could those days not even afford to supply us with a computer that would compensate for the restrictor we had to fit according to the stupid rules.
We the filthy rich South Africans with sponsor’s lining up to sponsor rally cars and a monetary unit that made the Pound look stupid – we ran our sport according to the FIA rules. Rules that was made for the rich and super rich that had sufficient sponsors, media coverage and billions to blow. Rules where you fit a restrictor to a perfectly capable car – to make it slower – then allow the rich and often not so talented –to spend millions to make the car a little quicker and more powerful than the standard model.
After “retiring” I was asked to write “safety notes” for the teams – more specifically just adding more information to the rather skimpy detail in the road books.
The aim was to reduce the accident risks and keep the teams safe while it was also important for us to pick up our pace in South Africa compared to International drivers.
In retrospect – as far as International competition goes, I am still not sure who we needed to cater for as we were never inundated with International rally drivers – at least not after the so-called Apartheid era came to an end. Before then, strange enough we had some serious names competing here. When overseas drivers came to South Africa after 2002 they mostly made us look like fools anyway and not many South Africans went to compete in overseas rallies. The best prospect at the time was Jon Williams who participated in the Mitsubishi Evo junior program but lack of support ended that dream.
With the introduction of the “safety notes” things did improve somewhat, but more important was that the navigators started to play a bigger role in the success of teams. Problem was that I could only apply the type of “added information” that suited my driving style and did not half cater for the whole field. Still, as said it did have an impact and things improved a bit.
The younger drivers started to get quicker having more useful information than before – but still nothing to write home about although the accident rate came down somewhat.
The need for a bit more speed and safety at the same time arrived.
Guys like Visser du Plessis and one or two others started looking around at what was happening in the world of rallying outside South Africa and Visser discovered a guy called Bill Sturrock who made “route notes” in Europe – mostly Scotland and Ireland. The system Bill used looked straight forward and made sense to most of us.
Bill was asked to come to South Africa to teach someone to make the notes and I think I volunteered to try and do the job, so that someone was me.
That was the start of almost a “pace-note-making career” for me, and I wrote the notes for all the National Championship events over a period of 10 years thankfully not missing one single one or being late to deliver despite almost dying in a motorcycle accident in 2008.
Bill arrived at OR Thambo and when we walked around looking for each other for about half an hour – I should have known that we would become great friends even after pace notes.
I will never forget the incredible amount of work that went into those few days in which we chased literary all over the country to get the notes for two rallies done while Bill had to teach me how to make the bloody notes at the same time.
We had to make notes for the Osram Rally first. This was then held in the Dewetsdorp area – where roads were so wide and fast that notes were not really required. Average speed was higher than the FIA ruled if I remember correctly and the organisers had to use chicanes to get the speed down a bit.
We drove to Bloemfontein in my Subaru Sti and as we wanted to pull away making the notes as it became light on the first stage – the car blew a head gasket – we were not going anywhere with that STi.
This was absolute chaos and today thinking back I can imagine what went through poor Mr Sturrock’s mind. “Bunch of idiots – small wonder they still have no pace notes on rallies! They haven’t even got a car that could last through stage One.”
We borrowed the farmer’s bakkie he did not use anymore and did the notes bouncing around for two days over roads that were not really challenging. So I learned little more than making notes for straights – “see 1200 L2 see800 R1” – oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!
Then we rushed to the Cape where a brand new – I kid you not – Subaru Outback waited for us to do the notes in.
Knowing the area and roads I hesitantly asked the Dealer Principle if they did not have a second hand, well-used vehicle we could rather use?
“No, sir – only the best for you and our friend from Scotland!” and I knew the paw-paw was going to hit the fan.
It was raining, the roads were wet and deep water puddles waited for us about every 150m.
I learned the importance of the two calls “into” that meant about 20m and “and” that stood for around 50m – the two calls most frequently used.
Bill explained to me that if you get those two basic calls wrong and drivers not using them perfectly, in other words brake too soon or too late, especially where the calls leads into “blind” corners or over crests (blind rises) they stand to lose a second or more per call, depending on the speed prior to slowing down.
The perfectionist he is and determined to train me well, he was meticulous in calling the slightest kink, the smallest rock, ditch, dip or bump and the incredible extent of the detail made everything look a bit Greek to me. At least the Cape routes had a lot more detail than the roads around Dewetsdorp in the Freestate.
The predicted paw-paw bit happened on the final “route note check” Bill wanted to drive.
I had to make the calls and he drove. I read like my backside but it got better and I managed to stay with him. I still got mixed up by a symbol here and there, but we managed with my Afrikaans and his Scottish accent.
The call was “120 caution water see 170 turn Left 9”.
As we approached I saw he was going to hit that water on the silly side and that the water would do its job and pull us into any direction it chose – either into the wheat field or according to Murphy’s law into the fence on the left. His entry said that we were going left and that is indeed what happened.
The windscreen was covered, the still shiny new Subaru turned sideways and then forward.
Forward if you are sideways means straight into or through a brand new five wire barbed fence!
When the car stopped – I for the first time in my life saw what a Scotsman looked like just before the war against the British.
It was a combination of an American Indian – those of you mature enough will remember we saw them in the John Wayne movies – dancing around the car – swearing so much and so fast that it sounded like an All Black rugby team in a hurry to finish the HAKA before they kill their opponents.
Tragedy (from the car and fixing point of view) but I laughed so much I could not get out of the car – then sudden silence – “what the fark arju laughing at?’
I looked into two blazing dark eyes, eyebrows pulled parallel across each other and some impressive veins on a Scottish neck, through the windscreen!
The tears were streaming from my eyes so I convinced him that I was not laughing but that, that was the way we Afrikaners cried when the Blue Bulls lost or a Subaru aquaplanes and goes through a fence! Funny nation us!!
We finished off the Cape and rushed to Tzaneen where we would spend a day – because that would be my first rally I needed to do on my own and we both knew that both rallies we did so far was simple and fast – and not close to the technical intensity waiting for me in the “Great North” of the country.
We decided that Bill would take me through a forest stage and at least try to show me what to do and what to look for over there and then he left for Scotland and my bravery left with him.
I will never forget the day I sat there on my own for the first time looking at the road ahead of me, everything looked like a corner, and everything else looked like either a “four” a “six” or was it a “seven”?
I knew my notes were going to kill all the rally drivers in South Africa or at least draw more criticism on me than I enjoyed for my whole life up to that moment.
I over-called – scared of everything – not really knowing what to call and even how to call it.
Bill’s words kept haunting me – “anything you leave out that may cause an accident or damage will be your fault. So put everything in. The competitors will look at the video and have an opportunity to take out calls they did not want to use – or add in what they felt they wanted in.”
That was the beginning of some great experiences over many years during which I developed my own style that was also based on feedback I received from navigators and drivers such as Douglas Judd, Robert Paisley, Greg Godrich, Pierre Arries and later especially from Robin Houghton.
The driver who always did his best to help and even thank me for my efforts was Enzo Kuun who had some overseas experience checking notes for works teams. Then of course there were those who could not wait to criticise, the masters in the art of making notes (strange enough it was also usually these master who fell off the road at their own changes) – as usual they contributed bugger-all to anything anyway. Then of course the majority simply took what was served and did their best without really saying much – also a problem as that did also not contribute anything.
Ten interesting and wonderful years during which I also learned every trick, every style and habit of almost every worthwhile driver in South Africa, followed.
To me this was a serious job and the most difficult part of that was to make people, especially friends understand the seriousness. I had to stay in hotels rather than with friends of mine as the “habit” was when I still participated.
I actually lost some friends because of the “note-making” – as I was even more irritable than usual – a real ass, but there was simply no time to sit around chatting as I had to do the notes during the day and type them at night to be able to recheck them the next day, always under pressure to finish on time.
It came as no surprise when I was not invited to visit all that many friends anymore – no one wanted to keep quiet in their own homes and not enjoy chatting about the previous year’s event and what to expect on the coming event!
The other problems of course was that everyone was suspicious of everyone else.
Even top-drivers – especially the ones who knew that the playing-field would now be a bit more equal, were worried that my son Jacques, who at a stage also participated would have an advantage or get the notes before them. One of the top drivers expressed that concern – as usual behind my back instead of coming forward like a man and find out what we did to prevent any advantage for anyone.
I made sure that no one had an advantage – information was either shared by all or nothing. Not like in some cased where competitors close to some organisers actually drove over stages before events and knew every nook and cranny. But that I suppose did not matter – I was paid and they not!
Fact was that my involvement was actually a handicap to Jacques as he and navigator Greg Gericke were always last to get any information.
The pace of the teams picked up, suddenly navigators played a bigger role inside the car.
A new level of multi-tasking for drivers kicked in big time and if you had any aspiration to do well, you could not use your cousin who put R17,50 into your rally career, navigate anymore.
Weaker navigators soon became obsolete.
Intelligence started to play a role and suddenly the face of the sport changed.
EVERY ONE AN EXPERT
AS WELL AS
UNDERSTANDING THE RELATIONSHIP
………….The driver will, if he is worth anything (or if he/she does it, goodness forbid, for fun) be driving the car as hard as possible.
He has to concentrate on the piece of road ahead of him, listen to the call from the navigator, subconsciously visualise the call…….