It’s that final moment of calm. A window of time to get the helmet strapped up, bladder emptied, and mind set. An area to turn the ECU mapping to ‘stage mode’ and prepare to launch down the closed road ahead. This is the time control.
Behind, the public road has been left; the dawdling through towns and villages amongst everyday traffic is over. The road section, or touring stage, is a necessity, but it’s forgettable. This is not what rallying – at any level, club to WRC – is about; the real challenge is the special stage.
A sinuous string of corners and bumps lie in the distance, waiting to be tackled. Some competitors are preparing to battle for the smallest margins of time, while others lie in giddy anticipation of the most fun they could ever imagine in a car.
As the minutes tick ever closer to go time, all around there are last-minute rituals taking place. The opening pace notes are studied and mentally rehearsed by some; others find a sense of calm and camaraderie in light-hearted moments with rivals.
‘Rivals’ is perhaps the wrong word here; friends, competitors and kindred spirits are the most apt descriptions of those sharing these few minutes together. This isn’t a normal or sane person’s idea of how to spend a weekend, but it grows a bond of a rallying fraternity.
At their exact allotted time, they will launch down a closed road as fast as they can go, but this is the briefest chance to take a breather. Damage from previous stages is surveyed, and running repairs, where possible, are dealt with.
As the clock rolls ever closer to the stage start, the line of cars grows longer, the time control resembling a colourful and exotic traffic jam. Like clockwork, each passing minute is marked by the screeching arrival of yet another car, competition brakes sounding ever so delighted to have endured time on the public road transiting from the previous special stage.
Up close, it’s obvious the differences in routine amongst the crews. Some arrive towards the line primed; helmet and HANS on, belts tightened, focus laser-like on the moment the clock hits zero. Others take their time; piece by piece they dress for battle, almost in a trance. Many seem to be elsewhere mentally, their minds racing back through a memory bank of recce passes, DVD reviews, and even potentially previous runs over the stage.
Closer to the start line, a band of faces line either side of the road. The timing crew control the vital clock, the guardians of that precious time each car will battle ahead. The emergency services sit ready to respond to any incidents that may happen within the stage, an ever-present reminder of the dangers involved in powering down a narrow lane in any mixture of condition and surface. In the background, the stage organisers keep an eye on proceedings. They have worked for weeks and months to have everything in place for every car that crosses the line, and are ready to tackle any issue that may occur.
As the clocks tick ever closer to the allotted stage start, safety crews depart, leaving an empty road ahead. The mood changes and the joking ends. Some take a final moment, the door held ajar to get one last blast of air through the cockpit. The snake of cars crawls forward, the relative calm of the last few minutes broken by the angry idles of highly tuned engines or the whine of a gearbox. Clunk, a sequential finds 1st gear as the first car slowly and awkwardly judders towards the start line. The air becomes heavy with the rich aroma of racing fuel.
As we enter the final few seconds, time cards are handed back through tiny openings in plexiglass windows. Neatly tucked away, the navigators grasp their notes closely and offer the final few reassuring messages. Intercom on. On-board camera on. Stage mode tune – if you’re fortunate to have it – most definitely on.
From the outside, the rush is electric; one can only wonder what it is like from inside. As the clock hits 10 seconds to go, the numbers turn orange. Thud, 1st gear engaged, the revs rise. By five seconds, the jitter in the driver’s foot is plain to hear. The revs bounce around erratically, filling the air with a distinct sense of noise and occasion.
Then all hell breaks loose.
Erratic revving turns to aggressive launch control. Handbrake pulled, the engine notes pulse through any person or object in the vicinity. A terrific mixture of that raw mechanical aggression is captured in a sound that is soon aided by the frantic squabble for grip once the clock, illuminated in green, reads GO! Whether it’s being sent to the front, rear or all wheels, the dump of power is universally exciting.
With that, the first car disappears out of sight, and the next creeps slowly forward to assume its spot on the start line.
Save for an incident on the stage, the procedure will be the same for every car. Once that clock strikes zero, the road is open to be attacked.
Come the end, another road section will lie ahead, and with it comes yet another time control for the next stage. The same jovial chats will be had; the same people will keep laser like focus; and potentially even more damage will be surveyed or repairs dealt with. It’s in those few minutes, within the time control though, that the transition is made, and a noisy somewhat out-of-place car on the public road becomes a special stage monster, if only for a few moments.