Perched above the road atop a steep and somewhat unsteady bank, the crackles whisper in the wind. The bang of a sequential gearbox, the flare of revs and the unnerving squeal of tyre battling road, they all get louder and closer, yet only the leaf-lined road and swaying trees still remain in sight.
Eyes closed, I feel my arms begin to tingle, not from the Hungarian cold but from the excitement of it all. In an instant, a blaze of colour pierces the vivid palette of greens and yellows. Leaves defy gravity and launch upwards, as if returning to the canopy above, and the red and black Škoda roars closer. Bang, drop a gear, and hard on the brakes.
Bang, another gear, and turn in. Beneath my feet the Fabia cuts as tight to the bank’s base as possible. My shutter fires into life, but then it’s done.
Into sight and gone again, barely four seconds having elapsed. I smile like a giddy child, and give a thumbs-up. The marshal I share the bank with smiles back and seems equally elated. We speak a shared language of enjoyment for that moment, and then we move on.
More cars are coming, more camera angles need to be found and work is needed to be done. But what had me stood in the Hungarian hills on a Saturday morning having an existential crisis watching a Škoda Fabia R5 in the first place?
A good adventure story, that’s what.
Anyone that has read my work on these pages may have a slight idea of my love of rallying. There’s no way to hide my infatuation with the sport and the places it has taken me. The beauty of seeing a car tackle all manner of terrains and backdrops is at the core of my love of this corner of the motorsport world.
But when Covid hit, rallying stopped, as did travel and adventure.
Over time, events did return, but it felt hollow watching from a screen. The buzz of excitement waiting for the action to start, the scramble for results or good-natured chats on the ditch just don’t seem so appealing online. It took nearly 18 months for a car to tackle a special stage in Ireland, with the Cork ’20 being the grand return we so desperately needed.
But I wanted more.
I hadn’t realised until recently just how long it had been since I had gone off into the world looking for speed and adventure. A few mad days in San Marino chasing Rally Legend in late 2019 was my last big trip.
With the world opening up again, it felt time to get on the road. A flick through the calendars, a small bit of planning, and before I knew it I was sat on a bus for a 3.5-hour journey. Ahead lay Dublin Airport and later Hungary, home of the penultimate round of the European Rally Championship (ERC).
The fast-flowing tarmac roads, themselves perched high in the hills of northern Hungary and close to the Slovakian border, had made quite an impact the past two years. Having arrived into the ERC in 2019, the often damp and muddy lanes looked spectacular and incredibly tricky, and Rally Hungary quickly earned a spot on my vast and incredibly diverse list of must-attend events.
I have to say though, after so long, arriving in Budapest and acquiring a rental car – a fearsome Kia Cee’d Estate no less – felt… odd.
I’d spent many hours of Ireland’s lockdown walking through the grounds of my local airport, daydreaming of moments like this while staring at mothballed planes. The dream may not have been of sitting in a Hungarian motorway services at 9:00pm on a Thursday, but in its own way it felt special.
Having arrived in Nyíregyháza – the eastern base of Rally Hungary – it was a case of getting the on-the-road office setup in the hotel room, ordering a few beverages from the bar, and planning out the weekend ahead. I was meaning to find a few hours to sleep as well, but the excitement of it all made that difficult.Friday
I hit the road early on Friday morning, collected my media accreditation at the rally office, and pointed my rental car towards the special stages – a 2.5-hour drive north – for a reconnaissance (recce) mission.
As the city disappeared in the rear-view mirror, the scenery became more and more spectacular. Rural and untouched save for a smattering of small towns, the stages lie in an area so beautiful in autumn. The tree-lined canopy envelopes much of the stages, and as I drove mile after mile of the route it became clear that this was a photographer’s heaven, yet a rally snapper’s nightmare. For all the beauty, there were little, if any, access points without a serious hike.
The one thing that blew me away was the quality of the surface. As remote and inaccessible as it was, the roads that would the next day play host to the rally’s special stages were smooth and flowing. The first stage I drove was tight and twisty, the second a mix of fast wide roads and a section of gravel rough enough that it felt harsh taking a road car through. But then again, I was in a rental, so hey-ho!
Finding my way to the start of the next stage wasn’t so clear-cut. I had a printed map, but up until this point I’d been relying on my phone, which had now crashed. Soon enough a fork appeared in the road that didn’t appear on the map. I chose to go left.
The next 35 minutes of driving were some of the most enjoyable I’ve ever experienced. Think sun shining, music playing and beautifully-flowing leaf-lined b-roads. But once a few points started to look familiar, I knew something was up. I’d ended up east instead of west. I wasn’t at all disappointed though.
Continuing to track blind through the Hungarian countryside, the landscape continued to blow me away. However, time had slipped by, and my plan of a morning driving stages and an afternoon watching the shakedown was now right out the window.
Approaching Nyíregyháza, I spotted my first rally cars of the weekend, their noisy presence amongst the afternoon traffic most definitely noted by the locals.
Shakedown began at 1:00pm, but it was almost 4:00pm by the time I drove down what was essentially a grass track in the centre of a field before eventually striking a closed tarmac road and rally cars completing their final testing.
After an hour stage-side, my thoughts turned to the evening, and the rally’s SS1 – a floodlit super special stage around a drift/rallycross circuit just outside town. The sun had set by the time I arrived, and the large crowds were suitably pumped from a display of very sideways Ladas and a racing truck.
Electric as it was to witness the buzz and crackles of rally cars in a confined space, it felt like visiting a zoo. Yes, it was spectacular and exciting, thanks in part to lights and firework, but it seemed a little sanitised. These spectator-friendly super specials are a great way for families and casual fans to experience rallying, but for the purists and competitors they are always only a tasting menu.
Still though, it wasn’t a bad end to the first proper day, even if the only media spot to shoot from was small pen between the jump and water splash.
After the top teams made it through, my day was done; I retreated back to my hotel and gave my cameras a clean before calling it a night.Saturday
5.30am came around quickly, and I woke to another stunning day. I loaded up the Kia rental, switched every heating option on, and once again headed north. This time my route was more cross-country in nature, as I tried to intercept the stages on the occasional access route.
The first attempt was a bust; a forest lane led only to a metal barrier 4km from where I wanted to be. With no space to turn around, I was forced to reverse for a solid 10 minutes, which was nerve-wracking given the sheer drop-offs to a ravine below. Despite this setback, I had a back-up spot in mind thanks to the previous day’s recce, although that meant foregoing SS2 and heading straight for SS3.
My excitement quickly turned to disappointment though. At the first police checkpoint encountered, the media stickers on my windscreen didn’t provide the vehicular access I thought they would. However, my frustration would soon become a blessing.
The options were simple: walk 2km to a tight junction, or take off cross country and hike about 1.2km up a steep tree-lined hillside and reach the road above. I went with the second option, and the moment I reached the road as a sweaty mess hauling all my camera gear, I knew I’d done right.
With 20 minutes to kill before the first car, I lay on the bank and engaged conversation with a marshal, the only soul visible. He spoke no English and I no Hungarian, but we shared thumbs-up and rally videos from our phones like old mates.
The faint whispers of rally cars soon filtered through the trees, and the next 90 minutes were simply sublime. The narrow stretch of tarmac, flowing from bend to bend, was surrounded by a riot of yellows, greens and reds.
At any major rally the top cars’ pace is always frightening, and the vast array of modern R5 machinery from Ford, Citroën, Škoda, Hyundai and Volkswagen were being flung around at a limit I’ve never appreciated before.
As the end of the field passed through, I made my way back down the steep incline, impressed with myself that I managed to not fall.
Leaving SS3, my plan was to catch the repeat run of SS2 that I knew would be busy. It’s a square left at the edge of a village, rising over a hill and into a wide-open amphitheatre-like right-hander.
I arrived with plenty of time to spare, and the locals were busy enjoying their Saturday afternoon. It turns out the day was a Hungarian national holiday, so the sausages were sizzling and the beer was well and truly flowing. The sight of my camera led to screams of ‘photo, photo’ over some pulsing Euro trance, and I was happy to oblige.
The entertainment on the stages was never-ending. After the European championship contenders passed through, a field of local teams came next, followed by historic rally cars and then a group of vintage road cars. Each Lada hero – most more sideways than the last – received the sort of rapturous roar that Mads Ostberg, Andreas Mikkelsen or the rest of the star-studded ERC field could only dream of.
As the sun set over the incredible vistas, I found myself in a corn field watching rally cars fly past. It was late October, yet here I was in a t-shirt, absolutely beaming.
The entire day, with its highs and lows, was such an antidote to the past 18 months and all that’s gone on. I nearly smiled the whole way back to the hotel – and I didn’t get lost.
Sunday was another early call, but such is the joy of having a two-hour spin to the stages that I got to cruise through the sunrise, kept company by a few podcasts and the friendly interjections from the lady on Google Maps.
I’d picked out SS9 as my opener for the day, thinking the town centre start line would provide a good chance to check out the cars up close and enjoy those few quiet moments at rally time control.
Well, I got more than I had bargained for. As the first crews arrived, the course cars sat idle at the start line. Word spread of a delay – a crash on the previous stage had required an ambulance – so we had a 40-minute stoppage. Every few minutes another car arrived, until the rally’s top 12 all sat silent in the middle of this remote Hungarian village.
As the minutes ticked by, it was fascinating to see some of the world’s best rally talent and watch their interactions. The drivers grouped together to discuss moments on the stages or even chat about their cars, but for the navigators/co-drivers it was strictly business. Tyre pressures were checked, calls made to crews and a firm eye was kept on any official updates.
Before long, the call was made. In an instant the friendly banter was replaced with intense focus. Balaclavas, HANS devices and helmets went on. Each competitor has their own routine, but all eyes were now fixed firmly ahead.
Within minutes, the first car departed down the special stage in a frenzy of launch control and tyre smoke.
For a long time, R5 – now renamed Rally2 – class cars played second fiddle to WRC machinery in my head, which is something to be expected given their lower specification. But seeing the cream of the R5 crop in Hungary helped me find a whole new world of appreciation for these cars.
After a quick shortcut through a backstreet, I arrived at the stage’s first corner in time to see a few locals putting on a show for the large crowd that had turned up. The weather was a huge help – a comfortable 18°C (65°F) with not a drop of rain in sight.
While the delay was a great opportunity to get up close to the field of stars and their rally machinery, it worked against my hopes of tagging on a few more stages. I had my hire car to return and a flight to catch in the evening, but that was all a three-hour drive away.
There’s always time for one more special stage though…
The last spot was one I pinned on my recce, and it was spectacular – completely tree-lined, a rapid quick 300-metre straight into a square left with plenty of access.
While the place looked nice on Friday, it was picture-postcard material come Sunday. The smell of campfires filled the air and the locals were in great spirits.
Moving around as I love to do, the two/three bend sequence provided a number of shooting angles. Sure, some worked better than others, but I simply cannot return home with a camera full of identical shots. It’s not me and it’s not the adventure that a rally stage should be.
After a final few cars came through, it was time to make tracks.
The rental was due back at 7:00pm, and I arrived at 7.02pm. I reached my gate as ‘Final Call’ appeared on the screen – but that’s the way to do it. Who wants to fill time at an airport when there’s a chance to grab a few Peugeot 208 Rally4s cutting through a flat right?
Tired and weary, I boarded my flight home.
Sitting down to write this piece made me realise just how incredible of an adventure Rally Hungary was. To see some of the world’s best drivers in the flesh, to hear engine notes piercing through an autumnal fairyland, and to simply get away for a weekend – it was all special in a way I’ve perhaps never appreciated before.
The buzz is definitely back. Let’s see where the next road trip leads…Cutting Room Floor