2004 Rally of Southland…. snow snow and more snow

Please excuse Sara for being so late with her write up as she was busy with exams”…. signed mum

The Rally of Southland was set to be a good one, with the rally consisting of 10 stages, but in total 4 roads which were repeated and two of the four were run in reverse. We were wary that the roads may cut up, or if the rain had got to them, turn quite slippery on us. However I don't think any of the crew quite expected what the Southland weather would throw at us come Saturday, rally day.

Dean Schroder of Blenheim took the co-drivers seat for the first time with us, he has competed extensively for several years so I was looking forward to learning from him. Recce on Friday went very well, it was essential we both concentrated very hard and personalised our notes to ensure nothing caught us out come rally day. It was very nice of GWD Toyota of Invercargill, organised by Peter Simpson, to lend us a recce vehicle, many thanks. Although it rained a whole heap in Invercargill, we were sunning ourselves on the top of the tall hills that the rally roads took us to. It was a gorgeous day and had I brought my bikini with me I may have been tempted to bring it out! Nah, just joking. With only a very light coating of snow on the roadside, I assumed there would be none or very little by the time we got to the stages come Saturday. Lesson one – never assume!

While Dean and I were out on recce, service crew member and Otago co-driver Erin Kyle went with Malcolm Stewart and Mike Fletcher and I'm sure learnt heaps. Mum and Dad were busy in Invercargill (where I'm told it was heavily raining) bleeding Bert's brakes as on the day before, we found the car to have a faulty brake cylinder. Carl, Dean, Dad and the guys at A1 Auto Services worked on the problem, with the next mission to get rid of the air in the brake lines. We worked quite awhile on Thursday getting the wheel alignment done and working like busy beavers on the brakes. Unfortunately when leaving the car at A1 Auto's workshop at night time, he still had brakes that felt very spongy and full of air. We left the car up on the stands and on an angle to help free the air. So while Dean and I rushed to Documentation, recce briefing and all the rest at rally HQ, poor Bert was locked in the shed with, if he could have expressions, a frown on his face. There was another day before the rally however.

Mum and dad worked the whole day on Friday, trying everything to get rid of the air and after bleeding the brakes (which I might add were soon to have a ‘describing word' added to any reference of them), quote "‘A MILLION TIMES". In a less exaggerated manner, in 3 hours they bled the brakes and tested them 5 times. And guess what – they still had air! Luckily, A1 Auto Services' Darcy Hewitt stepped into the picture – cleared his other work from the hoist and worked on Bert – THANKS DARCY!!!

And, just in time for auditing, so Mum, Dad and Bert drove off in the poring rain, just in the nick of time for our report time there. The crew went shopping too, to ensure they were fitted out with gumboots and other wet weather gear – you've got to love the rain!

Coming back from a late Recce we met the crew at auditing, and found out Bert had put on some more weight – I'm told muscle weighs more than fat however. After attending a driver signing at Ascot Park we were off to park ferme and all ready for a good sleep to prepare us for whatever was thrown our way on Saturday. I'm usually able to sleep very well the night before a rally but I was really looking forward to attacking the roads, we found them hard based and in good condition and I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into them. Though it was blowing a gale and raining very heavily Friday night, I took comfort in knowing this is Southland, the roads should be used to these sorts of conditions by now and shouldn't get too much worse.

Saturday morning finally arrived – I was a bit upset as I was unable to go for a run on rally morning as they rain was thundering down very heavily, I find it helps clear my mind and though I never have problems with focus, it still helps me think things through. This morning, however, I had been longing for Southland Rally since the second I crossed the flying finish of the last stage at Otago, so focus would never have been a problem!. We jumped into Bert at Parc Ferme and in no time were off.

Driving to stage one we were in heavy rain and snow was visible, it's times like these I thank my crew for not taking out the heater to try and lighten the car. As hail started thundering down and snow was on the sides of the roads I was beginning to wonder what would be at the top of the steep climb that was in front of us while waiting at the start line – only one way to find out!

And I was not disappointed, these stages had changed and snow covered the roads - it was AWESOME!! First time I've ever driven on the stuff, last time I saw in it person was back in my snowboarding days. I never knew Toyota made sledges until this rally, though I think we may have gone faster if we'd jumped out of the car… grabbed some cardboard from somewhere and slid on our bums through the stage. All good fun. The car had felt funny not far into the start, I had (yet again) ASSUMED it was because of the snow and the adjustments Carl had made to the car. Lesson two : follow lesson one and never assume. At time control we were informed “you've got a flat rear right tyre”. I looked at Dean and said “that explains a lot”. We changed the tyre and did it very quickly too, it was freezing outside and we only had one car pass us.

Stage two was much the same but there seemed to be even more thick snow. I remember being all over the road, but not really going anywhere. It was a little frustrating being in our 2wd in these sorts of conditions and every mm forward seemed to be a huge mission. At one stage though we had the demister on full at max (it's usually a very good demister), the windscreen fogged up so much and because the ground in front was just white and snow was beaming onto my screen all I could see (which was very little) was white. It was amazing, what an experience! We just had to push our way through. I just had it in 2 nd and 3 rd gear and was almost coasting through – certainly NOT a stage to push on! Corners seemed to jump out at the last minute and it was truly fascinating looking at the lines some of the guys in front took– they were going way off the road and running off into the scenery. Concentration for us was important and that along with focus and self-restraint would be the only thing that would get us through.

At the end of the stage I was a bit discouraged… I'm sure we went through these stages faster in recce! It was great to have the experience of driving in snow, something I needed to learn but I thought we were so slow that a 3 legged camel would have been much faster. I was surprised to see it was actually a very good stage for us, we were only seconds off the top 2WD drivers and most importantly we had survived it to fight the 8 other stages.

Upon repeating these two stages, I almost would have sworn that they were new stages. The snow and sludge seemed to disappear from the road and leave very nice roads. In the case of this rally, it seems the lower seeding position the better.

Driving to first service was yet another eye opener, the amount of snow on the road was just incredible and the poor service crew were left to work in mud and water with snow all around them. It was experience for all involved!

The rest of the stages ran without too much drama and without too much snow. The brakes were still quite spongy with air but nevertheless they worked very well. It was very good to stretch Bert's legs in the afternoon stages and credit needs to go to Carl for the awesome effort that's gone into preparing him. He runs like a dream and is a complete package, a true pleasure to drive.

Dean was new to notes at this level and had never used them in a rally. He worked really hard to be on top of them come the last few stages. Was a great effort and after co-driving for Hugh Owen at the Blenheim Rallysprint a few months ago I know that it is no easy task. He felt what the car was doing really well and that helped me out heaps to be able to associate what I was feeling through the wheel and the peddles to what was happening with the car and what we needed to adjust.

As we drove back to the finish ramp at Invercargill, neither Dean nor I wanted to celebrate our finish. Other rallies we have both seen many on the side of the road on the way back to the ramp and there was no way we wanted to jinx this! But on the ramp it was all over, the total for rallies entered and rallies finished now stands at 16 for my team and me. Yet again, awesome team effort for this event, wouldn't have got by without everyone's input.

Andrew Hawkeswood and Jeff Hill won the rally by 21 seconds over Richard Mason and Hamish Fenemor, with 3 rd Chris West and Gary Cowan 10 seconds behind them. Sam Murray and Stuart Jenkinson were a further 1 min and 12 seconds behind Westy. Dave Strong and Bruce McKenzie in the Honda Jazz won the 2wd NZ Rally Championship class by 1 min and 22sec over Kayne Barrie and Tania Styles with Jason West and Charmaine Helm back in third and us fourth.

At the end of the rally we were 3 rd 1600 overall, a result we were pretty happy about, but much more important is the 4 th placing in the NZRC 2WD. This has ensured that we hold our spot of 3 rd in the NZ Rally Championship (10pnts behind Jason West, with Kayne Barrie 9pnts ahead of him). We also now stand 3 rd in the New Zealand Junior championship behind Dean Sumner and Andrei Lagunov with Mark Tapper not far behind us.

So with two out of the 6 rounds of the championship already over, the whole team is thoroughly looking forward to the rest of the rounds. Bert has stayed with Carl and John Christie (who both put in a HUGE amount of time and effort getting him ready for the rally). Even more is being put into getting him ready to rock for Rotorua rally which is now in 3 weeks time (although taking into account pre-rally activities like recce, shakedown etc, it is only 2 weeks).

I'm off to the Elite Motorsport Academy in Dunedin the week before Rotorua and I'm sure I'm going to learn heaps and hope to put it all into practice for Rotorua and the rallies to come. There is always room for improvement and I love it when people can find fault, as this means more to work on to make me better!!

Many thanks to our sponsors and team support crew, your encouragement is awesome. Thanks to Nana and Grandad for house and Caity sitting. Thanks to our crew Dad, Mum and Erin who did a very good job in the ‘interesting' conditions. The same can be said for all the marshals and timing crew out there. It was true dedication! Cheers to Dean for sitting beside me at the rally, hope I didn't scare you off too much - you did a great job.

Thanks to A1 Auto Services along with Darcy Hewitt - thanks for storing the car and spending ages helping us get those brakes sorted. The Toyota was a great recce vehicle, thanks to GW Toyota Invercargill for lending it to us. Along with another HUGE thanks to Carl, your encouragement, help, suggestions, work and effort is priceless – I know the whole team agree that what you've done with and for us is pivotal to what we are achieving… cheers boss.

Much planning to do before Rotorua so best get to it, I promise I'll be much quicker with a write up next time! Yay, exams are over!!!!

See you.

Sara.