Motoring: Excuse me, Officer, can you tell me the way to Dover?: The London-Sydney Marathon's start was the trickiest part. Gavin Green reports from the road
Saturday 24 April 1993
We negotiated the most worrying part of the whole event - London - and got ourselves to the start of the first special stage, a forest track just outside Ashford in Kent.
The special stages, where the roads are closed and speed limits lifted, are where the event will be won or lost. All special stages are timed to the second: you race against the clock. The Ashford stage was a six-mile blast on a narrow, winding, gravel road lined by trees and spectators. The cars left at one-minute intervals in their Chelsea Harbour starting order.
After about four miles of avoiding the trees and going reasonably quickly on the slippery gravel, we came upon a car much less well-suited to rallying than our specially prepared Escort - Alexander Ipatenko's Moskvitch. Initial euphoria - we'd caught somebody already] - was soon dampened by the realisation that passing him on this narrow, rock-strewn track would be almost impossible. We stayed on his tail to the end of the stage, showered with rocks and gravel. Our time - six minutes and 55 seconds to cover the six miles - seemed promising enough until the first day's results were posted. We were 57th out of 106 starters: bitterly disappointing. The leader - the New Zealander Graham Lorimer in another Escort - was just over a minute faster. Ipatenko had not held us up that much.
From Calais we drove on good roads to Ypres, a transport stage all the way: you merely get there at a reasonably brisk pace. After dinner I spoke to the Australian veteran Bruce Hodgson, driving an Australian-made Ford Falcon V8, about the slow Russian. He'd had a similar problem. 'Have you got a big bull bar at the front of your car?' he asked. 'Yes,' I said. 'Well, use it.'
DAY TWO: Ypres-Trier, Germany - We did, on the first special stage of the day, a six-mile narrow tarmac road through farmland. Going quickly, we came upon the Russian on one of the tightest stretches. Ipatenko - a retired Soviet colonel and self-made millionaire, apparently from aircraft sales - ignored us for a few seconds. So I nudged him with the bull bar. As one, he and his partner rose in their seats, partly from the bump, partly from shock. But they pulled over, almost running up a bank.
We did well on both Belgian tarmac stages, being 17th fastest on the day. We had climbed to 29th overall. At least 10 drivers crashed, but they all continued. The long motorway run to Trier showed the Escort to be a wearying car at steady high speeds.
DAY THREE: Trier-Igls, Austria - A dash through a vineyard in the Mosel Valley first thing in the morning and a blast up a hillclimb circuit in Alsace, France, in the afternoon: those were the only two special stages of the day.
The route took us from Trier into France, then back into Germany heading south. We arrived in Igls, a ski resort near Innsbruck, only 90 seconds before we were due, despite driving very hard towards the end. The car's engine used two litres of oil today - a worrying amount. Also, the cable driving our special mileage distance recorder - crucial for some of the intricate navigation - broke. We have moved up to 26th place. Terry Hunter, a Briton, is in the lead in his Porsche.
DAY FOUR: Igls-Bratislava, Slovakia - I am writing this from the biggest Skoda dealer in Bratislava, grease all over my hands. The Escort is on ramps while the cable to drive the distance recorder is repaired. Navigation is very difficult without it. A slight oil leak has also been fixed.
Today's stage went north, back into Germany, then into Austria again, heading east to link up with the main autobahn to Vienna. We bypassed Vienna and, just before the Slovakian border, did our only special stage of the day, on the private estate of Baron Ernst Harrach. It was on gravel and about five miles long. My dad, an old rally hand, did the driving, his first special stage of the event and first competitive drive since 1977. We did well, although we fell back to 30th overall. Terry Hunter's Porsche hit a bridge. Lorimer regained the lead.
At Bratislava we were given a celebrity reception: police at all the junctions, waving and pointing the direction to today's finish - at the big Skoda dealer. Spectators were cheering and waving.
Mechanics and facilities were laid on at the garage and never has a Skoda dealership proved more popular. Its mechanics helped with whatever task we asked about. They charged for parts, but everything else was free. With 26 days' hard driving ahead, they were a real godsend.
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