Finding glamour in mud and cold

Guy Hodgson joins the early morning fanatics for a glimpse of the RAC Rally
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The Independent Online
A walk up the muddy path through Dynant Forest at 6.30am yesterday was enough to testify to the fanaticism of the average rally watcher. A line of cars marked the route to stage 15 of the Network Q RAC Rally, the longest, thinnest camping site in Britain.

In most there were the sounds of stirring: a hundred sleeping-bag zips rasping apart and the scratch and hiss of small stoves being lit. They emanated from the conscious; others who had driven down from the Lake District overnight found the effort too tiring and they slept through the dawn chorus of snarling engines and squealing brakes.

To be fair the morning was one worth missing. A fog clung to the pines around us and the rain beat down with spite but several dozen people were there ankle deep in the mire, watching one hairpin in 317 miles of special stages. Just as they are at almost every corner on the rally's twisting, exhausting way, adding up to a staggering total of 2.1 million spectators.

They were there when Colin McRae took 10 seconds out of Carlos Sainz's lead on the first stage yesterday or rather they were present as a micro-second may or may not have rescued on a sharp turn to the right. It was a snapshot of the rally, the football equivalent of watching one free-kick and then going home.

They complained of course? Not a bit of it. The leaders went by in a cascade of mud and some were off, charging down the path for a fast getaway for the next quick thrill 90 minutes down the road. Having witnessed next to sweet nothing at Dyfnant they were heading for the intriguingly named stage, Hafren Sweet Lamb.

"It's living out a fantasy," Steve Phipps, who had left Birmingham at 4.30am, said as a shower of sludge slapped into his waterproofs. "The cars, the mud, it's exciting to see these drivers slide into a corner. They're doing it, but you're imagining yourself at the steering wheel."

Another car spun its boot towards us, forcing him to turn and me to fall down a bank and emerge like the swampman, covered in slime. "It's amazing how quickly people move when they see one of those things heading towards them," he said, his laugh a testament to the sincerity of his sympathy.

He was just an amateur anorak, however, compared to some. "She thinks I'm a right trainspotter," Mark Lockwood said pointing to his girlfriend, "because I can tell which car is coming by the sound of the engine." Which only goes to show how absurd women can be.

He had travelled from Southampton to assume his position in the bobble-hat brigade and intended to take in 12 or 13 stages over the four days at a cost, even though they were sleeping in the car and making their own meals, that he estimated would be around pounds 400.

"Obviously I'm here to see Colin McRae do well," he said huddling into a jacket that bore the mark "Subaru 555" of the Scotsman's team, "but I have a Subaru myself. I like rallying best at night. There's this silence and suddenly the roar of an engine. Very exciting."

That was a sentiment shared by a woman who had skipped work and would give her name only as Sue for fear of retribution. "All you get is the lights shining through the trees which sounds pretty boring but when you're there it's fantastic.

"I suppose I do like the 'boys being macho' element," she said acknowledging the rarity of her gender in a male-dominated gathering, "and, let's face it, where else can you go and pursue the glamour thing?" She was wearing a balaclava and a coat so large she could have been any age, any size and anything but sexy.

With that she and most others disappeared to another muddy corner in another freezing sodden wood. Except for two vehicles in which the occupants were still fast asleep and dreaming of tight bends and fast cars. Absent people in a world of little sense.