'TONY JARDINE is a safe driver.' There was no parade of memories said to come to those whose life relies on a fraying thread, only the words of a few days before which were recurring with mounting irony. A safe driver? Tony Jardine was coming across as a certifiable maniac.
I had no medical basis to back my thoughts, only the evidence of my eyes. Jardine, whose bespectacled appearance had suggested intelligence and solidity, was charging his Toyota Celica GT4 at a corner that most would navigate circumspectly on a bicycle. Rocks were crashing against the underside of the car, my head, helmet-heavy, was bouncing around like the pea in a whistle. I was discovering that the G in G- force stood for 'Gordon Bennett. Get me out of here.'
Some two million spectators brave foul weather to watch the Lombard RAC Rally each November, most of whom would have gladly exchanged places with me. As I was hurtling round a dirt track in the John Watson Performance Rally Centre at Silverstone, almost any other predicament had its attractions. When Jardine offered to 'give me a spin', I assumed he meant a trip round the circuit; I was learning he had meant my senses. People dream of racing cars, I was fantasising about walking again.
There were times that first day when I questioned whether I had the sense to spin. 'I can understand if you say no,' it had been put to me, 'but how would you like to be a co-driver in the Lombard RAC Rally this year.' Well, yes and no. Yes, you don't get the opportunity to experience sport from within every day, but no I didn't want to risk my life doing so. Insurance companies rate motor racing as the 10th most dangerous sport, a long way behind cricket, rugby and football, but an alternative of experiencing, say, top-class badminton was becoming cherished. Who had heard of death by shuttlecock?
The temptation had been too great, however, and here I was on a training course to be the other man in the rally car. Jardine, the owner of a public relations company who completed the four-day race last year, was the driver; a person with 36 years dedicated service to cowardice, a man too frightened to go on the big dipper at fun fairs, his co-driver.
The shocks were not restricted to inside the car either. I had half assumed the co-driver's role to be a talking version of the lead in a jockey's saddle; instead it is a role more suited to an accountant than a sportsman. You are the business manager in the car, in charge of paperwork, the clock, even the service time.
If your vehicle is in the wrong place they do not accuse the person at the wheel. It is the red- faced individual anxiously explaining why the sums went wrong who gets the blame, an onus that seems hard on a breed who are destined to be an afterthought in newspaper rally reports. Who remembers who read the pace notes for Carlos Sainz last year? Who was Ari Vatanen's co-driver when he won in 1984?
It was Terry Harryman. He had successfully navigated the Finn to his only RAC Rally victory and who now had a far more formidable task ahead of him: teaching me the tricks of his trade. 'Don't worry, everyone makes mistakes,' he said reassuringly. 'I once cost Vatanen eight minutes in the Monte Carlo Rally. Fortunately, we still won.'
That was a relief, but his next remark had a twin-edged effect. 'I've been scared many times,' he added, easing the doubts about my machismo that had surfaced when I had first got in alongside Jardine. But what could strike fear in a rally-honed veteran like this? It did not bear thinking about.
There was too much to cram into my head to speculate anyway. 'What time should you reach the checkpoint,' I was asked after extensive tuition, 'if the leaders started at 9.01, you were No 129 at the start of the rally but 23 cars have dropped out?' Er . . . 10.22? Wrong. 'The next stage should take 58 minutes. What time should you finish it?' Easy. It's got to be 11.20. Wrong again. I'd missed the three minutes between finishing and starting a stage.
Eventually the errors had been reduced sufficiently for me to be let loose on a route through Northamptonshire, the driver going in directions entirely at my command. Almost entirely. One right turn that would have had us heading towards Scotland was tactfully ignored and afterwards everyone was complimentary. The things people say to be kind.
Then it was back to the track. The first, almighty impression is of the two-litre turbo engine's power. The acceleration is like a kick from an elephant, it thumps you in the back and then, as speed is gained, presses you back into your seat. You breathe heavily, gulping down oxygen to combat the waterfall flow of adrenalin.
The first run was terrifying but thrilling. The second you want the noise, the wrenching of the muscles, the violent changes of direction to stop. But by the third or fourth the realisation dawns. The man beside me seems to know what he is doing. The car may be spinning, sliding and tearing at its mountings but he is in control. Couldn't we have gone into that last bend a little harder?
With that metamorphosis my ambitions also changed. My concern for safety had diminished and been overtaken by the fear I might make some calamitous navigational mistake costing the Jardine team minutes. There is a trial run in the Cambrian Rally on Saturday and then the RAC starts in Chester on 22 November.
The figure 49 has become important. The car scraped into the top 50 in 1991 and there is some anxiety to improve on that position, conveniently forgetting more than half the RAC entrants fail to complete the course. But we will finish, surely?
After all, Tony Jardine is a safe driver.
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