Part One: Rallying, Presents And The Return Of Chris Wheeler.
I had no pre-conceived ideas as to how our weekend with feature was going to pan-out. I had a plan of what I wanted to achieve but was willing to go with the flow.
What I actually walked away with was a sense of humility, an overwhelming desire and passion to succeed. A determined, yet friendly attitude towards racing. These were the traits that Chris Wheeler and his team oozed. We were made to feel so welcome from the moment we arrived and I can genuinely say, with hand on heart that Chris, Kirsty, Steve, Dawn and Mike are some of the loveliest people I have met, inside and outside motor racing.
This is where the feature begins. A friendly welcome with Chris heading out on track for his first stage.
It had been a pleasant drive from our base in Sand Bay to Brean Sands. We parked up in the official rally car park, so the sign indicated and waited for the mini-bus.
As we stood there I could hear in the distance the revving, popping and hissing of rally cars. I felt my skin tingle and an excited buzz in the pit of my stomach. This was my paradise, my first racing event since WRX Lydden Hill last year. We were here and we were ready.
As I mentioned, Chris was heading out on track. Kirsty, Chris’ girlfriend and all-round PR guru, had informed us that he would be in car number 59. We walked down the line of cars and Viv spotted Chris in his #59 car with Steve, his dad and co-driver. They were chatting and going over the last minute preparations whilst they waited in the long line of rally cars waiting to go out on track.
I sent a message to Kirsty and she informed us they were waiting down by the red marquee towards the start line with Chris’ mother Dawn. We met up and after the initial greetings Kirsty pointed beyond the golf club towards the flags and awnings on the far side of the paddock. I spotted the CWR (Chris Wheeler Rally) flag and so we let them get ready for the first stage and we wandered off to give the location a quick recce.
We arrived at the base-camp of Chris Wheeler Rallying, the hub of the team where everything is prepped, planned and pondered. The car was back in and the team were busy round the car.
I stepped back and watched them at work. Mike Yates (mechanic) and Steve, quick change from co-driver to body-work inspector, were busy checking the car over. Kirsty and Dawn were cleaning the car off whilst Chris fed back a few pieces of information.
It was a greasy surface and the rain previously had caused a few spills on circuit. The side of the Fiesta had dirt cascaded down the side. Kirsty and Dawn quickly wiped down the beautiful beast and within minutes it was spick-n-span, bright and shiny as though it had just arrived at the circuit. The team worked quickly and once I knew that the initial flurry had calmed down, I stepped forward to speak with Mike.
I asked Mike about the car, a Ford Fiesta MS1. He looks after the car along with Steve and told me that it had previously been a complete road car from M-Sport.
“It was stripped back to the cages, all the bits were put on it.” Mike said and stepped back to gaze at the car. “This was pre-built with gravel suspension. Steve converted it to tarmac, the rides are completely different.” Mike continued.
I was interested to know how long it took to convert the car from gravel to tarmac and Mike told that it took around two days.
Chris had just completed his first run, I could see Steve walking round the car checking the arches, the wheels, the bodywork and bumpers like a caring soul. Making sure that this baby was fit to go again. I asked Mike what was being looked at.
“The wheels and tyre brushes are checked. The first thing we do is speak to Chris, any faults or any rattles we need to know about.” Mike pointed to Chris who was standing at the rear of the car. “We deal with the issues first and after that it’s preventative maintenance. Tightening nuts and bolts up.”
It became apparent straight away that Chris is key to this part of the process. If there is anything he is not happy about then Mike and Steve need to know straight away as they do not have long to get the car ready for the next stage.
“Brakes and tyre pressures are checked, usually around 6psi.” Mike pointed down to the tyres.
I wanted to touch on the subject of converting the car from gravel to tarmac. What were the main differences?
“Tarmac and gravel?” Mike asked with a wry smile. “Horrendous,” he chuckled in his jovial south-west accent. “After the first 18 mile stage this car looks ten years old. The sides are pebbled-dashed, takes all of the twenty minutes we’re given, even with four lads, to clean all the muck from underneath. Bolts are checked.” Mike shook his head and laughed. “Different ball game is gravel. A whole different ball game.”
Mike then nodded and happily told me his ultimate tarmac surface is the Isle of Man before moving the subject back to the Fiesta Chris was driving today.
“Roll cage into a standard Fiesta stiffens the shell up. Between events the helmets and hand devices are always taken off and put in the seats for safety. If you drop a helmet on the floor, it’s useless.”
I gazed inside the car and could see what Mike was talking about. Chris and Steve had placed their helmets on the cushioned racing seats. Chris sauntered over to joins us and I asked how he was feeling. I knew full well this was his first event since the crash and this was the first time I had properly spoken to him. He was smiling, I took this as a sign that he was well and extremely happy to be back racing.
Chris walked over at just the right time, with his lovely girlfriend Kirsty, as I had posed two questions to Mike who had tactfully and politely deflected towards Chris to answer. The first was about speed on the Fiesta.
“Chris,” said Mike, professionally taking over the role of interviewer for the moment. “What top speed you getting out of this?” That was my first question.
“Top speed, I would say 110-115.” Chris replied nodding.
Mike moved round to the front of the car to make some final checks and I then moved onto my second question about the Citroen DS3, the car he would again be driving this season. When was this being delivered?
“Delivery on the DS3 should be within a month or two.” Chris replied. “We’ve got a livery guy on the case. First test will probably be on tarmac.”
“Because of the way it ended.” Kirsty continued. “We want to make sure the car is right.”
“Everything on the car had to be changed, because it took such an impact.” Chris said, nodding in agreement with Kirsty.
Kirsty would later show me the official camera footage from the crash as the DS3 came over the bridge, came down and then each frame showed the aftermath. To watch these frames was very humbling for me. To read about a crash such as this or even see one on television during a race is bad enough, but to watch each frame as Kirsty clicked through whilst the driver of that car was now standing next to me was quite an experience.
I was intrigued to know about the differences between the Fiesta Chris was driving today and the DS3.
“First of all, the gear box.” Chris said pointing towards the Fiesta as Steve and Mike made the last checks, Dawn standing in the background talking to Viv but also giving the car the once over. The car was the focal point of everything at the moment. “This is a five-speed, H-shift where the DS3 is a six speed flappy-paddle sequential, so that car (the DS3) changes in 0.01 seconds.” I was flabbergasted by this. 0.01 seconds!
Chris wandered round and was showing me inside the Fiesta now with feverish excitement and passion, you could feel the energy that he was back racing just oozing from him.
“All you see in the DS3 is the number on the counter in front of us change. We set for what surface we’re on, changes to the ECU to suit for how much power between gravel and asphalt. We have other modes on the DS3, which are S1 and S2. S2 is anti-lag which will only work in gears 4, 5 and 6. In S1 it is all gears and is extremely violent.”
Chris was showing me with feet and hand signals the reaction of the DS3 under braking.
“As we come under braking if the anti-lag goes off, it keeps the turbo spinning at god-knows how many rpm, so on the exit of the corner when I hit the throttle again, the turbo’s already in and you’re gone. So it just throws you out.” Chris gave me a demonstration of the effect with his hands mimicking a steering to give an example of the force. “Also, there is an extension for the hand-brake in the Fiesta, where the DS3 is hydraulic. When, say, we’re coming into a hairpin we literally just breathe on the hand-brake. Rear wheels will lock and we’ll just spin round, plant the throttle and we’re off.”
I was curious to know whether Chris had any preference on the surface he raced on, this thought had popped into my head after speaking with Mike The Mechanic, make your own song title jokes from here-on-in.
“I prefer tarmac in a way,” replied Chris. “Basically because of speed, it’s more exciting. You’re going that much faster when you’re coming up to tighter corners. It takes a bit more judgement. On gravel I find it very forgiving actually, because the gravel allows the car to slide round corners. It gives you a nice feeling, but on a whole I am fifty-fifty on surfaces. I don’t really mind what I drive.”
“As long as you’re driving and racing.” I replied with a smile. Chris smiled back, yes he was definitely ecstatic about being back. “How long before you go back out?” I asked.
Chris glanced across at his dad, mechanic and co-driver, Steve.
“At 11.25. Coming up to four minutes past now so we’re going out soon.”
I wanted to let Chris get focused for the next stage, but it was at this point Chris and Kirsty presented myself and Viv with our presents.
“By the way, these are for you and Viv.” Chris said offering us two ‘Chris Wheeler Rallying’ hats with ‘BRC3 Champion’ logo sewn it.
Presents already and we’d only been here an hour.
A very warm and friendly welcome by the Chris Wheeler Rallying team.
This was going to be a great day.
Don’t miss Part Two of a “Weekend With…..Chris Wheeler” – where Chris takes my Quick 10, we talk more to Mike The Mechanic, Kirsty tries to dodge the camera and hands out crisps. I find out Dawn (his mum) loves World Rallycross and Steve (his dad) gives me a technical lesson on rally cars.
To be continued……….
Neil Simmons Twitter: @world_racing
Photo credits: © Viv Simmons Twitter: @viv_simmons