Weekend With…..Chris Wheeler – Part 3

Part 3 – “Left-Quick 10-Caution-Dodgy-Right-Question”

The calm atmosphere of the paddock was now broken.

Where previously people were milling around, talking and laughing, most with cups of tea or coffee in their hands, the mood changed in a heartbeat.

Cars were arriving back, mostly caked with mud splattered up the side of the bodywork. A couple had damage. One came back via the recovery truck!

We waited in the garage and Chris arrived with the same amount of mud splatter, but fortunately no damage. Mud aside, it was a clean stage for him again. He got out the car, removed his helmet and was greeted by Kirsty and Dawn. I noticed the huge smile on his face. Dawn was totally correct when she said ‘he was in his element’.

I stood back to allow the team a chance to talk about any changes, faults or improvements and once the critical furore had died down I stepped forward to talk with a beaming Chris Wheeler. I wanted to know how it went out there, though judging by the massive grin on his face I think I already knew the answer to this question.

“The second run was a lot better than the first. Less grip though. Lots of spinning up.” Chris said.

We, as spectators, had noticed this when myself, Viv, Dawn and Kirsty had gone to the start line. I was looking around taking in the atmosphere and whilst she was taking photographs, Viv alerted me to the fact that cars were spinning their wheels off the start. The surface was very greasy. There was a lot of noise, but not much movement. Dawn was one step ahead. She too had seen what was going on and dutifully alerted her two men in the car.

“It’s very slippy,” continued Chris. “I watched the car before me go off the line. All he did was sit there and wheel spin.” Chris imitated with his hands when he spoke. “He wasn’t going anywhere. We tried to control the start with the clutch to get rolling before we got pace up.” Chris smiled at the fact his cunning plan was right. “Seemed to have worked, definitely got a better start that time.”

We moved on to the subject of the circuit itself. What was it like out on the rally battleground?

“We met a couple of cars on the merges. Slight drizzle of rain and as I said, definitely greasy. Going down the long bumpy lanes into the chicanes it’s literally just full of mud. First lap round I went onto the brake pedal. The whole car just wanted to lock-up, we just managed to get through alright.” Chris glanced back at the car that was serving him so well. “We improved by seventeen or eighteen seconds, which is massive. Couple of changes made for the second time round.”

Steve was by now out the car and wandering around checking every piece of bodywork and looking at the wheels. Chris was watching his every move.

“Dad’s learning the pace as well. The pace is better, all round improvement that run.” Chris takes a deep breath and as with his driving style, he looks immediately ahead to the next challenge, not wanting to rest on his laurels. “Stages three and four next, these change again and they are slightly different.”

I hear Steve laugh behind and this makes Chris and the rest of the team chuckle. He had just got to grips with the first two stages and now it was all change again.

“How did you find it out there?” I asked Steve as he came by.

Chris moved out the way to let his dad through and walked over to the battle bus where Kirsty handed him a drink. He took a seat and relaxed for a moment.

“I’m absolutely loving it.” Steve replied with a smile that rivalled Chris. He points to his son, now taking on fluids. “He can pick up the pace so quick. Getting back into it though is a whole different ball game.”

I had been told by Chris that his dad used to rally and I was interested to know how long since Steve was previously in a car competing.

“I had a three or four year gap.” He said.

“2015!” Dawn shouted, jogging his memory, like the organised assistant team manager that she is.

“Yes! It was. Chris co-drove for me.” Steve clicked his fingers and nodded in appreciation at Dawn for kindly reminding him. “Right now though, we want to get Chris back into the driving experience after what happened.”

I found this very interesting. Steve answered my question and quickly returned his focus to back to Chris. There was a slight look of reflection to that moment last year on Steve’s face, but only for a milli-second and it was gone. No time to dwell. “We’ve had a bit of time with the building of the car, so there has been a big gap. We want to build it up on a small scale and then get out there for six months with this car.” Steve points to the trusty Fiesta, now shiny and ready for more action. “Then Chris gets back into the big car.” Steve gazes across at Chris and we talk about the co-driving side of rallying.

“There’s a lot of trust.” Steve said to me. “I’m just trying to make sure everything is clear and precise. Now and again I’m looking up because he’s so many notes ahead. That’s not what I’m seeing so I then repeat what’s coming up as well. That’s all because I’m a novice at it. Chris is already way pass that and already accepted it, but unless I say it.” Steve shrugs and smiles.

He explains to me that officially notes are read from a map. I am intrigued to know about the terms and language used inside the car between the driver and co-driver.

“It begins on the start line, giving information on how much start to give. The start here is very slippery so we give a Plus-Plus sign which is accelerate away into a Left-One corner.” Steve pauses for a moment to give me a little more insight. “What you have to bear in mind is that co-driving is for the driver. Co-driving notes are different to individual drivers. As I give those notes it’s only what Chris will take into his brain. Another co-driver can give you totally separate information as they know what those notes mean.” Steve returns to the information being given. “So, in this particular case, we’re going Plus-Plus, Left-One and then we’re calling Merge, because there’s a second loop coming through. Then we’re calling a Right-Two, Left-Two and Caution, because it’s a muddy track. All the mud has been pulled on to the track.” Steve points over to this driver who is watching and listening to us. “That gives him information on what’s coming up. We’re then giving distance, so we’re 60 to the next corner and then we’re going Left-One, Left-One, because it’s literally ninety degree turns. We’re then doing 80 to end, then he gets all the information that I fill in between like watch your braking, muddy and then Right-Two which he can throw it round, Right-One tight, watch your inside because they’ve put a bale there.”

I look across at Chris and ask him, as a driver, how quick does he process all this information at such speed?

“As soon as you’ve done that corner, your mind switches to next note instantly.” Chris states. “Because you’re in the moment and you know how you work as a team, it’s just instant. If we’re really fast, you try and take all these notes in one hit.”

I then feel slightly cheeky and ask Chris what his dad is like as a co-driver. Everybody chuckles.

“He’s alright.” Chris laughs. “He’s doing a good job.

I thank Steve for taking the time to talk to me and let him and Mike get on with checking the car over. I wander slowly over to Chris and stand with him and Kirsty. I smile and I can see Chris has no idea what is coming next. So I hit him with my next segment, after checking I have time.

I inform him that he is the next subject in my Quick 10 feature that I created for the Pit Crew Online. For those of you unaware what this is, I take the same ten, fun and informative questions and I ask those in racing to answer them.

He is the 2016 BRC3 Champion. He and his team generously invited myself and Viv along to spend a race weekend with them. He is currently on his comeback from a major crash in 2016, he is a bright star of the British Rally scene. These are his Quick 10….and he is Chris Wheeler:

1. What is your favourite rally and circuit….and why?

I would say my favourite rally is Rally Isle Of Man and favourite circuit would be Thruxton.

2. Who is/was your racing idol?

Colin McRae

3. Who would you regard as your toughest opponent?

That’s a good question. In BRC we had Top Gear presenter Chris Harris in our class. That was our main rival last year. As time goes on your opponents change, competitors change. So, whoever comes along, we go with the flow, do our own thing and push on.

4. Considering rally drivers of all time, you are a team principal and money is no object. Which two would you have in your team?

Colin McRae and Sebastien Ogier

5. If you could invite four famous people to dinner (past and present), who would you invite?

Colin McRae, Ed Sheeran, Ella Eyre and Thierry Neuville

6. Personal racing number? If you could have one, what would it be and the reason behind it?

#19. Because it’s my lucky number and it’s my birthday.

7. What is the best rally you have been involved in?

Jim Clark International a few seasons ago. I love it because of the roads, it’s all on public roads. Stages are between ten and twenty miles, it’s really fast so you’re carrying 4th, 5th and 6th gear all the time. It takes an awful lot of commitment.

8. Is there a race or series you have not competed in, that you would like to or had wanted to?

World Rally Championship.

9. How did you get into motor racing? What ignited that spark?

I was four or five years old. I used to watch World Rally on television and I used to be glued to the TV watching it. I had all the DVDs for it, every single year. I used to spend hours watching them back over and over again. Even back in the days of video tapes when I was a kid, I used to record every single rally of the WRC and then the same night I’d go in my bedroom and watch them all over again, make my own pace notes. I used to have my own map and pretend I was making my own rally.

10. What is the best advice in racing you have been given?

Not to be too pushy. Take your time. I believe life is mapped out for you and what’s going to happen will happen at the end of the day.

The quick 10 is finished but I let Chris carrying on talking because I can see the delight in his face and hear the utter enthusiasm in his voice.

“Every time you come into a rally, just do the same thing, nothing changes. Keep it all as we know. Go and do our best. We know what we’re doing, we know where we want to go. If we manage to get there then dreams come true. But if not, I don’t want to be in five years time looking back thinking I wish I’d done it. I know what I’m like, unless I try it now to be where I want to go. It’s never going to happen unless you try.”

I was eager to ask a few more questions, outside of my Quick 10. We had a little time and I remembered a conversation I had with Dawn earlier about how she loved World Rallycross. I wanted to know Chris’ thoughts on this and asked him this question:

“We know BRC and WRC are your goals. If somebody walked up to you tomorrow and said there’s a ride coming up in World Rallycross or say European Rallycross. Would you be tempted?

“I would be tempted. I would actually have to think about it because it is slightly different to where and what I want to be. But if someone wanted to put me in a top team, in say WRX or the Europeans, then yes I would consider it.”

I then asked about circuit racing, for instance GT’s or Touring Cars, is that something that may be on the agenda in the future?

“I guess if it was a big team I would think about it, but I think circuit racing is a bit too off-line of where I want to be. Sometimes I think if you know what you want and where you want to go, you’ll stick with it and do your best to achieve what you want to be. I’d be more tempted for rallycross than circuit racing.”

Chris explained that he does like rallycross with the mixture of gravel and tarmac all in one lap. He is aware that you would need adjust very quickly to what is going on around and what surface a driver is racing on.

“Getting used to nobody beside you.” Chris said with a wry smile. “Big change, but I would like to give it a go one day, without a doubt.”

I wanted to know where he was focusing this season, what event did he have his eye on?

“First half in the Fiesta, literally event by event. Picking and choosing what we want to do and we have another event coming up first weekend of March. I’m looking forward to that one. I mainly have my eyes set for when the DS comes back. When that comes back I’ll be testing on tarmac and gravel. September is the Rally Isle Of Man. If I was to make it to that event. Happy with the progress made so far, even on this event alone. I get more and more confident.”

I was curious to know how Chris would feel on returning to the Nicky Grist, the event where he had his crash. How did he think he would feel?

“Next year, if it’s in the championship and I’m in the DS3 again and it comes to that time of year where it’s the Nicky Grist 100, I would be excited for it, to be honest. I’m actually quite a big fan of the event anyway. It’s one of those places that if you drive it perfect, the car is faultless and the notes are perfect, there is no better feeling on that sort of road. It is incredible to drive, it’s absolutely stunning. When it goes wrong it does bite, then again that’s rallying in general.”

Would Chris be focused on the event and what needed to be done or would he cast his mind back to last year and reflect a little?

“It will be natural to reflect on it a little bit, but as the event draws near, we start travelling to the event, I’ve just got to push it out my head. Then I just concentrate on the job in hand. I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

Time is ticking down, I shake Chris by the hand and throughout the entire interview he was smiling. I found his answers incredibly interesting and insightful and I could genuinely feel his passion for rallying as he spoke.

Chris jumped down from the bus and the team were back in action, getting driver and co-driver ready.

The time had come to do battle on the muddy circuit once more.

In Part 4 and the final feature for a Weekend With…..Chris Wheeler, I’ll be listening to Steve talk to me about the make-up of a rally car and I look back at a wonderful day with this friendly bunch of rallying-addicts.

Neil Simmons and Viv Gillings

Twitter: @world_racing

Photo Credits – Viv Gillings

Twitter: @viv_simmons

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