Monday 2 March 2015

Fire and brimstone melts Spookworks Snowman Rally chances…

Finishing this event was always going to be a tall order but the Snowman Rally ended in a slushy thaw rather than the triumphant flurry of successes the team enjoyed at the end of 2014.  As the Spookworks story continues to follow all the twists and turns of a winter Olympic bobsled run, the team were particularly disappointed with the whiteout that caused them retire only a few km into Stage 3.

For once scrutineering was the easy bit....

It all started so promisingly.  The car and team in good shape and eager to get stuck into the 2015 
season.  Comfortably through noise check and scrutineering, Spookworks even had time to visit the local Kwikfit for final set up tweak before heading over for the ceremonial start in the centre of Inverness to start off stage 1.  A bright sunny morning, the terrific conditions provided a slightly misleading illusion that the event warmed to us and that lady luck might be on our side.

A wheel alignment makes a huge difference.  Thanks KwikFit

Stage 1 was the 6.69 mile run through “Meall Mor” 12 miles south of Inverness.  As the road stretched from the city centre to the start of Stage 1 we found ourselves almost 1500ft above sea level and the lush green scenery was replaced by sheets of ice and inches of snow.  The stage proved to quite a challenge for most with cars littered all throughout the forest stage - mainly those who had been caught out by the unpredictable ice patches.  Off the start line we had no idea what the car would do or how it would behave.  No rear Limited Slip Diff and our best guess at a suspension set up - it was always going to be a gamble. 

The queue to get into stage. Couldn't really come back later....

The stage was quite amazing. Huge drops, hairpins, jumps and incredibly fast sections it would have been a dream stage; that is - had it also not been covered in ice and snow.  One dramatic moment that stands out over all others is when; after a small crest and jump we landed on a fast downhill section which would have been better suited to a toboggan than a rally car and all four wheels lost traction pitching the car at a 45 degree to the road ahead. Looking out the side window at the trees ahead we must have slid 50 metres before any traction took place and when my eyes opened we were back in the centre of the road.  We did manage to make it to the end; our time 8 minutes 17 seconds was somewhat misleading as on several occasions we were flagged to walking pace as either a stricken Evo or Peugeot blocked the road or was parked in a precarious position on the outside of a corner. 

A rare moment of action - captured by Eddie Kelly Motorsport Photography

We then drove back into Inverness, across the Kessock Bridge and off towards Mount Eagle to start Stage 2 – “Millbuie”.  This test was another 6.78 miles of forestry but thankfully only 830ft above sea level so the ice and snow were not an issue.  What was an issue was the blowing exhaust note coming from near the back of the engine.  The Spookworks Impreza has a quick release exhaust which can take a few knocks and become partially dislodged so the decision was made to carry on and fix it in service.  About 500m from the start the noise became intense and sounded like we had no exhaust attached at all.  Stopping a few metres short of the stage entry we discovered that a blanking plug in the exhaust manifold had departed company and that hot exhaust was escaping from the manifold.  With our due time beckoning we decided to stick with our original plan and look at it in service.  As a precaution we switched anti lag off to reduce the heat of the exhaust gas but as so much gas was escaping we were unsure if any was going to reach the turbo anyway.  Down on boost but loud on noise we entered the time control and pressed on as best we could in Stage 2.

You would struggle to build a Snowman out of this lot - captured by Eddie Kelly Motorsport Photography

Great fun and thankfully non eventful, perhaps due to the absence of any turbo assistance, we made it through the stage.  That was until entering the time control when great plumes of white smoke appeared from the engine bay.  We hastily pulled over, killed the engine and abandoned ship. Stopped at the exit of Stage 2 we carefully lifted the bonnet and noted that the hole where the exhaust gases was escaping was then starting to burn a hole through our suspension hydraulic pipes. The heat was burning away the rubber coating on the pipes and hence the thick white smoke.  A number of heroic roadside repairs were attempted without success, largely due to the slimmed down on-board repair kit which failed to contain any heat resistant material.  Finally a large stone was located and wedged in between the exhaust manifold and chassis leg.  It would be enough to absorb or deflect the hot exhaust gas to enable us to get to service in Dingwall.  Only a mere 12 miles away!   

The large white rock thing is actually a rock.  Useful in diverting hit exhaust gases away from key components

We managed to limp the entire 12 miles to service – the longest 12 miles ever. Especially not going over 2000 rpm.  Our professional and creative service crew were on standby and as soon as we pulled in the damage was assessed.  The survival stone was removed – now black on one side. A welder was lined up and a suitable replacement blanking plate was fashioned (an old wheel nut) and tack welded into place.  And smeared with some 5 year old exhaust paste.  A top up of fuel and, as good as new, it was out of service and on route to stage 3.

Heroic and inspired work but sadly it would not last long. 

Stage 3 called Strath Rory was the longest and best of the rally.  At 13.68 miles it was as long as Stages 1 and 2 combined.  Spirits were lifted after the inspirational work done in service (Thanks Neal) and a finish looked like it may just be a possibility.  Starting on a long downhill gravel road before entering a forest it was a relatively straightforward start.  What the view from the start line did not show was the savage potholes which littered the opening few miles.  Able to swallow a man whole, at 90+ mph they were enough to remove your back teeth.  Sadly they also proved more than a match for our hasty repairs in service and within a km of bouncing across these holes the welded wheel nut was flung clear, hot exhaust gas (with anti lag) then cooked and melted the remaining hydraulic hose and set fire to the hydraulic fluid within.  Smoke billowed out over the bonnet and a small BBQ erupted in the front wheel arch.  Quickly extinguished with a hand held fire extinguisher the rally was now well and truly over. The ‘OK’ board was mounted in the rear window and the rest of the rally would now be about spectating. 

Down and out - not how we wanted to end our Snowman Rally. Good positioning of 'OK' board though.

To give you some idea of the roughness, at the point of retirement there were another 3 cars, two Evos and an Mk2 Escort.  All had rally ending suspension damage.  We were amongst friends.

Retirement?  We almost had to keep going as we couldn't find a place to park.....

It was sad to see the Spookworks Impreza being towed back to HQ but our cruel fate had been decided by Mistress Rally and Spookworks would start 2015 with a DNF.  Only the 4th ever DNF in over 8 years of regular rallying. The 2015 RAF Championship would now start to look like a significant uphill struggle.  Next event will depend on the damage sustained. More updates in due course as the damage is assessed.