19 March 2018

FRSL: Memories down Mexico way

Jerry Williams has been covering rallying for more than 40 years, attending World Rally Championship events across the globe to get all the insider knowledge.

Believe me, we were absolutely zonko after getting back from Mexico this year. We’d taken the (ultra-cheap) option of going out Air France via Paris and KLM back via Amsterdam. At about £418 each it was a steal. But of course you never get anything for nothing. So the downside was a total of 15 hours or so airborne each way and seemingly endless trekking between terminals.

And if that wasn’t enough, our A380 on the way out must have been one of the first to go into service. Practically nothing worked properly. And on the way back… well, let’s just say all 747s are getting a bit long in the tooth now, say no more …

So what? you might well riposte and you’d be right. So I’ll stop the moaning now before everyone starts foaming about over-privileged rally journo’s …

As is the way of things, once we’d reached our overnight airport hotel jetlag madness took over and we started downing pina coladas, margaritas, and wine. We had dinner and continued with the drinks. For some unknown reason one of us mentioned the (very) old pop song Running Bear. I remembered it was by Johnny Preston and my bruv (Brosso) is ace at remembering lyrics. Soon Brosso, Roy Aylett, and I were belting out stuff like:

The whole of Guanajuato state gets into rally-mode!

Runnin' bear dove in the water, little white dove did the same
And they swam out to each other through the swirling stream they came
As their hands touched and their lips met, the ragin' river pulled them down
Now they'll always be together in that happy hunting ground …

Oh, Runnin' bear loved little white dove with a love big as the sky… etc etc

Astonishingly, the little pop concert was well received by other diners..! 

It was a grand way to kick off this year’s Rally Mexico! Next morning we had our usual four hour coach journey up to Leon (you see more of the country than from a plane and it’s a tenth as expensive). Those ETN coaches are amazing! Giant MAN buses, each with about 32 first class airline-sized seats and panoramic windows. Endearingly, you’re even given a little bag with a sandwich and a drink as you get on.

So what was most memorable about this year’s Rally Mexico, my 15th in a row?

Well, it would take a lot to beat the Great-Tailed Grackle.

That’s a blackbird-like avian we met in the gardens of the Real de Minas hotel several lunchtimes. They all have a voice that seems astonishingly loud for a bird of that size. They flit around the gardens, launching into an ear-splitting medley every so often. Watch one begin its call and it seems to gather itself, swell up, and then batter the air with an amazing series of sounds that could probably be heard half a mile away. (Incidentally, as I write this in my local pub there’s a bloke who sounds just like a grackle when he laughs).

I suppose what you could put up against the Grackles was Seb Loeb’s amazing comeback drive, the gritty tenacity of Seb Ogier, Kris Meeke’s bad luck (and disappointment with himself), a few bovine policemen, the Pampas restaurant, Loeb’s amazing near-off into a big bunch of noisy, drink-sodden fans and, of course, the outstanding Malbec wines…

Let’s take Loeb first. He wasn’t especially quick at the shakedown and I began to think my prediction of fifth place for him was a touch optimistic. Then he smacked in that amazing afternoon time over El Chocolate, an endlessly twisting and difficult stage he’d only ever driven once before, that very morning. Suddenly, fifth place seemed madly pessimistic. For God’s sake, he was now second overall..!

The night stage through the tunnels of Leon is legendary!

Then, mirabile dictu, he actually took the lead. I know I call him “The Little Master” and all but here he was, showing the way to the WRC‘s current crop of megastars. It was later that he came within an ace of wiping out that bunch of sozzled, singing fans. We were about a third through Duarte stage  at a spot were the road came out of the mountains, across a plain and right in front of us, into a blind square left.

Loeb arrived at speed. And he was still going at speed at the point where everyone else had braked and begun to turn. His C3 shot through the tapes and slid up a slight rise, straight towards the dozens of singing, chanting fans too blasted to move. I’d taken a step backwards, poised to run before the Loeb-master executed a perfect handbrake turn in an area not much longer than his Citroën, and disappeared back on-stage in a huge, rolling cloud of dust. 

It was an absolutely stunning moment, a brilliant example of graceful expertise at the wheel that quite left me open-mouthed. So THAT’S how these people are different to you and me…

And he even had the decency to protect his co-driver, Daniel Elena. “I was concentrating too much on the road ahead and missed the turn,” Loeb said afterwards.

Well, the bend was a blind square left! So you could probably translate Seb’s comment as, “Daniel was too late on the pacenote…!”

Probably our worst moment on Rally Mexico came earlier. It wasn’t all Happy Valley out on the stages. We’d trekked out to the end of Ortega, about 80km from rally campus, in Leon. We got there at about 9.30 am. The stage started at 11.10am. But, as ever, there were a dozen or so local plod guarding the entrance. It was the best part of two miles to the actual finish, where we wanted to go. One of my colleagues, Martin Sharp, had busted his knee. So there was no chance of him walking it. 

So what, you might say. Well, we were an official information crew. Half our windscreen was covered in stickers… Including the magic, red ORGANISATION one! That normally means you go exactly where you want. But did it mean anything to the plod? Nah! 

“Our orders are no-one goes after 9.30,” was all they said, in Spanish. 

To be honest that cocked up our entire day and we didn’t have much stomach for trying again. That night, as on most nights, we ate in Pampas. I’ve mentioned this place before and it is still just as good. Highlights were the (relatively) cheap Malbecs, the picanya meat, the constantly refreshed salad bar and, of course, the BBQ’d, sugared pineapple. Slices of that were perfect ends to every meal. Then, if you leave late they run you back to your hotels in their own bus, porpoising down the road on tired springs!

Steaks in Leon are in the three inch thick range...

We also tried La Estancia, the big Argentine rezzie on the main drag. The only problem with this place is that the waiters try to rip you off at every turn… Strange how they never have any of the cheaper wines available. You’ve got to keep on your toes or find yourself inadvertently paying for £10 to £15 bottles! And we had a go at La Rincon Gaucho. The food wasn’t what it used to be but our waiter was brilliant.

As for our heroes, well, everyone got a big shock from Loeb (it beggars the imagination, really, coming back after five years and leading the world’s best rally drivers) but Ogier was so tenacious, even if some of his tactics resulted in a loss of Power Stage points (currently under appeal).

He struck on stages 13, 14 and 15. The quotidian Frenchman was fourth after stage 12, 19.1 seconds off the lead. After stage 15 he was 34.5 seconds in the lead, while previous rally leader Loeb was down in fifth, following his puncture! One would have thought he had learned to change tyres faster after so many years doing the Dakar..!

At the end of day two that lead was 35.9 seconds and Sébastien Ogier does NOT concede that much time on a short, final day.

It was a perfect metaphor for Rally Mexico, a rally which Kris Meeke admitted he should have won but that was dominated by two Frenchman at opposite ends of their careers. So Ogier took his fourth victory on an event he loves. There really isn’t anyone currently driving who you can compare to him to… Except, of course, his former nemesis, Seb Loeb. 

Will Loeb now be back on a regular basis? Watch this space, especially for Corsica!

As for us, all that remained was the long trek home. It took, including waiting time, 25 hours. Worse, when I checked in on-line it looked like you could upgrade to business class for £70 each; something I eagerly did… only to find I hadn’t read the small print carefully enough. It was just business from Amsterdam to Heathrow. A moment’s thought would have told me you don’t get such an upgrade all the way for the price of about 1p a mile! 

Still being up front for that last little hop with a bucks fizz in hand wasn’t so bad at all!

Finally, a quick mention for the barman at our hotel, the Nueva Estancia. Each night we’d sit around the bar in raised armchairs, necking pina coladas before going out to eat and watching him work. Every time was a master class. Give him a cocktail bar in Covent Garden and he could earn £100,000 a year..!

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