• Like The First Time

    For this reason and that, I’d sort of fallen out of love with rallying. I can’t quite put my finger on why. Busy with work I suppose, and busy with other things in life. It’s been a while since I’ve set an alarm for 5am to go and spectate at some far-flung event. I’m ashamed to say that I can’t even define the last event I was at; I think it was in August. A decade ago, I could have told you who finished where in each class on any Irish event you care to mention. I lived and breathed the sport, and spent my meagre student budget travelling to as many events as possible. My friends were the same. I competed in whatever limited capacity I could afford. I even started reporting on the sport for a bit. Anything to be closer to it.

    As for the sharp drop-off in interest on my part, maybe it was overexposure that caused it. Maybe it was frustration at the state of the sport and the severe bullshit that sometimes goes with it. Maybe I’d been poisoned by the pace of the WRC rounds I’d attended, and thought that Irish events could no longer offer the buzz I once got from them. Whatever it was, I was fed up.

    I’m not fed up now. In fact, I can’t stop thinking about when motorsport might be up and running again. The current global situation caused by COVID-19 is obviously unprecedented, and motorsport should only return when it’s truly safe to do so. In terms of priorities, it’s very far down the list, and rightly so for the time being. That doesn’t stop me from missing it though. It’s a little sad that it’s taken a global pandemic for me to realise what we had going, but I can assure you that I won’t take it for granted ever again. I’ve even started a podcast with a couple of friends about the history of the sport, such is my renewed appetite and appreciation for it. (Link for anyone interested: https://sprintpodcast.podbean.com/)

    There are many questions about how and when it will come back, and to what extent competitors, clubs and other stakeholders will be affected by the economic situation. I’m not going to delve into that, because nobody really knows the answers at the moment. Instead, I’m going to focus on thoughts of when it does get going again, and what that first day out will be like.

    Whichever rally has the honour of being the first to run, I hope the entry list is oversubscribed with stage-hungry competitors, itching to get their fix after the enforced lay-off. Funnily enough, I don’t think I want to be on that list, in the same way that I don’t want to be the DJ in the first decent club that reopens, or the drummer in the first band that gets to play a live gig. I want to be among the crowd, taking it all in, rediscovering something that’s shaped my life to date.

    I know what my friends and I are going to do, almost down to the minute. We’ll devour any news in the lead-up to the event the way we used to in the good old days, scanning the entry list, sussing out any potential spectating locations from old maps and WhatsApp chatter. We’ll buy a couple of copies of the programme each to keep for posterity and to help support the motor club. We’ll meet up in our road cars that we’ve bought because of their motorsport connection and travel up or down or east or west or wherever in convoy the day before, and take in scrutiny as the cars are unloaded from their trailers and the excitement builds. We’ll do a recce of the stages for good spots once the crews have done their passes. We’ll go to the start ceremony, and talk about rallying with whoever we find in the bar that night. Maybe we’ll get accommodation, maybe not. Hopefully the place will be packed. We’ll sleep in our cars if we have to.

    We’ll set our alarms for an ungodly hour, but not one of us will need it. The excitement will have us awake long before the alarms tone plays. In my head it will be a sunny day, though I know there’s about a 20% chance of that happening. For the sake of the story, let’s just go with sun. We’ll make our way out to the first stage, stopping for supplies for the day in a petrol station, making sure to get a hot chicken roll and maybe even a sweaty bag of sausage rolls for sustenance. We’ll admire the other cool road cars around the place, exchanging knowing glances with fellow spectators, bumping into old pals. Everyone will find it hard not to smile.

    We’ll park up at our chosen location, and put on our boots. We’ll walk past a hundred other cars, maybe more. We’ll salute the marshals, pick our spot and chat and laugh and swap various stories like we always did, the same stories we’ve been telling each other for years about which one of us could have made it pro and all the other shite that gets talked. The stories get more embellished with the passing of time, but they’ll sound better than ever on that morning. We’ll cheer at the sight of the first 00 car, and the crew will get a big wave from us, like all the rest of the course cars. We’ll take in the inevitably beautiful part of the country the rally has brought us to.

    We’ll listen intently for the first pop of anti-lag being carried on the wind, and marvel at the pace of the top cars despite the lengthy break in competition. We’ll eagerly await the modified machines, and delight in how they squat and pitch and roll in their efforts to get down the road as quick as possible. We’ll wait for the last car, and take note of the smiles on the crews’ faces. We’ll smell the fuel, the brakes, the tyres, the heat. We’ll drink it all in like it was our first time.

    We’ll visit service to get up and close to the cars and crews, and meet more familiar faces. We’ll savour (well, sort of) the smell of fried onions from the burger van, and make our way out to more stages. We’ll make sure to get to a stage start, and watch the build-up as crews heat their tyres, check pressures, put their helmets on and get strapped in ready for the countdown. We’ll watch the all-wheel drive cars engage their launch control and fly off the line like rockets, and compare the black marks left on the road by the powerful two-wheel drive contraptions.

    We’ll make our way to the finish ceremony, and join in with the rest of the crowd. We’ll head back home that evening, our hearts full of joy, our nostrils full of tyre particles, our hair full of dust, and count down the days until we can do it again. Until then, we’ll stay at home and do our bit to give our heroic health workers a fighting chance to beat this damn virus.

    Pictures by Cian Donnellan (@CIAND0N). Written by Maurice Malone (@MaloneMaurice)


    Bonus images