How to get involved in rallying

Monday 24 February 2020

Circuit racing of course has its grassroots series and relatively affordable routes into the sport. But rallying has always had a greater sense of accessibility, not least thanks to the community-level clubs and enthusiasts who devote huge time and effort to running local events and keeping the sport alive. The fact even a WRC driver could finish an event, drive home in their road-legal competition car and park it on the driveway is something that couldn’t exactly be said of F1, either.

The fact we have two British crews competing at the highest level of the WRC proves domestic rallying can indeed be a springboard to international success too. And there’s no reason a talented pairing with the right support couldn’t be the next Gus Greensmith and Elliott Edmondson or Elfyn Evans and Scott Martin. But let’s be realistic, you wouldn’t hit your first karting session with serious hopes of being the next Lewis Hamilton and so top-flight rallying remains an exclusive club. But one with its feet on the ground and, at the lower levels, a greater sense of accessibility than perhaps any other discipline. So, how do you get into it?

Taking your first step

The first step is to find your local club, check out the events they hold, become a member and start making friends. We talked to a range of competitors, including road rally specialists, championship winners at local and national level and rally school instructors. And the one consistent theme you’ll hear from all of them, Motorsport UK chairman, WRC winning co-driver and local club participant, David Richards included? Just get involved.

“Even if you can’t afford to compete or don’t have a car then joining a club and going to events helps you understand how rallies operate”

“Just being around rallies in whatever shape or form helps you learn about the sport and builds an enthusiasm,” says Richard Felgate, a successful amateur competitor since the late Eighties and two-wheel drive champion in the 2012 Asphalt Championship in his BMW M3. “Even if you can’t afford to compete or don’t have a car then joining a club and going to events helps you understand how rallies operate. I was doing that long before I became a driver and you just learn stuff along the way that helps you enormously as a competitor.”

It’s also worth remembering you don’t necessarily have to be in a car to enjoy rallying. “Some people will be natural drivers, others will want to be a co-driver,” says Felgate. “But I know plenty of people in the sport who’d never want to go out in a rally car but are just as passionate about it.”

2018 Welsh Junior Asphalt Champion Jade Paveley agrees. “Go to some rallies, see what goes on, perhaps marshal, perhaps mechanic for a car – there are so many ways you can get involved,” she says. Perhaps more than any other form of motorsport rallying is about teamwork, be that between driver and navigator or the wider support networks of friends and family. Growing up surrounded by it won’t have done Jade’s chances any harm but her results speak for themselves and have opened many doors, including demonstration drives in front of WRC crowds along the Colwyn Bay seafront stage in Jaguar’s celebratory F-Type rally car.

Chances are if you’re reading this you want to compete at some level, be that as a driver or navigator. And this is where the situation has changed recently, with Motorsport UK introducing new licence grades aimed at levelling the playing field for everyone. As before, to participate in autotests, autosolos, trials, cross country events or road rallies you’ll first need to be a member of the club organising the event.

Starting out with an RS Clubman Licence

Anyone in the car, be that driver, co-driver or passenger, also needs a valid RS Clubman licence as a minimum, which is free to obtain and requires little more than completing a form and logging your details with Motorsport UK. With that come benefits such as personal accident insurance on Motorsport UK permitted events, free eye tests and discounts with affiliated suppliers.

But what are these disciplines and how do they relate to the ‘sideways through forests’ stuff you might be dreaming of? At the simplest level an autotest or autocross can be entered in a totally standard road car without need for modification or even special clothing. And car control perfected here can serve you well at more senior levels.

“That skill you learned sliding about between cones on an old airfield might be the difference between saving the car and not when it suddenly gets a bit intense on a forest stage,” laughs Richard Felgate, who after a sabbatical of a couple of years says he’ll be happy doing events like this to get his eye back in.

“smaller venues can be very affordable, and you learn a lot”

Paveley, meanwhile, comes from more of a karting and circuit racing background and reckons this has served her well, especially on single venue rallies hosted at race tracks where sections of popular circuits are often repurposed into stages. Chris Birkbeck, who runs a British Association of Rally Schools affiliated experience centre, agrees any additional car control you can bring is a good start. “Track days are great, you can do it in any road car and get a feel for the limits,” he says. “If you go to smaller venues like Teesside Autodrome close to us they can be very affordable and you learn a lot.” Put simply, in skills terms rallying is a melting pot and you don’t necessarily need to have been born in the Welsh forests to be in with a shout.

Of course, the nut holding the wheel is only half of the equation here. The appeal of going sideways on gravel and handbraking it round hairpins is obvious enough, but no hot-shoe driver is going anywhere without a skilled navigator beside them. And the skills and teamwork required to put you on the podium in a stage event can be forged with nothing more than dedication, local club membership and an RS Inter Club licence. Navigation and regularity tests may take place on public roads but are a stern test of organisation, time-keeping and skilled – but law-abiding – driving.

So-called Targa rallies are a popular next step and may include sections on private land, while still accommodating those in standard or lightly-modified cars. A cheap, reliable hot-hatch is all you really need for this kind of thing and could, if it comes to it, serve as a basis for a relatively affordable stage rally car should the bug bite hard enough.

To make that leap as a driver you’ll need to level up on to an RS Inter Club Stage Rally licence with a Go Rallying starter pack from Motorsport UK. Swot up and then book your licence test at an affiliated BARS centre like Chris Birkbeck’s. “You need to do a bit of revision in the blue book and once you’ve done the written test we do an evaluation in the car,” explains Chris. “Once we think you’re safe and suitable for the licence we stamp you up and you’re good to go. From there I’d say some one-to-one with an instructor is good for the experience, from there perhaps some single-venue events and only then considering forest or multi-venue stage rallies.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is where things start getting more expensive. You’ll need a fully compliant and properly prepped car, accepted wisdom being that it’s cheaper to buy one that’s already been built rather than start from scratch. On top of that you need to budget for safety kit for driver and navigator, tyres, spares and the reality you’ll probably want to trailer the car to the event. The time, facilities and inclination for DIY spannering will save a lot of money here.

Single venue events

Single venue events are a cost-effective way into the sport, the clue in the name being they’re typically held at airfields, circuits or other dedicated sites. Stages may be all metalled or mixed, depending on the location, and will combine natural obstacles with contrived ones between cones, tyres and bales to spice things up. While it’s still possible to do damage the risks of totalling the car are considerably less than in full stage events, though wear and tear is still considerable and you’ll need to budget for consumables like tyres, brakes and fluids. Both clubs and championships will feature single-venue style events and, for many, this is a sensible middle ground and also a relatively easy swap from a circuit-racing mindset, given they’re often hosted at familiar venues like Anglesey, Brands Hatch or Oulton Park.

One benefit over circuit racing where you may race for a mere 15 or 20 minutes over whole weekend is the sheer amount of competitive driving you get for a similar investment of time. “Once the event is under way you’re flat out,” confirms Paveley. “There’s very little time to catch breath, meaning it’s an intense experience.” The fact you’ll be driving many of the same sections over and again (albeit in different directions and configurations) also helps with repetition and developing skills, much as you would in circuit driving.

And whatever you’re going to do, Felgate has some simple words of advice, learned over three decades in the sport. “Set out with the idea I’m going to have some really good fun, hang out with friends and have a great time,” he says. “Try and find that balance between not spending loads of money on cars and kit and work on your skills instead. Don’t get hung up on the results at the start because even if you have the best car you’re not going to be at the sharp end. Just get out there and enjoy it!”

With thanks to Jade Paveley, Chris Birkbeck, Richard Felgate and Lizzie Pope