Jardine on Le Jog – Rookie on Historic rallying’s toughest event
Reputations count – and Le Jog has acquired a big one. It’s long been labelled Europe’s toughest classic car rally, and now I know why. It’s a genuine motor sport challenge, a mix of endurance and adventure that demands stamina, skill and willpower. I had followed it online before and winced at the fatigue factor, yet still it lingered on my bucketlist – only I didn’t realise my chance to compete on it would come so soon.
Basically, it was a case of swapping one adrenalin shot for another: my entry on the WRC Wales Rally GB collapsed when gold medal cyclist Jason Kenny had to pull out of his co-driver role in August. And so the deep end beckoned. I was signed on for Le Jog. In store was a route of nearly 1500 miles from Lands End to John O’Groats – the hard way. Endless regularities and speed tests along the route over four days and three nights: those are the ingredients that have built Le Jog’s tough reputation over 23 events, attracting competitors from as far afield as Australia and the USA. This would be my first-ever classic car regularity rally. And I’d be a Le Jog rookie.
First comes a visit to organiser HERO Events’ Arrive and Drive HQ in Margham, South Wales, to check out the range of fully prepared rally cars for hire, from gorgeous Alfa Romeos to TR4s, 911s and even a stunning Lancia Fulvia Zagato. My choice?
The 1972 BMW 1602. Manager Mark O’Donnell suggests the BMW was a canny pick, offering more space, comfort and visibility for such a tough endurance event. And the heater works!
Champion rally driver Seren Whyte helps with my acclimatisation. She’s a former Le Jog class-winner, so I listen carefully to her advice. ‘Sleep and eat when you can, and keep hydrated – but no energy drinks,’ she warned. ‘Get it wrong and the last 20 hours on the hoof can cause hallucination.’ Purple bananas, in her case. She desperately wanted to compete in 2017 but she’s an actress, and when work calls you take it. Off to panto instead.
Then, a day before my Cornwall trip, I’m a guest on the BBC Radio 2 Simon Mayo show to talk to Matt Williams about Le Jog. He’s incredulous about the route and the tough, almost crazy schedule. ‘Surely it can be dangerous with such potential fatigue?’ So I assure him and the seven million listeners on Drivetime that we will stop now and again. And keep hydrated. No purple bananas. I let the train take the strain and land at Lands End late-afternoon, disappointed to find that the famous John O’Groats signpost doesn’t include the words ‘the hard way’. I’d met up with my co-driver Nick Cooper just once for a brief acclimatisation in Charles Colton’s generously loaned Porsche 911, so we have a lot of work to do. Scrutineering, then a few night runs.
Clockwise from left Nearly 900 miles to go from here – in only four days; final preparations are important; snow correctly predicted en-route; you catch up on sleep wherever you can; roadside repairs without any shelter; our man Jardine, about to set off; navigators are rarely without maps and timing gear; BMW 1602 was a sturdy steed.
I should have known that Le Jog would be full-on from the start. We grab some food and Nick talks me through his language of instruction for the many tests we’ll have to finish as fast as we can. Diagrams from previous events have such incomprehensible instructions as ‘Left of marker 360, right of marker 90, stop astride, stop in the box, stop beyond…’ What? Oh, how I wish I’d done some auto testing.
My brain is rammed, working overtime, and I don’t sleep well that night. Better get used to it. The creaking inn sign outside my window doesn’t help. Very Poldark.
Early-morning whistling winds have me peering through the window to see giant Atlantic seahorses lashing Sennen Cove. Never before have I watched BBC weather reports so intently. The UK is covered in snow symbols and severe weather warnings, mostly along our route.
Nick has a full day of training and car prep planned, including six runs on the measured mile to ensure the tripmeters, timers and clocks are tuned in. And suddenly there’s a text from Rally HQ: ‘Where are you, the final instructions are issued?’
So we rush back to see a fabulous line-up of Historic rally cars with the craggy south-western tip of the UK as their spectacular backdrop. The hotel lounge is bursting at the seams with 60 navigators from around the world all at tables plotting routes, map-marking and going through the regs. Pencil cases, highlighters and rubbers are strewn amongst the empty coffee pots; it resembles an A-level exam room for mature students.
I leave Nick there, head back outside in the biting wind to car number 36 and pull out all our tools and spares. I attempt a wheel-change, fit drink-pack systems to the back of our seats for fear of dehydration, add anti-freeze, pack two snow shovels plus a bag of dry clothes, wetsuit, boots, all packed and re-packed before I lay out the snowchain puzzle that takes me an hour to solve. It’s still snowing in Scotland and there’s a blizzard in Wales. Comforting.
Around 10pm I grab Nick and we set out to find the darkest, narrowest lane to test our big spotlights and set them slightly outwards so we can pick out the banks and rocks around the edges, yet still we have to grope our way back in the pitch black of Cape Cornwall. The howling wind and bullet-like rain on my bedroom window mean another sleepless night.
At 6am on Saturday we’re off to the start of Le Jog. Nerves jangling, Nick assures me I’ll settle after the opening test around the slippery headland path. And blimey it is slippery – and the ’02’s unassisted steering is a real haul at low speeds. It’s a hard pull, but the car responds well, feeling solid and predictable. It will go on to handle like a pro in the snow, never missing a beat as I try to perform my Achim Warmbold impression.
A second test, as Nick shouts more instructions. And I’m trying too hard: ‘It’s not the quickest way. Calm down; try to drive it smoothly,’ says my seasoned navigator. Classic rookie errors in my first event as I struggle to find the next marker while trying to remember if I’ve just done a 270 or a 360!
We push on to the next road section, heading to the first major regularity over Bodmin Moor, mindful of HERO Competitions boss (and Clerk of the Course) Guy Woodcock’s words. As a driver, navigator and top organiser, he is revered – so I’d listened. ‘Obey all the speed limits, but keep pushing on. It’s easy to fall behind schedule – then you’ll have to miss sections.’ It’s relentless.
Clockwise from top left Water splashes hold no fear for the ’02; mugs of tea and a chance to relax at the finish; Tony (on right) and Nick celebrate their bronze medals; Clarence and Kate Westberg came from the USA to take part in a hired MGB.
Words of encouragement had come from multiple Le Jog gold medal winner Andy Lane, who’d told me to keep it going: ‘Hit all the controls and you could be on for a medal.’ Over a maze of Bodmin roads I try to keep to different average speeds, as Nick calls them. He navigates off the map, keeping a track of time and speed all at once. It’s amazing to watch but harder to keep up with, as you try to hit hidden controls to the split-second. I fall short. It’s frustrating. Things get firey and voices are raised. We’d missed a control hidden in a farm as we didn’t read all the instructions after the regularity. Gutted!
Two tests around the Exeter course allow us to fling the BMW about; as a result, confidence is rebuilt and we feel better. Friends again. Then it’s back on the road, chasing off to the Severn Bridge crossings, and into freezing Wales, real rally country – narrow lanes, packed with ice and snow, and steep climbs to scrabble up.
We survive two more regularities in the dark, then make it to a rest halt near Abergavenny. The navigators are all plotting and planning again – maps open, coffee on the go, they never stop even at midnight. In fact, they can’t. The next set of instructions has to be interpreted.
Meanwhile, outside, HERO’s heroic sweeper crews are fettling cars. We’ve lost a few, including the lovely ’1968 Triumph 2000 of Tony Sheach and Rachel Wakefield. A Porsche 356B has slid on the ice into Bill Cleyndert and Dan Harrison’s Morris Mini; they carry on but, eventually, the Porsche has to retire.
At 1am we’re deeper into Wales and with an incredible time control section about to start in the Clwydian Ranges. Instead of timing to the second, as by day, this one runs to the minute. It’s frenetic, everyone is on edge just trying to cope with the conditions, losing time as the road is blocked by slithering rally cars. Five are caught at the bottom of a section, as the Mini in front couldn’t make the steep hill. We catch some, then we’re caught ourselves, as all crews try to stay ‘on time’.
HERO boss Thomas de Vargas Machuca, in his 911, leads the way past the blockage to a control. We try to follow the flamboyant driver as he fish-tails his 911 in a haze of snow dust; then his navigator Ali Proctor misses the uphill left and we’re through, on the tail of Mark Godfrey and Martyn Taylor’s MGB as they glance a snow bank. And then I do the same!
‘This is worse than Monte Carlo conditions,’ I yell as we skate past a sharp downhill left on the ice, and Thomas and Ali go past again in the 911. Poor Nick’s trip keeps freezing, so he’s had to make all the time and speed calculations in his head. Huge respect! Our highest average speed is set only at 29mph, but with next to no grip everyone has to use all their skills just to make it through. It’s an epic long night’s rallying I will never forget.
By 3:45am on the Sunday we are in Chester, where we try to grab some sleep. Wishful thinking: my brain won’t switch off, and the morning brings more snow, so we’re up and out to dig the car clear, then push on to the first test.
We tack across to the Pennines, and cross the Lancashire uplands for an encounter with the Yorkshire Dales, heading towards Kirby Lonsdale. It’s remote and chilly, and looks like an icy scene from Wuthering Heights. One control is blocked by a combination of German photographers and a stranded minibus, but we thread through, and the 911 does too, as we both try to play catch-up, slip-slidin’ away together up the hill. The downhill sections are like toboggan runs, adrenalin-pumping stuff as you wait for the car either to start steering or stop drifting.
That makes the food stop at Simonstone Hall in Hawes all the more welcome. Infamously, this is the place where a certain Mr Clarkson had a fracas with his producer. The event is commemorated by a plaque on the wall in the bar. Of all places.
We move on and, if the time control section in Wales is my highlight for excitement, the next regularity past Ingleton and Ribblehead Viaduct is the scariest. The section climbs up one side of a mountain and plunges down the other. Some can’t get their cars to climb, but the sheet ice on the way down – with sheer drops on the left – genuinely keeps you cautious, because even cadence braking can’t always slow the car. You feel as if you’re completely out of control, yet nobody actually loses it. As ever in rallying, experience counts and low average speeds help keep Historic and classic-car rallying safer.
We make it to Peebles, Scotland, in the early hours of Monday. The lack of sleep is starting to take its toll. Clerk of the Course Guy Woodcock and his deputy Dan Pidgeon have had no sleep at all, as they’ve been working overtime to beat the deteriorating conditions, re-routing and shortening regularities as required. There are three more regularities through Lowlands and Highlands, past Loch Tay, then an incredibly beautiful road section past Loch Lomond and into Aviemore for a couple of hours’ sleep before we re-start at 1:50am on the Tuesday and drive through the early hours up the east coast. There are yet more competitive sections, one of which is axledeep in snow and an absolute blast.
By 6am on the Tuesday I’m definitely starting to nod. My brilliant navigator Nick has me singing Christmas carols to stay awake for the final push. Dawn regularities are tough, your eyes play tricks, but finally we arrive at John O’Groats early in the afternoon, as the pipers strike up. We’re elated. And better still, at the prizegiving in Wick we’re awarded the class win and a coveted bronze medal each.
There are no overall positions awarded, but Andy Lane has worked out that we have finished inside the top ten. Nick was incredibly patient with ‘TJ the Rookie’, trying to learn the art of regularity rallying as I went, and the sweeper crews and marshals have been unbelievable. At the prizegiving, I hail the international appeal of this brilliant rally, telling the German, Swiss, Dutch, French, Italian, Belgian, American, Australian and British competitors that, as an ‘outsider’ looking in, I have new-found respect for the skills of the drivers and navigators in this branch of motor sport. I have competed in seven Arctic Rallies, and worked on ten Camel Trophies and two Dakars. But after all that, Le Jog has been the toughest event for me yet. Here’s to the next one.
Visit www.heroevents.eu for more about Le Jog.
‘WE TRY TO FOLLOW THE FLAMBOYANT DRIVER AS HE FISH-TAILS HIS PORSCHE 911 IN A HAZE OF SNOW DUST’