JOG ON. LE JOG ROAD TRIP.
We joined BMW Classic’s three- car assault on Le Jog, a dash from Land's End to John O'Groats reckoned to be Europe's toughest classic rally. It proved a gruelling experience for the #BMW-318i
E30 and its driver. Words SAM DAWSON. Photography RORY GAME.
It’s five o’clock on Saturday morning and the grey, weary face in the hotel bathroom mirror is contemplating some weighty issues. I’m in Land’s End, but this time tomorrow I will wake up in Chester. Pm about to drive more than 2000 miles, but myself and navigator Rory Game have only had time for a cursory glance at the road book. And BMW, in its wisdom, has given us a car with a three-speed automatic gearbox and a clock where the rev counter should be.
‘We figured it’d be easier over longer distances,’ said BMW Group Classic spokesman Stefan Behr last night, as we checked over our 1984 #BMW-E30
318i two-door in the winter twilight alongside our 1984 team-mates - a carb-fed 316 and a potent 320i. Seriously, Stefan; we’re against the clock here, and have you seen the average British B-road? As with so many things on this rally (like why are we called Team Rocket Science’?) I'd only discover the truth much later on.
Just over an hour later we’re sitting in the queue for the start line, watching much more nimble opposition powerslide their way round the opening gravel special stage above the precipitous Land’s End cliffs. As we approach the starting flag I slide the gear selector into second-gear lockout. I’m going to have to two-pedal it round like a direct-drive go-kart and I’ll need responsiveness - the last thing I want is a jolt up into third when I’m about to brake for a hairpin.
Somehow, the technique works. The gravel track seems narrow between the stone walls, but I keep my right foot planted, then use the karting technique of simultaneously lifting off the accelerator and sharply but progressively stabbing the brake pedal just before freewheeling hard into the tighter corners, then hitting the accelerator as we pass each apex. The body rolls just before the knobbly winter tyres lose grip and the little BMW snaps sideways on the dry gravel, but it’s easy to catch with a twirl of opposite lock. I still wish it had a manual, but it seems there are sporty ways to drive a car that began life crawling through the Bremen rush hour.
As we leave the main coast road and start to thread together a series of narrow single-track lanes, a rather more alarming problem emerges. Brakes that seemed effective on gravel are locking at the slightest tap of the pedal on asphalt made damp and slippery with sap from the overhanging willow trees, but after three terrifying near misses sliding towards oncoming traffic in the space of one mile - one of which nearly forced a hapless Volvo into a ditch - we figure that there must be something wrong. Problem is, our next opportunity to consult chief mechanic Josef Rothe will be at the Porlock Hillclimb closed-road stage in 140 miles’ time. I’m just going to have to drive around the problem, and factor in very long, feathered braking distances. At least the A39 is wide and sweeping.
I’m panicking slightly as we approach Porlock. Rory has noticed a distinct scorching smell coming from the brakes. We’re about to take on one of the longest hillclimbs in Britain, and it’s only a precursor to the challenge that’ll end the day - the whole of Wales, in one night. Josef puts the front wheels on full lock, prods at the calipers, sniffs the air and nods sagely, it’s just the new pads,’ he explains, sounding much more relaxed than we’re feeling. ‘When we upgraded the dampers, we also fitted a new set of brake pads. They’re not bedded-in yet and they’re still standing a little proud. They should be okay after a few more miles.’
Pm still not feeling particularly comfortable, but at least I know the brakes won’t actually fail, and with this in mind I gun the BMW up the hill. The M10 four-cylinder gives off a steeled shriek under load, and I discover that the accelerator has a distinct two-stage action; the last inch of travel requires a firm shove but usually provokes the torque-converter into kickdown, accompanying a wonderfully aggressive tailslide as the front wheels pounce into the uphill hairpin apexes. It probably looks to spectators as though we know what we’re doing. It’s terrific fun, and by the time we make it to the top and set a course for the Gordano service park just outside Bristol, the brakes seem to be overcoming their grabby phase.
After a quickly shovelled fast-food dinner at Gordano we head off across the Severn Bridge to Ebbw Vale. The scudding orange glow of the bridge’s streetlights pick out a direction on Rory’s pace notes that send a nervous chill down my arms - Epynt. Pm going to be driving Epynt at night. In a proper competitive rally. In drizzle.
‘With a wonky alternator and brakes we can’t quite trust, we spur the 318i towards Glasgow’
For a rally fan to drive Epynt with any sense of purpose is like a pub five-a-side squad having a kickabout at Wembley Stadium. These army ranges in the Brecon Beacons, usually closed to the public because they’re used for military training, have been the amphitheatre in which rally gladiators have battled for decades; a complex of unforgiving, awkwardly angled corners, slippery catrle-grids and no fencing to prevent unfortunate cars from a tumble down muddy banks. We fill up in Brecon and turn off the A40 on to the ranges, all six forward lights blazing, wipers flailing.
Rorys pace notes take on an added edge of urgency, punctuated by ‘careful’ and ‘steady’. To Rory it’s a combination of lefts and rights, but like the best racetracks these corners have names: Deer’s Leap, Dixie’s Hairpin, McRae’s, Piccadilly Junction, Helicopter Wood. I’ve seen these views through the windscreen before - on Rally Report in the early Nineties. It prompts a mixture of nostalgic excitement and the thrill of danger that persists long after rejoining normal roads near Builth Wells, and all the way through North Wales. The memory helps to stave off the growing tiredness as we pass the English border and find the Chester hotel some time around midnight. I drove Epynt and I survived.
The start of the second day seems overly easy compared with what’s gone before. We begin on the motorway, taking us into Cheshire, then Lancashire, breaking off the M6 just north of Skelmersdale to potter round some of the flat, wide local roads.
It’s not very challenging, but then Lancashire gives way to North Yorkshire at Settle and the roads get steeper, bumpier and punctuated by potholes, water-splashes and cattle-grids. A bit of immersion actually seems to improve the brakes, making their stopping power much more progressive.
Breathtaking scenery kept spirits high all the way to the end.
However, after pulling away from the lunch stop at Leyburn, there’s an ominous, seagull-like squawking from under the bonnet. It disappears quickly, so we dismiss it as a wet pulley causing a belt at cruising speeds, and if it’s making that sound all the time, try tightening the remaining bolts to keep it in place. It’s not ideal, but it should help.’ He slaps me on the back. ‘Good luck.’
And so, with a wonky alternator on the verge of shutdown, the wrong gearbox for the job and brakes we can’t quite trust, we spur the 318i towards Glasgow - and a blizzard. Visibility is down to 100 yards at best, the outside lane of the M74 is piled high with snow, and traffic is averaging 50mph at best. Knowing the shortcomings of the brakes, 1 keep a long distance from the lorry in front, only for unthinking motorists in overly insulated modern cars to leapfrog me and plug the gap. We’re heading for Loch Lomond, but I didn’t expect the M74 to be so dangerous. I’m one emergency stop away from a potentially deadly collision.
The turn-off can't come a moment too soon. Away from the hurly-burly of the motorway, as we head into the Trossachs the traffic dwindles to nothing, and from hereon in the scenery transcends the mere picturesque and becomes breath-catchingly beautiful. The fact that we're averaging around 40mph is no real hardship with the low, silvery winter sun glinting between the pines over the surface of Loch Lomond - especially with the car slithering slightly on ice lingering in the shade.
But as we pass out of the Trossachs and into the Highlands we’re both rendered speechless by the sheer majesty of Glencoe. Rounding a square left-hander on the A82 just north of Loch Ba has the effect of drawing back a mountainous veil to reveal the enormous valley, dwarfing the sole ribbon of tarmac amid snow-capped peaks running seamlessly into the blanched sky; and still, peaty water lapping through yellow grass. As if under orders to complete the image, a golden eagle leaps from the undergrowth beside the road, a sole wingbeat launching it about 20 feet into the air.
After pulling in at Fort William for fuel, with night falling, the alternator belt starts to howl again - this time at ever-lower rpm, on every tight bend. We battle through the snow to Kyle of Lochalsh and pull over to tighten the bolts, but it doesn’t make much difference. This presents us with a dilemma - we’ve got a distance equivalent to London to Sheffield to cover, and some of the toughest sections of the rally ahead of us, including the infamous Pass of the Cattle on the Applecross peninsula. It’s all hairpin bends, relentless gradients and an abundance of snow.
The words of clerk of the course Tony Davies are echoing around my mind, ‘Priority one, two and three are uget to John O’Groats”.’ We can either follow the roadbook’s route, knowing full well it’ll cause the engine vibrations to ultimately snap the belt, potentially leaving us stranded with no way to repair it - and given the patchy mobile reception, no way to call for help either - or we plot our own, gentler route to the finish to preserve the alternator, on the understanding that if we break down we’ll be nowhere near the course sweeper car or any mechanical assistance. Either way, if that belt snaps our rally will end with a tow-truck to Edinburgh Airport.
We’ve got to finish. We choose the latter plan and part with the plotted route at Strathcarron, heading cross-country to the A9. Knowing that by diverting we’ll miss the dinner halt, we pull in to the Balconie Inn at Evanton for what must be the best haggis, neeps and tatties I’ve ever tasted. It also gives us the chance to see how bad things are under the bonnet. The alternator belt is noticeably frayed, with nearly a third of its original width gone. One last tightening of the bolts, and we head off towards the A99.
We’re vaguely aware of the moonlit scenery as the route hugs the east coast, distant oil rig flames the only evidence of life in the indigo night. Our main beams pick up names on signs that I've only heard before on the shipping forecast, and the roads are completely deserted. This at least is positive, because it means we can maintain reasonable momentum and avoid low-gear, high-rpm vibrations. Even roundabouts can be crossed at speed if the visibility’s good enough. We complete the final 70 miles in third gear only.
Finally, the ghostly whitewash of John O'Groats lies shimmering at the end of the road. We’ve made it. Knowing the alternator belt is sacrificial now, we slow to a crawl outside the only building with a light on. It’s the Seaview Hotel, where we’re staying. More importantly, the bar has hundreds of single-malt whiskies.
And with the dawn light, in a howling coastal gale, the other rallyists emerge from the road to Wick, heroically led by a 1947 Ford Popular, the oldest car on the event. It turns out we had a lucky escape - some of the stages we circumvented were cancelled due to ice, and several cars haven't made it, including a BMW M535i E28 that tragically felled one of Glencoe’s deer. We may have missed out on some of the route, but as we line up the ailing BMW alongside the other cars in the freezing morning - many battered, dented and held together with baling twine and duct tape - we can't help but share the sheer sense of achievement.
Our BMW team-mates arrive on the scene too - Josef Rothe even managed to win a ‘best rookie’ trophy - and there, at John O'Groats, the reason why we’ve been driving a car with a ‘Team Rocket Science' sunstrip is revealed as Stefan Behr finally comes clean and explains the team name to us.
‘When I told my colleagues at the #BMW
M-Sport department that I was going to enter three cars in the toughest classic rally in Europe, they shrugged dismissively and said, “It’s not exactly rocket science.” I couldn't admit that until we'd actually finished it, or I’d look silly. As for the automatic gearbox, because of the 1984 cutoff for entries, we were restricted to the first few months of #E30
production, so we had to take what we could find. But we just wanted to give the E30 a fitting 30th birthday tribute.'
Somehow, getting this far now seems even more remarkable.
Thanks to: BMW Group Classic, the Historic Endurance Rallying Organisation (heroevents. eu)
TECH DATA #1984 #BMW-318i-E30
1766cc in-line four-cylinder, sohc, #Bosch #L-Jetronic
Power and torque 101bhp @ 5800rpm; 103 lb ft @ 4500rpm
Transmission three-speed #ZF
, rear-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion
Front: independent, MacPherson struts, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar.
Rear: semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar.
Brakes Servo-assisted discs front, drums rear
Weight 1125 kg (2480 lb)
Top speed: 106 mph:
0-60mph: 11,4 sec
Fuel consumption 34mpg
Cost new £7950
Value now £650-24500
EVAN MACKENZIE The Veteran
Evan Mackenzie won the very first Le Jog rally in 1993, sharing a Triumph TR4 with John Kiff. Here are his tips.
The key to it is to get a really good navigator who you get on well with, trust implicitly and never have to question,’ says Mackenzie. ‘Any driver can do fairly well if they're following instructions, but it’s the ability to deliver those instructions precisely that’s most important.
’Le Jog isn’t the most difficult rally from a driving point of view, but it is in terms of fatigue. You've got to plan to deal with it; on the first event, John and I knew we'd be tired so we booked a hotel room in advance for just one hour at a point when we’d be able to stop. That made for an odd phone call.
‘I got used to doing this kind of rallying in South Africa, on events that would last anything from three or four days up to one or two weeks. Concentration is the key.
‘The roadbooks are written with precision in mind, not to catch you out, so if you make a mistake you've only got yourself to blame; the satisfaction lies in getting it right. Every surprise is a pleasure.’
‘Le Jog isn’t the most difficult rally from a driving point of view, but it is in terms of fatigue.
Sam plans a cunning deviation from the route in order to nurse the 318 home.
With a howling alternator belt and everything crossed, it’s Scotland - but still a long way from the finish line.
An underbonnet check reveals a sheared alternator mounting bolt and a shredding belt.
Cryptic team name on sun strip was later revealed as an example of German humour.
Breathtaking scenery kept spirits high all the way to the end.
Sam starts the rally at a fair pace, but the dark clouds of fatigue and mechanical problems were already gathering.
Sam tries to look happy with his auto 318i at Land's End, alongside his team- members’ 316 and 320i.
Other Le Jog competitors display a more sporting bent at the rally’s start.
Immersion in water actually made over-zealous new brake pads more manageable.
Single-track lanes plus dodgy brakes equals several heart- stopping near-misses with oncoming traffic.