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Most rally drivers have a few items that they'd love to tick off their "Bucket List" before their careers behind the steering wheel are finished. For me, two of the 'must do' items were driving a BDA Escort in a rally, and competing in the famous Otago Classic Rally in New Zealand. When I was able to tick both off the list in one go, it was like a dream come true. I first entered the Otago Rally in 2006, driving a leased Ford Escort RS2000. After a strong result (8th outright), and the lure of more of New Zealand’s sensational gravel roads, I pieced together a deal to compete again in 2007. While it's now over 10 years ago, the memories are still vivid, and with the Otago Classic Rally set to run again next week (April 14-15), it seemed a good time to give this story another run.

* * * * * *

The owner of the Escort RS2000 that I drove in the 2006 Otago Classic Rally, Bryce Biggs, offered me the use of his Escort RS1800 – a car which had twice won the event in the hands of Brian Stokes, a former New Zealand Champion. Again I would be co-driven by Dunedin’s Roger Oakley, a man well-known to all international competitors who have competed at Otago. Roger is the man with the task of sponsorship and promotion of the rally, and on top of his obvious talents in that department, he is an expert pacenote reader.

Peter Whitten in action in the 2006 Otago Rally in a 2-litre Escort Mk2.

With our entry submitted it was simply a case of waiting patiently for the weekend of the rally to arrive – not an easy task when you have the chance to drive an iconic car like the BDA. On arrival in Christchurch, I was collected from the airport by Bryce Biggs who then took me to his country property for a seat fitting and an initial look at the Escort I was to drive in the rally. Although the car needed a bit of tidying up before the event got underway, mechanically it looked very sound and with new suspension and brakes, it looked more than capable of doing the job. The RS1800 had last been used in the Silver Fern Rally. Queenslander Greg Poole had leased the blue Escort that I had driven in the previous year’s Otago Rally, but crashed and wrote off the car on just the second stage of the seven-day marathon event. The Biggs team quickly dusted off the BDA and it completed the final six days of the event without missing a beat.
Roger Oakley and Peter Whitten

Roger Oakley and Peter Whitten teamed up for the second year in a row.

After some sticker application and a quick seat adjustment, I took the car for a brief drive down a tarmac road near Bryce’s house. With plenty of power on tap, it was immediately obvious that it was going to be a fun weekend. The car itself had been de-tuned a little, in as much as the engine was rev limited to 8000rpm, rather than the 10,000+rpm that they are normally revved to. But that was of little concern. An 1870cc engine, this BDA had been built for reliability rather than sheer outright speed, and with the car generally used as a rental rally car, this is a wise move. A unique aspect of this car is that it is fitted with remote reservoir Proflex suspension all round. This means that the usual Escort leaf springs have been removed from the car, and have been replaced by coil-over struts. It’s the most modern addition to the car, and while the Otago Rally isn’t known to be overly rough, the team believed that the suspension would make the car more stable than any Escort I had driven in the past.
Ford BDA engine

The iconic BDA engine has made the Ford Escort the world's most loved rally car.

TESTING & RECCE

Testing of the rally car was set down for Thursday afternoon, but some last minute business for Bryce meant that the car didn’t arrive in Dunedin on time, and so we missed our chance for a pre-event drive. Friday was recce day, and with a set of the supplied pacenotes in hand, co-driver Roger picked me up from my hotel at 6am. At this stage it was still dark, it was raining heavily and the wind was blowing straight off the Antarctic. But at least we’d be warm and dry in our Mitsubishi four-wheel drive recce car. It was a drive of about 100km out to the furthermost stages of the rally, which were to be recced first. By the time we arrived it was light (the sun was still buried well behind the clouds), but it was bitterly cold as we gathered to be escorted out to the first stage of the day. The recce for New Zealand’s championship rounds is a simple affair, with competitors given one run over each of the stages. Organisers provide a lead car to set the constant 60km/h pace, a car in the middle to keep things moving, and a sweeper car to bring up the rear. It’s a system that works very well, but it was a long and tiring day of around 11 and a half hours. We made very few changes to the notes supplied to us (which use the computer-generated Jemba system), apart from adding additional information such as “keep in”, “don’t go wide”, etc, and putting in a few extra cautions. All in all it worked very well. The weather had got worse during the day, not better, and many of the forest stages were tackled with it snowing ferociously. In fact the longest stage of the rally, at 45km, was around 80% under snow and we were literally making tracks in the snow, which was up to 5cm deep in some places. It was chilly, to say the least, with the thermometer in the car showing minus one degree for a good part of the day. After we arrived back in Dunedin it was then a mad rush to get to Forbury Park where Roger had official duties to undertake, and I had to get ready to take a sponsor for a hot lap around the trotting track stage. My first drive of the BDA on gravel went particularly well. The mid-stage chicanes were positioned in different spots to the previous year, meaning that you could hold the car in a slide for a lot longer, and the power of the BDA meant that we were soon up to speed. My passenger, long-time rally supporter Dallas Dogger, enjoyed the stage and climbed out vowing to buy a BDA for himself one day – it was a comment I said to myself many times before the weekend was over! From there it was back to the hotel for an early night, in preparation for the first day of real rally action. With the promise of more rain, we weren’t sure what the road conditions would be like, but like all in the event, we were eager to get out into the forests and see for ourselves.

DAY ONE

There was a nervousness about things as we pulled up to the first special stage of the Otago Rally. For a start, on the opening stage last year, Whare Flat, our intercom had failed and I had to drive the stage blind, and with no experience in the car it was going to be a real learning curve once the lights went green. Fortunately all went well. The power of the BDA engine was a joy to behold, the handling and traction was superb and the road conditions were a lot drier than we expected after the overnight rain. My only problem was selecting gears in the ZF gearbox, but after a few times when I never knew which gear I was in, I was sure I would get used to it as the day wore on. After a forest and public road stage to start the day, we then completed two fast public road stages that were extremely cresty and really required the brave pills. We completed them all with no problems whatsoever, and headed for the first service at Lake Waihola in 13th place, but less than nine seconds from eighth place. All was going to plan and, as always, it was a relief to get to the first service unscathed. Stage four was the stage that most crews reckoned would be the telling test of the day. At 45km in length this was the stage that was covered in snow the previous day and many crews struggled with what tyres to choose. However, all that was irrelevant when some unfortunate problems with officials meant that the stage had to be cancelled and all crews had to tour through the entire stage. Amazingly, there was not a snow flake to be seen on the stage, and while crews were relieved at that, everyone was extremely disappointed that the event’s longest test had been taken out of the event. It was then a lengthy wait in the rain at the start of the following stage, the famous Waipoiri Gorge. Run in the opposite direction to last year, Waipori Gorge is one of the best pieces of road you could ever drive in a rally, with endless corners allowing you to really test out the lock stops on a grunty rear-wheel drive rally car. We were again 10th fastest and headed back to service before the final two gravel stages of the day, held around 40km south west of Waihola. By now the rain was falling heavily and the windscreen wipers were going flat out, but the Escort just kept on performing. I was still messing up some of the junctions while trying to select the right gear in the ZF box (usually at spectator points!), but we kept the car straight and out of trouble to finish the final two public road stages 12th and 9th fastest. After a final service for the day, in which some old tarmac tyres were fitted to the car, we headed back to Dunedin for the spectator stage in the city itself. This favourite Otago stage involves doing four laps of an industrial city block, and usually means you follow the car in front for at least two of those laps. It provides a great spectacle for the large crowd – who hard turned up despite the miserable weather and a local rugby derby between Otago and Canterbury – and the drivers love it. We finished the day by taking the seventh fastest time, and were classified in eighth place at the end of the first day, which we were more than happy with. While the service crew gave the car a once over and fitted new tyres, we headed off for dinner and a good night’s sleep, eager to hit the stages again on day two. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkytk9npeDQ&feature=youtu.be

DAY TWO

Day two was shorter in time, with a finish around 2pm, but we had seven stages and 150km competitive to negotiate in the meantime. The stages were a mixture of public and forest roads, and with more rain falling it would be a real challenge for all crews. As expected the pace picked up considerably on day two, but surprisingly the lack of attrition continued to amaze everyone, with none of the front running cars falling by the wayside. The day started with the running of Kuri Bush, a 15km stage which is perhaps the event’s blue ribbon test. It’s one of the crestiest stages you’ll ever see, and anyone who’s watched the in-car footage from the event will know just how good the stage is. We were pleased to start the day well, with the seventh fastest time. Things went downhill on the next test, however. A forest stage that included a few kilometres of slippery, muddy, downhill muck, it was difficult to keep the car on the road and a couple of understeering moments really seemed to knock my confidence. Even when the stage dried out and got faster towards the end, I still couldn’t get into a rhythm, as the car seemed be all over the road. The resultant 19th fastest time saw us drop a place overall, and we were now ninth. On arrival at service we quickly changed tyres, and it was later found that the tyres hadn’t been re-pressured after they were fitted to the car the night before. As a result, they were 10psi over pressure, which helped to explain why the car wasn’t behaving as I had become accustomed to. The 35km Doon Flats stage was next and we recovered somewhat to take the 11th quickest time, followed by 10th fastest on the following 12km Akatore West. By now we could see the finish line in the distance, and having still not put a mark on this magnificent BDA, we were hell-bent on getting the car to the finish – but still with a keen eye on a top 10 result. The road section to the penultimate forest stage raised some concerns when the gearbox seemed to be making growling sounds as we climbed the hill towards the start control. Hoping that it was only our ears picking up noises that weren’t really there, we roared off into the stage, setting what we thought was another respectable time. On the road section afterwards, however, it was really whining in third and fourth gear. With only one stage to go, we crossed our fingers that all would be okay. Half way through the final 25km stage – the stage we’d had tyre troubles on earlier in the day – the gearbox really started to howl and when we started to smell gear oil in the cabin, it was time to back off and preserve the car to make sure we reached the end of the stage. We probably dropped around half a minute, but the more immediate concern was getting back to service to have it checked out, and hoping that we could complete the final 50km road section back to Dunedin, and the final 2km super special stage. With the service crew on the job, it transpired that the gearbox was still full of oil, and that the problem was, most likely, a worn bearing. With that in mind, we cautiously drove back into Dunedin and, thankfully, arrived none the worse for wear. All that remained was the final 2km blast around the Forbury Park trotting track stage, and just to prove that the BDA and the ZF gearbox are reliable old girls, we set the fifth fastest stage time, completing the rally in ninth place. After driving back into the centre of Dunedin and over the finish ramp in the Octagon (the centre of the city), our drive in the Ford Escort RS1800 was over. The car was quickly loaded back onto Bryce Biggs’ trailer and we last saw it heading up the road, bound for Christchurch.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

So was my drive in a BDA Escort all that it was cracked up to be? Absolutely. The power and the sound of the car is something that will live with me for a long time. At the end of the day it was still just like any other Escort to drive (although a lot noisier and a lot faster!), but it was an experience that I will treasure. An interesting conversation took place before the event, when my nine year old son asked what, to him, was a completely reasonable question. “What’s so good about getting to drive a BDA Escort, Dad?” he asked. I considered it for a moment, and then explained that when I was his age, the Escort RS1800 had won the World Rally Championship. “It would be like,” I explained, “you getting the chance to drive a Citroen Xsara World Rally Car in a rally in the year 2034.” It made sense to him, but the more I thought about my answer, the more I questioned the logic behind it, and the possibility that it could actually happen. Surely, in the year 2034, the Xsara WRC wouldn’t be still as highly regarded, what with the advancements that technology is sure to have made in the next 27 years. But then again, I doubt that many people back in 1979 could have predicted the joy that rally drivers in 2007 still get from driving the Escort RS1800. Having said that though, the Xsara – or the Focus WRC for that matter – has never gained the cult following that the BDA Escort ever did. The sound of that magnificent engine, and the sideways style in which the cars are always driven, mean that they remain etched into the memories of all who see them in action. And with events like the Otago Classic Rally, perhaps the BDA is unearthing a new breed of fans. Who knows, instead of the chance to drive a Xsara or Impreza WRC, perhaps my nine year old’s dream is now to one day drive an Escort RS1800 in a classic rally. I can only hope so, because I’ve lived my dream, and I wouldn’t swap it for all the World Rally Cars under the sun.
  • Originally published in RallySport Magazine, 2007.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ltzoYT8pH8&feature=youtu.be

More Otago Rally news:

https://rallysportmag.com/wrc-stars-head-bumper-2018-otago-rally-entry-list230318/ https://rallysportmag.com/norwegian-wrc-star-to-make-otago-classic-rally-debut/ https://rallysportmag.com/successful-gravel-rally-test-for-daltons-ford-fiesta-proto/
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