PROFILE: Matt Beebe
- 13th May 2008, 7:21am
Matt Beebe is one of Britain's hottest young talents, having already won three British rally titles in three years. Chris Evans profiles one of the stars of the future.
“If you sat with a bloke from Health and Safety and asked ‘Do you think this should be allowed?’ then I think he’d say no because if they were looking at all the risks that were on the road, they wouldn’t let you do it.”
Rally driving is undoubtedly a dangerous sport. Any contest that involves hurtling a car around rural tracks as fast as you physically can, cannot claim to be totally risk free. For some though, the sheer thrill and adrenaline created by such competition is second to none. And for others, the sense of winning is one hundred times better. One such person is Matt Beebe, winner of a British Rally Championship title for the past three seasons.
Beebe’s most recent title was sealed in December last year, as he fought off some tough opposition to win the R2 class of the British Rally Championship with a fine drive at the three-day grand finale at the Wales Rally GB. Beebe had to beat off competition from superior cars, including factory Suzukis and Citroens, and more powerful latest specification Hondas to win the event, an achievement he sees as the biggest of his career so far.
“Winning our class this year against a lot of cars that should have been quicker than our little MG, has been my biggest achievement,” he said after the victory. “We managed to plug away all year and just concentrate on what we were doing and get the results, and in the end we won the championship.”
The driver – based in the Warwickshire town of Nuneaton – further added to his reputation as one of the best in the region with the victory, adding to previous successes as British Rally Champion in both the ‘Stars of the Future 1400’, and R3 classes in 2005 and 2006 respectively.
Beebe has always been a rally fanatic, and has followed the World Rally Championship from a young age, even travelling across Europe to go and sample the unique atmosphere of the events themselves when he was old enough. One of his favourite stages is the Neste Oil Rally Finland leg at Ouninpohja, that he has visited on a number of occasions.
“In Finland the rally stages are actually on closed public roads. I used to go over there days before the rally and drive the stages. They are some of the best (or worst!) roads in the world. Just to experience driving there is good for car control.”
“It just gives you an idea that until you’ve actually driven some rally stages, you don’t realise just how fast they are. Some of them you might be absolutely flat out in top gear, and negotiating all sorts of corners and jumps and crests when you can’t see the road, and you might be doing that for five miles absolutely flat out without touching the brakes. It’s absolutely mental!”
Beebe only started rallying in 2004, and has achieved a lot in a short space of time, winning a title in each year that he has competed. The level of success he has enjoyed has been phenomenal, especially when you consider he only drove his first race at the mature driving age of 22.
“It was very late to start. I didn’t drive a car until I was seventeen when I could pass my test, and some of the young lads who are doing racing and rallying like Lewis Hamilton, were driving a car when they were six years old. So for me to start when I did meant I missed out on a lot of development that I could have had over that time.”
Along with his three class victories at the British Rally Championships, Beebe has won the MGZR Rally Scholarship and the MG X-Power ZR Championship. He finished top of the class at his first attempt in 2004. As part of his championship winning performance in 2007, Beebe was also awarded the Pirelli Star Driver Award in round six of the Championship held at Wales Rally GB. This gave him the opportunity to compete against five other drivers who had been picked from the previous rounds for the coveted Pirelli Prize, which provides a full works drive in a Mitsubishi Evo for the British Rally Championship in 2008.
“The six winners all went up to an intense two day shoot out in Cumbria at the M-Sport World Rally Championship base. We did TV interviews, fitness, pace note making and driving tests. I was lucky enough to get selected but unfortunately I didn’t win, it was Darren Gass from Ireland who won it on the day.”
The talent Beebe has for the sport is clear for all to see, but unfortunately, as with most motorsports, it is very difficult to continually move to a higher level of competition without a certain amount of sponsorship. His current car – an MG ZR160 – can only take him so far, and by Beebe’s own admission his victory in the R2 Championship last year was done by punching above his team’s weight against a range of better cars.
Beebe’s long-term aims are all now governed by what funding he receives, and he cannot plan too much further ahead until the resources he has available to him become clearer. “We would love to get some big sponsors now to give us a bit of support, but as of yet nothing has happened (not for the lack of trying). We’ve won every Championship we have ever entered, but we’ve not necessarily got the money to progress to the next level.”
“Over the past three years we’ve spent a lot of money, and it’s not money we’ve got spare. We’ve managed to scrape by but we haven’t really had any sponsorship. It’s not mega bucks but you can do a lot of set-up changes and testing if you get a bit of sponsorship, whereas we’re always watching the budget.”
Many drivers get into rallying along a rather well trodden route, moving up the classes and upgrading their licences on their way to the bigger and better competitions. Beebe, on the other hand, got into the sport in a very unusual way: “There was an advert in the local newspaper that had a competition ‘Do you want to be a rally driver?’ Enter in twenty words why you think that you should be chosen to be the next rally driver. So I got my Dad to write something for me and I did the rest at the selection day at Silverstone Rally School .”
“You had to pay £250 to go along, and I said to my Dad, ‘You pay and I’ll go and win it. If I don’t win, I’ll give you the money back’. There were twenty people there that had been selected out of this competition and they tested us on different things; driving a rally car, car knowledge, an interview with a panel of judges, changing a wheel, doing a fitness test and a mental comprehension test. At the end of the day I was lucky enough to be judged as the winner.
“Before that day I had never even sat in a rally car. The guy who was assessing me actually said ‘You’ve done this before’. He said I was a natural and I just took to it straight away.”Beebe’s gift earned him, and six other drivers from similar competitions held by local papers around the country, the chance to compete in eight rallies around Britain as part of the MG Rally Scholarship competition. From the first drive he impressed, winning his class, and it proved to be the springboard for his future success.
As can be expected, the prospect of driving your first rally stage at the fastest speed you’ve ever driven is a nerve wracking one, even with the ‘natural talent’ that Beebe possessed. As an avid rally fan, he was more aware than most of both the speed and the potential dangers of rally driving.
He remembers: “I was nervous. I’ve stood there and watched people come past and sometimes you do have to run out of the way if they’ve lost control. I was thinking ‘What if I lose control and drive into someone or smash the ca r or hit a tree or something like that?’ So you’re quite worried until you’ve actually got through the first couple of stages and got used to it a bit more.”
“When I started I thought ‘Right I’ve got to drive as fast as I can down this piece of road’. Until you’ve actually seen the road you don’t realise how fast you’ll actually be going. You get into fifth gear, you’re doing 100mph and its one corner after another and the co-driver’s saying, ‘Don’t brake, keep your foot in’. You’re thinking, ‘give us a slow one, please’.”
This didn’t deter him however, and Beebe went from strength to strength with his high-speed exploits, and living a dream he never realistically dared to entertain. “I’d never been in the situation where I ever thought that I’d become a driver in motorsport, but I’d always dreamed of maybe one day – if I earned enough money – when I’m an old man, buy myself a car and do a few rallies.”
“I never dreamed that I’d get into the British Rally Championship or anything like that. That was just something that was unthinkable.”
It’s for that reason that Beebe is taking everything that happens on face value, and sees every event as an opportunity and every rally victory as a bonus that he never considered possible. With uncertainty still reigning over his future rallying plans, Beebe is realistic about any aims he allows himself to have.
“I never expected to be in this situation so obviously I give 100% effort to any opportunities I’m given. As to committing to it full time and saying ‘I’m going to be World Champion,’ obviously we dream and that’s what you’d secretly be thinking, but to try and compare a professional driver and doing what I’m doing, there is a big difference.”
“If we can get some support, who knows what we’re going to do. If we can get a lot we might try and go into the World Rally Championship, and if we can only get a little bit of support we’ll just do local events and see what we can come up with.”
One thing that is striking about the 26 year-old is his awareness of the help he has received from others to get where he has. He always addresses achievements and goals as ‘we’, and he is the first to note the impact his parents have had on his driving career.
“My Mum and Dad have definitely been my biggest influence. They got me interested in motor sport in the first place - they’ve been behind me all the way and have backed me 100%. They’ve funded a lot of it as well and my Mum is the team manager so she’s got a virtual full time job organising everything.”
“I think five Championships over the last few years have shown we’ve all done a very good job: me driving the car, my Dad managing to get the money together to fund it all, and my Mum organising everything. It’s been a real team effort.”
Another big motivation for Beebe is his desire to sample some of the thrills that the drivers he watches feel when they drive a rally. Whilst Beebe’s interest in the sport has led to him travelling far and wide to watch stages of the World Rally Championship, and although he enjoys all rallies, there was one man he would always look forward to seeing.
“Colin McRae was my big hero just because of the way he drove a car. He always looked as though he was about to lose control but then he had the skill to control it at the last minute. So for me, he’s a real hero and he was always the sort of person I’d go to Finland to follow and cheer on.”
“It was obviously a big disappointment for me and a terrible shock when I found out he had died last year. That was a big loss for me because he’s always been a hero.”
McRae’s death rocked the world of rally to the core, but while drivers such as Beebe continue to be in awe of the Scot’s driving ability, he will always stay in the sport in spirit. Although Matt Beebe may never scale the same heights as his hero, so long as he maintains his positive attitude, Beebe could well go far.
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