A drive in the country

Contributed by Tim Mountford

Sunday morning and it’s early. Cold and early. An incredibly muddy field dotted with sheep set in a valley between rolling Dorset hills is a picturesque, but unpromising, setting for the start of a national motorsport championship, but this is indeed the first British Championship round of that, quite literally, grassiest and rootsiest of all grass roots motorsport disciplines; Car Trials.

Drive in Country Photo 1

Not to be confused with Classic Trials; an endurance test for Classic old cars and bearded old drivers, or Sporting Trials; spindly looking specials tackling impossible climbs with ease and fiddle brakes. Car Trials are simple off-road tests for standard-ish production cars. And they’re cheap. And this is why we’re here.

The idea is to drive a challenging, marked out, off-road course some 100yds or so long, generally up hill, between numbered gates, number 12 at the start, number 1 at the top – you’re score being the gate number that you’re at when you either hit it or just stop moving forwards. Eight different courses, each attempted twice before and twice after lunch. The man with the lowest aggregate score at the end goes home with the cup.

Drive in Country Photo 5

So, away we go, in a fairly unsuitable old Alfa Romeo. Theoretically our advantages are the nice torquey 1.8 engine and a rear mounted gearbox which, along with a boot full of tools, spare wheels and the kitchen sink, should give us extra traction. The main disadvantage is that we’re in a comparatively enormous, heavy 4door saloon in a class full of Hillman Imps (apparently the car to have), a Westfield (which won), a Fiat X/19 (nice) and a Suzuki X90 (when did anyone last see one of those?).

With tyre pressures down to 14psi, the class minimum, we’re off to the first test and pretty soon the wheels are spinning uselessly and we’ve scored a 9. This is going to be all about grip and at the moment we can’t even spell girp. It’s pretty much the same story on the next few tests and then we come to hill six; a tricky snaking course containing a sharp left across a one in two camber that previous cars have left as a mudbath. We watch the preceding cars in our class attempt this test where even the Imps struggle and then it’s our turn. We approach the slope with gusto, but a combination of torque, weight, low pressure and lean angle conspire to pop the bead of the tyre from the wheel rim and go flat, leaving us spinning and stationary again. The ensuing pit-stop to change wheels is made kneeling in the mud amid little dark clusters of sheep’s eggs, the car precariously balanced on a fast sinking trolley jack.

Drive in Country Photo 3

We fare slightly better on the second round, even clearing a couple of tests for zero scores, and so go into the afternoon’s tests with confidence re-newed. Until we get to hill two. The trick with Trialling is to get out and walk each test to establish where it actually goes and what the conditions are like, mud, rocks, holes etc. Not having done this we blithely proceed the wrong way up the course not realising that the gates had been changed from the morning tests. With a terrible irony it was only after tackling the course in the wrong order thus scoring a big fat 12 that co-driver Dan drove over a large chunk of countryside jutting out pushing in the petrol tank and crushing the exhaust box into the propshaft creating an apocalyptic roar we endure for the rest of the afternoon as well as the 250mile journey home. Added to the morning’s damage that left the score a resounding Dorset 3 – Alfa Romeo 0.

Drive in Country Photo 4

A few more cleared tests left our final score at 207, the best possible score being, of course, 0, the worst 384 and the overall winner 74. This was good enough for 5th in class, 13th overall and best novice. All in all not a bad day’s motorsport for twenny quid. Oh yeah…. and maybe some repair bills.