Rallying is the ultimate test of driver, co-driver, and machine. Across the world, crews compete on a disparate range of surfaces, from circuit-like asphalt roads to the roughest of gravel terrain.
Sun, rain, or snow.
Day or night.
In this feature, international rally drivers Jon Armstrong, David Bogie, and John Coyne will shed some light on one such challenge. Tackling stages in darkness.
Eight years ago, the Ulster Rally combined Northern Ireland’s toughest stage with the trial of racing through it in darkness. Torr Head in reverse, at night, perhaps not the wisest stretch of road to make your night stage debut.
Step up 17-year-old Armstrong.
“If you had to choose your first stage in dark,” recounted Armstrong. “You would choose somewhere other than Torr wouldn’t you?
“I didn’t have my own lamp-pod so I borrowed one off a guy from Wales who was over at the rally as a mechanic. I almost had to buy it as I was close to hitting a wall during the stage.”
Fermanagh’s rising talent progressed into the Junior British Rally Championship with occasional appearances in the European Rally Championship over the next few years. New rallies brought more experiences of rallying in the dark and memories for Armstrong to reminisce.
“We did two night stages in the Trackrod and we were second to Daniel McKenna after those. On the first stage Timmy Cathcart was quicker than me by one second and Daniel was already another six or seven seconds up the road in the R2 class.
“Daniel did a lot of night navigation rallies so I think that is why he was so good on the night stages.
“On the second stage Timmy ended up in a ditch. Timmy was a really good character, he was really determined to be fast and was flat-out all the time.
“In 2015 I did Rally Liepaja in the snow. Driving on snow at night-time is actually quite nice because it sort of lights up the banks at the side of the road, you can nearly see better at night-time because you cast a shadow from the road on the banks giving you nice contrasts.”
Armstrong’s most recent stage in the dark came three years ago on his second WRC2 outing on Rally Spain. The early morning test presented a more unusual challenge.
“It was completely opposite to what we were used to as you start in the dark and it got lighter during the stage. It was a weird sensation.
“You can get blinded by the low sun quite a lot in rallying which is distracting for sure. There isn’t much you can do about it other than remain focused on the road.
“There are a lot of challenges in rallying but you just have to get on with it and deal with them. It is a unique sport with so many things you have to learn.”
Like Armstrong, David Bogie has had to rely on his car’s lighting system to guide him through many a stage across the United Kingdom. Night stages from Rally GB to the renowned Mull Rally have all been sampled by the 2011 British Rally champion.
So does the Scotsman enjoy rallying in darkness?
“I do, to be honest, it is certainly more of a challenge but it is just a different atmosphere from a driving perspective.
“You get a sense of the atmosphere with lit campfires and you’ll be picking up a lot of traffic at the side of the stages like fluorescent jackets and marshals tabards.
“At the same time it is all tunnel vision and you don’t really care about what is at the left and right-hand side of the road. Eyes are straight ahead and focusing on what is out in front.”
Both Armstrong and Bogie marked setting up the lamp-pods correctly as the most critical aspect of driving at night. But as Bogie explains, even that isn’t completely straightforward.
“For me, one of the biggest challenges is when the street signs actually shine back at you. With the HD lights, quite often that will come back on you off the signs or traffic cones.
“The co-driver needs to see his notes but at the same time not using too much light inside the cockpit so it doesn’t distract the driver.
“Even the simple things, on Mull it is so much darker than any other rally, like the Ulster for example where you are picking up hedges and telegraph poles. There is nothing really for the lights to pick up on as it is so barren at the side of the road which adds to the challenge as well.”
Bogie has competed on Rally GB against some of the best Rally2 (R5) competitors over the past six years. The lack of late autumn light merged with the mist that hovers in the air of Wales’ forests is not for the faint-hearted.
“When the mist starts to gather between the trees you can hardly see over the end of the bonnet.
“You are constantly dropping it from the main beam to the dipped beam and knocking off the corner lights just to get the optimum lighting for the conditions. It can be stressful.
“I think the natural assumption for a driver when it gets like that you think you are losing time but in reality, you just have to relax and think ‘everybody is in the same situation, everybody is going to be dropping time here.’
“So when you come to the end of the stage you think you have lost loads of time but nine times out of ten you find out that is not the case.
“Another thing I have found on gravel is when you come down into a junction and you give the car a big chuck. You finish up going sideways down the road and looking out of the window but you are just looking into black because the lights remain pointing to the front of the car.
“Quite often I have to be less aggressive in how I throw the car into a junction or hairpin.
“I remember on Rally Scotland I had a real high-speed one in my [Mitsubishi] Evo. I was braking very hard and late into a junction, I was at a point where I was going to overshoot the junction.
“I remember throwing the car sideways, way prior to the junction, and it felt like half a minute instead of the two or three seconds it took because I couldn’t see what was there to hit.”
The challenge of night-time driving is still there today. As Bogie talked through his experiences on Mull’s two night-time legs it was impossible not to feel the atmosphere on Scotland’s west coast island.
Events famed for their grueling night-time legs come no bigger than the Circuit of Ireland.
We all know the tales of Ari Vatanen, Henri Toivonen, McRae, Brookes, and Fisher, but it’s easy to overlook the long itineraries in darkness that were required to get the crews from Belfast to Killarney and back, over the Easter weekend.
“You’d leave Killarney at lunch-time on Easter Monday,” remembered 1982 Irish Tarmac champion Coyne, “and you would get into the finish in Belfast at one o’clock on Tuesday. You would have only stopped maybe twice, for an hour each time, as you drove up through Connemara and Donegal.
“They were proper night events, they ran all night, it wasn’t just a couple of stages in the dark.
“You had two of those stints on the Circuit. The rally would start on Good Friday and you’d do an afternoon loop of stages. I don’t recall if we went continuously until we got to Dublin in the early hours of Saturday morning or if we got a chance to go to bed.
“It was a pretty tough event from a physical and mental perspective. You were always on the go for five days straight.”
Monaghan’s Daniel McKenna was referenced earlier in this feature regarding his pace in the dark. Coyne’s night navigation background also gave him a repertoire for driving in the dark as well.
“Back then I really enjoyed the night stages because I had a bit of an advantage from doing a lot of navigation rallies,” said Coyne. “I was used to driving in the dark and the guys who only did stage events, those were typically the only two events that run stages at night.
“So if you were heavy into the navigation scene then your mind, eyes, and reactions were tuned to the night-time stuff.
“On the navigation rallies I was known as the phantom fog maniac because I used to drive on the basis that if you couldn’t see anything then there was nothing there.”
Night navs, lamp-pod set-up, and mastering tunnel vision are areas to focus on being fast in the dark.
While Armstrong appreciated the variety night-time stages bring, Bogie was drawn to the challenge and atmosphere. As for Coyne, well those memories of the Circuit of Ireland in its heyday are just something special.
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Photos courtesy of Jakob Ebrey, British Rally Championship, and European Rally Championship