WRC Rally RACC Catalunya, Rally of Spain, the penultimate round of the WRC took place this weekend. The World Rally Championship’s only registered female driver from the 109 driver entrants, Louise Cook, was still in with a shout of claiming the WRC3 Championship, the 2 wheel drive support class of the WRC.
Louise, needing to win both of the final rounds to have a chance of the title, made it to the start line with fantastic support from OSRAM, NGK, RDS Global, PSI Springs, Sosec, Instaboom, Compliance, Safe Machine, Panta Fuel, Michelin, Solera Autodata, Mountune, Euro Tunnel, Duckhams, Aurora and the amazing support from the public through crowdfunding. The team only knew on the Friday afternoon that the rally would be going ahead for them and then had to leave on the Sunday for the drive down to Salou.
2 pass Recce thankfully went okay for the team, the recce car got through okay without any mishaps and the crew were happy to have seen every stage with the full two passes.
“It has taken a long time, effort and training to get to a point where I can write sensible pacenotes with only two passes. They are still far from perfect, and I am tweaking them in the stage when we are able to attack still. To know all of the correct racing lines of every compound corner and to know exactly where you need to be on the road and then translate that into a pace note is really not easy. The concentration that you need on the recce is extremely intense, you cannot get distracted for even a split second, which is tricky when it is on open public roads with oncoming vehicles and also every other driver is also on their recce and overtaking each other, you have to really zone in. I was pleased that our notes were ok, on the World events the roads are so demanding, but this is what makes it also the perfect place to learn the craft.”
The 1st stage was the glamourous and very popular Barcelona City Centre stage. Louise got the event underway, driving through the Barcelona streets and back to service trouble free ready for the following day’s gravel stages.
With no finance to test the car, Louise had to make an educated guess on which car settings would work best.
“The car felt good, but whenever you make a change in the setting, even an improving one, it takes a bit of time to adjust your driving to start getting the most from it” said Louise.
Louise climbed to 2nd place in WRC3 before the long 40 km stage, with rival Brazzoli in 3rd position, keeping a little pressure on the Italian driver to fight back up the leaderboard for the championship points.
“It was a tricky stage, it must be around 20km of tarmac roads with gravel tyres and the tyres were destroyed half way through, but what can you do. I just hoped I had enough for the gravel section at the end” Said Louise.
The stage was going well for the British Driver when suddenly the car started to feel like it had no fuel, a quick check on the electronic dash showed plenty of fuel in the tank like what was calculated. Louise tried to crawl through the stage at around 20 mph to get to the end hoping that it may be a simple fix.
“We got to the end of the stage but we had lost 10 minutes in the stage. We worked on anything we could think of with the bonnet open, when the car cooled down it started to clear the problem, but then it would seem to start again when we set off and the heat built up” said Louise.
Louise managed to limp the car back to service slowly, arriving at service 15 minutes late and incurring time penalties, but it meant that the team now had 30 minutes to find the problem. The team changed the usual suspects like the individual cylinder coil packs and spark plugs. The car left service running again but only 10km down the highway the problem re-occurred. The crew had no choice but to retire and take the 3 hour Rally2 service option to try and find the problem so that they could return the next day albeit with some larger time penalties.
The team found a simple £2.00 engine wiring harness connector had slightly loose terminals to the high pressure fuel pump sensor. The car was now running, but the time penalties had virtually ended Louise’s WRC3 championship hopes.
Lario, who was also another competitor battling for the 25 points, made a mistake in the road section going the wrong way which also saw him incur 10 minutes of penalties, meaning the fight for 1st place could have then fallen into Cook’s hands without the electrical issue.
“It is sad we didn’t get a chance to do our part in the championship and keep the pressure on, a win here in Spain would have taken the championship to Australia and finishing these demanding events is never easy” said Louise.
On the Saturday the rally changed from gravel to tarmac. The heavens opened all day Saturday, big cuts and very muddy stages were now the challenge. Now close to the back from the time penalties meant the road was the most polluted for Cook.
“We learnt a lot about mud cuts, but there really was nothing to gain from pushing, only risking having to find money to repair the car so we just backed off to get to the finish and learn what we could the easy way. Saturday was quite a numb day to be honest, but we got through.”
Sunday the weather had cleared a little and the roads began to dry. The plan was to finish and gain the 15 points had to creep up the championship to 6th place in WRC3 for Louise. Though the dramas from a rally can come at any point and on the Sunday that’s exactly what happened. What should have been a simple day turned into a day where all could be lost. The car was heavily smoking from the exhaust after the first two stages. The crew quickly realised it was under boost condition and hoped it was the Turbo and not the Engine.
“We limped back to service again, keeping the car revving low to prevent the oil pressure getting too high and keeping the turbo from coming on boost and spinning too fast, we were lucky that Sunday’s stages were not 100’s of km’s away like they were on Friday as we would probably not have made it.”
The crew made it back and the team changed the turbo in the 30 minute service ready for the second loop of the same stages, but the car was still not behaving correctly. The car was misfiring and heavily smoking leaving service because of all of the leaked oil from the blown turbo, but on the motorway it eventually cleared and this confirmed that it was definitely turbo failure and Cook and Davis managed to clear the last two stages.
“We managed to finish Rally Spain and were glad of that, we nearly didn’t, for us it really was not the most enjoyable event. If we return to Spain in 2019 maybe it will be kinder to us.”
Rally Australia is the final round of the season, but now with WRC3 already won by Brazzoli in Spain, the only gain for Louise is the possibility to climb to 4th position in the WRC3 championship from 6th position from the 24 WRC3 registered competitors, with zero funding for the event, it makes it a very difficult task.