Driving a 1954 Austin-Healey 100/4 from Peking to Paris in the June 2019 ERA Rally.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

0135 Germany, Belgium, France. Days 33-36

0135   Germany, Belgium and France.  Days 33-36
July 4th-7th 2019
A mad dash to the finish in Paris !

Start of the special stage in Szczecin
Day 33.  Szczecin Poland to Wolfsburg Germany. 375 kms.  Since it was only a few kilometres to the German border, I have included the start of this day in this post.  Our last day in Poland - In fact Szczecin is almost in Germany, so not far to the border.  However, first of all there was a short, sharp test to do almost in the middle of town - They had closed a cobbled section of road for us, and it was tight, twisty, and undulating, with a couple of chicanes thrown in for good measure - And we had to do two laps !! Once again, Ashton steered us quickly and safely round, and we maintained our position in the European Cup standings.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

0134 Baltic States & Poland Days 29-32

0134 Baltic States & Poland Days 29-32
30th June - 3rd July 2019
Getting closer !

Sunset over Tallinn
1929 RR Phantom I in Tallinn
Day 29.  Tallinn to Riga.  356 kms.  Leaving the hotel,
roadworks necessitated some "ERA Arrows" to be posted at the last minute to change our route out of Tallinn.  No problem, except somehow our Monit had changed its distance measurement from kilometers to miles, and markers in the route book (like gas stations or churches) were coming up very early !  After a while I sussed what was happening and got it back to reading kms again !

0133 Finland. Days 27 & 28

0133 Finland,  Days 27 & 28
28th & 29th June 2019
Short and sweet visit to Finland.  Forest rally stages !

All tucked up in Finland
Day 27.  In to Hyviinka hotel.    Shortly after crossing the border, we stopped in a gas station / cafe for a 5 minute break, and found a little stall outside selling delicious looking cherries.  After a lack of fruit recently, we decided to buy a bag - And our only regret later was that we
In the hotel car park
hadn't bought a bigger bag.  We agreed that they were possibly the most delicious cherries we've ever tasted, and there wasn't one soft or bad one in the bag.  We spat 
                                                         cherry stones out of the car
Chatting in the car park
the whole way to the hotel ! A very pleasant drive, and when we reached the hotel found everyone standing around in the car park in the warm evening sun, enjoying a beer and one (or was it two ?) delicious free hot dogs put on by the hotel.  A very pleasant "Welcome to Finland" evening.

Day 28.  Hyviinka Finland to Tallinn Estonia.  138 kms.   It may only have been 138 kms, but it was split pretty equally between the fast and excellent timed stages, and the quiet of standing around waiting for ferries !   First of all, near the hotel, was the Hyviinka Rally Cross circuit, and there were plenty of knowledgeable spectators there who were actually waiting for a full blown rallycross meeting later that day.  Gidget (and Ashton !) did really well on the mix of dirt and tarmac, the transition between the two always providing a stern test of both man and machine.  We only had one hiccup where we almost turned left where we should have gone straight on, but to be fair, the "normal" circuit DID turn left  there, and there were lots of tyre marks on the tarmac to indicate the turn.
 However, for us they had put cones there, but they were hidden from view until the mistake was made !  Devious.  Luckily we were far from the only car to make that error, and we ended up well up in the results, beating several of those newer, faster cars that are normally ahead of us.  As today marked the beginning of a "new" competition, the European Cup, this started us of on the right foot.

Holden on rally stage
From Hyviinka we moved on to the Saukkolan Rally Circuit, which is a much longer and freer flowing course, albeit it with a mix of tight twist sandy sections to open sweeping gravel sections.  As usual with all these tests, we never get to see them before we compete on them, so, apart from a paper diagram of the course (not to scale, so doesn't really tell you a lot !), you drive it as you find it.  This one was really good, and we worked it the same way as we had done on other such tests, where Ashton concentrated on the immediate road ahead, while I tried to look ahead and call out what was coming up - a tight hairpin, or an opening bend, etc.  It seemed to work quite well.   On this occasion, apart from getting a lot of understeer on the inner tight sandy sections, we did well, and were again up there well into the top 10.   All in all, a great couple of stages in Finland.

As they located the MTC at the end of the Saukkolan test, we were able to relax there and enjoy some food and a cup of coffee, in the knowledge that it was a relatively easy drive down to Helsinki to line up to catch the ferry across to Tallinn in Estonia.

Statues in Helsinki
Once we arrived in Helsinki, we waited around in the terminal for a while, having a bite to eat with some of the other competitors, underneath a somewhat questionable piece of art !  The mood now we were out of Russia and finally in Europe was noticeably
Seagulls on Gidget
lighter - Perhaps because people really started to believe that maybe they WERE going to reach Paris.  Before this, it had been more of a "hope" than a "possibility" !   When check in time came and we
Patrick getting attacked !
moved through into the holding area, for some reason Patrick in car 33 decided to feed the seagulls, and within two minutes he had dozens of them not only swooping him, but also sitting on many adjacent cars, waiting for their turn.  And as usual, seagulls make a mess !!   It was hilarious to watch !

Finally we moved forward and drove up onto the ferry.  This was
my second time on this ferry, as I had been here 3 years ago in my Toyota, so it was all starting to become more familiar.  Our route down through Latvia was also the route I took, so I was to see many sights I recognised alog the way.

Once we docked in Tallinn, it was only a short drive to the hotel in Tallinn, and I was exhausted and soon in bed.  Ashton and many of the other guys went into the old city for a look - I had spent time there before and knew how beautiful it was.  I was just too exhausted to join them.

Rest of the pics are here :-  https://photos.app.goo.gl/mhtEmEE5M6vzPMbw7

Saturday, 31 August 2019

0132 Russia 2 Days 19 - 26

0132   Russia 2.   Days 19 - 26
June 20-27,  2019
Some 3700 kms in 5 days of driving !!

Preparing to leave Bannoe Lake
So here we are back in Russia again, and this is to be L-O-N-G haul across some very open country.  We do have two Rest Days in there, however, although with the clutch issue plus another couple of issues yet to manifest themselves, we are going to need both of them.  Having entered Russia yesterday from Kazakhstan, the previous post left us on the shores of the picturesque Bannoe Lake, enjoying an excellent dinner by the shore, before wandering back through the woods to our accomodation in the resort.  Today was to see us heading west to Ufa for a well earned Rest Day - Or rather "Work on the Car Day" !!

Heading out of Bannoe Lake
Day 20.   Bannoe Lake to Ufa.  455 kms.   Today was our 3rd day running with no clutch, and to limit wear and tear as much
as possible, we even got the Time Control guys to run along beside us and give us a rolling start on a couple of occasions !  Interesting !  Heading out from Bannoe Lake, we were warned of Police presence on the road, and duly got pulled up, along with many others. They told us to turn around, and it was somewhat unclear as to quite what they meant - Were we being arrested, or, because other rally cars who had
Car sculpture at T-Ring
completed the next test at the T-Ring were heading back, did they think they were helping us to go in the correct direction ?  We will never know, because while the Volvo in front of us did as he was told and turned around (thus missing the test and incurring a 20 minute penalty), Ashton waved politely and drove on !!  Despite a "running start", we completed the test at the T-Ring in 2.07 mins, which wasn't too bad, and then, after nearly forgetting our time card, headed out past a row of car "statues" buried nose down in the ground, and back on to the main road - By which time the Police block was gone !!

Villages along the way
The drive through the Ural mountains was beautiful, passing through many villages with their wooden houses, often with brightly
coloured roofs - Maybe bright blue or green paint is cheaper than the more normal subdued colours ?!   Ufa is a big city, so coming into town with no clutch was obviously hard on Ashton, especially since we were split into 2 hotels in Ufa, and came past the wrong hotel first, so after stopping we then had to start again to get to the correct hotel.

Once we were at the hotel, it was confirmed that our clutch parts had arrived safely, and once their delivery had been "arranged", Ashton set off with a guide to find a mechanics shop so he could start work early in the morning.

Searching for a horn in Ufa
Day 21.  Rest day in Ufa.      My task in the mornng was to seach for other parts we needed, such as engine oil (for an oil change), gearbox and diff oil, and a horn, to replace our ex Mercedes unit that seemed to have suffered after swallowing too much water and mud !  Having found out where possible parts stores were located, I eventually got all the "stuff", and headed off in a taxi to find Ashton in the workshop.  By the time I got there they had the gearbox out and had found the clutch problem - the plate wasn't too bad but the throw out mechanism was totally destroyed - Very likely caused by the very abrasive mud stage we completed a few days ago, once it dried just became extremely abrasive.  A number of other cars also had similar problems.

It was a tough day for Ashton, made worse by the fact that on the way back to the hotel, Gidget suddenly developed an electrical fault that left him stranded.  He suspected the cut out switch so by-passed it, after which she ran.  We presumed that had fixed the problem, but as we found out later, that was not the case..........

Once back at the hotel, we found the new horn was not working properly - it was on when it was
Very Blue house beside the road
supposed to be off, and vice versa.  So Ashton went out for dinner while I set about trying to resolve the horn issue.  There were a lot of people crowding in to watch me as I fiddled with wires and connections, which didn't make life easy.  One guy seemed to know what he was doing, despite a total lack of English which made communication difficult, but when he disappeared, I
Salavat Yulaev statue in Ufa
thought he had given up.  I was about to give up too, when he returned with a plastic bracket - It turned out that the horn body needed to be isolated from the car body, and then it would work properly !  It didn't look very pretty, but eventually we had it hooked up and working properly.  I also took the opportunity to fit back all the bits that had been removed when they removed the transmission tunnel to get the gearbox out, and make sure that all the charging cables were working properly for our instruments - We had a few issues in the past few days - Once again, like everything else, probably caused by all that abrasive Mongolian dust !

Bus boys hauling rally tyres
Someone catching up on sleep
Bus boys pushing trolleys stacked with rally car tyres is not a sight you often see
at Hilton Hotels, but around the Ufa Hilton today was a frequent sight.  And a 109 year old steam car having a full engine rebuild is also something not often seen in a Hilton car park !  Meanwhile, some people who shall remain nameless apparently had a good night on the town, and on their return were consequently unable to locate their hotel room - So they caught up on the sleep in the lobby !

Older houses around Ufa
Walking around Ufa while I searched for spare parts (along with several others on a similar mission !), it was interest to see many older wooden houses along the streets, and all of them, however shabby or unkempt, had intricately carved window frames.  This was true right across the region - Everywhere we went we noticed the lovely old window surrounds.  And visible from the windows of the hotel restaurant is the statue of  Salavat Yulaev, a folk hero of the Peasant Uprising of the 1770's.  In the evenings it is highlighted against the night sky, whereas in the day time it almost disappears amongst the surrounding trees.

There were some long days ahead in order to reach Finland, but at least we now had a clutch !!

Day 22.  Ufa to Kazan.   611 kms.   We checked out of the Time Control and headed out of own, happy to have a clutch once again - Even if it did need a slight adjustment to stop it slipping. But only a few kms down the road, Gidget just died - The same issue Ashton had yesterday that he thought was fixed, but evidently wasn't.  We were on a busy freeway, but fortunately were able to find a slip road that enabled us to get at least a little way out of the traffic.  We tried all sorts of things - But unfortunately we couldn't find the electrics bag which contained our little multimeter so we could check everything. Several other rally cars whisked past, but then Doug and Mike McWilliams in their S1 Bentley kindly pulled over, and, despite this delay causing them further penalties, came to lend a hand.  And they lent us both their little continuity tester as well as a multimeter, and we eventually determined that it was actually the keyed ignition switch that was the problem - seemingly due to Mongolian dust again !  Once that was shortcircuited, Gidget fired up, and after we had put all the wiring back together we were on our way - With many grateful thanks to Mike and Doug.

Heading across Russia
We were now a bit behind time-wise, and it didn't help when I then compounded it by making perhaps the stupidest mistake of the month - We took the first turn onto a freeway instead of the second one just 30 metres further on, and this put us heading east instead of west.  After about 30 kms I was looking at the online maps and wondered why we were heading east !!  Disaster.  Ashton was understandably upset, but fortunately the Russian freeways have frequent spots where you can do U turns, and we were able to reverse our direction fairly quickly.  But this put us even further behind time-wise !

Next item was a cross country timed stage, but as we were so late, no marshals were there, but we followed the route anyway - Quite a fun little course - Shame we missed it.  It was only later that we found out that that first timed section had actually been cancelled - We never needed to do it !   Do we get bonus points for being the only ones to complete it ?  I think not !

Donkey pumps in Oil country
During the day, we drove through an oil rich region, with many nodding donkey pumps working away pumping oil, and at one stage even saw an oil rig drilling away off to the side of the road.  Quite took me back to my 35 years in the business !!  And a
Diesel tanker truck rollover
consquence of the industry - Despite the sharp corner being clearly marked as "Dangerous", a tanker truck and trailer had rolled, and its full load of diesel seemd to be flowing down across the cambered corner, which we had to then drive through !  The smell and diesel residue was to stay with us for several days !!    Also lots of interesting wooden churches and other brightly coloured buildings, many with "onion domes" on the top. 

Kazan Ring
By the end of the day, when we had to go to the Kazan-Ring, we were back within our time allowance, and had a couple of laps of a great little track. As was to become frequent on these track tests, due to Ashton's skill behind the wheel, we were up there behind just the several Porsches, 240Z's, and Ferrari, and always able to give any spectators a laugh with Gidget's sideways antics due to off road 4WD tyres !   It will be interesting to one day put more suitable tyres on her and see how she performs.

Poster in Kazan hotel lift

Other poster in lift !

The Korston Hotel in Kazan was "interesting", with the night club, and the Men's Club with
 "private rooms" well advertised even in the elevator, where the ad was placed right next to the local McDonald's sign !  Only in Russia !

Crossing pontoon bridge
Day 23.  Kazan to Nizhny Novgorod.  487 kms.   No timed sections to day, all transit, so slightly less frenetic.   We crossed two metal pontoon bridges across rivers today, which were interesting - Does this mean they have big floods or that the rivers freeze over in the winter ?  We also travelled on some excellent roads, but these were interspersed with sections with terrible pot holes in them, which required full attention and good steering in order to avoid them and any potential suspension damage.  In many places in rural Russia which are covered in snow for much of the long winter, they see no reason to fill potholes during the summer months because "they will soon be filled by the snow anyway" !!

Ice creams in NN car park
Volga River views
On arrival in NN, we had to find our way up a confusingly signed hill to an almost
formal Civic Reception, where, after passing
through the customary blow-up finish arch, we had our end of day MTC manned by Jim Smith, and then parked amongst the familiar crowds of inquisitive supporters. This spot was better than most, with excellent views down over the Volga River.  A small stall was selling excellent ice creams, and most people enjoyed these while relaxing after the long day.

Lenin Statue in hotel car park
We then dropped down off the hill and had a short drive to our Hotel, the Marins Park Hotel, easily distinguishable by the large statue of Lenin in the middle of the car park !  In addition to the now usual crowds, there was also a DJ set up right at Lenin's feet, playing some very loud music that not only made it difficult to
With Lenin......
hear anything, but was even loud enough to make concentration difficult !  Occasionally the DJ would stop the music, and come down with his microphone and interview P2P competitors - On of whom was Ashton.   Not sure how much the mainly Russian spectators understood of Ashton's English, but it was all part of the event and was great fun.

Ashton being interviewed
The hotel itself was "interesting", to say the least.   It must be difficult to find accomodation for some 220 competitors plus 30 or more ERA officials, but it seems this hotel had thrown extra beds into already tiny rooms, in order to fit us in.  As a result it was almost impossible to get into the room and move around - You either stayed out of the room, or went to bed.  Fortunately it was 2 single beds and not one double !! And the instructions in the elevator which explained how to use it were just a little on the detailed side !! Evidently elevators are not too common in these parts, so users need some help !

Having fun at the N Ring
Day 24.  Nizhny Novgorod to Zavidovo.  595kms.    While the 8 am start sounded reasonable, it turned out that the MTC
was to be located some 40 kms away from the hotel, at the N-Ring race track.  No, not the Nurburgring, but the Nizhny Ring !   So we left Mr Lenin in the square outside the hotel, and wound our way out and up out of town, through the traffic towards the track.  On the way we passed the P76 that had suffered a small coming together with a local at an on ramp - Not a good situation when they are leading the rally, and they MUST be at the MTC on time if they are to keep that lead.  We all gathered in the car park at the 'Ring, and got the opportunity to sit in the stands and watch some of the earlier-starting competitors.  On a "normal" day, we only ever get to see the cars that start a few minutes either side of us, so it was a treat to watch some of the vintagent cars out on the track.  Just a few minutes before the P76 was due at the MTC, they arrived in the car park, together with a slightly scarred front fender. But they had made it in time, so maintaining their lead, much to Matt & Gerry's relief.

The laps on the track were a great way to start the day, and once again, due to Ashton's track skills, we were only bested by the usual gaggle of Porsches, 240z's, and the Ferrari and the P76.   I even got to stand on the podium - but that was prior to our time on track !!

Old disused warehouses
After the N-Ring, it was still a long 550 kms to Zavidovo, which is north of Moscow, which we avoided by going round one of the outer ring roads.  We were supposed to do a couple of dirt tests at the end of the day, but apparently the Government had some other plans for the area that day, and they were therefore cancelled.

Passing golden domed churches
Unfortunately the starter motor decided it had had enough today, so the format was now to either park on a downhill slope, or to find enough spectators to give us a quick push !  Apart from this, the car itself is still running well, and she swallowed up the long kms today with ease.  When overtaking, our normal "system" is for Ashton to poke Gidget's nose out just a little so I can see what is coming, and then I call the overtakes as I see fit in the traffic.  This
system works very well.  However on one occasion today when he
Houses beside the road
poked the nose out for a look, there was a VERY large truck RIGHT THERE, which necessitated some very extreme action by Ashton who, despite a slide onto a rough grass bank beside the road, managed to get Gidget under control before we encountered anything too solid, although I think we were airborne a couple of times !   There was silence in the cockpit for a minute or two, until we both started laughing, more in relief, I think, as we both realised how close that one had been !!

Zavidovo hotel entrance
The long day on the road had a sting in the tail, as the traffic near the end was atrocious, which a number of people had to take extreme measures in order to get to the MTC before time ran out.  This was not an enjoyable end to the day, and a number of entrants felt that to have to take such extreme measures was outside the format of the event.  Whatever, we made it, and we
"Beach" outside Zavidovo hotel
finally reached Zavidovo and our Radisson Hotel. This hotel is apparently a favourite of Russian Presidents past and present.  It is certainly very extensive, and has a "beach" complete with multiple sun beds and sun shades, laid out along the edge of a lake.  Looks very interesting.............  But a nice facility, a good bar, and some good food, as usual.  And big spacious rooms, which was a change after last night !!

Bridges & freeways of St Pete
Day 25.  Zavidovo to St Petersburg. 664 kms - Our longest day. To be honest I don't remember a lot about this day, apart from the funny little track at the end of the day - The St Petersburg Autodrome.  As usual, we were right behind all the usual competitors, and flying the flag high for the Austin Healey brand.

The main thing I do remember is the hectic traffic and complicated route to our hotel through the busy freeways of the outskirts of St Petersburg.  We nailed it, and arrived eventually arrived at the extensive Baltic Star hotel, located some kms west of the centre of St Petersburg, but there were many cars who took wrong turnings, arriving at the hotel very disgruntled.  That evening, a number of people went into St Pete to check it out.  Ashton set up an appointment at a mechanics shop to try to sort out the starter motor problem.

Peterhof Palace & fountains
Hydrofoil into St Pete
Day 26. St Petersburg.  Rest 
Day.   Ashton took Gidget off to the work shop on a rainy morning, and there wasn't a lot I could do to help, so I had a true "rest day" and went into St Petersburg with Marian Crichton.  Instead of just catching a taxi into the centre, I found out about the Peterhof Palace located just a few kms in
Hermitage Museum
the opposite direction, from where there was apparently a ferry that went right into St Petersburg centre, in fact right outside the famous Hermitage Museum.  So we saw the very impressive Peterhof Palace Gardens, and then caught a fast hydrfoil into the city.  From there we explored on foot, viewing the seemingly endless queues of tourists trying to get into the Hermitage, the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood (built on the site of the fatal wounding of Alexander II in 1981), and on around the city.  It really is an amazing city, the capital of Russia for 200 years, and founded in 1703 by Peter the Great.  Its architecture is based on the great architecture of Europe at that time, and today it houses the breathtaking remains of past glories.  Personally I was surprised by the extent of the canal
Shipbuilding on riverside
St Pete canals
system - I had never realised that the city had such extensive canals.  I will not try to write more, but will post just a few of the photos, with the rest available via the usual link below.  St
Petersburg needs much more than one day to see, especially if you want to get into the museums, but we had to be satisfied with just a cursory look.   In the afternoon, after a delicious coffee and cake in a little cafe, we caught the hydrofoil back to the Peterhof Palace, where, much to our delight, the amazing fountains we now operating fully.  When you see what the state of the Palace was in in 1944 after it was largely destroyed, it is wonderful to see it restored to its former glory again.
After getting back to the hotel, found Ashton had had a successful day and we now had a starter motor, and fresh oil in the diff - We were ready to head to Europe !

Fancy villa entrance hall
For some reason (!), married couples had been allocated to separate villas in the grounds of the hotel, while unmarried entrants remained in the main hotel building itself.  John and Marian Crichton had invited a number of us over to their villa for drinks - However it took us over an hour to obtain the required passes in order to get through security to the villas !!  Apparently, due to Presidents and other high ranking Russian officials often staying in these villas, we were required to have special clearance passes, carry our passports, and then go through a security check
Living room in villas
in a guard house before we could enter the fenced off area containing the villas !  We needed the drink by the time we got there !  And the villas were pretty amazing, with massive rooms and hgh ceilings, chandeliers, and sweeping staircases. We then moved on to another villa where a number of other couples were staying, and had a most pleasant evening with everyone over a meal.  Great way to finish off Russia ! Fortunately getting back to the main hotel through the guard house wasn't so difficult !

Scenic road towards Finland
Day 27.  St Petersburg Russia to Hyviinka Finland.   488 kms.  Today saw us open our 3rd and final routebook - With the last page being Paris !!  We made our way out of St Petersburg, again struggling to find our way on the complicated and busy freeways.  This time we did make a small mistake, only to find Jo and Heather Worth had made the same mistake in their Volvo !   A surreptitious illegal U turn saw us get back onto an on-ramp back to the freeway, and no harm done !
Queuing at the last border

We were due to have a last timed stage just before the border, but apparently once again the Government had decided there was too much risk near the border, and the stage had to be cancelled.  So we continued on in the sunshine, through forests that started to look very like Finland.  We were beside rivers, and had to wait at raised bridges while small tourist boats passed through.  It was only about 2 hours before we reached the border, and started our last border queue before hitting Europe !

Resy of the pics can be found here :-  https://photos.app.goo.gl/WjJ419V6FNMzxg8r5