This year, Creditplus are extremely proud to be announcing that we will be sponsoring a local rally car race team who will be competing at national events throughout the season. WE’ll be bringing you updates of their progress, along with plenty of pictures, videos and articles.
Andy Phillips is behind the wheel, supported by teammate Stu Bowers handling the navigation. Both Stu and Andy are no strangers to the adrenaline rush, and when they aren’t speeding their rally spec Peugeot 205 GTi around a rally track, they can be found out on their bikes. Stu has cycled for Great Britain, and Andy has competed at a National Level in cross country – some pretty impressive achievements.
We decided to catch up with Stu, to find out a little more about what got him and Andy into the rallying, and asked them some question that we’ve been dying to know the answers to. Find out below what they had to say!
Creditplus: How did you get into rallying?
Stu: As the youngest of three brothers, Andy has been involved with motorsport most of his life. One of his brothers was once a top driver in the National gravel rally series and Andy used to get involved helping out with service crew and occasionally navigating. His other brother was a successful go-kart racer, so I guess you could say it’s in the blood for him.
I’ve always had an interest in motorsport too, and Andy and I would regularly watch the Bournemouth Sunseeker winter rally together, especially when his brother was competing. One year we were just stood watching at a stage start and said, “This could be us next year.” We saved up and bought a fairly basic, clubman spec rally car – a Peugeot 205 Gti – and we’ve never looked back.
There was never any doubt about how the partnership would work for us. Andy had previously also shown a considerable talent for driving, regularly winning auto tests and scatter rallies as a youngster. My penchant is for organisation and attention to detail, so navigating seemed like the role for me. I guess you could say we’re a classic partnership where I’m the brains and Andy is the brawn!
From that humble beginning, with a shoe-string budget and pretty basic set-up, the snowball started rolling, and it’s never stopped gaining momentum and size. Although it’s been hard work, with relentless expenditure, it’s been worth it. We’ve had great fun along the way, and eventually, not only did we realise our initial dream of lining up for Rallye Sunseeker, we achieved 3rd in class (on our third attempt), which given our budget and restrictions compared to many teams on this national level event, was no small feat.
Creditplus: Was it a steep learning curve with all the rules?
Stu: Yes, for sure. In rallying, you’re not allowed to race at a national level until you’ve earned your stripes, so to speak. You must compete at, and finish successfully, a minimum of six lower ranking events before you are granted a national racing license. That goes for driver and navigator. This was not as easy as it sounds. We were starting from ground zero, and it didn’t get off to a great start. On our very first ever event, a tarmac rally in Wales – we crashed out on the second stage. An early bath and a huge disappointment.
For Andy the learning came from getting to grips with the car both as a driver and a mechanic. The two go intrinsically hand in hand. You need the mechanical skills to know the set-up, and to get the car handling the way you want it. For me it was a totally new challenge. Learning the ropes of the role of navigator, and realising quite quickly that, for everything except the actual driving part, the buck stops with me! Navigating initially was like going in to sit the hardest school exam of my life, and the pressures were considerable. I was physically shaking the first time we rolled up to a stage start line with a set of pace notes in my hand. But you soon get used to it. And really, that’s the easy part as far as navigating goes. It’s all the other stuff that goes unseen. Timing of everything is critical, and there is literally not a second to spare.
Creditplus: Are there places to practice driving before the races?
Stu: Unfortunately not. Not at least without paying to use Rally Schools and the like. Obviously the car is fully road legal – it has to be as stage rallies use the public highway between stages – so we can drive it on the roads, perhaps to run it in after engine work, or bed brakes in etc. but any ‘driving in anger’ is out of the question. Often when we pull up to the start of the first stage of an event, it’s been several months since Andy and I were last in the car together. It’s a frustration, but a hard one to solve. We often find ourselves getting so much quicker towards the back end of events, as we both have had time to settle down and feel more at home in the car again. Which is usually too little too late.
Creditplus: Do you do all the work on the car or outsource it?
Stu: In the early days it was, as much as possible, a joint project for Andy and I. We tried to do everything ourselves and we spent many long, late, nights working up at the workshop on various aspects of the car. These days work commitments keep me out of my overalls for much of the time and Andy has taken over the lions share of all the upkeep and preparation of the car. He does almost everything himself. It’s how we still like it to be. We still always consult on what’s needed and the best course of action though, so we are in control of everything. We are both very particular and I think it would be hard to entrust anyone else to work on the car now. It’s always been our baby.
Creditplus: Roughly how much has been spent on the car since you began rallying, and what has been a single biggest expense?
Stu: That would be telling! Let’s just say it’s a lot. God knows how many ‘thousands’ over the years. But you almost don’t want to know sometimes. If we kept adding it up it might scare us. We generally find a way to muddle through financially. Andy once had to sell his bike to pay for some repairs to the car.
The biggest expenses are always engine re-builds. It’s a long and laborious and a very skilled job – and hence the only task that needs to be outsourced to professionals really – and it comes at a high price, running into thousands. The reality though is racing engines do run a higher risk of failure. It’s almost an accepted cost of the sport. Obviously if you prang the car that’s not cheap either, but most of that is just the time needed to repair, and we can do a lot of body repairs ourselves.
Ongoing the biggest cost is rubber. Tyres, understandably, make a huge performance difference and running good rubber is the difference between a good placing and being upside down in the woods. But good rubber is getting pricier all the time.
Creditplus: What made you decide to choose a 205 GTI, and did you consider any other cars?
Stu: It was more a case of seeing what was available in our budget. We found the original 205 on eBay actually. When it came up it was ideal. It was affordable, but also we knew it would be easy to work on, in terms of making improvements (as Andy’s brother had driven for Peugeot back in the day so we already had a good knowledge base). Not to mention of course that it is a very quick little rally car. A smaller two wheel drive car also suits Andy’s driving style. He’s great technically, so a small, nimble car is perfect for him to throw around.
Creditplus: How did you do on your first rally?
It didn’t go well actually. It was a tarmac event in south Wales and it was really tight and twisty. We clipped a curb on the outside of a bend – a simple mistake really, and not a big one either, but there was so little room for error – but the impact was enough to bend the rear wheel under the car and that was that. We were sitting awaiting rescue after only one and a half stages. Very frustrating, and what’s more the rescue crew added insult to injury by towing our car into a post on the way back to the service area, doing more damage!
Creditplus: If you had one tip to give someone looking to start rallying what would it be?
Stu: You don’t need a six-figure sum in the bank to start off in rallying and have a really amazing time. You can pick up a perfectly race ready car for less than you’d think (ours cost around £5k). All you need then is to join a local club (there are plenty, just like the Bournemouth and District Car Club where we are members) and get yourself an MSA license and you can go and race at a club rally level without too much hassle. It’s like anything, you don’t always need the best kit to have fun, but if you’re anything like us, then very quickly you get addicted, and you’ll want to push more and more. That’s when the costs ramp up!
Creditplus: What car would you have if money was no object?
Stu: As I said earlier, (and I think he’d agree) I feel Andy’s experience and driving style suits smaller and more nimble cars, so a big, hefty 4wd car might not be our cup of tea.
The current VW Polo WRC would be right up our street. So, if anyone has a spare quarter of a million (or so) just lying around…..
Creditplus: Is it scary taking part in the events?
Stu: I’d be lying if I said I was never scared. There have been moments for sure, but oddly fear doesn’t really come into it when your in the event. There’s so much else to focus on. Besides, I trust Andy’s driving implicitly and I hope he trusts my navigation with the same level of commitment, so that helps to keep stress levels to a minimum inside the car, and we’re safer because of it. Plus, the bottom line is the safety inside the car is so good, there’s little to fear, even if it does go pear shaped.
Creditplus: What kinds of modifications were done to the car to bring it up to rally standard?
Stu: Safety is obviously a key concern. A lot of work is done to meet the necessary standards, set out by the MSA – the governing body. Roll cages, harnesses, seats, everything is checked in every detail so the preparation is paramount. There’s no point travelling all the way to an event to be turned away by the scrutineer who finds sloppy welds on your roll cage, or a poorly fitted fire extinguisher system, or similar. But also we work hard on modifications to make the car more reliable. Shoddy workmanship generally leads to the car letting you down. We don’t cut corners on this at all. We try and make everything as good as it can possible be. Again, there’s no point going to an event if the car is not prepared well enough to see it through. No stone is left unturned.
Creditplus: What do you do to prepare for a race?
Stu: Usually work our socks off getting everything as well prepared as humanly possible. Everything from the car itself, to all the spare parts we need to take on an event, tools, service crew, transportation. It all needs rigorous planning and organisation. Like the 5 P’s saying goes… preparation really matters in rallying. Having a simple problem can put you out of an event if you’ve not thought to take something with you. It’s no good if it’s back on the workbench in the workshop. You’ll be packing the car on the trailer and going home with a face like thunder, instead of heading out to race the next stage.
Creditplus: What’s been the biggest success to date?
Stu: Third in class at Rallye Sunseeker – A round of the National Series, and our class is one of the most hotly contested. A very good result indeed given the (then) level of our equipment compared with many other competitors. To put that into perspective – we ran budget tyres and used the same set for the entire rally, whereas some teams were fitting brand new, top end rubber, every other stage.
Creditplus: What has been the biggest disaster to date?
Stu: A big ‘off’ in the Somerset Stages Rally a few years ago led to us rolling off the forest road and down an embankment finishing with us being held upside down in a tree. It was a pretty low impact crash luckily, so Andy and I were both completely unscathed, but the car was a write off. But every cloud has a silver lining. That shell (car body) was very tired by that stage anyway, and actually it was the impetus for us to scrap it and start over with the car we rally now, which was a huge leap forwards in terms of the overall preparation and quality of the set-up. It’s almost a full ‘works’ spec rally car now.