Intoxicating. Mixing the countryside, the morning dew and mist with the sights, sounds and scent of sideways rally cars is intoxicating. This was one of those moments.
The engine is screaming. The Group B Lada VFTS is apparently pushed to the limit. It skates through the corner around the hilltop, watched by a group of cows munching away. Flat out right, 15, four left inside, caution ridge on right. A Scandinavian flick and the rear kicks out to the right, slightly drifting around the corner with its skinny tyres on top of the smooth but used and slippery tarmac with some of the morning wet still remaining. You can hear the sore throat-like sound for another few hundreds of metres, tyres squealing. No time to ponder though, as fireworks-like popping is coming from the top , turbo chirping. Here comes one of the big boys.
After attending the Mecsek Rally the week before it was a no-brainer to pay a visit to the rally sprint event in the same area with some of the stage sharing some sections from the previous race.
Perhaps I shall explain what a rally sprint (or a short rally) is. Technically it's a rally by all means, except that a sprint event takes place in one day and on one single stage only. It can be run in the same direction multiple times or back and forth. They can even modify the route slightly if so they wish, but the point of a rally sprint is to keep it tight in space and time so that it is easier to organize, making an affordable entry.
The beauty of it all is that sprint events are mostly amateur rallies with self-prepared cars and talents, but they are commonly tackled by professionals as well as a training opportunity.
By all means it was an early wake-up call on the last day of Summer Time, which made sure it kept being properly dark for the next two hours. I caught the bus just before six for an hour of travel. Little did I know then that I would be getting off at the wrong stop. I stepped out in the cold and something was wrong. There wasn't any road going to the right where I was supposed to catch the connection. Moreover there was a traffic jam in the middle of nowhere at such an early hour! The gates for the railway crossing were down and the lights were off, not working, next to a four-point intersection with the vehicles trying to get around the gates. One of the bus drivers got off cursing, raising the bar, but it kept coming down. I gave him a hand to let the bus and the cars pass through then I asked some old fellow whether the coach I was looking for was coming past there. "Yes", he said, so I kept waiting. In a misunderstanding he didn't say, though, that it was coming from the opposite direction, which I properly missed then. So I asked another person about where I was and how to get to my destination. He said if I took the train coming in ten minutes, it would take me right to where I wanted to go. I walked over the 'station', which had four dark-coloured Saabs taken apart at various stages, giving a menacing look at dawn. I still had to cover quite a lot after I got off the train and the first stage was duly under way by the time I got there.
The slopes of the Mecsek mountain usually have a slight Mediterranian feel to them with the Orfű lake nearby and the medieval city of Pécs to the South with some characteristics of the weather in general having marks not unlike of Southern Europe, as well, especially in the summertime.
The place in late October, though, was a lot different. The character of the stretch of road, the hills, the surroundings, the mist made the place an almost perfect replica of the Celtic Manor stage in Wales where I attended the British round of WRC two years before, so it was a perfect flashback and I expected the same sort of sideways action as I experienced there.
Since it was mainly an amateur event as I mentioned, the backbone of the range of cars were Ladas of different specifications. They went from nearly stock cars with roll cages to the fully ex-Group B homologated VFTS cars. Other cars included the tiny two-stroke Trabants in smaller classes and Suzukis just above. There were more serious contenders with BMWs, a Toyota Celica, a first-gen Subaru Legacy, a round-headlights Impreza with quite a few EVOs and even a latest-spec Ford Fiesta R5 for the professionals - over sixty cars overall.
Heavy rains of preceding days made the old tarmac surface slippery in the morning, but with sunshine expected for midday, the event was set out to see changing conditions. I chose a section just below the finish line with a fairly steep hill, a direction change on top and a fast corner around it with the cars coming up not too far from my feet on the inside of a flat-out kink (which was turned into the finish line for the third pass).
At the first two passes everybody was just trying to get familiar with the surface, with some unplanned sideways movements. The Ladas were trying to run spectacularly, the Trabants were attempting... climbing up the hill.
Some cars were at a significant ease, like the Celica and the Impreza with the owners not wanting to write-off their cherished vehicles. It was quite a said sight seeing these rally-bred machines strolling up and down with their legendary looks and inspiring noises. One would think they should have just bought a cheap rally car and go fast, but let that be their thing.
As the racers went by, a dry line started to show, and soon after the sun came out that proved to be a game changer. I wasn't comfortable with my position any more as it turned from a great sighting place on the uphill pass to a run-off area in dry conditions for the downhill run. So I walked up the hill and witnessed the second half of it from there.
By then crowds were gathering, some folks came with cameras to film for their rally YouTube channel. There was a slight feel of disappointment with a few of the 'big cars' driving slowly, but the pro drivers in their proper rally cars and the amateurs with swinging Lada rear ends made up for it.
I started talking to the apparently chain-smoking track marshal in-between passes, who was so bored he started cracking various stories and Trabant jokes whenever one was coming through. "What are we waiting for, the track is clear? Oh, gawd, I wanna go home. You know it was a start at 2AM for me. I should really stop this, I can't do this anymore at such age" - he cried. He wasn't affected by the cars or the drivers, he's seen it all. "You know, once I was at this rally many years ago. There was this corner, very much like this one and a hillside just like that but without the ditch. So this Lada comes around, loses it, runs up the hill and hits these two Polish guys. Both dead. I never forget it. No one ever thought any car could climb up that high incidentally. A reminder that there is no perfectly safe place around race cars at speed."
As it got warmer, the dry line started to turn into a rubbered-up racing line with cars attacking the hill with an even-greater commitment. A cow almost wandered onto the track but then she changed her mind and went back to the green pastures. Lots of young people, even families came out and a surprisingly large amount of girls. We are deep in rally country after all. Some of the guys are amateur drivers themselves, commenting on the competitors, with huge smile on their face whenever the Legacy flies past and a frown when the Impreza does. Every time a Lada is involved in sideways action they yell "Yeah, that's how you drive it, bitch!"
After a while everyone seemed a little tired, even the drivers started playing safe for the final pass. The spectators started leaving and the Mediterrantian sunshine eventually gave place to the 'Welsh' countryside again, with the sun peeking out behind the clouds eventually.
I started walking to the next village 5km away, not wanting to wait for the bus as I had plenty of time till the connection. I sat down at the bus stop at ease in the dusk and listened to some people watching their videos they made at the rally.
It was a good-smelling day.