I’ve spent many an evening driving rally cars on a Playstation. Up until now, rallying consists of pressing the ‘X’ button and pointing the car in more or less the right direction.
This is different. Very different.
As we reach 130mph, we hit a mound in the road and for a few seconds, we are at one with the birds. I imagined how cool we must have looked as we sailed through the air like one of those slow-motion James Bond scenes. Gwyndaf dances on the pedals like Fred Astaire, sliding the car through the tight S-bends and skids to a stop. The engine idles calmly as if nothing has happened. Suddenly it’s quiet again.
“You OK?” asks Gwyndaf.
“Yup.” I say, remembering how to speak.
After steadying myself with a strong coffee, I take my chauffeur through a few questions. Your man Gwyndaf has been driving ever since his feet could reach the pedals of a car.
“I grew up on a farm – at the age of 10, I was taking out a relative’s car across the fields. It gave me good grounding when I think about it- the car would slide a lot and I got used to handling a car in that way.” He was then banger racing at the age of 15. Like any true master of their art, Gwyndaf has grafted the hard way.
But Gwyndaf is, like most true professionals, a modest person.
When I ask him whether he drives fast on the roads, he stops himself short from finishing the sentence.
“No – I’ve got nothing to prove.” Instead replies with talk about getting his aggression and ‘hooliganism’ out on the race track. Real champions don’t brag. In Gwyndaf’s case, he doesn’t need to – his achievements speak for themselves- British Champion in 1996, runner-up in both the 1998/99 British Championship, and testing and development driver for the world’s biggest names in motorsport. Not bad for someone who used to drive the local school bus.
The high esteem in which Gwyndaf is held is only too apparent. Punters young and old are waiting patiently to have their pictures taken with the maestro, while I chat with him about his career and his car.
Ah, yes. The car. That Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9.
“Yep – this is the very car I took to the Wales GB rally.” says Gwyndaf proudly, pulling clumps of field from the rear bumper.
“The road versions are pretty awesome but of course, we’ve tweaked with this one a little – mainly safety features. We’ve made subtle changes to the brakes and electronics. This is a Group N car; there is a class higher where you’ll find the full-on WRC cars. To buy and maintain a car like this Evo, you’d be looking at £100k easy you’d be looking at a million each to run in the WRC. You really have to excel at every stage from the bottom up. You can’t just get yourself a fast car and expect to win trophies.”
He takes a sharp intake of breath when I question him on the fatality at the Wales GB rally two years ago when driver Markko Martin’s co-driver, Michael Parks was killed after crashing into a tree.
“I was absolutely gutted. Beefy (Michael Parks) was a good friend of mine. I was at home at the time when I had a text from a mate. Things like that bring home how we flirt with death every time we go out racing. Although rallying is safe, we’re not indispensable. We take calculated risks, but the buzz of rallying is getting away with the good luck when we push things that little bit too far. If anything, it makes you respect your vehicle, respect life.”