What the Rally of Scotland lacked in entries, it more than made up for in rain. The final round of the IRC was one of the wettest rallies I have ever reported on. But, I'd do it all again tomorrow. It was a fantastic event and one which fully deserves to flourish.
But it wasn't half wet.
Sir Jackie Stewart and First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond © LAT
Having watched the footage of people's lives being washed down Main Street in Cockermouth, moaning about the water coming over the top of my boots in a field last week would be in slightly poor taste. So I won't.
Britain's first ever round of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge was as well-planned as any event in the series, but the organisers' mettle was well and truly tested when the thunderous-looking black clouds above delivered the curved ball of the wettest week in the history of mankind. Ever. The car park at Scone Palace was largely fit for motors of the amphibious variety and once out of the car, flippers would have been more use than wellies.
But, persevering through the sodden fields, I arrived outside the Palace. It was well worth the walk. That paragon of Scottish-ness Jackie Stewart was present, beneath his trademark tartan cap, and looking genuinely enthusiastic about the event. Scottish first minister Alex Salmond was also there, and good enough to make a self-deprecating joke about trying to slide himself into the slender seats in Alister McRae's Proton.
Then came the pipes, the fireworks and the rally cars. The event was off to a solid start and, a couple of pints of Deuchars later, my socks were dry and the world was well. It certainly was when the sun came out at Hermitage, a couple of curves into Craigvinean, the next morning.
This was more like it. This was what rallying was all about. McRae was first in and the Scot attacked the first right-hander of any significance. The Satria Neo S2000 looked fabulously balanced and powerful as it ripped up the hill and away from us.
Running in reverse order, we went through some of the more gentlemanly drivers before the arrival of the main event: Wilks versus Meeke. If the event had been won and lost on our corner, Guy Wilks would have had it hands down. He turned the car in on the handbrake and drifted through in a screaming Super 2000 frenzy of fever. His chief rival, Kris Meeke's Peugeot was much neater, clipping the apex with the merest dial of understeer before tugging another gear to race away in pursuit of Wilks' Skoda.
For those of a meteorological mind, the sun had long buggered off and it was, again, pouring down by now.
The perfect place to seek shelter was the garrison of the Atholl Highlanders, Europe's only private army. They belong to the Duke of Atholl - as does Blair Castle, first service on Friday. What an amazing place. This service park was comfortably the most picturesque, dramatic, historic and stunning I have ever been to on a rally. Frankly, the Automobile Club de Monaco had better re-think the whole harbourside set-up; they've been knocked into a cocked hat by an ambitious Scot called Campbell, Iain Campbell - Rally of Scotland clerk of the course.
I had to think long and hard before writing this column. Certainly, there had been negatives: the lack of signposting to the service park and the spectator areas in Scone Palace, but they were the only issues. And, let's face it, they were hardly the end of the world. And, it would have been easy to labour the weather (I think I might have been guilty of that already - no more mentions of the torrential, seemingly unending, non-stop, pouring rain) and the everso slightly thin field of entries for the event. But, neither of those were the organiser's fault.
Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle in the Peugeot 207 on the Rally of Scotland © LAT
All the organisers could organise was the event and they did that in tip-top fashion. Campbell's one of us: he's a flat-out rally man at heart. For goodness knows how long, he's been the one sitting on the A9 driving through the early hours to get home in Inverness from meetings in Perth and Stirling. His commitment has been reflected through the chain of command and down through his team.
The event itself aside, another reason to be cheerful in Scotland was Eurosport's efforts on the television front. The live links all worked, with only minor weather-related hiccups, and the pictures were fantastic. Hearing the engine note bouncing off the rev limiter as Meeke and the boys slashed their way through the Errochty puddles and aquaplaned their way over the mud in Fairy Knowe. Or watching them brave out the icy-slick greener, grassy sections of Drummond Hill matched anything else seen from the inside of a rally car this season.
The best thing of all was the McRae presence. Unfortunately, a burst seal on the steering rack of Jimmy's Ford Sierra Cosworth meant we were all denied the chance to dive back to 1989 again, but Alister was there with the Proton. And McRae remains a force to be reckoned with - particularly in the Proton, with which he bagged the firm's first ever IRC podium.
The British-based MEM team which runs the Proton has had it tough this season. An association with Guy Wilks bore fruit with fourth in Russia mid-year, but then, for whatever reason, the two went their separate ways. And separation has clearly worked for both: Wilks has found himself a solid and, hopefully season-long, berth at Skoda for next year. And Proton has found McRae.
Having seen the Satria Neo S2000 in action and been privy to team principal Chris Mellors' typically audacious development plans for the car, this partnership clearly has a big future in the IRC. We're at the tipping point for Proton right now. Twenty years ago, Subaru teetered for a while before throwing its full weight behind the rally programme and benefitted from a brand-defining generation at the top of the sport. That's pretty much where we're at with Proton. The Malaysians have the car, the driver and the potential to win - for them to miss out on this particular party would be bordering on sporting tragedy.
Having a Scottish wife and, by definition, demi-Scottish children, I have a fondness for life north of the border (I even bought my son his first Scotland rugby shirt at the weekend - luckily it was too small for him!) and last week's Rally of Scotland made me realise how much beautiful Britain there is outside of South Wales.
I'm looking forward to next year's event already.
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