Louise Cook from Maidstone in Kent made her World Rally Championship debut this weekend on the notorious Rallye Monte Carlo based in Valence and the Principality of Monaco. Louise made a goal to finish the event and take the chance to look at all the special stages in order to gain the maximum much needed experience on the technical roads whilst knowing a definite finish would see her gain championship points for a minimum of 4th position in the Production World Rally Championship standings.
The event was a baptism of fire and also ice for the 24 year old female. The event started off with a bang, a police escort to the ceremonial start. “It was complete madness, the whole city of Valence was just stopped, I felt like royalty” said Cook. “It was intense, I felt pretty out of my depth and having such a high start position for the rally, with one of the slowest cars in the rally the pressure was firmly on.”“I tried to have the starting position amended but the organisers said they could not do anything, I just did not want to spoil anyone’s rally by getting in the way. All the cars behind me and my 150 bhp Fiesta had over 280 bhp engines, cost £90,000 to £300,000, was a little bit intimidating” said Louise.
An intermittent problem with the intercom made Louise’s first stage more stressful than it already was. “It is difficult because you get into a rhythm with the notes and being my first time on the roads the notes and rhythm is difficult to find. Then to have the sequence in and out throws out the flow completely.” Louise expectedly was caught by a number of cars on the first stage.
Stage 2 for Louise was a baptism of Ice rather than fire. Louise running behind on road time did not have a chance to change to a snow tyre for the 5km of sheet ice in the stage. Louise was on a medium RS7 slick which is basically used on a warm track in the UK, definitely not for ice! The first part of the stage was patchy ice but as the stage climbed Louise found the beginning of a 5km sheet ice section with zero grip. Louise was reduced to walking pace in places, “the car was uncontrollable, slicks have no real tread and the rubber is much harder than a normal tyre to withstand the heat that goes into them when working hard on a hot day, they are like pram wheels in the snow. I was heading towards a bridge a 5mph and it took everything I had to get it back.” Said Louise.
The second loop the organisers altered Louise’s road position and put her to the back of the field which at first was a relief, but there was more than a minute gap between the current last car and Louise. This unfortunately led to Louise being faced with spectators leaving the stage and covering the road. “It was completely crazy, there was a wall of spectators across the stage and I had to slow right down so they could let me through” said Louise. In the 4th stage Louise came around a hairpin right and had to slam on the brakes as a van was parked horizontal across the entire road, whilst the stage was live and Louise was still competing. As if things were not fraught enough a dog was off its leash and when braking on a patch of ice down to a bridge the dog ran straight across in front of Cook and she locked all 4 tyres on the icy road nearly ending in disaster for the British hopeful.
The Friday stages brought more weather changes. In line for the second stage it started to snow. It was fortunate that Louise had taken the safer option of using the road snow tyres for these two stages though the tyre would perform nothing like the competition equivalent. Louise took zero risk through the stage but the fresh layer of snow caused a lot of issues with traction and trying to slow the car down in time.
Louise found Friday night that she had made the cut. Louise was in the top 60 and had succeeded to take part in the 4th and 5th legs of the rally on the stages around Monaco.
The car was not going great, 3 blown dampers, worn drive-shafts and a worn jolting steering rack were not helping the cause. The suspension was clunking severely through the hairpins and the driveshafts were a worry, so a very cautious drive through to not agitate the issue. The drive-shafts were changed to a better second hand set for the Saturday stages which helped calm Louise a little, but they were still second hand, not new. “It would be great to have new spares ready to go but we struggle just to replace what is needed on the car let alone build a spares package” said Louise.
Louise made the final day and took part in the famous WRC Powerstage. Louise decided to continue to cruise to the finish and with only 1 pass recce to make notes on the stage, it was not a time to start trying her luck. Louise struggled to write her notes quick enough to fall in line with the recce schedule due to her note writing inexperience. Louise only managed a 1 pass recce for a number of stages.
“ I just wanted to finish the Rallye Monte-Carlo, it may be dull but it was my goal before the rally as I know my Fiesta ST could not catch the PWRC rivals in their 4WD Subaru Impreza’s and Mitsubishi Evo’s. Even though we just cruised the Fiesta through the rally, it was still so full on and stressful. We achieved our goal though and I am so pleased as anything could have happened with the car, the gearbox has never done more than 400 miles on a rally and was now faced with 1200, so that was a constant worry. We did it though, we got her to the end and gained second place in the PWRC, a result that we could never have imagined, but we had to be there at the finish to take it. I may have driven like my Grandma, but it would have been crazy to do anything else and risk it all, I am really, really pleased with the result!”
With 2ndplace in the championship and to be the first ever female to make the podium in the PWRC, Louise has taken another small step towards her highly ambitious goal of being the first female to win the World Rally Championship. On a high, Louise is now working hard on raising the £70,000 required to contend the rest of the season the next round being the Greece Acropolis Rally in May.