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British Female Rally Champion Louise Cook contested the 2nd round of her World Rally Championship career this weekend, her toughest to date, the WRC Acropolis Rally Greece, based in Loutraki, Corinthia. The Acropolis or maybe ARockolis is notorious as a car wrecker and of being the most demanding on machinery. Louise and her team knew that getting the showroom class Fiesta ST to the finish line was going to be a big survival game. To come away from the event with a remarkable 6thplace in the Production World Rally Championship and 29th overall from the 54 starters was an amazing result.

The Acropolis Rally kicked off in front of the impressive Zappion in the centre of Athens. Thousands of spectators attended to wave the crews over the start ramp as they headed out to the opening stage.

Louise Cook Acropoli

Louise unfortunately had only one recce pass of the stage to write notes, and in fading light. It is a near impossible place to be, heading into the stage on your second pass having to push hard. 

“I found the recce schedule too tight for me on the first day and could only gain one pass in the legal time window. To be honest I really need more like 5 passes than the 2 given at the moment with my note writing skills, so 1 pass meant it was definitely not a good place to be.”

“I needed to get used to the surface, try and dial my eyes in to the rough areas. The last time I drove down a gravel road prior to the recce was September 2011 where I had to simply finish to become Fiesta Sport Trophy UK Vice Champion.”

The strategy for the Acropolis Rally was to see as many stages as possible and a finish would be amazing but doubtful. Louise was looking to gain on her limited mileage and experience and to absorb the most that was possible from the event.   

“This season is about learning for me, learning the events, learning to write good pace notes for these stages and gradually improving in small steps to where I want to be.”

“It was really difficult to get the right balance, I just wanted to go flat out, but I knew if I sacrificed seeing the stages for extra speed and fun on one stage, I would miss out on vital experience the Acropolis Rally had to give. If the car is on the trailer, I would learn nothing.”

“It was only my 7th gravel event so I was happy with my progress throughout the long days. Having no money to practice meant I had not even seen a gravel road since September last year, a crazy situation, but with raising this massive WRC budget, the priorities have to lie with getting to the 6 nominated events to avoid the 16,000 Euro fine and loss of license.”

The longest day of the rally, Day 2, offered 170.8 stage kilometres and a whopping 534.31 road kilometres and with only a couple of 15 minute services to patch up the car if there were any faults. 

“It was a tough day. My Co-Driver, Stefan, had some sort of food poisoning in the morning and was vomiting most of the way to the first stage. I had to stop a few times on the way whilst he did his bit to making the car lighter! He did well to carry on.”

The remote base for the day was in Itea some 200km away from the main Service in Loutraki, so a long day for both service crew and the crew in the car. The afternoon brought some twisty but smooth stages which Louise enjoyed. 

“The notes worked well in the Bauxites stage, only around four notes were wrong which is good for me. I found I need a little more detail in the notes on the fast corners to maximise the speed so I can work on that for the next rally. It was a nice stage and it was nice not to be smashing the car through rough terrain. The last couple of stages we were struggling with power. The little Fiesta was not pulling up the hills at all. I reset the main power switch and it would cure for a little while, but then it kept coming back. Little did I know this would cause retirement on the next day.”

The 3rd day Saturday was full of the roughest stages of the rally, Louise was lying in an amazing 5thplace in the Production World Rally Championship despite being against superior machinery, Louise’s tactics were paying off.   

“It was not fun avoiding the sharp bed rock and massive boulders, it was a different type of driving. The Fiesta took some serious impacts despite my best efforts.”

In the first stage of the day, the poor Fiesta was bouncing over some seriously rough holes and knowing that the next stage was the roughest of the entire rally, Louise took a cautious approach. 

“Some corners we had to note STOP and literally had to roll slowly over the sharp bedrock, like you would an aggressive speed bump to avoid bursting a tyre or cause suspension failure.”

“I came to one rough hairpin, slowed right down, but then the car wouldn’t rev enough to get going again. I re-started her and got going again only to pull over a few km later with a rear right puncture. I got back on the road and the engine electrics were killing the car again. We continued for another 3 km, but it was clear that the Fiesta was not going to make it through the full stage let alone the days rallying. Nightmare, it was unfortunately retirement for the day.”

After retrieving the car from stage 11, the service crew had a maximum of 3 hours to discover the cause and get the car in shape for the final day of the rally. The mechanics found a sensor plug had come apart and this was causing the car to cut-out.

Louise had to finish the last day to be in the classification and more importantly to gain the points, a non-finish would mean zero on the scoreboard. Louise dropped to 8th place after the retirement but an overnight retirement of fellow PWRC competitor, Ligato in his Subaru Impreza, meant Louise would start the day in 7th. Louise focussed on getting the car to the finish to claim maximum points. Louise cruised through the last day, pushed when safe but when in any doubt gave extra caution.

At the end of the first stage of the last day the PWRC class leader Nicolas Fuchs in his Mitsubishi Evo X fell victim of the rough conditions. The rear suspension failed and Nicolas, who had a massive 5 minute lead going into the final day, was now leaving the rally with 0 points. This reinforced Louise’s strategy to go safe and bring the car home. The retirement of Fuchs meant Louise gained an extra 2 points now an amazing 8 points for her PWRC position.

“To be 6th in the Production World Rally Championship in a rally like this was something I never imagined, I was convinced that the Fiesta would not sustain the impacts the rally had to offer. It would be great to return next year with a stronger car.”

“The fans were so encouraging and supportive, it would be nice to see some Greek females compete on the rally next year. I made lots of new friends and I was given two very cute teddies for luck from kind people. It was such a great atmosphere.”

Louise now looks on to the long haul to Rally New Zealand in 4 weeks time where she will take the wheel of a rented Fiesta ST to gain experience of the cambered New Zealand roads.