People who visit country pubs in the evening usually expect to stay a few hours. On the night we called in, most patrons at The Olde Coach House, Ashby St Legers, near Rugby, did precisely that. It’s doubtful they even noticed the arrival of ‘enthusiast’ cars in the adjacent parking area, most vaguely rally-oriented with extra lights, decals, mudflaps and chunky tyre treads.
For us, on this late winter evening, the pub was the meeting point and start of a 12-car night navigation rally staged by the Loughborough Car Club – and Autocar’s own Vauxhall Astra was to be one of the entrants.
Nav rallying, new to me, is an accessible but highly competitive form of road-oriented competition whereby a dozen two-person crews (driver and navigator) are provided with cryptic details of a 50-mile, twohour route that they must attempt to drive to an exacting timetable. This particular night, we were supposed to start at around 8pm – which meant we’d be back well before the pub shut.
The nub of the nav rally challenge is successfully to reach and pass through a series of marshalled controls at a time prescribed (to the minute) by the organisers, and also to pass various unheralded ‘passive controls’ to prove you truly followed the route. The event average speed is set a bit below 30mph, which might sound tame, but, as I discovered, the combination of slow minor roads, complex junctions and the odd mistake soon means you’re giving your car the beans through the night in a rather exhilarating way.
Our rivals brought an interesting array of cars, including some Renault Sport Clios, a Lotus Elan Plus 2 covered in lights, a Ford Puma and a Toyota GT86. Navigator Andrew Duerden and I stuck out in our recently arrived, very shiny and entirely bog-standard Vauxhall Astra SRi diesel but, looking at the others, I was pretty sure we were in for the most comfortable ride of the field.
Duerden is a long-time Vauxhall man and a regular organiser and performer in night navigation rallies, so for this one we were classed as Experts rather than the Beginners we’d have been if the car’s occupants had both been as inexperienced as me. Even when you’ve done several events, they still call you a Novice, and I was soon to discover why.
The idea of using our Astra for a night rally came about mainly because of the car’s Intellilux LED matrix headlights. With these, the Astra is a pioneer in its class. A screen-mounted camera that monitors oncoming lights and continually shapes our own headlight throw so that it can’t dazzle oncomers while still illuminating much more forward area than is usual – a major safety benefit. Small wonder, though, that the system was used first in expensive cars. In the Astra, it’s so excellent that you’d never willingly go back to the old system, despite an option price of £995.
We prepared carefully inside the car, me minutely adjusting mirrors and cleaning the inside of the screen while Duerden set up his several map lights, folded his maps just so and readied his ‘poti’ map magnifier, a great tool for seeing map detail while on the move. Such paraphernalia costs only a few quid, but without it you’d be lost.
We were seventh to start, separated from rivals front and rear by a minute each way. I felt butterflies for a few seconds at the start, but they faded as quickly as we must have faded into the blackness. At each successive control, Duerden was to be handed a sealed envelope containing details of our route for the next stage: a bewildering (to me) array of map references, herringbone symbols and clock-face diagrams aimed at showing how to approach and leave certain intersections.
Given that all around you is pitch black (the nav rally season ended a week or two ago because evenings are too light) and the organisers are trying to challenge your intelligence, the chances of going wrong are high – which we soon did. That had two effects: it increased tension and required us to speed up rather dramatically to get back on schedule. Duerden wasn’t happy, but we nevertheless began to gather in time controls. I was enjoying myself and the Astra, slightly firmly sprung but comfortable, was in its element.
This event, I was discovering, was quite a tough one. There were some wrinkles in the route instructions, plus pop-up roadworks in a couple of places that threw everyone off. Pretty soon we were bolting energetically (but not unsafely) along minor roads, thanking the car’s creators for those set-and-forget LED lights that lit everything forward of the car like daylight and absolved the driver of any need to dip them for the oncoming traffic – leaving more time for safer steering.
Truth be told, the behind-thewheel stuff isn’t the hard part of navigation rallies. All you have to do is obey instructions and note the number if you see a little sign by the verge. (It’s probably a passive control.)
Two hours seemed to go in 15 minutes. Suddenly we were back at the pub, where controversy reigned as the organisers calculated the results. Next day, we learned we’d achieved an inglorious 10th from 12, later amended to an inglorious ninth. I continued to reckon we’d had fun, which was the point, but Duerden was horrified; he hadn’t done so badly in 20 years and he’s too exacting a person to be pleased with a duff performance.
One week later, he won a similar event near Rugby, with a different driver, without making a single mistake. That tells you something.