El Montmell, Catalonia. Saturday 7th October. Just after dawn.
Thump. I've never felt a passing rally automobile hit the road, but every sump guard that whacks against the inside edge of the dry tarmac sends a shockwave into the ground and up through the ditch where I'm standing, the reverberation clearly transmitted into my legs by the soles of my boots. Heaven knows what it's like for the crews' lower backs. This is the first stage of Rally Catalunya's second day, and is the first glimpse I've had of the new-generation WRC automobiles in tarmac specification. Mechanics have converted the machines from full gravel setup to European asphalt trim after Friday's loose-surface stages, although truth be told, they look more like touring automobiles. Mikkelsen leads on his first rally in the super-quick Hyundai, world champion Ogier not far behind. Meeke is a close third.
A brief skiff of rain just as dawn broke hasn't actually dampened the road, though crews at the start of the stage have their wipers on at their intermittent setting, odd drops continuing to fall as dark clouds hover overhead. Running order reversed from overall position, Al-Qassimi is first through in his Citroen; tentative past our location, yet still sending up a shower of sparks. A quivering engine note betrays his lack of commitment, the C3's brake lights flashing intermittently as he covers the middle pedal with his left foot. After exiting a gravel-strewn fourth-gear right, the automobiles thunder up a straight, just pulling sixth gear as they pass our vantage point. Then it's a fling into an aggressively-cut flat-out left, the automobiles positioned to the extreme right on the exit for another flat left on a slight crest between thick tree cover heading down towards an artificial chicane over a junction. A kilometre or so beyond that is a straight so long that the prolonged tatatatata of top-gear limiters can be clearly heard, the automobiles topping out at around 200km/h. Magic.
Lights on, Elfyn Evans is next in the DMACK-liveried Ford Fiesta. He's noticeably more committed, though the automobile is moving a lot on the exit of the fourth-gear right. The Ford sounds more aggressive than the Citroen, the Welshman keeping it pinned until the braking area for the chicane. No lift. He's well up on Al-Qassimi according to our stopwatch. No surprise really.
Now, the first of the Finnish-ran, Finnish-crewed Toyotas. The 2017 Yaris WRC is probably the most aggressive-looking rally automobile since the halcyon days of Group B, and looks super-stable on the approach as the wings and slats and splitters do their downforce-y thing. Bang. A show of sparks follows the automobile as it tears its titanium undertray along the verge, pilot Juho Hanninen touching the middle pedal to stabilise the white and red flyer for the exit. Out of our sight, the machine-gun fire of the anti-lag system can be heard echoing through the trees as the Finn slows for the bale chicane.
A few more automobiles pass, all hugely committed. The drops of rain have stopped. I'm passing the two-minute gap between competitors by furiously refreshing the results page, and checking forum pages for split times. Our boys are next.
The red C3 is thrown into the right-hander back down the road, emerging with a good half-turn of opposite lock dialled in, gravel flying in its wake. Kris and Paul are visibly on it, and the multi-lingual gasps from the crowd confirm it. As they flash past, the stopwatch reckons that they're two seconds up on everyone else so far, with about two-thirds of the stage left to go.
We await with bated breath as Super Seb Ogier and then Andreas Mikkelsen pass, followed by the first of the R5 runners. I've moved well back from the ditch at this stage, holding my phone on top of my head in an attempt to get a better signal. The Samsung is getting super-hot, I can feel it smouldering even through the cover. Finally, the stage times come through. Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle are now leading by 9.1 seconds, having leapt from third to first in 12 minutes and 22 seconds. I'm not ashamed to admit that I jumped around the field like a madman, air horn at full pelt for a good ten seconds. Everyone else laughs, but I don't automobilee. This was the classic McRae tactic; stun them on the first stage of the morning, catch them napping. It's worked. Please guys, just bring it home. You need this after the torrid year you've had.
A little under 36 hours later, we're standing beside the podium in a sun-drenched Salou, having hightailed it back from Pratdip village to make it in time for the festivities. The tricolour that we had draped across a hedge on that flat-out sixth-gear left is now being waved high, as Kris and Paul cross the finish line as winners. They finished the rally almost thirty seconds clear of the world champion. That drive on Saturday morning was the catalyst and after that, no-one could touch them. Colin would have been proud. We were ecstatic.