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Double Protyre Asphalt champion co-driver Phil Clarke reveals his Manx midnight masterclass secrets

Jason Pritchard has said that he’d rather miss a rally than do an event without his regular co-driver and great friend Phil Clarke alongside him. As a navigator, you’d be hard pressed to receive a bigger compliment.

They have an incredible record of achievement, with three straight British Historic Rally Championship titles, back-to-back Protyre Motorsport UK Asphalt Rally Championship titles and a record-equalling five Manx National Rally victories.

Having won 15 of the 57 rallies they have contested together, Jason and Phil have a better than 1:4 rally win ratio. And considering that they sometimes contest events in a Fiesta S2000 or an Escort RS1800 Mk2, cars which you wouldn’t expect to win a rally outright in, that is some record.

They head to the Ford Parts Cheviot Stages Rally (Sunday 24 October) in contention for their third straight Protyre Asphalt title, having won the recent PokerStars Rally by an incredible 5mins 20.9secs in their North Road Garage Ford Focus WRC05.

Key to their latest win on the Isle of Man was an outstanding performance on the opening Friday night leg. By the time they’d completed the opening leg, they were already 2mins 51.7secs in the lead.

So how did they deliver such a dominant Manx midnight masterclass?

Who better to ask than that irreplaceable co-driver, Phil Clarke.

“Co-driving on a closed road special stage in the dark isn’t too different from co-driving in the daytime – the road and the corners are all the same, although there is a different atmosphere at night and some navigators are a little wary of it,” explains Phil.

“Having spent many years road rallying, I’m used to going down lanes in the dark and I enjoy it very much.

“The first thing of course is to plan the recce to optimise all the available time. If a stage is to be run at night, we recce it at night and in daylight. In the day you can see where to cut and more importantly were not to cut, as you can miss things in the dark that could puncture a tyre or take a wheel off if you hit it.

“One of Jason’s many strengths is that he is very good at making precise pace notes on the first run through a stage. It’s very rare that we’ll make any alterations on our second recce of a stage and then the next time we’re on the rally and Jason is fully committed to the notes.

“We always have a short briefing before the start of the stage, where I remind Jason that this is the stage with the bridge or the farmyard or where someone has gone off in the past – something that will remind him of exactly what stage we’re on. He’s got a fantastic memory for a road and it really helps. If there is a tricky junction or chicane, I often show Jason the diagram in the road book and ask him to describe how we’re going to approach it and the direction going in and coming out. Then I know that he’s got it memorised and all I’ll have to do is call it.

“Jason’s notes are quite detailed and there is a lot to get out, especially on the fast stuff. We’re in to and out of corners in no time at all. We therefore always have a de-brief after a stage and I’ll write down whatever Jason says, whether it’s positive or negative. If I think I could have done better I’ll write my thoughts down as well. It’s very short, one word sometimes, but it’s an important log. If I’ve written ‘Q’ anywhere in the notes I know on that section I have to call it quicker. When we do that stage again and there is a ‘worked well’ or ‘everything worked well’ written on the top of the page, I know I have nothing to worry about.

“On the PokerStars Rally, the Rhenah stage (SS2/5) had seventeen pages of notes and The Classic (SS3/6) had twenty-five pages. That really focuses your attention and the concentration is pretty high.

“At night the temperature drops and that can create a bit of moisture on the road, especially under the trees. Jason is so experienced that he knows where to look out for things like that. I do make a note of things on the side of the road which stand out, like a white fence post or a house, but that’s more for my benefit and to double check that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be on the notes.

“When people ask me what my approach to co-driving is I often say that it’s self-preservation. It’s a bit of a flippant comment of course, but it’s not far from the truth. At the speed Jason drives, I have to concentrate one hundred per cent. There isn’t a moment to relax. The adrenalin helps of course, but I’m fully focused on delivering the notes at the right time.

“My secret weapon is a map board. I still use the one that I won the Welsh Road Rally Championship with. It’s not pretty, but it does the job and I would be lost without it. I have a clipboard attached to it, so when I receive bulletins I can keep them all filed and I have a desk to sign for anything. I also have my pens and everything I need attached to the map board and everything is very close to hand. I obviously hold the pace note book in my hands, but my arms are resting on the map board and that makes it a lot more comfortable. I could do a hundred mile stage and my arms wouldn’t be aching at the end of it.

“It’s a great privilege to co-drive for someone as talented as Jason. At the start of every stage Jason always says to tell him if he’s been too ragged or needs to press on – and I’ve never had to tell him to press on!

“We often sit at the start of a stage and think how lucky to be there – just the two of us in a fantastic rally car with a beautiful piece of road in front of us. And then we just go and enjoy it.”

Jason & Phil in action during the 2017 Manx
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