Beep beep! It's 6am and, even before my alarm has bleeped, there’s a mysterious texter on the line. “Welcome to Rally Principe de Asturias” the message says. By 6.35am, I’ve received four more texts and feel like I am being courted by a love-struck paramour. But he seems to be texting an encrypted code: SS1: 1 Hevia 4:20.5 2. Basso +2.5 3. Vouilloz +4.8 4. Kopecky +7.0 5. Meeke +7.7 6. Fuster 8.7 7. Loix +11.7 8. Font +12.0 9. Wilks +14.0 10. Witt +24.7.
It’s not until that afternoon, when I am sitting in the picturesque countryside of the Spanish principality of Asturias, waiting for a stream of rally cars to whizz past, that the gobbledegook starts to make sense. We are here to watch one of the legs of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC), which takes place in 11 countries over 11 months. My four-year-old son, Joe – a big fan of Lightning McQueen and Disney Pixar’s Cars – is cheering on Kris Meeke and Team Peugeot. Every time my phone beeps, I cross my fingers Kris’s name is first, which means he’s setting the pace – and to our delight he’s doing very nicely.
We are novices in this racing malarkey, but couldn’t resist the chance to spend a weekend amid the lush green mountains of northern Spain. My first dilemma was what to pack. I asked my 14-year-old daughter what Lewis Hamilton’s Pussycat Doll missus would wear and she shrugged: “Not much?” Sitting amid lively Spanish youths munching pistachios and spitting out their shells, I realised the IRC is far from the glamour and big money of Formula 1 (it gives young and amateur drivers a chance to compete in regional and international rallies), but that’s not a bad thing. Here it’s free and you can get really close to the drivers: heck, some of those watching even sit on bus-stop roofs in narrow country lanes – one out-of-control car and it could end in disaster. We found a spot at the edge of a course and Joe cosied up on my knee. “Don’t get too comfortable,” a stranger advised. “You need to be able to get out of the way quickly.” We stayed on our feet as the distant roar of the cars got closer before they zoomed past in a cloud of dust.
The challenge runs over three days, with five or so races each day around the countryside. In between, eager fans conduct their own wacky races, beeping their horns as they speed off to the next venue (well, once they can get out of the traffic jams). Between races, you can head to the service park – a chance to watch wheels being changed and brakes being checked before noisy departures. We pitched ourselves next to Meeke’s Peugeot area. Only five minutes are allowed for repairs. With 30 seconds to go, Meeke is so calm he’s happy to have his photograph taken with Joe. Oops, I can’t get it in the right mode. Kris takes a furtive glance at the clock and smiles. Got it! Five, four, three, two, one. Kris hops in his souped-up Peugeot 207 and he’s off again…
The Asturias countryside makes a picturesque setting for the races, all rolling green hills – hence the name, the Costa Verde – dotted with pretty painted villas. Oviedo, the capital, dates back to the eighth century, and is steeped in medieval history with impressive architecture, much of which has UNESCO World Heritage status. The narrow streets, however, are no strangers to the high-octane roars of racing cars: former Formula-1 champion Fernando Alonso is the city’s most famous son.
The oldest part of the ancient town is pedestrianised, so it’s the perfect place to amble. We stumbled across Campo de San Francisco (the main park), perfect for Joe to run around in, with little walled walkways he could balance on. There’s no playground, but there is an outdoor gym with weights to pull and lift – or in our case, sit on. Handily, the park was also the venue for the finalists’ podium and the closing ceremony – the winner’s car (the Czech Skoda) even got onto the podium for a dousing in champagne.
We stayed at Barceló Oviedo Cervantes (www.barcelo.com), a funky hotel with an impressive facade and boutique-style decor – all modern art, leather seats and swivel chairs. The evening we dined at its restaurant, it didn’t open until 9pm. We were the only diners and Joe snoozed while we enjoyed the delicious food. Later that evening, we were fortunate enough to meet up with Kris Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle. The closer we strolled towards the old part of the city to meet them, the more you saw the effect of the Spanish siesta. At 10pm, the city was buzzing. We headed for Fontán Square, a pretty arcaded square dotted with bars and cafés. As we supped the local sidra, traditionally served from on high by waiters in local dress expecting you to down it in one, Joe played with local children running in and out of the arches.
We were flying home from Santander, so we stopped off at San Vicente De La Barquera to spend time on the beach with its golden sand, and rocks perfect for exploring. We dined on fabada, a local bean stew with chorizo, overlooking the sands.
My phone had bleeped its last message, but my love affair wasn’t quite at an end. We watched the last two stages of the IRC from the comfort of our sofa (this time, Joe did sit on my lap) and toasted Meeke in Spanish fizz as he won the title with a final victory.
For more information on the IRC, visit www.ircseries.com. Follow Team Peugeot at www.peugeot.co.uk and Kris Meeke’s blog at www.krismeeke.com
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