Interview: Andrew Coley

Among the many people involved in the major rally championships, such as World Rally Championship or Intercontinental Rally Challenge, I somehow always enjoyed what Andrew Coley brought into both TV and/or radio broadcasts, ever since I started this blog and became a little more actively involved in following these competitions on Twitter and TV/radio.

Interesting combination of relaxed approach to the job at hand and wealth of experience and knowledge, especially from behind the wheel of a proper rally car, really comes in handy when you are tasked with bringing as much information as possible to the fans, and in an easy to understand manner and format.

Such approach is particularly interesting and important if you consider new fans or total newbies. You know, those odd guys who never heard of rally. For them it’s very important to hear useful bit of information, supported by facts and knowledge, and this is what Andrew did in his outings for both TV and radio.

In what I hope will become regular thing I thought I’d ask Mr. Coley for a bit of his time, and after he agreed these are the questions I sent his way. Hoping there weren’t too many of those, but after I got his replies back it’s obvious I should have added few more!

As I expected, Andrew’s replies are very interesting and informed read. After Colin McMaster from McKlein Photo Agency this is second interview with people I find interesting in WRC/IRC community. Next one will be ready soon I truly hope.

Now, let’s see what Andrew had to say!

First question is rather obvious I’m afraid – how did you get infected by rally fever, and was it rally that started it or some other form of motorsport?

As far back as I can remember I’d watched the RAC rally and Formula 1 on TV with my Dad; he liked cars and the first car I remember him owning was a Ford Capri John Player Special with gold stripes and JPS logos! From age 13 I was into Radio Controlled Cars; I competed up to national level in 10th scale electric buggies, Tamiya, Schumacher etc, and was fully into set up, springs, damping, tyre compounds, gear ratios etc. I used to rebuild the car completely, down to the diffs, every week between races. By the end we even had adjustable bump and rebound dampers. Mega!

The first real motorsport I went to spectate at would be rallycross at Brands Hatch; they used to hold an event at the end of the season, November/December time I think, The Rallycross GP. We’re talking whole grids of Metro 6R4’s and RS200’s, and 700+ BHP. The original version of the Brands Hatch rallycross track, with ‘Hoppy’s drop’ and the cars coming the wrong way down Cooper straight and up through the back of the pits, was simply fantastic. You could see the entire circuit, gravel and tar, Group B cars, racing. Hooked. From there we started going to spectate at rallies; my first was the London International Rally. First car I saw in the forest flat out was Malcolm Wilson in a Michelin Pilot Escort Cosworth; he was going about 10 times faster than I’d imagined he would be. From then on I was much more rally focussed, but I take an interest in all motorsport.

When did you decide you would like to take it one step further and jump behind the wheel yourself?

I was at college, studying Graphic Design, and all the other students had pictures of cool typefaces, or mad designs from arty magazines. My entire corner of the studio/classroom was dedicated to rally cars! My final project was a new logo for the FIA. My parents easily recognised my obsession, plus the wear rate on my Mum’s road car tyres, and bought me a day at rally school for my 19th birthday, on gravel in a MkII Escort. I’d never driven on the loose or a RWD car, but it convinced me I needed to have a go at competing myself. I saved up for 2 years and bought my first rally car, a Vauxhall Nova Clubman Group A spec 1600.

As a fan turned driver what were the biggest challenges at that point? Drivers often say things are a bit different when you actually get to drive on stages compared to just stand on one corner and observe.

Massive learning curve, not only with driving. I should point out at this point I knew NOTHING about real car mechanics. When I opened the bonnet I could have pointed out battery, plugs, water and oil. I got totally and utterly thrashed at my first event, in June 1998, the Abingdon Carnival stages, a single venue event at an airfield. I was miles off the pace, went out on slicks in the wet, and then jammed my handbrake on by accident, drove on and melted the brakes to the point the car wouldn’t move. My engine temp was through the roof.

Entered my next event and did 6 miles before the engine gave up; by this point you can imagine I’d learnt about brakes and engines, in very great detail! 3rd event and finally I was on the podium pace in my class, but we broke a driveshaft. I’d already run out of money and was in almost in tears in the service park when someone loaned us a spare shaft. And also some spotlights for the service area, as we hadn’t thought to bring any, and it was literally pitch black! There is so much to learn in rallying, but with such friendliness in the service park we had fun and did pretty well in regional tar events for the next couple of years.

It’s every rally fan dream to (mine too, though I did some co-driving so at least something!) get a chance to drive a proper rally car, but there is a world of difference between total dedication to rally career and hobby driving and living a dream. Where did you slot in?

Total and utter obsession and dedication with a total and utter non-understanding of the need for serious money! I was chasing every single option to move up the ladder as I saw it; hopefully to a one make championship. I entered the Roger Clark Award which had a £50k prize and judges like Richard Burns and Malcolm Wilson, and I was selected by the Motor Sport Association as one of 20 young drivers in the UK to be on the ‘Fit to be Champion’ scheme, a scholarship for fitness and mental approach training for motorsport.

I didn’t win the £50k RCA prize, but I was one of the most committed to ‘Fit to be Champion’ and my effort paid off when the organiser of the RCA recommended me to a team called 22 Motorsport, who had a fleet of SEAT Ibiza’s and some Grp N Subaru’s. They funded me almost entirely in 2001 for the MSA Gravel championship, which was amazing for me as it really opened my eyes to proper rallying and being in the forests. Sadly it wasn’t a great year for UK rallying as it was badly affected by the ‘Foot and Mouth’ cattle disease. The team changed direction a bit and focussed more on international rallies, I worked for them on events and bought ‘my’ Ibiza rally car from them but couldn’t afford to run it, so took a break from competing.

At the end of 2005 I was selected by the French MSA (FFSA) from 200 international crews across Europe to represent the UK in a competition to win a drive on the Dakar rally. We competed in the Semi Finals at Michelin’s test venue in Clermont Ferrand, France, and progressed to the finals in the Northern Sahara desert, Morocco. We finished 2nd to Tobias Johansson, who at the time was Ford WRT test driver and an FIA B seed… I’d not sat in a rally car since 2001 so it was great result… but pretty gutting too. I stayed on for a week’s training with NISMO in Morocco for the Dakar and was appointed reserve driver; we had a fantastic time in the sand dunes and the Dakar remains firmly on my to do list.

Getting back into a competitive environment really excited me again, and I returned to the stages in 2007/2008. I never felt I’d got my head around driving in forest/gravel rallies in 2001, so decided this was my aim. We won our class in the MSA Gravel championship in 2008, and I’m much happier on the loose than I ever was before, but being older and more realistic, I’m well aware I’m no Colin McRae/Richard Burns. But if I won the lottery I’d have a good go at seeing what I could do in decent machinery!

Tell me about your car. When I first ran into you on Twitter I saw a little picture of a guy with a helmet on and there was talk about this car needing repairs, so I know you have something in your garage?

The picture of me on my Twitter profile with a ridiculous grin is because I’m sat in a Prodrive (semi) Group A Impreza, which 22 Motorsport were kind enough to let me test with PWRC champion Martin Rowe on hand to give me some pointers. It was one of the bug eye Subaru’s that Prodrive had been campaigning in the USA; big restrictor, some Group A/some group N parts. I loved it…but it’s not mine!

I have a 206 Super Cup car; 1600cc group A6, they were used for a one make championship in the UK and France. Mine’s left hand drive which I got on fine with (we’re RHD in UK) other than the loss of one mirror. I used to knock them off in RHD though. Always the co-driver’s side regardless of which side I am! ; ) They’re good cars for the money, some S1600 engine parts, a reliable 160BHP, 6 speed box etc. Good fun.

Any plans on returning to stages anytime soon? I would assume once you taste driving it never really leaves you, does it?

Yes to returning, no to it ever leaving me so far. The car needs very little doing to it, but I’ve focussed quite hard on work these last few years so competing has taken a back seat sadly. Donations accepted. Especially of R2 cars.

You got involved in other type of motorsport and automotive kind of activities, what got you into instructor business and what exactly was your job?

I started off working at rally schools as an instructor; teaching guests just as I had experienced for my birthday a few years before. I moved on to do quad bikes and off road 4×4 etc, then realised that working on the circuit at Brands Hatch was easier and I didn’t have to jet wash the car for an hour at the end of the day! The longer you do the job for the more you diversify; among other things I ended up teaching drifting for Caterham, and even ice driving on frozen lakes in Norway, which was good fun. Finally I moved on to working on car launches for manufacturers, which can be great fun or very boring depending on the car and the job title. Occasionally can be terrifying with guests (badly!) driving 500bhp cars in rain.

I assume experiences from your time behind the wheel of a rally car were useful to your instructing, do you think it is important for upcoming drivers to get such specialized training on top of experience they get by competing?

Essential to instructing, along with being able to explain to a guest who might have zero technical knowledge why something is happening and what to do to improve it. Instructing definitely works at a higher level, there are plenty of UK drivers having tuition with previous British Champions to improve their skills. Martin Rowe sat with me on a number of occasions at 22 motorsport; his input was invaluable. When you’re driving at 100% of your own personal capability, irrelevant of how fast that is compared to others, you don’t have much spare capacity for analysis. If you have someone sat next to you who is only observing, they have much more ‘spare’ awareness than you do to watch for your mistakes or bad habits. Both Kevin Abbring and Andreas Mikkelsen have credited the FIA Institute with assisting their development, so I’m in favour.

These days it’s quite hard for a young talented driver to make it through to the very top categories of rallying, with recession and picky sponsors. Do you think more can be done to help streamline this process of advancing through junior categories towards the WRC?

I think the WRC academy of the last 2 years is a big step in the right direction but it’s still hugely expensive. You need similar schemes right down to grass roots level to allow underfunded drivers to progress. I like prize drives (of which there are fewer now it seems) but more often than not you need more than a year to get up to speed at the next level. Motorsport is expensive; it always has been. No easy fix; whole ‘ladder’ has got to work from bottom to top of the sport.

Among the current talents in top WRC privateer teams, are there any particular driver you would single out as the next big name to storm WRC scene?

Ford’s young drivers are impressive at times but I’m more excited by the prospect of Thierry Neuville for Citroen’s ‘juniors’ and Andreas Mikkelsen in the VW ‘testing team’. I know neither is really a privateer, but then anyone with a budget for a whole season of WRC isn’t really either. They to me are the next two who will really impress at the highest level, I think the others are maybe half a step behind. Both are form IRC; I think it’s an excellent stepping stone to WRC and Mikkelsen’s pace against Ogier in Argentina shows how quick the pace at the front of the IRC currently is. Big fan of Hanninen too.

I often say there are not enough teams to support the influx of talent looking for a car in WRC. Is there a way for more support to young guys, the one that does not require them to secure WRC manufacturer team kind of sponsorships?

If drivers are to find seats they don’t need to pay for then there needs to be a competitive driver’s market, which requires more manufacturers. This, I’m afraid, requires more stability…which leads me to a whole bunch of your next questions!

WRC is in pretty difficult situation this year – global promoter is still nowhere to be seen, TV coverage is rather limited and there is this sense of uncertainty in the sport, which is not good for existing or incoming manufacturers and teams. Your thoughs and ideas, what would you do if you had the power to change things?

As the season goes on there is much talk about the future of the sport, both on stages and in the way championship is being covered and broadcasted. Do you think FIA is doing enough to steer WRC in right direction?

What bugs me the most is this silence and lack of any kind of talk and at least usual diplomatic reassurances coming from the FIA. Fans and global audience, especially people who are new to rally and WRC deserve more support and direction, don’t you think?

Hmmm. I’m giving an overall answer to all these questions, as they’re all from roughly the same area. The sport is in a bit of a mess as you rightly point out. It’s a tough and very complicated situation because the promoter and broadcast provider were all tied in together; losing one or the other would have been less critical.

Efforts to solve this problem very quickly (i.e. as in within the first 3 rounds) failed, and we’re now approaching the halfway mark in the season, so I see this as a transitionary year, and therefore a little more time can be taken to decide on the future direction of the championship, promoter, TV etc

There are so many opinions, and so many rumours flying about regarding the future. It needs more manufacturer/sponsor interest; but people will argue over whether this requires live TV, or more highlights TV, or online streaming, or terrestrial TV, or long events, or short events, or stadium X-Games style events.

I’d like to have seen a few more updates from the FIA during the ‘panic’ phase at the start of the season, and I’d like an update on promoter etc sooner rather than later. It doesn’t have to be immediate decisions, just updates, to keep some calm and stability. I think the fans in particular would like to be more informed; even if they’re only told “It’s taking a while, we’ve extended the deadline etc.”

It all desperately seems to need direction, a plan, with realistic goals to meet along the way to track ‘progress.’ As for whose opinion on direction is correct, and what happens, I have no idea! I’m a mid 90’s fan; both F2 and WRC. There didn’t seem to be much wrong on the sporting side then, so I’d be inclined to look at what’s worked and what hasn’t since then. But maybe there’s an element of ‘rose tinted spectacles’ there too; TV coverage wasn’t great and maybe sponsors require a better, more accurately measurable return now.

The one thing I do know is I wouldn’t want to be the one having to make the decisions; there’s a hell of a lot to sort out.

How would you solve the current Ford crisis, or rather Jari-Matti Latvala crisis – he is extremely fast, but he seems to be struggling to find balance between speed and survivability? WRC needs strong Ford and they’re not really doing best job about it this year.

The old way of doing it was a change of co-driver, but I’m not keen on that, relationships in the car are so important and take so long to build. It hasn’t worked with some drivers either; although Novikov seems to be doing better with Giraudet sat next to him. Maybe a change of scenery team wise, like the rumoured VW move would help. I do think there is a mental block there and that if he won a championship he might well win several. He undoubtedly has incredible pace, but seems to hit some serious ‘mental’ lows too.

How did you get involved with TV commentary?

Through my work as a motorsport instructor. I always seemed to get asked to do the filming, pieces to camera, briefings etc at events I was working at. I’d done a few bits for TV, and the whole of our Dakar Challenge competition had been televised on Eurosport so I had a fair bit of footage. I put it together as a showreel, and approached some TV companies. As it happened the IRC coverage was really taking off at the time, and I was asked to come and try out for a commentary role at Eurosport.

I’ve been lucky enough to do all sorts from Superleague Formula to the Race of Champions, live events for Mercedes Benz F1, rallies etc but my favourite current work is probably the live IRC, with especially fond memories of doing nearly all the stages of Rallye Monte Carlo twice, live TV, on site, right from the service area.

I’m still learning and still get nervous before going on the air, but it’s a great buzz and I thoroughly enjoy it, and have had the pleasure of working with some great people.

I must ask you this – how can you not like the 80s music?

Ha! You’re referring to my stint on World Rally Radio, when I publicly announced I didn’t like 80’s music! No idea why, I just can’t stand all the synthesiser stuff, awful…especially ‘new romantic.’ Don’t mind very early 80’s as it’s more like the 70’s which I’m a big fan of. However that makes me sound old, so I must point out I also like funky house (OK more 70’s influence) and everything from Rage Against The Machine to Beyonce. I’ve weird/diverse taste in music!

Finally, if you’re still with me, what are your next immediate plans? Pretty diverse career so far, I’d say, what’s the next exciting thing you’re thinking about?

I’ve never really had a long term plan or a clue what I wanted to do. I was a lifeguard (beach bum), loved rallying, wanted to be a professional driver, probably wasn’t fast enough, definitely wasn’t rich enough, had no intention of ever getting into commentary/presenting etc, these things just develop over time as your experience and circumstances do. I’m very driven, very impatient, always sending out emails to random people trying to get involved in random new things. Who knows!

And the last one, pick one driver, one rally and one car that you would use to describe rallying in as little words as possible to a complete rally newbie.

Immediately I’m drawn to: McRae/Ringer, RAC 95, Impreza 555 (destroyed Sainz/Moya to win WRC title from huge time deficit, never gave up)

But I can’t resist honourable recent mentions for:

Delecour, Monte 11, Peugeot 207 S2000 (Why are you taking snow tyres Francois?! Because it is snowing! He won stage and nearly took lead of the rally)
Neuville, Golden Stage Rally 2011 2nd Run, Peugeot 207 S2000 (ridiculous overdriving that the other driver’s watched on live TV in disbelief; he won)

I’d like to thank you for the time taken to answer these questions. Really hugely appreciated.

I’d like to thank you for taking an interest and asking, and apologise for saying far too much in reply! : )