Tom Cave put in the performance of his career to date last weekend, when he nursed his stricken Ford Fiesta ST through the Gulbis Rally in Latvia, to record another all-important finish.
The 16-year-old suffered a near-terminal gearbox failure on the first loop of stages but a combination of the Junior Rallying technician's skill and Tom's determination to reach the finish ensured he is another step closer to his coveted International Rally license.
Tom and co-driver Gemma Price started the event in the Fiesta that had been partially repaired locally following the crew's roll on the Talsi Rally in May. On the first of the event's six stages, they picked up a small misfire, a legacy of the roll in May and on the second, experienced what was described as a 'small moment'.
However, it was on the third stage, the last of the first loop, where their problems occurred. The crew was slowing over a crest into a fast right-hand bend with Tom down-shifting from fifth to fourth gear. When he engaged the clutch in fourth, the transmission locked-up completely and the car landed in the grass on the outside of the road. Tom did extremely well to keep the car on the road and managed to limp out of the stage and 20 kilometres back to the service area in the town of Gulbene.
Tom was running under the Junior Rallying banner on the event and the Junior Rallying technicians immediately set about the car at the mid-day service. They discovered cracks in the gearbox casing and a complete lack of fifth gear. Having weighed up their options, the team carried out running repairs to ensure Tom would be able to get to the finish of the event - a crucial objective.
As Tom and Gemma left service for the second loop of three stages, the gearbox was held into the car by a single bolt and a ratchet strap. Tom was under the strictest instructions to take it easy - no risks and with a team-imposed rev limit to minimise stresses on the now-fragile car.
From there on in, Tom drove a steady event, with one eye and one ear on the car itself. He used the remainder of the mileage to refine his pace notes for that event as well as work on them for future rallies and as it transpired, thoroughly enjoyed the three stages. In fact, he and Price took bets on each of the remaining stages as to how far into the timed test the following car would catch them. Tom finally lost out and ended up buying ice cream for the whole team at the finish.
Tom and Gemma eventually recorded a result of 45th overall but first in class, since they were obliged to run in the 1600+ Open class and were the highest-placed finisher. However, as a result of the problems, they were fourth of the five British Junior Rallying drivers competing on the event but felt that the achievement of getting to the finish overshadowed the actual result.
“This certainly hasn't been an easy weekend, that's for sure but I have really enjoyed it,” said Tom. “With the problems with the car, we clearly couldn't push for the second loop and so without the pressure, we were able to work on the pace notes and a few other areas and not only relax but gain some very useful experience of handling a car with mechanical problems.
“When we got to service in Gulbene, I really thought our event was over. But the Junior Rallying technicians did a fantastic job of getting it to hold together and it was only fair to them and ourselves to make sure we got to the finish. Everyone was telling me to take it easy and make sure we got to the end and to be honest, with just a bolt and a strap holding the gearbox in, there was no way I was going for stage wins! In the end, I was incredibly relieved to see the finish ramp in Gulbene - I never thought I would be so happy to finish fourth of the British junior drivers.”
The team now has six weeks in which to repair or replace the gearbox, ready for the next event in September, the Rally B&K which will be Tom's penultimate event in Latvia this season.