Frustration in Portugal for Tom Cave

The UK’s first minor international rally driver, Tom Cave, suffered a frustrating Vodafone Rally de Portugal this weekend, the fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship. After an excellent start, the engine on the 17 year-old’s Ford Fiesta ST suffered damage from overheating and despite attempts to rectify the problems, the crew was forced to retire with only four stages under their belt.

The event began well for Tom and co-driver Gemma Price. They were the fastest Fiesta around the opening stage of the event, run on the superspecial stage in the Algave Stadium in front of thousands of rally fans on Thursday evening.

They also did well on the opening morning of the event proper, Friday, when they recorded a fourth-fastest and two second-fastest Fiesta stage times on the first loop of three timed tests over the fast and technical Portuguese gravel roads. Tom and Gemma arrived at the mid-day service on Leg One as the second-placed Fiesta, an excellent opening to their rally.

However, on the way back to service, Tom had noticed that the car was pulling to the left and at service, the mechanics attempted to rectify the problem but could not find the fault. On the way to the first of the afternoon’s stages, the problem became more and more acute, to the point where the car was rapidly becoming undriveable. Then, 10Km into the first of the afternoon’s three stages, the power steering failed and the crew was forced to retire from the day but hoped to return on Saturday, using SupeRally regulations.

The mechanics left the service area to collect the stricken Fiesta but could not locate the crew, so told Tom and Gemma to drive back to service, despite the fact that the failed power steering pump also drove the engine’s alternator and water pump. Consequently, the engine overheated on the run back to service and once cooled down, the mechanics discovered that the left-hand driveshaft had failed and the power steering fluid had drained from a failed steering rack, causing the pump drive pulley to shear.

The mechanics replaced the driveshaft, attempted to repair the steering rack, replaced the steering pump and after a brief run-up, confirmed that the engine was OK for Tom and Gemma to restart on Saturday morning, albeit with 15 minutes of time penalties under SupeRally regulations.

However, on the road to the first of leg two’s stages in the morning, Tom attempted to check the water level in the engine while the car was being fuelled and found the coolant reservoir was empty. He tried to remove the cap to add water but it would not release, indicating more serious problems with the engine. Again, the crew were forced to retire and once the mechanics had recovered the car, with the help of technicians from M-Sport, the company which developed the Group N Fiesta and runs the Fiesta Sporting Trophy International one-make series, the engine was diagnosed with terminal heat damage and Tom’s event was over.

Tom spent the remainder of the event spectating on the Algarve’s stunning stages, studying the techniques used by drivers in different types of cars through a selection of corners, using the time to his advantage.

Commenting at the end of the event, Tom said: “Obviously this is an incredibly frustrating way to end an event which began so well. I was very pleased with the way things were going on Friday morning. The notes were working very well, probably the best I have made. We settled into a really good rhythm and everything was working very well for us. I was encouraged by the pace we were setting, even though we were taking things relatively easy and driving round the worst of the conditions to make sure we didn’t have any problems.

“I knew there was something wrong with the car as we headed back to service and on the road section back out to the stages, it got worse and worse. We decided to start the stage but only got 10Km in before we lost the power steering. I didn’t realise at that time that the driveshaft was also broken and we managed to limp to the end of the stage, where the mechanics told us to drive back to the service area, even though the battery light was on and the temperature was climbing.

“As soon as we stopped to check the water on Saturday morning, I knew we were in trouble. The coolant reservoir was empty and the cap would not come off; the system must either have been vacuum’d or pressurised. But whichever way, it meant that there was a serious problem with the engine and it transpired that the overheating from the drive back on Friday had caused too much damage for us to continue.

“So we spent the rest of Saturday and Sunday out in the stages, watching how different drivers tackled the sections we could see. It was a very useful exercise, because you very rarely get to see how not only your direct competition handle corners you have noted on the recce but also, the very best drivers in the world.

“Although we didn’t get very far, I feel that we learned a lot of valuable lessons this weekend, in terms of developing our pace notes, the challenges that come with the sport and of course, how the car needs to be treated. I’m sure that this experience will only help us to move forward for the rest of this year’s programme.”

Tom’s next scheduled event is the Jim Clark Rally in May, part of the British Rally Championship. However, because of his truncated rally in Portugal, he is looking into alternatives to allow him to return to competition sooner and ensure that his 2009 program maintains its momentum.

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