On to happier matters. The new for 2011 World Rally Championship started its hopefully bright future on the gleaming white snow of Sweden last week. The big story was an incredibly tight final day that saw five drivers duking it out for the first victory of the new era, with Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen taking top spot, although the story that caught my eye was about a surprise interloper in this lead scrap – a chap called Chris Patterson.
The British interloper was thrust into the limelight at the end of the rally after Petter Solberg was caught speeding by the cops. A rally driver speeding, who’d have thunk it?
If you break the limit in Sweden you serve a driving ban that starts 48 hours after the offence, which seems like a pretty strong deterrent for the speedy. This fascinating forfeit for the fast left the former World Rally Champ and all-round nice guy with no choice but to hand the keys of his brand new Citroen over to his co-driver Chris Patterson. More used to looking into his lap than out of the windscreen, the raw rookie found himself needing to hold onto fifth over the final stage with non other than 7 million time champion Sebastian Loeb chasing them down. You can see Chris’ first experience of the driving seat here. It looks like a sterling job with only a little interference from his somewhat over-qualified driving instructor, just look how chuffed he is at the end of the stage!
This magic moment brings to mind Bernie Ecclestone in his Brabham days when he reputedly sent a message out on the PA system in Montreal back in 1980 asking if there was anybody in the stands who fancied being an F1 driver after Niki Lauda declared he was “tired of driving in circles”. Argentine driver Ricardo Zunino popped up and gladly took the seat, although it seems unlikely the reality of his appointment was quite so Hollywood. Zunino, a competent hand in F2, was already on Ecclestone’s radar and the ringmaster has always enjoyed a good story, but who are we to ruin such a charming tale?
A little more successful as an impromptu stand-in was John Boland. An Irish politician, he went to spectate at the Olympics revival in Athens in 1896 and came home with two gold medals. Unbeknownst to Boland his friend had entered him into the tennis competition where he excelled
by winning the gold in both the singles and doubles at the first modern Olympic Games. He never played competitive tennis again, it wasn’t going to get any better than that. Boland went back to politics, his Olympic golds becoming the world’s best ever holiday souvenirs.
The professionalism of sport today makes this about as likely to be repeated as the pilot on your Easyjet flight inviting you to land the plane yourself so he can take some time off and join the mile high club. The Solberg-Patterson car pool is about as close as we’ll see in motorsport to ‘one of us’ being thrust into the spotlight; Renault won’t even let its band of merry reserve drivers loose in its Grand Prix car, so we won’t be seeing Bernie asking the spectators to have a crack at driving any time soon.