2 June 1995

Rallying to the top…

Farm contractors son Steven Mantle has a driving ambition: To make it to the top in rallying.

Philip Clarke went to find out what makes him tick

CLIMBING into the

passenger seat of Steven Mantles Peugeot 306, it is immediately obvious that this is no ordinary hatchback.

The snug comfort of the Sparco sports seat is luxury epitomised, but it is in stark contrast to the rest of the interior. No back seats, no carpets, no radio.

As these observations flit through my mind, Steven hits the starter and the two-litre engine roars into life, the whole car shuddering in eager anticipation.

And then he floors it – or so it seems – and, with a squeal of rubber, we burst out of the farm yard and onto the half-mile dirt track behind. The noise is incredible! The floor panels vibrate in a hailstorm of rocks and stones. Outside, trees and hedges flash past in a blur of green as the car slithers from one side of the track to the other. I try to catch a glimpse of the speedo, but focusing in this cocktail-shaker on wheels is a complete non-starter. I guess we are doing about 70mph, although it feels more like 100.

And then, with the end of the lane rushing towards us at an alarming rate, he hits the brakes. With a lurch to the right, we slide to a halt, enveloped in a cloud of dust. All goes suddenly quiet, except for the drone of the fan, valiantly trying to cool the over-heated engine block. As the dust finally clears, I note we have already swung through 180 degrees and are pointing back towards the farm yard.

As Steven flirts with the throttle, I tentatively reach for my seatbelt.

Like most farm children, Steven Mantle learnt to drive at an early age.

Starting with routine tractor work, he quickly graduated to the Land Rover. But these early experiences were also fuelling a passion for driving, which now looks set to become a career.

Using money earned working for his fathers contracting business at Ludlow in Shropshire, and engineering experience gained in the busy workshop, Steven – then just 17 – set about preparing his first rally car in 1993.

The Vauxhall Nova 1600 GSi debuted in the Group N class (for standard road cars) of the Welsh Marches event at the Royal Welsh Showground in November of that year.

Finishing a creditable 7th in his class and 19th overall, Steven was suitably fired-up for his first full season of competitive rallying, in the Group N class of the 1994 Peugeot Gold Star championship.

Five wins in seven rallies were enough to secure him the title and earn him a place on the Shell Scholarship at Silverstone last September for the eight most promising young drivers of the year.

These early achievements have come without any formal training. "We have just learned as we have gone along," says Steven.

To some extent he is following in his fathers wheel tracks.

"I always wanted to rally drive and we would often go and watch," says Bernard Mantle. "But what with starting a family and building up the contracting business, as well as farming about 350 acres in my own right, I never had the time or money.

"Four years ago I got round to building my own Escort and scored some early successes. But now I am stepping aside to concentrate on Stevens career."

So what does it take to stay ahead of the field when driving at 100mph on surfaces not noted for their adhesion?

"The key to success is concentration and anticipation – absorbing the instructions of the co-driver and acting on them. To do that, you have to be fit," says Steven.

"Preparation is also critical, to give the car the best possible chance of surviving 150 miles at full throttle over two days. My background in farming has helped in all these areas."

And what about courage? "Thats not really an issue," says Steven. "Yes, I get nervous. But anything else you just block out."

This season, he has stepped up a level to compete in the Peugeot British Junior Rally Championship, to be held in tandem with the Mobil 1 Top Gear British Rally Champion-ships.

For this new event, Peugeot supplies the shell of the car, and contestants have to build the rest, welding the body, installing the engine, doing the paintwork etc. Despite a small subsidy from Peugeot, the cost is still approaching £20,000.

Powered by a 2-litre, 16-valve Peugeot 306 engine, Stevens first race of the season, the Vauxhall Rally of Wales in March, was one of mixed fortunes. "Together with co-driver, Paul Morris, we were leading the race by over a minute, but then a hairpin came up a bit quick, I rolled it and we hit a tree. It was a write off!"

Despite being awarded £200 and the "Spirit of the Rally" prize for "putting on the best show", this was a major set-back. But encouraged by family and friends, Steven set about salvaging what he could, took delivery of another shell, and the race was on to rebuild a replacement in time for the next event – the Pirelli International in the Kielder Forest, Cumbria.

"It was a busy time of year for us anyway with spraying and spring cultivation, and I had been working up to 60 hours a week for Dad. But myself and local mechanics, Mark Blakeway and Robert Davies, worked into the night, every night for four weeks to make sure I was on the start line in Kielder."

Success in the British Junior Championships this season would earn Steven a guaranteed seat in a Peugeot works team for next year. That would set him well on course to achieve his ultimate ambition – to compete at world championship level.

Back in the Peugeot 306 at the end of the farm track, Steven turns to me with a wry smile. "Right then," he quips. "Shall I show you how its really done?"

"OK" I croak, click home the safety belt and close my eyes.