Sunday, 16 February 2014

Sara Williams


Sara and her co-driver, Patrick Walsh, at the 2012 Wales Rally GB

Sara Williams is currently the most successful female, British driver in the history of  British national rallying.

Sara is a Welsh driver who has been active since 2006, after a year as a navigator to her father, Jonathan. They were a successful team in Welsh club events, and won the 2006 Rali Cwm Gendreath, in a Subaru Impreza. As soon as Sara was 17, she started driving herself, and her first rally car was a Rover 216. She used this rather unusual car in club tarmac rallies.

The Rover was replaced by a more conventional, and faster, rally car, a Honda Civic, for 2007. Co-driven by her father, she entered the Welsh Tarmacadam Championship. Highlights of this year were finishes in the Harry Flatters Rally and the Mewla National Rally. Both of these were 41st places.

She stepped up to the MSA Tarmac championship in 2008, still in the Civic. Navigated by Tony Fisher, she was 39th in the Tour of Epynt, and was the fastest female driver. A couple of offs put her out of contention in a wet Millbrook National Rally, but she was then a career-best 19th in the Abingdon Car-Nival Stages, a non-championship event. Moving out of her normal territory, she contested the Rally of the Midlands, co-driven by her father again, and they were 25th, with the mixed crew award. The Mewla Rally was not as fruitful, with differential problems keeping Sara in 42nd place. Her last event, the Patriot Stages, gave her a 31st, with a newly-adjusted diff. At the end of the season, she won the BTRDA’s Class 3 championship, and the Wessex Ropes Junior award. She decided to branch out and take on some gravel rallies, as well as tarmac, in future.

In 2009, she drove in club and national events, mostly in Wales, now in a Subaru Impreza. The increase in pace was immediate: on her first rally in the car, she was a credible 21st, on the Red Kite Stages. Her next event was the Wyedean Rally, run on snow that year, which was only her second-ever forest rally. She kept it on the road and was 28th, picking up the Ladies’ and Young Driver trophies once more. The Telford Winter Stages gave her her best finish yet: twelfth overall, and on snow again. She was then 16th in the Bulldog Rally, but retired from the Plains Rally with gearbox problems. However, things looked up again in the Severn Valley Stages, in which she was ninth, her first top ten. It was back to twelfth place for the Mid Wales Stages, but back into the top ten in the Swansea Bay Rally. Sara was eighth overall. She kept up her top-ten pace in the Coracle Stages, where she was ninth, crashed out of the Neath Stages, and crawled to the finish of the Woodpecker Rally. Her last event was the Cambrian Rally, and although the Impreza was fixed in time, she had another off, and lost too much time to be a serious contender.

In 2010, she kept the Impreza, now painted pink, and entered the ANCRO Forest Championship. The year was an up-and-down one, and started slowly, with retirements from the Wyedean and Sunseeeker rallies, both due to differential failures. Her first finish came in the Plains Rally, where she was 16th. The Severn Valley Stages led to another retirement, but Sara made the most of her weekend at Epynt, by co-driving for Wayne Palmer on the second day. The Mid Wales Stages was another disappointment: she dropped out with turbo problems after running as high as second. However, at the Coracle Stages, she managed to stay in second place, earning another career best finish. Then, she retired from the Neath Valley Stages with more mechanical problems, and was 19th in the Woodpecker Rally, despite hitting a log and ending up in a ditch. Towards the end, the season picked up, with eighth in the Cambrian Rally and third in the Sweet Lamb time trial. This was preparation for the biggest rally of her career: the Wales Rally GB National event. She did not allow nerves to get the better of her, and after a fast, consistent weekend, she was fourth overall. Her driving won her the John Easson award, and people were starting to take notice of her.

In 2011, she carried on using the Impreza, upgraded to an N12B for the 2010 Wales Rally GB. Sara’s programme included BTRDA, Welsh forest and selected BRC events.  The season started somewhat quietly, with a safe, but unremarkable 21st in the Wyedean Rally. The car was running far more reliably now, and Sara had only one retirement. Soon, she was back in the top ten with a ninth in the Mid Wales Stages. Two BTRDA rallies followed, the Somerset Stages and Plains Rally, and she was 16th and eleventh. The Severn Valley Rally was her best event of the year, a sixth place finish. The Nicky Grist Quinton Stages and Woodpecker Stages ended in 17th and 26th respectively, but the Cambrian Rally was a disaster. Sara crashed heavily and the car suffered extensive damage. Fortunately, it was repairable, and she was back in action for the Sweet Lamb time trial, the shakedown for that year’s Wales Rally GB. She was fifth. The Wales Rally GB National B event itself was somewhat of an anti-climax, with turbo troubles meaning that the Impreza was down on power for a lot of it. She was 17th, with the ladies’ award as consolation.

2012 started frustratingly once more, with a 35th place in the Wyedean Rally, although she was eighth in her class. After a twelfth in the Mid Wales Rally, she was back into the top ten in the Somerset Rally, in eighth place. A broken gearstick put her out of the Plains Rally. The second half of her season was marked by much greater consistency. Apart from 16th in the Woodpecker Rally, she was a regular in the top ten. She was fifth in the Severn Valley Stages, fifth in the Coracle Stages, sixth in the National B Wales Rally GB, and third in the Sweet Lamb Time Trial. Her last rally of the year, the Cambrian Rally, was fast becoming her bogey event, as she crashed out again. Nevertheless, she was second in her class in the Welsh Clubman Championship, and the top lady driver.

In 2013, she looked to build on her growing successes. Her first event was the Mid Wales Stages, a change from her usual programme, and she was fifth. This was followed by her first event outside the UK, the Loughman Forest Rally in Carrick on Suir, in Ireland. She soon got used to the terrain, and was ninth. For a change, she then went back to the Honda Civic with her father, for the London Rally Heroes event, in aid of the Help For Heroes charity. They were 22nd overall, with a class win. A month later, she returned to the Welsh gravel for the Swansea Bay Rally, and was rewarded with her first win. This was first outright win for a female driver since Louise Aitken-Walker in 1983, and it was the same event, 30 years later, which Sara won.

The Severn Valley National Rally, in June, ended in an accident, and this typified the dramatic up and down nature of this season for Sara. It was followed by a third in the Coracle Stages, a favoured hunting ground, then an appearance at the Goodwood Festival of Speed’s rally stage. The second Irish rally that came after that, the Jim Walsh Cork Forest Rally, also ended in the disappointment of a retirement, due to a loose bolt in the power steering system. However, Sara bounced back in September. Not content with one historic win, she won the Red Kite Stages, too, by 23 seconds, from Wug Utting who was in an identical Impreza. This was also special, as it was the first gravel rally she ever entered, back in 2009. Not even her subsequent retirements from the Sweet Lamb time trial and Wales Rally GB National could take her achievements away from her. 

In 2014, she carried on with the Impreza, although she had to miss the Red Kite Stages, due to the car not being ready. Her first rally was the Plains Forest Rally, in May, and Sara - with a different co-driver, Dale Furniss - could only manage 35th. The car's power steering failed on the fifth stage. She was ninth in class. Her next event, the Severn Valley Stages, ended in retirement, after the car got stuck in a ditch. A break from competition followed, and it was September before Sara appeared again. She was second in the Red Dragon Stages, after working on some electrical problems that had been affecting the car. She was also back with her usual navigator, Patrick Walsh. 

At the end of the season, Sara faced her biggest challenge yet: an entry into the WRC Wales Rally GB. This was her first World Championship rally. Despite mechanical troubles after the second day, and a couple of penalties, she finished the event in 43rd place. On stage twelve, Dyfnant, she was fourteenth. This performance earned her the Croeso Trophy, for the best Welsh crew, and the Richard Burns Trophy, for the best young British driver. 

In 2015, she contested the BTRDA Mixed Surface Challenge championship. After a slow start to the year, she picked up another win, in the Red Dragon Stages, in the Impreza. She was over a minute ahead of her nearest rival. Although she managed to finish all of her other rallies this year, she did not get into the top ten again until the Trackrod Rally, in September, where she was tenth. 

At the end of the year, Sara travelled to the Middle East to compete in the FIA Women In Motorsport Desert Challenge, in order to try and win a funded seat in the Sealine Desert Challenge rally raid in 2016. She was not one of the winners, although she did receive training from Jutta Kleinschmidt and Fabrizia Pons, and some additional exposure.

At the start of 2016, she was announced as the winner of the BWRDC's Gold Star Award. She was an impressive sixth in the Severn Valley Rally in June, driving the Impreza, but her season finished with an early retirement from the Wyedean Stages, and damage to the car. 

(Picture from www.dmaeuropa.com)

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