Will Nicholls the well known Island Rally Driver now thinks the time has come to hang up his crash helmet and find another less dangerous sport that will fufil the competitive streak in him. Peter White talks to Will about his difficult decision to semi-retire from the sport!
There was a wry smile on the face of Will Nicholls as he explained how he became a rally driver purely by accident – literally!
Will, who lives in Godshill, has been one of the country’s leading rally drivers for the past decade, and even before that had immense success both here and in Europe.
Yet it might have been a different story if he had not had an accident in his prized Ford Escort Mark I 1,300cc GT road car when he was still a teenager. He was lucky to escape virtually unscathed. But his car was damaged so badly that the only option was to re-build it into a rally car.
That put the wheels in motion for an exhilarating career. But now, in an ironic twist, Will is seriously considering giving up the sport after suffering a back injury in a high-speed rally accident earlier this year.
The 50-year-old feels it is time to step back and take stock of his achievements, and maybe go back to basics by taking part in a few historic rallies. But even that is something he has put on hold.
Born in Hertfordshire, Will moved to the Island when he was eight. His first car was a Mini, which he did occasionally drive to Sandown High School before passing his test. Then he graduated to his Escort,
He recalls: “I think I got into rallying because of that crash. I got away with a few cuts and bruises and rebuilt the car into a rally shell, so that is where the passion for rallying started. I managed to buy this body shell, and about 16 of my friends helped carry it from Victoria Avenue in Shanklin to Luccombe where I rented a garage and built the car into a rally car.
“My first job, working for a plastics firm in Ventnor and earning just £17 a week meant it was a case of ‘beg, steal and borrow’ when it came to getting the parts, and overall it took me about three months. I then went to being a waiter for a few years. When I wasn’t racing I used to rent a garage and help people mend and service their cars. I left being a waiter at 21, and started my own business in a little garage on Shanklin sea front.”
In another irony, Will maintains one of the biggest positive turning points of his career came when he received a three-year rally ban. He explained: “I was 21, and did a rally in Banbury with a navigator who had the wrong licence. We finished second overall. Afterwards it was bought to the organisers’ attention that my navigator had the wrong licence, and as the driver is responsible for such an error I was banned by the Motor Sports Association.
“I was a bit naive in those days, and the reason we got found out was because we had our names in the local papers for doing so well. The ban was a blessing in disguise because I was piling all my money and energy into rallying. It made me step back from rallying and get into the garage trade a bit more. When the ban finished I was in a better financial position”.
Will rented two garages and ran a body and mechanical repairs business – all self taught. He later rented a garage in Upper Ventnor, and on his return to rallying progressed to a Mark II Escort.
“My first rally was in 1979 on the Island, and we finished seventh overall. I did my first rally on the mainland in 1980 and we were fifth. I was always the driver, because I am a terrible passenger and couldn’t navigate for anyone,” he smiled.
From there Will progressed to better cars always driving Fords until 2000 when he switched to Subaru. He had already enjoyed a lot of success in Mark II Escorts, winning his first rally in one in 1987 in Kent.
He continued: “That was something of a milestone after the work I had put in because it is a tough sport. Basically motor sport is down to how much money you spend. So I was always struggling, even though I had a few good sponsors from the Island, and help from some garages. Some were smaller businesses who couldn’t afford a lot, but they were there to help. It’s a bit difficult going to someone and saying ‘will you give me some money, I want to drive around a forest’.
“I had quite a few different navigators, but for the last 12 years it has been Nick Broom, an ex-Island guy who now works in Yeovil. I have known him for quite a long time, and he has always been involved with the IW Car Club. We gelled really well together, because although the driver seems to get all the glory, without Nick I wouldn’t have had all the results that I have had. A lot of it is down to the fact he is such a good navigator.”
Looking back, Will accepts his three-year ban came at what could have been the best years of his career, when any progress might have taken him to become a works driver. Surprisingly, he has no regrets, pointing out: “If I had been a works driver I might not have met my wife Alison, who I have been married to for 25 years, and we have two great children Ben and Jenna.
“Alison has quietly supported me, but I think she would be a lot happier if I wasn’t rallying. She thinks I am probably old enough and have done enough, and doesn’t want to see me ending up having a serious accident.
If I give up rallying I want to do something because I have always been very competitive, “I used to be a five-handicapper at golf, although that has gone up quite a bit now after a long break from it. I was also a keen snooker player, and was Island champion in 1985. I was just as competitive at snooker as rallying, because I hate losing.”
The highest points of Will’s rallying career came following his switch to Subaru world rally cars, the latest car being an S9 with paddle gear change on the steering wheel. It has a top speed of 135mph, with 0 to 100mph in six seconds.
“People ask me what it’s like to drive and I can only say that it is like driving a spaceship, unbelievable! The acceleration, handling and stopping is incredible, when you come out of a corner the forward drive is like you are on the end of an elastic band that shoots you forward,” he explains.
“I have had a great career in Rallying over the last 30 years, preparing and running the different cars. One of the best things is that over that period I have had my mates looking after me, they have given up a lot of time and put in a great deal of effort, I couldn’t have done without the likes of Mark Rowell (Sooty), Scott Milton, Mark Northcott, my Navigator Nick Broom and many more. We have all worked well as a team!”
Will’s best successes came in the ‘Sunseeker’ in Bournemouth in 2009, and winning the BTRDA Gold Star National championship the previous year. He has also won a top event in Belgium five times.
The biggest low was last November on the Cambrian Rally in Snowdonia, when he had to finish in the top seven to become the first driver to win the BTRDA Championship two years in a row. He said: “I was a bit nervous; being too cautious, went round a corner too slow and rolled the car. I hadn’t crashed in the previous two years when driving on the limit, and then ended up being too careful and rolling down the side of a bank. On the next stage we had another accident and that was the end of my chances.
“Other crashes included destroying a car in Belgium after rolling over eight or nine times. But in June this year I did a rally in a Mark II Escort and it was the ‘easiest’ accident I’ve had. The car hit a kerb and then stopped on another kerb, but it damaged my back. I have not done one since and am not keen to do one, because physically I couldn’t.
“It has prompted me to think about semi retiring. Maybe my reactions have got slower, in fact I know they have. Perhaps for me everything happened too late – I had my best years from 44 to 50, and really it should have been from 35 to 40. My retirement might end up with me going off and doing a couple of historic rallies, but I don’t want to be as competitive as I used to be.
“However, I wouldn’t really change anything. I have some good memories and a lot of laughs, importantly with my mates around me.”