Real Racers – Introducing Ashleigh Morris

Walero’s ‘Real Racers’ campaign intends to shine a light on the personalities, stories and characters across all levels of junior motorsport. All members of the campaign compete up and down the land and have independently chosen Walero to keep them cool under pressure and help them fight it out at the front of the grid.

In this edition, we speak to Ashleigh Morris, a rally driver forging her path to success in the Scottish Rally Championship.

The world of rally is one of the purest forms of motorsport. Tackling harsh terrain, wild weather conditions and some of the most winding, twisting and zigzagging roads and trails on the planet, rally driving is an adrenaline rush few sports can match.

It’s also a sport of unmatched accessibility – not bound by the confines of a race track, rallies can take place in even the furthest, most remote parts of the world.

Scotland’s rally pedigree needs no explanation; the late Colin McRae is one of the sport’s most revered and most successful drivers whilst the nation’s picturesque countryside plays host to several events, and may even stage a round of the World Rally Championship in the future.

There are many routes into rally, as Scottish driver Ashleigh Morris can attest to.

“My dad was always into cars and I used to watch Formula One with him,” Ashleigh recalls. “As a kid, I didn’t know much about rallying. When I was a teenager, my dad sponsored a friend who did a bit of rally driving. We were watching him one day as he was testing his rally car and he gave me a passenger ride. Like I said, I didn’t really know much about rallying until then but I was absolutely hooked after that.”

Bitten by the bug, it wasn’t long before rally formed a huge part of Ashleigh’s life – where she jumped into the driver’s seat herself and began her rallying career.

“I started out just hiring a car and did that for about a year. I got the Ford Fiesta I race now a few years ago and I competed in the Motorsport News Circuit Rally Championship for the last few years. We finished second in class so I was really pleased with that.”

After finishing the 2019-20 season as Class B Vice-Champion in the MSN Circuit Rally Championship, Ashleigh was excited to make another step up in 2021 – moving from circuit rally to closed-road events on tarmac and gravel.

“We’re doing the Scottish Rally Championship this year,” Ashleigh explained. “So we did the Argyll Rally, which was my first event on closed public roads, and now it’s on to gravel for the rest of the season. It’s a big learning curve. Obviously I was getting very familiar with MSN but I just felt like I needed a change. It’s a big step up for us this year which is fantastic.”

Rallying is one of the most unique forms of motorsport out there and Ashleigh is quick to explain its lure and appeal – highlighting the discipline’s inherently unpredictable nature as a factor.

“I think, for me, it’s the adrenaline and the fact that you’re out there and you’re dealing with different things every time. In circuit racing, yes, you still get that adrenaline and speed but you’re doing the same circuit again and again. In rally, it’s a lot more than just learning those circuits, it kind of throws you something different every time. Even at the Grampian, we did three stages, each one of them twice but by the time you come around the second time and it’s had more cars over it, the nature of the stage can completely change.

“It can be slippier the second time. So it really is just taking it all as it’s thrown at you. I also really like the fact that it is more of a team sport. Obviously, it’s not just me, it’s myself and a co-driver and that’s not just teamwork in the car – it’s the build up to an event going through the notes together. As part of a team we win together and we lose together.”

Rallying is one of the most unique forms of motorsport out there and Ashleigh is quick to explain its lure and appeal – highlighting the discipline’s inherently unpredictable nature as a factor.

“I think, for me, it’s the adrenaline and the fact that you’re out there and you’re dealing with different things every time. In circuit racing, yes, you still get that adrenaline and speed but you’re doing the same circuit again and again. In rally, it’s a lot more than just learning those circuits, it kind of throws you something different every time. Even at the Grampian, we did three stages, each one of them twice but by the time you come around the second time and it’s had more cars over it, the nature of the stage can completely change.

“It can be slippier the second time. So it really is just taking it all as it’s thrown at you. I also really like the fact that it is more of a team sport. Obviously, it’s not just me, it’s myself and a co-driver and that’s not just teamwork in the car – it’s the build up to an event going through the notes together. As part of a team we win together and we lose together.”

Discussing the unknowns of a rally stage, Ashleigh explains the processes before she even gets to the rally and reveals the amount of work required to prepare all of the pacenotes ahead of time to ensure they’re as accurate and detailed as possible.

“Our preparation depends on different events,” Ashleigh said. “For the Grampian, we didn’t get a recce beforehand so it was all down to our pacenotes. We receive pacenotes before the race along with a DVD driving through the stage. Then I meet up with my co-driver either face-to-face or over Zoom and essentially we’ll press play on the video. I’ll be watching the video, and he will be reading the notes as he would if we were out on the stage.

“We will go through them and we might add some bits in, we might see some visual markers that we can use. Alternatively, we might take some bits out because obviously the original pacenotes are provided for every single car and something they put in for the R5 car class might not be so relevant for us because we won’t be carrying as much speed. So, yeah, we go through them and ensure they’re as relevant for us as we can make them. 

“For some events, you do get a recce beforehand. At Argyll for instance, we did get a recce the day before the event. So again, we went through the notes in the video before but then we were able to, in a road car, go through the stages and physically drive them at the speed limit which helps a lot because we can then notice and spot things that we might not see on the DVD.”

Similar to many race series around the world, the cars used in rallying are based off standard road-going vehicles. For example, Ashleigh races a Ford Fiesta R200, developed by M-Sport and derived from the standard Ford Fiesta. Whilst it may look familiar on the outside, the technology on the inside is far from identical.

“It’s all stripped out to be a lot lighter,” Ashleigh explains. “We’ve got a rulebook with all the safety equipment that it needs to have as well. We don’t have any seats in the back or anything like that and there’s a lot of changes to the engine and the gearbox for performance. The engine itself is tuned up, so it’s a 1600cc with 200bhp and there’s a completely different gearbox as well – a five-speed sequential.

“It’s quite different to drive because it’s not like a normal manual car where you use the clutch to change gear. I can just flat shift. So I’ll use the clutch at the start of the stage, at the lights to take off, and then after that, I don’t need to use it for the rest of the stage. I will just be flat on the throttle and pulling straight through the gears.”

All of that combined makes for a very different driving experience, as Ashleigh recalls the first time she stepped into a rally car and the journey she went on to adapt her driving style.

“I would say it probably took me a year or two to adapt fully. I started out hiring a car across the first year and that car was really a lot more similar to a road car. It had all of the safety equipment, but it was what was called a ‘rally first’ car, so there’s a lot less modifications – it still had an H-pattern gearbox and I was using a clutch but it got me used to the handling. You have to be a lot harder on the brakes than you are in a road car for example.

“Then I got the Ford and that was probably a bigger step up for me because it is a purpose-built rally car. It was probably the biggest change for me. It does take a few events to kind of build yourself up because you don’t realise how hard and how late you can actually brake in the car or how it moves around on gravel. So, yeah, it’s a very different driving style.”

The demands of rally driving are also incredibly brutal. Drivers require a hyper concentration and incredible strength to maintain focus throughout the event and deal with the constant bumps, jumps and dips of the course.

To manage that, Ashleigh dedicates a lot of her spare time to training and fitness to make sure she’s in the best condition possible before, during and after each rally.

“You’re literally on the go all day because you might do a stage but then have a half an hour drive to the next one. So it is quite an endurance sport, both in terms of pacing yourself on stage, but also what it takes out of you as a driver so it’s important to me to keep my fitness up for that.

“You can get a little bit of soreness afterwards and, even with the adrenaline as well, it can still take it out of you. You’ve got this build up to an event and you’re buzzing all day but then sometimes the next day can almost be a bit ‘bleurgh’. So I think there’s a lot about cardio – you’re just keeping that fitness level up because people don’t realise how challenging it is being in the car. And then it’s a lot about core strength and upper body strength because you’re strapped in tightly in the car so you can’t move a lot.”

Leaving the Grampian Forest Rally, Ashleigh currently leads the Ladies’ Championship and is proud of the path she’s forging for women in the world of rally.

“I think it’s so important for the younger generation that they see women like me, and many others, out there competing. I think there’s still a very interesting perception, even from inside the sport. At the Grampian, there were 115 entries. Only four were driven by women and there were only 13 female co-drivers, which is quite low. You get a lot more female co-drivers now, but for some reason that doesn’t seem to translate onto the driving side.

“Quite often the marshalls, when they come to the car to talk to the co-driver, they will see me in the car and come over to my side of the car and then realise I’m the driver and they have to go back round to the other side. It’s like they see a female and think ‘that’s a co-driver’. I’ve also had times, even in my race, where people ask ‘oh, who are you co-driving for?’ because it just seems to be that expectation that as a female, you must be the co-driver.”

Despite her own experiences, Ashleigh is confident that perceptions are changing thanks, in part, to an inspired younger generation taking their first steps into the world of motorsport and rallying.

“I think it’s filtering down a bit more now to the younger generation as they see more people about. We’ve obviously got more women embracing it and that’s really coming into it now. But I think it is a challenge. It’s just trying to talk about what I’m doing so that other people are aware of it. When we’re out and about on these rallies or driving road sections and there are a lot of families that come out and they stand at the side of the road waving at you, it’s really important to try and make them feel involved.

“Before the pandemic, people would walk past in the paddock and service area with their kids and, if we had time, I would always say ‘do you want to sit in the car and get a picture?’ because I think that’s how you inspire the younger generation and get them excited.”

Looking ahead to the rest of the season, Ashleigh has just one round of the Scottish Rally Championship to go later this month before she turns her attention to preparation for next season.

“I’ll be aiming to get as much testing and tuition in over the winter before we kick off next season, hopefully with the Scottish Championship again at the Snowman Rally in March. I’ll be making sure everything’s checked over on the car throughout the winter and giving it a bit of TLC so we can hit the ground running at the start of 2022.”

You can follow Ashleigh’s progress throughout the season on her Facebook, Twitter & Instagram channels.

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