Racing to matrimony

FOR most couples, car journeys lead to at least minor rows and at worst, the divorce courts.

Wrong turnings, back seat drivers, dodgy map readings and arguments over what is on the radio are a recipe for disaster.

So imagine sharing days at a time cooped up in a tiny hatchback with your other half.

Angela Morris and her partner Paul Ohren-Bird spend hour upon hour like that as they compete across the world in rally races.

Now Angela is about to become the first woman rally driver to compete in an international race event in Barbados, with Paul as her co-driver.

"We aren't only flying out there for the race, we are getting married in Barbados too."

Paul popped the question while they were waiting to hear if Angela had won a place in the prestigious event.

So for Angela, who works for Avon's car fleet, the televised race will be a landmark occasion for personal as well as professional reasons.

"I am so excited about taking part. It's quite an achievement to be the only woman taking part. But rally driving is not a sport that's popular with a lot of women, for whatever reason. I can think of only one other woman on the circuit over here. But hopefully that will change because the Government is throwing money behind getting more girls and women interested in motorsport."

To be taking part in an internationally-recognised race is even more of an accomplishment for 50-year-old Angela considering she only took up motorsport three years ago.

A decision to watch a demonstration at Sixfields led not only to an exciting, fast-paced hobby which was to become a huge part of her life. She also found her husband-to-be.

"I was listening to Northants 96 and the presenters were at an open day at Sixfields with a rally car and drivers.

"I decided to go and have a look and thought it looked really good so I started going to watch the drivers at events – Paul was the co-driver – later I started taking photographs and writing the newsletters and just becoming more involved.

"Then the driver retired and Paul said, 'Why don't you have a go?' I went to Silverstone for a day's tuition and that was it, I was hooked. I have never had any money since because it's so expensive to compete but I love it."

Come race day, Angela and Paul have to prove they can really work as a team. He navigates while she takes the wheel of the Peugeot 106 Supercup car, the positions they also assume when driving the more sedate family vehicle.

"We have to have complete faith in one another and we do trust each other 100 per cent. You have to or you wouldn't race with the other person.

"Friends say spending all that time together in a car is a recipe for disaster but we get along fine. We never fall out, we are a good team.

"Paul does the navigating, tells me how to get to the stage on the road and does all the map reading.

"Then he tells me how severe the corner is and points out any bumpy sections or anything that could cause a hazard on the road.

"I drive totally according to what Paul says so I have to trust him and I don't think he'd want to get in a car I was driving if he didn't feel the same."

Until their car rolled over during a race last year, Angela had no qualms about hitting speeds of more than 100 mph and negotiating hairpin bends.

"That did make me a bit wary the first time I got back into the car after it happened but I'm over it now.

"I don't think my 21-year-old daughter fears for me either, at least she hasn't said anything!"

Angela's daughter and a friend will join the rally racers for the wedding and rally in May.

In the meantime Angela has immersed herself in a full-on programme of intensive training to prepare herself mentally and physically for the onslaught.

"You do have to be fit, the races tend to be a full day, from nine to five and in Barbados there are some night drives as well, which I have never done before, then you are back up to race first thing in the morning so it's quite tough, endurance-wise.

"I have been working with a guy at Oxford university since last year on a fitness course doing work to build up core strength in my back, stomach and shoulders, the areas you use a lot in motorsport. I am also doing aerobic exercise and have changed my diet, cutting out a lot of fat."

As with most athletes, mental agility is just as important as physical strength. "I have been doing hypnotherapy for sports achievement, which sounds as bit strange but has been proven to work.

"It's fascinating. Under hypnosis you are told to improve performance or get rid of negative thoughts.

"I think it's working, but I'm going to do a bit more in the build-up to Barbados."

Rally Barbados combines the two-race rally with partying in the island's bars, restaurants and clubs.

An estimated 30,000 spectators are expected to turn up to watch the carnival rally

"It sounds like it should be fantastic. We can't wait."

The couple's honeymoon will be spent taking part in the second half of the rally, squeezed into that car again for some quality time.

Matrimonial motoring might lead to the divorce courts for some but for these two, the dreaded dual driving experience has led them only one place: up the aisle.