FORMER world rally winning co-driver Nicky Grist, 54, talks to Luke Jarmyn about growing up in Ebbw Vale and his life competing around the world alongside legendary drivers such as Colin McRae and Juha Kankkunen before running his own business. He said:

“I was born in the old Cottage Hospital in Tredegar and attended Gilwern primary and Brynmawr comprehensive schools.

When I was in school, my first love was golf and I was a member of Monmouthshire Golf Club until a few years ago.

When I left school, I became an assistant golf pro down at the club, which was my life for the first three years after school.

One night I went into an engagement party in a pub in Gilwern and the girl who was getting engaged, her sister's boyfriend was doing a road rally. A pure navigation thing starting at 11.30pm on a Saturday going right through the night around the country lanes, plotting map references, directions of approach and departure at different points before finishing on Sunday morning.

They said there is this rally passing and a couple of other guys were going up to see it after the party and they said its passing over the top of the Blorenge by Keepers Pond and I thought good god, that’s so local. I never realized really that was going on.

By 5.30am in the morning having a cooked breakfast at the finish, I thought this was fantastic, such a great spectacle with a great buzz going from place to place, down roads you have never travelled on before. So I thought I’m going to go on a few more of these.

But the bugbare was working on a Sunday in the golf club after a few hours’ sleep. Then I started competing with a friend called Steve Davies, from Abergavenny, on the Welsh championship and travelling the length and breadth of Wales whilst still working as a young assistant golf pro.

I always went as a navigator as I couldn’t afford to rally and thought it was the simplest and easiest way to start with the local motor club. I have never ventured from that seat.

Once I came through the Welsh 1300 championship in 1982 and then we went to full two litre big class in 1983 doing a reasonable job as won the Welsh championship that year and with some success. Enjoying it more than golf, I realised I needed a new job. In the middle of the afternoon I was shutting the pro shop doors because I was falling asleep. I realised it was ridiculous I haven’t been to bed.

I needed a job with a Sunday off, so I went into the motor trade selling cars, then I could fit my motorsport around my job.

We progressed to the Motoring News championship in England and Wales for the 1984 Vauxhall Junior Nova Cup, which was my first taste of forest rallying and I started competing in stage rallies on closed roads and then progressed slowly doing more stage events.

In the Nova Cup, I met the GM dealer sport people. They were providing a great incentive where Vauxhall put £5 from every registered car at a dealer into a pot towards GM dealer sport for rallying.

I sat with a non-professional driver in GM called Harry Hockly, a quick front wheel drive driver in a 1300 Nova and developed a 1600 Nova in the national championship.

I ducked and dived and sat in with different people trying to broaden my experiences, because no matter what you are in motorsport, you are judged on your experience, so I went with quicker cars.

Through GM I was offered a semi-pro drive with the late Dave Metcalfe in 1989, this guy given the chance would be more than a match with the likes of McRae’s and Burns’, he had so much natural talent and car control.

I heard about him in 1982 at the Lombard RAC rally when there were Micky Mouse stages around Longleat on tricky and slippery tarmac roads.

At the end of the first day, amongst big manufactured Group B cars and Audi Quattro’s, Dave in a Group A Opel Manta which had no power what so ever and very little handling, he was tenth with a ridiculous car number of 107 or something. It was like ‘who is this guy, where has he come from’, and that was Dave.

I realised what car control Dave had, the angles he could get from a front wheel drive car, a normal person would freak out, but with such speed you would be going into hairpins backwards, incredible.

Our best result was fourth in the wet at the high profile Manx national rally. It was so on the edge and we won the stars of rally award and the team physically carried us above all these people, I felt I had made it.

I became fully professional in 1990 when I signed alongside Malcolm Wilson at Ford and competed abroad for the first time at places like Monte Carlo and Finland whilst doing test and development.

During this time I had to learn how to connect with drivers. As a co-driver you don’t describe a road to a driver, they describe to you on the test run and then you read it back to him when he needs it and fine-tune the notes.

I never thought about the danger, it was just the buzz of it and that became the most important factor and doing a professional job to get the seat.

Going to Monte Carlo with Malcolm were a learning curve. The complexity was we had 15 tyre choices, but you would use slicks in rough conditions that change from dry to being wet over the coal, then snow and ice, before it goes dry back down the mountain.

The complexities were mad at the top level but I relished it. You realise these global events are so specialist.

Then I was head hunted to join Toyota team Europe in the 185 Celica with Swede Mikael Ericsson to do a special job of getting the team set-up ready for the Safari Rally, as that rally would take a special car to get through it.

I spent the first three months of 1992 in Kenya. I was flown straight out to their workshop on the outskirts of Nairobi and heading south in the rally car blasting down to Nambasa.

The roads deteriorate, we came amongst a Police road block but out there rally cars ruled and they would just dive off the route, you had to deal what was coming against you.

Africa was you against the elements, which were harsh, and I suffered de-hydration ending up in hospital on a drip during that time, you really have to look after yourself.

My big break came when world champion Juha Kankkunen’s co-driver Juha Piironen suffered a brain hemorrhage during the 1993 Argentine rally. I was called out to partner him for that rally and New Zealand, which was such a whirlwind.

I was flown straight out and turned up with Kankkunen sitting in the hotel room smoking cigars with ten empty cups of coffee and a pile of maps in the hotel ready to go.

From there we won in Argentina, Australia and Britain and clinched the world championship, which meant I had joined the elite.

I also got married in Abergavenney to Sharon during the recce of Rally Portugal that year.

I stayed with Toyota until the end of 1996 after the team’s ban but was offered to work with Colin McRae for 1997.

He had got a bit unruly and Prodrive Subaru manager David Richards wanted someone new to help structure him.

Colin had a reputation of Colin McCrash but we changed that. I learnt with Kankkunen how sometimes its better to take a second and think of the season, with Colin we came very close, runner-up in the championship twice and when we won the Safari Rally in 2002 that was the finest moment.

Previously Colin hadn’t been very good on such technical rallies but we built up a notes system which didn’t just tell him just about the type of corners we were driving but detailed the level of speed needed.

Being with Colin was the best thing in my career, no question, he was a public figure with games.

By 2002 our relationship had become strained and he started working with Derek Ringer. We still did a few rallies for Skoda in 2005 and another with Citroen in 2006.At that time Stilo offered me to be its sole UK importer for their Italian-made helmets and other equipment, including Hans devices and intercoms, which I have been developing in Pontrilas ever since alongside being involved as a co-driver coach with the MSA academy."