On 10th November 2019 I was sat in a bar just outside Durban, South Africa, watching that weekend’s Super Sunday football action. Whilst I was there for the football, my attention was consumed by permanently refreshing Twitter and checking the latest updates on the FIA-European Rally Championship page for the outcome of the final stages of the final rally of the season. I wouldn’t consider myself a rally fan but I had a vested interest in this afternoon’s results. Manchester’s Chris Ingram was one stage away from history … he needed a podium finish at Rally Hungary to be crowned the first British European Rally Champion in over half a century and with one final stage to go it was within his grasp.
I’d been introduced to Chris in March earlier that year. It was in the early days of RHM and I was scouring Insta for some high profile, local people who might be interested in promoting the work we were doing to help spread awareness. I was speaking to a sports manager at the time and he said it might be worth speaking to Chris Ingram … “Who?” I said, and he went on to explain that he was a young, local, rally driver who was crowned Junior European Rally Champion in 2017 … oh and he’s got 40k followers … “40k you say? If you can make the introduction that would be great!” … shameful I know!
Introductions were made and Chris was more than happy to help promote what we were doing. He explained that he had gone through struggles himself so he understood how important what we were doing was, especially for young lads like him. We arranged to meet-up (yes the good old days when we could meet people) and he went on to tell me that the fact I had reached out to him when I did was such a weird thing. It turns out that not only had he been through mental health struggles in the past but right now he was in a really dark place and a male mental health support account reaching out to him couldn’t have been better timed. Like many young lads, he was keeping everything hidden, hoping that everything would just right itself but the fact I’d reached out to him, explained my story and why I was doing what I was, compelled him to open up in a way he had never done previously. In his professional life, Chris hurtles along treacherous roads with ease but his life at this moment was the rockiest of all roads and one he was really struggling to navigate.
Rallying has been his life since being a young kid and it’s all he has ever wanted to do, forever dreaming of being the best, inspired by such heroes as the late, great, Colin McRae. Becoming Junior European Rally Champion at the end of the 2017 season was a fantastic achievement and gave everyone some indication of not just his talent but his desire to succeed. He was dealt a hammer blow at the start of the 2019 season though when one of his major sponsors pulled out at the 11th hour. I learned that it’s not just Chris’ job to drive but he’s also responsible for getting his own sponsorship to be able to fund their season and losing a big sponsor so close to the start of the season put Chris’ chances of competing in real danger. Finding sponsors for a British rally driver is a tough task because the coverage of the sport in the UK is currently limited. This lack of opportunity of willing sponsors really started to take its toll on Chris and the stress and worry that came with it started to build. The existing sponsors Chris and his team had would only get him so far through the season.
Work-related stress has a huge impact on people’s mental health. One of the biggest problems with it is that once it starts to become an issue it’s very hard to keep isolated to just work. The effects of it begin to creep in to our personal lives, affecting our moods at all times and impacting on our relationships with friends and family. This can then mutate in to a viscous negative spiral that becomes harder and harder to escape from. This is what Chris was in the midst of – the negative thoughts around not finding sponsors ruining his chance of fulfilling his dream were crippling his focus. They were consuming him day and night which meant he was constantly distracted and not present which impacted his relationship with his girlfriend and family. It was stopping him sleeping, he wasn’t eating properly, there was constant negative self-talk destroying his confidence and self-esteem … he was physically and mentally drained – all of which contributed to him not being on top form when trying to get new sponsors on board … a real catch-22 situation. When he was at rally weekends, whilst he wasn’t 100%, they were, at least, a form of escapism. He was in the environment he loves and was able to focus as best as he could on the job at hand; driving. Hurtling along a narrow dirt-track through a forest at over 100mph there isn’t a lot of time to be thinking of anything else and his performances were reflecting that with regular podium finishes.
When not rallying though the dark clouds descended once again. Carrying all this responsibility and worry yourself can become all consuming. Nobody wants to feel a burden and that’s what usually stops us sharing our problems. Men especially believe that it’s my shit and I’ll deal with it and to an extent I believe in that approach. I am all for an individual taking responsibility for their life but taking responsibility for your life doesn’t mean you have to deal with everything alone. You can still seek the support and advice of other people whilst taking responsibility for your own life … others can help but they aren’t able to live your life for you … that is down to you. When we first sat down together I just let Chris speak. That sounds simple, but it’s not. Having the balls to speak to someone openly and honestly and give a voice to thoughts that have only previously circulated in your own head takes a level of courage you can only truly understand having been in that situation. It’s a real daunting prospect to do it but once you have, and you’ve expressed your thoughts and not been judged for them it is a huge weight off.
It was clear that so many of Chris’ thoughts were centred around worries about the future which was creating huge levels of anxiety. Not just that but there was a lot of focus on things that he couldn’t directly influence so that was where we started to turn things round. There will always be things completely out of our control so it’s really important to focus on the things you can directly influence right now and be present in the current moment; that’s how you start to build traction. When it came to rallies too Chris started to use the same kind of principles … taking them one stage at a time and not looking too far ahead and focussing on the things he could directly influence … his drive. “Trust your talent” is what I kept messaging him whenever he had a wobble at rallies and such a simple affirmation as that can work wonders.
With continued financial pressures throughout the season, winning the ERC Junior title for a second time was Chris’ next goal as that came with a €100,000 prize pot that would mean Chris would definitely be able to compete in the final two rallies of the main ERC season and have a shot at being the first British ERC Champion in 52 years. We continued to speak on a regular basis and it was really important for me to keep him grounded and focussed and not let his thoughts run away with him.
The Czech Rally was the final rally of the ERC Junior Championship and going in to the very last stage Chris held a slim lead over Filip Mares, his rival for the junior title. In the final stage Chris gave it his all and posted a great time but unfortunately not good enough. Mares, in his home rally, managed to eclipse Chris’ time to win by just 0.3 seconds and was crowned ERC Junior Champion 2019. 0.3 seconds is a tiny margin in itself but over the course of a full weekends rallying it’s unprecedented and for it to decide a title it was incredible. I was gutted; Chris was gutted and I was worried how he would react to such a devastating blow … the €100,000 was gone and the rest of the season was now hanging by a thread.
All humans have a negativity bias and it’s much easier for us to focus on negative events than positive ones. We are programmed that way and generations ago it was necessary to protect us from life’s dangers but these days that programming has become a danger in itself. As devastating as this latest setback was it was important to point out to him that he’d done everything he could but, by the freakiest of margins, it just wasn’t quite enough on the day for that title and prize-pot. The truth though was that his performance at the Czech Rally meant that overall in the hunt for the full ERC title, he was leading with just two rallies remaining. Whether the dream continued was all down to funding once again.
This was a critical moment in Chris’ life and career. Moments like this can either make you or break you and I was praying it wouldn’t be the latter. Had Chris been in the same headspace he was when we first met I have no doubt that this would have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Thankfully he wasn’t. He was now much more grounded, centred and resilient than he had been in a long time and Chris rallied himself (pun absolutely intended) for the fight ahead. Sponsors and funding were still lacking though so up stepped Chris’ Mum … Ma Ingram took matters in to her own hands and started a round of crowd-funding to get Chris and the team to the next rally in Cyprus and keep the dream alive. His fans from all over the world responded and the funds came in … race on! At the Cyprus Rally, Chris’ car had the names of every single contributor to the crowd funding emblazoned on it which was a really nice touch expressing his gratitude for the support he had received and acting as a reminder as to how much support he had to get the job done. Another brilliant performance ensued in a brutal rally in blistering temperatures and he held on to the lead going in to the final rally in Hungary where a podium finish would guarantee him the ERC title he had dreamed of holding since being a kid.
That final rally in Hungary had gone as well as he could have hoped for. Going in to the final stage of the final rally of the season he was in the podium places but as the Czech Rally a couple of months earlier proved, it’s not over until it’s over. Chris suffered a puncture in that final stage and dropped in to 4th position for the rally. If his closest rival for the title, Alexi Lukyanuk, who was leading going in to that final stage, hung on and claimed victory in the rally he would snatch the title away from Chris. “Please God not again!” I thought as I frantically refreshed Twitter in that Durban bar. Lukyanuk’s run in that final stage was a couple of cars behind Chris so the wait was unbearable for him, his team and all of his fans. He could do no more. Then the news came in … Lukyanuk had suffered a puncture in that final stage as well and had dropped down in to second for Rally Hungary and for the ERC title … Chris Ingram – European Rally Champion 2019 … has a nice ring to it!
Against all the odds he’d done it. At the start of that season, with all his on-track and off-track issues, it was unthinkable that he would have achieved his dream later that year. There were so many things that could have de-railed him that year, including himself and his own thoughts. Anything really is possible and so much comes down to how we approach what is put in front of us. There were of course many significant factors at play over the course of this rollercoaster season, not least Chris’ incredible talent, but you need to be in the right mind-frame to be able to harness that talent so effectively. To speak out is often the first step and as the cliché goes, every incredible journey starts with one step. Who knows where that first step might lead but if you’re not happy with where you are currently then it’s worth taking that step and seeing where you end up. Our chance introduction to each other and Chris having the courage to open up in the way he did started a journey that accomplished a dream.
Photo credits to @chrisingramrally and @fiaerc