Sligo, Ireland It's not yet light in the early morning chill of a November day in north-west Ireland. But already the service park, the nerve centre of any World Rally Championship event, is abuzz with activity.
The Abu Dhabi BP Ford team has by far the biggest area in the park, and already, at just 7am, it is busy. Very busy.
Two cars and their drivers, Finn Mikko Hirvonen and the UAE's Shaikh Khalid Al Qasimi are already on the road, heading for the day's first stage in the twisty, mountain and cloud-shrouded country lanes that straddle the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.
The mechanics in the service area are scurrying to wash down, repair and prepare the replacement parts ready for the cars' return in around five hours' time.
The three Ford Focuses of the affiliated Stobart team are also on their way with a roar.
The Abu Dhabi BP-Ford World Rally Team's third driver, World Championship leader Marcus Gronholm, is sadly out of the race after sideswiping a stone wall on the first morning.
But he seems cheerful enough as he dashes into the Ford hospitality unit, to shelter from the rain that has begun descending in torrents from leaden skies.
"Oh, la, la!" he cries as he dives in to escape the deluge. "What weather!" Just the day before he had been airlifted to hospital and there was deep concern around the team as reports filtered back as to his condition.
But scans showed no serious injury and he makes a beeline for the coffee. "I'm OK now," he tells XPRESS.
"My neck's a bit sore and stiff. But I'm fine," and with that he is off, talking to the staff, corporate guests and friends who are by now thronging the hospitality tent for breakfast.
"Mick the Chef" appears from another truck which houses his mobile kitchen and tops up the breakfast buffet with fresh bacon, sausages and eggs. He has already been working for three hours and during the rest of the day will cook for more than 800 people, finally getting to bed somewhere around midnight.
A long day beckons. But there are no short days during a World Rally Championship week.
Alan Lightfoot: Hospitality Coordinator
Alan and his team are responsible for looking after everyone associated with the Abu Dhabi BP Ford team – from drivers to mechanics, from the team's rally co-ordinator to the VIP guests.
Alan explains: "It's not just about greeting and looking after people in the hospitality unit. We put together programmes for guests to go out on stages. They want to have the whole rally experience, not just be in the service park all weekend."
He explains that they arrive the Saturday before the rally to build the entire service park area – everything is brought with them.
"By Tuesday evening it is fully operational ready for the Wednesday morning," says Alan.
"It takes three days to build, but a fraction of that to pack away. The quickest we've ever done is four and a half hours," says Alan. "But that was in minus 22C in Sweden. The only way to keep warm was to work quickly!
"Normally from the beginning of breakdown to the last truck pulling out is about eight hours."
George Black: The Tyre Man
Each rally team is allowed 14 sets of tyres per car per race. The Rally Ireland has 20 special stages and hundreds of kilometres to cover in between. The only thing that keeps the car in contact with the road is the tyres. And in the treacherous conditions in Ireland they are arguably the most important part of any car.
As XPRESS arrives, George Black and his crew are busy with what looks like a cross between a soldering iron and a chisel, preparing the tyres to be changed at the next service stop.
"We're just making the grooves slightly deeper and wider," explains George. "It's very wet out there so they've decided to widen the grooves to help displace more water and get a better grip."
It is a precise operation. The grooves are gauged for exact depth to within a fraction of a millimetre. Checked and rechecked, finally the full set of five tyres, including the spare, is ready for action.
Phil Short: Sporting Advisor
Phil lives in the team's "nerve centre" while the stages are being run – the top deck of a double-decker trailer, kitted out with laptops, radio and satellite communications and state of the art weather tracking equipment.
Phil's job is to manage the cars and communicate with the drivers.
"We can monitor stage times, split times, speed and compare them to other cars in the race," says Phil, pointing to a computer screen awash with data flowing in.
"We can track the weather via satellite. And that's vital for making our tyre choices. This morning started dry but quickly turned wet. We knew that from the weather radar so were able to get the right tyres on."
One piece of equipment keeps bursting into noisy life while we talk. "That's a scanner," say Phil. "So we can listen to the other teams' radios. I'm sure they're listening in on us too!"
Mick ‘The Chef' Maunder
The army of staff which comprises the 165-strong Abu Dhabi BP Ford team is like most armies – it marches on its stomach. And that's why "Mick the Chef" as everyone calls Mick Maunder, is probably the most vital cog in the operation.
He is up before dawn, probably the last of the team to bed and prepares everything freshly, from local produce, which can raise some eyebrows when he and his assistant are pushing up to seven fully-laden trolleys to the checkout!
"In Japan I went to the deli counter and asked for 20kg of chicken. They thought I was mad. I had to write it on a piece of paper until they believed me.
"All the drivers and co-drivers have a favourite dish. So I have to make sure they get that.
"On the Wednesday ‘recce' we go out in a van, take everything with us and feed the drivers on the road. It's like a giant picnic. Sometimes we get lucky with where to set up. This week we found a hotel which had just been renovated but not yet opened. So the owner let us set up in the restaurant there.
"Sometimes though it's just in a farmyard – and that's not quite as nice."
John Godber: The Parts Man
John makes sure that all the spares are carried to the event. No small feat for complex machines such as rally cars.
His storage trailer is an Aladdin's cave for any petrol head, from drawers of bolts and fixings to engine and transmission parts. He carries all the tools, glues, tapes and oils needed. Amazingly, he knows where everything is as a succession of mechanics come in to retrieve an essential part. But what happens is they run out of something? "It can happen, but not often," says John.
"In New Zealand we needed a door rubber seal so we went to the local Ford dealership. But there they only sell the four-door Focus and we needed one for a two-door. In the end we got someone who was travelling over to bring it in their suitcase.
"If anything does run out we can normally make something ourselves in the mobile workshops. We've never been stuck yet."