The Daily Telegraph - Death casts shadow over classic car rally
June 13, 2013

Competing in the Peking to Paris Rally, Michelle Jana Chan reflects on a car crash that killed a British woman yesterday.

As we approached the end of the Wednesday’s stage, we heard the news: there had been a serious accident. All competitive racing was on hold. Everyone should head directly to our hotel in Tyumen, in south-west Siberia.

A procession of vintage vehicles slowly filled the hotel car park. Each carried competitors taking part in the 8,000-mile Peking to Paris rally. Anxiously we set about doing what we had done every evening for the previous 15 nights: fixing our cars after another gruelling day. My co-driver Mike Reeves and I put our vehicle - a 1940 Ford Coupe - on axle stands and tried to find the source of an oil leak that had been hindering our progress. As we worked, dozens of locals hovered around us, taking photographs and peering under bonnets.

Finally, details of the accident emerged. There had been a fatal crash involving Car 92, a 1970 Chevrolet pick-up driven by two Britons, Emma Wilkinson and Peter Davies. The other vehicle involved in the collision was a Volkwagen Polo being driven by a local man. He and a baby in the same car were killed, and a woman injured. Wilkinson was killed instantly; her partner and co-driver suffered minor injuries.

With nearly 100 vintage and classic cars travelling a third of the way around the world - often at high speed - everybody taking part in the rally knew there were risks. The rough terrain had been particularly challenging in Mongolia, where two cars - a 1969 VW Beetle and a 1973 Nissan Z - had overturned, although no-one had been hurt.

My co-driver Mike and I had invested in a roll-cage for our vehicle, and also strong safety harnesses, but nothing can insure against an accident like the one that killed Wilkinson.

Everyone was in shock about what happened. During the course of the rally most of us have got to know fellow competitiors, though there is little time to socialise.

I first met Emma Wilkinson six months ago at a rally training weekend in Oxfordshire. She and her co-driver had spoken of plans to install a blow-up Jacuzzi in the back of their pick-up. They were full of fun and laughter. I remember thinking at the time that their car was destined to be the heart and soul of the party. On the rally itself, I have spent time with Wilkinson’s similarly cheery brothers, Robert and Mark, who have also been competing in the race (in a 1926 Bentley).

One American competitor described Emma Wilkinson as the “perfect classic Englishwoman”, and the race organisers said she was a “fun-loving and popular member of the rally”.

The accident has cast a shadow over the event. But while there is sadness among competitors we are determined to push on. “Emma would have wanted that,” we tell ourselves.

Organisers cancelled Thursday’s stage, but the plan was to continue thereafter as scheduled. Concerns about safety have been heightened, especially along the racing sections on public roads. Mike and I had a close call during one of our time trials. Yet perhaps our most charged moments have been while driving during the non-competitive parts when we face heavy traffic and careless drivers. Wilkinson was killed on such a journey. We are also very tired. Several times, when both of us have been too weary to drive, we have pulled over at the side of the road to snatch some sleep.

We are only half-way through this gruelling 33-day journey, which started at The Great Wall of China just over two weeks ago. As we head west the next stops are Irbit, Yekaterinburg and Panteleykovo. We will be taking even greater care, especially on public roads, and hoping that we will all stay safe until we reach Paris.