Rallying may have lost the heroic edge of the old endurance events but, says, John Davenport, the sport still remains great.
We all know the feeling. You buy a branded product you have bought for years, but when you get it home, you discover that, in the words of the musical, “Fings ain’t what they used to be”. While it is easy for old men to resist change and pillory the works of their successors, I do feel that modem rallying delivers less now than it once did.
A time traveller whisked back to 1924 would have found motorsport only just emerging from the after-effects of the Great War. Grand Prix racing got back into the calendar in 1921 and in 1923 the first 24 Heures du Mans race was held. The Paris-Nice Trial ran for the first time in the same year while the Monte Carlo Rally restarted in 1924. The main difference between what had gone before and after the war was the increasing distinction between what was racing and what was rallying.
The early city races such as Paris-Bordeaux, Paris-Vienna and Paris-Berlin had more than a resemblance to classic rallies of 50 years later, such as the Liege-Rome-Liege. The ill-starred Paris-Madrid of 1903 even had time cards that would have been familiar to anyone rallying in the ’50s. But the awful lessons learned from accidents such as those that stopped Paris-Madrid persuaded organisers circuit racing was a much better idea. To begin, those circuits tended to be on public roads and with long laps. For instance, the first Circuit des Ardennes had a 53-mile lap tackled six times. But with the advent of purpose built facilities such as Brooklands (1907), Monza (1922) and Montlhery (1924) the difference between the two branches of the sport became ever more distinct.
The rallies that thrived in the ’20s and ’30s were inspired by three great events that were to cast shadows over the sport for almost half a century. Today, just one remains, the Monte Carlo Rally. The other two, which exemplified all that was wonderful about that period of rallying, died out in the 1960s for similar, but rather less dramatic reasons, than those that stopped the city races. Both the International Alpine Rally and the Marathon de la Route were long-distance, high-speed, open-road events. They could only exist when traffic density was low and the populace could regard a passing rally as free entertainment.
The attraction of such events for the competitor was enormous. It was, quite literally, a challenge to compete. I can recall the last few Marathons to Sofia and was amazed at the numbers of people prepared to pay to spend four days and nights out of bed, suffer hideous privations, and probably reduce their car to scrap. But what an achievement if one came through! Much the same could be said for the Coupe des Alpes, the French Alpine Rally, though here there was more chance of finishing and the kudos came from a low score of penalties.
The appeal of these events was broad. They attracted professional drivers as much as private entrants, the talented and the inept, the poor and the rich. It was well into the 1950s before one could say regular winners of major rallies were factory drivers. I would say that Guy Monraisse and Jacques Feret winning the Monte in 1958 with a factory Renault Dauphine was the watershed, but the actual date is unimportant. From the ’20s until the mid-’70s, people entered major events because they represented a challenge. No matter who you were, if you just hung in there, the events were long and hard enough that you could realistically hope that dogged persistence could pay off.
This was always true on the East African Safari until it was shortened in the interests of World Rally Championship conformity. Joginder Singh was perhaps the last of the true privateers to win in 1965 – with an ex-factory Volvo PV544. But I always remember Rob Collinge winning WRC points for Austin-Rover by finishing sixth on the 1982 Safari in his Range Rover. I can personally vouch that he had no factory assistance!
But by the end of the 1970s, things had started to change. The long distance, open road events had gone. The special stage and performance on it ruled supreme. The cars were getting quicker. Grid references on the exponential performance curve of rally cars are the Lancia Stratos, Audi’s Quattro, the Peugeot 205 TI6 and Lancia Delta S4. None ever won a Safari but, where speed counted they were the car to have.
Rallies began to suffer from what I call the `Salonen Effect’ since Timo Salonen was the most ardent advocate of frequent rest halts. The 1985 RAC Rally devised by Dave Whittock whose schedule of three whole nights in the forests – two of them in Kielder – came in for particularly heavy criticism, although Timo himself only made it to the first halt. When the Group B accidents came the next year, the whole question of rally formats rolled into new legislation. Routes were shortened, rest halts made more frequent and and average speeds on stages were restricted. All were introduced at the same time as the cars were being tamed by the almost universal adoption of Group A, which should, in theory, have alleviated many of the problems of driver endurance without needing to tamper with the rallies.
However, there were other forces at work. Rallies in the middle of the night were less likely to attract spectators and not easily filmed for TV or anything else. And it was hardly a strong pitch to sponsors of either rallies or cars. Thus there has been a significant evolution of major rallies over the past 15 years. Group A cars soon started to outperform their Group B predecessors as technology gave them the edge in every area.
The current World Rally Cars may live with a restrictor in their inlet, but the power produced by their engines now comfortably exceeds the 1986 norm. The major rallies have shortened and become more commercially acceptable to the people use them as marketing tool. There is nothing wrong with that and it is a standardisation process that is not yet finished.
But the cerebral challenge provided by the old style rally has gone. No longer does the driver who conserves the car and the crew whose stamina is greatest profit from their husbandry. I suspect that someone like Johnny Claes, who, in 1953 when his co-driver fell ill, drove his Lancia Aurelia GT single-handed for four days and three nights to victory, would not be as successful in current events. The talents needed today are quite different from those of even a generation ago. And that is not to be unfair to those drivers in the 1960s whose skill on stages won them rallies in cars and using equipment far less developed than they are today.
The modem rally car has been selectively bred to turn in a stunning performance over 250 stage miles and the rallies it enters have evolved to suit. It is doubtful whether a rally crew, no matter how well prepared physically, could contemplate a road race like the old Liege in a World Rally Car since this would subject them to a large number of irresistible forces for not just half an hour but half a day or more. And, despite a modem rally car’s ability to cover rough roads at undiminished speeds, one has to doubt whether it would feel happy about being driven flat out from Sofia to Dubrovnik.
The old Acropolis Rally, apart from having the odd leg of 72 hours without sleep, passed over some of the roughest roads used on a European event. To finish, one had to drive within the limits of the car’s endurance let alone your own. But in the 1970s, this started to change and not just because of major road building programmes in Greece. The cars were gradually able to withstand the worst that was on offer and, by the 1980s, a driver could contemplate driving flat-out the whole way. The shortening of rallies and the improvement of Greek road infrastructure accelerated this process, but it illustrates the see-saw process of evolution that has resulted in the make-up of modem rallies.
So things have changed and are not what they were. Modern rallying is a game of elevated skill where the top performers deserve their rewards. Doubters should take a ride with a McRae or Burns when they are trying to win a rally rather than impress a passenger. Handling cars at the speeds now achieved requires Formula One reactions from the driver. Schumacher may be going faster than McRae but, for him, some nice fellow has moved the trees back and filled the ditch with energy absorbing gravel. And on the other side of the rally car’s cockpit, reading pace notes in time and on time, requires the combined skills of a newsreader for diction, a tobacco auctioneer for speed, and the conductor of a symphony orchestra for timing.
As modem rallying heads off into the media dawn, what of the rest? Fortunately, there is still plenty of diversity in rallying and opportunities for some of the old skills to be practised. The strong classic car movement that blossomed almost as a reaction to the evolution of modem rallying has provided lots of revived events, in Europe and further afield, where the old skills of car conservation and navigation married to a fair degree of stamina have been called into use. The long distance events – Peking to Paris and London-Capetown – that generally model themselves on the London to Sydney marathons provide a challenge that cannot begin to be replicated on modern rallies. The same could be said for the Rally-Raids such as Paris-Dakar except that they too became an arena for out-and-out technology and thus highly dependent for their success on the presence of major car manufacturers. They have changed back and now want to encourage a lesser vehicle specification that is likely to attract more private entrants.
The really big events in terms of number of entries are interesting for their own very diverse appeal. The Tour Auto, which celebrates its centenary this year, regularly attracts almost 300 entries. It could certainly have more entrants but the eventual restriction is the size and number of grids that can be accepted at any one circuit on any one day as part of its extensive route. This is an event that caters solely for cars of a type that once competed on the original Tour de France Automobile and has two main categories : speed and regularity. Then there is the re-named Winter Challenge, much better known by its previous appellation of Monte Carlo Challenge. That too attracts an entry of about 300 cars who tackle a tough route down through Northern Europe to the Alps and finally arrive at the Mediterranean. The deciding factor is regularity and the competing cars have to be authentic models from earlier than the middle of the 1960s.
The third event I have picked is one that is not so well known in Europe though several crews have made the journey to compete. This is the Targa Tasmania, again with entries totalling some 300. But the big difference here is that during the five days of the event, all the cars do Targa Stages. And the cars range from models built during the ’20s up to modern 4WD turbocharged machines. The challenge comes from the fact that all the cars have a set time for each Targa Stage and this varies depending on age and cylinder capacity. The nice thing about this event is it provides a role for those forgotten cars that exist in a kind of limbo between what is thought to be Post-Historic and what is eligible for a modern rally.
Naturally, it pleases me to see MG Metro 6R4s winning national rallies every weekend, but looking a few years further back, what do you do if you have a Vauxhall Chevette HSR, an Alpine Renault 1800, a Lancia Stratos, a Toyota Celica GT4 or a Talbot Sunbeam Lotus? Too young for classic rallies, too old for modern ones. The Targa Tasmania seems to have a successful formula that offers them hope.
And I guess this is the best thing about rallying. Despite all the understandable pressures concerning motorsport on public roads, it still survives by changing to suit the demands made on it. Maybe none of the events are quite what they used to be, but each provides a different challenge. And I love it!