Today rallying’s biggest names only hit Britain for one event. But the stars used to be regular visitors thanks to the British Open Championship. John Davenport recalls the days when overseas heroes played in our backyard
Once upon a time, when the World Rally Championship was very young, there was a national championship that played the Prince to its King. That ‘WRC 2’ — as it might have been known had it existed in these modem times — was the British Open International Rally Championship.
Over the course of the mid-to-late 1970s, and on into the ’80s, it attracted a line-up of drivers that would have done justice to any WRC round of the day: Blomqvist, Mikkola, Mouton, Röhrl, Toivonen, Vatanen, Eklund, Waldegård, Kullang, Airikkala — even a very youthful Kankkunen. And quite a few of them were competing regularly for the title.
For the British rally spectator this was a special kind of heaven in which the leading drivers came to your neck of the woods in the same cars with which they were trying to win the world title.
It had a positive effect on the British drivers, too. Jimmy McRae, who secured three of his five British Open titles when the series was at its Group B zenith in the early 1980s, is in no doubt of the impact the arriving stars had.
“In the good old days, the fact that you were competing against the Mikkolas, Vatanens and Blomqvists made it just like a miniature world championship,” he says. “It was very special; there was no other European country with that level of competition.
“And we were all driving relatively equal machinery. A young driver with some backing could buy an Opel Manta like mine or an Escort RS like Ari’s. It lifted all our efforts.”
Double Open champion Russell Brookes concurs: “The British championship really got going when the foreign competitors arrived. Their presence gave it a tremendous boost and that made it an exciting time for us all. We didn’t want to feel that we were competing in a parochial series.”
Undoubtedly the appearance of the sport’s best overseas talent on the special stages of Britain’s top rallies, competing on a level basis with the local crews, had a beneficial impact on the latter. Which is why, when it came to the RAC Rally in November, you were just as likely to find Brookes, McRae or Tony Pond in the top 10 as any of the Scandinavians.
So how did this rallying nirvana come about — and why doesn’t it exist today?
The history of rally championships in Britain over the last 30 years is a complex one. Put in simple terms, prior to 1974, there were two principal national series: the RAC National Championship for special stage events and the Motoring News Championship for navigational night rallies.
The RAC series was essentially the preserve of Roger Clark during the early 1970s and so there was definite room for innovation. It came in January 1974, in the midst of a swathe of event cancellations caused by a petrol crisis: the new 11-round Castrol/Autosport special stage championship was announced. Designed to fit between the RAC and the premier clubman series run by the BTRDA, it was an immediate success, and the unsponsored RAC series began to look mundane.
In response Ford, in the person of Stuart Turner, who had been behind Clark’s earlier participation in RAC series, decided to take action. He encouraged foreign stars such as Ari Vatanen and Pentti Airikkala to take out British licences and do a full season in Britain during 1976. At the same time Motor was persuaded to put its name to the RAC championship, and those manufacturers involved started funding TV coverage of the events. Vatanen emerged as the champion, closely pursued by Messrs Brookes, Clark and Airikkala — all driving Escorts.
This move to ‘enfranchise’ the Scandinavians was not universally popular, however.
“There was a lot of fuss when the RAC decided to let us Finns take out British licences and drive in its championship,” remembers Airikkala. “But it didn’t come from the other drivers; it was from some of the older guys who ran the sport. I think there were even some resignations from the Rallies Committee. The other drivers thought it was great having us there, and it wasn’t long before they learnt how to beat us at the rallying game.”
Turner’s initiative had paid off— for Ford in particular. But such success was bound to attract others. The following year Mikkola drove a Toyota Celica in the UK, while Airikkala almost wrested the title from Brookes’s Escort in a works Vauxhall Chevette.
It was at this point that the idea of creating a much more focused championship arose in the minds of Jack Kemsley, the father of the RAC Rally, and Mike Greasley, RAC executive in charge of sponsorship. Why not run a championship based solely on the international rallies within the UK, restrict it to cars complying with Groups 1 to 4, but throw it open to drivers from all round the world? Thus was born the Open championship.
Greasley even had a keen sponsor on board, Martin Stanbrook, whose company Sedan Products had been supporting a race series. Thanks to Martin’s generosity and enthusiasm, the new championship boasted a major prize fund and separate Group 1 and manufacturer awards for 1978.
So now there was a proper demarcation between the Open and the Castrol/Autosport series. And for the first time there was also a visible ladder of progress for aspiring young drivers. It is significant that, in the inaugural year of the new arrangement, Mikkola took the Open title and up-and-coming Malcolm Wilson lifted the Castrol/Autosport crown.
Although it was probably not realised at the time, this was a very exciting period for British rallying. Gradually more and more foreign drivers of the highest calibre appeared in a variety of cars, some to tackle the whole championship, some to contest only a couple of events. Rally fans in the British Isles have never been so privileged.
The overall effect was extremely positive, and soon the successful drivers from the minor series were making their presence felt, first in the Open, and then beyond our shores: Brookes, McRae, Pond, Wilson, Andy Dawson and Terry Kaby all made the grade and were able to try their hand against the best drivers in the world.
It is difficult to pin down all the reasons for this success. But one, certainly, was the symbiotic relationship between the series. Another was the easy availability of cars within Groups 1-4, and later in Groups A and B, that enabled drivers to compete on equal terms with their peers. Vatanen might beat them, but at least they knew it was not just because of his car.
“The cars we were driving were all pretty competitive,” explains Airikkala. “To start with there were a lot of Escorts, but then there came Vauxhall, Toyota, Sunbeam, Datsun, Triumph, Opel and Audi. It was a very good, interesting mix, and because some events were Tarmac and some were gravel no-one had a complete advantage with their car.”
It was a help to the whole British scene, too, that the Open championship was getting good TV coverage at a time when the world championship was not. The advent of the Audi Quattro and then Group B in the early 1980s improved the coverage of both championships, but the UK definitely stayed ahead for the time being. This was very encouraging to the teams and the manufacturers, such as Opel and Audi, that supported it.
“Part of its success was due to the fact that the world championship was weaker at that time and wasn’t well promoted,” agrees Brookes. “By contrast, we had some of the best TV coverage of the time thanks to the funds provided by sponsors and manufacturers.”
The quality of that production made a big difference as new fans tuned into the sport. Airikkala: “They got Barrie Hinchliffe’s BHP company to make those programmes and rallying looked really good on TV. Of course, now, the world championship has brilliant coverage, but the stuff they put out on the British series is terrible.”
The events were attractive, too. Nowadays the costs of staging an international rally have escalated beyond all reason. Everything from renting Forestry Commission roads to the provision of medical and safety cover has rocketed so that modem stage rallies are shorter and less demanding, albeit more professional. It is little wonder that one looks back with affection to the days when endurance had to be wedded to skill, the ability to drive at night was a key item on a driver’s CV, and the social side of a rally was considered almost as important as its itinerary.
As with all good things this golden period lurched to halt. When the sensational GpB machines were outlawed by the FIA at the end of 1986, their demise caused rallying the world over to stagger, and triggered a long period of confusion. On the world stage Lancia was the first to come up with a winning 4WD car built to Group A rules, and its Delta swept the board for the next three years. The Open, meanwhile, had to tolerate a mixture: Group B cars were not accepted on rallies that were in the European championship, but they could do the others. However, the magic that had attracted the manufacturers’ big foreign stars was waning.
The major stumbling block with Group A was that these specially developed and costly cars were not widely available, and nor were their homologated parts. There were major discrepancies in performance, too. And thus two of the cornerstones of the Open’s period of success were gone.
“I think the championship moved into the doldrums when Group B was dropped,” says Brookes. “Before that the Group A cars were all two-wheel drive and reasonably equal.
But then just a handful of manufacturers had four-wheel-drive rally cars and it was much less equal. For years they messed around trying to find an answer.
“The last time I competed on a BRC rally was in a friend’s Porsche on the Rally of Wales, and some chap in a WRC Subaru Impreza costing £275,000 blew us all away on Wirral Promenade. That sort of thing is never right”
Eventually the special 4WD Group A cars developed for the world championship began to filter through to the Open, and by 1989 Group B was long gone. But by ’95 it had been decided to adopt the new ‘Formula Two’ rules, and the ‘Open’ title was dropped.
It may not be possible to bring back the old events, or lure top-class drivers over to the UK again because of the rapid expansion of today’s world championship. However, if Britain is going to stay near the top of the rally tree someone with power and vision needs to again create an Open championship, a new arena which would give international drivers a parallel field of competition on these shores.
Airikkala, for one, is not holding his breath: “When you look at how things are run today, how difficult it is to get rallying — by far the most exciting branch of motorsport — properly organised, it makes you wonder why it has never broken away from racing. The problems we have are identical to what would happen if you had soccer and rugby run out of the same office.”