Rally Review , August 1968

Gulf London Rally

Purists, however businesslike their outlook, tend to regard the infiltration of sponsorship into the sport as a kind of pollution. I number myself among the purists, along with the majority of Motor Sport‘s readers, I feel sure, but I nevertheless find it easy to realise that without this “trade contamination”, as it has been unfairly called, much international class rallying and racing would be lost to us.

Sponsorship of a car, or even of a team of cars, is quite common even in low-grade events, and we all know how vital it is to some of the teams contesting international events. But this month I am more concerned with the financial support of entire events.

The Alpine Rally has existed for a long time on finance from Esso; the Tulip has been nurtured by B.P.; and even the East African Safari is not too proud to accept aid from such unlikely sources as Coca-Cola and Sabena Airlines.

The best-known sponsored rally in Britain is undoubtedly the Gulf London Rally which, although it is the youngest, is probably the toughest and most popular among the “home” internationals. It is sponsored handsomely by the Gulf Oil Companies of both Britain and Sweden, to such an extent that fuel and lubricants are provided free to all competitors and at a reduced price to service cars. When you consider the amount of petrol which can be consumed by 120 rally cars and their supporters in 2,000 miles of driving, that is generosity indeed. But the use of Gulf products is not in any way mandatory. Competitors are free to use whatever oil or petrol they choose. They seldom do, of course, in view of the Gulf offer.

This “blanket” sponsorship has caused some disenchantment between the Gulf Company and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, who objected to the use of the company name in the title of the rally. Only events approved by the S.M.M.T. are entered on the list of those which may be supported by its members. The London Rally, despite its prominence, is not on the list and this year an utterly ridiculous situation developed.

With teams coming from overseas factories, the British manufacturers could not afford to ignore the rally. Yet they could not enter the rally officially, owing to the ruling of the S.M.M.T. The situation then arose of works drivers “borrowing” works cars and entering them “privately”. With so many well-known competitors in the running, tyre and accessory manufacturers could not afford to stay away, and a number of them turned up incognito, using rented vans.

Such intrigue has no place at all in rallying (which I consider to be still a sport) and the sooner the stunting regulations are amended the better it will be for all concerned. A hint that such an amendment was on the way came when the S.M.M.T. held a special meeting at the time of the Gulf London Rally, presumably to discuss their covenant.

Having taken up much of this solitary page to discuss the background politics of a non-championship event which puts most championship rallies to shame, I had better get down to the rally itself.

Taking the acceptable form of having low-average road sections to link high-speed stages over loose-surfaced forest roads (and one at Oulton Park), the event covered over 2,000 miles in England, Scotland and Wales, starting and finishing at Manchester, which seems to be rather alien for an event which was conceived in the shadow of Big Ben. Spread over four days and three nights, with rest periods totalling a mere five hours, it shows up clearly as a brainchild of David Seigle-Morris, the former Ford works driver whose love of the old, non-stop Liège rallies is no secret.

Physical stamina, and the ability to share the work load between driver and co-driver so that neither suffered too much from sleep loss, were just as vital as skill at the wheel. It was undoubtedly the realisation of this by competitors which confounded the speculators and produced 39 finishers from a field of 104. The expectation was that far less would arrive back at Manchester, but many of the crews running in the middle of the field drove without any thought of heroics, their sole object being to finish—which some of them did in commendable positions when their opponents fell at the wayside. Again Swedish drivers showed the home side precisely how it should be done and occupied the first six places in the general classification. This is the third year in succession that Swedes have won the London Rally, and when you consider that Scandinavians have also won the R.A.C. Rally since 1960, the conclusion one can’t help drawing is that British drivers are sadly in need of practice on loose-surfaced roads. This conclusion has been drawn by several other magazines whose writers appear to regard Scandinavia as the only place where men know how to go rallying. Having faith in British talent, I do not share this view, but the fact remains that legislation in this country does far more to restrict the sport than to encourage it, and when subsidies appear to go the way of minority pastimes such as marbles and polo it is disheartening to see money being milked away from the scores of motor clubs who form the nurseries of rallying.

Again I have digressed, so with no further ado I had better tell you that the rally was won by Ake (pronounced “okay”) Andersson and Sven-Olaf Svedberg in a Porsche 911L prepared and entered by Scania-Vabis, the Scandinavian Porsche and Volkswagen importers. His team mates, Waldegard and Helmer, who so decisively won the Swedish Rally in January, retired when a wheel came off their Porsche and various brake parts were shattered.

In recent years the supremacy of B.M.C.’s Mini-Cooper S in European rallying has been a by-word. But these little cars from Abingdon (they may be born at Longbridge, but all the competition surgery is done in the Berkshire establishment) seem to have passed their peak, or rather, have been passed by other cars whose makers have gone all out to do what shrewd B.M.C. did some years ago. Among the 39 finishers there were only four Minis; 29 started.

The only car from Abingdon was a Cooper S entered in the groups 5 and 6 category and driven by Tony Fall and Mike Wood. This had a limited slip differential and “something special” under the bonnet. We never discovered what that special something was, for the engine compartment did not appear to be opened even during scrutineering. However, the car retired on the second stage when the differential failed and broke the sump.

The entry list contained the names of French stars Jean-François Piot and Jean Vinatier, who were to have driven Renault Gordinis, but the recent strikes in France made it difficult to prepare the cars in time. Despite the fact that the rally was a qualifier in the French National Championship, the Renault drivers went to Czechoslovakia instead for the RaIlye Vltava, which Vinatier won. They were using the light-weight Alpine-Renaults, which were in a more advanced state of preparation than the Gordinis, it being considered that to bring the Alpines to Britain would serve little purpose, as road-going versions of the car are not sold here.

Ford was represented (but only unofficially) by Bengt Söderström and Gunnar Palm in an Escort twin-earn, and Ove (pronounced “Oovay”) Andersson with John Davenport in a similar car. Söderström disappeared in Dyfi, that very tricky Welsh forest which demands a great deal of respect, when his car slid to the edge of the track, hovered for a second or two, then rolled over and down to the trees 30 feet below. They were unhurt, and it says much for Big Bengt’s sense of humour that he commented, “I making ten laps before losing count”.

With the two Anderssons, in Porsche and Ford, up in front, the fight between them became a desperate struggle for supremacy. Twice each did they collect maximum penalties on special stages. Ove by breaking a throttle-spring and by leaving the road, and Ake when drive-shafts broke twice. A broken drive-shaft in the middle of a lonely special stage, out of reach of the tender care of service crews, would have retired lesser men on the spot, but Svedberg produced a spare shaft each time and calmly replaced the broken part in about eleven minutes.

Whilst these events were causing first and second places to change hands as the rally drove its way along the 79 special stages, not far behind (but never within real striking distance) were the Saab V4 of Carl Orrenius and Gustav Schröderheim (those of Larsson and Trana had retired with broken drive-shaft and clutch respectively), the Porsche of Lars Nyström and Lennart Svensk, the Opel Kadett of Anders Gullberg and Bo Bergman, and the valiant group 6 Sunbeam Imp of Andrew Cowan and Brian Coyle.

Cowan’s ability is without question, as is his tenacity, for he had to replace broken doughnuts, tired dampers and endless punctured tyres, and yet tied with Gustavsson and Mattssom (Volvo 122S) for sixth place. The tie was resolved in favour of the Volvo, based on performances in the Scottish forests, an ironic twist, considering Cowan’s nationality, but it so happened that it was in Scotland that he suffered most of his trouble. Although it may not be a winner, the Imp is still an incredible little performer on rough roads.

Work on the organisation of the London Rally always begins a matter of weeks after the previous one has ended, and already 1969 is under discussion. Whatever changes are made, what emerges from this capable hand of organisers cannot fail to attract the cream of European Rallying—provided the S.M.M.T. allows trade support to come right out in the open.—G. P.