Pirelli Classic Marathon

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We didn’t mean that tough

Make it tougher, said last year’s entrants as they handed over their entry fees for the 1989 Pirelli Classic Marathon. After 1900 miles, 77 time controls and seven days of competitive motoring, no-one was saying it this year.

Except perhaps Philip Young and Chris Bruce. As Chairman and Route deviser respectively, Young and Bruce were responsible for sending 113 old cars with only six tyres and no service crew across Belgium, Germany and Austria to suffer shocking abuse in the Italian Alps, with the objective of an Alpine Cup to spur them on.

In the Fifties and Sixties, these cups were prestigious accolades to the endurance of car and crew, and the Pirelli Marathon was devised to pit cars of those years against time and traffic over the same tortuous mountain roads. After the immensely successful inaugural event last year, some 32 crews went away with Coupes des Alpes — too many in Young’s eyes. This year the route was much harder, the timing tighter, the days longer and crammed with time controls — and still 28 Coupes were won. Young says that he dreams of an event where only one crew finishes clean and only one Alpine Cup is awarded, but the evidence of this year is that the competitors are not going to let him get away with it.

This escalation of intensity has done two things: it has made the Pirelli Marathon into a serious and competitive rally, not withstanding that it is for pre-1967 cars, and it has brought the organisers up against some unpleasant realities. Although there were many more closed special test sections this year, the bulk of the event runs on open public roads as a regularity rally. Thirty years ago the traffic could be an occasional problem; today, even on a lonely pass, you can be sure of meeting something, and on important valley routes there can be a serious conflict between rally traffic and local road-users.

Pirelli had entered a clutch of star names: Timo Makinen (Healey 3000), Ove Andersson (in the very rare Toyota 2000GT), Roger Clark in a Lotus Cortina, Paddy Hopkirk (Mini, naturally) and Stirling Moss (MGB) brought the glamour which kept the BBC Top Gear TV cameras focused and the flash-guns popping. Behind the 1988 winners Atkins and Lyall (in a TR4, Atkins’ victorious Cobra having been declared machina non grata) the start order was arbitrary, so the Names were mixed in with the field, and freely entered into the spirit.

After getting a taste for Historic rallying last year as co-driver with Don Pither, I deeply wanted to do the Marathon again, and this time entered as co-driver to Henry Pearman, the youthful boss of Eagle Racing in Kent, whose fifth place in an E-type had been one of the surprises of ’88. On hairpin-ridden passes an E-type makes no sense at all, except that Henry manages to make his completely standard 4.2 roadster go absurdly quickly. Only a roll-bar, a period Halda mechanical trip-meter and competition pads had been added to the car with which we formed up on Tower Bridge early on a Sunday morning in June. Kicking off with an autotest at Ramsgate, we co-drivers had our first taste of a new variation — on every special test, the navigator had to leap out and press a button to stop the clock, which added much entertainment for onlookers, especially when Roger Clark spun the LHD Cortina to a halt to give Tony Mason a shorter sprint.

After a four-hour crossing to Dunquerque, the rally debouched onto Continental soil, the racket of 100-plus rally cars booming around the ship’s hold and alarming other passengers, before five and a half hours of fine main road brought us all to Erpeheide, north of Liège in Belgium.

Monday began with a proper special stage, a thread of tarmac through a forest with some loose edges and tight chicanes, and after the artificiality of an autotest, a real leaderboard began to crystallise. Moss flew, taking a second off Hopkirk, but both Clark and Makinen had electrical problems, so John Chatham and Ken Bartram became leading Healey in John’s works replica. David Thompson here gave notice of his intention to win with a very rapid time in co-driver Eddie Ganderton’s Lotus Cortina; Thompson is a top name in British club rallying, and the rough slippery road scattered with churned up mud and leaves suited him perfectly

Nürburgring next; not a complete lap of the old circuit, but a good chunk of it where the big-engined cars were expected to score — plus, of course, Moss. The Marathon is run as an Historic event under Appendix K rules, which allowed us to dispense with sissy things like helmets and flameproof overalls as long as the special tests were not based on pure speed. Thus our section began with a slalom in reverse around cones, before we could let loose on a flat-out blind. To our great advantage, Moss wrong-slotted amongst the cones before we arrived, but not knowing this Henry was determined to put in a big one. Like most drivers he had had his belts loose for the reversing, and by the time he had tightened them we were already crossing 110 mph and pounding into unknown corners with all four tyres howling. Into the narrow banking of the Karussel with the tail drifting, then a heart-stopping jump over the Pflantzgarten brow, the car flicking left and right as it came down.

Having shrieked to a stop while I sprinted over and punched to clock, we had to press onto the next control before we could compare performances, there we found that Hopkirk and Chatham had tied for FTD, Clark was two seconds behind, and we were only another two seconds adrift, with Tony Dron’s MGB close behind. Makinen’s Healy had fuel pump and overheating problems, and fell to 66th place.

Arriving at Hockenheim for the first Tuesday test, we found that we had bounced up to second place, 19 seconds behind Chatham, and a bare second in front of Thompson. Dron and Beales led Hopkirk and co-driver Alec Poole, with Clark very close –five cars in six seconds, making Hockenheim, its fast layout spiced with chicanes, a critical section. Mäkinen and Chatham were super-quick, Hopkirk next, with Thompson, ourselves, Dron and Ron Gammons (MGB) covered by seconds.

This was the day we finally crossed Austria and entered Italy, through by ignoring motorways we had over ten hours to do before our night stop at Merano. We wound down through the craggy mountains to the main control on the river promenade of this delightful town to check the results: Chatham had a 25-second lead, but that blasted Cortina had edged past us by a second. Hopkirk led Dron by another second, but Moss was trailing the ex-works Vitesse of John and Alison Woolley.

On Wednesday the hard work began. A ten-hour loop south cramming in four of the most famous rally passes before noon, starting with the 48 hairpins of the Stelvio Pass. This time it was properly closed to traffic, and we knew this one stage could make or break our effort. Sheer torque ought to give us the edge over the Cortina, but Chatham is just plain quick and the Healey develops over 220 bhp, while the standard E-type was closer to the tuned MGBs in power at the wheels: 145 as against 120 bhp. However, after a last-minute blow-up, John had fitted a race engine to the car which was much too cammy for this sprint-and-stop hill, and we hoped this would eat away his lead.

I knew from the first wheel-spinning seconds that we were on a flier; the Jaguar’s long nose lifted as it bolted towards the first bend and slid smoothly round the narrow loop. This is the time when the co-driver can sit back, forget about his calculator and road-book and enjoy the thrill of a powerful car being driven properly amongst some of Europe’s grandest mountains.

Suddenly as I craned my neck to spy out the next convolution I caught sight of Thompson’s Cortina further up the staircase; we caught them in the perfect place, a 300-yeard straight of rare two-car width where they waved us past without hesitation. I was exultant as we approached the final hairpin and the waving marshalls indicating the stop line; we had gained a full minute, undoubtedly giving us second place again. And we had another trick too; by crouching on the seat as we braked I could vault out of the car and save a fraction more time in stopping the clock.

Thompson arrived seconds after Henry had cleared the line, but I needed to know about Chatham – had we beaten him? Finally amongst the eager crowds on this chilly 10,000ft summit I had my answer: Chatham/Bartram 13min 17 sec; Pearman/Cruickshank 13 min 15 sec. John still led, but it was Henry’s victory, safe from Hopkirk when the Mini broke a half-shaft and from Clark whose fuel-feed trouble continued.

I had planned it and we did the Stelvio with a bare few gallons of fuel, which meant that it was essential to tank up in the village of Bormio halfway down the other side. It was a very slow stop, and I as I worked out some times to the next control, 37km away over the rough Gavia pass, I realised that we were way behind.

Henry rose to it and we attacked the Gavia with lights on to warn the six or so cars which had passed us that we were in a hurry. On this broken single-track road I held my breath as we squeezed past Tony Barranco’s Healy, each car putting two wheels in the ditch without slowing, sending dust and gravel flying as we set off after the Vitesse. Over the top and down into the barren valley, where there was neither wall nor barrier to keep an errant vehicle from the steep scree slopes; scrabbling around a hairpin we met a towering Mercedes Unimog. He dived for the inside and stopped, but not far enough over; the gap was impossible but with an Alpine Cup in the balance we kept going. With a scrunch from the Jaguar’s wing we were past.

Suddenly, excavations, diggers and alarmed workmen in front of a tunnel-mouth. Following Moss’s MGB, we surged off the tarmac and dropped straight into a quagmire like the Somme in 1917. Great boulders battered the floor of the car and clinging mud splattered over the screen, but time was desperate and we ploughed on into the tunnel’s bumpy darkness. Behind, Dron’s lights swept from wall to wall as he too slithered through this nightmare; we slewed past something large –an unlit bulldozer for God’s sake – and then crashed up into daylight and into a hard surface again.

I tried to clear some of the mess from the cockpit –it was not mud, but wet cement. It was hard to steady my fingers on the calculator as the car slithered and bounded down the hill; the times looked bad, and now we were on loose gravel. Henry flicked the wheel back and forth as the heavy E-type slid from rockface to crumbling edge, while I stared at the Halda instead of at the drop, not brave enough to say “Faster!”, but compromising with “Don’t slow down!” as the last critical seconds ebbed away. Our due minute clicked up on my watch as we surged past a line of queueing rally cars and burst into the control. Of our 1hr 12min allowance we had 27 seconds to spare.

Vivione: another fast, narrow stretch, this time with barriers and blind bends, and timed to the second as a selective, depriving us of the usual 59 seconds leeway which had saved us on the Gavia. I saw a flash of red in a lay-bay, and, turning, took in a crumpled Healey and John Chatham raising his arms in a helpless gesture. Ken was clearly unhurt too, so we pressed on, sympathy mixed with excitement. If we cleaned this selective, we would lead the event.

After the Gavia even the tortuous Croce Domine and Palade passes presented no problem, and we ran into Merano as leaders, with a healthy 56 sec in hand over Thompson. There was a trail of breakage to report: John Atkins and Rob Lyall, lying an good ninth in the TR4, had rebuilt their dynamo, Makinen’s overdrive had resigned, Hopkirk and Poole had found and fitted another half-shaft on the Stelvio, but were out of contention, and Roger Ealand, previously eighth and one of three E-types in the top ten, had crashed in a tunnel. Malcolm Gammons had crunched one corner of his father’s MGB, while Chatham’s red-and-white machine was running again, the damaged radiator patched up and the bonnet held down by bungees, but now on course only for a finisher’s award.

Thursday looked like a holiday, with only ten hours of diving to take us over the Pennes and Lavaze passes, into the Dolomites and finally the pretty town of Cortina cradled in a bowl of mountain peaks, where again the main street had been closed to act as parc fermé. There were no special tests to alter the order today, and the top crews all stayed clean on the selective over the Passo Duran, but through the field there were many disappointed faces as mechanical or traffic difficulties snatched Cups away. Bolzano was a real bottleneck, and frustrated drivers quickly antagonised the police, who started to book people, including Mäkinen.

So for Friday morning the order was the same: our E-type starting first at 6.01am, ahead of Thompson, the MGB trio of Moss, Dron, and Ron Gammons, and the Woolleys in the Vitesse which Vic Elford drove in the 1963 Liege-Sophia-Liege. Only seven seconds covered the five behind us, but even our 56-second lead could be thrown away if I made a single mistake over this long day into Yugoslavia and back.

We had briefly put the car up on a garage ramp to check everything, but the only attention the Jag had required so far was oil and water, compared to the frantic fettlings which more highly-tuned cars needed. A big engine suffers less than a small one, but though Henry was always careful not to stress the unit on road sections, it had certainly been given a thorough hiding at Nürburgring and the Stelvio. Despite some overheard comments, the big six was completely standard, having merely been stripped, checked and carefully reassembled by Peter Eriksson, Henry’s foreman at Eagle-Racing. But there was nevertheless a snag looming for Friday.

Because of the Willhire 25-Hour race, we been unable to obtain a spare set of Mintex 171 brake pads. In fact the Jaguar was still on the set from last year’s Marathon, which looked just about OK for the final day and a half, barring any panics. But you cannot rule out panics, and when Colin Anderson revealed that he had a spared front set of Ferodos for his E-type, the pressure was on to separate him from them.

One of the great pleasures of this event is the camaraderie. Most of the weary crews tumbling into the one open bar in off-season Cortina had spent a lot of their own money to be here; friendships were being made, and the communal will to get as many cars as possible to the finish was overwhelming.

With team prizes at stake, too, the Jaguar people were excited, and Colin was torn between marque loyalty and personal security. We got the pads in the end; I prostituted my art and promised to mention in my report that his E-type was sponsored by Interflora, the flower delivery people.

We could not of course fit the pads before the wet Yugoslav loop began, but we planned to slip them in when we found a few minutes. It was lucky that we did not try at the first control, because with four minutes to our start time, we discovered that we had a flat tyre. In an instant everyone, including our chief rivals, seemed to helping to extract the spare, and we had it fitted and the boot repacked with 30 seconds to spare. As a precaution we squirted some puncture foam into the flat tyre, since it was now our only spare – the sixth tyre was not on a wheel – and started the section.  

Things were already uncomfortable in the E-type: steady rain meant that we had had to fit the special skimpy hood which just popped onto the screen and rested on the roll-cage and my head. Water ran steadily over the sun-visors and onto my maps and road-book and the screen was thickly misted up. After days of sun the roads were exceptionally slippery, but after a cautious start Henry had decided that he liked this; apart from anything else it kept the brakes cool.

Our target in Yugoslavia was the Moistrocca Pass, 22km of cobbled hairpins timed as a selective, and as I got the trial time and signature at the start-marshal’s table I heard crackling over the radio the news that there were seven tourist coaches and a herd of cows on the hill. . . Feeling this was not something the driver needed to know, I kept quiet.

Despite the coaches, the slippery cobbles and drifting cloud on the summit, we scraped in on time, and began the homeward stretch (only another five hours) in a relaxed mood. Victory now seemed a real possibility, and for the first time we dared to have those dreams about champagne and interviews.

There was no band, or lurid slide when it happened; Henry simply hit the brakes and flung open the door. “Flat tyre,” he yelled and again a fountain of spares and clothing fell on the wet road as we dug for the jack. With an already flat spare, we tried squirting more sealant in, but furious pumping brought no effect. Thompson, Moss, Dron and Gammons all slowed but we waved them on. Henry swung the copper mallet as I dragged out the old tyre; as he slid it onto the splined hub I shovelled stuff into the boot and slung the jack, handle and mallet into my footwell. The sealant foam must have worked, for the tyre looked healthy as we surged off again, belts undone, tools and paperwork sliding across the cockpit.

So much for bedding in the new pads –nine cars had passed us on this narrow, sharp, rough road, nine minutes lost in one of the stiffest sections of all. Water drained whether it was possible to make it up; both of us struggled to wipe the screen as the car whipped from left to right and henry corrected the sliding with short sharp flicks of the wheel. We were travelling downhill, not through predictable hairpins, but around fast tightening bends laced with bare rock and Armco. The deficit began to drop –seven, five, four minutes; one by one we tagged on to the cars ahead. The Woolleys, Atkins, Barranco, all in their own hurry, squeezed aside to let us through, and we pulled into the control sweating, chattering with relief, still clean, still leading, with time to tell our excited tale to the marshals.

One last section to go, tight and steep over Passo Staulanza, then the fast sweeping curves of the Passo Giau. 64.65km, and 78 minutes to do it. Not hard, if nothing else went wrong.

Something else went wrong. Five minutes in there was a rumbling form the rear and we pulled up. Henry looked out of the door at the same rear tyre. “Flat, and off the rim,” he announced. “That’s it. We’re finished.” Thompson swished past, taking our lead from us. We sat in the rain under the trees, still buckled up. All that effort torn to shreds by fate. Not our mistake, not fair, I thought. “Right,” said Henry, and bolted from the car. I followed. Why was he emptying the boot again? We only had one spare wheel. “Inner tube,” he yelled. “Get the jack.” This was crazy – it takes me then minutes to do this on my bicycle, and how can you lever a low-profile car tyre off and on by hand? One by one the rally crews tore past the stranded E-type, slowed, shook their heads and went on. The third and final puncture was what everyone dreaded. If sympathy would have inflated the tyre, we’d have been away.

Instead Henry crammed in the new tube and levered the tyre into place. I stamped furiously on the foot-pump while he piled everything into my seat. I was kneeling on the jack trying to close the door as we set off.

This was a different man alongside me. Gone was the relaxed and gentle approach; instead he was hunched over the wheel with the tachometer needle soaring and his arms crossing and recrossing at the big wheel. We has lost so much time that this was surely a futile token effort; no-one could cover the section in four-fifths of the allowed time in pouring rain.

Out of duty I started some speed checks as we flew up the soaking track, and realised that we had gained one minute in four. We passed a car, then another, topped the first pass and were plunging down again, whipping from understeer to long, long oversteer slides. Brake smoke was gushing from the arches when the brake warning light came on.

It was not the handbrake, we tried that; it had to be fluid and to ignore it was to put our lives and risk. Again we stopped, feeling our hopes flood away as the enormous bonnet flipped up. But the fluid levels were fine and the perverse desire I was feeling for an end to the panic was pushed aside as yet again we set off on this impossible charge.

Up ahead were Atkins and Lyall waving us through, but going so quickly themselves that it took long slithering uphill seconds to pass. Up onto the Giau, overtaking a few more cars, my figures said we were only four minutes adrift; the impossible might just happen if Henry could cover the last 10km in eight minutes instead of the allowed twelve. A small knot of people on the cloudy Giau summit looked up as the bronze Jaguar soared over the crest in a graceful slide and vanished. They probably thought we were enjoying ourselves.

As the Halda ticked off the final downhill kilometres it looked as if we might make it, and I suddenly noticed how desperately uncomfortable it is to sit on a jack. We rumbled to a smoky halt in a line of competitors agog to find out what had been happening to us, but I for one had no energy to talk.

Our day was not finished, though. Obviously the trouble was faulty inner tube valves, and nothing to do with the tyres. It was vital to replace at least one in the 40 minutes servicing time before parc fermé, so we bought two tubes – and had to fit and inflate them by hand because the garage-men refused even to let us use their airline. Furthermore they switched off the pumps while one English reporter was filing his tank and refused to sell us any fuel. Moral: do not visit the Esso station in Cortina.

This unpleasantness meant a sleepless night for us. We simply did not have sufficient fuel for the first stretch early on Saturday morning when garages would still be closed. In the end we had to beg amongst the early starters, and both Malcolm Gammons and our closest rivals, Thompson and Ganderton, donated full cans. I felt guilty to think that the night before I had doubted Thompson’s sincerity when he said after hearing of our trials: “If you lads don’t win tomorrow, I’ll give you my cup.”

Parc fermé rules dictated that we collect the life-saving juice outside the control, but the run out to the Giau, run as a closed special test this time, was so short that Henry was still fuelling in the start control. In the ensuing panic of petrol cans and spouts and clocks and harnesses, I made a mistake. I misread a time from my card, and, hardly believing that I had done it, told Henry that I had clocked out a minute late. It defused him. Instead of a record time up the Giau we toured up half-a-minute slower than Moss, Thompson and Dron.

But I was wrong; rechecking, I found that we were all on time and still leading, albeit by only 37 seconds now. The last few passes were freezing but exhilarating before the final Tre Cime climb, a sinuous private road leading nowhere but a café. we needed only to check the first few times (identical for Moss, Thompson, Clark and ourselves) to confirm that after the seven days, four of them as leaders, it had come true; we had won the second Pirelli Classic Marathon.

On that last day Mäkinen was the star, setting FTD on both climbs when the Healey was finally going properly and leaping to sixth place ahead of the quick and consistent Woolleys. Ron Gammons was delighted, not just with a personal fifth, but with the excellent showing of his trio of Brown & Gammons-prepared MGBs (Moss, himself and his son), and Dron’s fourth gave him the Guild of Motoring Writers’ Cup and confirmed the Team prize for MG. Eighth overall was a terrific result for Atkins, still in pain after a skiing accident and running with no dynamo and two faulty fuel pumps which Rob Lyall had to keep kicking, Barranco placed his Healey 3000 next, and the top ten was rounded out by the pretty but damaged Alfa Giulietta Sprint of Belgians Magalhaes and Erculisse.

A broken hub turned the Banhams’ Riley into a three-wheeler, but they had a spare and still finished 27th; Anthony Blight, co-driven by James Fack in one off his Talbot 105 team cars, opened the eyes of those who have never seen him at a VSCC meeting, and 82-year-old Ralph Stokes took the Sprit of the Rally award for navigating Mel Perrott to 40th place.

Prizes were presented by Pirelli boss Sandro Veronesi at a gala dinner in Cortina, but only finishers were allowed in, a tackles misjudgement which caused at least one crew who broke down hours form the finish to jump into their car and leave Italy immediately. For those inside, Tony Mason did his cabaret act, and Moss and his American journalist partner Jean Lindamood proved to be as fine a comic due as they were a rally crew.

For the winning navigator there was a new award presented by Pirelli, the Henry Liddon Trophy, in memory of the popular co-driver and team organiser who was killed two years ago; it barely fitted in the car on our way home. Officials, too, had recognition: Chris Bruce for his superb road-book, and chief marshal Mike Summerfield from his ever-cheerful crew.

A third event is already being planned by Young’s keen and efficient team, but there is a debate about the format. Everyone would like more closed special tests, but these are hard to arrange. Some say road sections should be easier, but that would detract from the value of Alpine Cups –and from the navigator’s job. Selectives over single-track roads worried many people, and this seems to highlight a division between the serious contingent with rally-prepared cars who want trophies and those who would like an Alpine Cup without bending their treasured vehicles.

Young and his team now have 11 months to keep both sides happy, because if there is one thing which sets the Marathon apart, aside from its toughness, it is the goal to which every entrant can aspire – a Coupe des Alpes. GC