Pirelli Classic Marathon

At The Crossroads

“You can count me out for next year!” “Never again, that was far too hard!” “The organisers should be shot!” These were just some of the reactions heard on the closing stages of the fourth Pirelli Classic Marathon. As competitors drifted into the breakfast halt on the outskirts of Cortina before driving to the Finish in town, it was as if the venue had become the centre of voluble, but slightly dazed, zombies.

Even before the event had got underway seven days before from London’s Tower Bridge, it had been generally believed that this year’s event would have a sting in the tail, but few were prepared for its viciousness when it came. It was as if the 130 strong convoy had been led a merry dance through Europe and the Alps before being zapped in northern Italy. The event, though, had nevertheless been tough enough until then to have sifted out the good and the lucky from the rest long before that final night.

For all that, the nature of the beast had dramatically changed since the year before, and it was not all for the best. Mention the name Richard Hudson-Evans within earshot of certain officials and some competitors and a dark scowl followed by a curse would be the least impolite form of reply. Hudson-Evans is the journalist who reported on last year’s event for another paper and voiced concerns over some of its aspects. While his remarks about the tight road sections were quite legitimate, he took the issue several steps further and rather “spilled the beans” about the way some of the stages were being timed. The consequence this year was that every part of the route, including the timed sections on closed roads, were tightly policed by the RAC MSA under whose authority the Marathon was being run.

Rallying at this level falls into two different segments which in rallying shorthand are termed “Category 2.1” and “Category 2.2”. The former is the one in which the cars have to meet stringent safety requirements, the occupants wearing safety helmets, fire resistant clothing etc, and the pertinent authorities have to provide emergency vehicles, while the latter, with which the Marathon has complied until now, still demands certain safety features on the car, such as roll bars and fire extinguishers, but the occupants are free to wear what they like.

While international regulations stipulate that event organisers must not set average speeds along road sections exceeding 50 kph ( approximately 30 mph), the difference between the two categories is arrived at when it comes to the closed road sections, or stages. “Cat 2.1” cars, with all their safety gear, must get from Start to Finish in the quickest time possible, and every second counts. In “Cat 2.2” the organisers have to set a “Bogey” time which whether beaten by a second or a minute is irrelevant as no penalty points will be picked up in either case. While there is nothing wrong with this as a principle, the problems arise when international regulations again stipulate that the speed over these sections cannot average more than 80 kph (50 mph). While that sounds quite a high speed, do not forget these are closed roads, the cars, while old, have been highly honed into first rate competition cars and that the drivers are all wound up to reach the Finish line as quicky as possible.

The heavy-handed policing of the event by RAC MSA and FISA officials this year completely turned around the nature of the event; the whole thing from a competitor’s point of view became more of a “holding” operation than a “go-getter” event. In other words, if you were unfortunate to drop a few seconds or minutes for any reason, you could not possibly hope to claw back that time over timed sections as it was likely those ahead of you would also “clean” those sections, in other words beat the “bogey”, so you were dependent on those ahead of you making a mistake or having a misfortune, while those at the front just had to concentrate on not making a mistake.

To say it took some of the “buzz” out of the event was an understatement, but what left an even more bitter aftertaste was the unsympathetic attitude of the RAC MSA officials. Every request by the Marathon organisers to waive the 80 kph rule on certain sections was turned down with the rule book being cited, something the RAC MSA were quite prepared to overlook on their own event, the Historic Rally of Great Britain, earlier in the year. Questions should surely be asked about whether the promoter of one event should be the one to ajudicate regulatory matters on a rival’s event, and why the MSA’s nominated Steward for the Marathon was the same man as for their own Historic Rally.

Despite this shift in emphasis, the leader board throughout the event still looked as one would expect it whichever way it was run, except that most of the star names had tripped up during the week. Roger Clark had the most unfortunate start when he checked out of TC0 over half an hour late. In other words even before reaching Tower Bridge, he had lost his Alpine Cup and was knocked spinning down the running order, but he still continued on the event, even if it was as car 0 and Course Car, after the first couple of days. Clark’s stoical attitude was quite unlike Timo Mäkinen’s who lost a lot of brownie points and pretty well everybody’s goodwill when he lost six minutes trying to find a Time Control. He protested vehemently to the organisers about “unfair” roadworks, but when they turned a deaf ear to his blandishments and threats he left early next day in a big huff. Stirling Moss, meanwhile, lost his place among the leading runners early in the event, but not his Gold Cup. That was far more important to him and by slipping down the running order a little, it took much of the pressure off him and his navigator Zoë Heritage.

By the time the convoy reached Italy, Gijs van Lennep in his big Healey had become a constant shadow to Ronnie McCartney’s Mini Cooper, while everybody was cheered to see the husband and wife team, the Bournes, right up there holding their own in third place in their Morgan.

This was the order as the event entered the final night, a 14-hour stint, beginning and ending in Cortina. Unlike last year when the entire event had been done on the easy-to-read tulip diagrams, the route had turned to maps on the third day, which were continued uninterrupted to the end and included the night section as well.

Everybody was on slight tenterhooks beforehand, not knowing what to expect, including ourselves. Evan MacKenzie and Motor Sport had teamed up again in his Triumph TR4, which had come to the event in absolutely first class condition thanks to the efforts of Chris Carter of Chestnut House, who had prepared the car, and Moss UK, without which not only our car, but something like 25% of the field would not have been there were it not for the spares this Company makes which ensures that so many cars can be kept on the road.

Unfortunately our Alpine Cup prospects had disappeared at the end of the fourth day when we had wrong slotted, like everybody before us, including the eventual winner and many a respected co-driver, along a forestry track when a small country road appeared to be blocked. Our trouble was that we headed a small group going down the lane which became the end of that queue by the time we all had turned around, but we were the ones to get stuck behind a rather aggrieved farmer and his tractor.

When we finally reached the start of the Regularity before the final run into Merano, we had 22 kms to cover in 24 minutes. Something had to give, for we could not keep to the 48 kph speed demanded of the Test and still reach Merano within our time. We consequently sped past several cars who were diligently trying to keep to the average, checked in to the secret Control at the end of the Regularity, and then drove like a bat out of hell into the busy streets of this Alpine town to reach the day’s final Control, inconveniently situated in the town centre, with six seconds to spare. The trouble was that we were more than 60 seconds out on the Regularity Run target and had consequently blown our Alpine Cup. Our query to the very ineffective Competitors Liaison Officers, who are meant to bat on the side of the participants against the organisers, about the inadequacy of route details from the Road Book fell on deaf ears, but it was a phrase that was to be heard again before the event had finished.

Being in the Duckhams-backed TR team, we still had a duty to do our best for team-mates Gordon Bruce/Derek Tucker in their TR3A and John Atkins/Rob Lyall in their TR4. The team was just ahead of the Sprites, but a country mile behind the Tigers as the final night began.

Even before the rough stuff commenced, we saw the sad figure of Moss’ Healey coming back down the road before us, an “off” on a wicked right-hander claiming him and his precious Gold Cup. We saw Ron Gammons’ MGB sitting by the roadside and we also saw, with a mixture of pity and jubilation, the Pithers’ Tiger stranded by the way. This meant that the Duckhams Team TR had been promoted to first place.

As the night progressed, there were few terrors, although the organisers had cleverly left a void in the route instructions which had to be collected from a town soon after midnight. It was now, it was whispered, that the “real rallying” would begin.

As we sat at our next Time Control, I could see that the short section coming up was going to be tight, and warned Evan as such, but never dreamed that it would turn out the way it did. To do 28 kms in 34 minutes was tight but the route, partly on loose gravel roads, looked tortuous and twisty and there were several opportunities to wrong slot, especially as the field was working from 1:200 000 maps which the organisers had stipulated were necessary.

As it turned out, it was murderous. There were cars going in literally every direction, many getting damaged. At one crossroads in particular, cars arrived from every direction and decided on the toss of a coin which way to go next. For ourselves, after breaking every navigator’s rule and allowing ourselves to be wrong slotted by following another car, we ultimately found ourselves alone. Completely unaware at that time of the chaos that was gathering apace over this section and as the minutes ticked away, there came that extraordinary sinking feeling that not only was I letting Evan MacKenzie down, but the whole TR team as well.

It did not take us too long to find our way back to the map again, but by the time we reached that Control, we were 15 minutes late, and I despaired at my stupidity, only to see the Atkins/Lyall TR4 checking in, and they were 10 minutes ahead of us on the road. “What a mess,” or words to that effect was how Lyall greeted us, and then it began to dawn on us that the whole world had gone raving mad that night.

No longer we were following Mark Gillies’ lovely Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint and the Harrisons’ Ford Zephyr II, nor were we being perpetually chased by the massive Mercedes-Benz 220SE of Alistair Caldwell. For the remaining six hours of the event, we never saw hide nor hair of any of them again.

The rest of the night and early morning runs were anti-climactic. Starting the night in 38th place overall, we had hoped to move up a few places, but it was a matter of luck about the team award, which actually was more dear to us. What we did not expect, when the provisional results were published, was that we would end up in 13th place and second in class while long-standing leaders McCartney/Crawford had been displaced by fellow Mini Cooperistes Martin-Hurst/Bilton who had started the night in 15th place.

Naturally this high placing did not truly represent where we were in the Marathon, if one took into account the unfair penalty we had incurred at Merano, nor did it represent anything to anybody. It was if a child had picked up all the toy cars that were more or less in runnng order, thrown them up in the air, and put them back into position wherever they landed.

Fortunately reason in this case prevailed, the road penalties incurred at the guilty Time Control and subsequently were scrubbed and the reason given. . . . inadequate information provided by the organisers to follow the route properly.

Consequently this demoted the provisional leaders back down to eighth place and the winners’ laurels were deservedly picked up by McCartney/Crawford.

Van Lennep’s bid for the lead came to a halt after he had got held up by the police which was then compounded by a navigational error while the Bournes received a two minute penalty after checking into a Time Control two minutes too early. This let the Mini-Cooper of Coulter/Howcroft into second place and the Austin Healey 3000 of McBride/Frazer into third place. Of more importance to us, however, was the fact that the Duckhams TR team won the team prize.

Despite the changing nature of the event this year, it was far better from a navigator’s point of view, for although there were moans about the map-reading, there was far more for the “sack of potatoes” to do. Such is the event that every car that took part has its own interesting story to tell, remarkable tales of heroism, foolishness and sadness; but the Marathon itself has come to a crossroads in its life.

While all who participated still want to keep the vestiges of competition, there would be a great many who would reject the idea of wearing helmets and fireproof overalls every day for a week in hot climates, while those at the front dislike the idea that the only way of keeping ahead is by not losing points. If the Marathon is to survive, it may well have to be run as a dual category event, Cat 2.1 and Cat 2.2, with all that that implies. With the advent of 1992, and all that it means about Europe, maybe the time has come to run it under the auspices of a more sympathetic national governing body on the Continent with feeders coming in from other countries. This would encourage even more European competitors everybody is keen to see enter. Whatever the outcome, the Pirelli Classic Marathon has become a marvellous institution and one whose future should be safeguarded.

Finally there should be a special mention made about the marshals on the event. No matter whether they were sitting under an umbrella hiding from the rain, shivering in the cold atop a mountain, sweating in the heat beside a road or sitting in the middle of nowhere at 3 in the morning, they were unfailingly cheerful, polite and always welcoming you as if you were the first car through. It is the commitment of these people, along with the camaraderie of fellow competitors, which makes this such an inspiring event. — WPK