The R.A.C. Rally of Great Britain
As it had been arranged that I should cover this year’s R.A.C. Rally by occupying the hot seat in a works Saab driven by the Finnish Rally Champion, Simo Lampinen, Rally Review for this month was to have been an account of the rally seen from that point of view. I take little pleasure in reporting that we only managed to complete about one-fifth of the route before a minor sortie on a special stage in Wales brought us to an abrupt halt, personally undamaged but with the car in no fit state to continue.
A certain Scotsman once wrote something about the best laid plans of mice and men going astray (except that he put it more quaintly) and as a journalist is supposed to be adaptable enough to weather the most terrible reverses of fate, I shall try to tell you what our fifth of the rally was like. I hasten to add that I did manage to see a little more of it than one-fifth, but by then I was no longer a competitor in the literal sense of the word.
It all started when I met .Simo Lampinen whilst reporting on the Acropolis Rally in Greece, and we talked about whether he would be coming over to England at the end of the year for the R.A.C. Rally and, if so, would he like an English navigator. Much later in the year we were in touch again and agreed to do the rally together in a Saab provided by the Finnish Saab importer and prepared by the Saab competition department in Trolhättan. The reason for this generosity on behalf of the companies concerned was that Simo had won the 1,000 Lakes Rally (Finland’s contribution to the European Rally Championship) for the second year running and had also taken the Finnish Rally Championship for Saab.
The R.A.C. Rally was due to start on November 8th, but before the first week in October our entry form had to be completed, which meant that all the relevant information concerning the car we were to use and us, the occupants, had to be collected and sent to the R.A.C. in Pall Mall with the entry fee and the blessing of the Finnish Automobile Club. After that, for me there was very little to do until Simo arrived in this country a week or so before the rally. There was no problem of communication between us for, though I speak not one word of Finnish, Simo speaks excellent English and Swedish, but all the same it was a good thing to get to know one another better before doing a rally in the course of which we would be shut up inside a car together for hours on end.
As the rally approached and our time of departure came closer, so the amount of work increased. The first job for me was to make certain that I had all the maps needed, so that when I received the road book from the organisers I could plot out the entire route on the one-inch-to-the-mile Ordnance Survey maps that cover the British Isles. This is considered essential by most of the experienced navigators for, if some of the special stages are cancelled or, as this year, there are diversions due to fog and accidents, the carefully compiled road book supplied by the organisers becomes useless and the diversion must be followed on a map.
The car eventually arrived from Sweden with the other three works cars and a full Complement of mechanics from the Saab factory. It was their job to make any final adjustments or alterations to the cars before the start and to service the cars during the course of the rally. In order to do this, it was necessary for the navigators to work very closely with Bo Helleberg, the Saab Team Manager, to fix the location of the special stages with the help of the service road books. These were issued early this year by the R.A.C. to enable this very important work to be done a couple of days before the rally started. Not only does the question arise during this discussion as to whether service is needed before or after a particular special stage; but very often the service Crew must have made arrangements with one of the trade firms such as Dunlop to have special tyres before a particular test, and then facilities to change back again after the test has been completed. As an example of this, we were using Dunlop tyres on the Saab with a combination of SP Weathermasters on the front wheels and SP41s on the rear wheels when it was necessary to drive in the forests; as it had been found that this was the best combination for driving these cars on loose-surfaced roads. However, the third special stage was a timed descent of the old toll road at Porlock, which is entirely on tarmac, so that it had to be arranged with Morris Torlay of Dunlops to change from the Weathermasters at the top of the hill onto SP41s all round and then change back onto the Weathermasters at the foot ready for the next special stage, which was in the Brendon Forests. Rallying is so professional today that considerations like this can often make the difference between success and failure for a works team.
Having ensured that the service crews would know where to find us if we got that far, the last thing to do before moving headquarters to London ready for scrutineering on Saturday morning was to check that the cars were running at 100% fitness, and that all the little alterations to accommodate driver’s idiosyncracies had been carried out to perfection. As for as we were concerned, our car was just perfect and the start of the rally could not come soon enough, but the mechanics spotted a thin trace of oil escaping from the seal between the near-side driveshaft and the gearbox housing, and decided to change it. Within a very short time we were due to leave for London and I for one was sceptical as to whether the job could be done in time. From my previous experience of works mechanics I should have known better, and before I could even collect my thoughts to raise an objection, the engine was sitting on the floor. Considering that this involved jacking up the car, unbolting the skid plate and the exhaust, removing a wheel and dropping the suspension on one side to release the drive shaft, and then disconnecting all connections to the engine and lifting it out, this was no mean achievement. These men have made so close a study of one particular car that no time and motion man could show them a quicker way of performing these operations, and I have seen one of them change an internal universal joint in just a fraction over five minutes.
With the cars and ourselves in London, there was nothing to do before scrutineering for which we had to present ourselves at the Duke of York’s Barracks in Chelsea at ten o’clock the following morning. As far as we were concerned, we had no trouble in satisfying the scrutineer that our car was all it claimed to be, so we picked up our road book and retired to plot up all the maps. For those who may not fully comprehend the significance of a road book, on the R.A.C. Rally, this is designed to enable a competitor to drive round the route without referring to a map and contains diagrams of nearly all the road junctions with the mileage between them. For the reasons that I mentioned above, we normally transfer all these details on to the maps to make quite sure that they tie up and to give us an exact idea of where we are going. As the other three members of the Saab team—Erik Carlsson, Pat Moss and Ake Andersson—all had Swedish navigators— Gunnar Palm, Elizabeth Nystrom and Torsten Ahman—we all worked together on the maps and compared our findings if there was anything which did not seem to be clear. In order to make sure that none of us got lost coming into London On the last stage, which though at an easy average was in the evening rush hour, we even went to the extent of taking a run out of London to Gallows Corner and checking the route in. All this the day and night before we actually started the rally.
Somehow amid the confusion, the work and the packing, we managed to get some sleep though I still felt like death when the call came to rise at 5.30 a.m. I remember little of breakfast or the journey to fetch the car except the anxious moment when I thought it would never start. My recollections of the official exit from the barracks are equally hazy for the first thing I remember clearly is being passed by a television cameraman shooting film from the top of a Ford Zodiac. We took it very easily down the main road out of London towards Camberley and went most of the way in convoy with the two works Heaky 3000s of Don Morley, and Timo Makinen. It is generally true to say that the road sections on the R.A.C. Rally are designed to be very easy so that little or no annoyance is caused to local traffic and as a co-driver, you spend most of your time checking that you are not exceeding the top average of 40 m.p.h. instead of worrying about whether it is possible to maintain the 30 m.p.h. minimum average. The high speed antics occur on the special stages which are on private property and closed to all other traffic—except spectators and pressmen—for the duration of the rally.
We did not have long to wait to indulge in a special stage for soon after passing Sandhurst the rally route turned off into Bramshill Forest where the first stage had been laid out on Forestry Commission property. Our turn came to start the stage and as the printing clock turned onto another minute the marshal punched the clock and handed me our card across Simo’s lap. This was the signal to start and with a sound akin to a gas turbine, the 850 c.c. two-stroke engine began to pull us with ever increasing speed into the arms of the forest. As the speed increases, so the edges of the road seem to get closer and the maniacal chatter of stones Hung up under the wings and onto the skid plate builds up until all other noise is obliterated and conversation at normal levels rendered impracticable. On a daylight special stage such as this was, the co-driver is paid to sit quiet and keep out of the driver’s way and the only actions permitted him are the starting and stopping of the clock and the occasional smile at photographers. When a stage contains blind brows or awkward-to-see junctions as this one did, the co-driver is allowed to stand up on the seat with his head pressed against the roof (don’t, have the seat belts too tight) and bawl our whether the road disappears to left or right.
We were soon through the first fast bends and as the road started to go downhill it curved to the left so without lifting his foot from the accelerator, my companion headed the car in under the overhanging branches. One wheel dropped into the miniature ditch and for an instant we performed like a wall-of-death act and then we were back in the middle of the road having gone through the bend with practically undiminished velocity. At the tight turns which were quite wide but covered with Very soft sand, the technique was different and comprised getting the car a little sideways coming into the bend on braking and then changing down while sliding through. Simo apologised after the stage for what he said was a slow time as he said he had misjudged the softness of the surface and his habit of using all the space available had slowed us down as the car had lost a lot of its energy ploughing through the soft ground.
We reached the next stage after a long run down the A 303 to Mere in Wiltshire and this time I felt that I could relax and try to see more exactly what went on between car and driver. The stage started with a straight sprint to an open gate from which it appeared to go gently right only for it to be revealed to our astonished eyes that it did in fact hairpin left and go away sharp downhill. All thought of watching car or driver disappeared and my eyes resumed their normal pastime of watching the road. It continued to fall away with the surface turning to mud under the damp trees and then we were coming into a right-hand bend with the car sliding and little room to manoeuvre between the trees. Fairly hard braking with the left foot and power combined with full lock took the car round almost without effort only for it to discover another sharp right. The drift was merely prolonged arid then we were accelerating again downhill through about a mile and a half of very fast bends to the finish. The road here was built up in the middle with the sides tapering off into the forest so again the Saab was made to perform the wall-of-death act though with the bends coming in such quick succession the whole thing was one smooth flow and completely free of jumps. This was despite rocks, boulders and irregularities in the side of the road and confirmed my impression of the Saab as A fantastic car over rough surfaces. This was shown up even more on one of the stages in Somerset, where during a rapid descent of the Brendon Hills our little car was flying over potholes and jumping down on to the skid plate so much that I thought there would be nothing left of it at the end of the stage. Instead, when we got the service point after the stage the only thing that had to be done was to push the electrical connection back on the oil warning light which had jumped off the oil pump on the stage.
From the control at Bristol Airport, it was my turn to drive as Simo wanted to rest before the arduous section through Wales began and this is one of the things that a co-driver has to learn— how to drive and navigate at the same time without waking up his driver. It is not quite as difficult as it sounds and of course it is much easier for a British navigator to find his way around his own country than it is for the foreign competitors. With the coming of night, a heavy frost formed on the roads and froze the special stages solid which made them much more difficult to drive especially if you were in a rear wheel drive car, though this did not seem to deter this year’s winner, Tom Trana, from putting up repeatedly fast times in his Volvo PV 544. We were happy enough slipping around in our front wheel drive machine (called a “jungle drum with oil heating” by Simo) until we came to the Army ranges on the Eppynt where we failed to get round what was quite a last corner, because it was more liberally covered in ice than the previous ones and we off the road and rolled over a couple of times.
The car landed on its wheels hut so heavily that both the front wheels bent under the shock of the impact and broke the brake caliper on the driver’s side. The bodywork was bent at every corner but my door still opened and shut as though nothing had happened and when we cleared the exhaust of mud the engine started without any trouble. As for ourselves, we were both shaken up but the crash helmets and safety harness had kept us from anything more serious than a couple of scratches. Our rally was over and all that was left to us was to return to London as quickly as possible after finding a garage in which to lock up the Saab to keep it safe from treasure hunters.
Not the most successful or the longest rally that I have ever done, this year’s R.A.C. Rally is unlikely to slip from my memory and I hope that the above account will help to explain a little of the fascination that this sport has for its participants.— J.D.F.D