British Rally Review, December 1978

Although entries on British National and home International rallies appear to have passed their zenith, due to the ever increasing cost involved and (to a lesser extent) a greater spread and selection of events, this year has seen three well-organised, thoroughly complementary, championships on a national scale. They comprised, in order of ascending magnitude, the Esso/BTRDA Gold Star Rally Championship; the Castrol/Autosport National Rally Championship and the Sedan Products Open International Rally Championship, the last mentioned of which culminated just last week with what is still the free world’s most prestigious rally — the Lombard RAC.

The middle-level championship, that organised and controlled by the Castrol Oil division of Burmah-Castrol, has seen the greatest advance since its inception in the earlier part of this decade and for 1978 it inherited the premier national status formerly of the RAC Rally Championship but with eligibility restricted to holders of British and Eire passports. Previously, the RAC series was open to any driver able to satisfy the RAC with a UK address for licensing purposes.

Catering for the addition of foreign participants (mainly Scandinavian) is the Sedan Products sponsored “Open” series of seven rallies (the Castrol series comprised 10 one-day events) made up from four “home” Internationals and three weekend “mini” Internationals.

The Esso supported British Trials and Rally Drivers’ Association Championship followed a similar format to the Castrol series, but with greater emphasis on reduced cost. As with International racing formulae, many crews will tackle the Esso series (principally younger upcoming “club” drivers); some will progress to Castrol events (an interesting blend of established and aspiring) and a few will go on to pit their skills in the Open Championship.

This year’s Club Series was won by Tim Brise from Chris Lord, neither driver truly representative of undiscovered talent, as Brise (almost a semi-professional) runs two cars, an Opel for BTRDA events and a Ford for selected Castrol and Open events, whilst Lord achieved prominence in previous Castrol seasons and made a retrograde step to take the BTRDA’s “best newcomer” award — “new” only relevant to the BTRDA series.

Young Workington, Cumbria, driver Malcolm Wilson won the Castrol/Autosport series on the final round, with a steady points-securing drive to third place on the Focol Wyedean (November 4th) proving to be a thoroughly vindicatory performance from a very fast, and now very reliable, 23-year-old. Wilson’s long wait to take his due honours follows a fairly disastrous midseason.

At the time of press, reigning RAC Champion Russell Brookes had accumulated the greatest number of points (best six scores to count) in the Sedan series. A résumé of the Lombard RAC will be included in the January Motor Sport.

The Castrol series started the season with Caernarvonshire and Anglesey MC’s Gwynedd in early February, a highly successful daylight event using North Wales Forestry Commission special stages. Malcolm Wilson used his familiar Escort RS1800 (HHJ 701N) to win the rally from the very much more highly experienced Nigel Rockey who had put his Escort off the road for a few vital moments. The Gwynedd is remembered — apart from the aptitude of the relatively inexperienced organising team — for the amount of snow in Clocaenog Forest, and for the debut of Willie Rutherford’s exciting twin rotor Wankel-engined Mazda Hatchback.

A fortnight later the Open series commenced with the De Lacy MC of Pontefract Mintex Rally, a “mini” International spanning two days and based on the North Yorkshire forests. The rally was none too popular as the organisers had been forced to bolster a meagre forest mileage (due to geographic limitations) with several tarmac ex-airfield miles of less good quality: not really the stuff to offer the world-class talent assembled. Nevertheless a Finn still contrived to win the event (Pentti Airikkala, Vauxhall Chevette) from the Fords of British drivers Brookes, Taylor, Clark and Elsmore; the last named driver having won the group one category of the ’77 RAC Rally and now sampling his first Open drive of the season for Thomas Motors with an Escort RS1800.

The Open Championship continued with the Benson & Hedges Circuit of Ireland, a five-day Easter time “classic” which seems to improve in stature every year. Markku Alén, driving a Fiat UK-entered Mirafiori, thought that it made the Lombard RAC Rally “appear like a holiday”. The lanky Finn could only make third place behind Vauxhall driver, Scotsman Jim McRae (team-mate Airikkala had retired under a cloud: the Finn was in a gruff mood and was being beaten by McRae), whilst the man nobody could catch was Russell Brookes. His rally was not without high drama, when on the very first stage his Andrews Heat  RS1800 sailed off the road after a misunderstanding with co-driver, John Brown, who had called a bend from the map incorrectly. Brookes and Brown were to split later in the year. Brookes drove his car to the end of the stage, after losing five minutes, had it repaired and finished the rally, five days on, with another five minutes in hand. His drive through the field is one that will be long remembered. In the increasingly prominent group one section, Brian Culcheth repeated his Mintex performance for Dealer Opel Team with a Kadett GT/E and also achieved a highly creditable seventh place overall. With over 500 miles of special stages, the Circuit of Ireland offers more competitive motoring than any other event in Britain or Eire. For next year longer stages arc on the agenda.

Just one week after scoring his remarkable group one victory in Ireland over several theoretically faster cars, Brian Culcheth scored again on the second round of the Castrol Championship, Cheltenham MC’s Castrol Cheltenham National Rally, this time an overall win with a more highly modified Opel Kadett. Malcolm Wilson finished in second place, an unfortunate drowning-out on a last stage ford and an engine problem preventing a better performance. During the early stages three favourites retired in quick succession: Andy Dawson, Jim McRae and Nigel Rockey, all victims of mechanical breakages.

Round three of the Castrol series proved to be one of the highlights of the year. It was the York MC-promoted Raylor Rally, using Mintex-style North Yorks forests but little else and all packed into one no-nonsense day. The stages, by some quirk of the spring weather as much as any regrading, were in the fastest, smoothest, condition that most competitors could remember. Indeed, for an early April event dust clouds were a truly unexpected problem. Once again Malcolm Wilson was on thoroughly good form and he won from arch-rival Nigel Rockey.

Another interesting hybrid joining Rutherford’s Mazda as an effective crowd puller was the early appearance of a Chrysler Sunbeam development car with 2-litre Lotus 907 engine, driven to sixth place by Andrew Cowan after a brief “off”. The Sunbeam made up for Leyland’s and Tony Pond’s non-appearance; the Raylor should have witnessed the Triumph TR7 V8’s debut. Instead an example appeared on a television rally sprint the following day.

A fortnight later the Triumph appeared for the CP Granite City Rally in North-East Scotland (Castrol, round 4) and duly won by a margin of just 12 sec from Nigel Rockey’s Escort RS1800. Wilson — his luck on the way out — was forced to retire with gearbox failure. With another second place to Rockey, both drivers would go to the Jim Clark Memorial Rally, the halfway point in the championship, just one point apart.

But before that event came the third round of the Open series, the cumbersomely titled Western Mail  Phoepower Wales Welsh Rally. Hannu Mikkola led from start to finish for Ford (apart from a single stage where Brookes forged ahead before a series of disasters demoted him to fifth) with Roger Clark backing up his Finnish teammate ahead of Markku Alén and the Fiat UK 131. Challenges from Leyland and Vauxhall fizzled out, Pond’s TR with an incurable ignition problem and then overheating and Vauxhall (with “productionised” engines after DTV were refused to start the Portuguese due to homologation problems of cylinder heads, camshafts and clutches) with both McRae and Airikkala being forced out with engine and drivetrain reliability problems.

Apart from Mikkola’s brilliant performance, one of the “stars” of the Welsh had been Castrol contender Malcolm Wilson who had been having a run on this rally with a Stuart Pegg-entered, DAD-serviced RS1800. His car succumbed during the final run down country with a seized clutch, but his stage times had proved a point. Brian Culcheth once again took maximum group one points by winning the category for the third time in succession.

Round four of the Sedan Products Open series was the Esso-Lombard International Scottish Rally. It was a similar story to the Welsh. Hannu Mikkola led from start to finish with one of the most accomplished drives ever witnessed through British forests while Malcolm Wilson was again running a Pegg car and managed to climb through the field to be contesting second place with Markku Alén when he flew off the road. His meteoric progress through the night excused his misdemeanour of the morning. One learns by experience. Pentti Airikkala demonstrated that DTV were quickly recovering from their embarrassing problems with second place. Roger Clark finished third ahead of the Fords of John Taylor and Graham Elsmore. Needless to say, Brian Culcheth took group one again — four out of four and only the slimmest chance of not taking the championship.

Rallying stayed north for the next few weeks with the Jim Clark Memorial (Castrol) followed by the Burmah International (Sedan — and Castrol too, of course, in an individual sponsorship role). On the J.C. Nigel Rockey scored another win and gained the series lead from Wilson (who rolled in Otterburn after aquaplaning) while the Burmah saw the familiar Ford steam roller with Hannu Mikkola again taking the honours from Russell Brookes (they finished on the same second, a tie decider going in the Finn’s favour) and Roger Clark. Although the Lanarkshire CC organised event was similar to the Mintex in terms of time and distance vs competitive miles, the sheer variety of the West Scotland stages combined with the virtual guarantee of night rain made the Scottish event a considerable challenge none the less. Vauxhall and Leyland couldn’t provide the Ford Motor Company with significant opposition while the Fiat UK car (this time with Walter Röhrl at the wheel) managed fourth place. Culcheth, of course, now made it five out of five for Dealer Opel Team. Early September saw the Castrol/Autosport circus arrive in Ulster for the Belfast Telegraph Ulster Rally, a superb 200 stage miles event considered, but alas not chosen, for upgrading to Open status for next year. The rally was won by John Taylor with his Haynes of Maidstone RS1800, the Ulster also qualifying for the “Tarmac Championship” of fast Irish stage events, which Taylor won outright. Most significant was the entry of Derek Boyd with works Triumph TR7 V8. Younger brother of the legendary Adrian Boyd, Derek had won the rally convincingly the previous year with a Porsche Carrera, and if Leyland had ever chosen on a suitable horses for courses rule of thumb, this was it. Derek didn’t let them down, but his car did. With just 21 miles of competitive motoring to complete it lost oil pressure suddenly (the ultimate effect of a broken rocker), so Taylor won an event he would have been happy enough to have finished in second place. Of the Castrol regulars, Nigel Rockey was now “temporarily retired” from the scene, the purchase of a new house taking his time and money. Wilson took home much needed points (but again his luck hasn’t fully recovered for a wiring fire dropped him from second to fifth) while fast “coming from nowhere” was Jim McRae, driving the SMT-entered single-cam “clubman’s” development Vauxhall Chevette on Castrol events. At one point the Scotsman had only two points to Wilson’s 44, but now he was only 10 points in arrears.

Next on the agenda was the Mopar Manx Trophy Rally, the penultimate round of the Open series. This event holds a place almost as dear in the hearts of competitors as the “Circuit”. It is a fast, furious thrash over the sometimes wide, sometimes narrow and twisty, roads of the Isle of Man.  It is the only pace notes event in the calendar (apart from certain exceptions when notes are allowed on the Epynt Army ranges in mid-Wales) and the Isle of Man’s version of the road traffic act  — there is no DoE test for example — allows for the use of “slick” racing tires.  It is a well-rehearsed spectacle of speed and professionalism and a high point of the year for Leyland which, with Tony Pond in full flight, outdrove the opposition to provide the TR7 V8 with a most prestgious victory.  Hannu Mikkola was the only driver able to stay with the red white and blue Leyland, but the Finn suffered a slow front wheel puncture which saw him off the road head-first.  John Taylor further demonstrated his immense skill on tarmacadam with an excellent second place.  Brian Culcheth … you know the rest!

With the Open series “over” bar the Lombard RAC, attention was once more returned to the Castrol series where, with as much of a tribute to its points scoring system as to the level of the competition, there was a fight to the finish developing.  The next rounds were the Europa Lodge Lindisfarne in Keilder Forest and the Carrier Properties Castrol ’78 in mid-Wales.  Several Open contenders also turned their attention to these two events, for both provide a great opportunity to put in considerable test mileage prior to the world championship event. Unfortunately it also means that neither event is a full-blown rally, for the final placings are of no more than passing interest to the “works” drivers who enter. But the fight between McRae and Wilson kept interest on the boil, for McRae finished in second place and Wilson coasted out of the event with a broken crown-wheel and pinion. For those interested Ari Vatanen won the event, despite treating it as a day’s testing, and also despite driving several stages at a reduced pace due to an oil pipe fracture.

Similarly, with the Castrol ’78, an awe-inspiring event with just seven stages totalling 90 forest miles, much of the top entry comprised works drivers testing tyres and re-acquainting with the UK state forests.  Wilson finished in third place (even with a wrong tyre choice for although the national championship was paramount, Wilson still found time to choose between M+S or A2 Dunlops and get it wrong —  as did many other top Escort drivers!) while McRae, now driving a twin-cam works Chevette for the dual purpose of pre-RAC testing and chasing Wilson with more power at his disposal, could only manage eighth after a day of problems. Pentti Airikkala won the Castrol ’78 in the style of Vatanen’s Lindisfarne.

Wilson led on points going into the final round, the Focal Wyedean, and when McRae retired on the first stage with no oil pressure, Wilson just had to cruise to the finish. Third overall was ample.  The event was won by Andy Dawson with a new type Datsun Violet (but with twin overhead camshaft engine installed) from Graham Elsmore, who, after a consistent but not brilliant year with the Thomas Motors RS1800 on Open rounds, drove a Vauxhall to fourth place (a single-cam car) on the Castrol ’78 and a works Triumph TR7 V8 to second place on the Wyedean.

So how representative was ’78 as a championship year? For the oil company involvgement of Esso and Castrol, we would think that both conglomerates are well pleased with events, competition and winners.  Both will be repeating their support next year.  Of the Sedan Products Open series we are not so sure.  Earlier this autumn there was talk of a play-off between the “mini” Internationals —  Burmah, Mintex and Manx, with the Ulster event included, against the Lombard RAC, but the Lombard RAC was included  (the decision being taken before the event was run), the Mintex was allowed a stay of execution, and the Ulster will have to try again another time.  Had the Mintex been down-graded and made more compact we think it would produce a better event, and had the thoroughly deserving Ulster been incorporated in the Open series it would have altered the ratio of forests to tarmac most favourably.  With two “top” championships, only one of which is open to all-comers, there is no single champion driver, as one can tend to detract from the other.  But these are minor grouses for, without a doubt, the best men won.  — IS