RAC Rally Preview - To the Woods. . . .

As this issue reaches the magazine racks the Lombard RAC Rally will be just about getting under way from Harrogate. In order to put the present event into context, GP recalls the history of the event and then goes on to explain the meaning of the Pace Notes system which has been introduced this year.

To The Woods. . .

Imagine an RAC Rally without any forests! Unthinkable, isn't it — almost like bacon without the egg! Yet the roughly the first half of its sixty or so years it was. The Forestry Commission were tree planters, not road makers. In any event, when it began, the RAC Rally was intended to bring skillful motoring to public awareness, and to show its participants the splendour of the British countryside and the elegance of some of its resorts. It was not meant to be hidden away in the dark, dismal pine plantations.

Although a "Bournemouth Rally” supported by The Motor in 1928 could be said to have been its forerunner, the first RAC Rally as such took place in 1932 when routes of about 1000 miles led from three starting points to Torquay. Average speed was either 22 mph or 25 mph, depending on engine and Time Controls were so few (one was at Harrogate) that there was ample opportunity for rest. Just to make it more interesting, a test was laid on at Torquay, but this was one of flexibility as much as fleetness; one hundred yards had to be slowly as possible in top gear, then another hundred yards as fast as possible using any of the gears. Imagine the transmission slap, not to mention the clutch wear!

Until the war, the rally continued as an annual event in much the same style, its social aspect being at least as important (some considered more than) the driving itself. If one was anybody at all in motoring fraternities, or even in other august circles then one simply had to join in the fun of the RAC Rally. Its popularity increased, but the element of competition remained a mere token. After all, not to get to the finish would be to miss out on the merry making, and in 1938 all except six of the 237 starters completed the route. It was indeed a huge jollification, but at least it was based on a motoring event, even if for many that was more an excuse than a reason.

After the 1939-1945 hostilities were over, thoughts at the RAC began to turn towards reviving the rally, and in 1951 it was declared an international event and attracted competitors from the continent. However, most of the visitors were not particularly happy with the navigation element, nor with the frequent traffic jams in narrow, country lanes, caused by slow cars baulking faster ones.

However, there were compensations for the tedium of map-reading. This time there were real tests, although some were based on regularity rather than sheer speed. There was a test at Silverstone, where about half of the 229 starters collected penalties, and others at Rest-and-be-Thankful, Hardknott and Wrynose – and in June at that! There was a2-mile test on Mynydd Epynt in which the target time was the average of all cars in the class, and a manoeuvring and pylon –negotiating test at Blackpool, the latter being repeated at the Bournemouth finish.

More tests followed throughout the Fifties, at Castle Combe, Goodwod, Turnberry, Prescott, Cadwell Park, Oulton Park and later at Crystal Palace, Hatch, Charterhall and Harleyford, not to mention the customary tests and occasional regularity sections

All sorts of anomalies crept in from time to time as competitors began to examine the regulations more carefully for loopholes, and found them, especially after greater efforts began in mid-Fifties to attract foreign competitors. There was the case of one pair who realised in 1958 that the penalty for missing a control altogether was no more than that for being half an hour late. Accordingly, they spent a night in bed, cut out one control and went on to finish!

Having spent some time moving around the calendar, it went back to November in 1959 when a few changes were made, including one to the regulations which then declared a penalty of five hours for missing a control, although this rule was unpopular with some at the time, especially when the road to a control at Braemar was found to be blocked by snow and there was no official instruction regarding a re-route. Some crews cut the control altogether; a few others took a long deviation to get there, including eventual Gerry Burgess and Sam Croft-Pearson in their Ford Zephyr. The incident led to an unsuccessful protest by a German team whose driver Wolfgang Levy was desperate for European Championship points, followed by two successive appeals, both of which failed, and it was some weeks before the winners got their trophies. Nowadays officials at rally headquarters get to of route difficulties in plenty of time to avoid them and to issue precise instructions to competitors.

Interesting that in 1959 the route was presented to competitors in a variety of ways. One was like an RAC tourist route - R at Fork in 2.5 miles; L at Crossroads in 0.6 miles — another a find your own way job between controls and another similar to the Tulip Rally system. A rather more elaborate form of the latter is universally used today, with lots of frills and pretty pictures, but as an instrument of navigation it is still basically no more than it was then; a series of accurate distances each with a diagram of a road layout and an arrow showing the direction to take.

The class improvement system, another import from Holland, was at one time employed to calculate results, overall positions depending on how much a car was ahead of its competitors within its class. Thus a one-litre car, by beating its rivals by two minutes, would be ahead overall of a three-litre car which had beaten its own class mates by one minute. Much later, the Tour of Britain made the mistake of copying such a class improvement regulation, and when the computer spewed out results after the first series of races, a Hillman Avenger was found to be the overall leader, ahead of much faster, more powerful cars. After various discussions, the regulation was changed!

Gradually, a mere tour around the country interspersed by various tests lost its ability to satisfy its customers, even if bad weather was encountered occasionally. Unlike racing drivers, rallying people liked their sport to be laced with adventure, and the organisers seemed to be running out of new ideas for the tests. Competition in the manner of the open road rallies of the time was unfair on overseas visitors, especially as regular British competitors were expert specialists at finding their way quickly and accurately around Ordnance Survey one-inch maps.

For rallying, these excellent maps were invariably modified by personal marking to show all manner of extra hazards, even which way gates opened, and especially which white roads went and which did not. Indeed, details of goers and non-goers were treasured possessions and no self-respecting navigator would ever be parted from his cherished marked maps, even in bed!

Something had to be done to introduce variety; to bring in a different kind of test which would satisfy even the most adventure-hungry. Ideally, average speeds on twisty, undulating, little-used public roads could be increased just to the point of impossibility, but that would be far too hazardous, questionably legal and probably in conflict with insurance requirements. Furthermore, the advantage of local knowledge would no doubt be a cause for increased complaints by overseas visitors.

What was needed was a series of roads which could be closed to all other traffic, as done by the Alpine and Monte Carlo rallies. Trouble was, the closure of public roads was impossible in mainland Britain, and most private roads were so short that they would contribute little more than some of the existing tests anyway.

And that was when Jack Kemsley had a brainwave!

Jack had been rallying for some time, even with works teams, and eventually took over leadership of the team planning the RAC Rally. His role soon became a family affair, for wife Joan, daughters Anne and Sally and son John all did their bit to stitch the route together and produce the roadbook. During the few months before the rally the Kemsley residence invariably looked like a military operations centre, and we well recall spending the Monday evening (and most of the night) prior to the 1967 rally at the Kemsley home, lending a hand to make drastic route changes to avoid areas affected by foot and mouth disease. Alas, it came to nothing, for the affected areas became larger, and on the very eve of the start Jack had the thankless task of announcing to the assembly at Heathrow's Excelsior Hotel that the whole thing was cancelled.

But we are jumping the gun, for the brainwave in question came long before that 1967 cancellation. The story was that Jack Kemsley discovered a pine needle in his breakfast cereal, but we confess to having concocted that one ourselves some years ago. Whatever sparked it off, the result was that talks began between the RAC and the Forestry Commission. The 1959 rally had already successfully used some special stages on private land, and why should they not be increased to include some of the roads of the biggest land user in the country. In order to carry out its role of tree planter and timber producer, the Forestry Commission also had to be a road builder to get machinery in and timber out. And jolly fine roads they were, too. Although unmetalled, they were invariably well-founded, well-drained and so well-cambered that they might have been specially designed for high-speed travel by competition cars.

The talks were successful, and the 1960 RAC Rally included special stages on the lands of the Forestry Commission (in Scotland), the War Department and various private owners. There were still the usual tests, of course, at Rest-and-be-Thankful, Mallory Park, Brands Hatch and even a skid pan in Leicestershire. A test at Charterhall had to be cancelled, for there was an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 1960, though not as serious as that of 1967.

The following year, Britain's state forests provided some 200 miles of special stages; in 1962 the figure was increased to 300, and so it went on. Forest rallying had arrived and was an immediate success, popular with everybody. But that popularity was almost its undoing. Rallying already had an immense following in lesser populated areas where tortuous roads were plentiful — Wales, for instance — but the coming of forest rallying, coupled with the increased publicity generated by the RAC, drew even greater crowds.

In many places there was just nowhere to put all the cars of the spectating public, and traffic jams and even road blockages resulted. In those days the route was always secret until the day of scrutineering, and the organisers decided that only selected stages should be made public in order to avoid having crowds in areas where neither narrow roads nor limited parking space could cope with the traffic.

Publishers of spectator guides were forbidden from mentioning the locations of these "difficult" areas, although real enthusiasts found it very easy to find them out. On one occasion, though, on the Welsh Rally, not the RAC, the presence of determined spectators in Brechfa Forest, which had been declared a no-spectator stage by the organisers, undoubtedly saved the lives of Walfridsson and Jensen, whose Stratos rolled and exploded into flames.

The spectators acted fast and pulled them out, but had they not been there the two competitors would have perished, for there were no marshals at the spot.

There were liaison difficulties too, and we recall the forest stages in Glamorgan being cancelled in 1965 on the very day they were supposed to be run simply because no-one had thought to tell the men on the ground in those forests. On another occasion the entire RAC Rally came to a halt in Wales at a place where competitors had to use a private farm track to get from a forest stage to a public road. No-one had bothered to ask the farmer whether the rally could use his road, and he became justifiably angry. Fortunately, one of the leading Fulvias had a Welsh-speaking co-driver who was able to appease the gentleman and persuade him to open the gate.

Such things are no longer overlooked, for whereas only a handful of people did the planning in the past, nowadays the work is divided among a whole battalion of planners.

When other rallies began to use forest roads, national as well as international, the popularity of the sport increased further. For the RAC Rally, car parks were set up, some in the fields of enterprising farmers and some by the Forestry Commission itself. However, the event seemed to be heading for strangulation by its own popularity, and the realisation of this convinced the organisers that they should start on a Sunday and confine the first day to stages in public parks, stately homes, promenades, racing circuits etc, all with adequate parking facilities. Thus came about a full circle. We were back to the tests, and competitors were vociferous in their criticism of these unpopular, "Mickey Mouse" stages, as they were called, some with coned chicanes and routes marked by coloured plastic streamers and, occasionally, straw bales. But let not anyone think that the TV-wooing superspecials of present times are FISA inventions. They are simply revived products of the past given a modern flavour.

The feeling at the time was that spectators would be most numerous at the weekend, so the forest stages were shifted to weekdays when fewer spectators could be expected. This strategy seemed to work very well for a while, but then more and more people turned out no matter what the day of the week, knowing that a well-driven rally car at speed along a forest road is a much better spectacle that one negotiating a park water splash or a ribboned route across a field.

The Sunday tests are still with us. They are just as unpopular with competitors, but their purpose is realised and drivers accept that they are not just turnstile money-spinners but part of a plan to reduce the chances of congestion in forest areas.

Now we come to the main change for 1990, resulting from a bold but risky acceptance of the style of other rallies. Finally, after much pressure from outside, both from FISA and from some competitors, the RAC has agreed to allow, for the first time, advance reconnaissance of the forest stages. Suddenly, a secret route has become a practised one, and anyone who knows anything about the sport will appreciate what a major change that is.

Although huge, Britain's forest areas are not capable of producing new stages year after year, and sooner or later competitors, especially those regularly tackling other forest rallies, find themselves readily able to recall certain road features. Practice has always been forbidden, but familiarity was unavoidable, and overseas visitors often claimed that crews living in Britain had an unfair advantage.

Reconnaissance of the private park and stately home stages was introduced a few years ago, but not of the forest roads. Apart from such things as cost and manpower, there was the Forestry Commission to consider. They were quite prepared to accept a once-over passage of the rally, at a cost of course, but to have competitors practising weeks ahead was a potential disruption of forest operations which they could not tolerate.

Most overseas rallies announce their route a month or so in advance, giving competitors the chance to recce and make notes, but not the RAC. Traditionally, it had a secret route, although it eventually became the practice to declare stage locations (forest entrance and forest exit) much earlier than the day of scrutineering in order that service planning could be done in good time.

But the pressure to introduce forest practice was on. More talks were held between the RAC and the Forestry Commission and eventually, appreciating both motor sporting politics and the standing which the RAC Rally had attained worldwide, the Forestry Commission agreed to allow controlled reconnaissance.

The year 1990 therefore becomes as significant in British rallying history as the memorable occasion thirty years before when forest roads were used for the first time. Pace notes have finally been given the green light, and no longer will there be veiled insinuations that "so-and-so must be using notes." Reconnaissance is for a limited period, divided into several areas and held at strictly enforced average speeds. Crews are able to make their notes, but checking and perfecting them at rally speeds is forbidden.

No words about the RAC Rally would be complete without reference to its long term sponsorship by the finance house Lombard North Central. Various other sponsors have emerged from time to time, including daily newspapers, but Lombard has been the only one with staying power, the title Lombard RAC Rally having been running since 1974 and the present contract not due to expire until after the 1993 event.

Twenty years is a long time for any sponsorship deal, but many do not realise that Lombard's association with the rally dates from long before 1974. Even in the Sixties Lombank, as it was then called, had a very close association with the rally, financing the production of the roadbook and supplying it in a very convenient, multi-pocket folder in which the various bits of other rally paperwork could also be stowed. There was also the famed "Lombank Bag", the small but adequate holdall which became the status symbol of the time, announcing quietly that its carrier had competed on the RAC Rally. We still have one, though it's now rather tattered and grease-stained, having served for some years as a tool bag!

It remains to be seen whether pace notes will be a successful innovation for the RAC Rally. Abuse of the reconnaissance rules is one of the obvious pitfalls, whilst the hidden ones include RAC Rally notes being used during other British events which forbid such use. Time will tell.

What are pace notes — that's another story! GP