A Survivor's Guide to the RAC Rally

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Still one of the hardest rallies, the RAC was once a by-word for toughness. John Davenport tells some first-hand forest tales.

Ten days from the publication date of this issue of Motor Sport, the top rally professionals and over 100 amateurs from all round the world will be locked in conflict on Britain’s number-one motor rally. For many people, the Network Q RAC Rally will comprise a brief glimpse of noisy, brightly painted cars going down a road meticulously obeying the speed limit, probably followed by a long queue of normal drivers wondering why they don’t get a move on. For others, there will be the thrill of going to a special stage and seeing these high-speed performers in a more natural habitat. Yet others will see large chunks of it on television from the comfort of an armchair.

But understanding the rally, how it works and how it is won or lost is something that only a minority will comprehend. At least it is simpler now since the standardised formats of the FIA World Rally Championship have become accepted. The winner is the competitor who does the fastest times on the special stages. Fatigue is not a significant factor since every night is spent in a hotel. Road penalties have become much less important and all servicing is done in official parks with set times allowed. Thus the stage times speak for themselves.

In the past, what went on during an RAC Rally was somewhat different. To be fair, ever since Jack Kemsley took the event into the forests for the first time in 1961, it has been an event ultimately decided by the times on the special stages. And it has always been a pretty clear result.

The winning lead on the RAC Rally is normally several minutes. But in 1995 the Subarus of Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz finished just 36 seconds apart and not as the result of a team orders fix as in the Catalunya Rally some weeks before. The FIA World Rally Championship has now persuaded its events to start timing to tenths of a second after several events were won by very small margins.

Before that, the closest RAC finish had been between Ari Vatanen’s Peugeot and Hannu Mikkola’s Audi in 1984. Interestingly, in both these cases, the winners were playing catch-up after a mid-rally problem. The largest winning margin appears to have been in 1968 when Simo Larnpinen and I brought our works Saab V4 home fifteen and half minutes ahead of team mate Carl Orrenius.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a victory against no opposition – the RAC Rally of that year was not oversubscribed by the works teams, who were keeping their powder dry for the London to Sydney a week or so later. But Saab had four works cars, Porsche had works cars for Vic Elford and Tony Fall with two more 911Ts from Sweden for Bjorn Waldegaard and Ake Andersson, Lancia had four works Fulvias for Rauno Aaltonen, Sandro Munari, Hannu Mikkola and Pat Moss, and the most serious of the non-works Ford Escorts was Timo Makinen in a David Sutton car.

Thus at the start there were plenty of candidates for victory. Five days and three sleepless nights later after no less than 87 – no, that is not a misprint – stages later, the entry of 120 was reduced to a mere 35. It was one hell of a long rally even by the standards of the time, going from London to Somerset through Wales, the Lake District, Western Scotland, Kidder, North Yorkshire and then via Mallory Park and Silverstone to finish back at London Airport.

I have to confess that by the fourth day we were sleeping whenever and wherever we could. I was even having a doze on those long straights in Dalby Forest. I doubt that you could find a stronger endorsement for the ride quality of a Saab. And the Saab team was having enormous problems with the freewheel device in the gearboxes so we were very nervous that it would break. In the closing stages at Silverstone, Simo was actually taking the car out of gear and coasting round the sharp corners.

But with a lead of such a size, one did not have to worry about being on the leader board for individual stages. Just three years later, in 1971, I was with Simo again, this time with a Lancia Fulvia, starting from Harrogate. This was one of those events made epic by the weather. Snow and ice are familiar components of RAC Rallies but this one had it in spades – and we used those several times. The first loop was into North Yorkshire and I had to get out in a blizzard and push. By the time we got back to Leeming Bar for a coffee break before heading north, I was soaked to the skin and felt as if I had constructed the Great Pyramid single-handed.

Unsurprisingly, there was even more snow in ScotIand. The chaps marshalling the stages around Elgin had checked them out the night before with a Land Rover but had not gone through that morning. Jean-Luc Therier in the Alpine-Renault was first car and after just 100 yards he had disappeared into the driving snow.

We were all set off at one-minute intervals after him but it was only a couple of miles later that we came upon a queue. Poor Jean-Luc was at the head of it with his little A110 plunged so deep into a snowdrift that you could only see its taillights. We got him out, shuffled the cars round and, painfully aware that rally cars would be coming towards us at a rate of knots, gingerly drove back to the start.

This stage was cancelled but then there was a couple of hours delay at the next. The discovery that the finish marshal had gone home when no cars reached him was just a tad frustrating.

This chaos led to a revolution in organisation, with Jim Porter being drafted onto the organising team for the following year when proper communications were arranged at stage level and back to the Rally HQ. My final memory of that chaotic 1971 event was arriving at the halt in Grantown-on-Spey about half an hour after we should have checked out. Unable to get refreshments, we stopped at the Lancia service and shared the mechanic’s ravioli, cooked in an electric kettle, but every bit as delicious as if it had been served at La Fenice.

Of course, the moment Jim Porter left Roger Clark to drive the RAC Rally without him, Roger won outright in an almost totally snow-free year. His margin to Stig Blomqvist’s Saab was well over three minutes. This was the beginning of a Ford Escort domination that lasted until 1980 when Henri Toivonen broke the run with the Sunbeam Lotus. It was Fords all the way in 1973 with Timo Makinen racking up the first win of an RAC hat-trick ahead of Clark and Markku Alen.

It was this latter result that set the tongues wagging, since at a very early point of the rally in Sutton Park both Alen and Hannu Mikkola had left the road in a big way in their works Escorts. Hannu whacked a post and broke a bone in his hand, so he and I spent the next few hours in casualty at Walsall hospital. Markku went further off and took some time to regain the road, dropping to 177th overall. His progress after that was simply phenomenal and by the end of the rally he had reduced the gap to Timo by half. If that was not enough to set spectator’s hearts racing, there was yet another amazing performance to witness, that of Bjorn Waldegaard, on this occasion in a works BMW 2002Tii.

During the first night in Wales he was swapping the overall lead with Timo, but dropped back after some brake problems. On the last morning, on the fast North Yorkshire stages, Bjorn was trying to close the gap again. Behind him Markku was tying to catch Simo Lampinen and Roger Clark and get up to third when, in Pickering Forest, the penultimate stage of the rally, he made a minor error and flipped the Escort. The spectators ran to push the car back onto its wheels and as they did so Markku noticed that among the heaving crowd was Bjorn. His BMW was even further down the bank; but though it had to be freed with the aid of a chain saw, it went on to finish a creditable seventh.

But for sheer spectator appeal, the RAC Rally with the mostest was probably in 1985. It was the year of Metromania, the WRC debut of the MG Metro 6R4 and of the Lancia Delta S4. It was also the last of the endurance RAC rallies.

There were 65 stages, 32 at night. And to complete the recipe, there was snow and ice for most of the northern sections. At the time I was running the Austin-Rover team and we lost Malcolm Wilson from fifth place with engine failure in Dovey Forest, but Tony Pond went the whole way, lying second for much of the event and finally finishing third. Ahead of him at the finish were the two Lancias of Henri Toivonen and Markku Alen. Markku had put his Lancia off twice and we had hoped that his second attempt in Kidder would prove a permanent posting. But Juha Kankkunen stopped his Toyota and pulled his fellow Finn back on the road enabling Markku to eventually regain second place.

I am not sure how such an action by a member of one team helping someone from another team would be regarded in the super-heated world of the current WRC. I know we were less than delighted at the time by Juha’s kind act, but then it was a very cold night to leave Markku in the middle of Kidder.

Our problems on that 1985 RAC Rally centred mainly on servicing our remaining MG Metro 6R4. Such was the public interest and support for the team that there must have been double the usual spectators. I recall only too painfully the service point in Barnard Castle. Getting up the street was bad enough, so the mechanics had organised a rope to deny the crowd entry to the inner sanctum.

At moments like this, the team manager is rather surplus to requirements so I thought I would serve best by holding up the rope as the rally car passed.

Unfortunately, the rope caught in one of the 6R4’s notorious aerodynamic appendages and, as it made its final approach to the service vans, so did its team manager, my leg and arm firmly lassooed. I bear the scar on my elbow to this day.

Sadly, this Dave Whittock-planned RAC was criticised for being too long with not enough rest halts. There had been some continental sniping at the RAC Rally for some years since it was the only WRC event to have secret stages. This was by special dispensation from the FIA, but, in the wake of the entire Peugeot and Audi teams spending time off the road on ‘unseen’ corners and three of them ending their rallies there, change had to come.

Of course the major disasters of 1986 and the euthanasia of Group B also resulted in a general emasculation of rallies, with restrictions on stage lengths, average speeds and overall lengths plus an enforced increase in rest halt time.The secret-stage format survived until 1990, when for the first time competitors were allowed to go slowly through the forests prior to the start and make their own pace notes. Everyone seemed to go a bit quicker and yet the accident rate did not seem to decrease. In fact, Juha Kankkunen lost the rally when his Lancia Delta Integrale slid off the road shortly after the start of the Newcastleton stage, caught out on a patch of ice not yet reached by the morning sun. The beneficiary of this misadventure was a Toyota driver, one Carlos Sainz, who went on to win. The poignancy of this moment was not lost on Tony Pond or myself. Perhaps there is a Great Leveller after all.

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