The grit and the good

The RAC Rally has seen several transformations but, by recalling some of its greatest drives and moments, John Davenport concludes the fighting spirit required to win is unchanged.

The RAC Rally was conceived in haste, but has a long and lasting legacy. Regulations for the inaugural event of 1932 were out before the previous Christmas and attracted 341 starts. Its 2000-mile route took them from nine starting points through two nights and a day of motoring in the first week of March. The finish was at Torquay, where the competitors, all but 47 of whom were unpenalised, were faced by two tests.

The first of these comprised a 100-yard stretch of promenade over which the cars had to be driven as slowly as possible in top gear. Hardly Colin McRae at maximum attack, but it became clear that a good time, i.e. a very slow one, on this test, would ensure victory. And the slowest, covering the distance in 5min 7.8sec, was Col. A H Loughborough’s Lanchester — one of the few cars on the event fitted with a fluid flywheel. Advanced technology has always played a part on the RAC.

After the war, the event moved to March, and snow and ice became a regular feature. In 1958, snow almost brought the Welsh sections to a halt. Peter Harper was competing in a works Sunbeam Rapier co-driven by Dr Bill Deane.

They had a late start number — 173 of 196 — and immediately encountered a queue waiting in a narrow lane while some unfortunate further down the road was extricated. Deane decided it was best to turn around, even if there was a risk of losing time. On other occasions, they would meet competitors running against the route because the road ahead was ‘blocked’ but, by persisting, they frequently found they could get through. At Blackpool, they were lying third; then, after a similar night in the Lake District, they were leading.

Heading south into Yorkshire, they were faced with another decision. Nancy Mitchell and Joan Johns had crashed their Riley and were injured. With a doctor in the car, what should they do? They were only a couple of miles from the next control so Deane stayed while Harper made a dash for it. There he explained his situation to the marshals, asked nicely if they would check him out on time even if he and the car were not there, and left them his timecard. He drove back to the accident where there was another doctor and help was now present. He and Deane went back to the control, picked up their card (marked) and went on to win the rally.

The following year’s rally was the first to be organised by Jack Kemsley and the first to be run in November. It was also the most controversial in the history of the rally. It was on the return south over the Cairngorms that the problems occurred. The road up the Lecht from Tomintoul towards Braemar was known to be a problem in snowy weather and, as the cars departed Naim, there were rumours it was already closed. It was.

‘Despite Turner draping himself over the bonnet, they just failed to get over’

Leading the rally was Germany’s Wolfgang Levy in a DKW 1000SP being navigated by Stuart Turner. Despite a late start number, they had not dropped any time on the road and had been fastest in the tests. Like many others, they tried the Lecht and, despite Turner draping himself over the bonnet of the front-wheel drive Deek’, just failed to get over. The alternative was to go via Dufftown, a 24-mile ‘long cut’. A handful of crews took that route without hesitation and only 15 made it to the Braemar control within their hour’s lateness. Fastest of these were Gerry Burgess and Sam Croft-Pearson in a works Ford Zephyr, who were 33 minutes late; Levy booked in 50 minutes behind schedule, and this gave the win to Burgess.

Some, however, thought the penalties at Braemar should be cancelled since the average speed required to achieve the control on time — even without going up the Lecht — was well in excess of the legal requirement.

Levy, backed by his DKW bosses, decided to appeal to the Stewards of the RAC. Turner recalls it as his most terrifying moment: “There I was, only a dozen years or so after the war had finished, arguing the case for a German team against British organisers in front of Sir Hartley Shawcross, Lord Brabazon and Lord Camden. I had an idea I might be visiting the Tower of London via Traitor’s Gate.” They lost the appeal, but Stuart Turner kept his head to go on to win the RAC Rally as co-driver to Saab’s Erik Carlsson in 1960.

That RAC introduced special stages to event; the year after that, it entered the forests for a full-on stage event. The tests were finally dead, but the adventure certainly wasn’t.

In 1965, Rauno Aaltonen and Timo Mäkinen were driving for BMC, but were deadly rivals. They both wanted to win the RAC; Aaltonen more so as, by winning it, he would also secure the European Rally Championship. The duellists selected their weapons: Mäkinen opted for an Austin-Healey 3000 while Aaltonen stuck with a 1275 Cooper S that had served him so well all year. A classic David vs Goliath affair.

Mäkinen led initially, but during a snowy night in Yorkshire, he and Aaltonen got stuck on a hill in Cropton Forest. Rauno got through more quickly than Timo, but the upshot of the delay was thatierry Larsson led in a Saab.

By the time the rally ventured into Scotland, however, Malcinen was back in the lead, with Aaltonen breathing down his neck. The pair charged on into Wales and the closing stages, with Mäkinen still confident of victory. But then the Cropton scenario was replayed in Gwydyr, just outside Betws-y-Coed, except this time, Mäkinen got stuck and Aaltonen didn’t. The rally and the championship were his.

If 400 miles of special stages were not enough to provide adventure, the other 2000 miles on the open road often provided it. Harry Kallstrom and Gunnar Haggbom proved this during their second consecutive RAC victory for Lancia in 1970.

They took the lead in Scotland, but on the Pantperthog stage just before a brief halt in Machynlleth, they had an oil leak and ran their Fulvia’s big-ends. The similar works car of Simo Lampinen was parked up with a broken gearbox and, in a moment of inspiration, it was decided to take the bearings out of Lampinen’s V4 and, when Kallström checked out, fit them to his engine. This was done and Kallstrom set off — with no sump-guard to save time — to cover a 100 miles in two hours and 40 minutes, over Welsh mountain roads and six special stages, having to overtake slower cars on both. He did it somehow and arrived at the next main control with about half a minute in hand.

Well, almost arrived. This control was on a public road and, despite the fact it was midnight, spectators’ cars had narrowed it When the flying Kallström charged in, he discovered his lane was partially occupied by a lorry, which he promptly hit and folded up the Lancia’s front suspension.

Again reacting with commendable speed, the team ran through the control, popped the front of the car up on a trolley jack, and dragged it through the control, with Haggbom checking in — on time — as they did so. The Fulvia was repaired in just over an hour and set off on the next seven-hour section to Bristol knowing they would make up the lost time easily.

Today, the cars are timed from special stage to special stage so this form of odyssey is no longer possible and major services can only take place in designated areas. This concentrates the action on the special stages. But, as Colin McRae’s drive to sixth with a Ford Sierra Cosworth 4×4 proved in 1990, the event is still full of suitable drama. After just 24 hours, the Ford’s passenger door was held shut by an old gate latch found nearby, and by the end of the rally the only panels left untouched by young McRae’s spectacular passage through the countryside were the bonnet and the boot lid.

McRae’s most stunning RAC to date, however, must be 1995. Following a controversial ‘team orders’ victory for Carlos Sainz in Catalunya, whichever of these Subaru drivers won in Britain would take the championship. The instant the rally hit the forests, McRae hit the front — fora stage. A puncture on the long stage in Kielder meant he had to stop and change it. From then on it was catchup all the way. Another puncture, even a roll, couldn’t stop him and, with just seven stages to go, he passed Sainz for the win and the title. The Rally of Great Britain — the new name part of a ‘commercial realignment’ — is much shorter than of yore, but the likes of McRae can still find plenty of adventure in it.