Magical history tour

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During his time in F1 Alastair Caldwell used to pit his wits against Ferrari. Now he’s using an ex-Scuderia treasure in classic events…
Writer: Rob Widdows

This rally might appear to be a bunch of silly old farts bumbling through little English lanes, but some of it is regulated at 32mph which wouldn’t be possible in a modern car, let alone a pre-war car, so that’s fantastic. I’m in my 1938 Alfa Romeo 6C, no seat belts, no crash protection, a huge spear of a steering wheel – you wouldn’t get a modern Grand Prix driver to come anywhere near this kind of thing.”

This is born-again rally driver Alastair Caldwell at the start of the Royal Automobile Club’s 1000 Mile Trial. In recent years the feisty former McLaren F1 team manager has been filling his sideboard with trophies from his exploits at the wheel. Having made a fortune with his ‘Space Station’ storage company, and assembled an enviable car collection, Caldwell’s new challenge is the world of historic rallying.

Fresh from victories in Morocco, in a Citroën 2CV, and the Paris to Madrid in his Alfa Romeo, Caldwell and trusty navigator Catriona Rings were about to tackle 1000 miles around Britain. In partnership with the Historic Endurance Rally Organisation (HERO) the RAC has recreated an event first run in 1900, the purpose then to demonstrate the viability of the motor car as practical transport.

Those early pioneers were on the road for 20 days, travelling from London to Edinburgh and back at speeds of up to 12mph, creating an important motoring milestone. This time 43 hardy competitors, all in pre-1940 cars, must complete the task in seven days.

“It won’t be too leisurely,” said Caldwell ahead of the trial. “I’ve won quite a few, but it’s about having fun as well as winning. On the longer events we’re driving at speed on dirt roads, over mountain passes, and we’re multi-tasking, watching the clock, reading a road book, usually in the middle of nowhere.”

Many of these adventurous outings are put together by HERO where linchpin Tomas de Vargas Machuca has transformed the way historic rallies are run. An investment and property entrepreneur, Tomas is also passionate about classic cars and has brought professionalism to the world of historic rallies.

“HERO was anyway a great organisation, built up by John Brown,” he says, “but we’ve introduced ‘arrive and drive’ to the rallies, which means you don’t have to own a classic car to take part, and we offer a range of cars from E-Type Jaguars to MGBs to pre-war machines. I compete in some of the events because, like a chef, you need to eat in your own restaurant, and the competition element is key. It also needs to be fun, a way to see places you otherwise wouldn’t see, so the 1000 Mile Trial visits stately homes along a route that follows as closely as possible the original from 1900. Importantly, it also gives the RAC the opportunity to bring the car back into club life, to bring the club closer to its roots.”

After a blast up the ‘Captain’s Mile’ in the beautiful grounds of the Royal Automobile Club at Woodcote Park, the rally headed for Edinburgh via Tewkesbury and Preston, spending up to 10 hours a day on the road. Dinner on the Royal Yacht Britannia on day three was a world away from where Alastair Caldwell discovered his taste for historic motoring. “My first event was in my wife’s Mercedes 280SL, not the perfect rally car,” he says, “but it was good on the rough surfaces with its long suspension travel and big wheels. I didn’t want to do the big team thing, with crazy bills from garages and mechanics, and I’ve always loved doing lots of jobs at the same time. At McLaren, in 1974, we ran two separate Grand Prix teams, we built Can-Am cars, Indycars, a F5000 car, an F2 car and we won the world championship, the F5000 championship, the Can-Am championship and the Indy 500. And no bullshit, we had 34 employees in total. Just unbelievable. This was what we McLaren ‘old boys’ like to call ‘BR’, or Before Ron. It’s just our little wind-up,” he says. “These days they have about 34 people looking at computers in the back of the garage – and they say they’re trying to cut costs.”

From Edinburgh the 1000 Mile Trial returned to Woodcote Park via Slaley, Leeds and Towcester. From the sidelines it was tempting to reflect that this is a rich man’s hobby, an elite activity for those with money and time. Tomas de Vargas Machuca disagrees.

“HERO is not for the rich and famous. That is why we have put the classic car hire programme in place,” he says, “so that passionate enthusiasts who don’t have a suitable car can simply arrive and drive, whether it be a Cortina GT or a Porsche 911. I want as many people as possible to enjoy the experience, to share what we do.”

Mr Caldwell, meanwhile, considers the matter in customary practical and pragmatic fashion, having come up the hard way from his first job as a cleaner at the old McLaren factory in Colnbrook.

“The good cars, the best cars, are getting expensive, yes,” he says, “but you can get an Austin A40 or A35, and off you go. It’s not what you’ve got, it’s the way you do it. My 280SL Merc was not a rally car but we did well, made it competitive, and I did the Carrera Panamericana in an Austin A35, finished 32nd out of 100 cars and beat a New York lawyer in his Porsche 356. He asked me how much I’d spent and I told him it was less than he spent on his team jackets. It can be done.”

By day four, despite some heavy rain in Scotland, Caldwell and Rings had hauled themselves up into third place, closing in on second. Problems with the trip meter prevented any further progress but they won both their class and the team prize.

“It was a great event, good fun and well run, and a very interesting route through some wonderful landscapes, with some tricky tests as well as lovely lunches and dinners along the way,” Caldwell says. “We performed a little under par, made two schoolboy errors that cost us a minute each and the trip meter went wrong, which was a surprise because it was the same one we used to win the Paris-Madrid rally. But hey, we won our class and had some fun.”

Back at home Caldwell will be preparing for his next challenge while keeping an eye on the Formula 1 team that made his name. In those days McLaren was at war on the race track with Scuderia Ferrari, Caldwell in the thick of the action. Now he is in one of the red team’s cars on historic rallies. Times change.

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