Rally review - Inter-City RAC, February 1976

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There was a time when everyone felt that the home of the RAC Rally was in London. The base near Heathrow was popular among overseas visitors and even with British people who liked the idea of coming to London without actually getting snarled up in its traffic. But the rally was becoming so popular that it was in danger of outgrowing its bustling home and when the 1970 rally was over it was obvious that its increasing accommodation and car parking requirements could no longer be met by hotels near the airport. To move such an enormous entourage into London itself (Wellington Barracks was used on an earlier occasion) was unthinkable, so the decision was finally made to move the rally right away from London.

This was nothing really new, for the rally had used start and finish points other than London before. Torquay, Blackpool, Brighton, even Brands Hatch had hosted the rally in the past, whereas in its very early days it used the multi-start system to which the Monte Carlo Rally still clings. But now its demands were greater and what was needed was a moderately-sized town without a traffic problem, with plenty of hotel accommodation within easy reach of one central hotel which could be used as rally headquarters in an area which could contain some 200 competing cars and those of their service crews, the supporting companies and officials.

Eventually the choice was made; it was to be Harrogate, a town which seemed to have all the requirements and even the facility to have the start area indoors. The year 1971 was not the first to see the rally in Harrogate, for it was among the starting points back in the days of concentration runs from a number of start locations. But somehow the rally didn’t seem to fit there in 1971. Perhaps it was simply the effects of the change, that the rally fraternity of the ‘seventies needed at least a year to adjust to the switch from London to the provinces, and that the same would have been felt whatever town had been chosen. The result was predictable; the rally was on the move again.

Harrogate had proved one thing, that it was very useful to have a start/finish location near to an area where forests, which provide the bulk of special stages, are concentrated. This meant that competitors could be taken to the scene of the action quickly without being subjected to long, boring main road runs before encountering any special stages. This is a point appreciated by other organisers—the Rally of the Thousand Lakes is based at Jyvaskyla, not Helsinki, and the Swedish Rally at Karlstad, not Stockholm. Even the comparatively young Press on Regardless Rally learned this lesson very quickly and moved its base from Detroit to the small, up-country town of Marquette. Of course, the rally has to cover a. lot of ground to get around the traditional forest stages in Wales, Yorkshire, The Lake District and Scotland, and not having a long stageless journey soon after the start simply means that it has to be put in at some other time during the event. But a forest concentration fairly close at hand is somewhat comforting and having sampled a start within easy striking distance of the superb special stage network in the forests just inland from Scarborough, the organisers were reluctant to give up that advantage.

Overtures were already being made at that time by another Yorkshire community with facilities equal to, if not better than, those of Harrogate, and it wasn’t long before it was announced that from 1972 the RAC Rally would be based at the City of York.

The rally circus and its multi-national entourage of many tastes, languages and customs took to York like bards to the Gorsedd. On the fact of it it seemed that traffic jams would fray the tempers of those finding themselves held up during a simple journey from hotel to garage, but it wasn’t like that at all. There was hardly any inconvenience, there were hotels to suit all tastes, there was an ideal place in the racecourse for scrutiny/start/finish and the townsfolk seemed eager to do everything possible to make the visitors’ stay as pleasant as it could be. Indeed, the rally people were more than just the tourists to which the city is accustomed, and after four years at York there are many friendships which will survive the test of rime. Garage owners went out of their way to provide whatever facility the visitors wanted, whilst hoteliers just about gave open houses, altering their routines and schedules to meet the irregular requirements of the visitors, I have personal memories of one small hotel, the Ashcroft, which I shall always keep and I have no hesitation in recommending this hostelry to any Motor Sport reader who visits York and prefers a family-run establishment to an anonymous one boasting a string of stars.

During its stay at York the rally underwent several changes, the most significant perhaps being the abandonment of the style which provided a first leg of three days and two nights, a night stop somewhere away from the start and a second leg of a complete day, a night and part of a day. Instead, the rally is now kept under closer central control by returning to the base town not just for one overnight stop but for two. This has meant that competitors no longer have to go for two nights without a clearly-defined and substantial stopover. Many feel that this took away an integral element of the sport of rallying, the need for physical stamina and endurance, but the day was won by those who felt that nothing should be done which would tend to attract criticism of the sport, and that tired rally drivers fighting fatigue on public roads could well form the basis of one such criticism.

In the days of two-nights-without-a-break one could always pick out experienced crews from the others; on road sections you would only see one head and one pair of shoulders in a car as it was driven along. It was possible to pick out in advance from the roadbook the long sections on which it would be practical for one man to sleep and the other to take care of both driving and navigating. Indeed, intelligent rotation of double duties would often mean that a crew would finish a leg of the RAC Rally sufficiently rested and refreshed to carry on for another if needs be. Those days are now gone and no longer is a soft pillow a piece of essential equipment in any RAC Rally car—it was, reckoned (and quite rightly) that if a man’s head was comfortable he would be able to sleep no matter how the rest of his body was shaped.

The year 1976 is going to see another change, for plans have been made to base the rally not at York but at another ancient city, Bath. Already there have been misgivings (as there were before the move to York) concerning traffic jams, hotels and the like, but it seems that all possible snags have already been discussed and arrangements put in hand to scotch them before they materialise. Bath’s administrators, along with members of the city’s .police and even members of Bath Motor Club, were in York last November to see how things were done there and no doubt many of the lessons learned in the Yorkshire city will have progressed to advanced level by the time they are tackled in the West Country.

We mentioned Bath Motor Club because their York counterparts took it upon themselves when the RAC Rally first went to their city to set up a “Help” service for the visitors. This they did superbly well, providing a. free taxi service for competitors between the racecourse and hotels and manning an enquiry desk from which messages could be relayed from anywhere to anywhere and which could be used for such obscure purposes as obtaining the emergency services of a dentist at 3 am.! The Bath club intends to continue the service and we have no doubt that they will do it just as admirably. Where would professional rally organisers be without the unqualified support of countless unpaid enthusiasts?

In 1975, partly perhaps to sound things out in readiness for the move to Bath, the RAC Rally went into the West Country for the first time for some years. Alas the special stages there were none too popular among competitors, those in the Brendon Hills being considered too rough to be in character and those in private estates too “Mickey Mouse”, to use an expression often used by rallying people to describe artificially conceived stages without the swing and rhythm of those well-constructed roads through our state forests. There were exceptions of course, but it’s not going to be an easy task to find close to Bath a concentration of special stages which could replace those of the Yorkshire forests as the basis of a one-day tour. The one which springs easiest to mind is the Forest of Dean which is readily accessible by crossing the Severn Bridge and which has figured in the RAC and other rallies for several years.

It is always a gamble to move the base of a rally, even from a mediocre one to another which promises to be better. But when the move is from a well-established, successful base which has been a pleasant home for the rally for four years, the gamble is an even greater one. However, the RAC Rally is now more than a sporting occasion; it is an international institution which Britain cannot afford to let slip from its pedestal, and for that reason alone we would wager that the Bath-based event will be as eminently successful as its forerunners.

* * *

For the calendar-conscious, the following is a list of qualifying events in the 1976 World Rally Championship. The only one in doubt seems to be the Rally of the Rideau Lakes in Canada. This event was cancelled last year due, it was said, to the lack of a financial backer. This year there may be a shortage of organisers willing and able to tackle the job of running the rally. If it does not take place it Will be a great shame, for it was well run in 1974 and we know that one or two European manufacturers have already included the rally in their programmes. The European Rally Championship will again be based on a whole string of events, numbering 39 this year, each with a co-efficient of importance between 1 and 4.

Monte Carlo Rally January 17-23

Swedish Rally February 19-22

Rally of Portugal March 10-14

Safari Rally April 15-20

Acropolis Rally May 22-28

Morocco Rally June 24-27

Rally of 1000 Lakes August 27-29

Sanrerno Rally October 6-9

Rideau Lakes Rally October 20-23

Tour of Corsica November 6-7

RAC Rally of GB November 27-Dec. 1

* * *

In such times of financial stress, axed budgets and reduced investments we were delighted to hear the combined voices of Stuart Turner and Peter Ashcroft announce publicly at Ford’s annual announcement of future sporting plans early in January that their company could not afford to give up rallying. Closing the Boreham competitions department would save enough money to make an infinitesimal reduction in the price of each car, but it would also bring about an increase in the cost of development and at the same time reduce publicity potential considerably. Ford Escort successes have been many and the publicity generated by them have more than repaid the investment. Furthermore, the two gentlemen concerned made no bones about stressing that the lessons learned in rallying contributed greatly to providing the man in the street with an improved showroom product. It’s an old chestnut, one which is often ridiculed as no more than a doubtful means to justify an unnecessary end, but one which is nevertheless so obviously true that we applaud every company, whether it makes cars, tyres, lubricants, lamps, belts, seats or even just nuts and bolts, which declares it as an inescapable fact.

In 1976 Ford plans to continue entering cars in the major British rallies, including national championship events, and to step up its appearance in World Championship qualifiers. A new event for the team will be the Morocco Rally in June, a rough, demanding event on hot, dusty desert tracks, and they will also return to the scenes of past successes by tackling the Safari, Thousand Lakes and RAC. Full marks to Ford for continuing to recognise the true worth of sporting cornpetition.—G.P.

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