From a Stratos Hot Seat

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Some friends thought I was mad, others thought I was about to be scared out of my wits, few would have given me credit for bravery in lieu of stupidity. As I sat there in the navigator’s seat of potentially the fastest rally car in Britain at the start of last month’s ShellSport Tour of Dean Rally, I confess to having felt a certain amount of apprehension. For four years, from the days when, as Assistant Chrysler Competitions Manager, he had rallied an Imp with a great deal of skill and success, Andy Dawson had persistently cajoled me into co-driving him on a British forest stage rally. For four years I’d fobbed him off with, “Oh, I’m doing so-and-so on that date,” my perennial excuse for cowardice. But this time he’d got me by the proverbial short and whatsits, all my excuses had fallen on stony ground and here I was, about to have my first experience of rally co-driving, a baptism of fire in the hot seat of his temporary steed, the Chequered Flag Lancia Stratos.

I’m a bad passenger at the best of times, which gave rise to such vulgar riposte from colleagues of, “Hope you’re wearing brown overalls.” The polythene bags I surreptitiously packed amongst the Ordnance Survey maps in my briefcase were my own secret admission to the fact that they were probably right. . . .

Some 9 hours and 16 fast forest stages later, at the end of this one-day first round of the 1976 RAC National Rally Championship the only relics of my “ordeal” were the broadest smile I’m said to have worn for a long time and mud-spattered overalls, the latter bearing witness to a mechanical misfortune which had cost us a leading place in the rally and forced me into some unaccustomed athleticism. We had finished twenty-fourth out of a maximum 120 starters, demoted from an early lead by a recalcitrant gearbox. My baptism was complete and that mysterious bug which is reputed to manifest itself amongst the rallying fraternity had bitten me hard. There is no known antidote. The background to this ex-works Stratos and the involvement of The Chequered Flag, Graham Warner’s Chiswick-based Lancia dealership and sports car specialist, was described by J.W. in last September’s Motor Sport. Since then the mid-engined car has been dogged by continued ill-luck, with only one finish to its credit, from Tony Pond. Just two weeks before the Dean, Grand Prix driver Tom Pryce wiped the front off Britain’s only Stratos on the Tour of Epynt, necessitating rushed and temporary repairs. Warner hoped that a combination of Dawson’s ability and mechanical sympathy might break the jinx. But poor Andy managed only three loose-surface acclimatisation laps of Bagshot a few days prior to the event before the four-cam V6 boiled. A new competition radiator had to be hurriedly made in two days. At least the Stratos had handled well on its latest works-type long-travel suspension.

Late on the following Saturday afternoon the Stratos passed through scrutineering without incident at the Lex-Wellstead garage in Newport, the scene of the following morning’s start. The rest of the early numbers to be scrutineered with us (we were at number 7) read like a Who’s Who of British rallying, with a couple of Stuart Turner’s Scandinavian proteges thrown in. Ahead of us, all in works or works-helped Escort RSs, were Penti Airikkala, Roger Clark, Ari Vatanen, Tony Fowkes, Billy Coleman and Russell Brookes. Behind in the scedings came Nigel Rockey, Chris Sclater, Will Sparrow, Ronnie McCartney, Colin Malkin, Tony Fall, Paul Faulkner, Robin Eyre-Maunsell and works Leyland driver Tony Pond.

After we had been flagged away from the following morning’s start by the Mayor of Newport my first sample of navigation came as an anti-climax: a 23-mile mainly motorway run to the first Time Control and 46 minutes in which to cover it. This gave us time to check the Pye two-way radio contact with our Granada Estate service car.

So to the first stage, Reddings 1, in the forest off the A4136 Mitcheldean road. Target time 4m 30 sec, based on a 60 m.p.h. average, penalties calculated on a sixtieth of a mark per second taken over that time. We donned helmets, stored in the special wells in the Stratos doors, checked our intercom, essential for communication through the noise from this forest racer and tightened harnesses. The start marshal filled in our green time card with the due start time, I checked his watch to make sure he’d given us the time to the correct minute (mistakes do happen) and then came the countdown … 5,4,3,20 GO! Simultaneously Andy dropped the clutch and I clicked my stop watch. The Stratos hurtled forward, the knobbly Pirellis scattering mud over the marshals. The roar from 230 bhp (20 bhp down on power) built up incessantly through the gears until we sped ever faster in fourth into the first long left-hander through a valley, followed by a flick into a blind right at hardly diminished speed. Neither Andy nor the car flinched and if I did it was for the last time: instant confidence came from the case with which car and driver had beaten the slippery surface and from then on I just sat back and enjoyed the exhilaration.

My only job was to call out the orange ShellSport warning arrows at junctions, ranged in angle and emphasis from “fast” to “dangerous hairpin”, or spot hazard boards warning of perhaps dangerously parked 5-ton road graders, piles of logs or dangerous “yumps”. Whilst Andy played himself into the car there was no sense in egging him on to go faster or, at that point, to slow him down. As I sat there with hands on lap, out of harm’s way, Andy’s arms threw the small wheel from lock to lock, his racing boots danced about the pedals and his right hand ploughed its way up and down through the gearbox’s obstructive synchronising dogs. This wasn’t at all like the “big Imp” the Lounge Bar pundits had told him it would be: no throwing it casually sideways well before the corner, steering it on the throttle, broadsiding right through the tighter bends. This twitchy monster had to be tamed more precisely, constantly corrected to stop it getting too far out of line at high speed. It demanded taking much deeper into a corner before throwing the tail out under power, then huge armfuls of opposite lock to catch it. Dawson was working hard, skilfully holding the Stratos on the fringes of imbalance ready to turn it into the next unknown bend, the rally driver’s secret of being prepared for every hazard. Tight bends were approached at enormous speed, the task of the brakes and tyres on the loose surface helped by that other rally driving trick of flicking the car first one way then the other to scrub off speed, for a final slow-in, fast-out cornering technique. The heat in the cockpit rose, sweat rolled down our faces, the undershield skittered over stones, the suspension thumped, the engine roared and the trees and banks blurred past at up to 115 m.p.h., maximum in fifth. Then suddenly a too yard marker board before the finish board. Click! went my stopwatch. Bang! went Andy on the brakes and we slowed down just in time for the finish control. I checked the marshal’s watch against ,my stopwatch: 5 min. 51 sec. was the agreed elapsed time. “Well done. You’re joint fastest with Russell Brookes,” revealed the Man with the Watch. Not bad for Andy playing himself in on his very first stage in this very specialised Stratos.

Then on to the slightly longer Mailscot 1 stage where Dawson excelled with the fastest time, 3 sec. faster than the next man, Vatanen, and 15 sec. quicker than “King Albert” Clark. Yet Dawson was still not driving at ten-tenths and we muffed two hairpins because the overtight limited slip differential tried to push us up the banks. We were in the lead!

We lost a few seconds in Sallowvallets 1 when the tail came round just too far on a tight left-hander and we slid to a halt at go degrees, our only spin of the rally. On to Serridge 1, well into the Royal Forest of Dean now and we rated our chances on this well-known 5 1/2-mile stage. The engine sounded tremendously healthy and Andy was growing used to the handling. Then catastrophe! Less than a mile into the forest he found himself with a gearbox full of neutrals and that chassis full of power was wheeled off the stage by marshals. The fault was inside the box. There was nothing we could do and we couldn’t reach the service crew on the radio. Stratos luck had struck again. There was only one chance left: I ran back to the beginning of the stage and begged a lift to the next service point. In fact I couldn’t find our crew at either of the next two points, but when I arrived back at the stage in despair, there was our Granada, the crew having had an SOS relayed to them.

By jacking up the Stratos’s rear, removing the bodywork and an access plate from the gearbox, Chequered Flag mechanics Ron Pellat and Paul Batten succeeded in sorting out the displaced selectors. We were mobile again some i hours after we’d stopped and had lost maximum time on this stage. There seemed no way of reaching the halfway halt within our time limit, but we decided to press on. We went hell-for-leather over the remaining four stages, catching up backmarkers on the stages, squeezing past them through ditches and roaring impatiently into controls. The handling deteriorated as a rear strut weakened (we had no spare) and the rear tyres chewed up, but we made the Goodrich Service Station control. We thought we were OTL, yet inexplicably our Time Card was accepted; we didn’t argue and settled down for lunch and the dishonour of 63rd position.

Immediately after the re-start our rear tyres were changed by the service crew and the whole car given a once-over. Reddings was tackled again without trouble but part-way through Mailscot 2 the intercom exploded with, “The steering’s bent.” Fortunately we had a service point right at the end of the stage, where the nearside front upright was found to be bent and cracked. With this replaced in twenty minutes and the four-Cibie-lamp pod fitted for impending darkness we scurried off into Swallowvallets 2. Here the handling proved appalling. The dampers had weakened to blancmange effect and the steering didn’t. We spent most of our time spectacularly sideways, splendid for the huge Dean crowd, dreadful for our times. At the next service we found that we’d practically no steering effect on one wheel! With this rectified we settled ourselves for nursing the car to the finish.

As the by now slightly wallowy Stratos chased after the piercing Cibie beams through the 15th stage we had renewed drama practically no brakes. Those finish marshals will never know how close we came to not stopping at their control! With this cured and fingers crossed we pottered round the last stage, Speech House 3, at 9 1/2 miles the longest in the rally. “Pottered” is relative: we still managed sixth fastest overall. We’d done it! Troubles or not we’d broken the Stratos non-finishing jinx, celebrated with a congratulatory hand-shake before the 30-mile run in to the finish at Newport’s Gateway Hotel.

For me it had been the experience of a lifetime, remarkably non-frightening thanks to a very safe driver and, surprisingly enough, very comfortable, thanks to an excellent seat and the Stratos’s new long-travel suspension. Thanks too to Clerks of the Course Owen James. and Richard Laking for an excellent, compact, smoothly run event free from acrimony; I couldn’t have cut my teeth on a better one. I hope Graham Warner will take renewed heart from our finish. The problems we revealed in the Stratos should all be surmountable, especially if Lancia Competitions increase their co-operation. At the moment it is the only car with the potential to break the Escort domination of British stage rallying and to provide much-needed variety: It would be tragic for the sport if the ill-luck experienced to date caused Warner to withdraw the car. Who won? Roger Clark, who else, followed by the Escorts of Vatanen, Brookes, Fowkes and Coleman. One day … –C.R.

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