The military ranges at Mynydd Epynt in Wales offer classic rallying terrain
Many years have passed since an area of open, mountainous moorland to the northwest of Brecon—or Aberhonddu as it is more properly called—echoed to the exhausts of racing motorcycles. Shortly after the Second World War Mynydd Epynt was in regular use as a road circuit on which motorcycle races were frequent crowd-pullers, attracting enthusiasts from all over the country who usually took their own tents and cooking gear to spend the weekend on the mountain.
Motorcycles are no longer raced at Epynt, but for the past several years the narrow ribbons of tarmac have been used as special stages by rally organisers. Unlike other countries, where public roads can often be temporarily closed and used as special stages, British organisers, save those in the Isle of Man, have to rely on private roads and most of those available have surfaces which are anything but tarmac. True that the dirt roads through our State Forests make superb special stages, but often there is a need for the type of competition which only asphalt roads can provide.
It was this need which led to the stirring of motorcycle memories and the realisation that the old circuit roads, forming a network around the treeless moors, could be used as special stages. Mynydd Epynt is part of a vast military area which is used for manoeuvres and artillery practice. But there are times when the ranges are not in use and it was on such off-duty days that the military authorities for the area agreed to allow the use of the roads for special stages. They have been used often by major international events such as the RAC Rally, the former London Rally of illustrious repute and, of course, the Welsh Rally, but they are also in frequent use by smaller events, the most notable of these in recent years being Port Talbot Motor Club’s Tour of Epynt. This began a decade ago as a winter rally taking place on Boxing Day or near it, but this year the event has been moved to the summer months. To take its place, the club moved the date of a former road rally, renamed it the Virgo Galaxy Epynt Rally, ran it by night as well as by day and chose January 2nd so that it became the first rally of any significance to take place in Britain during 1978. To add variety, they used stages both on Epynt itself and in nearby Crychan and Halfway forests.
Epynt is well known to South Wales enthusiasts and when the range roads began to be used as special stages it was not unexpected that spectators flocked to the area. They were largely knowledgeable people who not only appreciated the risks of rallying but also knew that a military firing area is not the best of places to go wandering off across the heath, picking up the occasional strange metal object. It was on the strict understanding that all those connected with any rally, spectators included, would stick to the tarmac roads and their immediate verges that the military gave permission for the use of the ranges.
Of course, increasing popularity led to an increase in spectators, not all of them as sensible as those who went there in the old days, And this has led to a certain reluctance by the military to grant permission for the use of Epynt unless there is a clear understanding that spectators must be controlled, and confined to certain areas. In turn this led organisers, anxious to preserve a good relationship with the Army authorities, to ban spectators from certain parts of the range—not difficult for those who know where to set up barriers.
When the ranges are being used for firing, red flags fly at each gated entrance and uniformed soldiers stand guard to bar access. But at other times local people are allowed to use the roads, for they provide a considerable saving of time and distance in the journey from, say, Llywel at the southern edge of the ranges to Tirabad on the northern edge. This freedom of access has, prompted many a driver, particularly when Epynt was being used very often indeed by rallies, to visit the area and to make pace notes along every combination of stage road that the network provided. Many sets of such notes now exist, and many drivers have so memorised the Oddly-cambered corners, blind brows and tricky twists that they need no written notes at all to drive at very high speeds indeed. But woe betide the newcomer to Epynt who drives it without notes and fails to treat the treacherous roads with a great deal of respect.
The use of special stages on Epynt by international events such as the RAC Rally never really found favour with overseas competitors, for they contended that British drivers used the range roads so often that they knew, even without notes, which blind brows were followed by straights and could be taken flat out, and which were followed by bends which demanded prudence and firm braking. Epynt has an abundance of blind brows, and knowing in advance when to brake and when not to brake really does provide a tremendous advantage.
But in those days use of Epynt was confined largely to the old motorcycle circuit which passed through Dixie’s Corner at its southern end and the tricky, complicated junction known as “Piccadilly” in the north, and the occasional tangent off towards Llywel, Tirabad or Merthyr Cynog. Nowadays, the advance of civilisation has increased the number of tarmac roads on the ranges, and the “new road” leading up towards the Drovers Arms is new no longer, for others have been built and still others in the throes of construction. Alas, these smooth, modern roads, designed to take the heaviest of military traffic, have not the character of the old ones. They may be much faster but they are in no way as testing to the rally driver.
On January 2nd a field of some 90 cars assembled at the Abernant Lake Hotel outside Llanwrtyd prior to the morning cavalcade towards Epynt. Nineteen stages were laid out, the distance divided roughly equally between the range roads and those in the two nearby forests. Organising the stages so that none would overlap, allowing enough time between the first and second passages along one piece of road so that leaders would not catch up with tail-enders, and placing all the controls and road blocks was not easy, but was carried out smoothly nevertheless, radio communications aiding the marshals on the day itself.
Competitors were largely amateur, but British Champion Russell Brookes did go along with a 1,300-c.c. works Ford Escort, partly to put the car to the test and partly to evaluate the efficiency of certain Dunlop tyres on the mixed surfaces—Brookes’ co-driver was Dunlop’s rally manager John Horton.
Competition was pretty close, and there was the usual crop of departures from the road, particularly at that notorious blind brow which immediately precedes some very tricky bends leading into Dixie’s Corner. It was here that Richard Martin-Hurst decisively rolled a works Rover (one of the KL1E-cars) some ten years ago, and on this occasion there were even more spectators to go to the aid of stricken crews and manhandle their cars out of harm’s way.
Outright winners of this event were Frank Pierson from Shropshire, accompanied by Carmarthenshire man Ednyfed Morgan, in a Ford Escort RS1800. They, their fellow competitors and the enthusiastic organisers provided a fine day of sport to open the year —cold, bleak and blustery, but immensely satisfying.—G.P.