A surprisingly large crowd at the non-Championship Brands Hatch Rallycross, on Monday, January 2nd, bore witness to the fact that the sport, at one time contested by all the major works teams and drivers, is on the verge of emerging once again as a major off-road attraction.
Born in the 1960s as a means of padding out Saturday afternoon television sports programmes, Rallycross progressed rapidly to the stage where Leyland and Ford were entering anything up to four top rally drivers apiece at each event in such diverse machinery as the famous four-wheel-drive Capris and one-off Austin 1300s.
In the early ’70s, however, television began to look elsewhere for new attractions and the works teams lost interest in a sport which had lost its public appeal.
Since then, Rallycross has fought a hard, often fruitless battle to attract both decent entries and spectators. The main problems working against it have been the lack of proper promotion, and the fact that most of the events were held in the winter months when the clogging mud and bitter cold made too many events a frustrating bore.
It was a different story on the Continent where fully-sponsored European and National Championships, run during the dry summer months, not only attracted the television companies, but also the kind of crowds which would do justice to some British International race meetings.
Over the past couple of years several British drivers have found it more lucrative to spend long weekends across the Channel contesting one or two events in three days than to stay at home and race for comparatively small prize money. The one thing against them actually showing in any championship results was the fact that the British-style lightweight Minis were outlawed in Europe, and the heavy saloons were easily outclassed by the fast but expensive Porsches and Lancia Stratos.
For 1978 the rules have been changed, though, and with saloons competing in a separate class for the same points as the GTs and sport cars, the cheaper Escorts, Minis, Peugeots, VW Golfs, and Volvos will be the way to go for most people.
Rallycross is also sorting itself out on the home scene. This year more events than ever are being held during the drier months, and at new tracks spread evenly over the country. Perhaps more important, though, at least one major manufacturer, Ford, will be using the sport to develop a new generation of FWD cars, starting with the Fiesta.
Already a Fiesta with a 1,600-c.c. pushrod engine fitted to a four-speed Hewland gearbox has proved very reliable in John Taylor’s hands during testing at Brands Hatch, but there are still problems to be overcome in transmitting the full power of a BDA through the FWD transmission.
The car won’t be seen until later in the year, along with a similar machine being built with Boreham assistance for a major privateer, but the project should he worth waiting for.
The RAC Rallycross Championship, won last year by the Mk. 2 Escort of Trevor Hopkins, is still without a series sponsor, leaving the Castrol-backed BTRDA Championship to carry just as much prestige with all its attendant publicity.
Last year’s BTRDA title went to one of the sport’s new generation a competitive drivers, young Trevor Reeves, who campaigned a lightweight Mini in Britain, and a heavier version abroad.
In the wet conditions which beset the vast majority of Rallycross events, the Mini, especially in lightweight form, still rules supreme, as the West Country driver, Gordon Rogers, proved at the Lydden Hill Internatibnal last November, when he took his European-spec Mini Clubman to a surprise victory against the likes of Sweden’s Stig Blomqvist in a turbo-charged Saab 96, and the strong Bose HiFi Porsche team.
At the comparatively dry Bank Holiday meeting at Brands Hatch, however, the Mini-brigade were given notice of the battle to come in the summer when botha Porsche and an Escort finished above Reeves’ machine.
Brands Hatch is one of the faster Rallycross circuits, the track leaving the main Brabham straight just after the exit from the pits and going down across the grass to join the back straight at Graham Hill bend. Then it is all tarmac until the exit from Suttees where the track again takes to the grass below the Clearways hump to rejoin Brabham straight just before the pits.
Although it was a non-Championship meeting, most of the regular front-runners were there, including veteran Rod Chapman who had forsaken his regular Escort for one of the ex-Bose HiFi Porsches which was “in transit” for an Irish customer to rally.
During the day Chapman met with several problems including having the rear anti-roll bar come adrift and a slipping clutch. It Was all rectified for the Final, however, and once the power of the German machine had seen it sprint into the lead there was no way Chapman could be headed to the flag.
Second overall came World Hot Rod Champion and former rally driver, Barry Lee. In fact he was racing two Escorts at the meeting, the first being his regular Rallycross Machine with a BDA engine, and the second his new Hot Rod which made its debut at Wimbledon only two days beforehand. The 1,700-c.c. pushrod device was there as part of a Hot Rod v. Rallycross team challenge, an attraction which no doubt did much to swell the crowd to a number way above what one would reasonably expect for a winter club meeting.
The colourful Lee proved to be the star of the meeting for his Rallycross car recorded the fastest time in each of the three heats. It was interesting to compare the Hot Rod drivers, whose cars were very well presented, and their Rallycross rivals, for in most cases the under-powered but more experienced stadium men more than held their own on strange ground.
Never far away from Lee throughout the day was ‘I’revor Reeves in his Dove Group Mini. Trevor, managed by his enthusiastic father, Maurice, recently caused something of a sensation at Wimbledon Stadium where he beat the IIot Rods on borne ground by winning every race he started. And he certainly gave Lee a run for his Money at Brands Hatch where the very fast 1,500-c.c. Mini proved very much at home on the tricky grass sections.
Trevor Hopkins finished fourth overall in his Escort, followed by the Minis of Barry Hathaway, Louis Davidson and Bruce Barnber.
The terrain took its toll of the Hot Rods, who lost the team event more because of retirements than anything else..—D.P.S.