Marathon multiplicity

Rallying, so goes the story which we have occasionally retold, began to evolve when enthusiasts of the motor car sought more from its sporting potential than just getting from one place to another in the least possible time. Many felt that their competitive appetites would not be satisfied without a strong lacing of adventure. For them, circuit racing was far too repetitive, even to the point of monotony. They wanted constantly changing surroundings and opponents in addition to their fellow drivers, such as the elements and whatever natural obstacles they encountered.

The quest for such contests led to routes which were sometimes in civilised parts of the world, sometimes not. Snow-covered alpine roads, desert crossings, frozen lakes, boulder beds, muddy tracks, dense jungles, rocky escarpments and open, tropical savannah have all figured in rallies from time to time. In Sweden, one event even sent its competitors underground into the galleries of an iron ore mine, giving them a three-dimensional drawing of the tunnels as a route card.

Alongside the progress of what has become modern rallying came a desire for longer, tougher, more demanding competitions, even spanning several continents. Town-to-town races had been common, and there was even the Thousand Mile Trial in Britain during 1900, but in 1907 the forerunner of long distance events took place when a race for motor cars was held from Peking to Paris, won by Prince Scipione Borghese and Luigi Barzini in a 40hp ltala specially constructed for the prince by the Italian firm of that name.
The car was looked after by the prince’s own mechanic, Ettore Guizzardi who was described by Barzini’s son in his foreword to his father’s account of the race as ” . . . the moustachioed and silent mechanical wizard who could take the whole automobile apart and put it together again in a matter of hours anywhere, in the Gobi Desert or the Ural mountains . . . ” The miracles of roadside servicing are by no means new.

It was inevitable that at sometime or another a competition would be devised which would be even longer than the Peking to Paris race, and what better way to achieve this than to go from one side of the globe to the other? In 1968, sponsored by the Daily Express and the Sydney Daily Telegraph, the London-Sydney Marathon took place, starting at Crystal Palace just a few days after the RAC Rally of that year.

The route went via Europe and Asia to Bombay, from which the entourage embarked on the SS Chusan for Freemantle. Car regulations were minimal, and there were more hybrids than thoroughbreds. Even the winning Hillman Hunter had an Aston Martin rear axle, not to mention Girling brakes at the front and Lockheed at the rear or was it the other way around? It was also strange to see a Rolls-Royce with an exhaust stack rising from the top of a wing, alongside the windscreen pillar.

Most people were enthusiastic about the adventure that such an event would provide, but some were more cautious in their appraisal. It had a marked effect on the quality of entries for the RAC Rally, and there were fears that other regular rallies would suffer due to budgets being drained by the costly participation in the Marathon.

It was said at the time that this would be a one-off affair, not to be repeated, but it sparked off what turned out to be a rash of long-distance events and works teams were not slow in demanding that such competitions should not be authorised unless full details were announced at least two years in advance, allowing them time to make preparations and to allocate budgets.

When the World Cup football championship took place in Mexico, a rally was devised in conjunction with the series, and this ran from London to Mexico via South America and a sea crossing from Lisbon to Rio di Janeiro. Ford cashed in on its victory with an Escort, subsequently selling great numbers of a model called the Escort Mexico.

When the next World Cup took place in Munich, another World Cup Rally was held, this time from London to Munich via the Sahara. But although the roundabout route was certainly long, London-Munich doesn’t sound all that far, and it lacked the magic of something which went from one side of the world to the other.

So it was that, in 1977, there was a second rally from London to Sydney, starting at Covent Garden (the old one) and finishing at the striking Sydney Opera House, this time with the backing of Singapore Airlines. It was about this time that Wylton Dickson, an Australian who lives in London and the man behind the World Cup and Singapore Airlines events, made it known that he was well on the way to organising a re-run of the Peking to Paris race, this time as a rally and in the opposite direction. It was planned for 1982, the 75th anniversary of the original event.

The French didn’t seem to like this idea one bit and Dickson, although well advanced with geographical, financial and diplomatic arrangements, was thwarted at every turn by FISA. National clubs along the way had initially agreed to support the event and to provide local organising manpower and knowledge, but they had to back down when FISA refused to sanction the event. What an absurdity that, when all other planning arrangements were close to completion, a sporting event is stifled by a so-called sporting authority. We have not heard one valid reason for this denial. Could it have been simply the result of indignation at the thought of an event finishing in Paris being the brainchild of an Australian, and one living in London at that?

However, although Dickson was denied the chance of seeing his idea through to fruition, the French latched on to it and some years later it was announced that an organistion set up in France was going to run the event in 1991, with FISA’s blessing and support. It did not take place, reportedly due to last year’s events in the USSR, but a recent announcement proclaims that another attempt will be made in 1992.

Another event destined for failure to achieve its original goal was the Amerathon, an event intended to take in the two continents of North and South America. Organisers Brian Chuchua, he of Baja Jeep-driving fame, and the late Derek Gates, formerly executive manager of the Safari Rally, did get the event off the ground, but in drastically shortened form as a result of diplomatic problems, particularly concerning some sensitive South American border crossings.

Meanwhile, the French had jumped on the marathon bandwagon. The Citroën company was already highly experienced in organising successful expeditions for young drivers (not sporting contests, so it didn’t need FISA) across former French territories in North and West Africa and it was not long before a commercial organisation (as distinct from Citroën’s non-profit-making ventures) was set up to run long distance rallies in the region.

Attempts to run a rally all the way around the Mediterranean failed, but Thierry Sabine got his Paris-Dakar event off the ground and it has been running for some years, the organising company now headed by his father Gilbert after Sabine himself was killed in an air crash during the event some years ago.

Initially, the event traversed the Sahara after a sea crossing to North-West Africa, but after political problems it moved to the East and began its African sections in Libya still finishing at Dakar, of course.

As we write, the 1991/92 version of the event is under way, but this time with a considerable extension to its route. Rather than have it finish at Dakar, the organisers have planned to send it all the way down to Cape Town, via the western side of the African continent.

Traditional rallies have traditional routes, but Paris-Dakar is run for profit and it might be that its route was becoming too repetitive. Eggs kept in one basket can sometimes crack, and the commercial interests within TSO (Thierry Sabine Organisation) may have felt that diversification was necessary. On the other hand, the winds of political change blowing gently in South Africa have led many people to the idea that it is now acceptable, possibly profitable and certainly fashionable to be seen to be supportive of those winds.

However, lest anyone should get the notion that a way has now been made open for outsiders to “take motorsport into South Africa”, to quote one comment we have heard, let’s set the record straight that motorsport has been there for many years, and eminently successful it has been, too. We can only speak of rallies, which are tough, competitive and well organised, but the 1992 calendar of events of the AA of RSA is a hefty, 68-page booklet, packed with well-run events of all categories.

By the time this issue of MOTOR SPORT appears, it will be over, but as this is written it remains to be seen whether the event will have used its planned route, bypassing Zaire by sea and continuing via Angola, Namibia and Botswana to the final leg down the West Coast of Cape Province, from Namakwaland to Cape Town itself. There is still trouble in Angola, and land mines can still be encountered on some road verges. Indeed, about a week after the event started four unfortunate British tourists were shot dead in the country. There is, however, a contingency plan to extend the boat journey so as to by-pass both Zaire and Angola, embarking at Pointe Noire (Congo) and disembarking somewhere in Namibia.

A special stage intended to be held in a sandy area near the Cape Province west coast has already been shelved, which means that nearly all of the tail end of the event will be on good tarmac, and this is a point which has received much criticism, even in France.

As the rally passed through Gabon, the Mitsubishi of Auriol was leading, despite having been rolled, followed by team-mates Weber and Shinozuka. Waldegärd and Vatanen followed in their Citroëns, and all five of them were well separated.

Whether this event will be held in this form one year from now is a matter not yet decided, but it is a complete misconception of ideologists that sport can break down diplomatic boundaries. What happens in the long run will depend more on politicians and the warring state of rival factions than on anything else.

Meanwhile, there is not only Paris to Peking, or Beijing as most people now call it, to think of, but a second event which plans a journey to Cape Town. This time, it will be from London and will accept only pre-1971 classic cars, unlike the French-run event which takes cars, motorcycles and trucks, the latter only taking part to support car and motor cycle contestants because non-competing service vehicles are forbidden. The London to Cape Town event is planned for November this year and it has been called the Third World Cup Rally, although its destination has no connection with World Cup football.

An announcement last year, following diplomatic visits by Sir David Steel and event organiser Philip Young to South Africa, Namibia, Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria and Tunisia, stated that this was the first time in nearly 40 years that such a route could be considered feasible. We recall many such individual and group journeys accomplished successfully during that period, including overland truck expeditions, a homecoming journey by a lone motor cyclist and even a race from Cape Town to Southampton. Whilst the SS Windsor Castle sailed off the West Coast of Africa, Eric Jackson and Ken Chambers drove their Ford Corsair northwards through Africa and Europe in an attempt to beat the ship to Southampton, only resting properly during the two short sea crossings.

After all manner of tribulations, including the impounding of their service aircraft at Kisangani, implied threats of imprisonment and execution to its crew, and the need to patch inner tubes and refit tyres within the confines of the Corsair as it sped along, they won the race and were there at the quayside to greet the ship’s company and passengers when it docked at Southampton. And that was little over 20 years ago.

Yet another long distance event for classic cars is on the cards for the spring of 1993, to Australia again. When entries closed on June 1 1991 for the 1993 London-Sydney Marathon, 25 years after the first and 16 after the second, no less than 191 applications had been received for the 80 available places.

But here is another event whose organisers may have been using sport-tinted spectacles to obscure the darker hues of possible political strife. The route is intended to pass through both Yugoslavia and the territories of the former Soviet Union, and we all know what has happened, and is still sadly happening, in those troubled regions. Furthermore, two long sea crossings were planned to be accomplished, courtesy of the Russians, in a massive Antonov 124 transport aircraft, but whether that will still be available when the time comes remains to be seen.

Taking the view that sporting connections can open all frontiers is akin to sticking your head in the sand.

In an ideal world this might not be the case, but the world is far from ideal and it is downright immoral to consider sending well-heeled rally competitors through regions which are torn apart by riot and uproar, death and destruction, starvation and sickness,

We are not suggesting that any organiser would be foolish enough to persist in plans to run an event through war-torn regions, but there have been cases in which poverty-stricken peasants, scratching for every morsel of food, have watched whilst rally people have devoured the equivalent of banquets, leaving behind more than the local people could hope to gather in years of toil.

Areas uncluttered by the trappings of civilisation are generally ideal for rally routes but, whether there is civil strife or not, care should always be taken not to offend or disrupt the lives of the people of those regions. I once threw a couple of bananas to two monkeys alongside a bush track. Immediately, not only did half a dozen more monkeys appear but a bunch of children, each eager for the same handout. I felt sick, sad and thoroughly disillusioned. Not for their plight, for that was their environment, but because of our intruding presence and thoughtlessness.

Whenever long distance events are planned, spanning a number of border crossings and passing through what are described as the ‘best areas for rallying, let it be remembered that there are always unknown factors and that nothing can be planned with complete certainty. No one may be about to provoke a food riot in Kielder, initiate an independence struggle in Wales or begin civil disruption in the Isle of Man.

Or are they? When other countries and other continents are concerned, the permutations assume Littlewoods proportions.

When we go rallying across borders, we do so by grace, not by right. GP