Rally review, February 1993

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The long and winding raid

When the Daily Express and the Sydney Daily Telegraph got together to back the London-Sydney Marathon in 1968, few people, if any. could have imagined the extent to which this style of long-distance competition would proliferate in the coming years. At the time, some people welcomed the possibility of adventure held by an overland drive to the other side of the world and embarked upon it with boundless enthusiasm, but others thought only of the harm that such an event would do to the regular, annual rallies of the world by diverting the attentions and bounties of sponsors and causing the budgets of works teams to be so depleted that little was left for competition elsewhere.

Certainly the RAC Rally of 1968. immediately after which the London-Sydney event began, lost many entries which it would undoubtedly otherwise have had, but perhaps a single marathon would have no permanent harmful effects on the world’s established rallies. However, it did nor remain a single event, for others followed; so many. in fact. that finding new routes for them has now become a problem. Trail-blazing is one thing, but following the tyre marks of others does not have the same attraction.

Wylton Dickson had the idea of running a long distance rally in conjunction with the World Cup football championship, and what emerged was the World Cup Rally of 1970 which ran from London to Mexico via several thousand miles in Europe. an Atlantic crossing from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro and a huge loop through South America. This was the event which prompted Ford to put its winning car into production and name it the Ford Escort Mexico, and that was a success story in itself.

In later years, Dickson, an Australian writer and publicist resident in London. organised a second World Cup Rally from London to Munich via North Africa, and another London-Sydney Rally, backed by Singapore Airlines.

By this time, marathon rallies, or ‘raids’ as the French so quaintly call them, had become fashionable A French outfit made an unsuccessful attempt to run a rally all the way around the Mediterranean, but soon afterwards a Paris to Dakar event was established. its trans-Sahara route becoming an annual affair catering for cars, trucks and motor cycles. Another long distance competition, Egypt’s Pharaohs Rally. even accepted entries from pilots of microlight aircraft as well as drivers of land vehicles.

A little more than a year ago. France’s Thierry Sabine Organisation extended its Paris-Dakar Rally all the way to Cape Town, but it was hardly a success. It ran through a few trouble spots on its way southwards and, after it arrived in South Africa. it merely went straight down a tarmac road all the way from the Namibia border to Cape Town. It seemed that the organisers blamed the South Africans for the absence of any competitive sections in their country, but this could hardly have been the case because South Africa has many highly experienced organisers and competitors and an abundance of ideal roads. Indeed, excellent rallies have been held there for many, many years, and still are.

The organisers also proclaimed beforehand that the event would mark the introduction to South Africa of true international rallying but this, too, was wrong. The major rallies of the country have been attracting professional entries from far afield for many years, from other parts of Africa, Europe, the USA, Canada and elsewhere. There was even that memorable occasion, some 25 years ago, when Eric Jackson and Ken Chambers drove a Ford Corsair from Cape Town to Southampton in a race against the SS Windsor Castle, and won.

There was an attempt to run a marathon rally for historic cars in 1992 from London to Cape Town, but this did not take place and we understand that organiser Philip Young is now embarking on something else. Nick Brittan, organiser of a planned London to Sydney rally for historic cars in 1993, has said that so much support has been received that he is already preparing to repeat the event in 1994, along a different route.

In the ’70s, even before Dickson and his team ran the Singapore Airlines Rally to Sydney, the Australian was already working on a repeat of the 1907 Peking to Paris race, to be held in 1982 to mark the 75th anniversary of Prince Borgese’s success. He spent several years on operational and diplomatic negotiations and could well have succeeded were it not for a block put on the venture by those who were then in power at the FISA.

That an event starting at Paris should be organised from London, and by an Australian at that, obviously found no favour in Place de la Concorde. But the idea was taken over, and in 1992 a French organisation, after several attempts, ran such an event, starting in Paris and finishing in Beijing.

So what began 25 years ago as a one-off venture, a rally longer than any other and to which the normal rules of vehicle ratification did not apply, has resulted in a whole string of repeats of one kind or another. I suppose it is a natural progression that things have to become bigger, longer and better than their fore-runners, but there comes a time when saturation point is reached and no more superlatives are available. A long distance marathon rally now and again is no bad thing, but too many will result in overstretched budgets, loss of appeal, depleted entry lists and an even greater scarcity of sponsors than there is now.

The year of the bulb

Regulations for the Monte Carlo Rally of 1966 gave such a distinct scoring advantage to production cars that many teams, after careful consideration, chose to enter their cars in that category rather than face the handicap imposed on modified cars. The drawback was that production cars were allowed only two additional, front-facing lamps, and as much light as possible was important even in those days.

The BMC team was among those which opted for the standard class, for its Mini-Cooper had shown its mettle by winning in 1965 and was potent enough to win again, even in standard form. But something had to be done to provide the maximum amount of illumination from the two headlights and the two ancillary lamps.

They hit on the idea of fitting the headlights with just single, high-powered, main-beam bulbs, and rewiring the circuitry so that the dipswitch simply turned off the headlights, leaving the ancillary lights on to provide dipped beams.

It was an efficient system which worked very well, but when the scutineers got to work on Timo Mäkinen’s car after he and Paul Easter had won they went through it in minute detail and eventually discovered the change to the dipping system and the use of non-standard headlamp bulbs. Triumphantly, they reported their find to the organisers, after which Mäkinen was disqualified.

When the notice was placed on the board at Rally HQ a huge rumpus began. The organisers’ front desk was mobbed and very nearly overturned and the assembled pressmen and other competitors, many of whom were British, demanded justice.

But the disqualification remained and the declared winners were Pauli Toivonen and Ensio Mikander in a works Citroen DS. Toivonen was not particularly happy at taking victory from his compatriot in this way, but Citroen was delighted. Someone produced photographs showing that Citroen had been using white front lights rather than the yellow ones compulsory for French-registered cars, and suggested that Toivonen should also be disqualified for using non-standard headlamp bulbs, but it was to no avail. Mäkinen was out and Toivonen collected the winner’s spoils.

It had been said that Mäkinen’s times over the special stages were impossible for a standard Mini-Cooper, that the organisers felt sure some kind of cheating had taken place and that the bulb was just something they latched on to because they couldn’t find anything else wrong.

Just to prove the potency of a standard car, the BMC men collected a new Mini-Cooper from the showroom of the Monaco distributor, fitted it with rally wheels and tyres and had Mäkinen drive it up to Moulinet. When various observers were gathered with watches, both there and at La BoIlene Vesubie, Mäkinen drove over the Col de Turini. Amazingly, his time was fractionally less than that which he had recorded during the rally itself.

Having demonstrated their point most effectively, the BMC people did nothing more, but later, after the matter had been written about and screened all over the world, they were convinced that they had achieved more publicity for the Mini by being disqualified than they would have by being declared winners. Mention 1966 to anyone who was there and you will probably get the response. “Oh yes: the year of the bulb!”

Flights of fancy

When watching a film made of a Catalina’s journey from Egypt to Mozambique, landing on various lakes and rivers on the way, I was reminded of the time BMC decided to charter an aircraft to fly its three competing cars, spares, tyres, drivers and mechanics from London to Nairobi, for what was then the East African Safari Rally.

The year was 1968, the cars were Austin 1800s and the aircraft was a Bristol Brittania, a four-engined turbo-prop of British United Airways (which later merged with Caledonian to become British Caledonian).

I was fortunate enough to be on that flight, occupying one of the few seats which had been fitted here and there, mostly at the front, in spaces not occupied by the cargo, although you may not agree with the word fortunate when I say that each one-way journey took 17 hours’ flying time, extended on both outward and return legs by some two hours for refuelling at Benina Airport in Benghazi.

The drivers on board were Timo Mäkinen, Rauno Aaltonen and Tony Fall. and when you consider that we were also accompanied by that master of both rally engineering and fun, Duggie Watts, you can imagine how the boredom of such a long flight was enlivened, especially as it had its normal complement of cabin crew!

Alas, it was a disastrous trip for BMC, for all three 1800s retired, but only two were taken back to the UK. One was left to be refettled by Benbros Motors of Nairobi, then the BMC importer in Kenya, its place in the Britannia being taken by the Triumph 2000 of Kim Mandeville and Stuart Allison which came home third of the seven finishers (from 97 starters). After all, BMC, which by then had absorbed Standard-Triumph, needed to salvage some kind of publicity from the otherwise abortive trip.

The Benghazi fuel stop on the return journey was brightened on two counts. Firstly, Tony Fall took out on to the near-deserted apron a fly-by-wire model aircraft which he’d bought as a gift, gave it a trial night flight and promptly crashed it! Secondly, the driver of the latrine-suction truck sent out to empty the aircraft toilet neglected to ensure that the pipe was properly connected before starting his pump. You can imagine what happened. His sparkling white robe changed colour very quickly indeed when he was treated to an unexpected and highly nauseating shower, all under the gaze of the entire BMC party out there to watch Fall’s model flying ability.

Flying Fulvia

On a later trip to the Safari, I had the privilege of flying from Rome to Nairobi in the front right seat of a Lancia Fulvia, no less. I left London on one of those wonderful, British-built VC10 aircraft (still in RAF service) of what was then East African Airways. Even though part of the passenger cabin had been cleared of seats and bulkheaded as a bay for large cargo, the flight was far from full and I looked forward to some unencumbered sleep as soon as we had left Rome, our en route stopping point.

However, many more passengers got on at Rome, but the prospect of losing the vacancy of my two neighbouring seats was tempered by the sight of a works Fulvia being hoisted into the cargo ‘compartment’. As I watched the loading operation, I spotted a familiar face coming up the steps. It was that of Gino Gotta, then Lancia’s chief mechanic, who was tragically killed some years later when he was a passenger in a car struck broadside by a lorry in the middle of Turin.

When Gino appeared in the cabin, I waved and he joined me in the row of three seats which previously only I had occupied. There were no advance seat allocations in those days and, fortunately, no one else came to take up the empty seat between us.

Gino told me that he was accompanying the works Fulvia so that he could clear it through customs at Nairobi and, as we took off, an idea occurred to me. I suggested to him that perhaps he would like to stretch out to sleep across the three seats. He looked puzzled, noting that there were very few other empty seats in the aircraft, but when I explained that I would trade my seat for the key of the Fulvia he beamed with understanding and readily agreed.

As soon as the seat-belt sign was turned off, I went for’ard, grabbed a blanket and pillow, explained the situation to the discerning purser and went into the cargo compartment. Within a very short time, I was asleep on the reclined seat (remember them?) of the Fulvia, to be awoken half an hour before landing by a coffee-bearing stewardess.. It was one of the most pleasant flights I have ever undertaken. GP

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