Rally Review, January 1966

R.A.C Rally of Great Britain

The marvellous thing about rallying is that, unlike racing, the weather very seldom is allowed to interfere with the running of the event and both drivers and organisers have been known to welcome bad weather with open arms. While it would be true to say that no rally driver positively enjoys driving fast—or slowly for that matter—through fog or falling snow, or over snow and ice when he is not allowed to use studded tyres, it is certainly true that such conditions and handicaps act as great levellers and put the slower cars on a better footing with respect to the quick ones. Such was the situation on this year’s R.A.C. Rally where ice, snow and even fog transformed the event from an autumn rally of the forests into a true winter rally not unlike those held in Scandinavia.

It was no surprise, therefore, to find that Swedish and Finnish drivers almost completely dominated the event with only a handful of British drivers managing to get anywhere near them. Scandinavian dominance of the R.A.C. Rally has been going on ever since Erik Carlsson first won the event for Saab in 1960 and since then, when the rally has been decided purely on special stages on loose surfaced forestry roads, no Briton has succeeded in ousting them from first place. The British drivers have not taken this lightly and already last year there were signs that they were mastering the techniques of “banging about in the woods” and were about to become a serious threat to their masters in the art of driving on bad surfaces.

Of the British drivers on the rally last year, first Paddy Hopkirk showed that you don’t need to come from Scandinavia to lead the rally in a Mini Cooper S and his battle with Rauno Aaltonen in a similar car provided most of the interest in the first half of the 1964 event, until they both retired on the same stage : Hopkirk crashed and Aaltonen broke his drive pinion. Another British driver, Vic Ellord, then took over and though Tom Trana’s Volvo had opened out a considerable lead by this time, Elford in a Cortina GT had a battle royal with Timo Makinen in a Healey 3000 for second place with the honours eventually going to the Finn but not by much. The writing was thus on the wall and was to the effect that in the normal conditions experienced on the R.A.C. Rally, there were several British drivers who were capable of giving the Swedes and Finns a run for their money.

Thus it was that most people secretly hoped for a 100 per cent. British victory this year with an English driver coming home first in an English car. As events turned out they had to be content with a British car—Cooper S—and a British co-driver— Tony Ambrose—and try to accept with resignation that the driver was a Finn—Rauno Aaltonen. Admittedly he did his best to preserve the British image by taking (and passing) a British driving test some days after the rally, but this was no consolation to the British drivers for the best they could manage on this year’s event was fifth place overall which honour fell to Roy Fidler driving a factory entered Group II Triumph 2000.

With conditions as they were, it was not surprising that the Scandinavians should fare better than the other drivers but, even then, this need not have been so. Vic Ellord who was this year driving a Lotus Cortina for the Ford factory team was seriously delayed quite early in the rally by a rear axle shaft failure which caused him to have a penalty some twenty minutes greater than that of the leaders. For over 1,000 miles after getting it repaired by the Ford service crews he chased the lead, and his times over the special stages were often the fastest of the rally, but when as little as one minute can make the difference between four places at the head of the field, it was an impossible barrier and his rally ended when he left the road on one of the Lake District stages, still attempting to catch the leaders. Paddy Hopkirk fared rather better but he admitted quite frankly that he didn’t object to travelling quickly over frozen and snowy roads when his car was fitted with studded tyres but, since these were not allowed on the R.A.C. Rally, he considered that the whole thing became far too dangerous. Nevertheless, he returned some very fast times with his Cooper S but suffered delays with punctures and minor off the-road excursions. Latest British discovery is a young Yorkshireman by the name of Tony Fall and after he did so well on the Coupe des Alpes with his own car and drove carefully on the Munich-Vienna-Budapest with one of their cars, they lent him another Cooper S for the R.A.C. Rally and he justified their trust by motoring as quickly as the Finns—quicker on some stages—and finishing fifteenth overall and third in his class. His speed will have to be tempered with some degree of moderation, however, for a couple of times he left the road on a special stage and incurred heavy penalties which deprived him of a place in the first five overall.

For most of the way, then, the Scandinavians had it all their own way with competition raging between Timo Makinen (Austin Healey 3000), Rauno Aaltonen (1275 Cooper S), Simo Lampinen (Triumph 2000), Erik Carlsson (Saab Sport), Harry Kallstrom (1275 Cooper S), Jorma Lusenius (1275 Cooper S), Jerry Larsson (Saab Sport), Lars-Ingvar Ytterbring (1275 Cooper S) and Sten Lundin (VW 1600 TL). Of these drivers, Makinen had the lead for most of the way after Trond Schea, the Norwegian Rally Champion driving a Lotus Cortina, had taken an early lead only to crash on one of the early special stages in Wales.

The weather was the most decisive factor in this rally and, as I shall explain later, was actually directly responsible for the Cooper S of Aaltonen and Ambrose finishing in first place ahead of Makinen and Easter in the Healey 3000. The rally started and finished at Fortes London Airport Hotel which had the dual advantage of being close to the centres of the communication networks without actually requiring the rally cars to drive out through London’s crowded streets. As a result, the rally received a large amount of space on radio and television without having to annoy drivers and other road users in Central London. The weather had been cold and rainy for several days so that it came as no surprise to learn that the first special stage in the sandy depths of Bramshill Forest near Camberley had become waterlogged and was cancelled. This concentrated the first batch of special stages in the West Country where conditions were wet but not impossibly bad. Two further stages near Chepstow were alternately muddy and frosty but it was not until the rally entered Brecon on the way north that there was the first evidence of snow. To start with, it was not all that thick but a hard frost ensured that it stayed on the roads and provided as little grip as possible. In view of my previous remarks, it may be questioned why the R.A.C. did not permit competitors to use studded tyres, as happens on such winter rallies as the Monte Carlo and the Swedish but the answer is very simple. In normal conditions, the use of studded tyres on the forest stages and indeed or the ordinary dry roads of this country would lead to far more damage to the road surfaces than takes place normally and this would cost the R.A.C. an enormous sum of money to put right. Thus, the regulations exclude the use of studded tyres. If the R.A.C. organisers were soothsayers then they might well have been able to predict that all the roads would be covered by snow some months before the rally took place, in which case they could have removed that restriction without being unfair to any competitors, for if it were removed at the eleventh hour, then only the works cars would have the resources to lay on studded tyres at short notice. As it was, all the drivers had to face the conditions as they were with only plain winter tyres. I cannot be absolutely certain what tyres Jerry Larsson was using as he was a private entrant and might have been running on anything from Semperit and B.F. Goodrich to Blue Peter remoulds, but certainly the other cars which finished in the top six were running on the new Dunlop radial weathermaster, the SP 44, which proved to be very successful.

The remainder of the stages in Wales were thin snow or ice on top of hard frozen ground and the going was bad enough to even catch out Makinen, who went off the road for some thirty seconds on the Dovey stage, and Lampinen, who was forced to take to an escape road on the descent at Taliesin rather than go over the edge. When the scene of the rally moved to the Yorkshire moors matters were somewhat different, for here the snow was much deeper and ground clearance plus traction counted for a lot more than power alone. In some cases, it was very difficult to make any headway along the stage at all and it was here that the later numbers had an advantage over those at the head of the field who were bull-dozing the tracks out for them. This situation changed yet again in the same night when the rally was up in Wark Forest near the Scottish border when the track was only covered with a little snow and it became highly polished the more cars that passed along it, so that there was a definite advantage in being first to tackle it. The pattern continued for the rest of the rally. With the daylight stages often becoming wet and soggy where the sun had been up long enough to melt the snow and ice, while once back in the shade, or at nightfall, the stages went back to being icy horrors.

As I said at the beginning of this review, bad conditions tend to bring all cars down to the same level and driving ability then counts above all else. This is not always the ability to go much faster than anyone else but to be able to judge the amount of grip that is available to the finest possible limits and then drive accordingly. If somebody starts going like the wind in fog or in conditions as they were on the R.A.C. he is either a fantastically good driver who is much better than all the others or he is just taking more risks and will eventually have an accident. When Erik Carlsson first started rallying, he obtained a reputation as a hell-for-leather driver and in Sweden they gave him the nickname of “on the roof,” but now he is reckoned to be one of the best drivers when conditions are bad simply because he is capable of assessing the situation and driving fast while not risking an accident. It would seem that Rauno Aaltonen, the new European Rally Champion, has also achieved this ability for his run on the R.A.C. was faultless and his car at the finish—apart from a much needed wash—was as immaculate as when he started the rally. The same could have been said for Carlsson’s Saab and Fidler’s Triumph 2000, but not for Makinen’s Austin Healey 3000 which looked as if the trolls had been taking swipes at it with large hammers. This is not really surprising when you consider how basically unsuitable a sports car developing 210 b.h.p. must be for driving fast over snow-covered forest tracks. It does, however, show that there are distinct differences in temperament and approach between the top rally drivers, and I suppose the dents in the Healey’s bodywork could just be said to be extensions of Makinen’s extrovert personality !

To return to a more direct consideration of the happenings on the rally, it would perhaps be interesting to consider the fortunes of the various works teams. As was widely publicised before the start, both the Lancia and Volvo teams withdrew for various reasons which robbed Tom Trana (who has won the last two rallies with a Volvo) the chance for a hat-trick and also robbed the rally of the interest which would have centred round Rene Trautmann’s attempt to prevent Rauno Aaltonen winning the European Rally Championship. The Frenchman’s non-appearance handed the title to Aaltonen before the rally even started but he made quite sure that no one could claim it was a hollow victory by going on to win the rally outright. The British Motor Corporation had plenty of reasons for feeling happy for not only did they have the title and the rally victory, but they also took second, sixth and seventh places overall and won four classes out of a total of eleven.

Their main opponents from this country, the Ford Motor Company, had just as much luck on their side as B.M.C. but whereas that elusive lady did nothing but smile on B.M.C. she reserved her gifts of bad luck for Ford. With Vic Elford, Bengt Soderstrom and Bo Ljungfeldt driving their cars and with all three of them having had good results with Cortinas in forest events, Fords might well have forgiven themselves for feeling a little confident before the start. Elford we have heard about, but Ljungfeldt broke a pinion in his differential early on while Soderstrom burnt out a piston at OuIton Park, and to complete the sorrowful picture, the last remaining team car, that of David Seigle-Morris, crashed on the same stage that eliminated Elford. Dagenham pride was only salved slightly by having Brian Melia finish eleventh overall in his own Cortina GT.

The Rovers had no mechanical retirements and, out of four cars entered, two came to the finish in 14th and 57th places overall and driven by Roger Clark and Logan Morrison respectively. The other two cars both crashed. Triumphs had an even better record for if we count the John Sprinzel car amongst the works entries (it was loaned to him by the works on behalf of the Daily Express), they had three cars finish from a total of four entered and, of the three that finished, Roy Fidler took fifth overall while Jean-Jacques Thuner contented himself with sixteenth overall after being delayed by punctures caused by using low pressures in an attempt to increase traction. As I mentioned two months ago, I was in the fourth Triumph 2000 with the young Finnish driver, Simo Lampinen, and entirely due to his excellent control of this big car on ice, we had climbed up to lie third overall with about half the stages completed when a blown head gasket forced us to retire. This was a bitter disappointment but was no worse luck than that suffered by many other crews and at least we did not have to spend a cold lonely night in the middle of a special stage, since it had the decency to blow just as we were coming off a stage.

The Rootes’ team were unfortunate enough to lose Peter Harper’s Sunbeam Tiger in the very early stages of the rally when a fan blade punctured the radiator header tank but their Imps, driven by Rosemary Smith, Tiny Lewis and Andrew Cowan, ran very consistently if not alarmingly fast to win the team prize for their factory. Highest placed of these was Tiny Lewis who finished twelfth but it might have been that Andrew Cowan would have finished higher had he not inverted his car on the Dovey stage and had to take considerable time getting it straightened out which cost him heavy road penalties.

With the absence of Volvo, Saabs were the only other major factory to send a works team (if one discounts the East German Wartburg) and they too had some indifferent luck with crankshaft failure retiring Ove Andersson before the rally had really got going while piston failure caused Erik Carlsson to lose a little time and completely retire Ake Andersson and Hans Lund. Pat Moss was the only Saab driver to run entirely without mechanical trouble, a performance which was copied by the VW drivers from Sweden in their new 1600 TLs. They managed to take eighth and ninth places overall as well as winning their class though before the start of the rally it was generally considered that they were too heavy for their power even when compared with the old 1500 S that finished second two years ago.

This was the R.A.C. Rally in 1965 then, with snow and ice paving the way for yet another Scandinavian success though at least this year it was a British car that won. I had almost forgotten that earlier I made a remark about explaining how it was that the weather allowed Aaltonen to win rather than Makinen. It happened that on the second passage through Wales, when Makinen was leading his team mate by several minutes, there was a hill on a special stage which the Healey had great difficulty in climbing and which the Mini Cooper S, through getting a clear run at it, managed first time. What price rear-wheel drive for traction now ?—J. D. F. D.