Rally review: RAC International Rally of Great Britain, January 1972

Many more people watched the 1971 RAC Rally of Great Britain than the total number of spectators at every single race meeting held in Britain throughout the year. That is one authoritative estimate of the enormous interest taken in November’s RAC Rally. Another estimate gave the figure as over three million, and that isn’t at all unrealistic when you consider that there were more than seventy special stages and upwards of twenty time controls, each of them thronged with enthusiastic watchers.

The upsurge of interest in this event, indeed in all classes of rallying, began several years ago, and in November the thousands of spectators lining special stages, often deep in forests, in raging blizzards and at three o’clock in the morning, really have to be seen to be believed. It takes a special kind of enthusiasm to endure such conditions to watch a field of rally cars pass by, particularly as each spectator has just one opportunity to see each car on any one stage. There can be no doubt at all that this annual event is the most popular sporting occasion in Britain, overshadowing Wembley, Wimbledon, Lords and even Cardiff Arms Park.

Not only does the RAC Rally generate enthusiasm among spectators, it has also become immensely popular among competitors, and this time there was a starting field of 231 cars. There is something about the swing and the rhythm of the roads constructed by Forestry Commission engineers which lends itself to exciting motoring, and more and more overseas competitors are beginning to find that the style of special stage rallying as practised in Britain provides them with more competitive entertainment than any other kind of event. Its appeal is heightened by the complete ban on practising, for it is one of the conditions laid down by the forest administrators that no cars are allowed into the forests until the rally is about to start. This eliminates the need for lengthy and costly recce trips which all too often take the edge off the pleasure of a continental event.

The RAC Rally is essentially a rally on loose-surfaced roads. It takes place in November because roads are relatively free from tourist traffic, because the hours of darkness are longer and because weather conditions generally help to give it an extra edge of toughness. It isn’t an easy rally in any conditions, for competition is fierce and after five days of almost continuous going, broken by a single night stop, the winners really feel that they have worked hard for their achievement.

Long before the RAC Rally took place the International Rally Championship for Makes had been settled, so there was no real championship significance in this, the last qualifier. Ove Andersson having won four of Europe’s classic rallies during the year (Monte Carlo, Sanremo-Sestriere, Austrian Alpine and Acropolis) Alpine-Renault was already assured of the championship. But this didn’t deter the works teams from coming in strength, for this is one rally which is worth winning on its own account, whether it is part of a series or not.

Professional teams from Britain included three factory Escort RS 1700s, a solitary 1300 Marina from Abingdon whose crew set out only to win their class, and did, and an abundance of semi-professional entries from garages, dealers and the like from all over the country. From Sweden came the most regular contestants in the RAC Rally since it first attracted Scandinavian entries, the Saab team, and they were rewarded by their fifth outright victory since Erik Carlsson first won it for Saab in 1960—the best winning record of any make of car since the rally began. The Opel team from Stockholm didn’t come this time, which was a pity since they performed so remarkably well to win the Manufacturers’ Team Prize in 1970. But one of their drivers borrowed a works car and entered it privately, even bringing his wife as co-driver.

From Finland came a trio of Opel Kadetts in the hands of drivers just as spirited as their Swedish colleagues. There was also a Saab entered by the Finnish factory and supported by the Swedish mechanics, whilst getting first hand knowledge of how rallying is run over here was the executive manager of the Rally of the Thousand Lakes, driving a Peugeot 204 sportingly provided on loan by a private individual.

Greder’s French team of Opels were there with two Asconas and a Manta, one of the former eventually taking the Ladies’ Prize in the hands of Marie-Claude Beaumont and Martine de la Grandrive after two Finnish girls lost their lead when their Kadett broke on the last morning of the rally. The Alpine team didn’t seem to be really interested in the event, mainly because it wasn’t going to serve any useful championship purpose and they wanted to save their budget for another concerted effort at Monte Carlo. But when Andersson asked to borrow a works car and Nicolas did likewise they couldn’t very well ignore it.

The two cars were entered privately, Therier taking Nicolas’ place in one of them, but there was a limited service network provided jointly by the factory and by Renault UK. The Lancia factory sent three cars, hoping for their third win in succession, and there were three works Fiats, two 124 Spyders and one 125S. The Datsun team was back in strength with three works cars and two supported privateers. A team of Wartburgs had come once again from East Germany and there were two Citroën DS 21s from the Z-team in Vienna. There was a single BMW 2002 TI from the Alpina tuning concern in Germany, but there was no interest shown by Porsche whatsoever. However, the Swedish driver Waldegård—whose main ambition it is to win the RAC Rally—brought his works-prepared 911S along privately. It really was a cosmopolitan entry list, particularly when you consider the single drivers who came from such remote places as Uganda (Mehta) and Kenya (Joginder and Drews).

Unlike previous years, when the start has been from hotels around the perimeter of London Airport, rally headquarters was based at Harrogate, a rather conservative town whose population seemed to take quite readily to the high spirits of a large and sudden influx of rally competitors and their supporters. The reason for this move was to bring the rally nearer the forest areas so that there would be no need for long, boring drives before the action began. But the advantage was cancelled at the end when the route went direct front Gloucester to London without a single special stage and then north to Harrogate with but a handful to liven the journey.

No rally competitor will jib at bad weather conditions, but the RAC Rally is essentially a dirt road event and when heavy snowfalls affected the whole of the first leg and even threatened to bring the entire rally to a standstill it was transformed into something quite out if its normal character. Scandinavians are well used to snow rallies, provided they have studded tyres to vope with the very high speeds demanded and provided the stages are ploughed to remove the soft top dressing of fresh snow, leaving the firmer packed snow beneath. Neither of these aids were available on the RAC Rally, and the first part of the rally was turned into a sort of hide-and-seek as the early runners dodged up side turnings and overstayed their time at service points to allow later cars to get ahead of them. Soft snow is the trickiest of all driving surfaces and everyone wanted to have cars in front of them to clear at least some of it away, but these tactics were employed by all and the only result was the late running of nearly all the cars.

In Scotland, conditions became desperate; some stages were cancelled and others were stopped after many cars had started into them and had got stuck in the depths of the forests. Routes were changed, time controls were converted into mere passage points and extra time was given in certain places after competitors were held up by non-competing cars stranded in snowbound roads. The organisation of the rally was not geared to cope with such conditions and it was remarkable that any sort of progress was maintained at all in the north of Scotland. The organisers cannot be blamed for the weather, of course, but it would be a good idea in future to run the event perhaps in late October when there is far less risk of snow. It is impossible to run a proper snow rally in Britain firstly because one can never really rely on its coming, secondly because the Forestry Commission forbids the use of studded tyres on its roads and thirdly because it would be enormously expensive to have ploughs standing by to clear the stages of fresh snow. It is a loose road event, and the only way to ensure that it remains so is to advance its date clear of the danger period.

Nearly all the special stages were in state forests, but there was a half-dozen or so in private estates such as Woburn, Donington Park, Harewood, Castle Howard and Esholt. These were provided in the main for spectator entertainment, but they are really quite artificial compared with a proper forest track and most competitors are rather wary of them. If a spectator wants to see some real action the only place for him is a stage in a forest.

Just as they have since the beginning of the ‘sixties, Scandinavians completely dominated the whole of the RAC Rally. Timo Mäkinen (Escort) took over the lead from about lunchtime on the first day, and when it was taken over by Stig Blomqvist and Arne Hertz in their Saab, they never lost it again. Not once did any non-Scandinavian driver ever look like challenging for the lead, and indeed in the final results Swedish and Finnish drivers occupied the first eight places, with the Italian Munari breaking the run in ninth place. The highest placed Britishers were Roger Clark and Jim Porter in a works Escort.

Practice obviously makes perfect, or near-perfect, for Finns and Swedes drive almost daily on loose gravel roads for about half the year and on snow and ice for the other half. When conditions on the RAC Rally precisely matched these proportions, small wonder that these superb drivers from across the North Sea were able to beat all their rivals.

Another feature of the event was the low retirement rate among professional crews. Works drivers are paid to drive always on the absolute limits of adhesion. For them there is very rarely anything to gain from driving at nine-tenths in order to preserve their cars, for there is always someone who will drive faster without breaking his car, and he will be the winner. At the very high speeds of the top drivers, cars are quite likely to break, and the retirement rate at the head of the field is quite often greater than that of the tail-enders. But when snow covers the special stages it not only slows the cars down a little but tends to smooth off the bumps so that less damage is likely. In this particular event the only works cars to retire were the two Alpines (one with broken differential and one with a blown head gasket after its radiator ducts were blocked by snow) and the Fiat 125S (with a seized piston).

Popular though its style may be, it’s no use kidding ourselves that the RAC Rally is the best organised event in the world. It is not. For a rally of such stature, the number of timing errors which occur on special stages is scandalous. Furthermore, published stage times are invariably accompanied by pages of amendments and the whole thing is confusing to say the least. Throughout the first leg of the rally it was said in all the bulletins and releases that Timo Mäkinen was the leader. In fact this wasn’t so, and the very fact that such a mistake was at all possible doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. It’s not as if there was any difficulty about the penalty system, for that is simplicity itself; each stage has a target time and each car is penalised by the number of seconds it takes in excess of that time. At the end of the rally those penalties are added together and the one with the least is the winner. There are little variations, of course, but basically it’s just as I’ve said.

There is no doubt that the organisers have insufficient help to staff rally headquarters properly. But more staff means a higher cost, and that is just the thing which the rally cannot afford. Despite sponsorship from the Daily Mirror and income from advertisers on special stages, the rally balance sheet comes perilously close to leaning over on the wrong side. One of the biggest items of expenditure is the sum demanded by the Forestry Commission as an insurance against damage to road surfaces by competing cars. This is based on a fixed sum per car/mile, and on this particular event the planned stages realised almost ten thousand pounds. The tax derived from the enormous petrol sales is another hefty income, and when one considers the purchase tax on all the tyres used, not to mention some half-a-million pounds-worth of motor cars, it’s not unreasonable to expect some of it to be ploughed back.

That such a prestigious event should be allowed to operate on a shoestring when the Government actually makes a profit from it is scandalous. It’s about time it got its proper recognition; a good start would be to have the RAC represented on the Sports Council.—G. P.