RAC Rally of Great Britain

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No-one will deny that the most significant aspect of the RAC Rally was the victory by a British crew, in a British car, against a whole army of the talented Scandinavians who have dominated the event since it began to use special stages on loose-surfaced forest roads. Since the beginning of the ‘sixties modern-day Vikings named Carlsson, Trana, Aaltonen, SoderstrOm, Lampinen, Kallstrom and Blomqvist have scooped up all the glory on the RAC Rally and it was fast becoming a popular theory that no British driver could ever hope to beat the visitors from across the North Sea.

But in 1972 things were different. As the rally progressed, one British driver stood out alone among the cluster of Scandinavians at the head of the field—Roger Clark. In a Ford Escort with a 2-litre, 16-valve, aluminium engine producing some 245 b.h.p., he went up to the front in the early stages of the rally and remained there to the end, holding off a determined challenge by last year’s winners Stig Blomqvist and Arne Hertz in a Saab. Clark’s regular co-driver over the years has been Jim Porter, but he had been retained by the RAC this year as a troubleshooter with up-to-date knowledge from the competitor’s standpoint, so the privilege of sharing Clark’s car during the epic drive went to Lancastrian Tony Mason who partnered him in a few British National events during the year.

Although Britishers Chris Sclater (Escort) and Tony Fall (Datsun) were highly placed at times, it was only Clark who kept the Scandinavians at bay with a combination of driving skill and a fast, reliable car. Sclater’s engine let him down in the first leg of the rally and Fall’s Datsun had serious transmission problems. Clark represented an allBritish effort, but behind him the next fourteen pairs of names could have been taken straight from the Stockholm and Helsinki telephone directories—and not a single British car between them. Indeed, the first two-dozen finishers included just two British cars with British crews, the remainder being made up of Saabs, Opels, Lancias, Volvos, Datsuns, a BMW, a Citroen and a Toyota. Hardly a result for Britain’s motor industry to be proud of.

The main reason for the popularity of the RAC Rally—it attracts more foreign competitors than any other motor sporting event in the world—is the road network through the state forests. These cleverly engineered roads, with cambers suggesting that they had been intended for fast rally cars rather than chugging lumber trucks, are ideal for the sport and even though exotic events such as the Safari have their own attraction, drivers both amateur and professional invariably put the RAC Rally on the top of their list of priorities. But in the past two or three years, the rally has been threatened by its own popularity. The exciting spectacle of the world’s best drivers displaying their skills on loose surfaced roads has transformed the event from one which was only watched by hardy enthusiasts some ten years ago to one which attracts more spectators than any other single sporting occasion.

This enormous increase in public interest has caused concern in the offices of the Forestry Commission, mainly because that Government body is apparently not at all delighted with the prospect of so many people at large among the pine trees, despite its declared policy of integrating the work of timber production with that of providing leisure areas for the public. The result has been selective publication of special stage locations in an effort to confine spectator concentrations to certain predetermined areas. One can’t help wondering at the logic of this, for surely the risks of fire and accident are the same for one forest as for its neighbour higher up the same valley. Perhaps it is the lack of parking space which is the real reason for this secrecy, in which case one wonders whether the Forestry Commission is really the instigator.

On the face of it, the channelling of spectators away from some areas would appear to have had some benefit. But the opposite has been the case. Ten gallons of petrol will go into twenty one-gallon cans with room to spare, but pour it all into just ten of the cans and you are right on the edge of the overspill mark. Those responsible for spectator arrangements on the RAC Rally completely underestimated the number of people who would turn out to watch and the result was the equivalent of trying to compress the ten gallons into just five of the cans.

So Many people turned up at Silverstone that the access roads became traffic blocked and it was only by dint of smart work by the Northamptonshire Police that competitors were able to get into the grounds. They sent out cars to escort competitors in, complete with wailers and flashing lights, and they did it so efficiently that their former rallying Chief Constable, the late John Gott, would have been proud of them. The same was true of the special stage at the old Donington Circuit, except that the crowds were so enormous here that the car parks became choked up and the traffic jams extended for miles in every direction. The way to cater for spectators on such an event is to publicise all the special stages, specifying those with parking facilities and those without. That way at least the load will be spread over as wide an area as possible.

Forest stages cost the organisers a great deal of money, 15p per starting car per mile of forest road to be precise, and it is utterly scandalous that the British Government (of which the Forestry Commission is a department) should seek to cash in on Britain’s biggest and most prestigious sporting event. Other sports receive subsidies, and why the RAC Rally should be made to dig into its limited pocket to organise an event which makes a profit for the government is beyond comprehensionI

Because of the cost involved, the RAC has been forced to seek special stages other than in forests. This year there were thirteen such stages (out of a planned total of 72) some in the grounds of stately homes, some on military land and some on municipal property such as parks and seafront promenades. Competitors tend to look upon these as “Mickey Mouse” stages since they are completely artificial and stand out like sore thumbs among the rhythmic bends, undulations and hairpins of the forest roads. Most competitors dislike such stages, tolerating them simply because they realise that forest miles are expensive, but if they appear too often there is a very real danger that the RAC Rally will lose some of its international reputation.

The factory entries consisted of three Ford Escorts, two Lancia Fulvias, three Saab 96 V4s, three Datsun 240Zs, three Wartburgs, three Fiat 124 Spiders (not the new Abarth versions which the Daily Mirror suggested) and a single Toyota Celica GT. In addition there were dealer entered teams of Opels, Volvos, Skodas, Vauxhalls, Moskviches and BMWs, and both British Leyland and Chrysler were taking an interest in a Marina and an Avenger.

The Toyota was particularly interesting inasmuch as it represented the Japanese factory’s first proper involvement in the sport. It is remarkable that the car, with 1.6-litre twin-cam engine, completed its first ever rally with hardly a problem and in ninth place overall. Most European cars take years of development before they are regarded as both competitive and reliable, but this Japanese car indicated that when Toyota really gets under way with a rallying programme the established teams will have a powerful rival.

Of the Ford team there is little to say except that Hannu Mikkola retired with a blown head gasket, Timo MO:inen when a wheel came off in a forest, Andrew Cowan when his transistorised ignition failed, and Roger Clark went on to win. Clark did have some trouble when cornering at speed when the fuel pump didn’t seem to be able to feed the injectors fast enough to keep the engine running on four cylinders. When Peter Ashcroft, Ford’s engine expert and now Competitions Manager, heard about this he coupled the pump in tandem with the spare mounted alongside it and this extra feeding power cured the problem. There was another little drama when the car suffered front wheel bearing failure barely fifty miles from the finishing ramp, but it was a quick job to transfer a bearing from another car.

Organisationally the rally isn’t yet a match for the Moroccan, the Austrian Alpine or the Thousand Lakes, but it was a vast improvement on previous years; in any case, if a wine is really good, who cares about the shape of its glass? G. P.

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