The Assistant Editor finds himself in the hot seat on the RAC
Two years ago a friend persuaded me to join him in spectating on sonic of the special stages of the RAC Rally. As a dyed-in-the-wool racing enthusiast, who hardly gave rallying a second thought, I wasn’t too keen on the idea hut I thought perhaps I should widen my horizons a little. As I stood in deep snow somewhere in a remote Scottish forest some of the fun and excitement that is rallying started to percolate through to me. But never did it cross my mind that two years later I would be the co-driver in one of these hairy rally cars being driven at break-neck speeds along bumpy forest tracks hardly fit for an errant donkey. For that matter only three months ago my rallying knowledge and aspirations were no further forward.
Then came the bombshell. Colin Vanderyell, a friend who has raced an Ensign Formula Three and an Escort Mexico in 1972 with myself often clicking the stopwatches in the pits, rang up to announce that he was going to fulfil a long-standing ambition and take part in the RAC Rally. He hadn’t rallied for five years but he still had a licence and he reckoned his racing Escort Mexico could be converted into Group 1 rallying trim without too much trouble. “Jolly good”, said I, “who is going to be your navigator?”. “You” he replied and, just as was the case with his father, the late Tony Vandervell, one doesn’t immediately argue when his mind is made up. “Oh” was the only reply I could proffer. “You see”, he continued, all the navigators I had in the old days used to get out half-way through and run screaming into the woods and were never seen again”. That probably wasn’t exactly true but even so it seemed less than a good reason for me taking over the hot seat; after all I had never taken part in a rally in my life!
Slowly I came round to thinking that there was only one proper way to learn about rallying and that was to be thrown in at the deep end. The car would probably blow up on the second special stage anyway, or we would get so lost that we would never find the rally route. Reluctantly I agreed to fall into the plan if I could get round various obstacles like not having a rally licence, and a few things like that, which I privately reckoned were completely insurmountable. Gradually as the event grew nearer I got more and more enthusiastic. Dean Delarnont, Director of the RAC Motorsport Division, agreed to let me have a full International licence just for the RAC Rally without the necessary qualifications, in the interests of motoring journalism, or something like that.
The orange Escort Mexico finished its racing career with a winning streak in the Castrol series and was taken to the North London premises of Supersport Engines Ltd. where the staff, led by Rod and Ian Cooper, converted it into a genuine rally car. Soon it was festooned with lights and the suspension changes, including the all important Bilstein shock-absorbers, had it sitting rather higher off the ground than was its racing stance.
The Potterton central heating concern, who have sponsored Vandervell’s racing programme, agreed to continue their backing to take in the rally and helped to pay some of the bills, Duckhams oils chipped in too, and Ford’s AVO and Competitions Departments were most helpful, particularly with parts, although what they secretly thought of the venture I hate to even consider.
Further help came from the Avon tyre company and their technical boffin Alan Blake. Avon do not actively support rallying but Blake agreed to equip us, and another Escort, with their Sno-Grip tyres which are part of their standard range and intended for winter use. Most of the other tyre companies who participate in rallying, like Pirelli and Dunlop, make special tyres for the purpose but Blake felt confident that the production Sno-Grips would not put us at a disadvantage. He was right and we never had a single puncture and used the tyres on all but four tarmac stages where we switched to some Firestone racing covers. Our times on rough forest stages like Dewey and Speech House speak volumes for the Sno-Grips.
Then panic struck. How was I going to cope with navigating the orange machine over the 2,000-mile route? Surely as a rank novice I was going to finish up confused, lost, and probably sound asleep after the first night. I sought the advice of Motor Sport’s rally correspondent, Geraint Phillips, better known as Verglas of our sister publication Motoring News. He was taking part in the rally in a works Toyota with Ove Andersson and has a considerable reputation as a co-driver. Patiently he coached me over a period of weeks, teaching me the tricks of the trade, lending me old road hooks and the like and generally assuring me that it wasn’t all that difficult at all. A former flat-mate, John Davenport, who was to co-drive a works Ford with Hannu Mikkola gave further assistance.
As I was later to learn one can navigate around the complete route without ever looking at a single map by use of the road book. This indicates the route by a series of “tulip” diagrams which one follows. These indicate which way to go at each junction one comes to on the route giving the mileage in between to one hundredth of a mile. Here one needs to have the car fitted with the most important of all rally aides, the Halda. Basically this is a sophisticated version of a mileometer and trip meter. We fitted the popular Twinmaster version to the Mexico and thus navigation around became simple. Nevertheless you have to remain alert, for one mistake can send you miles out of your way, although the road book also gives the road numbers and names on the signposts. It is fairly foolproof, actually, although I have to admit that we did take a few wrong turnings on the route due to my lack of concentration; but the situation was quickly realised and recovered.
The road book is issued about ten days before the rally and is the culmination -of ten months of hard work by the RAC’s organising team who do a superb job. I just can’t stress enough all the organisation that goes into a rally of this nature but it is a thousand times as much as a race meeting of similar stature. This year the organising team made a fantastic job of it too. The road hook gives the complete route and shows the main controls; time controls and special stages along with their map references. Most navigators will then plot the complete route on the one inch to the mile OS maps and thus will have a pretty good idea of where the special stages, the sections on which the rally will be won or lost, are going. Incidentally one would feel tempted to drive the whole route and practice the special stages immediately the Road Book is issued but in the RAC Rally, unlike many other events, this is expressly forbidden. Plotting the route also enables the navigators to work out where to situate their service Crews.
The navigator, or co-driver as he is usually called in longer rallies, tends to be an onboard team manager more than anything else. It is up to him to make sure that the Car is in the right place at the right time, and the right time is just as important as the right place. As mentioned earlier the route is issued well in advance and has interspersed along it various controls and special stages. Each car has a set time bracket at which to arrive at these, too early will mean a penalty, too late will also mean a penalty and if One is more than 30 Minutes late then it will mean exclusion from the rally. Thus there was no way one could pull into a local Ford dealer, have a complete engine change (even if this was allowed) and continue the rally six hours later.
The time bracket is worked out on the average speeds of 40 m.p.h. and 30 m.p.h. The earliest one can arrive at any given stage or control is worked on the 40 m.p.h. average and the latest worked on the 30 m.p.h. Naturally one does not have to tear around the country to sustain that kind of average but what happens in practice is that this enables time for stops for the car to he serviced and repairs to be made. The major teams have service vehicles at the end of almost every stage. Sometimes all that is needed is the screen cleaning and a few gallons of fuel, on other occasions a Major repair is effected in the space of time which would leave your local Ford dealer’s service manager in a state of shock for days. We had two service crews although it wasn’t until the rally started that I grasped the enormity of the logistics in getting them to all the right places at the right times. Neither crew had much rallying experience, being racing men, but after a couple of dramas it all fell into place and we had them where we wanted them. At the main controls there are compulsory halts which allow time for meals and half-way through the rally was a night halt. So it isn’t all go.
The heart of the rally is the special stages. Unless something is drastically wrong with the car one should not lose any road time. It is not on the road but in the forests, the stately homes, the Silverstone perimeter road and a Yorkshire sewage farm that the rally is won or lost. In short the special stages. Here every second counts: The final result is obtained by adding up the time taken on all 70 special stages and the man who took the least time is the winner. Of course one has to complete all 70 stages and cover the 1,500 link-miles that join them without penalty in the process. And those special stages are not quite as smooth as the local High Street. The majority are in Forestry Commission land in Wales, Scotland and Yorkshire, plus a smattering of other venues None of these tracks are tarmacadamed, trees border the perilously narrow road side, and there are natural hazards galore. There are tight hairpins, slippery little bridges and ridiculously narrow gateways. In the night the mist sometimes gathers low, rain turns the tracks into quagmires, and there is only the occasional arrow to tell you whether the road goes straight on over that brow or dips steeply left at right angles. Sometimes there aren’t even arrows.
Other stages have a different character. Several are around the grounds of stately homes like Blenheim using both tarmac and rougher tracks, there is the unique stage around the sewage farm of Eshoh near Bradford, another was around the road which circles the Great Orme in North Wales, and other stages are in public parks like that in Sutton Coldfield. It is this variety that makes the RAC such a popular rally. Some stages encourage spectators and in 1972 they thronged in greater masses than before. But even on the stages which do not publicly welcome spectators, faces popped up from behind trees at the most unlikely times of day and night. The RAC Rally certainly catches the imagination and all along the route we were cheered by small boys and grown men alike.
These special stages are manned by a huge band of marshals who are quite fanatical in their enthusiasm. Surely there cannot be any good reason for freezing to death on the top of a Welsh mountain at 3 o’clock in the morning. But they find a reason and perhaps it is because they feel closer to their sport than any racing marshal ever can. The great majority of marshals are either at the start or finish of the stage. Here the start line marshal will, by the very nature of his job, talk to the co-driver and the driver, it brings him close to the competitors, the big names, On the RAC, a particular motor club will be nominated to man a stage and there is great competition to do the job well. Some offer cups of tea and almost all have a cheery word. Each stage has a start arrival control, then the actual start line. Sometimes one has to queue up behind other competitors before starting at the mandatory minute intervals, and at the end of the stage there is a flying finish followed by a finish control. The start and finish marshals have their chonometers synchronised, or at least they should do. Each competitor has a time card which is given out at the start and on this the start marshal will record the time the car is scheduled to start the stage and at the finish the marshal marks the time the car Hashed across the finish line. Simple subtraction gives the time taken. Naturally, this method is open to human error and, having fallen foul of it once, I soon found myself asking to check the watches, as well as recording the time taken with my own stopwatch, This is standard procedure but something, through my novice status, I had to learn as we went along. At various points along the route sections of the time card are removed so that the hardworking results crew can keep a track of who is winning.
So how did the rally go for the pair of optimistic amateurs in car 132, the Potterton Escort Mexico? The number 132 meant that we started 132 minutes behind the theoretical car upon which all the 30 and 40 m.p.h. averages were worked. Friday afternoon’s scrutineeriog went without any problem and by then all the big names and their cars had returned to their garages where vital finishing touches were added. Our starting time was 11.12 a.m. on Saturday and after a restless night’s sleep at an expensive but rather tatty hotel right opposite York Minster we prepared, as best we could, for the start not really knowing what to expect. At least we came to the start line on time and had free supplies of Polo mints and cigarettes thrust. at us hut, by then, all the top teams, the reporters and the television had long since departed. 01-1 we set for the first special stage at Braniham House some 17 miles from the start. Three minutes later we were stuck in a traffic jam in the middle of York! At least we were on the right route and we arrived at Bramham on time and, almost in a daze, I found Vandervell hurling me past thousands of spectators in the grounds of this stately home. If you thought you saw stark terror in my eyes, you were right. But our time wasn’t at all had and that cheered me up.
Three or four stages later and I was actually enjoying it. It was a fantastic experience sitting next to someone who has such control over a vehicle, flicking it this way and that. We headed off towards Wales, Colin relaxing as I drove, as there weren’t any special stages for 100 miles or so, and we halted at the first time control bang on time. Now I felt an experienced co-driver already. Later, night fell as we started on the Welsh.