Rally Review, January 1974

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RAC Rally of Great Britain

The popularity of the RAC Rally of Great Britain by competitors and spectators alike has become so manifestly enormous that any attempt to describe the attendance figures brings the risk of cliche usage. Grands Prix, Wembley, Lords, Wimbledon, Arms Park and countless other famous sporting venues have all been used for comparison in recent years, so on this occasion it will be sufficient to say that the crowds watching the RAC Rally, actually out on the route and not simply sitting at home in front of a television set, represented the biggest sporting audience ever amassed. .Two million was one estimate, and we would say that it wasn’t a bit on the conservative side.

Some rallies become popular because they are made part of a championship series; others are able to stand on their own feet and provide sufficient attraction in themselves without the artificial draw of championship points being at stake. Just such an event is the RAC Rally which, although it is a World Championship qualifier, is considered to be such a giant among rallies that its entry list would be full no matter if it were not part of any series. In 1973 the World Rally Championship was decided before the RAC Rally, yet that didn’t deter experienced and competent teams such as Ford, Saab, Fiat, Lancia, Alpine, Datsun, Toyota, Opel, Chrysler, Wartburg, Vauxhall and Volvo from being represented in one way or another — some by their own works teams and some through teams operated by groups of their dealers.

Monte Carlo was once the centre of the rallying world, but the emphasis is fast shifting from the Alpes Maritimes to the pine woods of Britain. Indeed, names such as Kielder, Dalby, Glentress, Dyfi, Penmachno and Machynlleth have become as well known to the world’s rally drivers as the Col du Turini, Pont des Miolans, Charlie Albert’s Bridge and the Tot Escarpment.

Although in some eases rallies belong in their home capital cities (the Safari in Nairobi, for instance) in others their bases are fixed as near to the competitive parts of their routes as possible. The Rally of the Thousand Lakes is based far north of Helsinki, whilst the Swedish Rally doesn’t go anywhere near Stockholm. Following suit, the RAC Rally moved away from London in 1971 and for the past two occasions has been based at York. Two years is hardly long enough to establish a tradition, but already the rallying fraternity and the City of York have shown such an affinity that the rally looks like returning there year after year. It’s a city of numerous one-way systems; rush-hour traffic jams and hotels spread over quite a large area, all features which don’t really lend themselves to the trouble-free establishment of a rally headquarters. Nevertheless, rallying people have taken very readily to York and already firm links have been established between various teams and establishments in the city, links which will doubtless remain for years to come. On the financial side, the RAC Rally is probably one of the most expensive events in the world to run. At least it would be if the many large groups of motor club members all over Britain did not give their services voluntarily and without any thought of monetary gain. In other countries officials who man the special stages are paid for their services, but in Britain the country’s biggest sporting event relies completely on the enthusiasm of club members who endure all manner of physical hardships without thought of reward. Indeed, they did their work so cheerfully and enthusiastically this time that competitors reckoned it was the best organised and most efficiently marshalled RAC Rally ever to be held.

Unpaid marshals may help the budget considerably, but it is taxed to the limit in other ways. The bulk of the special stage distance is on roads owned by the Forestry Commission, and the fees for the use of these loose surfaced tracks runs into many thousands of pounds. Fortunately there are people who are prepared to put up money in exchange for certain promotional rights, and in this respect the rally itself was sponsored by the Daily Mirror and the special stages by Unipart, the replacement parts company owned by British Leyland. To go back to the subject of forest roads, it should be explained that the levy is made by the Forestry Commission in order to cover the cost of any surface reinstatement which may be necessary after the passage of the rally has done its share of “cutting up”, but one can’t help wondering whether normal, routine road maintenance is sometimes left until after the rally has taken place so that in the long term money is actually saved. It seems very odd indeed that an event to which a tremendous amount of national prestige is attached and which attracts great numbers of foreign visitors to Britain should have to buy its right of existence from what is virtually a Government department. It seems to us that the proper order of things would be for the Government to pay the RAC Rally organisers for running what must be one of our biggest annual attractions.

Although it has been popular for many years, the RAC Rally has not always displayed the organisational slickness of some other events, but this year there was a tremendous improvement and we heard nothing whatsoever of any serious complaint. It was just as well, for in addition to attracting competitors and spectators it also attracted organisers of other rallies from countries as far apart as Finland and South Africa. They came not only to impart information about their own events in order to attract competitors, to watch the RAC organisation closely and to pick up as many ideas as they could in order to improve their own rallies. They seemed to succeed in both aims.

In 1972 the RAC Rally was shortened by one day so that it ran from Saturday to Tuesday with one night stop. Previously it ran to the Wednesday with one night stop. This time it was planned to have it run to Wednesday again, with two night stops, the extra leg being a final loop through the Yorkshire Forests on the Wednesday morning. When it all began to happen, there was even an extra bonus of rest, for a loop in Western Scotland was cancelled in order to reduce the total distance covered and thereby to reduce the amount of precious fuel consumed by the competing cars, their support vehicles, officials’ cars and those of spectators. A few stages in the south were also cut out and in total the eventual distance covered was some 10% shorter than Originally planned.

In the weeks before the rally there was considerable speculation as to whether the whole rally would be sacrificed to the vague cause of petrol conservation. Would fuel supplies dry up? Would the sudden introduction of rationing stop it even before it began? Would pressure from Whitehall stifle it even if unrationed supplies of petrol remained adequate? Would public opinion demand its cancellation? Fortunately none of these happened, and a measure of what the public really felt can be made by simply considering the number of spectators there were. Indeed, had there been any cause to cancel the rally there would have been an immediate outcry from the hundreds of thousands who would then have been denied their pleasure.

At York everything was orderly, with administrative headquarters being set up in the Royal Station Hotel and the technical matters collected within the buildings of York Racecourse, where the start and finish ramp was located. Several cars had their passage through the scrutiny bay delayed by an official who was not aware of the most recent CSI decisions concerning fireproof bulkheads, but a telephone call to Paris put matters right eventually.

The move from London to Yorkshire was undertaken originally primarily in order to have the rally start its run nearer than London to the areas where special stages are plentiful. It seemed ironic that this year the first part of the journey was southwards via three special stages to Leicester and then westwards via just two more to Llandrindod, a very weak concentration indeed of competitive driving. However, these things are quite unavoidable, for it would be impossible to find a base for the rally out in the woods suitably endowed with good communications and sufficient accommodation.

The first special stage, as indeed several more were later, was in a private estate. Nothing like as good as forest roads which have a rhythmic swing to their bends, these estates vary in quality and Bramham was quite a good one, although the number of gateways ensured that many cars had post-shaped dents in their bodywork when it was over. Other stages in private estates qualified for the description “Mickey Mouse” which has come to be the rally man’s equivalent of what racing people would say if the next British Grand Prix were to be run at Llandow. Initially it was all done for the public in areas where there are no forests to have proper special stages. Television cameras were also attracted, but it’s fortunate that TV programme arrangers now try to avoid giving the viewing public the wrong impression of what a special stage is like and send their film units to proper ones.

Sutton Park, on the edge of Birmingham, was quite a good special stage, with very fast runs on tarmac roads and excellent facilities for spectators. By facilities we mean unobstructed views, of course, for rally enthusiasts have not reached the point where they demand permanent toilets and cushioned seats at special stages. Unlike Sutton and totally out of keeping with the rest of the event was the stage which ran through a water sports centre, dodging between landing stages, cutting across lawns, along the track of a narrow gauge railway and through the lines of a caravan park. Another made a series of right-angled turns through the chequered road network of a disused ammunition dump.

We trust that none of the foregoing will give you the impression that the RAC Rally is nothing more than a series of slalom courses and auto-crosses, for that would be quite wrong. Of the 80 planned special stages, 70 were held, and of those only about three or four were not in keeping with the demanding, exhilarating nature of the bulk of the forest stages.

The first bit of concentrated rallying came in Wales where, front Saturday evening to Sunday morning there was a loop through nineteen special stages, starting and finishing at Llandrindod Wells. It was here that WB and I had our first meeting in Wales, a happening which has taken a singularly long time to come about considering that I am Welsh by birth and he by naturalisation. It was a brief meeting, for I had a competitor’s schedules to maintain and he had other things to see besides our Toyota Celica.

Llandrindod was really where it all began, although some kind of sorting out had already been done at Sutton Park where one corner caught out no end of people. Mikkola dropped out when he broke a bone in a hand, Alen went off the road for a while and whilst there had the experience of seeing Fall’s Datsun 24OZ jump clean over his boot, and Brookes went completely end over end.

In Wales the Datsuns really lost out, for serious braking deficiencies put two of them, those of Fall and Sclater, out of the rally. It seems that the rear brakes were not very effective at all and the increased braking effort at the front was making the front wheels lock up and the cars extremely unmanageable. The Saab team, too, suffered a setback when the number one driver from Trollhättan, Stig Blomqvist, clipped a log or some other object on the edge of a ditch and bent a wishbone. He and his co-driver used the jack to straighten it as much as possible so that they could complete the stage, and indeed to make third best time on the next, but when the car eventually came to its next service point the mechanics found that there was so much additional damage that it could not possibly be put right in the time available.

Prior to this event the Saab works cars have always been red, but this year they were finished in a rather drab yellow. Commenting on Blomqvist’s misfortune, triple RAC winner Erik Carlsson was heard to say “It’s the colour, boys; that’s what did it”.

From Wales, the rally moved back through the Midlands and up to York on Sunday evening for an overnight stop. On the Monday morning it set out again, this time in the direction of Manchester, the Lake District and Scotland. After the usual visit to some non-forest stages (Eshold Sewage Works in Bradford and Heaton Park in Manchester) came the hard competition once more, and by the time the field had got up to Erskine Bridge on the Clyde; snatched a few hours rest and got back down to York via various other stages in Scotland and the whole string of stages in the vast complex of Kielder Forest, many people had dropped out of the running.

The Fiats and the single Lancia were not figuring very prominently at all, one of the Toyotas had blown its engine whilst the other was outclassed by ears of considerably better power/weight ratio. Ford’s Timo Mäkinen, the man who did so much for Minis and very nearly won the 1965 RAC Rally in a Big Healey, was out in front in his powerful Escort RS with 2-litre aluminium engine, but behind him there was quite a tussle for second place. It was being held by Björn Waldegård in his BMW 2002, but he was being very closely chased by .several people including Roger Clark (Escort), Simo Lampinen (Saab), Markku Alen (Escort) and Per-Inge Walfridsson (Volvo). The two last names are young men from Finland and Sweden respectively, both being Volvo drivers in their own countries and both with sufficient talent to be world beaters if given the opportunity.

Concerning Alen there was much noise being made about a “new discovery”, but the people making the noises obviously had no knowledge of the fact that Alin has been driving very successfully indeed in Finland for several years. Another young driver to do remarkably -well was Walter Röhrl from Germany, the man who drove a Capri in the 1972 Olympia Rally and ran rings around established stars in better cars.

Unfortunately, Röhrl’s run in the RAC Rally came to an end when his Opel Ascona blew its head gasket whilst crossing the Pennines on the M62, and what could have been another good result came to nought.

On the final day no-one expected any dramatic changes at the head of the field, for it was felt that those with good positions would be content to hold them. However, things didn’t turn out that way at all. First of all Roger Clark was pushing hard to improve his position, for it didn’t really matter if he made a mistake and lost time for there, was already a Ford in a virtually unbeatable first place. The effect of this was to spur Waldegård on to greater efforts, and on one particularly difficult left-hand bend in Pickering Forest, the last stage but one, his BMW slid off the road and rolled down a very steep bank to come to rest partly on its nose and partly upside down in the trees. It took a long time to extricate the car., and this was only accomplished after two or three saplings had been sawn down. Whilst the operation was in progress Alin went off the road on the same corner and rolled down the same slope. Despite some severe body damage, the Escort was driveable and as there were no trees impeding its progress it was carried down the hill by spectators and placed on its wheels on a lower road from which the two Finns were able to regain the special stage.

When the tree felling was .complete, the same was done to Waldegård’s car and when it eventually climbed the finishing ramp at York Racecourse it was an incredible sight with its battered and twisted bodyshell strapped, almost bandaged, to keep it in one piece. Waldegård eventually had to be content with seventh place, but when he was stuck in the Pickering trees he had become resigned to not finishing at all. It was simply the enterprise of Brookes and Brown, two competitors who retired during the first day of the rally, which led to the involved extrication process which eventually released the car.

Another mishap at this very late stage was that which robbed Simo Lampinen of a good position. Very early in the rally his Saab had been losing water through its exhaust pipe, but a liberal dosage of medication in the radiator seemed to seal up whatever leak there was. On Pickering it all started happening again, and the car filled up so quickly with smoke and steam that Lampinen was about to give the order to bale out when the flying finish markers came into view. As he crossed the line there was a loud rumble and a small explosion as the engine went completely dead. There was no hope of continuing and Lampinen had to endure the disappointment of seeing a second place slip through his fingers. All of this led to a striking one-two-three result for Ford, Mäkinen and Liddon taking first place, Clark and Mason second and Alen and Kivimäki third. For a manufacturer to get his cars into the first three places on an event which attracts such fierce competition is indeed cause for jubilation, and the delight of the entire Boreham staff was more than apparent during the celebrations which followed. For Mäkinen it was a personal triumph which ranks near the top of his achievements. Various successes have come his way during his illustrious career, but this was his first win on the RAC Rally, premier event of the country whose cars, Minis and Escorts, he has most frequently driven. Alpine emerges as the 1973 World Champion Constructor. It was hoped by many that in 1974 the emphasis would switch from ears to drivers so that at least a live person could become the World Rally Champion. But that isn’t to be, and one wonders how long it will be before the incredibly stupid decision of the reactionary CSI will be reversed.

-G.P.