Tony Pond

Leyland's new rally recruit talks about his prospects in the 1976 TR7 campaign

Just under 30 years of age, and securely contracted to Leyland to contest next year's RAC Rally Championship, in the latest 16-valve TR7, Tony Pond looks towards 1976 with a confidence that few of us can muster today. He started rallying in 1968, coming "nowhere" in his own words on road events. Then, the following year, a Mini Cooper 1275S was acquired and Pond won his first ever stage rally, Sultan and Cheam MC's Tempest Rally.

The Mini was written off pretty quickly after that, and Pond soldiered on as one of the spear carriers, rather them the overnight star, with the car in Mk. 2 1275 trim.

By 1971 he had acquired enough to buy a Lotus Cortina for the RAC Rally, and he certainly showed his potential by holding down 15th overall before a retirement that followed mechanical damage sustained in an accident. He did a few more London Counties evenk in the Lotus-Ford, but the Escort was well and truly established by this stage, and he retired in the face of overwhelming financial odds, an all too frequent rallying hazard.

The break that led to his current situation as the youngest works rally driver in Britain came in the guise of the 1972 Escort Mexico Championship. lust as in the fairy tales and Hollywood legends, Pond became involved by accidental contact through Norman Reeves Ltd., Uxbridge, only a few miles from where Tony lives, in what might best he politely described as glorious bachelorhood. In the Mexico series Pond became one of the front runners, rewarded with a second place in the series, and the offer of a single works outing on the 1973 Scottish Rally in a Group 2 Ford Escort RS.

A seventh place on that event, after a sensible drive within the works team, eventually brought him a works-loaned Ford (operated in association With Reeves). Among some excellent results was a long tussle with Tony Fall's Gp. 2 Opel on last year's Welsh International, on which he took third place ahead of the Opel. Almost immediately there was a vacancy in the Dealer Opel Team (their driver decided he Would run a semi-works Ford!) and Pond was invited within.

Payment as a professional, contracted to DOT, came the following September, at which stage the team—which had only been formed by Fall earlier that year—were on their way to second overall in the RAC Championship, Pond now firmly ensconced within the Group 2 Ascona. This year Pond has enjoyed good International results with DOT, but their other RAC Championship performances have been disappointing. By mid-year Pond had racked up his first ever International win with a victory in the Avan Tour of Britain in a self-prepared Ford Escort RS2000, a project that Fora assisted heartily with finance and unofficial advice. It was this performance, Pond saw, that attracted most attention. and he was able to choose front at least three firm offers of professional drives in 1976.

That he took the Leyland offer, is a good indication of how things have changed at the corporation's Special Tuning Department in recent years. For this is a young driver who knows the Ford operation well, and yet he has been sufficiently impressed to accept this chance, which will mean driving one of the factory's 200-horsepower-plus TR7s next year. Also driving the works Triumph sports cars in 1976 will he Brian Culcheth. Pond is convinced that, between the two of them, the team will be able to heat the Fords . . . which haven't been defeated in British Internationals for many years.

We went to Uxbridge to find out share about Pond's feelings now that he has secured one of the increasingly rare "factory drives" that obsess so many ambitious youngsters, it was a morning to remember for some unexpected comments, and a breathtaking ride on Pond's savage two-stroke Kawasaki 750 motorcycle.

"You can't say I have made it yet, you know," Pond opens the conversation, "but it is true to say that whatever career I've had so far has largely been owed to Ford. You can say what you like about Stuart Turner, and I disagree with many things he says and does, but he is a rallying genius.

"It's Turner who found all these quick British 'Forest Racers' who started to prove their point about our speed on this year's RAC. Turner set out to find a successor to Clark through the Mexico series. It's debatable whether he'll ever find a real successor to Roger, but Russell Brookes, Nigel Rockey, Will Sparrow and George Hill all showed up well in the year (1972) that I was involved as well.

"So far as Ford and the Finns are concerned, I do think there's been a tendency to go Finnish when there's now no need to. We've got some really good drivers, who have more experience and better records than drivers like Ari Vatanen. Don't misunderstand, I like Ari and I know he can go fantastically quick . . . but it's a raw talent, and one that needs more time to develop, as could be seen by his performance on the RAC!

"They have a different attitude to the sport in Finland. The object is for the young aces to try and beat Timo or Hannu on just one stage... if they have an accident after that, well, that's just too bad. The advantage is that once you've beaten a star on one stage, you should, in time, be able to string together an outright win. But that's the big difference between us—and I only make exception for Roger Clark—and them. The Finn attacks, balls-out, straight away, and if the car will move they carry on attacking, flat-out, for a complete event.

"I have been to both Finland and Sweden and I know what a great bunch of people they are. However, Finland isn't a rallying paradise. When we were in Opels together Vatanen told me that he would like to do a season's rallying here in Britain! You can understand why when he tells you that an event may only have 30 miles of stages, whereas we always think of Finnish events as 1,000 Lakes-style epics.

"One final thing about the Brits and the Finns is that the arrowing on our events is in the spirit of letting the drivers work out as much as possible, whereas in Finland the arrowing is aimed at indicating pretty well every hazard: that can mean some pretty large moments, or accidents, for these without experience of our system!

"So far as my own style is concerned, I sometimes wonder if I'm erring towards too much consistency, and not enough speed. It is very difficult for me to assess how fast I am, because all my usual rivals like Russell (Brookes) are in Fords. But I do know this, there still isn't a driver in Britain like Clark. I watched him at the Croft chicane on the RAC, and there wasn't anybody—Scandinavian or not—in the same class. He arrived full bore, braked just to the point where puffs of smoke came from the front wheels, then absolutely flat sideways right and left: superb."

Pond unhesitatingly picks out his drive in the Chequered Flag Stratos as the highlight of his year, even over his fourth place—the first non-Ford—on the RAC in the unproved Opel Kadett. Talking of the Chequered Flag outfit he says, "there's not the politics that you get in some works teams, just this unbelievable enthusiasm. The way the lads repaired a gearbox after that succession of non-finishes was fantastic, and I was really pleased to give them their first finish. I was very tempted to drive for the Flag next year, but I had decided that I would prefer a properly-based team if possible. It's the old story for both DOT and Chequered Flag . . . you have this terrible problem over getting bits and co-operation from the factory. Opel have largely overcome this now."

I asked when he had first talked about joining Leyland. "Well, it began just after I had won the Avon Tour really. Brian Culcheth very quietly mentioned that there might be a vacancy for a driver at Leyland next year, and that I could he well up on the list. I didn't really think about it a lot. My mind was pretty well made up to accept the offer Ford had made (Substantial finance and a works Escort), but as the months went by, and I heard nothing more from Ford, began to think less about either offer.

"When the Leyland offer came, it was much more straightforward than the others. Bill Price rang on the Tuesday, told me that they'd had their budget approved and that he'd like some words with me about driving next year. I said that I would come to Abingdon and see him the following week; but no, he was coming to see me the next day, and the whole deal was complete.

"Neither Bill nor myself expect to get the new car out and win straight away. There's bound to be a development period. I chatted to Brian (Culcheth) to make sure he was happy about me coming, and once I knew he genuinely wanted me in there, I signed. That is the reason I get a bit irked when people ask me when I'm going to blow Culcheth off . . . that's not the object. So long as a Leyland car wins outright, we'll all be happy . . . the idea is to beat the others, not ourselves.

"I've got no reservations about the Leyland team's ability to win at all. They have the equipment, the building, the men and the know-how to win, and they've got the enthusiasm to see it all through. Remember, a lot of those people were building Minis to win with the likes of Makinen and Fall. When I started, a Mini was the car, and Ford were a second-rate team, going nowhere. That's the great thing about our sport, the top dogs don't stay on top forever."

Pond's natural tyre loyalties were one of his biggest headaches to his Leyland move. Goodyear's Watford depot, plus Harry Gee and Jack Lunt, have always supported Tony's competition, but they were the first to wish him luck in the Dunlop-shod Leyland world.

Discussing rallying in general Pond cornmented that, "I am appalled at the prize-money at present. When you think that Timo Makinen's hat-trick effort on the RAC netted £1,000 it is a disgrace, for his drive was watched by something like two million people, many of them watching at spectator stages charging 50p a head.

"This lack of money is seen in the Monte as well, and is part of the hardship of going it alone in rallying. For example, if I decided to do my own operation next year, I would stand a 95% chance of failure in raising sponsorship!

"If I was starting from scratch again I would enter stage events in a Group 1 car. There are not a lot of people around in that category, and a good Dolomite Sprint, or RS2000 would earn you a name chasing, or maybe even beating, some of the few who are in the RAC series at present. Please don't think it's easy though, for I know that hotels for the crew and service people can notch up £2,000 a year. Then there's petrol for service cars and the rally car, £4,000 for a decent Group 1 saloon, and maintenance that will almost certainly include a new bodyshell in the course of a year!"

Looking to those who could succeed in the future Pond tips "Mick Briant, (among other titles Briant has taken the Motoring News road event series this year—J.W) though it is very difficult to judge form from road events. Still, I remember him beating me on London Counties events, and I think it will be interesting to see how he can do in next year's RAC Championship—though I think he should also do the Avon Tour, as he obviously has an affinity for tarmac. Another man I think could do well is Ronnie McCartney, if he were selected to drive the Flag's Stratos, for his loose surface times in the Porsche are surprising, to say the least."

Pond is a thinker who also likes to be involved with car development, as well as just driving. There's little disagreement that he is the best prospect Britain has internationally outside Roger Clark, and I congratulate Leyland on their initiative in scooping him up so swiftly. Let's hope they are able to prove the TR7 an outright winner, our motor industry could certainly appreciate that sort of perk at present—J.W.