An exciting year in Britain's national championship
"If anyone expressed surprise at the number of British drivers who finished in the top ten of the RAC International Rally, then that person must have had his head in the sand for the past year." The speaker is Roger Clark, Britain's undisputed rally king, who had just regained the National Rally Championship crown and by finishing second on the RAC International had led home three other British crews and one Irish partnership into the top ten. No one knows better than Roger Clark that the standards of British driving have risen dramatically in the last few years. He is the man that all the young hopefuls have been trying to beat throughout the year in the RAC Rally Championship of Great Britain, this year a 10-round series which had its climax in the RAC International.
When Clark was first "assigned" to the British Championship in 1972, Stuart Turner stated that the express aim was to improve the standards of competitors, and by entering Clark in a works Escort the young drivers would have something to aim for, a yardstick by which they could draw their own comparisons and conclusions. Unquestionably the standards have risen, and now the opposition is getting within reach of the maestro. They are close—the RAC Rally results underline the competitiveness of British crews— but the aspiring stars still have some way to go yet.
The Lombard RAC International is the climax of the year for the National Championship regulars, but as such it is only the tip of the iceberg in a Series which starts in February and encompasses all the home Internationals as well as the best one-day National status events which this country can offer. All the rallies included in the RAC Rally Championship are of the special stage variety, and the vast majority are held in Scotland or in the Border Region. The exceptions are the Welsh International, which confines itself to the forests of the Principality, and the Manx and Circuit of Ireland. The latter two are run to a virtually all-tarmac format on closed, public roads in the Isle of Man 'and the Emerald Isle. Competitors are allowed to practise for the Manx International, one of the few events in the British Isles for which competitors are allowed to make pace notes, whilst they have to drive blind on the Circuit.
However, it is in the forests that the major battles of the year are tbught, and such is the competitiveness of the series that the crews are often separated by only seconds after a hard day's sport. Weil, this is not strictly true. Usually Roger Clark has a healthy margin, and the rest of the field are separated by only seconds. So who are the men doing the chasing?
Main protagonist has been a young, quiet Irish farmer called Billy Coleman who won the series last year. Defending his title; Coleman and Clark started the RAC Rally, with two points separating them, Coleman holding the lead in his Thomas Motors of Blackpool Escort 2 by dint of two early season victories—the Mintex Dales and Circuit of Ireland—and a mid-season first on the Jim Clark Rally, which takes its name from the fact that it is based in Duns. Clark had notched up wins on the Granite City, Burmah, Lindisfarne, Welsh, Scottish and Manx Internationals—the latter was a superb drive against the Porsches which so often dominate British tarmac rallies—and when he didn't win he had been Sidelined by mechanical troubles. As it turned out Clark had an easy time of it on the RAC—we refer to the Championship points chase, and not the long catalogue of mechanical troubles which he suffered—and emerged champion with the works Cossack. Escort; Coleman only being able to muster sixth overall on the closing International. The final tallies saw Clark with 69 points, and Coleman on 62.,/p>
Third in the final Championship positions by dint of his incredible third overall on the RAC Rally was Tony Fowkes, a dedicated. London garage owner who drives his old-type private Escort with considerable verve. Throughout the Championship the Londoner has been a consistent finisher in the top half-dozen, and prior to the RAC his best result had been second to Coleman on the Jim Clark Rally. Past performances of the former Board of Inland Revenue employee had earned him something of a reputation for being rather accident prone, hut this, Ins seventh year in the sport, has seen him mature considerably and fulfil a burning ambition to be well placed on the RAC Rally. Although one would never deny his talent, Fowkes has to apply himself to the job in hand, and personally admits that he has to be in the right psychological frame of mind in order to do well—a problem which has seemed to affect Coleman during 1975 as quite often he has not shown all the sparkle which marked hint apart the previous year.
The man who Fowkes pipped into third spot in the Championship was Leyland technical salesman Russell Brookes, who doesn't find it at all odd to be rallying an Escort 2. The stocky Midlander—if anyone looks less like a rally driver and more like a happy country squire then it is Brookes—first made his name driving a Group 1 Escort Mexico and RS2000 in road and stage events, and for his trouble was loaned a works-prepared Escort RS1800 for this season. In fact he started the season by driving his Group 1 R82000, a car in which he took great delight in beating far more potent and powerful opposition, moving on to the privately sponsored and maintained Group 2/5 Escort after the opening two rounds.
The hard-charging Brookes, who is regularly partnered by the omnipresent John Brown, has featured in the top placings on the majority of this year's RAC Championship rounds, best placing being second on the Burmah. On the RAC International he was hauling, it out with rival Fowkes when the rear-wheel studs sheared in Kidder Forest, the largest man-made forest in Europe and consequently a regular venue for Championship events, and put paid to any chances of taking third overall in the series. However, his end of season 39 point total was sufficient to give him fourth, just a single-mark ahead of Bristolian Nigel Rockey. Like Brookes and Coleman. Rockey has a Modicum of works support in that his old-style Escort is an ex-Boreham car, but like his compatriots he has to finance and maintain the 2-litre BDA-engined Ford himself.
Rockey started off the season with considerable promise, notching up a string of second places (Mintex, Granite City and Welsh) but then his luck seemed to change. Turning point was on the Scottish International when his co-driver booked out of a control early, and he retired after receiving a 10-minute penalty. Since then his highest placing on a Championship qualifier was fourth on the Lindisfarne, but he did chalk up a win on a late season National status but non-qualifying stage event.
One gathers that the RAC National Championship has again been dominated by Escorts, and without doubt the Ford is still the most effective forest car. Unfortunately, the other makes did not really get a look-in. The Dealer Opel Team with Tony Pond did not show the promise of the previous year, although third and fourth on the Welsh and Scottish Internationals with the comparatively under-powered Ascona are not to be lightly dismissed. On the RAC International DOT, under the guidance of Tony Fall, brought out the new Kadett which showed considerable potential by coming home fourth in the hands of Pond. But success was rather dampened by the knowledge that this was to be Pond's last drive for Opel. Next year the talented Londoner is to join a very much revived Leyland team. Leyland are to make a big effort on next year's Championship with Brian Culcheth and Pond campaigning a pair of Triumph TR7s.
This year Leyland have been entering a lone Dolomite Sprint for Culcheth—backed up by the class-winning Marina of Pat Ryan—and, despite the weight penalty and lack of power, Culcheth has put in some eye-opening performances: notably two third placings, one on the Jim Clark, the other on the Lindisfarne. Culcheth consequently finished sixth in the Championship with a 27-point total, forfeiting any chances of adding to his total by bringing out a Group I Dolomite on the RAC Rally and promptly winning the category with almost consummate ease.
The RAC Rally Championship does include a separate Group 1 category for which there is a separate points total, and this year this championship within a championship has been the domain of Chrysler and Vauxhall. Both teams have been running cars in the Group 2/5. overall Championship, but neither have obtained the successes that have come their way in Group 1. Another Midlands driver, Will Sparrow, has driven the Group 2 DTV Vauxhall Magnum and although he has given his best, the records show a fifth on the Burrnah as the best result. Sparrow has time and time again been up amongst the front-runners, only to have a variety of troubles which have kept him out of the high scores. Chrysler's Colin Malkin has suffered a similar fate with the 16-valve Group 2 Avenger, but the engine has undergone serious development problems and more often than not the burly Malkin has been unable to start.
Chrysler's main man in Group 1 has been Belfast garage owner Robin Eyre-Maunsell, a character straight out of a P.G Wodehouse story, whilst Vauxhall have relied on young Hampshire businessman Paul Faulkner. After a season-long battle, Faulkner and Eyre-Maunsell started the RAC Rally on equal points. Everything was set for a grandstand finish, but as in the chase for the overall title battle was never really commenced. Faulkner again suffered a number of minor troubles, culminating in a driveshaft failure which left him to limp out of one stage, and the Irishman was able to steam off into the distance, and finish the season with 60 points, three more than his rival. Another Avenger, that of Scot Ian Gemmell, was third in the final Group 1 standings.
Without question this year's RAC Rally Championship has been the hardest-fought ever, and it is true to say that the series is one of the closest-contested in the world. Anyone who finishes in the top half-dozen in any of' the qualifying rounds has to be good, very good. The question now being asked is whether or not the young hopefuls will find that extra something necessary to take the crown from Roger Clark.—M.R.G.