Yet Another Ford Victory

Makinen becomes second man to score RAC hat-trick

It’s odd how a point made by Motor Sport will often be repeated much later by a more general news medium, written or spoken, and treated in such a way that the point seems only then to have been discovered. This is true of many things but the point we have particularly in mind concerns the RAC Rally and its immense popularity among the British public, both enthusiast and otherwise. For years we have been commenting on the tremendous following which the sport of rallying has in Britain, the great numbers of people who participate in it at club and national level and the huge crowds who go out year after year to watch its premier event, the RAG Rally. It is still not generally accepted that thousands actually go out themselves and compete week after week, hut at least it now seems to be recognised that the exciting spectacle of the RAC Rally attracts crowds well into seven figures.

Marshalling a crowd into a football stadium or an audience into a concert hall are relatively simple processes; you simply sell no more than the appropriate number of tickets, or at worst just close the doors when the seats or places are all taken. The RAC Rally is quite different for the whole country is the auditorium and there are very few door’s which can be closed. The stages in both senses of the word, are so remote and widely scattered that motor transport is needed to reach them, and although there is no shortage of space anywhere for spectators to stand and watch there is often an acute lack of suitable ground where they can leave their cars. Furthermore, vast convoys of cars were not envisaged at all by those who laid down little country roads and narrow lanes, and that presents the additional difficulty of actually getting to a chosen vantage point.

At one time spectators were left to their own devices to find the special stages and to park near them as best they could. Those were the days when watchers were all enthusiasts who knew everything there was to know about map references, approach directions, white road goers and roadbook diagrams. They could be trusted not to get snarled up with rally traffic and to use forest entrances not being used by competitors. Nowadays, rallying attracts all and sundry and it has become necessary to provide information for those without experience of the sport to get themselves to the right places at the right times and by the right roads.

Thus were spectator guides born. It is now not enough to announce just the route of the rally; it has become necessary to publish ways of avoiding it. A pioneer in this field is our weekly stablemate Motoring News which, like ourselves, believes that the best way to avoid congestion is to tell people exactly where the rally will go and then to tell them where they will have no difficulty watching, and where they will. Secrecy always presents a challenge and it was noticeable this year that special stages which were not disclosed attracted many people who drove around searching for the action, often getting in the way.

So much for the watchers; now let’s turn to what they were watching. With nearly 250 cars starting, including factory or importer-backed cars from Ford, Leyland, Chrysler, Lancia, Fiat, Saab, Volkswagen, Skoda, Opel, Toyota, Datsun, Vauxhall, Mitsubishi, Polski Fiat, Honda and Alfa Romeo, there can be no doubt of the immense popularity of the RAC Rally among both amateurs and professionals. No other event attracts such a strong field and one can only reflect that all this stems from the use of forest roads. When they were first used in the rally a decade and a half ago, the roads of our State Forests delighted the visiting Scandinavians who then began to dominate the event. The cambers, twists and undulations were all in a rhythm which they could understand and they kept returning, and winning, year after year. The attraction spread among drivers from other countries and the rally then became so universally popular that any team, factory or otherwise, heavily involved in the sport could not afford to give the RAC Rally a miss. World Championship points were of secondary importance; the big thing was to win the event which attracted greatest world attention.

There was a time when the man in the street knew only of the Monte Carlo Rally, and later perhaps a little of the Safari as well. But his knowledge was limited, and to him the former was just a race over snow-covered Alps and the latter a bush-chopping struggle through a jungle. Nowadays rallying is followed far more closely and most people know all about the RAC Rally and its special stages in the forests. Indeed, we have been asked about the RAC Rally by mountain villagers in Corsica, lakeside dwellers in Finland, medical men in Poland and even airline pilots in Africa.

At the present time, a successful RAC Rally is almost guaranteed, for that kind of popularity doesn’t dwindle easily, but it all began because of those forest roads, and whenever special stages other than in forests are included in the rally they are not altogether popular among the competitors. Stately homes can cater admirably for spectators when their estate roads are used as stages, so there is just cause for using such places as Bramham and Harewood, especially as both are near York. The tarmac roads of Sutton Park are justified owing to the immense spectator interest in the Midlands, but there can be no justifiable reason for using a rough quarry and other such “rubbish” stages, as competitors call them, merely to take the rally to a particular part of the country. The Swedish Rally doesn’t visit major cities but stays in the province which provides the best special stages. The same applies to the Rally of the Thousand Lakes and many other events. Showing the flag may be part of the game, but competitors would welcome the reduction of unnecessary road mileage and the cutting out of sub-standard stages which, in fairness, were very few in number.

Initially there was considerable speculation on the outcome, for championship points were not at stake (Lancia had already clinched the title) and everyone would be going out to win. Perhaps this put everyone too much on edge, for there was a brisk retirement rate right from the beginning, mainly due to mechanical failures rather than driver error, though one can never he really sure of this. That speculation soon gave way to wondering which of three, then two, makes would win, and finally which of two drivers in the same team. ,The end might have been just a little flat, but the build-up was certainly tense and exciting.

Toyota lost three of its four cars through mechanical failures (main bearings, piston rings and ignition) whilst the fourth went off the road on the last night and only managed to stay in the rally because maximum lateness was increased to offset the delay of a traffic jam. Both Saabs blew their engines, but not before Blomqvist made his almost traditional roll followed by a stirring bid for the lead. One Opel Kadett blew its head gasket and the two others from Germany suffered gearbox failure, leaving the car of the British dealer team to go on to a fine fourth place in the hands of British driver Tony Pond. A Vauxhall Magnum driven by Will Sparrow won its class comfortably, whilst the highest placed Group One car was the Triumph Dolomite Sprint entered by Leyland and driven by Brian Culcheth.

Lancia didn’t fare at all well, but by dint of shrewd tactics Waldegard’s Stratos drove right through the rally to the end even though it was technically excluded at the seventeenth special stage. Leading after the first leg, Waldegard had a driveshaft break in Clipstone forest, the delay dropping him down to something like 120th place. So great was that delay that the Swedish driver was later than his hour’s maximum at the start of the next stage and the penalty for this was exclusion.

But notice of protest was given, the reason being a delay in a queue of cars waiting at the stage start, and Waldegard continued on his way. At the end of the second leg, the protest was put in writing, but it was done late at night in almost illegibly handwritten Italian. Since the stewards had no opportunity to translate and discuss the protest, Waldegard started the third leg and went on to get up to what would have been seventh place overall, making fastest time on all of 44 special stages. But the inevitable happened at the end; he was excluded, as everyone including himself expected.

Some would say that the manner in which the protest was lodged was deliberately calculated to keep the Stratos running in the rally to gain publicity which it did not really deserve. This may be so, but it also served to delight the spectators, for the British public has precious few opportunities to see the Stratos in action and its presence in the rally right to the end was something which every onlooker appreciated.

However, a dangerous precedent may have been created by the manner in which the Stratos was kept going and it might open the doors for all and sundry to keep running in rallies, even though they have been excluded, simply by turning in protests which have no chance of being allowed.

The Ford team got out of the rally exactly what they wanted to achieve, save perhaps for the team prize, for neither of their two three-car teams finished intact. However, Ford Escorts took the first three places and Timo Miikinen became the second man ever to score a hat-trick. Those achievements made the effort entirely worthwhile, but it certainly was an effort for the Ford team had all manner of problems on their way to success, including serious gearbox and suspension problems on Roger Clark’s car and a split sump on Makinen’s. The latter was rectified with abundant applications of Plastic Padding during the last night and a co-driver’s footwell full of spare oil cans. After a run of playing second fiddle in the RAC to foreign opposition, Ford came back to the fore in 1972 (their previous win was in 1966 with Soderstrom’s Cortina-Lotus) when Roger Clark won. On each occasion since, Makinen and Liddon have won and both those gentlemen and the staff at Boreham can be justifiably proud of that feat.

Most pronounced during this year’s rally was the use of radio as a means of communication between competing cars and their support crews. In events such as the Safari and the Morocco Rally radio is almost a prerequisite for success nowadays, and certainly an important safety aid, for no-one likes to be stuck in the bush incommunicado. But in the RAC Rally it has never really caught on until now. There was a time when the only team using radio was Saab, their cars having used two-way equipment on all rallies for many years. But in November there were all manner of cars, both factory-entered and private, with little antennae on their roofs.

In mountainous areas reception between cars can fade away to nothing, so some sort of a relay station is needed. Ford got over this problem by equipping all their service cars with very high, telescopic masts and centralising an enormous trailer-borne mast in each stage area, moving it from place to place as the rally progressed. Lancia used an aircraft during the first leg, but they did not continue with this in the second and third. They probably regretted that, for had Waldegard been able to use his radio when he broke his driveshaft he might have been able to get going sooner and avoid disqualification.

Radios are not cheap and have to be licensed, but they provide a tremendous advantage with which some people reckon should not be allowed. Whatever one may feel about this, we can say that the RAC is considering whether to make regulations for next year’s event specifically prohibiting the use of radio. This year, authorities were monitoring the transmissions (in a variety of languages) of rally teams and one supposes that the RAC will take notice of whatever the report of those authorities will say.

With a fanfare of trumpets heralding the prize-giving ceremony at York University (wherein the computer handling the results was housed), the rally came to a close. It was the last of three occasions it has been based in York, for next year the rally will be centred at Bath. If the people of that City and its administrators offer a welcome such as that extended in York, settling in to its new home should be easy and pleasant. One thing is certain: the RAC Rally is no longer a nuisance to be tolerated rather than encouraged, but an international occasion which even the highest authority in the land cannot afford to ignore.—G.P.