The Lombard RAC Rally of Great Britain
One year ago, we began our review of the 1975 RAC Rally with a discourse about the tremendous following which the sport of rallying has in Britain and the vast crowds of spectators who go out into cold, damp, foggy, frosty, November nights to watch that event pass through remote forests. We spoke of the change in the nature of these spectators, of how at one time they were invariably enthusiasts who knew about map references, approach directions, white road goers and roadbook diagrams, and of how the sport’s popularity has so increased that nowadays the crowds are made up of all manner of people, most with no inside knowledge of the sport and who go along for the excitement just as those who have never clipped on a pair of skis might watch the Winter Olympics.
We now find ourselves tempted to begin this review of the 1976 rally in a similar ways though not in the sensationalist style employed by some of the non-sporting press.
There was a time when all spectators were hardy, knowledgeable. enthusiasts. They could be trusted not to get mixed up with rally traffic, not to cause unnecessary congestion on narrow roads leading to forests, to park their cars sensibly and, perhaps most important, to take up vantage points within the forests in places well out of range of cars which might leave the road suddenly and at pretty high speed.
In those days the locations of the special stages were not kept secret. A day or two before the rally they were available to all, and the spectating public were able, quite unintentionally of course, to scatter themselves all over the country without being concentrated in any one stage in particular.
But as the event’s popularity grew, the organisers began to worry more and more about stage access roads being blocked by spectator traffic. Eventually they began to keep stage locations secret, the idea being to confine spectators to those stages where there was ample parking facilities and enough access roads to prevent competitors becoming snarled up with spectators.
This secrecy is a practice which we have always been against, for it always presents a challenge and one invariably gets groups of spectators driving around looking for the secret stages and often getting in the way. There are those enthusiasts, of course, who know where to go anyway. Far better for all concerned would be a completely open route with precise instructions on how to get to the various points and specific information concerning the places where access would be almost impossible. All too often Belgrave Square remains clammed up, and this is just one instance of how that attitude has adverse effects.
The object of the secrecy was to prevent congestion, but it also had a result which was not foreseen as something potentially dangerous, but which has shown up as a great risk indeed. As crowds became bigger, the proportion of non-enthusiast watchers with little or no inside knowledge of the sport increased accordingly. To a competitor this became more noticeable rally after rally, for no longer were the spectators lining the forest tracks confining themselves to safe vantage points behind the tree lines. They began standing on the outside of bends, in the middle of firebreaks which served as natural escape roads, on log piles which can so easily erupt almost explosively even if just brushed by a tailswinging car, in ditches which are often used for extra camber and even on the very edges of the tracks themselves. No longer were these watchers prepared for the sudden commotion caused by a car leaving the road and performing all manner of unexpected acrobatics before coming to rest. They didn’t have the survival instinct of the enthusiast and were positioning themselves in places which could only be described as suicidal.
As the popularity of the RAC Rally increased, so these things would have happened anyway, but they were accelerated without doubt by the policy of secrecy adopted by the rally organisers, albeit without their realising it of course. Send a million spectators to watch fifty special stages and in theory you need have no more than 20,000 at each stage. But keep all but ten of those stages secret and you at once create artificial concentrations which will produce crowds of 100,000 at the disclosed stages. Bear in mind that a substantial proportion of those crowds will know little about the sport and you will see that the problem of crowd control becomes enormous.
During the RAC Rally the kind of incident which everyone fears actually happened. For a car to leave the road on a special stage is nothing, for it happens all the time and the crews at once set about getting back on to the road and carrying on. But this particular departure from the road took place on a corner at which spectators were standing in packed rows along both sides of the road, on the outside and inside of the corner, and occupying the only space available as an escape avenue. With no blame whatsoever attached to himself, the driver lost adhesion, slid outwards and went straight into the crowd, causing several people to be taken away for medical treatment and the stage to be held up and subsequently abandoned.
True to form, some newspapers and even radio and television made on outcry, the wood for the time being taking absolute precedence over the trees, and there were even questions in the House. Various ways of keeping spectators away from danger zones have been put forward, but we feel that if more stages were made public there would be less funnelling and subsequently crowds of lesser proportions in any one place. What should not be forgotten is that once a massive spectacle is created it is virtually impossible to keep people away from it, so it cannot be said that the vast crowds took anyone by surprise. Furthermore, is it not still a principle of law that people are assumed to have intended the natural consequences of their own acts? That would appear to create a two-pronged onus.
Floods of entries, overflowing the 200 maximum considerably, are quite normal for the RAC Rally and it was by no means unexpected that the event attracted the most impressive line-up of factory and factory-backed cars of any rally in the year Furthermore, an additional fifty entries were accepted to run in what is called the Clubman’s Trophy Rally which takes place over the route of just the second half of the main event.
Among the factories represented, either directly or through dealer-operated teams, were Ford, Leyland, Chrysler, Lancia, Fiat, Saab, Toyota, Datsun, Opel, Vauxhall, Alpine, Skoda and Wartburg. Lancia, having already won the World Championship, sent just one Stratos to attempt an outright victory, but its crew was switched only a few weeks before the start. After Munari won in Corsica it was the team’s intention to send only Waldegard to the RAC, but when the Italians heard that he had signed for Ford in 1977, turning down an offer from Fiat, they immediately withdrew him and put Munari in his place. We would be the last to say that Munari is anything hut a fine driver, but on forest tracks without practice and with no pace notes there can be no doubt that the Swedish driver has the edge. Indeed, when he lost his Lancia drive he was immediately given a works Escort with which he beat his former team-mate by 54 seconds. Were we given to supposition, we might speculate as to what would have happened had he been in a Stratos after all.
From Bath, where the rally was based after a four-year stay at York, the first leg route went via the Forest of Dean and Sutton Park up to the forests of Yorkshire, the Kidder complex and the Lake District before returning to Bath, the whole leg taking from Saturday morning to Sunday evening. The second part, from Monday morning to Tuesday evening, began with a rather strung-out tour of the West Country before crossing the Severn Bridge for a night and a day in Wales.
Initially it was Hannu Mikkola who went into the lead in his Toyota Celica, but this only lasted four stages (including the one cancelled due to the accident involving spectators) for after losing some 20 minutes with bent throttle slides he never figured again. For the next three stages the name at the top of the leader board was An Vatanen, the young Finn who has spent a year rallying in Britain for Ford and who, by a combination of exceptional talent and temporary switch of licence nationality, has become British Rally Champion for 1976. But then he, too, dropped down and soon retired with valve failure, letting another “temporarily British” Finn into the lead, Pentti Airikkala.
All the way to the halfway stop Airikkala held the lead in his Ford Escort, being followed in second place firstly by Russell Brookes (Escort), then by Tony Pond who amazed everyone by driving his works Triumph TR7 very quickly indeed, and then by Roger Clark who kept that second place doggedly and reliably to the end of the first leg.
In the second half things changed. The loop around the West Country ended with a time control at Weston-super-Mare before crossing the Severn and the Wye into Wales. After a stop for service just before the control, Airikkala arrived at the control a minute over his maximum lateness and was told that the regulation penalty of exclusion would be applied. Then began something of a controversy, but it wasn’t very different from what happened last year, when Waldegard was over his time at a control. On that occasion notice of protest was lodged and the Lancia had to be allowed to continue. Later, the written protest was lodged, late at night and in not too clearly handwritten Italian, and again the car had to be allowed to carry on, putting up a remarkable performance and scoring the best time on no less than 44 special stages.
Our comment last year was that the Lancia team manager had played a tactical move to keep the Stratos running, gaining publicity from Waldegard’s impressive performance, but we also felt that it was a dangerous precedent. Indeed it was, for at Westonsuper-Mare Airikkala played the same hand as Waldegtird did in 1975, although on this occasion he felt that perhaps he did have quite a case.
The journey through the Welsh forests was therefore led by Airikkala, Clark and Stig Blomqvist who was driving his rather heavy Saab 99 with polish and verve, just as though it were one of the more manageable 96s. Clark knew about the notice of protest but since there was no means of knowing the outcome he strove to get ahead of the Finn. At the same time, Blomqvist was getting perilously close behind, so there was absolutely no relaxation for the man who is still the most consistently fast rally driver in Britain.
Eventually, only a handful of stages from the end, Airikkala came to a stop with a broken clutch. It was a very sad end to a fine drive, but it must have saved some embarrassment somewhere since Airikkala’s protest never actually had to materialise. Clark, who had been determined from the start to bring about a home win, went on to his second RAC Rally victory, this time with his Total Rally partner Stuart Pegg alongside him. Blomqvist took a fine second place, but his team-mate Eklund had his car succumb to transmission failure just before the end when he, too, looked like getting a place among the leaders. But two other Saab runners finished sufficiently high for the manufacturer’s team prize to be picked up by Saab-Scania.
It was the fifth consecutive win for a Ford Escort on the RAC Rally and the second win for Clark who is, of course, the only Briton to have beaten the Swedes and the Finns on this event since Erik Carlsson began the Nordic steamrollering in 1960. Timo Makinen, who scored three successive wins in 1973, 1974 and 1975, ended his rally very early on after rolling substantially in the Speech House special stage, and it must have been galling indeed for him to discover afterwards that the stage had been abandoned due to the subsequent spectator accident.
As a close contest between the finest array of cars and drivers in the world, the Lombard RAC Rally is supreme, but there were many shortcomings this year which caused quite a number of drivers, both foreign and British, to express discontent; things such as the “leaking” out of the official roadbook a little before its official date of issue, a highly ambiguous set of timing regulations which served only to confuse, servicing restrictions which were not altogether satisfactory and a few others. We sincerely hope that these things will be put right for next year, for it would be tragic if this unique motor sporting occasion were to start leaning over the
top of the popularity pedestal which it has occupied for many years.—G.P.