Although it’s potential as the final round of the 1977 World Rally Championship for Makes was negated when the major tussle of that series, between Fiat and Ford, was settled in favour of Fiat during the Tour of Corsica two weeks before, the Lombard RAC Rally of Great Britain was nevertheless the most significant rally of the series, largely because it attracted the greatest assembly of works teams and professional drivers of any event in the year.
But that is really nothing new, for the rally has been the most popular in the world for some years, not particularly because it is the best organised, but because it is geographically well placed (if it cost as little to reach Nairobi as it did to cross the Channel, things might be different), has a line assortment of good forest roads on which the stages are run, and presently has a currency exchange rate which renders Britain more attractive to foreigners than other countries are to Britishers. The ability to attract foreign competitors is an asset which every rally organiser craves, and it has become quite common to measure success by the number of foreigners appearing in the .entry list. In the past ten years the RAC Rally has attracted more and more each year, almost without trying. Other organisers go out to “sell” their events to competitors by sending representatives to other events. The RAC Rally does not do this, and still the foreigners come. This year there were 180 starters. and 114 of them were from outside Britain. Just like the Monte Carlo Rally of years ago, the RAC Rally has the entry market situation in its favour, but there is a limit to the size of competitive cavalcade which the British forests and their crowded link roads can take and it would make the rally almost unmanageable if every entry application were accepted. Thus limited, the organisers have a dilemma; they either start limiting the number of foreign competitors or alienate themselves from British crews who find it increasingly difficult to get a place. This year many were turned down and were understandably disappointed and angry.
However, the fact remains that the entry list was crammed with talent which would, and did, make other organisers forest-hued with envy. Manufacturers represented were Chrysler, Ford, Leyland. Honda, Toyota, Saab, Skoda, Wartburg, Vauxhall, Fiat, Lancia, Opel and Renault, and there were amateurs and part-supported competitors from all over Europe and Scandinavia, and from as far afield as South Africa, New Zealand and Japan. Such an array made a fine spectacle and it was not unexpected that spectators gathered all over the country to watch the event pass by. It has become normal that millions will go out into cold, wet, foggy, muddy forests to watch the RAC Rally, and no longer can it be said that authorities were caught out by the numbers which flock to the special stages. The organisers this year started the rally on a Sunday morning, rather than the traditional Saturday, in order that weekend spectators would be confined to stages in public parks and stately homes, where control is far easier exercised than in open forests. Those with casual interest probably stuck to what they could watch on the Sunday, but from Monday to Thursday the forests still proved to be an attraction for vast crowds of enthusiasts who seemed to be as numerous by night as were by day.
Wimbledon, the Cup Final or a Test Match attract large numbers of spectators, but remain in one place to watch a sport which uses one venue. The RAC Rally is a moving attraction, and when spectators have seen it, pass through one place they move off to watch it in another. Spectators are therefore not only the people who line the forest stages, crowding the hillsides and banks within the tree (if they are sensible), but also the people in the convoys of cars moving from stage to stage often causing traffic jams but nevertheless doing their utmost to give right of way, to competitors. After all, if competitors can’t get to a stage there will he nothing for the spectators to watch!
But over the years the organisers have learned about spectators, that they are just people who may or may not turn up to watch, but people who most certainly do turn up in huge numbers. Consequently some special stages, mostly those with car pa rk facilities near at hand and with approved roads wide enough to take the volume of traffic, are made public, whilst the difficult ones are not.
Another point concerning spectators relate to the cost of running the RAC Rally. The Forestry Commission levies a charge on rally organisers for the use of forest roads special stages. This came about when it was realised that the passage of car after high-speed car tends to rut the surfaces, but the charge has been increased several times and it now stands at 42p per mile per car which starts the rally. The RAC Rally had 425 forest miles, which works out at a fee of more than £32,000. It is a crippling charge which some say is quite outrageous since it is likely that routine road reinstatement work in the forests is probably left until after the rally anyway. Most certainly without the financial backing of Lombard North Central the rally could not take place.
The situation is very strange. The country’s most prestigious event brings in valuable foreign exchange, adds much to the Exchequer in the form of taxes and provides a world-wide shop window for Britain’s motor industry –a British car has won on the past six occasions. Nevertheless it has to run without any form of government support whatsoever, and is actually made to pay for the privilege of taking place. Although the Forestry Commission is run as a company, and therefore has to make a profit, it is owned by the State and it would be very easy to carry out a paper transfer of funds to so that this fine event could be subsidised, not by the injection of hard cash but by the removal of a financial drain. Ata the same time the Forestry Commission would not have a debit on its books.
The whole tings is really a very complex endless chain; rallying creates a spectacle–it therefore attracts sponsors–it costs money and the sponsors provide some of it–the spectacle attracts crowds–the organisers have to cater for them –that adds to the organisation headaches–and also adds to the cost. It’s a circle which is by no means vicious, but one could say that a fine event is running the risk of strangulation by its own benevolence. Other countries charge spectators admission to the forests, and the money obtained goes partly to the landowners and partly to the rally organisers. In Britain, private landowners do charge admission fees, but the only charges at forests are for parking. If parking fees were discontinued and individual entrance fees charged instead, perhaps some of the difficulty would be overcome. People might have something to say about paying to get on to public-owned land where rights of way often exist, but they would surely not object to paying to see a spectacle which they obviously enjoy, thus contributing towards the cost of that spectacle.
Of the competition itself, it must be said there there were more potential winners in the entry list than the rally has seen for some time. The form book can sometimes be used to make vague predictions about the results of some events, but so many unknown quantities can affect the RAC Rally that he would be a determined gambler indeed who would wager on the outcome. A bitterly cold wind combined with heavy rain to produce conditions which most people would consider atrocious, but there are times when nothing but bad going will satisfy rally competitors and this seemed to be one of them. There was even some ice and snow in Wales and Yorkshire to satisfy all tastes, but hardly enough to bring smiles to the faces of the Saab team who were hoping for snow from beginning to end.
Nearly every special stage was slippery, but so well are most forest roads engineered that their drainage was well able to cope. Some stages were muddy, but in most cases the mud was so thin that it merely created a slippery top dressing to the hard under-surface. On loose surfaces drivers tend to swing their cars in order to use the sideways movement to scrub off speed without using brakes and to get an initial help around corners, but when the surfaces are stony and not so loose, these tactics bring a great risk of punctures through the sidewalls as cars heel over. People tend not to regard slippery stages as particularly puncture-provoking, but the thin layer of mud on hard roads was most deceptive. The mud caused the cars to slide sideways, and the firm stone beneath then pierced their tyre sidewalls. Punctures were so common that people were picking them up in twos, whilst others were having to start stages knowing that they had flat tyres, simply because they had run out of spares and could not meet a service car until after they had completed the stage ahead.
This leads us to another point concerning the convoys of service cars which leap-frog their way around the rally route, meeting their competing cars as often as they can to attend to their needs. There was a time when the only competitors with service cars were those of factory teams, but nowadays almost every runner has a group of vehicles to support him by carrying wheels, tyres, fuel and all manner of spare parts from fanbelts to gearboxes. Competitors numbered 180, but official registered service cars numbered much more, representing a pretty substantial auxiliary convoy.
In some counties the authorities hardly raise an eyebrow if two service cars and a truck set up shop in the middle of a town square and their crews begin to weld up exhaust pipes, beat out bodywork and scatter tools, spares, empty tines and waste oil all over the paving in front of M’sieu le Maire’s statue. In Britain this just isn’t done, but to guard against the possibility of police being upset by mechanics working on busy roads, or villagers being disturbed by noise in the middle of the night, the organisers scrapped a former rule which defined where servicing may not be done and replaced it with a rule specifying the places where it may.
A negative rule was replaced by a positive one, and it would have worked very well except that the service areas chosen were often far too small to accommodate all the service crews who wanted to use it. Furthermore they were sometimes on very soft ground, or in places at which no spectator control could be exercised. To say that mechanics were working under difficulty would e an enormous understatement, yet to see hard-working people, toiling enthusiastically in an open field, in pouring rain during a bitterly cold night, completing in minutes tasks which would take a commercial garage hours or even days to finish, would open your eyes wide in astonishment an admiration. It would also make you wonder how some garages justify their labour charges.
Authorised service areas were sometimes quite far apart, and very often competitors had to complete two, three or even more stages before they could meet their service crews. Regulations or no, nearly every works team, and even some of the private ones, used unmarked service cars to “patrol” the forbidden areas just in case their competing cars should need them in an emergency. Others employed the pursuit system whereby another unmarked car carrying a mechanic, tools and emergency spares, would chase a car from stage to stage, always staying close behind to render assistance should it be needed.
We should explain that service cars had to be registered with the organisers and had to display prominent numbers on their sides so that any breach of the regulations could be traced to the culprit.
Having made digression after digression, we have almost arrived at the end of the available space without say8ing anything of what actually happened. To put that right, we should applaud the fine, polished performance of Bjorn Waldegard and Hans Thorszelius, who scored a popular victory, their first in the RAC Rally, but the sixth in succession for the works team of Ford Escorts. Waldegard, who also won the Acropolis Rally and the Safari Rally in 1977, is an intelligent driver who is often quite unspectacular to watch but invariably smooth and never wasteful of either an inch or a second. Indeed, he taxes his car only as much as it needs to be taxed and judges things so finely and expertly that he very rarely wins by a great margin. “If you win by five seconds you still win, so why risk breaking the car by trying to make it five minutes?”
Hannu Mikkola, the Finn who drove for Toyota in 1977 and will drive for Ford in 1978, challenged hard all the way through the rally but he had to be content with second place in the end. The works Fiats, of which there were no less than six, had a variety of misfortunes and their best position was that of Simo Lampinen who finished seventh. The four Triumph TR7s of the Leyland team also had a bad time, Tony Pond’s eighth place being the best, whilst the two works Saabs, faithful visitors to the RAC Rally for many years and with several wins to their credit, managed one finish, by Per Eklund in ninth place. Opels, too, had a bad time, Chrysler an even worse one, whilst the unfortunate Vauxhall team began with Pentti Airikkala looking very inch a favourite until a variety of troubles dropped him to sixteenth place in his Chevette.
The process by which 180 starters were whittled down to just 67 finishers brought tales of misfortune and achievement which would fill volumes. The rally now has strong undertones of meticulous preparation and military-like strategy, but it is still a superb contest. We were pleased to see the previous year’s shortcomings put right and proud that there is still something at which we in Britain lead the world.–G.P.