Rally Review, January 1979

Lombard RAC Rally of Great Britain

One year ago we began the review of the 1977 RAC Rally by writing of its immense popularity among competitors and spectators, its enormous organisational costs and its mere academic significance as the final qualifying round of the World Rally Championship for Makes. Well, things haven’t changed very much; the rally remains the most popular in the world, its running costs have followed inflationary trends and once again the World Championship was settled long before its final round.

Although no tangible yardstick can be applied to measure the popularity of the RAC Rally, its appeal to competitors cannot be doubted, whilst one need only see the vast crowds gathered at special stages and controls around the route to gauge the attraction which it holds for spectators. The goal of every rally driver was, in years past, to compete in the Monte-Carlo Rally, but those days have gone and nowadays it seems that from Rovaniemi to Rotorua and from Karlstad to The Cape no driver considers that he has really put his ability to the test until he has matched his skills with the world’s best on the RAC Rally of Great Britain.

The biggest asset of the present-day event is the network of forest roads over which the special stages are held. Loose-surfaced, only occasionally rough, well founded and cambered, twisty, undulating, lined by trees, ditches or unguarded drops into steep-sided valleys, these forest roads give the rally its character and provide tremendous exhilaration for those who are able to drive fast over them. News of the event passes from driver to driver and there is no doubt that the most talented collection of rallying skills in the world is that which gathers in Britain each November, when the year-round hazards of the forests are heightened by the cold, bleak, wet, often icy or snowy approach of winter.

Such a gathering of the world’s best rallying talent could not fail to attract crowds, and millions now brave the harsh November elements to watch the spectacle of well-made cars being driven through forests at their absolute limit of adhesion. Attracted by the character of the rally, the talent, in turn, attracted the crowds. But crowds mean money and nowadays there is more than a little of the promotional circus about the event, although that is really a price which has to be paid so that the rally can meet its high costs.

On the subject of cost we really must point out again that although this giant among rallies is one of Britain’s most prestigious sporting occasions, earning valuable foreign exchange and providing a fine shop window for our motor industry – British cars have won on the past seven occasions – the Government does absolutely nothing either to promote it or to subsidise it. On the contrary, it has to pay for the privilege of taking place.

No-one can deny that the passage of a high-speed convoy of rally cars cuts up the unsealed surfaces of forest roads. This damage has to be repaired, and as repairs are not inexpensive the Forestry Commission snakes a blanket charge on all rallies which use forest roads in their routes. The present-fixed-rate charge is 51p per mile for each car starting the rally, and the 1978 RAC Rally was faced with a bill for over £36,000. We wonder how much of that will have been saved by the postponement of routine road repairs until after the rally has passed by.

Although a Government Department, the Foresty Commission is charged with making a profit, so it cannot be expected to waive the matter of road reinstatement. But in the place of a governmental subsidy a paper transfer could easily be made to balance the forest books, and this fine sporting event would be subsidised not by the injection of hard cash but by the removal of a financial drain.

As in 1977, the World Rally Championship for Makes was settled long before the RAC Rally, but that made little difference to the quality of the entry list. Those who tackle the RAC Rally do so because of the event itself, not for any championship points which may be at stake. The rally is eminently capable of standing on its own feet and needs no pedestal in the form of inclusion in a series. Of course, it is right that it should form part of the World Championship, but we would say that the series needs the rally more than the rally needs the series.

When Lancia operated independently of Fiat, it was the team’s great ambition to win both the Safari and the RAC, two very juicy plums in terms of international publicity, but neither event appears in the long list of Stratos successes. Now that Fiat and Lancia operate as one team, Stratos appearances have become fewer and fewer, but for the RAC Rally they did bring two such cars in a kind of last ditch attempt at plucking at least one of those plums. But Fiat’s influence is strong and the team included one 131 Abarth as well, and this turned out to be a mistake even though the Fiat finished the rally and both Stratos retired.

Two contingents of specialist mechanics had to be brought, as well as two consignments of spare parts, and this must have made the whole operation very unwieldy. It would have been much better for the team had they brought three identical cars, whether Stratos or Fiat 131, although we can understand that they were motivated both by a desire to win with a Stratos and by the need to show the flag of the championship-winning car.

In years past the RAC Rally began on a Saturday morning, but for the second year in succession it started on a Sunday, that first day being confined to non-forest stages in parks, quarries and private estates where there were facilities to cater for the vast crowds of spectators which were expected. Enthusiast spectators, of whom there are hundreds of thousands, will watch on any day and at any time, but casual watchers are more numerous on Saturday and Sunday than they are on a weekday, and this move was done so that when the rally moved into the forest areas on Monday there would be fewer spectators. Torrential rain came down on that Sunday and this must have deterred some watchers, but a glance at the huge open spaces full of parked cars around those Midlands stages on the Sunday was enough to convince anyone that rally enthusiasm overcomes the wettest of blankets.

After years of starting in London, the rally moved to Harrogate in 1971, after which came five years with the City of York as its home – five successful years in an ideal location, made more enjoyable by the manner in which the townspeople took to the visiting army of competitors, mechanics, officials and followers, and vice versa. In Jubilee year the rally started at Wembley and then moved to its base at York, but in 1978 the start and finish of each of the three legs were at Birmingham – right in the centre of that confusing conglomeration of underpasses and flyovers.

With no intention of belittling the enthusiasm of the thousands of Midlanders who follow rallying, we must say that huge, modern cities are not the best homes for rallies, and certainly not the best settings for the creation of the atmosphere in which such events thrive. Staff at the Holiday Inn, where rally headquarters were housed, were incredibly helpful and friendly (we remember receiving the same treatment at this hotel chain’s establishment at Marquette, Michigan during a POR Rally some years ago) but finding the place, and then actually getting to it, were no mean feats in Birmingham’s maze of traffic lanes. Some overseas visitors reported circling the city centre with the Holiday Inn in sight but having to hail a taxi in order to find the way to it.

The array of teams, both professional and amateur, lined up for the RAC Rally was again the most impressive of the whole year. Makes represented, by factory or dealer-consortium teams were Ford, Fiat, Lancia, Saab, Triumph, Vauxhall, Opel, Datsun, Toyota, Volkswagen, Skoda, Chrysler, Audi, Autobianchi and Wartburg, whilst the privateers and partly-backed competitors used various models of Porsche, Alpine, Lada, Honda, Austin, Morris, Mazda, Renault, Peugeot, MG, BMW, Simca and Mitsubishi. There was even a Matra Bagheera, a Mercedes-Benz 450 SLC and a Panther Lima.

The preparations of the Ford team were totally disrupted by the strike of that company’s workers, but the managerial staff of the competitions department were by no means content to sit back and watch a seventh Ford victory barred to them by pickets. No cars or equipment were able to leave Boreham, but various rally-minded Ford dealers were themselves campaigning well-built Escorts in British events and no time was wasted forming them into a consortium. The cars were prepared for the Ford team’s contracted drivers, and mechanics from the dealers organised into service crews. Peter Ashcroft and the few Ford staff who were able to work without strike-breaking coordinated the activities of the motley crews and it is to the great credit of all who were involved that they were able to pull off yet another outright win for the Ford Escort.

After the rally Ashcroft was asked whether he considered that the victory was proof that it was not necessary to have the field backing of highly skilled rally mechanics to win a rally. His answer was not only diplomatic but absolutely true. The win was proof that the work and development carried out by Boreham’s rally mechanics over the years had resulted in a car possessing reliability as well as agility, and well-tried practices which could be adopted by those with less rallying experience. It was a tribute, not only to the outside mechanics who looked after the cars during the event but to the skill and efficiency of his own men.

The three parts of the rally, each divided by a night stop in Birmingham, were firstly in the Midlands for a day, secondly in the North of England and Southern Scotland for two days and a night, and thirdly in Wales for a day-and-a-half night. Initially it was Alén’s Stratos which went into the lead, followed by Röhrl’s Fiat and the Escorts of Waldegard and Mikkola, but the second leg changed all that.

Saab Turbos were appearing for the first time in a major event and there was no premature display of confidence from the Trollhättan team who knew that the RAC Rally was more an extension of development than anything else. But they were not really prepared for what happened. Up in the Yorkshire forests, only a few miles apart, both cars retired with broken drive-shafts, a failure which had not been encountered in the whole of the car’s development programme. This was a great pity, for although the Turbos had started cautiously they were beginning to speed up and it would have been interesting to see how they matched up against the opposition.

By the Monday evening both the Stratos were out, that of Munari after the Italian driver had lost time with fuel pump failure and had become sufficiently despondent to pull out, and that of Alén after transmission (probably gearbox) failure. Thérier’s Toyota vanished on the first day with a broken half-shaft, whilst Asterhag’s went out in ‘Wales. Neither Haugland nor Lampiersat, from Norway and Finland respectively, made a great impression with their factory Triumph TR7 V8s, but Pond was frequently up with the leaders despite the loss of a brake caliper and a worrying loss of water. In the Group 1 category Kaby’s Dolomite Sprint was well ahead of Culcheth’s Opel Kadett, but the Triumph blew a piston leaving Culcheth to add to the long string of category wins which he has scored this year.

In the lone works Fiat the German’ driver Röhrl displayed his high degree of skill and there were times when he showed all the signs of being a potential winner, but a blockage in the fuel system slowed him on one stage and stopped him on the next. He used the starter motor to drag the car out of harm’s way but in so doing got it stuck in mud. He ran back along the stage shouting for help from spectators, and it was to his great fortune that his shouts were heard by marshals at the start. They saw his waving torch, heard his “Allo-allo” and, thinking that someone might have been injured, temporarily stopped the stage to send a rescue Range Rover in to investigate. When it got to the scene Röhrl was able to persuade us crew to pull the Fiat out of the mud, after which he got it started and carried on to finish sixth.

We must mention the crew seating positions in the Fiat, for co-driver Geistdörfer was not alongside Röhrl but in the middle of where the rear seat would have been. Most co-drivers nowadays sit as low and as far back and away from the driver as possible, this to keep the centre of gravity down and to avoid getting in the way of flailing arms and elbows. But Röhrl went the whole hog and Geistdörfer was banished to a spine-shaking back seat ride, the accoutrements of navigation clustered around his “office desk”. The move did result in greater traction, but it sometimes net made the steering much lighter than Röhrl would have liked.

The Vauxhall team, which operates as a dealer enterprise, came to a very sad end in the vast forest complex of Kidder, all three of their Chevettes retiring in that area. Airikkala’s oil pump drive pulley came adrift when a bolt sheared, McRae went off the road up a firebreak and got stuck in soft ground, whilst Sclater was stopped by electrical failure.

The winning margin of Hannu Mikkola and Arne Hertz over their team-mates Björn Waldegård and Hans Thorszelius was eventually 5 min. 18 sec., a little more than the year before when they occupied the same leading positions, but in the reverse order, Mikkola then driving a Toyota. The third car home was also an Escort, driven by Russell Brookes who achieved the very same place the previous year when his partner was John Brown. This time his co-driver was Derek Tucker.

The 61 finishers and the 109 who retired could all tell long (but not tall) tales of achievement and misfortune. It is a rally which demands not only a high degree of driving skill but meticulous preparation, accurate planning and no small measure of personal tenacity. As we said last year, there are still things at which we in Britain lead the world.- G. P.