Rally Review - Lombard RAC Rally of Great Britain, January 1980

Statistics, it is said, can be made to prove anything, but be would be a very clever statistician indeed who could produce figures, with anything approaching accuracy, to give a measure of the massive spectator attendance around the route of November’s Lombard RAC Rally of Great Britain. Vast crowds turned up everywhere, at special stages, service areas, time controls and even at roundabouts and crossroads on comparatively dull parts of the route where cars were likely to do no more than slow down or stop briefly.

Service areas were thronged with people anxious to watch amazing feats of mechanical ingenuity, whilst special stages were often lined by spectators along their entire lengths, all eager to see what is undoubtedly the finest display of high speed driving on loose-surfaced roads that could be envisaged.

Attendance estimates have run into millions and, having been associated with the event in various capacities over many years, we consider that, if anything, they err on the conservative side. The editor went out to see a forest stage in Wales and got himself so snarled up in a vastly over-populated and under-sized parking area in Radnor forest that we doubt whether he will want to repeat the experience, whilst a straight-faced D.S.J. attempted an estimate of attendance by a head count on the photograph on this page and some extremely empirical multiplication.

This splendid event, together with its overtures and finale, spans close on a week and puts a fine, mobile spectacle right under the gaze of those who choose to go out to see — and many of them brave fog, ice and rain to stand on bleak Yorkshire moors or winds-wept Welsh mountainsides to do just that, even in the middle of the night.

Forest stages are far more exciting and have considerably more atmosphere than those on the somewhat artificial roads of private estates and parks, but it is regrettable that the former have nothing like the available parking spaces of the latter. In recent years this has prompted the organisers not to disclose to the public the locations of most of the forest stages. Their motives were sensible, for no-one would thank them for allowing traffic jams and indiscrirninate parking to disrupt the progress of competitors who, after all, are the people the spectators want to see, but this selective funnelling of spectators into just some of the available places has itself created congestion. Making more such places known to the public would lessen the concentration by spreading the spectators out a little more. It would certainly not attract a greater number of spectators for that reason alone, for already they travel substantial distances to watch the event, whilst the knowledgeable and astute among them (and there are many thousands) are able to find the locations of secret stages and go there to watch, partly to get away from crowds and partly to witness what they consider to be the best action. Ironically, so many do this that crowds invariably gather, but at least they are largely enthusiasts who know exactly what they are about.

The rally itself was just the kind of contest which has produced this enviable reputation throughout the world. Indeed, It is an attraction not only for spectators, but for many competitors from other countries who, if they are unable to compete, consider it entirely worthwhile to come along just to watch. This year we met several such people from Europe and Scandinavia, and even from South Africa.

What is more, the event has even become a Mecca for organisers of other international rallies, all anxious to publicise their own events among the largest gathering of international competitors to take place during the year Meetings, receptions, film shows and the like have become so numerous in the few days before the start that it is quite impossible for anyone to visit all of them, although it is rather useful that the base town of the RAC Rally has become recognised as a distribution point for information concerning other rallies.

The RAC Rally is considered by manufacturers’ teams to be one of the big publicity plums of the year, along with the Safari and, although not now as much as in the past, the Monte-Carlo Rally. Being part of the World Championship is of secondary importance; what really matters is the event itself, for it generates far more publicity around the world than the championship of which it is part.

Since 1972 it has always been won by Ford Escorts, which says much for the suitability of those cars for the style of “forest racing” to be found th Britain, for the skill and rallymanship of those who drive them, and for the dedication and ingenuity of those who build and service them. Indeed, so successful have Escorts been in Britain (elsewhere too, of course) that it has become as common to say that it’s hard to beat the Escorts in Britain as it has that it’s hard to beat the Finns in Finland.

Fortunately, the event has never become regarded as an Escort preserve, and manufacturers other than Ford continue to make determined bids to topple Boreham from its pedestal. It’s a kind of chain reaction; the more teams who want to challenge Ford, the more popular and competitive the event becomes, and that gives rise to a greater attraction for even more teams.

It was all sparked off in the first place, of course, by the negotiations of some twenty years ago which resulted in the roads of Britain’s State Forests becoming available for use as special stages; superbly engineered roads, well founded and cambered, along which it is a positive delight to drive a car with spirit, determination and precision, or to see one so driven. Drivers, particularly Scandinavians, were quick to realise that British forest roads were so satisfying and exhilarating at high speed, and as professionalism advanced in rallying, so the works teams followed the paths trodden by the men they had hired to drive for them.

But it has all become very costly, and nowadays the Forestry Commission has a standing charge based on the number of starters and the distance to be covered which all rally organisers, from the smallest to the biggest, most pay for the use of its roads. The RAC Rally, for instance, with 175 starters, was obliged to pay well over £100 for every mile of forest road used, and that represents a huge chunk out of any budget.

The levy is intended as fixed compensation for road surface damage, and we see no reason why it could not be dropped in lieu of a supporting government grant which rallying, as both a prestigious and income-bringing sport and a fine shop window for British car makers, deserves so much. Damage to roads must be put right, but this could so easily be covered by a paper transfer of funds so that the books of the Forestry Corrunission would not show a loss.

Ford’s challengers this year were as numerous as ever, including three other British makes: Vauxhall, Talbot and Triumph. Even foreign makes were represented by British-based dealer consortiums or factory-backed offshoots. The other works teams were those of Saab, Datsun, Toyota, Opel, Audi, Lada, Wartburg and Fiat, the latter with both Lancia and Autobianchi as well. The Saab team has been the most faithful of overseas visitors to the RAC Rally, and even in the quiet time when the attentions of development engineers were turning from the 96 V4 to the Turbo they always came. Indeed, since Carlsson notched up those three consecutive two-stroke victories at the start of the ‘sixties a November outing to the British forests has become almost a tradition in Trollhattan.

Although Harry Källstrom won twice with Fulvias in 1969 and 1970, Lancia has never won with a Stratos even though the team has tried many times. Many old Lancia loyalties have been smothered by the Fiat take-over, but this ambition persisted to such an extent that one of the very few remaining Stratos, a model now officially retired, was taken from beneath its wraps, refettled and brought over in a last ditch attempt to win an event which has eluded them for years. Alas, they got no more than filth, while the team’s Fiat 131 Abarth finished even further down the list.

Vauxhal had two Chevettes driven by a Scot and a Finn, Triumph five of their TR7 V8s driven by two Englishmen, a Swede, a Finn and an American, and Talbot a lone Sunbeam Lotus driven by Britain’s Tony Pond. It was a shame that the factory entered only one of these spirited little cars, for it performed so well that seasoned professionals among other teams were heard to remark that it was the most significant new car to appear in international rallies for quite some time. Alas, Pond hit ice, slid into a bridge. left the road, overturned and retired from the rally.

Two Datsun Violets came from the Milton Keynes base of Team Datsun Europe, and three Toyota Celicas from the Cologne base of Toyota Team Europe. It seems that these Japanese factories both feel that the way to operate is to set up an outfit in the area where rallying is most concentrated, Europe. Neither is actually owned by its factory; they are both separate entities with contracts to operate on behalf of the manufacturers.

An Ascona came from Britain’s Dealer Opel Team, providing Brian Culcheth with his last major drive before giving up competing in favour of a managerial post, whilst a Kadett came from the dealer consortium in Sweden, where such dealer operations first began many years ago, to be copied in many other countries.

Audi, a company which has been increasing its rallying activities of late and plans an even greater increase in the future, brought three of their f.w.d. 80s, whilst there were the inevitable Ladas from Russia’s Avtoexport organisation and Wartburgs from East Germany, the only cars now left in rallying to herald their approach by that characteristic ring-a-ding-dong sound which, in Saab 96 days, was always likened to a swarm of bees.

Ford had the biggest team of the lot with no less than seven Escorts being looked after by the leap-frogging fleet of service vehicles. Such a big team always presents a headache, for if too many of them arrive too close to each other at a service point the mechanics are hard pressed to give each one the attention it needs. They don’t always need attention, of course, but refuelling and tyre changing are always necessary, whilst it is better to spend a few minutes here and there having precautionary checks than to waste a much bigger chunk of time having some broken part replaced.

Servicing is now such a large scale operation for every team and no doubt every private entrant that the number of vehicles involved is far greater than the number of competing cars. Before such support became so sophisticated it was possible to stop and have your car fettled by mechanics at any convenient lay-bay, verge or forecourt, but when the number of support vehicles began increasing the RAC began to regulate such matters. At first they specified where servicing could not be carried out, but nowadays they clearly define where it can, to the exclusion of all other places except private premises premises with their owners’ permission, and then only on certain roads.

Teams overcame the early rules by having service cars sitting just off those parts of the official route on which service was forbidden. They were not on the actual route, so the rule was not being broken. Nowadays there is no such loophole, but that does not stop teams using unmarked supervisory cars and support cars (the latter have to be register with the organisers and display official numbers) to “patrol” sections of the mute which are officially forbidden to service cars. If they are caught actually assisting a cometing car, then that car can be excluded, but if the car is ailing and would retire anyway if not given immediate attention, then the risk is worthwhile.

It can often be quite amusing to watch first the convoy of official service cars travelling to their prearranged locations, and then the unofficial ones prowling around forests exits and lurking in pub car parks, their crews endeavouring to appear as nonchalant as possible whilst all the time their very presence is for a most definite purpose. They are all linked by radio, of course, and some of them now use codewords for their positions in order not to give anything away on a radio channel which might have listeners other than those intended to hear.

Each team has a most involved operation, and it takes a military strategist to co-ordinate it all efficiently and to produce written instructions for every man concerned, from team manager to sandwich maker. When there are so many teams taking part, each with intricate plans overlappin, the whole thing becomes a very complicated cavalcade as it moves in leap-frogging, meandering groups of formations from one part of the country to another.

For Ford it was a successful, if somewhat tense rally almost from the start. We say almost, for the positions achieved during the daytime on the Sunday, the first day, were little more than academic. The stages were relatively short, all in private parks and estates, and penalty differentials were so marginal that things changed almost as soon as the event got into real forests in Yorkshire.

However, for Björn Waldegard, keen to keep his substantial lead over Hannu Mikkola for the title of World Champion for 1979, that first day was disastrous. On the first stage he ran wide into a ditch, across the grass and over a tree stump which did considerable damage to his rear axle and left rear hub. His time was not so much greater than those of his rivals, but the incident had a rather demoralising effect on his stride and he was never quite in ho customary form. Much later in the event he went off again, and even suffered a broken jack as he was changing a wheel after a puncture, the latter coming just before the long, important stages in Kielder Forests. He started them in quite the wrong frame of mind, and this must have contributed to his finishing position of ninth.

In contrast Hannu Mikkola had an untroubled run from start to finish, the car behaving perfectly and the Finnish driver always appearing unruffled, perfectly composed and supremely confident. For him and Arne Hertz it was their second successive victory in the RAC Rally, although Hertz has won it once before, as Stig Blomqvist’s partner in a Saab 96 in 1971.

Mikkola’s ten championship points brings him within striking distance of Waldegard whose score of two points was his lowest of the year and could not even be counted at all since it was his eighth score, and only the best seven can count. Waldegard still leads, of course, but all now depends on the outcome of December’s Bandama Rally in the Ivory Coast, alas too late in the month to be recorded in this issue of Motor Sport. Both will have driven Mercedes 450 SLC for the factory team, and Mikkola needs a high place. with Waldegard not too close behind him, in order to snatch the title from the man who has led the series for most of the year.

Saab had a tough time, for both their Turbos were out in the first night of the rally, having had steering and drive shaft joint breakages, a few clouts with trees and water pump failure. The Stratos, although it did lead for a time, had as much trouble as the Fiat, but both did struggle to the finish, Markku Alèn doing rather well to recover to fifth place. Leyland, or rather, BL cars, had an equally troubled rally, the highest of their TR7s being that of Per Eklund who finished thirteenth. Pentti Airikkala’s Chevette never sounded right from the start, and its overheating and low oil pressure was a constant source of worry that it would expire in a cloud of smoke and strain at any moment. But the Finn ploughed on, using his brakes so little in order to compensate for lack of power that he nudged almost every kind of obstacle he encountered and finished with a car which hardly had an undamaged body panel on it. Amazingly, he was seventh.

Two Toyota Celica’s stopped, one with clutch failure and both with injection pump troubles, leaving Tapio Rainio, the former Saab Finland driver, to finish in eleventh place. Of the two Datums one had various bothers including a roll, but Timo Salonen took his, a Gp 2 car it should be noted, to a fine third place which must have pleased the Tokyo engineers immensely.

The distinction between Gp 3 and Gp 4 does not exist in the RAC Rally, for these groups are linked in the same classes. However, the Gp 1 cars are always involved in a hot contest and the winner or this occasion was New Zealander Alan Carter whose Escort RS2000 finished in nineteenth place overall.

We must not forget the highest placed British driver, Russell Brookes who took a commendable second place after a tussle with Tony Pond ended when the latter driver’s Sunbeam Lotus went off the road. Ari Vatanen had been second in his Escort, but dropped a few places during the second leg in Wales as a result of booking in too early at the Machynlleth time control.

It is easy to find fault with something which stands out in the public eye, rather like the old saying that politicians make the best Aunt Sallies merely because they are ready targets, and indeed we have done so ourselves. But we have done so not just to point out shortcomings, more so that these little matters can be put right in the future. The rally remains a superb competition and we commend all those thousands of volunteers who worked hard to make it possible, and those who tackled the enormous administration. —G.P.