Lombard Rally of Great Britain

There are some rallies in the world which need, in order to attract entries of worthwhile quality and in worthwhile numbers, the prop of inclusion in a major series. They have either not yet acquired the popularity of other events, or are so expensively distant from Europe, where rally teams are most concentrated, that they need the additional attraction provided by the possibility of scoring championship points.

The Safari Rally, for instance, must rate highly in any popularity poll and would gather far more entries than it does if only it were less costly to transport a rally team from Europe to Kenya. Private entrants from Europe have always been very few indeed, and the majority of the Safari’s overseas entrants has always been made up by professionals with the right kind of budgets available.

Something quite different is the Lombard RAC Rally of Great Britain which has become one of the world’s most popular events, is close to where most leading teams are based and gathers a greater number of high-seeded competitors than any other rally. It may not attract such numbers as the Monte-Carlo Rally, but it certainly skims off the most cream. The very presence of so many of the best drivers that works teams can round up has added to its popularity, for competition is so fierce that a win on the RAC has really become something to crow about, and probably worth more in terms of publicity than several other victories put together.

But it’s not the most popular in the world which is necessarily the best, as anyone with experience, whether of rallying, car testing or even philandering, will tell you. The quality of a fruit cannot be measured against that of a vegetable, and there are so many kinds of rallying nowadays that a direct comparison is not possible. A Scandinavian snow rally is hardly in the same bracket as the RAC, whilst an endurance contest in the tropics is something else again.

We are not suggesting that the RAC Rally is not among the best in the world, but we will argue against anyone who claims that it is the best. Of course, everyone has a favourite, and it may be that Britain’s premier rally heads more lists of favourites than any other, but that is a matter of personal preference, which is rather different.

With the warm Mediterranean, friendly Finland, sunny Africa and many other attractive environments providing worthwhile rallies in agreeable, comfortable surroundings, it’s difficult to appreciate why a cold, wet, foggy, bleak British November can be so popular. The answer probably lies in the nature of the competition, for everyone enthuses over the forest roads along which most of the contest is held, and climatic discomforts are forgotten.

These well-engineered, correctly-cambered, loose-surfaced roads, twisting rhythmically through the trees, are near-perfect for high-speed competition. They provide an excellent contest arena, and competitors enjoy immensely the exhilaration and satisfaction of driving very quickly along natural roads devoid of any artificial barriers. They have to cope with whatever nature provides, as in nearly all rallies, and the spectacle created as they do this is irresistible to millions who think nothing of trekking through a miserable night and standing under dripping fir trees to watch as cars are driven at speeds which would be thought impossible, even on tarmac, by those who have never seen it.

The RAC, indeed the country as a whole, owes a lot to the negotiations made some twenty years ago by Jack Kemsley, then chairman of the rally organising committee, resulting in the roads of the Forestry Commission being made available for use as special stages.

In 1980 the World Rally Championship, both for drivers and for manufacturers, was settled before the RAC Rally, German driver Walter Rohrl becoming World Champion with four outright victories to his credit and Fiat, the team for which he has driven this year, taking the category for makes. Nevertheless, the RAC gathered to its starting ramp professional teams representing Talbot, Triumph, Vauxhall, Ford, Saab, Opel, Toyota, Datsun, Polonez and Lada.

There can be no doubt that Walter Rohrl would have liked a crack at winning the RAC Rally, but his team decided otherwise and there was little he could do. He is sufficiently philosophical to accept such a situation without making a fuss, and he is certainly not given to breaking contractual agreements. Perhaps Fiat chose not to come because the championship was settled (although an RAC win would have delighted them) and perhaps because Rohrl had already made it clear that he would not be renewing his contract with them for 1981. Instead, he will be joining Mercedes Benz.

We recall that when Bjorn WaIdegard announced one October that he would be leaving Lancia for Ford at the end of that year, and not joining Fiat as they were hoping, suddenly there was no Stratos for him to drive in the RAC Rally.

Not all the professional outfits in the RAC Rally were actual works teams. Toyota and Datsun, for instance, were represented by their European based competitions contractors. Both manufacturers know that rallies, and rally experience, are mostly concentrated in Europe and Toyota is content to allow Ove Andersson to run the show for them from Cologne, whilst Datsun allows much of its programme to be run by Dawson Auto Developments at Milton Keynes.

The Ford factory is not rallying nowadays, having brought actual competition to a stop in order to prepare for the future, but the Escort has lost none of its ability to win rallies and there was a strong private team in the RAC, two backed by Rothmans and one by Eaton’s Yale, all prepared at David Sutton Cars.

Saab, Polonez and Lada each had teams straight from the factory, Vauxhall the team run under the name of Dealer Team Vauxhall and Opel the European Dealer Team which is actually run from the factory at Russelsheim.

The organisers of the rally used to go cap in hand to look for suitable start/finish venues with sufficient accommodation and space, and they had to be places prepared to put up with an influx of people who kept strange hours, demanded meals at odd times and made odd requests such as asking the hall porter if he would mind storing a dozen tyres, two gearboxes and a rear axle in his luggage cupboard. Nowadays things aren’t quite the same, for the RAC Rally brings with it a very large number of people with money to spend. Consequently, the caps are now in the hands of local authorities, chambers of trade and hoteliers’ associations, many of whom are anxious to host this source of considerable profit and publicity.

Unlike other events which prefer to stick to a regular base, the RAC Rally has become itinerant, and one of the important considerations must be the kind of deal offered by prospective host towns. After all, it is costly to run, particularly with the enormous levy charged by the Forestry Commission under the guise of payment for the repair of road surface damage, and the financial backing of Lombard North Central doesn’t pay for everything.

In the past decade, for instance, the rally has started from Heathrow, Harrogate, York (four times), Bath, Wembley, Birmingham and Chester. In 1980 it returned to Bath for the start and finish, and chose Bowness-on-Windermere for its mid-distance night stop.

Recently it has had two night stops, the first to divorce the first day of the rally, when it visits stages in parks and private estates, from the forests which are far more popular among competitors and everyone. The idea of using private estates was to attract weekend spectators to those areas where they could best be accommodated in terms of both space and safety. Forests are far more popular, so it was felt that these would be better on weekdays when less people would be able to take the time to go out watching.

Last November that first day, a Sunday, ran through the private estates and circuits of the first day, straight into the forests of Yorkshire, the Border Country and the South of Scotland before reaching Bowness on the Monday evening at 10 pm. Alas, the question must now be asked whether the private estates are actually better for spectators than the forests, for in the grounds of Bramham Park in Yorkshire one of the cars which slid off the stage (and there are many) ran into a group of spectators and injured three of them seriously.

On the Tuesday morning, the rally left Bowness and went through more forests in the Lake District before going via a traffic-ridden Oulton Park to Wales. It ran through the Tuesday night, then crossed the border to tackle the final four stages in the Forest of Dean before returning to Bath on the Wednesday afternoon.

The name Toivonen has a long association with rallying, and it was father Pauli (who won the Monte-Carlo Rally in a Citroen in 1966 after Makinen’s Mini was disqualified on a lighting triviality) who initially encouraged son Henri to take up the sport. But a famous father can often be a disadvantage, for skill at the wheel is not hereditary after all, and people could think that the younger were trading on the success of the elder.

In 23-year-old Henri Toivonen’s case, it hasn’t been like that at all. In fact, he has often been embarrassed by his father’s presence, and after responding to the initial parental boost he has since gone it alone. His present contract with Talbot comes from his own ability and not from any string-pulling, and it was just reward for Talbot’s faith in that ability that they should see his Talbot Sunbeam Lotus, shared by Englishman Paul White, take outright victory on the RAC Rally.

It is rare to see such winning attributes in one su young, for it is not enough to have driving shall nowadays. Experience counts for a great deal, for it is that which brings the tactical cleverness and tenacity which enable one to use skill to the best advantage. In this respect Paul White must take his fair share of the kudos, for it was undoubtedly he who, throughout the rally, gave Toivonen the correct advice, whether it be a spurring-on or a slowing-down. However, Toivonen himself is not one to take rash chances, and his achievement comes after far fewer accidents than can be said of most of his rivals.

Initially it was Britain’s Tony Brise who took the lead in the RAC Rally, followed by Malcolm Wilson, but neither had an opportunity to show their mettle as both their Escorts let them down Wilson’s by blowing up on Silverstone and Brise’s by springing an evasive electrical short circuit which flattened battery after battery and ate its way through no less than eight alternators.

Swedish driver Anders Kullang then took the lead in an Opel Acona 400, and kept it all the way through the first leg of the rally. But he was never in a position to relax, for just a handful of seconds behind him was the 1979 World Champion Bjorn Waldegard in a Toyota Celica.

Things were always pretty tense among the leaders, for penalty differences were small and everyone knew that a simple misfortune like a puncture would be enough to make the difference between winning and losing. Such a simple misfortune was exactly what took Kullang’s lead away from him although in fairness it should be said that he did have no less than three in very quick succession.

Left with two flat tyres on the rear he could not get traction and he had to stop on an awkward, muddy hill for a wheel change. That delay dropped him several places down the field, although he did then pick up a little to finish fifth.

The first of Kullang’s punctures was enough to let Waldegard into the lead, but this was very short-lived indeed. On the very next stage, in fact where Kullang had his next two punctures, the filter bowl on Waldegard’s Celica unscrewed itself and the engine was emptied of oil in a matter of seconds. The result was retirement, for the damaged engine could not possibly have been made to carry on.

Toivonen then took over the lead, and for quite some time the only driver giving chase was Hannu Mikkola in an Escort. But he hadn’t been without his share of delaying troubles, including popping the car over on its side on the first day, and he just wasn’t able to make headway against the Talbot driver whose winning margin was eventually over four and a half minutes. Towards the end Mikkola stopped trying and contented himself with driving for a sure second place, over nine minutes ahead of two other Sunbeams driven by Frenchman Guy Frequelin and Englishman Russell Brookes.

Frequelin’s performance was quite remarkable, and served to confound those who theorise that experience in British forests is a necessary prerequisite for success in the RAC Rally. Frequelin is at his best when he has practised beforehand and has accurate pace notes. Practice and the use of notes are forbidden on the RAC Rally, so the Frenchman started with an enormous disadvantage. After all, most of his rivals had rallied extensively in British forests and had been able to memorise difficult and tricky features of many of the forest roads. In contrast, this was Frequelin’s first British rally ever, and his impeccable display must have given other competitors much food for thought, particularly as he made fastest time on what must have been one of the foggiest stages of the rally, Esgair Dafydd, where many have knowledge of the roads from previous competitions held there.

Another performance of particular merit was that of Tony Pond. He distinguished himself on the very first stage by crashing his TR7 V8 through a fence and into a pile of railway sleepers, causing such extensive frontal, windscreen and roof damage that many believed that he had rolled. Later, he again put the car off the road and his substantial time loss left him in a position far down the field. Undaunted, he fought hard to get back and his seventh place at the end was to his great credit.

Saab, with two official Turbos and one serni-private, had a disastrous rally, for all three retired, Blomqvist’s when its engine blew up and Stromberg’s following with as simple a misfortune as punctured front tyres. Without traction, he had to stop to change the wheels, and since he had but one spare he took a wheel from the rear and put it on the front. Alas the front and rear wheels are not of the same size, and the result was seizure with the brake caliper. With a freely driven wheel on one side and a locked one on the other, the strain was too much for the limited-slip differential to stand and it promptly gave up.

As usual the rally was of outstanding interest, with competition being even greater and closer than it normally is. But we must comment that the sideshows nowadays are becoming so numerous that they are in danger of engulfing the event itself. Organisers of other rallies use the annual November gathering to publicise their own events among competitors, team managers and pressmen, whilst all manner of travelling salesmen follow the event around hoping to persuade the captive customers to buy their wares varying from camshafts to calendars and from stopwatches to stickers. As an enormous shop window, the RAC Rally is unsurpassed, and some of the trade people provide material which can be genuinely required by competitors, but if unchecked the market place can become too big.

Another feature we must mention relates to the technical running of the event itself. If you have to drive 200 miles between two time controls at an average speed always lower than the legal limit, the chances are that you will have time to spare at the end no matter if there have been several special stages on the way. If, during that same journey, you have to visit several time controls, converting the one 200-mile section into ten 20-mile sections, the result is an effective reduction of, say, 20 spare minutes in one lump to ten lots of twos.

This means that service time becomes scarce, and although by introducing a time control at the start of every special stage the organisers more effectively keep the rally to its timetable, it does result in rushed servicing and equally rushed journeys from one stage to the next, and that is a temptation which is likely to attract the attentions of the constabulary, which no-one wants. There are arguments for and against, of course, but the merits of returning to the old system of long road sections should perhaps be considered.

For all this, the rally provides exciting entertainment for millions, a tough contest for those who take part in it, a satisfying amount of publicity for those who back it, and an amazing amount of foreign exchange income for the government of the country which hosts it so isn’t it about time that some encouragement should go to those responsible for creating this prestige-bringing sporting occasion. No-one would ask for a government grant in cash, just the removal of that crippling levy for the use of forest roads, which could so easily be done by way of a paper transfer. – G.P.

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