Lombard RAC Rally

It was a great shame that an event of the calibre of the RAC Rally, and final round of the World Championship, should begin with a squabble, albeit of a domestic nature and confined to just one of the competing teams. It certainly didn’t affect the rally itself, but when the outcome was announced it became a general talking point, until, that is, the first car left the start ramp on the Sunday morning. From that moment, the fact that the 1982 World Champion had packed his bags and left for home on the eve of the start didn’t seem to matter any more.

Walter Röhrl clinched the series in the Ivory Coast, and the RAC Rally was not going to make any difference to that, but Opel, his team, could still snatch the manufacturers’ title from Audi. It was a slim chance, and they needed as many top places as they could, including a win, so a hard-charging World Champion heading their team would have been a definite asset.

Furtherrnore, the publicity aura surrounding a champion brings a distinct rub-off on the car he drives, and after campaigning for a whole year the Rothmans Opel Team deserved to reap the benefits brought by the personal appearance of Röhrl, champion for the second time, on the RAC.

But Röhrl wasn’t exactly fired up with enthusiasm for the RAC — he dislikes rallies without practice and without notes — and he made it clear to his team, by his attitude, that he would be making just a token appearance. It takes determination and grit — fire in the belly, if you like — to win a strongly contested rally such as this, and Opel saw no evidence that Röhrl would display these qualities in Britain.

All this came after various difficulties stemming from the German driver’s individualism, in particular his reluctant tolerance of the team’s publicity measures rather than the willing co-operation which they have a right to expect. The benefits to Opel from having their number one driver as World Champion just weren’t there at all, and when the problem of the RAC Rally arose the decision was made to replace Röhrl with former European Champion Jochi Kleint.

Röhrl may have felt that he was asserting his rights.— his contract was said to be for nine rallies only — but the whole incident must surely have done his reputation a great deal of harm. In team manager Tony Fall’s shoes we would have done the same, but perhaps a little earlier than the eve of the start.

So much for a man who didn’t drive in the rally; now to those who did.

It seems quite illogical that the rally which regularly attracts the greatest line-up of factory and other professional drivers is that which takes place in the most miserable of conditions. Can anyone really enjoy driving over bleak moorlands and through dense forests in fog, gales, driving rain, bitter cold, and mostly at night? Whatever the answer to that, team managers consider the event eminently worthwhile, and each has added his share to the annually growing snowball of entries. Amateurs enjoy comparing their skills with those of works drivers, and the influx of professionals has led to the same degree of popularity among privateers.

The secret lies in the nature of Britain’s forest roads, and the rally owes its present reputation to the negotiations made by Jack Kemsley more that twenty years ago with the Forestry Commission for the use of their roads as special stages closed to other traffic. Stages on other roads had already been used, but the first in forests was in 1961, in Kielder, which still provides some of the toughest conditions of the rally.

With but few exceptions, forest roads have a rhythmic swing about their bends and cambers, and it is indeed exhilarating to drive over them at high speed; hence the beginning of the RAC Rally’s popularity among drivers.

This year the line-up of professional teams, some from factories, some from groups of dealers and some from other backers, was formidable. The makes represented included Audi, Opel, Talbot, Lancia, Toyota. Vauxhall, Mitsubishi. Datsun, Mazda. Skoda and Lada, whilst even Citroen, Subaru and Peugeot were among the dealer-backed cars. There weren’t any professionally driven Fords, but there were plenty of Escorts throughout the list. There were 149 eventual starters, only one less than the declared maximum.

Although Röhrl had settled the drivers’ championship, and Audi seemed certain to take that for manufacturers, the Quattro and the Ascona were still the two models expected to provide the closest fighting. The well organised Toyota team was also to be considered, and the single entry of a Lancia Rally, a car which hadn’t really been reliable so far but which had nevertheless shown potential despite its apparent fragility. The Mitsubishi Lancers had been improved, but Talbot seemed to be making a token entry, keeping in touch whilst the expected new car is developed and homologated.

Competitors came from twelve countries within Europe and Scandinavia, plus two from the USA, including a New Zealander who lives there, the Lada team from the USSR, a number of private and dealer-backed crews from Japan, and one co-driver from Kenya, indicating that the dictates of economics play large part in determining the spread of entry lists. Many more would have come had they been able to afford it, just as an army of Europeans would tackle the Safari if they could take cars, crews and equipment to Kenya on the cheap.

The Safari has Nairobi as its natural base, the Thousand Lakes had Jyväskylä and Sweden Karlstad, but the RAC Rally is among those events which have been itinerant. For a time it started and finished in or near London, but thereafter it has been to Harrogate, York. Bath, Birmingham and Chester. There was a time when its organisers found difficulty finding a base capable of accommodating it, but the market has for some years been in their favour inasmuch as urban communities have become eager to host the event and thus attract a large number of spending visitors in the off season.

Last November the rally returned to York, a fine city which has hosted the event several times in the past. Headquarters were established at the very co-operative Viking Hotel near the city centre, where the only disadvantage — and a very serious one — was the hopelessly inadequate parking space in the vicinity, resulting in the wholesale issue of tickets throughout the period of the rally.

The choice of a bus garage for the scrutineering sessions brought the same problems, and we can only assume that it was not held, as before, at the spacious racecourse because its open-air facilities did not lend themselves to attracting paying spectators. Scrutiny used to be simple process, but nowadays it has become part of the commercial side of the rally. Motor trade companies supporting the sport are represented, but so are all manner of stallholders eager to sell wares to the public.

Much of the old stamina is no longer a prerequisite for RAC success, for the days of the first leg stretching from Saturday morning to Monday evening with little more than a short stop for a meal here and there are long gone. There are several opinions concerning the validity of this change, enforced by FISA, but the present system of what is virtually no more than one night at a time has been with us for so long that there is no point in repeating former comments. This year there were even more stops, and the rally was divided into three parts, two of them long and one short.

On the Sunday morning the first leg began with a run southwards through various private estate stages, ending in a short stop at Cheltenham in the late afternoon. That disposes of the spectator-orientated stages, unpopular with competitors although they appreciate the reason behind them.

After Cheltenham the route went westward into the Forest of Dean, then on into South Wales where the second group of stages were in Coed Morganwg. These have never before been used on an RAC Rally, although it was planned to use them once in the mid-sixties, only to be cancelled at the last minute when an internal communications breakdown led to the local forests not being able to accept the rally.

Through the night the rally and all its vast entourage went northwards through Wales before striking East again to a stage at Oulton Park, another at the Bramham estate, and the end of the first leg back in York.

The second leg, after Monday night spent in bed, went north through some more estate stages before reaching the vast Kielder forest that night. There were some stages in Scotland, largely in the Esk valley near Peebles, then a return via Carlisle and the Lake District.

Wednesday afternoon was then spent in bed, and the final leg came from midnight until mid-morning on the Thursday, all spent in the forests of the North Yorkshire Moors, save for the final stage on the tarmac of Oliver’s Mount at Scarborough.

That was the route as it was in 1982, missing out some extremely good forest stages on the way, partly because of forestry operations which cannot be avoided, and partly through the selfish attitude of a minority who invoked old legislation to prevent the use of tracks which happen to have rights of way along them. People often complain when long road sections pass good forest stages without giving them a visit, but more often than not the reason is entirely out of the rally organisers’ hands.

There was a time when service vehicles used to be ranged along the exit roads of all special stages, using whatever spare ground would be available to wait for the arrival of their charges so that fettling could be done as soon after damage-provoking incidents as possible. That, too, has changed, and service cars have become so numerous that they are permitted to operate only in certain areas in order to minimise the risk of obstruction.

Even so, team managers still employ supplementary service vehicles, usually saloons or estate cars rather than bigger vans and usually without service identification, to patrol the forbidden areas between stages so that emergency assistance may be given with as little delay as possible. Illegal service can result in severe penalties, but it’s a worthwhile risk if the alternative is the certain retirement of the rally car concerned due to a mechanical failure in a no-service zone.

Service areas designated in the roadbook are usually of ample proportions to accommodate genuine service vehicles, but some professionals, particularly the bigger teams, now use such big fleets that overcrowding still occurs. A small hotel car park, for instance, will be able to contain all the working vehicles required, but when one team packs in half a dozen vans, a supervisory car, several “chase” cars and even a motorhome with mobile kitchen, space becomes decidedly scarce. One team even had a huge bus modified for the sale of jackets and other clothing, and this even carried an “official” sticker for some odd reason.

The weather in the days before the start was atrocious, and in the centre of York the Ouse rose so high that quayside inns were almost awash. It was the same almost everywhere, and the going on nearly all the special stages was sometimes muddy, sometimes flooded and invariably very, very slippery. Tyres were selected accordingly, and the mechanics of those teams which had reserved covered garage space around the route for use as service stops were very thankful indeed.

This again is no longer an exception, and many teams, as soon as they get the roadbook, send men out along the entire route, except the special stages, to reserve covered working areas in the most convenient spots, and sometimes paying in advance in order than no other team will step in on the day and offer more. Sometimes there will be an understanding about this, and more than one team will share the same garage if there is enough space.

The Sunday morning brought no change, and it was in thick murk and varying intensities of rain that the cavalcade set off from York Castle for the first special stage in the grounds of Bramham House. The tracks were very slippery indeed, and dented panels soon began to appear as cars side-swiped trees and gateposts. But the greatest muddle at Bramharn came after all the cars had passed through and spectators began to leave. The grass parking areas were so slippery that many cars could not move, and this held back others with the result that there was total chaos. The organisers had no alternative but to close the stage to spectators when the rally returned there for the final stage of the first leg.

Clumber Park, Donington, Sutton Park and Bewdley Safari Park were the other non-forest stages of that day, and all were very slippery indeed, causing all manner of body damage to the cars of all but the most cautious. Kulläng’s Mitsubishi, Wilson’s Audi, Buffum’s Audi, Waldegård’s Toyota, Vukovich’s Lada and Asterhag’s Toyota were just a few to hit solid objects as they passed, save that the latter car hit a tree head on at Sutton Park and went no further.

The very heavy rain was causing all manner of trouble apart from that due to slippery roads. Spins and loss of grip caused losses of time, whilst carburetters and electrics became flooded, screen wipers packed up, interiors of windows became completely misted up after watersplashes and one driver had to stop to remove a water bottle which became dislodged and jammed beneath his pedals.

But provided one was prudent without being too cautious, those five initial stages were no more than tasters, for the real meat lay ahead in the forests. Mikkola did establish an early lead, using the traction of his Quatro, but it did surprise some that Alén had driven his rear-engined (traction again!) sufficiently well to be second, 21 sec. behind. Airikkala was next in his Mitsubishi, followed by Mouton’s Quattro, Kaby’s Chevette, Demuth’s Quattro, Kulläng’s Mitsubishi and the three Asconas of Vatanen, Toivonen and McRae. Brookes had needed his first gearbox change in his Chevette, whilst Vatanen’s fuel injection had needed attention.

There was a group of four stages in the Forest of Dean, and it was here that things began to happen. Alén began to cut down Mikkola’s lead, and after the four were over he was up in the lead, seven seconds ahead of his fellow countryman, followed after a minute by Miss Mouton.

Airikkala lost a wheel from his Mitsubishi after a front strut broke, whilst McRae lost several minutes off the road. Wilson clipped a log and bent his Quattro’s steering. Brookes also spent a little time off the road, Kaby had his throttle stick open and went off for a moment, but Pond’s excursion was more serious inasmuch as it caused substantial damage to his Chevette. The petrol pumps needed to be fettled before they would work again, and so much time was lost before he could get off the stage that he chose to retire rather than go on with a huge delay which would perhaps have caused his exclusion after time spent in further repairs.

Dawson had earlier decided to change his Datsun’s rear axle for one with a lower ratio, whilst Haugland, the Norwegian driver of the Skoda team, needed a replacement carburettor.

A motorway run then took competitors into South Wales where the complex of Coed Morganwg was entered very close to Margam Abbey. Five stages were set out here, without any service allowed between, but even though it was an area new to the rally there were unmarked chase cars prowling around the inter-stage roads, and these had not even been defined in the roadbook. There were some up the Afan Valley, some at Glyncorrwg, some on the mountaintop of Craig y Llyn, and some in the hamlet of Blaengwrach. The official service area after this group was in a factory car park at Resolfen in the Neath Valley, and here again there was plenty of mechanical action as cars were fettled under the gaze of crowds of spectators, all braving the rain.

Toivonen had toed-out the front wheels of his Ascona going off the road, whilst Mikkola came in with a flat tyre and there was some pretty close inspection to check whether the vibration had caused any other damage, particularly as the wheelbase measurements were not equal left and right. There was consternation here when the car fell off the jack, but they seemed to get it right in the end. Frequelin had a cracked exhaust manifold on his Sunbeam Lotus, and ran with it all through that leg until it could be fixed at York. Buffum had put more dents into his Quatro, whilst Eklund lost time changing a wheel after a puncture.

Coppier’s main electrical lead on his Citroën had been slowly wearing away, but he had the good fortune to survive until it could be replaced, getting into the service area with just one strand of the cable left.

Kleint was well and truly off the road just before Resolfen, having slid off slowly just where there was a deep ditch. The Ascona went in backwards, to become stuck with its bonnet pointing almost skywards, and there was no hope of recovery until the stage had ended. It was indeed a disappointing end for a driver who came at the last minute to replace Röhrl.

Alén still had the lead, but Mikkola was still close behind, only 13 sec. separating them. Vatanen had got up to third place ahead of Mouton, whilst both the American Buffum and the German Demuth had been driving well in their Quattros to hold fifth and sixth, ahead of Toivonen.

From Resolfen the route headed northwards to what used to be Breconshire, and the stages of Glasfynydd and Crychan, close to the military ranges on Mynydd Epynt.

From Crychan the route went northwards, across the A40 and into the forests around Nant yr Hwch reservoir, then to use the Abergwesyn Mountain Road into Tregaron. It was here that Mikkola inched ahead of Alén to regain the lead, and this time he made quite sure of not losing it again. Buffum was fortunate that help “just happened” to be around that reservoir, for his Quattro had been overheating and he needed a heater hose replaced.

Llanafan and Hafren came next, after which there was a time control at Machynlleth where vast crowds gathered to watch the service action in the car park behind the Wynnstay Hotel, even though it was 5 a.m. Gearboxes, differentials, clutches, struts, brake calipers and all manner of things were being attended to in that car park, but of course much of this kind of servicing is planned in advance, and just because someone has a rear axle changed it does not necessarily signify that the one being removed is giving trouble. Preventive servicing is commonplace, and it is normal practice, if there is time, to change components before they are likely to break.

Brookes, who eventually became the highest-placed British driver, was changing his Chevette’s gearbox regularly, and in the course of the rally he used no less than eight!

A delay after Machynlleth was caused when a spectator’s car caught fire, the blaze lighting the sky along the whole of the valley. Alén’s delay was for another reason; his ignition timing became faulty, and although the Lancia’s distributor drive was changed it still limited the r.p.m. on occasions and the Finn dropped further behind Mikkola, later being passed by Ascona drivers Vatanen and Toivonen. At that stage, the first four drivers were all Finns.

A crop of punctures was produced by the rough Ffestiniog stage, whilst in Penmachno Kulläng clipped some logs and his Mitsubishi had to be pushed back on the road by spectators. Buffum’s Quattro only had rear wheel drive at that stage.

After a stop at Betws y Coed the rally moved eastwards to a group of stages in Clocaenog Forest, and it was here that Vatanen’s fine drive in an Ascona came to an end. He went off the road, damaged the radiator and water loss eventually led to cylinder head gasket failure.

A stage at Oulton Park and another at Bramham ended the first leg, and when cars got back to York on the Monday evening Mikkola’s lead over Toivonen was approaching four minutes. Alén had got back up to third place and was followed by Demuth, Mouton, Brookes, Waldegård, Buffum, Kulläng and Frequelin.

There were overnight hopes that the rain which had soaked the Midlands and Wales would end before the start of the second leg, but that was not to be and the first stage at Croft was very slippery indeed. Nevertheless, Alén got among the four-wheel-drive cars and equalled the fastest times of Demuth and Mouton. Demuth was putting up some fine times, his experience of non-practice German events helping a great deal, and his performance in Hamsterley Forest moved him up to second place.

Alén all but lost the rear bodywork of his Lancia, and many recalled the occasions that a Stratos was seen with engine, transmission and rear suspension all exposed. His engine was still down on power, and there were even welding attempts on the camshaft. McRae, the Scottish Opel driver, experienced a floating rear axle, whilst a host of cars were delayed when their engines flooded in the ford.

By the time cars began leaving the 90 minute stop at Newcastle, Kielder Forest already had its share of spectators, service vehicles and the usual prowl cars. McRae’s rally came to an end here when his rear axle finally gave up, and Kulläng’s when his Lancer’s clutch broke. Lampi, the Quattro driver from Finland, also stopped with broken front suspension.

The Scottish penetration was again confined to the south of that country, firstly in the area between Galashiels and Peebles, then down through Craik to Twiglees and the Forest of Ae. It was on Craik that the Mazda RX7 of New Zealander Rod Millen came to a stop off the road.

Gretna’s anvil was passed on the way to a stop at Carlisle, after which came the Lake District stages, first around Keswick and then on the west side of Lake Windermere. During the night the clouds had slowly rolled away and there was considerable frost, with snow on the mountain tops.

Terry Kaby’s Chevette stopped in Grisedale Forest with a blown engine, whilst Buffum was suffering from the effects of going off in Kielder, quite apart from the body damage. The rear wheel alignment could not be maintained, and it did seem that the entire subframe was moving about at will. Wilson had his clutch changed at Newby Bridge, whilst Alén continued to suffer loss of power in his Lancia.

The only stage remaining of the second leg was that in the grounds of Harewood House, and when this was over Mikkola’s lead over Toivonen was well over five and a half minutes. It certainly didn’t seem that Opel would be able to snatch the championship from Audi. Mikkola had enough time in hand to refrain from taking chances, but even if he did stop for some reason, Mouton was third, and that would be enough to keep Audi at the top of the championship table.

Mouton had a front driveshaft replaced in the service area before the York control, whilst Brookes, who was fifth behind Alén, had yet another new gearbox.

This time there was no overnight halt. Instead, the break lasted throughout the afternoon and evening before the midnight restart on the final leg. In the past, the stages in the forests of the North Yorkshire Moors formed part of one of two legs, but this time they were separated and some people felt that the extra halt stretched the rally unnecessarily.

Slippery, twisty, hilly and decidedly tricky, the Yorkshire stages weren’t really going to produce any last minute bursts, but Mouton was within catching distance of Toivonen, and Demuth was only seconds behind Brookes. The traction of the Quattros had its effect on the slimy roads, and both drivers moved up a place before the end.

The end of the Langdale stage saw a most dramatic incident, amusing enough in the telling but with all the possibilities of a disaster. Mouton went off the road after crossing the flying finish line, and had just regained the road when Toivonen arrived and did the same thing. Waldegård followed and damaged Toivonen’s lights, not to mention ripping up some of the organisers’ communication cables, Eklund followed, and Frequelin took to an escape road, alighted, and helped in the recovery of Toivonen’s car from a bank. Brookes also spun, as did Alén, and Wilson had to take to the bank.

Drastic changes might well have been caused to the results had the confusion been more serious. Fortunately it was not, and later it became something of a joke. What material for a cartoonist!

The final stage was at Oliver’s Mount in Scarborough, where Blomqvist caused amusement by hitting a marker cone and taking it with him to the end. He finished eighth, but we wonder where he might have been had he been driving a Quattro.

Mikkola’s win was his fourth on the RAC— he has won in an Escort, a Toyota and twice in a Quattro — whilst Mouton must have been very happy indeed to take second place at only her second attempt at the rally. Brookes emerged the highest placed British driver, whilst Wilson did well to finish tenth after being out of the sport for a long spell with broken ankles. The Mitsubishi showing was a disappointment with both cars retiring, although Airikkala did hold a brief lead right at she beginning, and Datsun didn’t fare any better with their cars. The works Quattros were using a dual system to operate their clutches, one from the pedal as usual and the other from an electrical switch on the gear lever, just as she Big Healeys used to have to operate their overdrives — very little is new nowadays, is it?

To chronicle the events of the RAC Rally would demand volumes, and in this brief review we can but scratch the surface. The five-day event is not just a high speed contest on roads which many would never dare to use — and for which the organisers must pay a fortune to the Forestry Conunission — but an enormous series of mechanical miracles as cars are revitalised at the roadside in a manner which would astound the average garage proprietor.

Its circus ingredient increases year by year, and publicists flock to organise receptions, announcements and celebrations, but its basis remains as the most prestigious sporting occasion to be held in the British Isles. — G.P.