IN ONE of the conference rooms of Heathrow's Excelsior Airport Hotel, there was a hubbub of the kind which is common at gatherings of people who share a common interest; people of many nationalities who had assembled for a sporting purpose and who were itching to see the morning, when they would set out in pairs on their five day contest against a hundred-odd other pairs, the weather, the clock and the unpredictable quirks for which mechanical contrivances were renowned when stressed beyond their usual limits.
The year was 1967, the month November, and the occasion the eve of the RAC Rally of Great Britain. Normally at that late hour in the evening, the public rooms of the hotel would be almost deserted, for in those days roadbooks were only issued at scrutiny, the day before the start, whereupon everyone would retire immediately to their rooms, guest houses or even the backs of service vehicles, to mark maps and plan service schedules. Some of them would even spend all night over their paperwork, and think nothing of setting out in the morning on the first leg of the rally, knowing that they had three days and two nights to go before they would get a full night's rest.
Eventually, in walked a man whom everyone recognised. There was no call for silence as he approached the low platform. It wasn't necessary. The moment he appeared at the door the hubbub stopped as abruptly as a light being switched off, and not even a whisper disturbed the stillness.
As Jack Kemsley began speaking, everyone realised immediately what he was going to say. The tone of his voice and his slightly bowed head gave it all away; not to mention the tears welling up in his eyes, which was perhaps the reason for his looking down. Chokingly, Jack announced that the RAC Rally would not be taking place after all.
It was the year of the massive epidemic of foot and mouth disease, so serious that, to limit the spread of this highly contagious infection, non-essential travel was discouraged almost to the point of being forbidden, and it was unthinkable that the RAC Rally should ignore the plight of Britain's dairy farmers and livestock breeders.
The present route format of the Lombard RAC Rally, as it has been for some years, and its popularity, owes much to the man who had to swallow his disappointment more than 22 years ago.
As the last qualifier of the World Rally Championship, Britain's round is rarely a decider, because both drivers' and makes' sections of the series have usually been settled before November. Nevertheless, the event carries a prestige which renders it one of the elite few rallies of the world which competitors and car manufacturers most want to win. Consequently, all the leading teams in world class rallying decided to come to the RAC Rally; all of them, that is, except
Martini-Lancia! The Italians have always been very championship-conscious, regarding a series as far more important than its separate rounds or even separate victories. Their strategy has always been not only to win each qualifying round to score maximum points for themselves, but to fill as many of the leading positions as possible with Lancias, thereby keeping their rivals down among the low scores.
However, even with both drivers' and makes' series settled in their favour, one would have expected them to make an appearance at the final round. After all, it is a pretty dismal champion who goes away with the laurels and hides from the public gaze. Had they been certain of winning the RAC Rally, perhaps the situation might have been different, for a win here would have crowned a successful year.
But this was not to be. Faced by strong opposition from Toyota, Mazda and Mitsubishi, Lancia was not at all certain of winning, and to lose the final round would, in their eyes no doubt, put a slight tarnish on the trophies. The days of their total dominance seem to be over, and most people felt that it was the possibility of losing the last round of the year which made them decide to withdraw their entries.
This infuriated at least one of their drivers scheduled to tackle the RAC.
Mikael Ericsson, winner of two world championship events this year, left Lancia at the end of 1989 to join Toyota, but that is not to say that he would not have done his utmost to beat his future team-mates in Britain. Indeed, he would have strived for his third 1989 win, but he did not get the opportunity. Furthermore, Lancia's withdrawal came after entries had closed, giving him no chance to seek another car, which we feel sure he would have found.
Toyota Team Europe brought three Celica 2000 GTs for Juha Kankkunen, Kenneth Eriksson and Carlos Sainz, the latter being the driver who came within a hair's breadth of beating Lancia's Biasion on home ground at Sanremo last October. Toyota GB entered a similar car for David Llewellin.
Mazda Europe entered three 323s for limo Salonen, Hannu Mikkola (with Arne Hertz back as his co-driver) and Ingvar Carlsson, whilst another was entered from Finland for Mikael Sundstrom and a Group N version from Belgium for Gregoire de Mevius.
The third Japanese manufactuer (all three used four-wheel-drive cars) was Mitsubishi, represented by Ralliart of Essex. They had two Galant VR-4s, with four-wheel-steering, driven by An Vatanen and Penfti Airikkala. Vauxhall and Opel, although entered
under their separate names, were more or less in the same fold, and there were 16-valve Astra GTEs for Malcolm Wilson (who will drive Fords in 1990) and Louise Aitken-Walker, and similar Opel Kadett GSIs for Josef Haider and Mats Jonsson.
There were several Ford Sierra RS Cosworths entered by various dealers and sponsors, their planning coordinated by Boreham staff. Among the drivers were Jimmy McRae, his son Colin, Franco Cunico from Italy sporting Q8 colours, Russell Brookes, Mark Lovell and Gwyndaf Evans.
There was a team of four Favorits entered by Skoda GB, one for a Czech crew and one for Norway's John Haugland, and four Lada Samaras from Autoexport of the Soviet Union for Russian crews. Non-factory Lancia Delta Integrates were driven by Jorge Recalde from Argentina, Sebastian Lindholm from Finland, Uruguayan Gustavo Trelles from Spain and the irrepressible Per Eklund from Sweden, backed as usual by Clarion.
Armin Schwarz drove an Audi 200 quattro and Britain's Terry Kaby a tiny Group N Daihatsu Charade which he described as fast enough downhill but severely short of power on the upgrades. They used to say the same thing in the Daf team some years back! The first day, a Sunday, was devoted to the usual tour of stately homes and private estates. As a crowd puller it must have worked, but spectator attendance is no measure of quality. Competitors have always hated these "Mickey Mouse" stages which often have no rhythm, are quite artificial, prove nothing and are too short to be significant. Leads cannot be built up on that first day, but things can certainly go wrong. The best way to sum
up the all-day trip, via eight stages totalling less than 24 miles, is to say that you can win nothing, but lose everything! At the end of that first day, through stages which were as treacherously slippery as ever, four Toyotas led the field, followed by a Mitsubishi, two Mazdas and another Mitsubishi. Had Japanese domination really engulfed the RAC Rally? Juha Kankkunen was in the lead, but differences were so small as to be merely academic, and only 55 seconds separated the first and last of that leading octet, less than half the time it takes to
change a wheel after a puncture.
After a night stop at Telford, the rally went westwards into Wales, to thirteen forest stages before returning to England and two non-forest stages before a night stop at Nottingham. The forests totalled more than 90 miles, and the most commonly expressed feeling was "Now the real rally is going to start".
Thick fog descended on parts of Wales that morning, and this, along with very slippery road surfaces, made the going very tricky indeed. Kankkunen lost the lead to his team-mate Eriksson, but promptly regained it, then lost it to his other team-mate Sainz, and regained it yet again, finishing the day 19 seconds ahead of Sainz. Llewellin had dropped from third place right down the field after turbocharger failure, a problem which also slowed Salonen's Mazda and Vatanen's Mitsubishi. Mikkola rolled his Mazda and Colin McRae his Ford, but both continued.
Again penalties differences were low, saying much for the closely-matched performances of the leading drivers and their cars. This time only the first seven cars were within the same minute, again all of them four-wheel-drive and all of them Japanese, driven by five Finns, a Swede and a Spaniard.
The third leg went first to two stages in Clipstone Forest and one in Clumber Park, all three in Nottinghamshire, before taking the M62 westwards to the Lake District and the western edge of Kidder Forest and thence to a night stop at Carlisle. This time there were eleven special stages totalling nearly 103 miles, all in forests save for one 3.6-mile tarmac stage in a park. This is where things began to happen. First of all Vatanen rolled his Mitsubishi
after clipping a rock or a tree stump hidden in the grass on the apex of a corner. Fortunately, the car landed on its wheels and he was able to continue with a loss of less than a minute. Co-driver Bruno Berglund cut his hand but, more importantly to him, his maps and service schedule had vanished through a window and they drove off without them. The spectators who helped them at the scene spofted the documents, promptly ran out of the stage, got into their car and drove to a service area ahead to return them. What a splendid gesture!
In Kielder, Kankkunen lost his lead to Sainz, and soon afterwards Airikkala got ahead of the Finn into second place, finishing the day just over a minute and a half behind the leader. Again Japanese cars filled the first seven places, but now the differences had increased to span seven minutes between first and seventh. The highest placed non-Japanese car was Eklund's Lancia and the highest placed two-wheel-drive car Wilson's Vauxhall. When the fourth day started, two remarkable drivers led the field. Sainz was accustomed to neither the British forests nor driving without notes, whilst Airikkala, having spent several years contesting British Championship events,
was familiar with both. Yet the Spaniard was staying doggedly ahead of the Finn. But then Airikkala took the bit between his teeth and made the best time on nine of the ten stages, ending the day just 31 seconds behind the leader.
The Toyotas had experienced fractures of the flexible hydraulic hoses to the brake slave cylinders. This was eventually put right when plastic stone guards were fitted, but not before time was lost due to brake failure.
Airikkala was beginning to enjoy himself immensely. He had said before the start that his car was set up exactly as he liked it only the second time in his life that he has known this but at the start of the fourth leg he decided to ask for some very fine suspension adjustment, to lower the rear fractionally. It worked! His traction was improved and his oversteer reduced.
During the day the rally moved from Carlisle, through such well-used forests in southern Scotland as Twiglees, Castle O'er, Craik, Cardrona and Elibank (magical names to RAC Rally veterans), back through the vast forest of Kielder to the final night stop at Newcastle-uponTyne. All ten of the day's stages had been in forests, totalling 73 miles.
The tension at the start of the final day could be cut with a knife. Again there were seven Japanese cars leading the field followed by Eklund's Lancia, but the big question was whether Airikkala could make use of his British experience and particular knowledge of the North Yorkshire forests to close the small gap and get ahead of Sainz.
Eleven stages remained, totalling just over 74 miles. Four of them were used twice, so that in effect there were seven different ones, explained by the formula: (4 x 2) + 3 = 11. The first stage began just before 6am., nearly two and a half hours after the restart from Newcastle. It was still dark then, and Airikkala's hopes were all but dashed when, for the first three stages, including the first long Dalby (17.4 miles), a loose wire caused his lights to cut out completely at very inopportune moments; disconcerting, to say the least, when you are flat out on a narrow forest track! After dawn broke, Airikkala began to gain second by second, but Sainz was driving so faultlessly that in the remaining distance he did not think he could catch him. Until, that is, the second passage through the Dalby stage. A broken prop shaft, coupled with loss of
power steering, slowed Sainz so much that Airikkala jumped ahead. Without his lighting problem, the Finn recorded a time 29 seconds less than that of his first run through Dalby, but nevertheless it was Sainz' misfortune which was really Airikkala's gain, and in the two short stages which were left, one in Wykeham Forest and the other at British Steel's Humberside plant, he could afford to slow fractionally to a safe speed without risking losing his suddenly acquired lead.
It was an amazing end to a close fight. Toyotas, driven by each of four drivers in turn, led for 51 of the 55 stages, after which a Mitsubishi snatched the lead on the 52nd. Sainz was bitterly disappointed, but mechanical reliability is part of the game, and a driver can only be as successful as his car allows him, and vice versa. But he is a remarkable driver, quiet and withdrawn almost to the point of being a potential recluse (co-driver Luis Moya is the opposite, Incidentally), and we have no doubt that he will very soon begin collecting one victory after another.
For Airikkala, this kind of success was a new experience. At 44 years of age, and with 24 years of rallying behind him, it was his thirteenth attempt at the RAC Rally and his first victory in a World Championship event. We remember seeing him roll an lsuzu Bellet during the 1968 Rally of the Thousand Lakes, losing second place only a handful of stages from the end, but since then he has spent very little time in the World Championship. He lives in England and has many years of British Championship events behind him. Indeed, he has won, not all in the same year, every single qualifier of that series and in 1989 he walked away with the Group N Section of the Shell Oils British Open Rally Championship, driving a Mitsubishi Galant VR-4. His car in the 1989 RAC Rally was the first Group A Galant he has driven, and he never wants to go back to the far less powerful Group N version. Eklund, having remained throughout the best driver of a non-Japanese car, suffered the disappointment of retirement on the last day when his gearbox failed. Wilson. Britain's only Seed 1 driver, founds himself up in
tenth place, scoring a single championship point and leading both the 2wd drivers and the British contingent in his Vauxhall Astra.
Here's another interesting statistic. Until now, no Japanese car has ever won the RAC Rally, but this year they filled the first nine places; two Mitsubishis, three Toyotas and four Mazdas. Again we have to recall that the Japanese began to pick up the pieces after the Second World War by blocking imports so that their home market would be guaranteed, allowing them to concentrate on exports. At the same time, they gained a reputation for copying, and "cheap Japanese imitations" became a common expression.
How things have changed! From imitators they have become improvers, and just as Nikon, Canon, Pentax and Yashica are now household words in the photographic field (not to mention their motor cycling advances), so have their cars progressed immeasurably since Hettema and Elford drove Toyotas in Monte Carlo, and Aaltonen, Simonian and Fidler brought Datsun 1600 SSSs to the RAC in 1969 and beat Triumph to the team prize. Now we look forward to a new year. Drivers have switched teams; teams have got better cars up their sleeves; and it won't be long before familiar makes will return and perhaps new ones will appear. All we need now is an end to the bureaucratic rule of an international governing body to which the major concern seems to be the preser vation of authority. GP