Rally review

At the end of November, when the Lombard RAC Rally signs were taken down in Chester, it marked the end of an era. Lombard North Central has been the primary sponsor of Britain's biggest sporting event for no less than 19 years, but 1992's rally was the final event under the association, not due to any breakdown of relationships but simply because Lombard felt that both sponsor and rally should seek new ties. It was by no means a snap decision, for it was declared even before the 1991 event.

Lest it be overlooked, we should point out that Lombard's link with the RAC Rally began not in 1974 but many years before that. Lombank Limited, as the company was then called, used to finance roadbook production, for instance, and present it to competitors in a latch-fastened plastic folder complete with many variously sized pockets to accept other documents. I still have such a roadbook, in its Lombank folder, from the 1962 event, which started in Blackpool, finished in Bournemouth and visited a whole string of the forests which Jack Kemsley had, two years before, introduced to the event.

Another Lombank feature was the holdall, and I do believe that the RAC Rally was the first event in the world to provide competitors with bags in which to carry their various bits and pieces. The black Lombank Bags became treasured, prestigious possessions, instantly recognised wherever rally people travelled. They were simple, inexpensive affairs, but merely carrying one immediately set its carrier apart from the crowd. Whether in Africa, Lapland, Greece or even on the Cols of the Monte Carlo Rally, possession of a Lombank bag drew immediate respect.

Having thus justifiably dwelt on the Lombard connection with the RAC Rally, without which the event might not have survived, let's move on to the 1992 event itself.

Not everyone agrees with it, but it has become the 'enforced' custom in World Championship rallying to compete by day and rest by night. The RAC followed this pattern, the event spanning four days separated by three night stops. Two of these were at Chester, where the rally started and finished, and one was at Carlisle.

The first leg, on the Sunday, visited parks and circuits in a tour of the Midlands, the second ran through North Wales, the third went through the Lake District and Kielder and the fourth, after the Carlisle night stop, into south-west Scotland. None of the Yorkshire forests was visited this year. The 34 special stages (one of which was cancelled) accounted for 352 miles in the total distance of just over 1550.

Reconnaissance of all the special stages, forests included, has been allowed since 1990, and this was the case this year. Timetables and strictly controlled speed limits had to be followed and the many checks on the latter resulted in 28 drivers being warned for exceeding the limit, two of them being fined £50 each for second offences. Of the 157 crews listed to start, 76 made recces of the whole route and another 35 parts of it.

One competitor, Bob Green from Burton-in-Kendal, failed to make the start as his Group N Ford Sierra Cosworth 4x4 was stolen from behind a Chester guest house after it had passed the scrutiny procedure on the Saturday. It was later found abandoned in Liverpool after having been used in a ram-raid in Wigan.

Even though many service crews did not go to Chester until after the first leg, preferring to get into their first day positions, the city was nevertheless packed with rally people, and those who found hotels with car parks were indeed fortunate, especially if they were within walking distance of rally headquarters in the city centre International Hotel.

The rally attracted a splendid field of starters, among them no less than 15 A-seeded drivers representing six factory teams. Martini Racing brought three Lancia Delta integrales for Kankkunen/Piironen, Auriol/Occelli and Aghini/Farnocchia.

Toyota had also entered three cars, but the intention was to bring just two, their crews depending on the result of the Cataluna Rally. The actual crews were Sainz/Moya and Alen/ Kivimaki, but had Sainz not scored enough points in Spain to keep him in contention for the world title, his place in the RAC would have been taken by Mats Jonsson, for whom an entry had been made, though this was subsequently not taken up.

Ford gave its French crew a rest for this event and took two Sierra Cosworth 4x4s to Chester for Biasion/Siviero and Wilson/ Thomas. It was the Sierra's last factory appearance before being replaced by the Escort Cosworth 4x4 in January. A third car, entered privately, was driven by Evans/Davies, whilst Group N Cosworth 4x4s were driven by Capdevila/Rodriguez and McRae/Senior, this particular McRae being Alister, son of Jimmy and brother of Colin.

Another Group A Sierra Cosworth was driven by Finnish girl Eija Jurvanen who, with Marjo Berglund, only needed to start the event to secure the World Championship Ladies' Cup. RAC veterans Brookes/Wilson were in another Sierra Cosworth, down at number 67!

Subaru's main hopes were pinned on Colin McRae who, with Ford's Malcolm Wilson, were the two most likely drivers to be bidding for the special, end-of-sponsorship-term award of £100,000 put up by Lombard for the winner, provided he/she was British. Two Legacies were entered, for McRae/Ringer and Vatanen/Berglund. Eklund/Johansson brought another Legacy from Sweden, entered by Clarion.

The RAC was Nissan's last event, at least for the time being. Two Sunny GTI-Rs were entered for Makinen/Harjanne and Blomqvist/ Mellander. Nissan Belgium sent a Group N version for de Mevius/Lux, contenders for the world Group N title.

There were two Mitsubishi Galant VR-4s for Eriksson/Parmander and Lampi/Kuukkala, and another from Finland for Group N exponents Kytolehto/Silander. Skoda had two Favorits for Sibera/Gross and Berger/Miroslav, whilst others in two-wheel-drive cars were Metcalfe/ Grindrod (Vauxhall Astra) and Burns/Reid (Peugeot 309 GTi). Right at the end of the field, at number 167, came a Trabant 601 R driven by German crew Kahlfuss/Friedmann.

Sunday dawned even wetter than the Saturday, and the prospect was for decidedly slippery stages on the mixed tarmac and dirt surfaces of the parks and circuits. These totalled just 36 miles, so that very little could be gained by driving flat out. On the other hand, a little mistake could cost a lot, so most people drove cautiously on the opening day.

Oulton Park was used twice (first and ninth) and by the time the runners returned for the final stage there was much mud and rubble even on the tarmac sections of the stage. Evans spent two minutes in a ditch at Weston Park, Kankkunen hit a post in Sutton Park, whilst at Donington, where two stages were held, Makinen hit a wall backwards, breaking the left rear suspension and smashing rear and left windows. Alen was slowed by a broken gearbox linkage which left him with only fourth.

Many people were losing odd seconds by spinning, but McRae lost a dozen when he hit straw bales on the first of two Clumber stages. At Clumber, like Donington, the stage was used twice in quick succession, cars starting their second runs between cars starting their first. This was not very popular, Kankkunen, Eriksson and others, whilst on their second runs, catching up with slower cars still on their first runs.

At Chatsworth, narrow and decidedly tricky, de Mevius lost 20 seconds when his engine stopped after the watersplash, whilst Vatanen emerged noisily after his exhaust pipe broke.

At the end of the day, just 40 seconds divided the first and seventh, Sainz leading Biasion by 20 seconds. Colin McRae was another 5s behind, followed closely by Kankkunen, Wilson, Alen and Auriol.

That was the order of restart for the second day because the first day's stage distance was more than 10 per cent of the total stage distance which, under FISA rules, allowed the organisers to restart in order of classification, not in numerical order.

On an equally wet and murky Monday, 145 cars left Chester from 5am onwards, heading for North Wales where the forest tracks were muddy and often covered by pools of water. This was the start of the real rally as far as competitors were concerned, but many of them had not expected conditions to be as slippery as they were.

In Dyfnant, Wilson lost some three minutes when a front halfshaft broke, the flailing piece damaging both the turbocharger and the centre differential. He dropped from fifth to 14th as a result. On the same stage, Metcalfe rolled his Astra but continued after being righted by spectators.

Makinen collected a left rear puncture in Myherin Forest, as he had in Dyfnant, and Kytolehto's rally came to an end in Myherin when his suspension collapsed. De Mevius damaged his left rear bodywork against a wall and Alister McRae lost his rear bumper.

Biasion lost time in Hafren Forest when his turbocharger stopped working, whilst Vatanen also needed a replacement turbo.

After the usual service stop in a crowded Machynlleth came stages in Pantperthog, Dyfi and Gartheiniog, which is where Colin McRae moved up to take the lead. Later he clipped a rock which made his steering stiff but this was no great worry and he still held the lead back at Chester, albeit by just two seconds from Sainz.

Alen had twice needed a new pedal box, Blomqvist lost his power steering pump drive belt, and Wilson lost some 20 seconds when he overshot a junction. Evans, having succeeded this time in passing literally by his front door near Machynlleth, had the misfortune in Clocaenog, the last stage of the day, to hit a rock very hard, causing serious frontal damage. He struggled to the end of the stage but gave up trying to go further and retired.

Throughout the day there had been huge traffic queues but these were only to be expected, for bad weather has never deterred spectators in Wales. Some of the stages had been so wet that driver after driver had to dry their electrical systems before being able to restart their engines. Better waterproofing might have avoided this. Long radio antennae were also giving trouble by flicking back and smashing rear screens. One car twice needed a replacement rear window for this reason. The use of shorter, quarter-wave antennae would solve the problem.

Behind McRae and Sainz, Auriol had moved up to third, followed by Kankkunen, but both had been finding it very difficult to make any impression on Sainz. The latter was not concerned about McRae, and would have been happy for him to win Lombard's £100,000 . His main concern was to be ahead of Auriol and Kankkunen to win the world title. Alen was fifth, followed by Vatanen, Biasion and Wilson. After this second day the gaps were generally bigger and more than four minutes separated first from eighth.

The third day took the 126 remaining cars first to Grizedale where McRae had his hopes of a home win shattered. On a road section leading to the first stage his car was hit by a non-competing car overtaking towards him. The damage seemed little at the time, but once into the two adjacent Grizedale stages, between which no service was allowed, he collected a puncture, lost his front brakes and experienced transmission trouble. He lost nearly four minutes and dropped to seventh.

Another to drop out here was Capdevila, who stopped with a seized differential. Alister McRae still led Group N, but de Mevius now stood a good chance of taking the world title in that category.

Among the two-wheel-drive contingent, Burns' Peugeot lost a front wheel when its studs broke off. He drove out on three wheels and had everything replaced but, amazingly, the very same thing happened in Pundershaw towards the end of the day. This time, there was no carrying on and Metcalfe found himself virtually unchallenged among the non-4wd drivers.

A delay at Kershope due to an ambulance having to go in to take out a spectator who had collapsed resulted in a queue of cars lined up at the start. As it got later and the light began to fade, many of the drivers became concerned because they didn't have their auxiliary lights fitted. Contact was made with Rally HQ and, for reasons of safety, the stage was cancelled. Many of the disappointed and angry spectators travelled to Shepherdshield where they blocked the road, but when officials explained that this would only result in another cancellation, they dispersed.

Incidentally, anyone sending a Kershope car park receipt to the RAC MSA will have the parking fee refunded.

At the Newcastleton regrouping stop, Auriol had his turbocharger changed, but on the Wauchope stage which followed he felt that his engine was still not performing as it should. One stage later, Broomylinn, the Lancia's engine gave up completely and the man who won six World Championship events in 1992 lost all his chances of being the first Frenchman to take the crown.

In Pundershaw, Blomqvist went off the road, crashed into a tree and retired, whilst Biasion damaged his rear suspension. Wilson also lost a chunk of time when he went off the road and caused severe left frontal damage, later getting to the finish on three wheels. A comprehensive service operation followed, but it had all amounted to the loss of nearly seven minutes.

Ironically, his two-wheel-drive rival having retired following the loss of a wheel, Metcalfe stopped in Pundershaw for the same reason. There was very little room to pass and, although de Mevius managed to squeeze by, Eklund didn't make it and put his Subaru into a ditch, thereby blocking the whole road for a while.

Eventually, Metcalfe managed to struggle on and indeed got into Carlisle, but did not restart the next day, leaving the honour of leading the two-wheel-drive cars to Sibera in his Skoda.

At Carlisle, Sainz only had Kankkunen challenging him for the title, and the gap between them was just 1m 16s, certainly not enough to feel secure. In the morning, the fight would no doubt resume.

Behind Kankkunen, Vatanen was another 1m 35s behind, followed after another 1m 6s by Alen. Biasion was just six more seconds behind, in fifth place, but concerned lest he be overhauled by Colin McRae who had closed to just six seconds behind him. In seventh place was Eriksson, the best part of six more minutes behind.

Up in Scotland the best show among the 103 survivors was expected to be made by Sainz and Kankkunen, but it did not last long. At Dalbeattie, the day's first stage, Kankkunen hit an unexpected mud hole and his windscreen was immediately obscured. Before the washwipe switch could be hit, the car left the road and hit a rock, badly damaging the front right suspension. By the time the Finn could get off the stage, three minutes had been lost, leaving Sainz with such a margin that he could then afford to ease off fractionally to avoid risks. That was really the end of the battle for the lead.

Biasion lost time with a broken suspension, but Colin McRae could not take advantage of this because he too damaged his front suspension by going off into a ditch and losing nearly five minutes.

Punctures seemed to be more prevalent in Scotland than anywhere, even Kielder, and Makinen's already considerable tally of flat tyres increased by three that we know of, the first occurring in Glengap. It was here that Wilson's alternator stopped charging and had to be changed. One stage later, near Loch Deny, he hit a rock, puncturing the right rear tyre and breaking the damper. His misfortunes were not over, because later he had a spot of turbocharger trouble.

Lampi's intercom stopped working and Alister McRae joined the long list of those who had collected punctures.

At Newton Stewart, where there was a 30-minute regrouping stop, Vatanen caused some amusement by going into a hotel near the control, consulting his watch and politely asking the desk clerk, "May I have a room for seventeen minutes, please?"

That was about the end of it. The last stage was in the Forest of Ae, where the route went past Gubhill Farm but not around the famous wall-lined hairpin which attracted so many photographers in the past. After that, it was a long motorway drive back to Chester for the celebrations.

Toyota had two reasons to celebrate, for Sainz had recovered from an indifferent start to the season to pip Auriol at the post for the title. The Frenchman, who joins Toyota for 1993, must have felt pretty dejected, whilst Lancia didn't have much to smile about either, for Kankkunen had lost his second place to Vatanen.

Whilst the Prodrive and Subaru people were disappointed by McRae's mishap, they were delighted at his performance when things were going well and have high hopes for his future. Vatanen's second place did much to keep the team faces smiling. In the Nissan camp, Makinen would undoubtedly have been higher than his eighth place were it not for punctures, but everyone was delighted by de Mevius' clinching the world Group N title. G P