The Welsh Rally
OF THE five main international rallies in the British Isles (organised by people of five different nationalities, incidentally) the Welsh Rally is the one which has always been regarded as the low-cost event for clubmen, the rally on which aspiring competitors could cut their big-time teeth. The reason for this was simple; it was all crammed into one weekend, from Friday to Sunday, and there was no need to take more than one day away from work, nor to take hotel accommodation. It was admirable that the South Wales Automobile Club should endeavour to cater for rallying people with limited depth of pocket, but understandable since the organisers are themselves amateurs, unlike those of other British internationals which have full-time staffs available. However, the compression of the event brought its own peculiar problems and there really was a lot to get through in the three days spanned by the event.
In past years the rally used to start on the Friday evening after scrutineering and documentation sessions throughout the day, and finish on the Sunday morning prior to a final (but totally out of character) test on Llandow Racing Circuit and the inevitably delayed processes which led to publication of the results. Thus the running time of the rally itself took in two nights and the intervening day, no longer (shorter, in fact) than the first leg of the immensely popular RAC Rally used to be until just two years ago. But there were criticisms that the rally demanded too much of competitors' stamina and that two consecutive nights out of bed without a break stretched physical endurance excessively.
Our own view was that, treated intelligently, continuous rallying for two nights was not too much, and that the danger was in homeward journeys rather than in the rally itself. People used to arrive at the finish very tired, go off to the race at Llandow, hang about until late afternoon waiting for results and then drive home in a very tired condition. There was no opportunity for rest before setting out for home simply because most of those involved had work on Monday to think of. Our suggested solution was to begin the rally on the Thursday and end it on the Saturday so that a night's sleep would be possible before returning home.
The style of this year's Welsh Rally was changed partly towards the remedy we suggested, for it started on the Friday morning and finished on the Saturday night, the Thursday being taken up by scrutineering and the Sunday morning again by that silly afterthought of a test at Llandow, put in simply to attract spectators and draw gate money. Slow results meant that there was still quite a wait on the Sunday, but at least everyone had slept on the Saturday night.
Total running time for this year's event was the same as in the past, and so was the total of rest stops, but the start was in the morning which meant that competitors began the rally after a sleep rather than after a long day of scrutineering, map-plotting and service planning, all of which could be done on the Thursday this year.
So much for the endurance aspect; now for the rally itself. British rallies are immensely popular with foreign drivers, mainly because of the superb special stages over loose-surfaced forest roads so well engineered and cambered that they could easily have been purpose-built for competitive motoring rather than for the operations of the Forestry Commission. Regrettably, almost criminally, rally organisers have to pay dearly for the use of these roads, and it is grossly unfair that some sports receive handsome Government grants whereas rallying must pay the Exchequer.
Notwithstanding the popularity, few foreigners (apart from the English!) went to the Welsh Rally. There were works Fords running under the individual sponsorship of their crews, works Skodas entered by their dealers' team, Opel Asconas similarly entered, Datsuns privately backed, a single Lancia Stratos entered by London's Chequered Flag, Vauxhall Magnums entered by the Banbury based dealer team, partially backed Hillman Avengers and a Marina and a Dolomite entered by British Leyland's Unipart. There were 193 cars in all, representing a variety of makes and an even greater variety of backers, sponsors and garages without whom most of the runners would doubtless have been unable to afford the high cost of modern rallying.
Roger Clark and Jim Porter, the pair who have been Britain's leading rally crew for many years, scored yet another outright win, this time in one of the new Escort II saloons with engine and mechanical parts from the well-tried and proved former model. Much was expected of the Ferrari-engined Lancia Stratos, the car which proved itself capable of tackling rough roads in East Africa, but overheating and loss of oil pressure put it out of the rally after half-distance. Walfridsson, the little Swedish driver who is renowned for making heavy Volvos move in an incredibly agile manner, drove the Stratos very well indeed considering that his experience of the car was limited to a 30-mile run in Sweden.
There was once a wide margin between the abilities of works drivers and amateurs, for there were no partially-backed in-betweens at one time. Now the margin has become very narrow indeed and this applies also to driving ability. Billy Coleman, the young Irish driver, gave Clark a very close fight in a sister car until he retired with broken steering, and Russell Brookes, a Midlander also with a works-built Escort II, was another who didn't allow Clark to relax at all. Nigel Rockey, a Bristolian, eventually finished second in another, but older, car from Boreham whilst behind him was Tony Pond in an Ascona which he has now purchased from the Dealer Opel Team. Perhaps there was insufficient foreign opposition to judge properly, but one got the impression that British drivers are beginning to drive in a manner formerly associated only with Scandinavians. Tony Fowkes was another who deserves mention, and Chris Wathen who made astounding progress in the ruts which must have faced him from start number 72.
Among the foreigners, Pentti Airikkala (Finland) retired his Vauxhall with broken piston rings before he could really show his paces, whilst fellow countryman Ari Vatanen had the misfortune to break the steering of his old Ascona on the very last stage, dropping him from a certain place in the first ten. Erik Ashy from Norway was frequently among the stage leaders in his British-built Escort, whilst the performances of fellow countryman John Haughland and Markku Saaristo from Finland in a pair of Skodas were nothing short of remarkable. Skodas are by no means renowned as competition cars, but these two cars prepared in Czechoslovakia were most impressive. Alas they both retired with lubrication failures when well placed.
As a qualifier in the European Championship the Welsh Rally is a most worthy event, but it could so easily be organisationally polished up if some of its organisers were able to look around at the methods employed by other rallies. The results, both during and after the rally, were not exactly speedy and start formalities were somewhat extended by the fact that the service area, scrutineering and signing-on were in three different locations in Cardiff.
Although it was backed financially and in kind by the Western Mail, the Welsh Rally was nevertheless running on a tight budget. Whilst the government continues to see the sport of rallying as a means of reaping extra revenue, such budgets will always be tight, and organisers will always find it difficult to implement methods which would improve their events but which are also costly. One way to relieve financial burdens would be to abolish the crippling levy which the Forestry Commission demands for the use of its roads.
Without this tax on their resources, the organisers of the Welsh Rally would have been in a position to introduce a number of improvements. Rallying is firstly a sport but it is also an important shop window. One day, hopefully before it is too late, this will he realised in Westminster.—G.P.