The appearance for the first time of a completely new car is always something of an occasion, for everyone welcomes the arrival of new blood or new machinery and wonders what their results will be. But those who produce a new car and enter it in competition have to be very careful lest they should overdo the trumpet blowing before the car has actually proved itself. The International Welsh Rally in May was the first competitive appearance of Leyland Cars’ Triumph TR7, a car of considerable potential which has aroused great interest. Much publicity was made of the entry of two such cars in the Welsh Rally, but one felt at the time that this was all a little premature. The time to burp with satisfaction is after a good meal, not before it, and when both TR7s retired during the first night of the rally all the pre-event publicity fell flat. How much better would it have been if the cars had been entered quietly and unobtrusively, using their first competition as an extension of their test programme and leaving all the banner waving until they prove themselves—which they are obviously capable of doing.
Ranged against the new Triumphs was a whole array of Ford Escorts in various forms of preparation, livery and performance, entered by the factory, by garages and tuning concerns, by sponsoring companies and even by individuals. Also in the field was a new Saab 99EMS entered by the factory, but although Stig Blomqvist made good times during the first night, the car was retired in the early hours of the second day when an incurable misfire and a very loud rattle led to suspicions of valve failure.
This really left the fight to the line-up of Fords, and it was the young Finn Ari Vatanen who finally made first place in a works car sponsored by Allied Polymer, who were delighted with the result since it was fitted with their Gandy brake linings for the first time. Britisher Russell Brookes was not far behind in a similar car backed by Andrews Heat-for-Hire, but just as it seemed that he might close the gap he rolled off the road and lost something like a dozen minutes regaining it. Another Britisher to shine in the early stages was a young man from Gloucestershire called Graham Elsmore. In yet another Escort, albeit an older one, his performance was so good that he was in fourth place for some time, but he had to suffer the disappointment of retirement when a driveshaft broke on a special stage. In the future, he could very well be a man to watch.
Another car which began well was the Lancia Stratos being campaigned by The Chequered Flag. Its history is very much a chapter of accidents, but on the Welsh Rally it suffered its final blow when it rolled on a very deceptive bend after a blind crest, burst into flame and was completely destroyed.
The incident was significant inasmuch as the lives of its occupants, Walfridsson and Jensen, were undoubtedly saved by courageous spectators who dived into the flames, rolled the car off its roof and got the occupants out. It so happened that this particular stage in Brechfa Forest had been kept secret from the public who were only given the location of six of the 36 stages. However, the enthusiasm of hardy rally followers is not to be dampened, and numbers of them have no trouble locating the secret stages and getting in to watch. It was most fortunate for Walfridsson and Jensen that they did so in Brechfa.
The main reason for keeping stages from the public, so it seems, is the lack of adequate parking space in the areas adjacent to the forests, but when six stages are revealed and 30 are not, the concentration of watchers at those six creates its own congestion, as happened on the Welsh Rally.
In our opinion, the forests are for all to enjoy, and we feel that the best and only proper course is to reveal the stages and to give additional information concerning parking facilities. It would also be an added comfort for competitors, because spectators are generally ready to provide all manner of assistance, retrieving cars, warning others of danger, helping with repairs, providing lifts for those stranded and, as on the Welsh. saving lives. Can rally organisers and the Forestry Commission really deny competitors those benefits?
Apart from some mist and low cloud in the mornings and evenings, the Welsh mountains were ha bed in sunshine during the weekend of ate rally. In good weather people are more likely to enjoy themselves than in had weather, and all concerned with the event were in good spirit. Everyone, from schoolboy spectators to team managers, enjoyed the weekend, whilst competitors seemed always to he grinning and joking at the various stops no matter how many problems they had. This is the sort of spirit which endears the sport to all who encounter it and which turns a casual onlooker into a confirmed enthusiast at his first acquaintance.
In years past the Welsh Rally has always been concentrated into a weekend, with scrutiny during the morning of the Friday start and the rally running right through until the Sunday. This suited privateers admirably, for they could tackle the event without forking out for hotel rooms, but along came complaints from those who felt that the rally ran for too long without rest, so the format was changed for this year. Scrutiny began on Wednesday, the start was on the Thursday, there was an overnight stop on the Friday, the finish was on the Saturday and the final tie-deciding race at Llandow was on the Sunday. No more was the Welsh Rally the only surviving British international which could claim to provide low-cost competition. Hotel stops and fine restaurants may he all right for works teams and well-sponsored crews, but for those who pay their own bills (and these are the majority without whom no rally could survive) they are costly luxuries.
This year the new style turned out to he expensive for the organisers too, and there is talk that the 1977 rally will revert to its old, crisp style. We would also like to see several loose organisational ends tied up, a roadbook better than the rather scrappy and inconsistent one used this year, and improved stage arrowing. We would also like to see the final circuit test at Llandow taken out of the event altogether since it is completely out of character, but that is a personal view and we appreciate that the Llandow test provides the club with the means of earning much-needed revenue from the paying public to he able to afford the exorbitant fees charged by the Forestry Cotnmission for the use of its roads. These road charges take refuge beneath the camouflage of reinstatement after surface damage caused by the passage of cars. When we hear of such things as marbles teams being subsidised by the Sports Council to play in Tokyo, one wonders why such a tremendously prestigious sport as rallying, with its vital industrial importance, gets nothing. A first step need not necessarily be a financial grant, but the abolition of those road charges in lieu of a grant would result in the immediate lowering of costs incurred by organisers and the equally immediate drop in entry fees levied on competitors.
Ari Vatanen convincingly showed his critics (those who felt that Ford should have engaged a young British driver, not a Finn) that he is of the stuff which champions are made of, but a few Englishmen also showed their worth and we hope that they will find the wherewithal to progress into the sport’s highest levels.—G.P.