The Welsh International Rally

We have already written in this issue of Motor Sport (page 811) of the exciting, well-matched duel in Portugal between Hannu Mikkola (Ford Escort RS) and Markku Alen (Fiat 131 Abarth), resolved on the very last special stage when Mikkola lost his slender lead by collecting a puncture. Just three weeks later in Wales, Mikkola set the balance level again by comfortably winning the International Welsh Rally with his regular partner Arne Hertz. Alen was in second place for a while, but in the second half Roger Clark and Jim Porter got their Escort ahead of him and pushed the Fiat driver down to third place.

It is not true to say that it always rains on the Welsh Rally, but somehow it nearly always does and when the rally started the relatively smooth forest roads were very slippery indeed and throughout the event there was considerable bank-bouncing and tree-nudging to provide panel beaters with ample work afterwards. In contrast was Clark’s unmarked Escort, his polished style showing its customary mixture of spectacle and tidiness which is all too rare nowadays.

Before the rally there were expectations of a fight, for Leyland was there with one of its 3.5-litre V8-engined Triumph TR7s for Tony Pond, and Vauxhall with two Chevettes (now “productionised” after the Portuguese affair) for Pennti Airikkala and Jim McRae. Britain’s Opel team was also there with a Kadett for ex-Leyland driver Brian Culcheth, but that was a Group One car which was hardly capable of standing up to the much more powerful Group Four Escorts which were numerous in the entry list. Nevertheless, Culcheth brought his car home to a fine eighth place, winning the category.

Both Vauxhalls and the TR7 retired, and what remained in the second half was something of an Escort race, with Alen’s Fiat breaking up the run of Fords. Indeed, the only cars other than Escorts in the first ten at the finish were Alen’s Fiat and Culcheth’s Opel.

For many years Wales has been something of a weekend Mecca for rally people. Even before the days of forest rallying, when the best events were those which used the twistiest mountain roads in the most desolate, unpopulated countryside, competitors flocked across the border to tackle Welsh events, and even English organisers held their rallies there, and still do.

Many changes have since taken place, but Wales remains as popular as ever. In many parts of Britain there are pockets of residents who are somewhat opposed to the sport, but it seems there are far fewer of these in Wales than anywhere else, and it is quite common for farmers and country dwellers to encourage and support rallies rather than to oppose them. Indeed, some will endeavour to have an event re-routed so that it passes their property.

As a generalisation, it could be said that the forest roads of Scotland and Northumberland are on the rough side, whilst those of Yorkshire and Wales are relatively smooth. Those who are reluctant to subject their expensively prepared rally cars to treatment rougher than necessary are therefore attracted to the Welsh Rally rather than the Scottish, but the Welsh event does have shortcomings in other directions.

Although there are fine forest areas each with its network of eminently suitable rally stages, such as Dyfi, Clocaenog, Brechfa and Coed y Brenin, they are somewhat spread out and any route which spans a number of these forests must, of necessity, use a considerable distance on public roads. The Cardiff start and finish put additional road distances on the route, and the final product this year consisted of some 200 stage miles (the “official” distance was just under 190 miles) in a rally which lasted 46 hours. That’s a long time indeed for so short a competitive distance, and the often boring journeys between stages served to dilute the rally. There was also a full night stop, and all this meant that someone who travelled to Cardiff on the eve of the start, stayed afterwards for the prize giving and spent that night in Cardiff, would have been away from home for five nights, only one of them spent actually rallying. This is a far cry from the time, not so long past, when the whole rally ran through from Friday evening to Sunday morning with only a few short stops here and there, although even then there was a high road distance to be covered, for in the meantime the forests have by no means become smaller.

Again this year there was a restriction on the number of special stages which were disclosed to the public, but this has now become a general rule. So popular has the sport become that organisers, forest officials and police co-operate to keep the vast crowds as much as possible to places where there is space for them. Of the 39 special stages, only eight were declared suitable for spectators, six of them during Thursday night and Friday and just two during the Saturday.

However, as usual enthusiasts with local knowledge (and there are many thousands of them) soon learn where the stages are and contrive to get there, park their cars out of harm’s way and watch the action. There were four stages on the military roads over Mynydd Epynt, for instance, and although these were not officially disclosed there were sizeable crowds watching all of them. The situation is akin to that created by some of our speed limit laws, and indeed some of our licensing laws; although something is officially forbidden, no harm will come from doing it provided the doer applies common sense and judgement, officialdom sometimes showing its recognition of this by turning an equally sensible blind eye.

Almost throughout the rally Mikkola, now enjoying his second successful term as a contracted driver with the Ford team, was dominant, although British driver Russell Brookes did take over the lead very briefly. He might have finished higher than his eventual fifth were it not for a spin off the road whilst fighting a flat tyre, at a cost of some ten minutes. He had also collided backwards with a stout pine, making a sorry mess of the boot area of his car which was crumpled all around a sizeable, tree-shaped indentation squarely in the middle.

Without the two Chevettes and the TR7, which had mysteriously shed its fanbelt and overheated, there was just the one Fiat and several Escorts running at the head of the field. It didn’t seem likely that Alen would get to grips with Mikkola, but at the end of the first leg at Aberystwyth Clark was only a matter of seconds behind the Fiat driver. On the Saturday morning he wasted no time getting ahead into second place, where he stayed until the end.

Two young drivers deserve to be singled out, Graham Elsmore and Malcolm Wilson, both driving Ford Escorts. Their performances, coupled with their past achievements, indicate that more success could be in store for them. Unfortunately, neither appeared in the finishers’ list of the Welsh Rally, Wilson having his clutch disintegrate with considerable force and Elsmore being disqualified (he would have been fourth) by the stewards for indulging in servicing at a place other than one of the specified areas. He suffered a broken gearbox shaft on the startline of a special stage, pushed his car back out of the way and later had the gearbox changed when his service car arrived.

There was a time when service operations could be carried out at any convenient spot, but the numbers of service cars have so increased that event regulations began to specify where one could not receive outside assistance. Wily competitors soon got around this one, and regulations nowadays tend to specify where one can be serviced, categorically forbidding service everywhere else. The road leading to the start of that stage where Elsmore’s gearbox broke was not a specified service area, so when a marshal’s report went back to the organisers and was referred to the stewards, they stuck rigidly to the regulations and excluded him. Regrettably, this regulation demands considerable policing if it is to be enforced absolutely, and it was Elsmore’s misfortune that he was caught at it in a spot where he had not arranged in advance to be serviced, whilst others who had organised unmarked support cars to patrol forbidden areas, and were serviced by them, were not caught.

It would be churlish of us not to mention the Sponsors of the rally, particularly as one of them is a government organisation whose involvement should perhaps be explained. The Western Mail newspaper has been backing the event for some years, and giving it good coverage, but the other sponsor was Phonepower Wales, a slogan representing the regional area of the Post Office Telecommunications Board. Their involvement even included supplying some of their familiar yellow Land Rovers to be used as rescue and recovery vehicles at stages. Before some of you may wonder at the wisdom of using taxpayers’ money to finance operations connected with rallying, let us say that the organisers were using public telephones to get times back to rally headquarters in Cardiff, and there was considerable revenue for the Post Office from the 17 telephone numbers which the public could ring to hear taped bulletins of the progress of the rally. Another sponsor, although an indirect one, was Sedan Products, the motor accessory distributors who are backing the RAC Open Rally Championship, a British series of international events in which the Welsh Rally is a qualifier. After three rounds, Russell Brookes leads that series from Roger Clark. G.P.

1st: H. Mikkola/A. Hertz (Ford Escort RS) 3h. 47m. 24s.
2nd: R. Clark/J. Porter (Ford Escort RS) 3h. 50m. 43s.
3rd: M. Alen/I. Kivimaki (Fiat 13) 3h. 51m. 57s.
4th: N. Rockey/B. Harris (Ford Escort RS) 3h. 59m. 46s.
5th: R. Brookes/J. Brown (Ford Escort RS) 4h. 01m. 19s.