Rally review

The Welsh Rally

There are several reasons, some apparent and some obscure, why international rallies in Britain’s forests are popular among many of Europe’s leading professional drivers. It was the RAC Rally which first gathered a large following, not forgetting the equally popular former London Rally, and when the forest roads found favour with foreigners they very quickly realised that there were other events in Britain which used the same forest stages, or similar ones.

The Welsh Rally and the Scottish Rally began to attract at least some of the overseas visitors who regularly appeared on the RAC Rally, some because they liked the competitive and rhythmic nature of the forest roads and some because their shrewd team managers felt that any opportunity to drive on British forest roads should not be missed as it would provide valuable experience in readiness for the big plum at the end of the year, the RAC Rally.

The RAC then provided additional attractions by upgrading several British national events to international and allowing foreigners to contest the British National Championship provided they held British competition licences. That was an unrealistic situation, but it changed when an Open Championship was created to supplement the National, and each of its qualifiers attract many of those professionals who are regarded as potential winders of the RAC Rally itself.

That Open Championship, sponsored by Sedan Products Ltd., holds considerable interest, for it attracts such names as Blomqvist, Airikkala, Nicholas, Mikkola, Toivonen, Alén, Lampinen, and Eklund as well as the leading British drivers, and as one of its qualifying rounds the Welsh Rally picks up a very healthy entry list indeed.

So much for the apparent reasons; now for one not altogether appreciated generally, but most important for competitors nevertheless.

Practice is not allowed prior to rallies in Britain, save for a few exceptions, and it is totally forbidden on all forest roads. However, pace-notes made in advance provide an immense advantage, and one cannot blame competitors for seizing every opportunity to record information about roads in order that they may be faster, and safer, on their next encounter with those roads. In the past, foreigners have often claimed that British drivers have the advantage on the RAC Rally because they are able to practise surreptitiously. In the case of forests this is not true, but it isn’t always contempt which is bred by familiarity. It also engenders a knowledge which can be stored ready for future use, and it is this chance to stock the memory which makes British forest events so attractive to those who want to do well on the RAC Rally.

The same forests are used by many rallies, but not always the same roads, and it would be foolhardy to expect detailed pace-notes made during one event to hold good for the next. But there is a limit to the number of road permutations possible, and if notes are made on enough events, sooner or later an entire forest network will be covered.

At one time people relied on memory and it was an advantage for a driver to have a partner who had plenty of forest experience and who could draw from his memory to warn the driver of hidden hazards and to tell him when he could go flat over a blind brow. But some memories weren’t as reliable as their owners claimed, and blatant note-making has become more common, though we hasten to explain that this is done during actual rallies, not during any reconnaissance trips made quietly in advance.

On the Welsh Rally we saw evidence of properly written pace-notes being used by some competitors; what is more, we saw cars with tape recorders beside the co-drivers, and one of them was man enough to admit that he was recording pace-notes during the Welsh and other rallies so that they could be written out and used during the RAC Rally. Of course, making notes during a legitimate journey along a forest road appears to be no breach of any regulation; using those notes in a subsequent rally is quite another matter.

The entry list for the Welsh Rally included a formidable string of leading European drivers, plus a few from beyond such as John Buffum from the USA and Jim Donald all the way from New Zealand. The manufacturers represented were Ford, Vauxhall, Saab, Fiat, Triumph, Chrysler, Datsun and Opel, all of which added up to the prospect of some fierce competition.

However, it turned out that one man alone stood out above all others, and when Hannu Mikkola made fastest time on the first stage in his Ford Escort, he took over the lead and kept it right through to the end. Others were faster on some stages, but only when the experienced Mikkola knew that his advantage was sufficient to allow him to ease off fractionally. After all, winning comes from getting as close as possible to the absolute limit of adhesion without actually crossing it, and when Mikkola was able to widen slightly his very narrow margin of safety, he did so.

Blomqvist was slowed by punctures in his Saab Turbo, Airikkala stopped towards the end when his Chevette’s distributor driveshaft failed, Alén got no further than the first stage when his Fiat broke a driveshaft, Elsmore lost the gears, one by one, from the TR7 V8, whilst Brookes put up with all manner of troubles in his Escort, including a bent axle, broken water pump, sticking throttle and loss of brakes, but he picked up magnificently towards the end and overhauled Wilson to take second place.

The whole event was to have 35 special stages, but two were cancelled as they were too wet and slippery, another because the directional arrows put up by the organisers did not survive the wind and the incessant rain of the first night, and another because the telephone cable link between flying finish and stop line had not been laid out of harm’s way; when leader Mikkola came along, his Escort took the cable with it and from that moment there was confusion in the timing.

The incident happened at one of the stages where some competitors felt that the stopping distances were inadequate. It’s all very well to decide upon a distance and to tell marshals to separate the two controls by that much, but if the approach is downhill and around a fast bend, then the distance should be increased. In this case, the destruction of the vital cable led to a small queue of cars at the finish until it was decided that any hope of carrying out any timing should be abandoned. As cars added themselves to the queue, so an inadequate stopping distance became even shorter, and of course the inevitable happened.

Around that fast, downhill left-hander came Toivonen in his Escort, very sideways on the slippery dirt, with the tail of his car being held well out to the right. He had kept the power on until the moment he crossed the flying finish line, then started to brake as hard as he dared when out of line. But he was quite unable to stop the car in the distance he had available and sailed straight into the back of Pond’s Sunbeam.

The rear bodywork of the Sunbeam was severely battered, and not only was its oil reservoir split but the spare wheel was punctured. Lampinen laughingly suggested afterwards that there can be very few drivers indeed, perhaps none, who have punctured their spare wheel during a rally.

All of this, of course, would not have happened had the stopping distance been greater and that vulnerable telephone cable tucked well out of reach of sliding cars.

If one asks competitors what they consider to be the main difference between the Welsh Rally and the Scottish rally they are likely to make an initial suggestion that Scottish is when the sun shines and the Welsh is when it doesn’t. It isn’t always like that, of course, but very nearly, and the first two days of the Thursday-to-Saturday Welsh Rally took place in an endless downpour which made the going very slippery indeed, visibility extremely poor and the comfort of marshals almost non-existent. But whilst racing wilts under such conditions, rallying thrives on it, and the whole was a brisk competition through a fine selection of forests, scattered though they were.

The traditional Cardiff start and finish meant some sixty-odd miles had to be covered before the first stage, and another fifty back to the finish, but much of what went between was well worth the effort, though we do gather that for 1980 the organisers are considering moving the start to somewhere nearer the scene of most of the action. –G.P.