Mastering the rally art, with Culcheth

If you believe that rally drivers are created rather than made then the thought of Rally Schools is probably a complete anathema. There isn’t a rally driver in today’s World Championship who owes his success to any form of schooling. The skills have been learnt the hard way, the years of experience fine-honing natural instincts of car control.

That is the simplistic way of looking at the phenomena of rally schools, there being at least four in the UK alone, each offering varying levels of competence and instruction. The idea of rally schools took off in the seventies when Ford ran its successful series of training days, which not only encompassed driving but such skills (ones which can be more effectively taught) as navigation, map reading, co-driving technique and car preparation. Even before Ford arrived on the scene, Rauno Aaltonen was holding regular driving seminars, and to our knowledge still does.

However, one of the leading instructors of the front running Silverstone-based Stage School views the concept of teaching rally drivers the basic skills from a completely different angle. “What other sport can you go into without any training?” asks former British Leyland works driver Brian Culcheth. It is a valid question, and during our visit to Stage School, 44-year-old Culcheth made it obvious that although he would be more than pleased to find a new star of British rallying (in fact he thinks he could have found one), he stresses that the whole raison d’etre for the school is to teach not only newcomers basic skills, but to offer more advanced courses to those with competitive miles under their belt.

Prices start from £95 for the basic day course (£75 with your own car), and with more than 350 pupils having already visited the school since it opened its doors in October, 1982, it is fair to say that not all the students have been (or want to be) a budding Hannu Mikkola. Many just take the course to learn such basic skills as how to control a slide, and a surprising number turn up courtesy of their wives – a visit to the Stage School apparently a popular birthday present.

The week before our visit, Culcheth and another part-time instructor (former driver Andy Dawson) had been guiding 24 members of the Institute of Advanced Motorists through the mysteries of skid control, handbrake turns and powerslides. “They wanted to see how rallying compared with the very smooth style that IAM encourages,” explained Culcheth, “so we told them to forget all that. Rallying is hooliganism with a motorcar!”

The IAM day was arranged as a taster for what could be achieved, Culcheth never ceasing to be amazed as to how high a percentage of his pupils believe that once a car goes into a slide then the next thing it does is overturn. “It’s a useful leader for people who want to improve their confidence,” he says.

Expanding the school into teaching road driving skills is something for the future (Culcheth has already mapped out a road course), but the most immediate development is the ability to offer four-wheel drive courses. With an ever-increasing number of rally cars built in four-wheel drive form the school now has the use of an Audi 80 Quattro in which pupils can be taught how to deal with the more advanced and specialist problems such as left-foot braking.

The administration of the school is looked after by former motoring journalist David Hardcastle, who operates from one of Silverstone’s purpose-built industrial units. The tuition is held at a disused airfield literally within earshot of the race circuit, but closer to Culcheth’s home near Brackley. Pure rallying enthusiasts are not enamoured by the fact that the school is held on the wide open spaces of an airfield, feeling it has little relevance to driving through the confines of a forest, but Culcheth is adamant that it is important to have plenty of room in which to develop techniques. Apart from personal preservation (Culcheth rides with each pupil) he feels that having space in which to make mistakes helps confidence. With nothing to hit, people are more included to push themselves to their limit, and beyond! Also an airfield perimeter road is less likely to damage a car than a forest track.

The school has two Mk 2 Escort RS2000s, and to use one of these on the standard course costs £95 (including tuition) plus a £50 deposit which is returned within ten working days providing no damage has been caused. For the beginner, Culcheth feels it best if they use their own car as they are obviously more familiar with the lay-out, and their own car may react entirely differently to an RS2000.

After an hour’s theory at the Silverstone offices, pupils drive to the airfield venue where Culcheth first advises on slide control with each pupil driving in turn with him alongside. The second driving session involves building-up technique and confidence by taking a high speed slalom course through a series of plastic cones. Braking and handbrake turns are also covered.

After a lunch break (the school has a double decker bus converted into a hospitality unit permanently at the airfield) comes instruction over a two mile special stage. This stage has fast and slow bends as well as three different surfaces, Culcheth first driving each pupil through. Pupils then drive the stage twice themselves, with or without the instructor. Three hours are put aside for the special stage, and afterwards there is a de-briefing and advice on future steps in the sport or road driving. Each pupil receives a certificate or merit, the diploma designed in such a way that the more sensitive can tear off Culcheth’s pithy comments at the bottom!

Culcheth does not belong to the aggressive school of instructors who feel that yelling and shouting is the best technique, instead preferring a firm but gentle approach. “There are ways of telling someone he’s a wally without upsetting him,” he says.

The next step is the Advanced Course which costs between £140 and £225 per day, depending on whether there are one or two pupils (the maximum is two per session), and if a school car is used. This course is specifically designed for a driver who has reasonable experience of loose surface driving, but wants to discover any faults in technique or work on a particular problem. Although the advanced course also begins with a discussion at Silverstone, the rest of the day at the airfield has no set formal programme, the flexibility enabling a pupil and the instructor to spend time on a specific problem area. Topics which are usually covered include braking, brake balance, and pace notes.

The most famous graduate of the school is former downhill ski star Konrad Bartelski, the catalyst who got the school off the ground. Culcheth had for some time been mulling over the possibility of organising a rally school when he was approached by Rothmans. The cigarette giant had the idea of trying to see how well a sportsman from a different field would cope with rally driving. In many ways it was a pure publicity exercise, but Culcheth warmed to the idea. Although somewhat sceptical at the outset he soon came to respect Bartleski’s competitive instinct, and his will to succeed.

“Of course, ski-ing does have a number of parallels with rallying,” explained Culcheth. “You need quite a lot of courage and the ability to be able to start instantly. When you come out of that ski gate you can’t have three poles to warm up. You’ve got to be there straight away. It’s the same with rallying. You don’t get three corners to warm up. You’ve got to get in there and sock it to them!”

Culcheth found the skier a willing pupil, and before the scheme was finally put aside Bartelski had managed a seventh place on his first international rally as well as a class win on a British international. These results went a long way to silencing the sceptics, but Culcheth feels that the project was dropped at the wrong time:

“It’s difficult to say how far he would have progressed. For someone who just stepped into the sport he really was good. Compared with others I’ve been taking for long periods he was just streets ahead. But whether there was that final bit is difficult to say. In the end he just didn’t have enough competition experience. He needed a big company machine behind him.”

In his typically methodical way Culcheth keeps a record of the type of cars which his pupils use on the road. Heading the list is the VW Golf followed by Ford Escorts, BMWs and Porsche, underlining the fact that all those who pass through his hands are sporting drivers. In his experience Culcheth found that it is the latter two groups of owners who leave with the most deflated egos!

“The most frustrating thing about the whole operation is the number of people already rallying who are completely up the wrong path with their technique. If only you could get them to come in the early days then I’m sure they’d progress,” explains Brian.

The most common problem is setting up the car correctly for a bend, and then being able to balance it on the throttle through the corner. “They’ve read in all the books that you have to drive round corners, but what the books don’t tell you is that you’ve got to get into the corner in the first place. They think that as soon as you’ve finished braking then you bang on the throttle, and it will go round the corner quite happily. The other theory is that power will get them out of trouble. We’ve had guys go through the fence with the power still on. They just don’t lift!”

However, the satisfaction of being able to pass on some of his considerable knowledge far outweighs the frustration of the job. The last major successes for Culcheth came in 1978 when he won the Group 1 category on all seven rounds of the British Open Championship in an Opel Kadett. He started rallying in 1960 and achieved his first major international success in 1963 when he won his class on the Monte Carlo Rally in a Mini. Over the years he has driven some of the fastest Cooper S’s, Triumph Dolomites and 2.5PIs (he was runner up to Hannu Mikkola on the epic 1970 World Cup Rally) as well as Marinas for British Leyland, so his experience in both front-wheel and rear-wheel drive cars is extensive. He’s not afraid to admit that he has limited knowledge of four-wheel drive (although judging by the way he threw around an 80 Quattro during a demonstration of the school facilities he’s learning fast), and brings in other drivers with more experience in this field to impart the specialist knowledge. Culcheth has always had an infectious enthusiasm for rallying, and although he doesn’t approve of some of the more commercial influences in the sport today, he still has an urge to pass on his knowledge to newcomers. He makes an excellent tutor, and his involvement in Stage School is one of the major reasons for its continued success. – M.R.G.