And the Banned Played On

Turning the British Rally Championship over to Formula Two cars worked a treat – until a horde of four-wheel drives turned up. Rob Aherne reports on the Rally of Wales

Let’s play a game. Look down the list of top 20 finishers on the Vauxhall Rally of Wales, the opening round of the Mobil 1/Top Gear British Rally Championship, and work out how many are eligible to score points.

The answer, in case you’re wondering, is seven. The other 13 are Group A and N four-wheel drive cars, plus Renault’s lone Megane Maxi kit car, all of which were banned from the championship at the end of 1994. More significantly, “outlaws” filled three of the leading four positions and the top two places, pushing leading Formula Two and thus British Championship contender Gwyndaf Evans down to third.

Banning four-wheel drive cars from individual events would mean withdrawal from the European Championship, for starters: something that both the RACMSA and the four events that count towards it are loathe to do. But in terms of promotion to an audience outside the traditional bobble-hatted fraternity, Britain’s premier domestic rally series thus finds itself in a testing predicament, especially when it pursued the two-litre, two-wheel-drive route in an attempt to convince major manufacturers that it could be a viable alternative to the BTCC.

The same situation existed in 1995, during the inaugural season of F2, but somehow it didn’t seem so important. For one thing, F2 restored much of the championship’s credibility after the dark days of the early ’90s, as the novelty of a proliferation of evenly matched two-wheel-drive cars invariably grabbed the attention far more than the occasional “total traction” interlopers. Indeed, such was the hotbed of competition in F2 that eventual champion Alister McRae vanquished allcomers to win the first round outright in his Nissan Sunny GTi on his way to becoming the two-litre formula’s first champion.

This year though, there has been a slight but significant drop in quality, if not quantity. Vauxhall has abandoned rallying, both Nissan and Peugeot have scaled down their involvement and while both Ford and VW have raised their games, joined by first-timers Skoda and a “semi-works” Honda effort, the net result is a diminishing number of headlining car/driver combinations. Simultaneously and contrary to the championship’s whole logic the number of competitive four-wheel-drive cars bent on doing individual rounds has shot up. McRae, frustrated by the closed doors encountered at higher levels, reasons it is better to be out winning rallies outright than sitting at home, and hopes to gain four-wheel-drive experience on several rounds in a Malcolm Wilson-prepared Escort Cosworth. So does the fleet but accident-prone Finn, Ari Mokkonen, in a Mike Little car, and fellow-countrymen Olli Harkki, Harri Rovanpera and Mika Korhonen, all of whom have embarked on assaults on the championship’s separate (and perhaps ill advised) Production Cup category in Mitsubishi Lancer E3s. Harkki emerged victorious in Wales, after Rovanpera suffered a late suspension failure and Korhonen went off for seven minutes: conceivably, however, all three could have packed out the top six.

Renault is a separate case entirely. Although it is in the second year of a concerted British Championship attack, the Regie decided at the end of 1995 that it wasn’t viable to build a “conventional” Group A version of its new Megane, as the British Championship is increasingly isolated in not admitting kit cars. Therefore, Robbie Head and Serge Jordan are contesting all five British rounds in Megane Maxi kit cars as an extended development exercise, the implication being that Britain should have to fall into line and follow the kit route in 1997. While Head’s early promise was curtailed by head gasket failure and Jordan climbed a steep learning curve on the way to seventh, both will undoubtedly figure higher up as the season progresses.

The upshot is that a string of machines which have no place in the British Championship are more than capable of hogging the limelight on individual events and marginalising the two-litre element of the equation. Moreover, the first round suggested that everybody will have to play second fiddle to McRae as long as the 26-yearold Scot finds the budget to turn out.

The tongue-in-cheek game-plan that the British Champion outlined before the start “Gauge myself during the first leg, then annihilate them on Saturday!” became a fait accompli early on in Friday’s first leg. Alister easing away to a fiveminute victory. Not even a stomach upset on Saturday’s longer, Dyfi Forest-based second leg could halt his progress. He was aided in his task by Mokkonen who, after a spate of accidents during the last 12 months, made finishing his main priority when it became clear there was little chance of out-gunning McRae. So much so, in fact, that British Championship pace-setter Evans came within 17 seconds of removing him from the runner’s-up spot with a late charge over the stages he knows best.

Whereas last year, 20-mile stages would see the leading protagonists separated by a mere handful of seconds, in Wales the proven combination of Evans, larger-than-life co-driver Howard Davies and his Gordon Spooner Engineering Escort RS2000 reaching its developmental peak after an 18-month gestation stood head and shoulders above the pack. To the tune of four minutes, in fact.

They were helped a little by the driver many expected to run the Dinas Mawddwy man closest, rapid Finn Jarmo Kytblehto. He fell from the picture after rolling his new RS2000 after three stages, though it said something for his speed that he had recovered to third in the category and sixth overall by Saturday night.

In truth, nobody looked remotely like challenging Evans in British Championship terms. As early as the fourth stage he could afford the luxury of playing round with various Michelin compounds in preparation for Saturday, and even though he wasn’t entirely happy with the Escort’s tendency to snap sideways on occasion, his performance set a standard that the two-litre fraternity could not hope to match.

That said, the odd indicator emerged that he may not have things entirely his own way. The hitherto recalcitrant Volkswagen Golfs showed a dramatic upturn in competitiveness to match their bright new colour schemes, with yet another rising Finnish star, Tapia Laukkanen, providing Evans’s closest opposition until his engine let go early on Saturday morning. New team-mate Jouko Puhakka was equally impressive on his first acquaintance with the British forests, only for wiper failure, electrical problems and finally a broken engine mounting which saw his Golf pushed over the finish ramp to leave him well down the order.

Ultimately Mark Higgins, Nissan’s new lead driver, was left in a lonely second place which he was reluctant to jeopardise, but his performance on the one stage he really gave the gear selection-troubled Sunny its head did much to endorse his reputation as one of Britain’s most promising talents. Given greater familiarity with a car which is still one of the most competitive in F2, despite a lack of recent development, he is capable of giving Evans a much harder time.

Both, however, have a task on their hands to break out of the four-wheel-drive shadow. And on the next two rounds, the Pirelli and Scottish rallies both of which are predominantly gravel that task will not get any easier.