"The most magnificent motorcade in history" is how the Daily Express describes its London-Sydney Marathon which will begin from London's Crystal Palace at 2 p.m. on Sunday, November 24th. I am not at all sure whether such a description is justified, for one could hardly expect streamers of ticker-tape to descend from skyscrapers upon cheering crowds in the middle of Afghanistan or halfway across the Nullarbor Plain.
Yet there is an element of glamour attached to the event, an element which the sponsors are encouraging, which tends to disguise the fact that the journey to Sydney will be nothing at all like running the gauntlet of well-wishing spectators and spanner-wielding helpers.
But first let me explain what the Marathon is all about. Conceived last year, and announced in detail at the time of the 1968 Monte Carlo Rally, it will be half race, half rally, from London by road to Sydney. Apart from a short halt at Kabul and three sea crossings (the English Channel, the Bosphorus and the nine-day voyage from Bombay to Fremantle) there will be no rest periods and crews will have to take their sleep during the journey. High average speeds have been set, and the whole thing has been scheduled like a rally except that no particular route has been specified between the controls.
That the going will be difficult is illustrated remarkably well by the pictures elsewhere in this issue. The controls in the first leg will be at London, Paris, Turin, Belgrade, Istanbul, Sivas, Erzincan, Teheran, Kabul, Sarobi, Delhi and Bombay. Those in Australia are equally spaced.
Each car must carry a crew of between two and four people, and there is no restriction on the degree to which the specification of the cars may be varied from standard, except that they should have four wheels and not more than six seats.
Preparation of the cars is of the utmost importance, and it is undoubtedly taking far, far longer to suitably modify a competing car than it takes to build it in the first instance on the production line. The high speeds and rough roads demand maximum body strength and under-body protection, whilst the duration of the Marathon requires reliability from the engines rather than sheer performance. The length of the sections (some run for nearly 24 hours between controls) and the nature of the terrain render the organisation of outside assistance from service cars difficult, and virtually impossible in parts. Competing cars will therefore have to carry an ample supply of spare parts, petrol, water, food and medical supplies, etc.
Even with memories of Liege rallies still rankling strong, it is difficult to imagine what a rally of this magnitude will be like. And here the professional teams score, for they have acclimatised themselves by making reconnaissance trips to decide upon the best routes beforehand.
Manufacturers' teams are taking the event seriously and spending vast sums of money in an effort to gain the world-wide publicity which an outright win will bring them. But the bulk of the 100 entries are from private entrants who have collected the necessary finance from various sponsors who are hoping for similar publicity. Among the "entrants" are a tyre remould company, branches of the armed services, an insurance company, a television company, a newspaper, a racing drivers' school, an hydraulic machinery firm, a menswear manufacturer, a finance company, and a supermarket, not to mention the hundreds of small concerns which have bought "shares" in some of the cars.
Even though I am not really a sceptic, a look at the list of drivers amazes, almost horrifies, me. There are some with absolutely no experience at all of competitive rallying and, though all credit to them for having a go, they are surely throwing good money away (perhaps not theirs!) by jumping in at the deep end. Long-distance rallying is not merely fast driving over difficult terrain; it demands both strategy and stamina. Anyone who has gone without sleep for two or three days will realise how easy it can be to give up in the face of even the slightest difficulty.
Compatibility is another important factor which some drivers may have overlooked. You may have the most easy-going best friend in the world, but if you are cooped up with him (or even her) in a motor car for days on end it can so easily spell the end of the friendship, as many rally drivers will bear witness.
I am tempted to use the word frivolous to describe some of the entries, but then someone will surely accuse me of having no spirit of adventure. But in some cases it really is on a par with a cyclecar champion stepping straight into a Grand Prix.
A more important significance (and a totally undesirable one) of the Marathon is the effect it will have (and is having) on more permanent International events. Whatever may be the reasons for starting the event only two days after the R.A.C. Rally of Great Britain ends, the choice of date is all but criminal.
Manufacturers have found that the Marathon has consumed so much of their resources, including money, manpower and machinery, not to mention time, that they are quite unable to devote any effort at all to the country's premier event. It is scandalous that a one-off event should have been allowed to do this, but it is a fact that not one British factory-entered car will be taking part in the R.A.C. Rally. Since there is only a two-day gap between the two, it is impossible to adequately prepare for, and enter, the R.A.C. Rally as a team and then go off on the Marathon. The Daily Express, apart from gaining publicity for itself, may well have had the best intentions, but to have chosen such a date, no matter for what reason, is really doing the Sport a great disservice. But then, the R.A.C. Rally is sponsored by another daily newspaper, isn't it?
British manufacturers (Rootes, B.M.C. and Ford) have found that the organisational problems have been enormous—far more complex than they expected them to be. How do you ensure, for instance, a speedy border crossing from Pakistan into India? Or the presence of a spare drive-shaft on top of the Khyber Pass? Or a high-octane petrol supply in the Afghan Highlands? Similarly, budgets are becoming so strained that there is a real possibility that next year's activities will be curtailed simply because there will be insufficient money to pay for them.
Enthusiasm among drivers is quite another matter, and the professionals will go at it with their usual dedication and determination to do their best for their companies. But even some of the works people view it with some concern. Mäkinen, for instance, has never been enamoured by the idea, and only agreed to go in the first place because of his allegiance to B.M.C. But now that B.L.M.H. has announced that Abingdon will no longer be contesting rallies, and the services of three of their four factory drivers will no longer be required, he has told B.M.C. that he will not drive in the Marathon after all. He prefers to spend his December practising for the Monte Carlo Rally.
The long-term effects of the Marathon remain to be seen, although a good idea of what they could be can be gained front the low entry figure for the R.A.C. Rally. But the Marathon ought not to be decried for what it is, only for when it is and what it has become. It still represents a challenge the like of which has never before been encountered in our lifetime. Many long-distance motor journeys have been made in the past, but this one is the first modern attempt at a race from one side of the World to the other. The winner will certainly deserve his accolades.
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Having thus suggested that the R.A.C. Rally might not this year be as interesting as it has been in previous years, due to lack of factory participation, may I now reassure you that there will nevertheless be a field of about 120 cars, with competition as hot as it has ever been.
Once again sponsored by the Sun, which came to the financial rescue of the event two years ago and gamely stuck to a sinking ship last year when the rally was cancelled because of foot and mouth disease, the R.A.C. Rally will, as usual, be a tour of some 80 or 90 special stages in England, Wales and Scotland. Some of them are racing circuits, some are army roads, some are well-known hills such as Rest-and-Be-Thankful and Porlock, but the majority are on the unsurfaced tracks through the State Forests, which the event pioneered as competition roads several years ago.
One of the F.I.A.'s current rules for the European Rally Championship concerns the groups of cars which are eligible to enter the qualifying events. No organiser may allow cars of Groups 5 and 6, for instance, to take part. The Alpine Rally, in its desire to allow owners of prototypes to participate, opted out of the Championship and threw its entry list open to cars of Groups 1 to 6.
The R.A.C. Rally has done something quite different, but with virtually the same effect. Anxious to retain whatever attraction European Championship event has nowadays, Jack Kemsley, arch-organiser of the R.A.C., has devised a second rally which will be roll in conjunction with the R.A.C. Rally, over the same route and using the same time schedules. This he has called the European Club Rally. In so doing, he has demonstrated his affection for the thousands of Club drivers who regularly enter their Group 5 and 6 cars in weekend rallies up and down the country, for this part of the joint event will accept cars of all six groups in its list.
Factory entries in the R.A.C. Rally include three cars from Porsche, four from Saab, four from Wartburg, two from Skoda, and no less than six from Lancia, although this figure may be reduced if any mishaps occur during the Tour de Corse, only a week before the R.A.C. Rally starts.
These are backed by private entries from Britain, the Continent and Scandinavia, some of them capable of winning even against factory teams.
But the strongest challenge comes from Saab. Porsche and Lancia. Vic Elford will certainly be in the Porsche team (having withdrawn his entry in the Marathon), and his team mates will be chosen from Ake Andersson. Björn Waldedard and Pauli Toivonen, all three with several International wins to their credit.
The Saab team (presumably using V4s, not 99s) will include Tom Tram, Carl Orrenius, Hakan Lindberg and Simo Lampinen.
The Lancia team is really International, with Pat Moss-Carlsson/Liz Nyström, Hannu Mikkola/Jyrki Ahava, Harry Källström/Gunnar Haagbom, Sandro Munari/Geraint Phillips and Rauno Aaltonen/Henry Liddon—three Finns, three Swedes, two English drivers, one Italian and one Welsh. Aaltonen and Liddon, of course, have been B.M.C. drivers for several years, but those ties are now broken, although they will be doing the Marathon in a B.M.C. 1800.
The identity of the sixth Lancia crew is still something of a mystery. It is more than strongly rumoured that if certain commercial difficulties can be overcome, the driver will be one S. Moss, Esq. Wouldn't it be a turn-up for the books if D. S. J. were to be his co-driver?
The rally will begin at 11 a.m. on Saturday, November 16th, from the Centre Airport Hotel, London Airport. We do not have the space to publish the complete itinerary, but a detailed guide to all the special stages and competitors will appear in our companion weekly, Motoring News, the Thursday before the start.—G. P.