Rally Review, September 1977

A Threat to Road Rallies

Before Britain’s Motor Clubs found themselves able to follow the example of the RAC by organising rallies which used special stages on forest and other private roads, there was no official British Rally Championship to speak of. There was such a series run by the RAC, but little thought went into it and compared with other, non-rallying, series it was very much a poor relation.

The weekly newspaper Motoring News did run a championship and this was looked upon by the entire rally fraternity as the only significant series in the country, albeit an unofficial one.

Then came the advance of special stage rallies and nowadays there are so many up and down the country that no less than five countrywide championships have been able to base their series on these special stage events. At the same time, road events – those which do not use special stages but remain on narrow, twisty, little-used public roads in sparsely populated country areas – began to suffer the brickbats of those who sought to lower their respectability. A Statutory Instrument now controls those parts of all motor sporting activities which use public roads and there are strict controls. It has become more difficult to run such events, but the result has been a raising of the quality of those which are run.

However, the feeling is paramount that these road events, which form the breeding ground of rally crews and provide the cheapest form of the sport available, receives no encouragement whatsoever from those in authority and is no more than just tolerated by the RAC who would be pleased to see them phased out altogether. There is only one countrywide championship based entirely on road events, the sixteen-year-old series which is still run by Motoring News, and now the RAC has taken steps to stifle even that, although they don’t say it in so many words. An announcement said that due to expected further legislation to control rallies, the RAC were “unable to approve for 1978 any form of sponsorship for road rally championships”.

Will this mean the end of the Motoring News Championship? Will it also herald the end of all road rallying? We trust not in both cases, for that branch of the sport is the cheapest means of getting started in rallying. Furthermore, it is the best training ground for navigators who, on special stage events, have very little to do. The MN series represents a goal at which competitors aim, and a standard by which all road events are judged.

From this month, the Forestry Commission will operate increased charges for rallies which use roads through State forests as special stages. The new charge is 42p per car per mile, and that is levied in advance, based on the number of cars which start a rally and the stage distance planned. If the majority of the cars drop out on the first stage, the fee remains based on the number of starters.

This means that a club running a rally over a modest 25 miles of special stages on Forestry cars, be faced with a bill for £1,260 on top of the various authorisation and permit fees levied by the Department of the Environment and the RAC. This has to be found somewhere and is usually passed on to competitors by way of increased fees. So it is that special stage events are far costlier than those on the road, and that without taking into consideration the far heavier car preparation and maintenance costs involved, for loose-surfaced, often rough stages are much harder on cars than the routes of road events which generally stick to tarmac.

The RAC Rally itself, with something like 400 miles of forest stages and 180 starters, has to pay more than £30,000, but that event has a generous sponsor in Lombard North Central and the entry fee, for private entrants at least, is just £150. It’s remarkable that a great international sporting occasion, attracting more public interest than any other event and to which enormous international prestige is attached, has to pay what is virtually a government department for the privilege of running Britain’s best sporting and automotive shop window. We all know that the Forestry Commission is supposed to be self-sufficient and even profit-making, but surely some kind of paper transfer could be made to offset the crippling levy.

The Forestry Commission emphasises that there is no element of profit in the charges which are made solely to cover the cost of road surface reinstatement after a rally has passed. There is no doubt that powerful rally cars driven at high speed do cause surface damage, but forest roads also need regular maintenance and it is more than likely that routine repairs are often left until after a rally has passed, thereby saving work costs to some extent.

In fairness to the Forestry Commission, who after all are merely acting within their governmental terms of reference, we should point out that it recognises “that it might not be possible for motoring organisations to hold rallies of major significance in this country were it not for the facility of forest roads”.

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Regulations for the 1977 Lombard RAC Rally are now available form the RAC at 31 Belgrave Square London SW1. They indicate that the 1,900 mile route will include some 400 miles of special stages, mainly along forest roads.

This year the start returns to London for the first time since 1970, but its base after departure will be at York, which served as host City from 1972 to 1975. Scrutiny and documentation will take place at Wembley Stadium from 10.00 on Saturday, November 19, and we understand that public viewing galleries will be available. Cars will be impounded for the night, and the first one will leave Wembley on the first leg at 09.00 on the Sunday. Not that the start will not be on the Saturday this year, a move calculated to lessen the numbers of weekend spectators on all but the stages at which proper facilities for them will be available.

The first leg will end at York on the Sunday evening, after a journey mainly through non-forest stages including the popular visit to Birmingham’s Sutton Park. The second leg, from Monday morning to Tuesday evening, will be southwards through Wales, and the third, from Wednesday morning until Thursday, through the Lake District, Southern Scotland and the forests of Northumberland and Yorkshire. Both night stops will be at York, and there will be shorter stops at Machynlleth, Llanwrtyd, Moffat and Teeside.

The timing system for the road sections of the event has been completely revised and should be an enormous improvement on the somewhat confusing method employed last year. Entries are likely to be as numerous as ever, and there sill undoubtedly be many more applications than the 180 places available. The rally is tremendously popular among both British and overseas competitors, and the talent which it gathers year after year provides an amazing spectacle which should not be missed. It will be the last qualifying event of the World Rally Championship of Makes, and if the Fiat/Ford tussle has not been resolved by then, it will be all the more interesting as these teams put everything they have into a final effort for the laurels.

When this issue of MOTOR SPORT appears competitors in the Singapore Airlines Rally will have travelled from London to Madras and will be somewhere between there and Sydney, where the event is due to finish in mid-September.

In the past we have been critical of such events, mainly for the simple reason that they harmed the sport generally by draining off so much valuable time and money that the depleted budgets of factory teams could not stand entries in regular rallies. These events then suffered low entries and for a long time the economic state of the sport was poor to say the least.

But this particular event has no direct participation by factories who themselves operate full-time competitions departments. True that there is a certain amount of involvement by Mercedes, Citroen, Peugeot, Fiat and a few others, but the help they are providing is mainly in kind and in most cases the costs are being borne either by competitors themselves or by whatever sponsors they have been lucky enough to secure.

The route of the event, and its duration, was described by C.R. in last month’s Motor Sport, and there is little which can be added save for some description of the sheer endurance of it all. A distance of 30,000 kilometres is no mean journey on good roads, but this one has clocks ticking off the time limits and, after an initial run through the comparative civilisation of Europe, trackless desserts, rock-strewn goat paths, boulder beds and intense, fatiguing heat. Car reliability and crew skill are obvious requirements for success, but in an event such as this physical stamina, endurance and tenacity are just as vital. To work, eat, sleep and live in the confines of a motor car for that vast distance is not easy, and all manner of psychological difficulties can be encountered, adding to the many physical ones.

That it will be fiercely demanding cannot be doubted, but we would refer to it as a motoring adventure rather than a rally. Very few of the competitors have the idea that they might win. For them the excitement of the journey itself has been the attraction, and in days when legislative shackles all too often curb the activities of adventure-seeking motor sportsmen we applaud those who have made this particular adventure possible.

It has become almost a tradition that the manufacturer of the car which wins the Safari Rally provides the organisers with a suitable route survey vehicle with which to explore and plan the route of the next year’s event. In London last month, Peter Ashcroft, Ford’s Competitions Manager at Boreham, presented a rally-specification Escort to Kenya’s High Commissioner in Britain, Mr. Ngethe Jnoroge, who accepted it on behalf of the rally organising committee. It has been built as a works car for rough roads, but in place of the 16-valve engine it has a 2-litre s.o.h.c. unit which will offer greater reliability. After all, it will be used in very remote areas of Kenya and will cover considerable distances. Following a promotional tour of European works teams, it will be flown to Nairobi by Kenya Airways. –G.P.