RAC Rally preview

Contests between teams and drivers for points in the World Rally Championship invariably have a direct effect on the entry lists of qualifying events, and rallies which would not otherwise have attracted the world's leading professionals find themselves patronised (and consequently publicised) by the toughest outfits in the trade. It takes very little intelligence to deduce that organisers therefore look upon inclusion in the world series as a guarantee of high quality at the top ends of their lists, and there is a great deal of competition, both above and below the counter, for championship status.

An event which is something of an exception is the Lombard RAC Rally of Great Britain which, long before the World Championship was created, was attracting competitors of a calibre, and in numbers, which caused envy throughout the clique of organisers considered to be closest to Place de la Concorde.

Even today its line-up of works teams is always of the best, partly because of Britain's proximity to the greatest geographical concentration of such teams, whose travel costs are therefore not high, and partly due to the popularity of the special stage routes along forest roads. Fine weather and golden beaches add to the attraction of some events, so it says much for the competitive elements of the RAC Rally that it can attract a full house to a cold, wet, foggy and thoroughly miserable British November. Indeed, so popular has it become that it may well stand on its own feet without the prop of a championship to keep its patrons coming, not that it should ever deserve to lose its World Championship status, of course.

At present, the drivers of three teams, Lancia, Audi and Opel, are concerned with the outcome of the 1983 championship, and whether that will be resolved before November or not, this year's RAC Rally will still gather a fine, competitive field, enough to satisfy the most discriminating among the millions who will go out to watch.

This year's rally breaks with recent practice by returning to a Saturday start, abandoned in the 'seventies in favour of a Sunday when spectators and their cars became embarrassingly numerous in and around forest areas and it was felt that there would be fewer spectators around on weekdays than at weekends. As a further measure, the Sunday stages were confined to private parks and estates where more parking and viewing space was available than in forests.

The reasoning behind the present move is not the reverse of that of some eight years ago, but more an extension of it. Parks and estates will still provide the weekend stages, possibly reducing spectator attendance from Sunday night onwards in the forests.

Forests, however, are far more popular with experienced watchers since they provide more spectacle than contrived routes along estate roads. They are also more popular with competitors, among whom the term "Mickey Mouse" has long been used to describe artificially created stages without the swing, rhythm and helpful cambers of forest roads.

There is a second reason for the change, however, and that is the alarmingly high fees charged by the Forestry Commission for the use of their roads, fees which they claim to be justified by the need to reinstate forest roads after surface damage caused by the high speed passage of so many cars. That damage is caused cannot be denied, but we wonder how much routine road maintenance is postponed until after the rally to be merged with that paid for by the RAC. The present rate is such that for a field of 150 cars a levy of £87,000 will be payable. The government requires the Forestry Commission to be self-sufficient, but for such a prestige event, the biggest sporting occasion in Britain, one would have thought that a government paper-transfer could have been made to absorb this crippling levy. It is certainly a far more worthy cause than some sports which attract grants.

Lombard's sponsorship is not enough to take care of the forest charges and all the other costs, so the entry fee, at its lowest level, is £550. Another source of income is the paying spectator at non-forest stages, which is the second reason for the increase in the number of estates and parks to be used this year. To be fair, we must say that the forest distance has also been increased.

Headquarters of this year's rally will be at the Beaufort Hotel, Bath, and scrutiny will take place at the city's Pavilion during the afternoon and evening of Friday, November 18th. The start will be at 10 am the next day, when the stages, expected to number four, will include Longleat and Ashton Court. After a night stop at Bath, Sunday stages will include Bewdley, Sutton Park, Trentham Gardens, Oulton Park, Knowsley, Harewood and Weston Park.

That evening there will be special stages in the North-East, a short halt at Middlesbrough, stages in the Border Country and Scotland, Monday breakfast at Hawick, stages in the Lake District and the second night stop at Windermere.

On the Tuesday morning the rally will move into Wales for forest stages, an evening stop at Dolgellau and breakfast at Swansea before crossing the Severn Bridge to the finish in Bath during the afternoon of Wednesday.

Rally organisers used to try to keep their events as unobtrusive as possible by siting controls and service areas away from centres of habitation. The opposite now seems to be the intention, for visits are planned to Worcester, Leeds, Harrogate, Middlesbrough, Carlisle, Wrexham, Dolgellau and Swansea.

The FISA policy of keeping plum jobs unto themselves continues undiminished, and we saw recently that any steward officiating on an international event outside his own country must first have the authority of his national club.

We can only assume that someone spotted a strange name on a list of officials and decided that something should be done about restricting the penetration by Tom, Dick and Harry (or Fritz, Lars and Pierre) of FISA's exclusive "holiday club".

A good steward is possessed of wisdom, common sense and sound judgement, not just experience of rule enforcement, and these qualities are usually taken into account by organisers when making their choice. They know their Solomons from their Gobbos, and no amount of vetting will change that. Of course, if a prospective steward is neither a competition licence holder nor an official of his national club then that club has no jurisdiction over his movements and he is free to accept. On the other hand, an onus placed on rally organisers rather than stewards' national clubs would appear to give FISA the power it craves. 

In August Lancashire and Cheshire Car Club, with the backing of BP and the support of Henshaws Society for Blind, organised what they called The Braille Rally. Members of the club turned up with their cars and were navigated around the afternoon route, which started and finished at Oulton Park, by blind navigators who were given their route instructions in Braille.

We were thus reminded of that annual event in South Africa, the Total Blind Navigators Rally, organised by Pretoria Motor Club and backed by Total.

Splendid efforts, both of them, not just to enhance the public image of rally drivers but in all sincerity to provide handicapped people with the taste of a fine sport which they would not otherwise be able to experience.

Visitors to the Safari in the late 'sixties and the 'seventies will have no difficulty recalling to mind the secretary who held the administrative side of the rally together in those days. Annie Oakeley — yes, that is her name — was the person you went to see no matter what you wanted to know, and quite a gap was caused when her husband Ron was posted to the Middle East and they left Kenya for Bahrein.

They have since returned to Britain and are now running the splendid little White Hart Inn in the Herefordshire village of Aston Crews, just four miles or so on the Gloucester side of Ross-on-Wye. Safari enthusiasts, whether they be ex-Kenya or not, and anyone who has had anything to do with the Aero Club of East Africa are ensured of a fine welcome there. The food and drink are pretty good, too! — GP.