Some rallies are associated with snow, some with mud, others with rough rock and others with smooth tarmac, each link forged by natural means, both meteorological and geographical. A rally enthusiast who has never been to Africa, for instance, is able nevertheless to visualise a Safari route muddy when it rains, unclouded by dust in dry weather.
What about the Middle East? The popular conception is an endless, flat, dry desert criss-crossed by hundreds of haphazard tracks over which navigation can only be by compass. Deserts there are, of course, but there are mountains too, even forests, and some rallies of the region make good use of them.
The Jordan Rally at the end of July didn’t use quite the variety of terrain which was included last year, but there were mountain stages, including one on narrow tarmac, to break up those across featureless desert where the absence of landmarks and prominent “aiming points” rendered the tasks of making and using pace notes very difficult.
Based at Amman’s Marriott Hotel, whose general manager and his entire family regularly compete, the rally this year did not travel southwards to a night stop at Aqaba, but went out in two identical loops from the capital, thus reducing the work load for both organisers and competitors. Each loop had a short lunch stop as near as vehicles can go to the ancient city of Petra, where remarkable temples and dwellings still exist, carved into the solid rock of what is an extension of Africa’s Great Rift Valley.
The route also lent itself to easy servicing, for the stages were more or less arranged in loops each side of the backbone formed by the main north-south highway, although one always had to be cautious of the heavy trucks travelling to and from the port of Aqaba. The northbound lane, used by loaded trucks, has become broken and rutted, whereas the southbound lane, used by unladen trucks, remains comparatively smooth, so it has become the lorry drivers’ practice, whenever possible, to use the latter in both directions. Unnerving, to say the least!
Entries were somewhat thin on the ground, though not by Middle Eastern standards, and the most prominent were those of Datsun and Toyota, both of whom maintain rally teams in the region to contest the Middle East Championship and generally to seek success publicity to aid sales.
Punctures and broken shock absorbers seemed to be the main causes of trouble, although one or two competitors failed to be recorded at in-stage passage controls at which they were not required to stop, merely to pass between two markers. It was very easy indeed to take short cuts, intentionally or otherwise, but the passage controls saw to it that no advantage was gained.
Overtaking on desert stages was hazardous, even if a faster car managed to penetrate the dense dust of a slower one and get close enough even to consider passing. Unfortunately, the timing system was such that if a car did manage to pass another, it was placed behind it again at the start of the next stage, all its advantage lost.
Saeed al Hajri, driving a Rothmans-backed Porsche, seemed to be favourite, but he executed a quick roll in the afternoon of the first day and lost some time. Later, he holed his fuel tank but, although he seemed to have exceeded his maximum lateness, he reappeared and went on to finish third. Another who rolled was Tony Georgiou from Oman who put his Nissan 240 RS off the road right on the finish line of the mountain tarmac stage just north of Petra. Neither he nor co-driver David Porter was hurt, but the car was wrecked.
In the second leg Al Hajri made an effort to get ahead of the leading Toyotas of Mohammed bin Sulayem and Michel Saleh, both Marlboro backed, but the fuel tank incident finally stopped his push. He almost managed to get back to second place, however, for Saleh’s mechanics, having completed their work at a service point and left for the next, were not at hand when the Toyota refused to start. It took a great deal of concerted pushing for about 20 minutes before the engine fired.
Outright winner was Sulayem, some 15 minutes ahead of his team-mate Saleh, leading a dozen finishers among which was an amazingly raucous V8 Land Rover, upon which the decals of an Alfa Romeo dealer looked rather out of place.
One of the pleasing touches of the event — and there were many — was the informal manner in which Crown Prince Abdullah arrived to flag off the starters. Why not Prince Charles, we wonder, to start the RAC Rally in November? And why not more privateers from Europe to compete in some of these worthwhile events in the Middle East?