William Woollard: Rally GB hero


For most, the icons of Rally GB practised their art behind the steering wheel. McRae, Mikkola, Alen: all of these people were heroes who entranced fans with their virtuosity. At the height of Rally GB’s popularity, it’s estimated that up two million people ‘watched’ the rally; either stage-side or on road sections. But a far greater number of people watched it on television.

For those of us who watched it in Britain in the 1980s, there is one man who is unquestionably the biggest hero of Rally GB: William Woollard. For those of you not familiar with the great man and his work, we shall explain. Woollard used to present Top Gear, back in the days before the programme’s main focus was blowing things up and making jokes about farts. It was an amusingly geeky show that even gave rise to a verb: ‘woollarding’. This was the act of putting one foot up on the bumper of your car, opening the bonnet and leaning on your raised knee; William Woollard’s most famous pose, practised while invariably delivering a lengthy diatribe about carburettors. But for one week in November, his life was very different.

During Rally Great Britain, there used to be a Top Gear Rally Report Special every night, which normally featured a sodden Woollard standing in some desolate corner of Harrogate or Chester in the dark, telling people about the day’s action. And it’s funny how history is circular, as Chester is once more the home of Rally GB this year.

It made cult viewing and put rallying properly on the map, much to the surprise of its anchorman. “I’m quite amazed that people still remember the reports,” he said. “But what I think captured the imagination was the immediacy of it all. We put out everything live, often with me sheltering from the driving rain in my trench coat; using whatever information we had available at the time. Sometimes the producer would hand me a little slip of yellow paper while I was talking, telling me that the situation had just changed. So there was a real feeling of the action unfolding in front of you.”

These days, WRC Promoter (the company responsible for WRC’s world television feed as well as wrc.com) brings around five trucks and 50 people to each event. It takes two days just to set up their on-event HQ. Back in the day, Top Gear Rally Report relied on fewer than 10 people and a couple of Transit vans roaming the country. Nonetheless, the intrepid Top Gear Rally Report team managed to pull in more than three million TV viewers during Rally GB time. They even managed to secure a prime time BBC slot, just before the 10 o’clock news. For one week in November, Woollard’s grubby trench coat was even more famous than Inspector Columbo’s.

“What I loved about the sport was that it was an incredibly tough, gritty and unpredictable spectacle,” he added. “If you think about the skill needed to drive those cars flat out for four days, in extreme weather, often through the night, it’s still amazing now. I loved the characters too. Real personalities like Hannu Mikkola, who would be absolutely charming outside the car but a complete demon inside it.”

In many ways, the Top Gear Rally Report crew with their clipboards and laughably out-dated vans were the fearless pioneers that every channel has tried since to emulate ever since. William Woollard is WRC TV’s Neil Armstrong. But some things haven’t changed with the passage of time.

“One of the things we soon realised on Top Gear rally report was that it was not enough just to show the action,” Woollard remembered. “We needed to develop the drivers’ personalities: get them out of their cars and talking to the camera. From a British perspective, we were in between the Roger Clark era and the Colin McRae era but there were still some fabulous competitors out there, like Tony Pond, Jimmy McRae and Louise Aitken-Walker. I remember one year that Louise had to fight her way up from practically the back, and it was one of the highlights of the show.

These days the hero of this piece is unbelievably aged 76 and a practising Buddhist. Following his resignation from Top Gear in 1991, Woollard set up his own highly successful TV production company, making a diverse range of documentaries, but he still has a soft spot for the legendary Top Gear Rally Report: a unique show that got so many boys and girls hooked on rallying.

“It surprises me really that the Lombard RAC Rally – as I still call it – isn’t more popular than it actually is,” he concluded. “I think it should be one of those events with the same status as the Boat Race or the Derby – a really special, nationwide event that everybody gets involved in.”

More than 25 years later, you won’t find anyone in Wales this weekend who disagrees. And if a lot of us who can’t be there are watching it on TV instead, it’s really all down to William Woollard: the man who introduced rallying in Britain to so many people. A genuine Rally GB hero.

Buy tickets for 2015 Wales Rally GB here

Our thanks to Certina Watches for their help with this feature.

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