Monday, December 04, 2006

RAC Rally Reminisces

The world rally championship came to an end last Sunday with a win for Marcus Gronholm in the Welsh forests. I barely noticed. Time was, when the RAC Rally was something to really look forward to - a real event, but these days, it looks scarcely any different from all the other gravel WRC rounds, with its small number of stages, each repeated to minimise the surprises for the drivers.

Things could hardly have been more different back when I got my first taste of rally action, at Cirencester Park in 1986. OK, so it was only a Spectator-Sunday mickey mouse stage, but thanks to my father's determined attempts to get into areas normally forbidden to spectators, the spectacle was unforgettable. I can still remember the gruff roar of the normally aspirated Metro 6R4s of Tony Pond and Malcolm Wilson, and Kalle Grundel's RS200 coming out into view all crossed up, looking for a moment like it was going to run straight into us. Thankfully it didn't, though it showered us with gravel, a timely reminder that perhaps we ought to stand back a little.

In those days, the event took place over five days and nights, and nearly 50 stages. The stages of Wales, the Scottish Borders and North East England all received a visit, in addition to the easy 'spectator stages' on the opening day. Such feared names as Kielder, Dalby, Hafren Sweet Lamb and so forth all formed part of the one event. I eagerly awaited the nightly updates from William Woollard and his team to see if my favourite drivers (Blomqvist in the RS200, and Malcolm Wilson in a Metro 6R4), were still in the running.

The following year, at Oulton Park, the brutally powerful Group B machinery was gone, replaced by relatively tame early Group A cars, such as the Lancia Delta HF and the Audi Coupe. They may not have been as entertaining to watch as a Gp B Audi Quattro or Peugeot 205 T16, but they still had to cope with the deceptively difficult Old Hall corner, and make their way through a hastily added gravel section at the end of the stage. Best to watch that year were the powerful but relatively gripless rear wheel drive Sierra Cosworths. That year, in an event of extremely high attrition, and admittedly only after the disqualification of Per Eklund's Group A Quattro, Stig Blomqvist brought his Cossie home in second, albeit four minutes behind the winner, Juha Kankunnen.
The event remained a long one. I remember that year having a stage guidebook and fold out map of the UK, showing where each and every one of the 47 stages were. There was even a service halt in my home town of Buxton, although when I went down there, there were only a handful of guys fixing battered Skoda Estelles, and no sign of the front running crews.

1988 I saw from Chatsworth, and was one of those increasingly rare snowy RAC events. It might have been more slush than the real stuff round the grounds of the stately home (though I remember it being very cold) but out in the forests, they had to contend with the real thing. And it was this which brought an end to Juha Kankunnen's efforts to take a first victory for a Japanese manufacturer in the rather pretty Toyota Celica GT4, as he slid off the road and handed victory to Markku Alen, who had himself earlier lost time with a similar mistake.

The first Japanese victory would have to wait another year, when the works Lancia team opted to give the event a miss. Surprisingly though, it went not to the Toyotas of Carlos Sainz or Juha Kankunnen, nor even to the Mazdas of previous winners Timo Salonen and Hannu Mikola, but to the hefty 4wheel steering Mitsubishi Galant of veteran campaigner Pentti Airikkala, who was more consistent than the Toyotas and plain faster than the Mazdas. The first non-Japanese car was Malcolm Wilson's front wheel drive Astra GTE all the way down in tenth.

1990 marked the start of a slippery slope, in my mind, with the event being cut from its traditional five days to four. Over the following decade, it would gradually be trimmed back still further, in the name of easing logistics and television friendliness, to just 3 days and a mere 17 competitive stages. Nonetheless, at the beginning of the decade, there was still much to enjoy. In 1990, I remember Colin McRae's Sierra Sapphire Cosworth emerging from the woods at Chatsworth, on the opening day, tail out wildly, whacking the dry stone wall as he came out, inflicting hefty damage to the body work. He would create a lot of work for his mechanics that year, and by the end of the event, his car looked good only for the scrapyard. Nevertheless, the event had been crying out for a home winner for nearly twenty years, and after the ultimately false promise shown by the likes of his father, Jimmy, Welshman Dai Llewellin, Russell Brookes, Malcolm Wilson and Mark Lovell, it was McRae Jr who finally took a home win in a Subaru Impreza in 1994.

Another regular feature of the event was the weird and sometimes far from wonderful machinery that some of the amateurs towards the back of the field would run with. Eastern European equipment was always popular with the low-capacity rally runners, and the likes of Norwegian John Haughland in his Skoda could make it go pretty quickly too. A works Lada effort in 1989 with the then-newish Samaras made less of an impact, though two of the Russian-crewed cars got to the finish. So too did Michael Kahlfuss' Trabant in 1992, albeit over 3 and a half hours behind the winner. My memory fails me in attempts to remember whether 17 year old Richard Tuthill was as lucky with his multi-coloured VW Beetle the year before. Sometimes, there were even relatively quick eccentric entries. Gavin Cox frequently picked up decent placings with his outsized Opel Monza (when did you last see one of those, well, anywhere) and eventually replaced it with the almost equally eccentrically chosen Vauxhall Calibra Turbo (although the works actually made a very half-hearted attempt to go rallying with those, too). Armin Schwarz shot to the rally world's attention with the equally cumbersome looking Audi 200 Quattro in 1988 and back in 1986, two ladies with very big cars finished well up, with Duns second-most famous motorsporting export Louise Aitken Walker in a Nissan 240RS finishing a few places ahead of Susanne Kottulinsky's Volvo 240 Turbo.

With rallying's popularity in decline these days, one can't help wondering whether the homogeneity, and let's face it, dullness, of the modern event plays more than a small part. Seventeen stages, most of them run more than once, might be a driving challenge, but it can hardly be said to be an adventure in the sense that the old events were. The TV companies have realised too - no more do we see the nightly updates on the BBC, or on current broadcaster ITV. If there is a glimmer of hope, it is that organisers of next year's International Rally Challenge are reported in Autosport this week to be considering a traditional-style RAC Rally for next year. I can only wish them the best of luck...

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3 Comments:

Blogger Allcarphotos said...

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Webmaster, All car photos

4:18 AM  
Anonymous James said...

I quite like the Vauxhall Calibra I know someone who owned one. They can be a bit unreliable when they get older cost my mate a fortune on used Vauxhall car parts.

I look forward to next year hope it is as good as this one was.

9:43 AM  
Anonymous Geneza Pharmaceuticals said...

I wonder why there are such differences from the past rallies

8:44 AM  

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