By John Sprinzel
So, what’s this rallying all about? A little while back Denise McCluggage, my journalist and competition driver pal, wrote a very thoughtful article in AutoWeek. She had just visited a world rally championship event in Europe where, back in the ’60s, we had both driven factory Mini Coopers. This had given her a very clear comparison of rallying then and now. As I read her piece, I wondered why the United Stales, with a good proportion of the world’s car production and a great many serious motorsports enthusiasts, seems to be so unaware of rallying at the international level.
It is true that the very severe motoring restrictions on U.S. roads discouraged any real form of rallying, even during the ’50s and ’60s when the Golden Age of the sport flourished so successfully in Europe. In those distant days, there was very little traffic in the more remote parts and this allowed virtual road races to be held on public roads.
Events such as the Coupe Des Alpes took the best part of a week and covered many of the highest and roughest passes of the French Alps and the Italian Dolomites. The target times for these stages were revised every year, based on the fastest time achieved by any competitor during the previous event. To manage all the stages without penalty resulted in the award of an Alpine Cup. While these were rare enough to be very coveted, a Gold Cup was awarded for achieving this feat three times in a row. Only two people ever achieved ibis honor—Stirling Moss in a Sunbeam and Ian Appleyard in his famous XK120 Jaguar.
The Liege-Rome-Liege Marathon took four days and nights of nonstop motoring to travel from Spa in Belgium to Yugoslavia and Sofia before the return journey, mostly through the 9,000-foot passes of the Dolomites and the difficult Cols of the French Alps before returning to Spa and Liege.
This event, run at staggering speeds on the open roads, attracted the cream of competition drivers from rally professionals to Formula One and Le Mans sports car drivers, who faced over 90 hours of nonstop driving in this challenging event. Normally, less than a dozen crews completed the rally out of the hundred or more who had set out so hopefully so many days earlier.
The Safari Rally provided another fabulous road race through the dusty mountain passes and muddy jungle tracks of East Africa, and the results contributed more points to the European Rally Championship, the forerunner of today’s World Rally Championship.
The Greek Acropolis Rally was another testing route with rough and dusty tracks to challenge the very best of the world’s drivers. To take rallying to extremes, we had a few real marathons, including the 1968 ten thousand miles from London to Sydney, Australia, via Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Then there was the one I organized in 1970 from London to Mexico, driving around much of Europe, shipping the cars from Lisbon, Portugal, to Rio De Janeiro in Brazil, before circling South America and driving up through Central America to Mexico City. Sixteen thousand miles and only about seven rest halts (without assisted car servicing) throughout the route.
In those pioneering days, factory servicing was in its infancy, and cars were built to last the distance with the very minimum of attention. One was very lucky indeed to meet a service crew more than once or twice each day, and to change tires was almost unheard of. Indeed, on some rallies there was a penalty for changing tires that were not carried (and marked) in the competitors’ cars. The idea of changing a transmission or suspension would have been ridiculed, and the first time this occurred, to my recollection, was on an early ’60s Safari. The leading Ford Anglia driver changed his gearbox in 20 minutes, after a team of mechanics had rehearsed this task, at the roadside, for several hours before the rally convoy arrived. I recall finishing a Safari in a privately entered Mercedes with quite a good placing, having changed just one tire, which had punctured while leaving the penultimate control point of this three-day event.
With the sudden huge increase in car ownership in the mid 1960s, even those roads which we had considered remote became fairly busy with motorists enjoying this new-found freedom to travel, and those magnificent events became impossible to stage. For a while, organizers hired the police to control the road junctions on the route, and to close as many of the testing stages as possible. When this became prohibitively expensive, the sport of rallying was changed almost beyond recognition. First of all, the meat of the event was concentrated into a dozen or so short special stages each day. Nights were spent in hotel beds, and a three-day format was chosen to suit the TV schedules of each country.
While some of the old events were retained, such as the Monte Carlo Rally, the Acropolis, the British, Scandinavian, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian events, competitors of old would hardly have recognized the format. Spectators, however, loved it, and turned up in hundreds of thousands to crowd the hillsides of these tricky sections. Sponsorship, virtually nonexistent in those bygone days, was now in the forefront, with cars and crews looking no different from NASCAR, Cart or Formula One drivers hidden under a blanket of advertising badges.
Practice was now easily possible with only a couple of hundred miles of test motoring, and the straightforward linking road sections provided ample time for service crews to rebuild the highly specialized four-wheel drive race cars which now formed the bulk of the competition. In the early days, cars were regulated to be virtually standard, and any developments had to be introduced into series production. Factory teams looked like and were essentially identical to the cars Joe Public drove, and upwards of 18 car manufacturers entered competition to improve the image of their product.
Today’s cars bear very little relationship to the normal product, save perhaps in silhouette. They have every modern gizmo from sequential gear shifts, fly-by wire accelerators, incredible braking systems, various forms of traction control, and plenty of turbocharged power from their two-liter minors. They tend to be built far from the factories which they publicize which are mostly Japanese although the French, with Peugeot and Citroen, the British Ford Focus team, German Volkswagen’s SEAT and Skoda variations, and now Korea’s Hyundai team, are also taking part.
As well as huge galleries of spectators, the television crews are out in force, and each country covers the event in a very expert and enthusiastic manner. Rallies in Australia, Indonesia, China, New Zealand and Argentina have been added to the list, and it is now truly a world rally championship with skills and engineering obviously at the very pinnacle of motorsport. I still feel a little sadness that today’s young aces have never had the thrill of tackling the huge passes of the Gavis, the Stelvio and the Vivione, in Italy. They haven’t battled over the Tot Escarpment’s boulders in the Northern Homier District of Kenya, or struggled to maintain impossible average speeds over the notorious Quatre chemins stage in the foothills above the French Riviera.
Now, they will run a round in the United States in Colorado in June, and hopefully this will become part of the world rally championship series in 2001. Then American enthusiasts will get a closer idea of the fabulous sport that is real rallying, without the stopwatches and regularity sections of the homegrown events more usually associated with the name “rallying” in the USA.