RAC Rally: A New Look And A New Route

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Spa town, regency architecture, home of National Hunt racing and the Gold Cup, and now the headquarters for the Network Q RAC Rally. Dickens is not alone in having rarely seen such a place that so attracted his fancy.

The organisers of the British round of the World Rally Championship selected this elegant watering hole as their base for a new-look event. To hardy veterans of the early winter classic, it may prove a culture shock.

There has long been a lobby to bring the annual forest spin further south and this compact disc will resound to the accompaniment of an anticipated two million enthusiasts over three days. The shorter route - 1,100 miles - effectively limits the rally proper to two days in Wales after tomorrow's spectator stages.

Abandoned for now are the legendary tracts of the north, considered as the ultimate challenge or ogres, depending on your point of view. If your view is from a ditch in Kielder you might be inclined to advise them what to do with their ultimate challenge, but the purists fear the teeth have been extracted from the old RAC beast.

Those in the "let's take the show on the road'' camp argue snow and ice and calamity are not unknown in mid-Wales. Rocks and slippery tracks and the unexpected are pretty well guaranteed anywhere, and the organisers are confident that the unfolding drama will confirm they have not gone soft and the contest has not been devalued.

An intriguing innovation for the RAC is the presentation at Silverstone tomorrow of a "super special'' stage based on a concept pioneered at Langley Park, Australia. Cars compete in pairs, effectively racing side by side around the 1.2-mile gravel circuit. We might even witness one or two Formula One style comings- together.

Again it may irk the traditionalists, but Richard Burns, the British Subaru driver, is among those who welcome the shift towards customer-friendly spectacles.

Burns said: "I think the spectators will find it very exciting and that cannot be a bad thing. It may not be pure rallying, but it is just one short stage over three days and I think you can afford one.

"My only reservation is that the track is a bit narrow and it could be very interesting if people start sliding. But they've shown at Langley Park what can be done and I'm sure the organisers will learn from their first year at Silverstone and, if necessary develop and improve it in the future.''