RALLYING: High-powered beasts turn to fancy dress

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHILE I was researching this article, Autosport's rallying editor, Keith Oswin, made what struck me as a highly provocative remark. Talking about tough rules introduced by the RAC in 1987, he said: 'They killed off the great British navigator.'

What nonsense, I thought, patriotically. How about Nicky Grist, the co-driver for the four-times world champion, Juha Kankkunen? But 48 hours later, on a treasure hunt from Calais to Deauville organised by Performance Car magazine, one of the country's top brokers and his navigator, a leading criminal solicitor, managed to travel 400 miles on a 223-mile route.

Over dinner, we discussed this quite incredible incompetence. But one of our table kept curiously quiet. The managing director of a magazine distribution company, he eventually confessed that bowling through the Normandy countryside, his route map blew out of the sun roof, never to be seen again.

Still, even these bumblings were outshone by the driver and navigator of a lime green Lancia Stratos, who amassed a mere 17 points out of a possible 505, probably for getting their names mostly correct.

Where do they all go wrong? Whatever happened to that intrepid British band of navigators with built-in compasses and milometers, who could find their way blindfold through the Black Forest, or across the Sahara at 100mph?

It's unfair to blame the RAC (more strictly the RAC Motor Sports Association, which oversees all car events in England and Wales). For years, rallying was a jolly sport untrammelled by regulations. Rules were things you used on maps. But in the 1980s, it all changed.

'The problem was that cars were getting faster and faster. It was becoming a road race, totally against the principles of rallying, and it was getting dangerous for drivers and spectators,' recalls Dave Astle, one of the few to survive the resulting pogrom.

In those rural areas ideal for all sorts of rallying, from treasure hunts to road course, complaints were commonplace but the police could do little. Patrol cars couldn't keep up with the high-powered, ex- works monsters that many drivers were using. It couldn't continue. So at the end of 1987, the RAC changed the goalposts, or more accurately changed the game altogether.

Nowadays any event on public roads involving more than 11 cars requires a permit. To get one, organisers have to get approval up to six months ahead and they must write to (sometimes even visit) every household within 100 metres of the route. Certain types of rally can only take place between midnight and an hour after sunrise; they must not use A-class roads for more than 200m; controls and stops have to be at least 500m from occupied homes; noise levels are limited to 78 decibels (much lower than the average road car) and in some cases the average speed is set as low as 10mph. An RAC official checks to ensure compliance.

Colin Wilson, communications manager for the RAC Motorsports Association, says: 'I don't think any other sport is so closely governed. I am amazed so many people still indulge in it.' But last year, his division approved 500 treasure hunts and 250 navigational scatter rallies.

David Williams, the rallying editor for Motoring News, admits 'the changes took the sting out of rallying, but I have to admit that the new regulations have generally been very beneficial, even though many clubs contracted or disappeared.

'It's a different sport now. It's become very navigational, finding ways of making it unobvious how you get from A to B' But at least it has stopped those who were buying ex- works cars that had won international rallies from using such high-powered beasts on domestic events. Rallying is no longer dominated by those with the deepest pockets.

'It's about glory, not money, and you can take part with a pounds 500 Mini,' says Astle, one of the country's leading driver/navigators (but then it's easy to say that when you own an E- Type, a Sunbeam Rapier and a Cortina GT for fun, and you're managing director of a windows company).

Nick Duncan organises two rallies a year in France for Performance Car. Though serious rally nuts view treasure hunts as the motoring equivalent of playing with Lego, there's no doubting their popularity. More than 100 cars regularly take part in Duncan's events, which are enhanced or ridiculed, depending on your viewpoint, by insisting on fancy dress.

'I couldn't run them in the UK because the rules are too restrictive,' he says. 'But the French attitude to cars is different, too. They love to see Ferraris, Porsches and Aston Martins. People wait outside their homes for the cars to pass: they wave and the children clap. In the UK, they would look the other way.'