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Rallying: Mr Bean a vintage runner at 61

BOB BEAN first entered the RAC Rally the year England won the World Cup, 1966, long before he gained his current identity.

A renovator for period property by profession, a "farmer and drinker" by way of recreation, he is a rally driver by compulsion and content to take all the ribbing his name attracts if it brings in a little more financial backing.

Although he drives a Vauxhall Astra rather than a Mini in the renamed Rally of Great Britain, he joyfully carries a Mr Bean sticker on his windscreen.

Bean reckons this will be "something like my 21st" venture into the fabled forests and acknowledges that, at the age of 61, there may not be many more efforts left in him.

"Every year I say this may be my last but on the odd occasion when I haven't taken part I've regretted it," he said.

"I've been so miserable. I can't watch it. I'm a poor spectator. The thing is it's still a drug for me. It's in the blood. I'm still feeling fit enough so as long as I am, and I can afford it, I'll carry on."

Expense is the inescapable handicap. He has trimmed his costs by skipping this week's recce and leaned on faithful businessmen near his farmstead home at Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire, to help cover his pounds 5,000 bill.

He welcomes Sabrina Shaw into the smitten fold and encourages her to put behind her that spectacular baptism.

"She's done the right thing by getting straight back into a car and putting it out of her mind," Bean said. "I've been upside down 13 times. About the worst was in Portugal, when I had a big roll on the edge of a cliff. The sea was 100ft below and I had to climb out through the windscreen."

He also had the medals to show for his courageous service, both overseas and in the RAC. He was third overall in the 1968 event. "It was a strange one that year," he recalled. "It was very foggy and I go quite well in conditions like that."

That perhaps explains why he is prepared to go "blind" into this rally and dispense with the pace notes most of the other competitors are compiling on the recce. A training programme is similarly deemed surplus to requirement.

"To be honest, I'm not really one for pace notes. I'm basically a sight driver because in the Sixties and Seventies we didn't have pace notes. I think that should be part of the challenge.

"I don't bother doing any training. I'm in reasonable shape. I keep pretty fit through my job, doing a lot of climbing."

If some powerful figures in the sport have their way the likes of Mr Bean will no longer be permitted to put a smile on the face of world championship rallies. Surprisingly, he accepts that development has to come.

"It will be sad but it is the only way for rallying to go forward. It's become so professional now. The money that's been spent now is incredible. In fact it's more expensive all the way down. The cars are much better prepared than they used to be."

For as long as he can, however, Mr Bean will ride on. This week he and his wife - the "chief cook and bottle washer" - will leave their 20 cows and chickens in the care of her parents and head for Cheltenham. There he will team up with his co-driver, Donald Griffiths, who sat alongside him on that first RAC, back in 1966.

"We'd not been together for 20-odd years but bumped into each other in the Isle of Man and decided to have another go on the RAC.

"Last year I finished second in class and 62nd overall so I'd like to do better than that, maybe get into the top 40, especially if it's foggy. But I won't be just driving to keep out of trouble. I'll be having a go. Well, you've got to, haven't you? That's what it's about."