Can former glories shape Britain’s future?

Britain's premier rally series has a rich history. But David Evans says it's worth looking forwards as well as taking a glimpse in the mirror

Lombard Rac Rally, Chester (GB) 25-29 11 1984

Kalle Rovanperä will contest the opening round of this year’s British Rally Championship. Actually, he won’t. Be nice though, wouldn’t it? And it would be far from unprecedented.

There was a time when Finns kept their eye in for their title defense with a British campaign. Think back to Ari Vatanen in 1982 and Hannu Mikkola in 1984. After landing a podium on the season-opener, Vatanen ended the year (and his search for a third British crown) a distant sixth after retiring his Ford Escort RS1800 on the final three rounds.

Four decades ago this year, Mikkola’s British effort began well. Wins on three of the first four rallies and the Audi driver looked odds on to repeat his 1978 British title. A trip to South America to score a second place in Argentina kept him out of the Ulster Rally (Walter Röhrl stepped in and scored a magnificent win aboard Audi’s Quattro Sport).

Going into the final round of the season, the Rothmans Manx International, Mikkola, Jimmy McRae and Russell Brookes were all in with a shot at the title. The three were split by just three points and it was hard to pick a potential winner. Mikkola had a turbo and four-wheel drive, but the Brits had lag-free natural aspiration and a lightweight Opel Manta 400.

Rally Isola d'Elba Marina di Campo (ITA) 22-24 04 1981

Pentti Airikkala's Finnish flair was always a very welcome addition in the British forests - especially when he was Rothmans liveried in an RS1800

The fight was kind of done after four stages, when the gearbox on Mikkola’s Quattro Sport cried enough. Brookes was a distant second to McRae when he crashed out on Tholt-y-Will.

McRae secured a third title in four years.

But what names… Mikkola, Vatanen, Röhrl stepping in, Henri Toivonen doing a bit, Per Eklund in a Group A Toyota Corolla.

Don’t worry, this story’s not heading down that road of things always being better in the dim and increasingly distant past. But it does make you wonder, doesn’t it? We’re getting excited about the weekend and a 57-mile season opener with a good mix of British and Irish talent on show. But what’s in store for 2024?

Rally Acropolis Athens (GR) 31-03 6 1982

Henri Toivonen's ascent to the top of the World Rally Championship was helped by his time competing in Britain

The North West Stages should be both competitive and entertaining, with no shortage of top-drawer Rally2 metal on show and a host of drivers who will squabble over Saturday night’s top step of the podium. Looking beyond Lancashire, there are three rounds in Wales – two on gravel and one on asphalt – and a couple of visits to Scotland, to the Aberdeenshire woods and the Borders’ Tarmac.

Ireland? Not pictured. The Isle of Man? Missing the action.

What happened to that classic mix of Yorkshire, the Circuit, the Welsh, Scottish, Ulster and Manx? What happened to the challenge of a five-day, round-Ireland race or the Glasgow to Aviemore non-stop-through-the-night test?

There’s no shortage of enthusiasm for this year’s BRC, but is it misplaced? Does it need the context of the Scandinavian invasion of days gone by? Of course it does. But, perhaps more importantly, it needs the context of today. There’s little to no appetite for a calendar packed with up-all-night endurance events tearing up and down Britain and around Ireland.

Kalle Rovanperä

Kalle's not coming... but he'd be very welcome if he did fancy the Lancastrian lanes on his way south to Kenya

And let’s keep the competition in context too. Yes, the second round of the 1984 RAC MSA British Open Rally Championship might have had close on 600 miles of competition, and it might have had an entry list boasting Henri Toivonen, Juha Kankkunen and Harald Demuth (in a factory-spec quattro A2). But 55 stages after it started Billy Coleman and Ronan Morgan brought their Dealer Opel Team Ireland Manta 400 home to Belfast 20 minutes ahead of second-placed Ernest Kidney’s Lotus Sunbeam.

The famous foreigners? All retired.

What happened 40 years ago is history. What happens tomorrow (Saturday) is today and what happens this season the future. This year’s BRC will present some of the fastest and finest roads in Britain, the stage is, quite literally, set. Whether a worthy champion is crowned on the North Wales coast in late October is a question we’ll answer then. Not now.

Enjoy the season and embrace the history. They’re not mutually exclusive.

Still not too late for Rovanperä to step aboard, though…