These are what I’d call proper RAC hours.
It’s last Friday, just past 4:30pm. The light has gone and wild weather has arrived. Kielder is alive to the sound of BDA engines and there’s still two more punishing stages to run before an overnight rest.
To most, this sounds like hell. But to any rallying fan like me, it’s heaven. Nowadays, you simply won’t find a thrill like it anywhere else.
The headline statistics are what initially drew me to this event. While normal UK rallies are five or six stages long with 45 competitive stage miles across one day, this year’s Roger Albert Clark Rally offered 31 tests (before cancelations) that totaled 320 miles over five days.
World Rally Championship rallies are only two thirds as long. And they remain rooted – unlike the RAC which visits England, Scotland and Wales across its Thursday-Monday adventure.
But these are just numbers. It’s how these numbers actually feel that counts.
Walking through service at Kielder Water, battling through what Storm Arwen has decided to throw at me, I feel challenged yet alive at the same time. It would be easy to complain that I’m cold, wet or even miserable, but that’s the antithesis of what my surroundings represent.
There’s a spirit to the RAC. It’s an endurance test – of driver and machine. It’s an element of rallying that quite simply has vanished from modern competition, meaning that rare chance of experiencing a real brutal battle with the elements – and sleep deprivation – feels that extra bit special.
It’s impossible to find a verge of the countryside that’s not got an abandoned car left in it – be that spectators or management crews (another nostalgic charm to this event).
Forget cloverleaf patterns and controlled service, on the RAC you feel free.
Everyone really is in it together. Of course there’s a rally to win, and drivers don’t do testing and smaller events as shakedowns with an interest in coming second. But – apologies for the incoming cliché – this really is a rally where a participation’s medal is an achievement. Everybody wants everybody to get to the end, and nobody will get there without some kind of tribulation.
Just ask Jason Pritchard, Osian Pryce and Paul Barrett. Had this been a more regular event, any one of them could have won the rally. But the brutal nature of this adventure means they were all superseded by a tactical Ryan Champion – never the fastest but always there, and there he was at the finish in Camarthen as the rally winner.
I’m not old enough to remember what Britain’s round of the world championship was like when it traversed the country at all hours and in all weathers, but thanks to the bi-annual efforts of Colin Heppenstall and his team, now I can.
It’s a dangerous game to play the nostalgia card and hark back to a bygone era so I’ll refrain, but if nothing else this year’s RAC serves as a reminder as to why we all love this sport so much. It’s just mesmerising.
Massive kudos must go to the organizing team for having the passion and desire to put this together every two years – particularly this year with COVID-19 complications meaning the event was practically arranged in just five months. Anyone that knows anything about organizing any rally, yet alone a five-day epic, knows that’s basically impossible.
And an equally massive tip of the hat to all the volunteer marshals too who braved the ballistic storm on Friday night. While for onlookers the sudden flurry of snows added a great element of spice, the severity of the situation soon became clear as trees fell and competitors and marshals were left stranded. The rally could not have run without them and they got the hardest bargain of all.
Ultimately it was a shame to lose the Scottish mileage on Saturday – particularly for a massive Scottish patriot like me – but there was simply no other decision. Safety had to come first and did, and the rally was able to continue the following day in Wales.
I’m a little embarrassed that it took me this long to sample the RAC. It’s the one drug I will happily recommend to any rallying fan. Will I be back in 2023? I think you already know the answer to that one…