Experiencing the magic of the R.A.C. Rally

There's nothing like the thrill of a big field of cars tackling 'Killer' Kielder forest on the legendary five-day event


Junction 43 of the M6 isn’t usually particularly noteworthy.

One of three junctions connecting the city of Carlisle with Britain’s longest motorway, thousands of motorists pass through it every day without giving much of their surroundings a second thought.

But not last week. Because for a few short days, junction 43 was the gateway to the 1970s. The Roger Albert Clark Rally was in town.

Leaving the motorway and taking the first exit on the roundabout to head towards the city center, a gap in the hedge gives me my first glimpse of the 170+ strong field of cars in the R.A.C.’s Carlisle service area, the rally’s home for its final three days.

And a few minutes later, I’m in the middle of a sea of classic cars, motorhomes and mechanics, with the smell of petrol filling the bitterly cold morning air.

There’s so much to take in here, from the headline acts of the endless Ford Escort Mk2s, Porsche 911s and Seb Perez’s sole Lancia Stratos, to the under-the-radar but equally intriguing classic Saabs and Mitsubishi Starions.

The vast scale and variety of cars on display is something that only the R.A.C. can offer when it comes to British rallying, and it’s wonderful to see each and every one covered in mud and dirt from the previous days’ stages. After all, this is no museum. This is a five-day, 350-mile rallying marathon.


One man who isn’t used to such an endurance event is Oliver Solberg, but a quick chat with the WRC regular reveals what I already suspect. He’s loving it. And in particular, the Swede is beaming about having taken on some classic Welsh stages like Myherin, Sweet Lamb and Hafren for the first time, just as his father Petter did a generation ago.

But one place Petter never drove in on Rally GB was the infamous Kielder Forest. And that was where Oliver and co., along with me and my DirtFish colleague Luke Barry, were heading to now.

Leaving Carlisle, and the last sight of civilization for many hours behind us, we drove deep into the forest heading towards the ‘Killer’ Kielder stages that made up Sunday’s itinerary.


The occasional sight of an Escort parked at the side of the road undergoing some last-minute tweaks heightens our rally fever. This is a throwback. This is cool.

My anticipation peaks as we finally arrive at our destination and begin the time-honored tradition of trudging along a muddy track in search of a corner on which to set up camp and wait for the noises of screaming and popping engines to arrive. A strange tradition, perhaps, but at least I’m not alone in observing it.

It’s been truly heartwarming to see how many people have ventured out into the British forests to support this great event over the past week, and today was no different.

There’s no doubt the audience for rallying is still very strong in this country, and while the negativity around the potential for the return of Rally GB or the strength of the British Rally Championship may remain, none of that was evident here.


The smiles, Subaru-badged coats and enthusiastic chatter signaled only one thing about the fans in Kielder – passion.

As my toes begin to go numb from the cold, the first cars finally start to emerge from the trees and into the hairpin-left turn at which we are standing.

The variety of techniques and approaches used to tackle this tight corner is fascinating to watch, and a reminder that in contrast to most modern rallying events, not every driver on the R.A.C. is looking to push flat-out.


And why should they? In this five-day test of man and machine, just making it to the finish is an achievement for some and is certainly far from easy, as Kris Meeke, Chris Ingram and later Oliver Solberg would sadly prove.

But what’s even more fascinating than watching the cars take on the stages is listening to them do so. Particularly the night fever that takes over when you can hear the echoes of a V6 Ferrari-powered Lancia Stratos approaching from somewhere in the distant black abyss.

That’s where we found ourselves several hours later, this time on the inside of a square-left, and leaning ever-further forward for the first sight of the roaring beast which was heading our way.

Suddenly, the blackness turns to blinding light as Seb Perez pops over a crest and into view with headlights ablaze, and the sweet sound of that wonderful engine from a bygone era now reaches its crescendo.


For that experience alone, all the shivering in the cold and sliding through the mud would have been worth it 100 times over.

Unfortunately, my R.A.C. experience was over far too soon, as it was soon time to leave the mystique and magic of Kielder and head home. But even a single day around this event offers so much.

An adventure, on a scale that even a World Rally Championship event cannot match, it’s a pilgrimage that simply must be made if you’re a rally fan in the UK and even beyond.

It’s a perfect nod to the sport’s past, and an inspiration for what it could still be in the future.

Do we really have to wait another two years to do it all again?