Traveling the globe with the World Rally Championship, David Evans loves his job. But a trip to Mull in October was his clear highlight from his packed 2021.
Ready for the random? In October, I was standing in the rain watching a red Clan Crusader drive by on an island off the west coast of Scotland. WRC co-driver Dan Barritt and I were eating Christmas cake. And talking about his wellies.
Eschewing the opportunity for a weekend off between Finland and Spain, my DirtFish colleague Colin Clark and I followed a significant proportion of the British rallying community north, bound for a ferry to the inner Hebrides. Mull.
Without a round of the world championship for the last two years – the WRC’s longest absence from the British Isles in almost half a century – the Mull Rally provided a very welcome home fixture for the pair of us.
But Mull’s always been more than a rally. It’s a pilgrimage. The last two decades roaming the globe reporting on events has furnished Colin and I with a workable understanding of what makes the best of the best. Mull’s got it.
The only thing that would make it even better is a leg on the loose. It’s an all-asphalt affair. And it’s the very antithesis of what’s become an over-regulated and formulaic WRC.
As is the case with most national rallies around the world, homologated Rally2 machinery sits alongside some classic World Rally Cars that share the service area with everything we’ve grown up with. Rallying through the generations is represented, from the Mini Cooper S through to the ubiquitous Mk2 Escort – some of the more rocketship versions are a million miles away from what sat behind that blue oval originally.
We’ve been on the island less than an hour and we’ve seen engineering ingenuity and epic shellfishDavid Evans
But for entertainment value, it’s second to none. And those cars come from around the world. The organizers, who have devised a ballot system for entries in an effort to stop breaking the internet when they go on sale, have folk coming from as far away as Australia.
Why? What is the appeal of an October weekend in one of Britain’s wetter parts? How long have you got.
There’s the sense of adventure that comes with any island rally; the homogenized hotel chains are left behind when you set sail west, the nearest golden arches are a very long way over the horizon.
Landing onto the island we’re straight to see Peter Stanhope, the deputy clerk of the course and the man who has sorted our accommodation. Peter’s busy. His nephew might have toppled off the road alongside Loch Lomond and punctured both nearside wheels on his BMW 1 series. Ordinarily, not a problem, but the impact has jammed the locking wheel nut in place.
Busy welding, Peter sends us in Pete’s direction. Pete Henness has landed the bed of beds on the island. He’s staying in Britain’s only holiday accommodation at the end of a working pier. And that’s just as special as it sounds.
Turns out we’ve just missed the working bit. A fishing boat has just been and gone, delivering a load of scallops. The best bit about life on a pier, you keep your tucker tied to a net in the sea.
And yes, the answer was yes, we did fancy some scallops. Over an unexpectedly fresh lunch, conversation turns to the world title Richard Burns won 20 years ago. Peter’s wife Jackie smiles at a memory.
“Did you know, I typed Richard’s first CV at our kitchen table…”
We’ve been on the island less than an hour and we’ve seen engineering ingenuity, epic shellfish and now a cracker of a Burns yarn.
— Colin Clark (@voiceofrally) October 9, 2021
The more eagle-eyed among you will have spotted Clark’s towering ability with a camera, once we arrived on the pier.
I was deeply sceptical of Land Rover’s all-new Defender 90. Undoubtedly, it would be more comfortable than its predecessor, but more competent? Not a chance.
How wrong I was. The 90 was nothing short of brilliant. A blown two-liter petrol donkey delivers 300bhp that lifts you from nothing to north of 60 in seven and a bit seconds. And here’s the incredible bit, it genuinely goes around corners. Properly. Getting across the island three-up (Andrew Little, part cameraman, part rallying oracle in the back) and swiftly was no bother.
Typically, it was off-road that the Defender came into its own. We drove in and out of muddy fields up steep hills and down steeper slopes. All in the pouring rain. All without breaking sweat. But taking the Landie across rocks usually the sole preserve of the local seal and otter population was something else. Clark insisted.
“I’ve driven Defenders, Davey,” he shouted in that slightly annoying tone of his – the one where you know he’s not going to take no for an answer. “It’ll be fine.”
Without a shadow of doubt, Mull has some of the best asphalt anywhere on planet earthDavid Evans
Watching Clark fall on his ass when his “unbelievably grippy wellies” gave way on the rocks wasn’t the best start. A couple of hours ago, these same seaweed-coated rocks had been tucked away well beneath the Sound of Mull. And now we were picking our way across them in a Land Rover Defender. Why? Because we could.
Talking of fun, the social side of the Mull Rally is massive. Colin and I have worked with the organizers for a good while now and we do it primarily because they are superb people. Iain Campbell, his father… Iain Campbell Sr, Andy Jardine, Duncan Brown, Fred MacLean, and Donald Brown – those are the reasons we’re involved: the chance to catch up over a single malt in the Mishnish.
Sitting by the fire, looking out over a harbor framed by the most stunning of fall montages and chewing the fat over nothing more important than whether venison will be back on the menu later. Once a year, those moments of companionship are pure gold.
The world over, organizers like these guys provide the backbone to great events. I could go into a big bunch of nonsense politics which has resulted in these hardest of hard workers being harangued out of town. But I won’t bother. It’s a bit parochial.
But the folk who’ve done the haranguing – and you know who you are – should understand that they have succeeded in significantly weakening one of the world’s best events. That scares me a little bit. You can’t ship extraordinary experience like this and not expect consequences.
Enough of that. Let’s get back to the good stuff. Let’s get back to the roads. South to north, from Waipu Gorge, New Zealand to Ruuhimäki, Finland; east to west, from Pawse Kamuy, Japan to El Cóndor, Argentina, rallying has the perfect stage.
It’s both the beauty of and the reason for our love of rallying. It’s all about the road. Without a shadow of doubt, Mull has some of the best asphalt anywhere on planet earth.
Through the 1960s, Lancastrian Brian Molyneux brought his family to the isolated island of Mull for their annual holiday. By 1968, Brian had seen enough. The island needed a rally and his club would organize it. In more than 50 years, nothing’s changed.
The Hill Road’s still the ultimate challenge of technique; Glen Aros remains one for the brave and the Long One? Yep, still not short. The first time I reported on the event I came closer than ever to stacking my hire car when I thought I remembered a series of corners. Turns out I’d forgotten one. It was also the first place I managed to set fire to the brakes on my renter.
It’s a 150-mile route split into three loops: Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Saturday night. Service is somewhere in the island’s capital Tobermory and there’s no parc fermé.
That’s right. No parc fermé.
The crews finish leg one in the early hours of Saturday morning, drive to their hotel and they can do what they want to their cars. Stewart Dodds knows that only too well. When the wheel nuts sheared on his Vauxhall Nova (the one with a Suzuki Swift engine and a paddleshift sequential out of a Citroën C2) he was faced with a long night and a short sleep. He was back at it on Saturday afternoon after just an hour with his eyes shut.
That, Jean Todt, is endurance. It doesn’t need to be a week long. Mull makes its heroes in under 36 hours. And it hooks its fans for a lifetime. Barritt’s so smitten he’s moved his family and his wellies to Tobermory.
Mull's more than a rally. It’s a way of lifeDavid Evans
For 19 years, those heroes have all been home made. That’s how long it had been since Daniel Harper, a non-islander, won. That sort of domination is usually reserved for the likes of the 1000 Lakes or the Swedish Rally. There’s simply nothing to compare with driving the island roads day-in-day-out.
Back to my first visit and my commiserations to Calum Duffy as the heavy rain got heavier and his Escort looked set to be overpowered by a bunch of four-wheel-drive Subarus.
“The rain’s good,” he grinned. “I like the rain. I can go quicker in the rain.”
True to his word, he flew down the Glen, bouncing the Hart-engined Escort off the limiter at close on 140mph. In the pitch-black pouring rain.
“I know,” he said, “where the rain sits…”
This year, for the first time ever, the British Rally Championship included the Mull Rally as a qualifying round. Finally, we would see if regular seat time and an innate knowledge of pacenotes could counter years of experience.
Matt Edwards and Osian Pryce brought a brace of Volkswagen Polo GTI R5s to the island. The result? Inconclusive.
Edwards crashed on the third corner, but turned in one of the most extraordinary fightbacks in the event’s history. He broke three stage records – with his run around Calgary Bay and Loch Tuath at half past 10 on Saturday night the stuff of legend. He took 38 seconds out of his nearest rival and lowered the benchmark for this 35-kilometre test by 19s.
The competition was, however, skewed by then. Locals in Fiesta Rally2s Paul MacKinnon and John MacCrone had both retired with mechanicals, Pryce was running second and doing what he had to do to bag maximum BRC points and Harper was out front in his Mini JCW WRC doing a magnificent job to deliver on his dream of winning Mull in a Mini.
Skewed or not, there’s strong evidence that the hardcore can be beaten first time out. There’s no need to be scared of Mull. Edwards’s SS14 time wasn’t the only reason Colin and I were glad to be standing in Gruline Bay waiting for the cars.
The rain had stopped and the northern night sky was doing its thing. The crackle of logs on the fire was interrupted by the sound of the first car. Looking west up Loch Na Keal, Harper’s laser-like lights speared the darkness in search of an apex.
That was the moment. Watching, listening and loving the atmosphere, the anticipation and the appreciation. It’s times like this that you truly understand the meaning of Mull.
It’s more than a rally. It’s a way of life that rotates around one week on the west coast.