As a presenter on Top Gear, Chris Harris has likely fulfilled many dreams he didn’t even realize he had. But recently, he got to live out a vision from his teenage years and mimic his heroes by throwing a Ford Escort Mk2 around the British countryside.
Harris competed on the Roger Albert Clark Rally – and absolutely loved it.
The Roger Albert Clark – or RAC for short – is a ‘throwback’ event in just about every sense as a biennial rally, offering over 300 stage miles in the Scottish, English and Welsh forests, that caters for historic rally cars.
A few decades ago, it was the norm for Britain’s round of the World Rally Championship to traverse the entire country and offer such a brutal challenge. But not anymore. The RAC rekindles that spirit and brings it into the present – and it was an opportunity Harris wasn’t about to miss having idolized the drivers that tackled such a demanding route in period.
“The BBC didn’t give equal billing to all rallying across a season, but the RAC was a massive event for people of my generation, the televised sections were huge,” Harris tells DirtFish.
“There was a rally report every night, they put huge resources into it, it was a big event, and it captured my imagination more [than other motorsport] I think because there was less assumed knowledge. With F1, even though I was young, there was an assumption that I’d know it all, but I didn’t really know where to go and find out. “I didn’t read Autosport, I was too young for all that, so I didn’t really get a load of the technicalities around F1. I loved it always but rallying just seemed a bit purer to me. Of course, it was complicated, but I suppose to put it bluntly the cars looked like cars, whereas the racing cars, the F1 cars and the sportscars, didn’t look like cars.
“And I loved the fact, particularly once Group A came along, you could see a Cossie, you could see a Delta, you could see all these cars and they were recognizable. And I don’t know what it was, but there was something utterly gladiatorial about the Group B drivers.
“Names like Stig Blomqvist, Hannu Mikkola, Walter Röhrl, Michèle Mouton – they were just… it’s like their names were written to sound fast in a rally car. They were sort of onomatopoeic. “So yes, it always captured my imagination and just when it was on the wane, this bloke called Colin McRae came along and he kickstarted it again for me then. And that’s when I started to read a bit more and I understood championships, gravel specialists and Tarmac specialists and all the nuances of the sport a bit more I suppose.
“I always remember the rally report, William Woollard back at the studio doing a brilliant job updating us on the day, and he would always begin with a slightly glib sentence like ‘overnight, the crews have been…’ and they’d show it on a map, and you’d think ‘WHAT?’ They’ve done six more stages through the night; the scope of the event was enormous!” Harris adds.
“And I think a lot of us know that the core paradox of rallying as a sport and why its future will always be a little bit on the ropes is that the more you go towards what many people’s idea of a rally is, the less you can turn it into a sellable product because you can’t televise it. The more you go towards a sellable product the more you undermine what a rally is to people of my generation, and the inevitable conclusion is you create an event that’s basically rallycross plus.
“And so, the opportunity to do an event, to understand what they went through… we probably had it worse than some and better than others, but the idea of doing that in a [Lancia] Delta S4 with no power-steering or something, you’re welcome to that thanks! They must have been quite tough boys.
“That’s why I wanted to do it. You could go and do the East African Safari with Tutts [Tuthill Porsche] but that’s a very specific event whereas this, getting stuck in your Mk2 and sleeping in it I suppose that gave me the perfect taste…”
More on that particularly adventurous Friday evening a little later, but there were Thursday evening’s four stages to get through first. And unfortunately, Harris didn’t quite manage it.
Harris’ rallying record:
|Year||Event||Car||Result in class|
|2005||Woodpecker Stages||Ford Ka||16th|
|2005||Rally GB||Ford Fiesta ST||1st|
|2013||Brands Hatch Winter Stages||BMW 325i E30||7th|
|2013||Wyedean Forest Rally||BMW 325i E30||DNF|
|2014||Wyedean Forest Rally||BMW M3 E30||DNF|
|2014||Nicky Grist Stages||BMW M3 E30||DNF|
|2015||Wyedean Forest Rally||BMW M3 E30||DNF|
|2016||Mid Wales Stages||Toyota GT86 CS-R3||1st|
Harris came into the RAC with eight rally starts to his name and some experience behind the wheel on TV too, but his predominant motorsport CV has been filled on race circuits in GT cars.
That perhaps told on the second stage of the event – Kershope – as he and co-driver Brynmor Pierce became stuck in one of Kielder’s infamous ditches.
“That was interesting because I wasn’t really trying that hard,” says Harris. “That fluidity between a note and a reaction I knew wasn’t going to be there and [it] wasn’t there. Bryn’s a legend and he’s like a nanny on an event like that for someone like me, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but by the time I’d gone through [at] car 62, I was the third one to go off on that corner.
It’s not unusual to be a bit stuck on a Top Gear job, but this felt like a Top Gear job that had gone badly, badly wrongChris Harris
“So, I think I can safely say with that rate of attrition, that was the most ‘offed’ corner of that whole event probably. The note [from the DVD] wasn’t right, and I was probably a meter away from where I should’ve been, and I just got caught out. Isn’t it a shame that it was less than half a mile from the end of the stage as well, we could walk to the end of the stage? But it’s all ifs and buts.
“That was not intended, and it just goes to show doesn’t it that on a circuit if you get it a bit wrong – on most circuits, the Nürburgring’s different – you run wide, you lose some time, you get overtaken, you move on. That’s not the case [in rallying]. So, my brain wasn’t correctly simulated for the job, but I knew it wasn’t going to be and I thought I’d made enough allowances for that, but evidently I hadn’t.”
It was a bruising wake-up call but luckily no real damage was done, and Harris was able to continue on the second day, which was just as well as he admits: “I just wanted to finish, I didn’t give a s*** where I came.”
However, he wouldn’t be in for an easy ride, as some of the stages were “car wreckers” due to the number of drivers that had entered the rally. Harris’ Escort wasn’t immune from the punishment.
“I had bent some toe links on the front suspension, they were completely shafted. The rear diff had basically collapsed, and we just put energy into components in a way that I hadn’t realized,” he says.
But things would get a whole lot more dramatic that evening as Storm Arwen moved in and suddenly high winds and a blizzard were battering the forests. Some competitors struggled to even get off the final stage and didn’t manage to make it back to service in Carlisle that evening.
Harris was one of them.
“We had a merry band of let’s say eight to 10 rally cars that had got off the stage where the stage had been stopped,” he remembers.
“Everyone had gone from the marshal point which I totally understand because there was a blizzard coming in, but by the time we got off the stage we just got stuck in this convoy where we went backwards and forwards and we just kept coming across felled trees, it was getting late, and we were running right out of fuel.
“A competitor – he was ahead of me on the rally on that stage, David Hutchinson – very kindly gave me some fuel and they went up north into Scotland to try and go around the top which I think we considered but we worked out we didn’t have enough fuel to do that, and I didn’t want to gamble going to a fuel station.”
Eventually Harris ended up in the town of Langholm, 21.5 miles north of service at the H and H Auction Mart in Carlisle.
“A few other people disappeared and before we knew it, I just thought ‘you’re whacking down here in the car aren’t you,’” he continues. “In my professional life I reach that conclusion quite a lot, it’s not unusual to be a bit stuck on a Top Gear job, but this felt like a Top Gear job that had gone badly, badly wrong – it felt much worse!
— chris harris (@harrismonkey) November 27, 2021
“There was a fateful knock on the window at about 11.30pm when there were a few cars around us, someone knocked on the window and said, ‘there’s a pub in the town, she said she’ll open up a function room and we’ll lie down there.’ “At that point the car wasn’t too cold, there was no heater in it, but we had a good, warm coat each myself and Bryn, and for reasons that some people might understand I didn’t really want to be in a room full of strangers, for all sorts of reasons, and I misjudged that.
“I also didn’t walk into town and find out it wasn’t possible; I was just knackered. We’d been in the car for 17/18 hours driving stages and what have you, it was just a bit much. So, I said, ‘let’s just stay here, it’ll be fine’ and we stayed in the car.
“What a mistake, because at about 4 or 5am I couldn’t feel my legs, it was properly cold. Eventually at about 6 or 7am I said ‘I’ve got to get out of here I’m in a bit of trouble’ because I was so cold, so we walked down the road, went to the pub – this gorgeous, warm pub, which was being run by this gorgeous, warm woman – called The Crown. Give her a massive shout-out because she was wonderful. If you’re ever staying in Langholm, stay there.
I think there’ll be a few people that meet for a beer in five-10 years who were the alumni of the night in the pubChris Harris
“It was just full of great energy and people realizing they were right in the middle of a story they were going to talk about for a long time, and we missed it to stay in a car. And the bar had been open until 4am, it was all great.
“I made such a s*** call by staying in the car. And the RAF boys that gave us a Welsh cake each were legends as well, but yeah, I’m too old for that,” Harris laughs. “I was broken. We had a couple hours’ sleep; I was broken the next day.”
Harris’ car wasn’t in great shape either, and he reckons had the Scottish leg of the event not been scrapped on Saturday, he wouldn’t have been able to continue in the rally. As it was, the lack of any competition afforded time for the car to be repaired as the rally travelled south to Wales for the final two days.
Both days proved to be pivotal in the race for the rally win as erstwhile leader Jason Pritchard suffered a fifth-gear roll, clipping a log-pile on Sunday while both Osian Pryce and Paul Barrett went off on the first stage of the final day – leaving Ryan Champion’s path clear to steal victory.
By comparison Harris had an uneventful conclusion to his rally but did manage to climb from 75th to 52nd across the final two legs on stages he describes as “pretty intimidating” but “mega”.
“Basically, survival was everything,” he says. “I didn’t have any offs or anything, but I wasn’t quick, and I now know exactly why because first of all my car had a bit too much power I think, unhelpful amounts of power [on ice], and second of all when you’re in Kielder you stay in the ruts.
“Your brain just tells you ‘follow where the other cars have been.’ If you’re outside of those you’re going to go into one of those ditches and I proved that. But of course, in Wales, if I’d just moved a foot offline and found a bit of loose, got the tire working properly away from the slippery bits I might have done better, so a bit of a kick-myself moment there.
“On Monday I got it all wrong on the first run through Walters, literally misheard a note and almost went the wrong way so that was embarrassing, like a single-venue cock up. But the rest of the day we started to go a bit quicker, and we started to set a few stage times. I left people thinking ‘he’s not that s***’ which is all I wanted to do really, and do you know what I loved it.
“Dovey – what a stage. To do that twice that day is a total privilege, and it sounds awful but as someone who perhaps realizes that this sport might not be available in the way it is now to the cars it is now forever, those two runs were worth the entry fee alone for me.
“Look at what it costs to go and do a trackday, what it costs in consumables, what it costs in depreciation to go and take your expensive Porsche to the Nürburgring – I got to drive 12/13 miles of just heaven in a Mk2 Escort, sideways.
“And it was really, really special. I loved it, absolutely adored Wales on the Sunday and the Monday. But also, I love Kielder, Kielder bit me badly but I still loved it. The combination of some beautiful flowing stages, I never remember the names but there was a 17-miler, the longest stage in Kielder [Bewshaugh] on the afternoon/early evening of the Friday, was just joyous.
“That’s how I imagined rallying was in those events. It’s a bit like meeting your film star hero and they turn out to be exactly the person you want them to be, which is quite rare. That stage was flowing and gorgeous.”
— chris harris (@harrismonkey) November 29, 2021
Harris’ infection for the event is obvious, so much so that he emphatically claims, “I’d do it again, of course I would.” But it was all done in a manner atypical of somebody from the world of television.
His Escort was basically pure white, there was no film crew following him around and that there was, in general, no big fanfare about his entry. That was all on purpose. Harris wanted to keep the purest of rallying experiences exactly that – pure.
“I did this off my own back,” he explains. “I didn’t take sponsors on really at all, I had a bit of help with some tires but other than that I just wrote a cheque for it because I didn’t want to make a film, I just wanted it to be my experience.
“I have very little footage or very few photographs of the whole thing and I don’t care, because it’s in my head and I know how it feels. And I know when I see the car again and smell the inside of the car and drive it again it’ll all come flooding back – that’s how we used to remember things before we all got carried away trying to record things.
“I don’t have a single piece of onboard of a stage and I just don’t care, which is really strange for someone in my world
“I’m just so flipping glad I did it,” he adds, “because there’s a nagging feeling if it does run again, it might not have that scope. And I think there’ll be a few people that meet for a beer in five-10 years who were the alumni of the night in the pub.
“I suspect that might happen, and it was just special to be a part of it.”
Massive thank you to Paul and his 12-year-old son Ben Lawrence for the accompanying imagery from the rally.
— chris harris (@harrismonkey) November 29, 2021