Remembering Tony Pond: A WRC champion that never was

Twenty years to the day since he passed, DirtFish looks back on the life and career of one of the WRC's forgotten talents

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Tony Pond probably wouldn’t have liked today’s world. A world where a rally driver’s life and career is thrust into the limelight through live television and social media following.

Pond didn’t thrive from attention. He just wanted to drive – and drive fast.

Twenty years to the day since he lost his short battle with pancreatic cancer, it feels poignant to remember a life and career that is often overlooked and sadly only registered as a footnote in terms of success against some of the titans Pond competed against throughout the 1970s and ’80s.

But that absolutely wasn’t indicative of his majesty behind the wheel, instead of an arguable run of unfortunate timing and occasionally stubborn decision-making.

Born in Hillingdon, London in November 1945, Pond’s first forays behind the wheel were on night road rallies in the south of England in 1967.

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Driving a modest Mini Cooper S, Pond also went autotesting before entering his first stage rally – the grueling RAC nonetheless – in 1970 with a Lotus Cortina. Running as car #101, Pond had been running inside the top 20 before an icy corner lured him into a ditch and put him out of the event.

But this lit a fire in Pond’s belly and he became determined to forge a career in rallying. Persuading his local Ford dealer Norman Reeves to support him for the Mexico Rally Championship, Pond finished second in the 1972 season and was rewarded with a works drive on the 1973 Scottish Rally, finishing an impressive seventh overall.

Reeves recognized Pond’s potential and found him an ex-works Escort RS1600 for him to do more rallies. Third place on the 1974 Welsh Rally behind Markku Alén and Billy Coleman was a key result, as he finished ahead of Tony Fall who was competitions manager for Dealer Team Opel.

An offer was soon on the table and for the next two years Pond drove an Ascona to some key results, including his first ever victory on the 1974 Burmah Rally.

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But it’s with British Leyland – the firm Pond joined when Dealer Team Opel was disbanded after 1975 – that Pond is best remembered for with plucky drives in Triumph TR7s, various Rovers and of course the Group B MG Metro 6R4.

“He always had the respect of all the competitors,” remembers M-Sport managing director Malcolm Wilson who competed against Pond in Britain before becoming his 1986 World Rally Championship team-mate.

“He was regarded to be honest in that time with the McRaes, myself; of the Brits he was always respected as one of the quickest guys at the time.”

Co-driver Fred Gallagher, a WRC event winner, has similar recollections having teamed up with Pond in a TR7 in 1977.

“It was a different ball game altogether to be honest,” he says when asked what it was like to sit with Pond.

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“He was extraordinarily fast obviously, and I remember the car just behaving in a different way. I felt up to that point cars drove like they were a slot car, pivoting round the front axle, and suddenly this was pivoting round the middle of the car.

“It was just another level of confidence and commitment and the first real great that I was lucky enough to sit with.”

Gallagher co-drove Pond in ’77, ’78 and then again in 1980 – a period that is best remembered for historic and giant-killing drives on Belgium’s Ypres Rally.

Two victories in ’78 and ’80 were extraordinary achievements given the competitiveness of the field and the fact they were on a rally that, even today, is dominated by experts. Pond remains the only foreign driver to win Ypres more than once.

What was the secret?

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“A lot of dedication to the events,” says Gallagher. “We weren’t doing WRC so we had time, so we recced it particularly thoroughly.

“I do struggle to make people believe me when I say in Ypres, certainly in 1980, there were one or two stages that on the event once we had a bit of a lead established we went slower than we did in recce because the roads were effectively closed by spectators, so we were in full-spec rally cars and going at full speed. It was nuts – good fun nuts though!

“Funnily enough it was the 40th anniversary of that [1978] win a few years ago, so I got invited to Ypres because it was a round of the British championship to give out the trophies,” Gallagher continues.

“[1978 Ypres runner-up] Gilbert Staepelaere’s son basically drove me round and looked after me for the weekend and he said his father was completely shattered. His father was convinced he was going to win it easily and just could not believe the speed of Tony.”

It wasn’t just Ypres that Pond aced though. He took a pair of victories on the fearsome lanes of the Isle of Man in both seasons he won Ypres, and went on to claim another two Manx International Rally wins, and took a standout win on the Boucles de Spa in 1977 too.

“He won that in a four-cylinder TR7, and that was a brilliant victory,” says John Davenport, British Leyland’s competition director from 1977-87.

“It was f****** ice and snow and everything like that, everything that you wouldn’t want if you were going to go and rally a TR7 but he won, and it was the biggest boost to my ego anyway that he won that rally because we had a lot of problems at scrutineering with people deciding what studs we can run and what we couldn’t, and mechanics pulling studs out of tires and other mechanics banging them back in again and things like that.

“He was a mine of information, an absolute mine of information,” Davenport adds. “Tony wasn’t an engineer, he didn’t try to dictate the settings on the car or anything like that which again was an absolute joy.

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“[Instead] he liked to tell the engineers what it would or wouldn’t do, and then leave it to them to decide what would be correct and then let him try it, and so on and so forth. I mean the test days we had with him were so beneficial.

“Tony was a professional in every sense of the word, in other words what was written on the packet he delivered. And that is the amazing thing about him, he really did.”

With clear driving ability, winning rallies in an unfancied car, and strong technical feedback in his repertoire, surely the sky was the limit for Pond? Indeed he had begun to attract the attention of some of the biggest teams of the period.

Fiat made an approach for his services in 1978 but Pond turned it down; a curious decision with hindsight as Fiat won that year’s world championship with the 131 Abarth. Toyota also attempted to lure him away from British Leyland in 1981, but again Pond opted to stay put.

I liken him in a way to Nigel Mansell in that there was always a bit of a feeling that people were out to get him, and foreigners maybe in particular Fred Gallagher

“I’ve been lucky enough to sit with multiple world champions whether they be [Bjorn] Waldegård, [Juha Kankkunen, Ari Vatanen, Petter Solberg] and the like and there is no doubt that Tony’s driving abilities were absolutely up there with any of those people,” Gallagher explains.

“He would have nothing to fear in driving terms with any of them. I think Tony had all the driving skills, determination and drive to be a world champion.

“However I liken him in a way to Nigel Mansell in that there was always a bit of a feeling that people were out to get him, and foreigners maybe in particular.

“It isn’t terribly well known but he did get the chance at the end of Triumph’s participation in ’80, he was offered a world championship drive with Toyota alongside Bjorn Waldegård with Toyota Team Europe.

“He went to Cologne, test drove the car but he turned it down because they wouldn’t build him a right-hand-drive car – which for me was an incredible opportunity [that] actually passed by.

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“Anybody else would have absolutely jumped at that and the chance to drive alongside Waldegård who would’ve been totally open with him, or us as I would have stayed with Tony [instead of teaming up with Henri Toivonen] had that had happened, so I think that was a great shame.”

From a sporting perspective it’s impossible to underestimate what poor decisions those proved to be from Pond, which makes you wonder why he wasn’t willing to accept competing in a left-hand-drive car.

As it was, Pond’s stubbornness scuppered his shot at true WRC success. Throughout his world championship career, he only ever finished on the podium twice and never graced the top step he was clearly competitive enough to reach.

“He was quick everywhere, but he was never probably in the car that showed his true potential. He certainly had the ability to get a lot better results than what he got,” says Wilson.

“I think it’s quite sad because I classed him, I put him up there, and for me he was a very classy driver.

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“He was a thinking driver, so for me he didn’t get the results that his talent, I felt, could’ve had – and should’ve had – if he’d been in the right package.”

Gallagher reckons Pond didn’t help himself in that regard, but does caveat that with the fact that he was sometimes simply overlooked for some opportunities.

“I think for example Ford made a major mistake,” he reasons. “Ford/Stuart Turner were always completely enthralled with Scandinavian drivers but, don’t get this wrong because Ari Vatanen is one of my closest friends, if Ford had given Tony the opportunities that Ari was given at the same age in his career I’ve no doubt that Tony had the qualities to be a world champion.

“So from that point-of-view I think other people were maybe a bit remiss, but on the other hand Tony did get the opportunity with Des O’Dell and the Talbot Sunbeam in ’79 and I could sort of feel that wasn’t going to work so I stayed at Triumph and they just never got on, but yet that was the team in ’81 that won the world championship for makes with Guy Fréquelin, Henri Toivonen and me.

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DRIVING TOIVONEN’S FIRST WRC WINNER

The last win for a two-wheel-drive car on the RAC Rally went to a Talbot Sunbeam

“So I think some people could’ve recognized his talent more but he could definitely have made more of the opportunities he was given including that refused TTE drive.”

Instead of joining Toyota for 1981, Pond remained under contract with British Leyland but drove a Vauxhall Chevette in the British championship and a variety of Datsuns and Nissans across 1982 and ’83 before stepping into a Rover Vitesse and then the Metro 6R4 when they were both launched.

These cars were nowhere near as capable as what he could have been driving but Pond was a fiercely loyal driver that, according to Davenport “much preferred to be comfortable knowing that people liked him and respected him and were prepared to work with him”.

“He didn’t push himself,” Davenport explains. “He was very, very good at what he did, he was an easy guy to work with but he didn’t have any large ego going around with him.

“With any career you can always sort of say ‘the timing wasn’t right’ or something like that, but he didn’t ring up six team managers in a row and say ‘I’m free’ and everything like this.

1982 Safari Rallyecopyright: Mcklein

“When he went down to South Africa for instance, the guy preparing the cars was Geoff Mortimer and he got on like a house on fire with Geoff, that’s why he went back to drive these cars for him.

“It’s just funny. You can always look at his career and say ‘he should’ve done this then or whatever’ but there wasn’t the impetus necessarily, the personal impetus, to do it. He didn’t think of himself as the big I am or anything like that.

“It always sounds bad when you say ‘he was the most retiring rally driver I know’ as if he crashed it every time but Tony didn’t crash that often, he was retiring in the personal sense and he didn’t push himself a great deal.

“Which in some ways I suppose was sad for him but not for us as he did us some very good services in those Rovers and Metros and TR7s.”

Pond therefore sacrificed success in favor of enjoyment, but that doesn’t mean to say that the 1980s were a failure for him.

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He regularly achieved the extraordinary for Datsun in South Africa, winning some of the nation’s toughest rallies. And Pond’s third place on the 1981 Tour de Corse (and sixth place finish two years later) were true herculean efforts.

“The point about Tony was you got the feeling that he could drive anything,” says Davenport.

“He did those fantastic results for Andy Dawson’s Datsun in Corsica. When you look at the Datsun – which was a jolly good Safari-winning car – to think of taking it to Corsica and finishing on the podium, that is amazing.

“You’ve got to be not just slightly on the ball, you’ve got to have a real, real feeling for driving a car like that on those roads because it’s not suitable for them at all! But Tony could always make the best of anything.”

Before the Metro 6R4 program really took off in 1985 in preparation for a full world championship campaign in ’86, Pond proved that point by being deployed as a racing driver for Rover too.

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On the same 1984 weekend that the original Metro made its debut on the York National Rally – Pond was leading handsomely before an electrical problem forced him to retire – he flew from York to Silverstone and won the second round of the British Saloon Car Championship in a Rover Vitesse.

It was his second touring car victory following a class success in 1983, and not his only eye-catching performance in a Vitesse either. During the 1984 Spa 24 Hours, Pond and his team-mates Eddy Joosen and Jean-Pierre Jabouille were firmly in the fight for victory before retiring.

But because of his reserved character, Pond never quite captured the imagination of the public like future British rallying hero Colin McRae did. He could be quite deadpan and had a boyish charm – despite his famous moustache that stuck with him throughout the years – but he was a very private person.

“In all honesty he could be quite witty and things like that and was good at telling stories but on the other hand he was also very shy,” remembers Wilson. “He very, very much kept himself to himself.

“He didn’t really have any other interests as such other than driving. That’s my recollection, to be honest.

“He enjoyed his time on the Isle of Man, he really liked the Isle of Man as a place hence he had some great results from a driving point-of-view and he enjoyed living on the Isle of Man but again, he very much kept himself to himself in his own environment. Even in the Isle of Man the whole time I stayed with him.”

Davenport adds: “He wasn’t an extrovert in the way Colin McRae or someone like that was. OK, Colin won a lot of rallies as well, slightly more than Tony! But he wasn’t the sort of guy that would sort of stick in your memory.

“As a fan that time in 1985 on the RAC when he was third, he was second for quite a long way and then he was third, the fanbase then was enormous.

“But poor old Tony, he had flu, so he wasn’t really up to doing any going around shaking hands and doing autographs and things like that which is a shame, because that in some ways was his peak within the UK fanbase.”

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That drive, on the last of the truly monstrous RAC Rallies and on the Metro’s WRC debut, typified just what Pond was all about.

“It was bloody awful conditions. first time with the car on a world championship event,” recalls Davenport. “Everything rested on Tony and he came good. He got that car around, I’m grateful to him for that to this day.”

It ultimately proved to be Pond’s peak. While he did get a WRC shot in 1986 with the Metro, as team-mate Wilson attests today: “The trouble was the normally-aspirated engine, we were getting overtaken by the 600bhp Lancias and Audis.”

And just as Austin Rover’s program was in place Group B almost immediately declined, meaning a muted sixth place on the 1986 RAC – his only finish of the season – was the last of Pond at the top of rallying.

Pond remained on Austin Rover’s books as a development driver, helped bring on the MG F road car and competed on some sporadic events in a modest Rover Metro in the following years, but rallying’s new direction in reaction to the calamitous 1986 season didn’t appeal.

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Aside from achieving the first-ever lap around the Isle of Man TT course that exceeded an average speed of 100mph in a production road car (a record that stood for 23 years before Mark Higgins bettered it in a Subaru), Pond slowly drifted into the wilderness and away from public consciousness.

By the turn of the 21st century, nobody really knew what Pond was up to until the sad news began to filter through that he was suffering with pancreatic cancer.

“He’d been in hospital for some time and I made one or two abortive attempts to go and see him,” says Davenport.

“But because of the way he looked – apparently he’d gone down to seven stone or something like that, was bald and all the rest of it – he really didn’t want to see people.

“He’d always been quite a handsome bugger and on the couple of occasions I’d tried to make an arrangement to come see him I was told that he wasn’t having visitors, so he died and I hadn’t seen him before [for years].”

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Who knows what Pond might have been up to had he still been around today, aged 76. It’s unlikely that he would’ve been seen in the various service parks around the world – as Wilson candidly puts it: “He wasn’t married to rallying like I am shall we say!”

“I suspect he would still be driving Metros and Austin Maestros and Triumph TR7s,” reckons Gallagher.

“I think he’d probably still be doing stuff like that but totally British. I’m sure he’d be life president of the Triumph owners club or something!”

But either way, it’s desperately sad that a life so wonderfully led ended in such tragic circumstances.

It’s tempting to wonder how he might be remembered nowadays had he accepted the attractive advances from rival teams – his name would certainly resonate more with rallying’s younger fanbase if he had. But Pond stuck to what he believed in and that’s what made him so special.

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An all-round good guy who did things his own way, Pond was every bit as charismatic as the Vatanens of this world but just in his own understated and unique manner. He was a true one-of-a-kind in rallying.The legend he leaves behind is one of tremendous talent, good grace and a little bit of unfulfilled potential, but it’s that sense of ‘what if’ that makes his story more compelling.

That’s how Davenport chooses to remember him: as a genius behind the wheel that was “cool” in every sense of the word.

“From a personal point-of-view I’m very happy that I worked alongside Tony Pond for so long, because he was a really nice guy as well as being a bloody good driver.”

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