On November 1 2020, DirtFish should have been writing about the thrilling conclusion of another edition of Rally GB. Would Elfyn Evans take another popular home win? Perhaps his Toyota team-mate Sébastien Ogier would turn the tables in their title tussle. Or perhaps M-Sport would finally make a triumphant return to the front of the field after a tricky 2020.
But instead, the unthinkable happened: Rally GB didn’t take place, robbing the United Kingdom of its uninterrupted streak on the World Rally Championship calendar since the series’ conception.
Instead of watching the cars fly through Welsh forests, DirtFish is looking backwards in time, picking out the 10 most significant editions of this great rally since its beginnings as the RAC Rally.
The first one. It might bear no resemblance to what would have run in Wales today but without the first one, we’d have nothing to miss this week. Starting from nine different locations around Britain, crews were expected to land into Torquay having maintained a 22mph average speed, or 25mph if your car displaced more than 1100cc. Colonel A. H. Loughborough and his Lanchester was the nearest thing to a winner, though no outright victor was officially declared.
Mitsubishi had elected to reward Maidenhead-based Finn Pentti Airikkala for winning the British Group N title with a works entry to Rally GB. So the story goes, at least. The fact that Mitsubishi had attempted to enter Mikael Ericsson before realizing he’d already been entered by Lancia might have had something to do with it as well. Ultimately, Lancia pulled the plug, leaving this a straight fight to land the laurels for the first Japan manufacturer to win the RAC between Mitsubishi and Toyota.
Airikkala was right in the thick of the fight – and had been expected to pull away on the final day’s stages in Yorkshire that he knew well. Carlos Sainz was having none of it and hit back to extend his lead, only for the propshaft on his Celica GT-4 to fail. Pentti took a popular win, while the Spaniard rued “the one he really wanted to win.” Why did he want it so badly? It was the last ‘blind’ RAC Rally. One year on and pacenotes had replaced maps, changing the nature of the event altogether.
For eight years, RAC Rally watchers had known nothing but Ford victories on Britain’s round of the world championship. The 1980 event changed all that. It was not only Henri Toivonen’s first WRC win but also a success that made him the youngest winner in history, beating Markku Alén’s record by 70 days. The 1980 event was a roaring success for Des O’Dell’s fleet of Talbot Sunbeam Lotuses, with Guy Fréquelin and Russell Brookes adding to Toivonen’s win with third and fourth respectively.
After six wins on the bounce, Ford wasn’t willing to give up on its RAC Rally winning run. But this time it had no choice. With its workers out on strike in Britain, Boreham’s preparations for the event were hindered to the point of making an official entry impossible.
Much as the striking union members were dedicated to their cause, they were also rally fans and a good number of blind eyes were turned as parts crossed the picket line on their way out to independent teams like David Sutton and Haynes of Maidstone. Thanks to the resilience of people like Ford team manager Peter Ashcroft, co-ordinator Charles Reynolds and legendary mechanic Mick Jones, Ford’s run of success continued – this time with a podium lock-out and a one-two-three for Hannu Mikkola, Björn Waldegård and Russell Brookes.
Outside of the McRae-Burns years, rallying reached fever-pitch in Britain in 1985. Austin Rover answered the Group B question with the bewinged and, at least in some eyes, beautiful MG Metro 6R4. A brace of factory cars were entered for Tony Pond and Malcolm Wilson. Wilson was running ahead of his team-mate when he hit transmission trouble and then retired with an engine failure. Pond pressed on and, as Finns flew off the road all around him, he kept his head and kept the Computervision car on the straight and narrow amid some of the trickiest conditions in recent years.
Had Lancia’s genuinely beautiful Martini-liveried Delta S4 been delayed by just one more rally, Pond would have scored a famous home win for the 6R4. Unfortunately for the mustachioed Englishman, Henri Toivonen and Markku Alén stood before him at the end of a particularly arduous route. Alén was the more fortunate of the two, having been hauled out of a Kielder ditch by his Toyota-driving compatriot Juha Kankkunen.
For Toivonen, his time had come. In Britain 35 years ago, Henri rose to the crest of a wave he would ride until the horrific Corsican crash which claimed his life six months later.
Having led for the previous three years, Colin McRae finally ended 18 years of hurt when he became the first home RAC Rally winner since Roger Clark in 1976.
In all honesty, nobody else stood a chance that year. And ironically, the only person who could have taken this historic win from McRae and co-driver Derek Ringer was Subaru team principal David Richards himself.
The problem Richards faced was with the race for the drivers’ championship. McRae’s Subaru team-mate Carlos Sainz was running second with his main title rival Didier Auriol sitting pretty further down the order. The only way Sainz could win was if McRae was told to slow down and allow the Spaniard to take the win. By his own admission, McRae fully expected the call to come and was, undoubtedly, a touch relieved – as well as disappointed for his team-mate – by the news that Sainz had gone off the road in Dyfi. Auriol would take the title, while McRae landed the dream. Or at least the dream part one.
“I want to be back here this time next year, but I want to be back here fighting for the championship,” said McRae, standing high in the stands at Chester Racecourse.
Two things happened in 1960: Special stages arrived on the route for the RAC Rally and British drivers stopped winning. Roger Clark’s 1972 success ended an 11-year run of Scandinavian domination of Britain’s biggest motorsport event. Clark’s victory came at the height of his powers, having just won a second British title before a third followed one year later. But on the 1972 RAC, Clark and his fuel-injected Ford Escort RS1600 showed home a typically strong entry for what was fast becoming one of the world’s most popular and challenging rallies.
Previous year’s winner Stig Blomqvist was second, his chances of back-to-back success not helped by bouncing his Saab 96 off a park bench in Sutton Park and a sheep in Epynt. After the 350 miles and 69 stages, Clark was looking good for the win and heading for the finish in York when a wheel bearing seized on the Escort. Fortunately for him, Ford team principal Stuart Turner had the foresight to run Andrew Cowan’s retired RS1600 as a chase car. The Scott’s Escort was cannibalized roadside and made the ramp and celebration just in time.
Four drivers started the 2001 Rally GB with a shot at the title. Tommi Mäkinen was the first to blink. A broken bolt on Mitsubishi’s suspension forced him out on the first stage. Colin McRae was next to go. The Scot’s hopes of a second title were lost when he cartwheeled his Ford Focus out of the lead on the Rhondda test. That left Richard Burns versus Carlos Sainz. The Spaniard’s car was withdrawn after colliding with marshals in Brechfa, but the Englishman still had to finish.
Fourth place would be enough, but the bottom step of the podium and third place worked a treat. Six years on from McRae’s triumph, British rally fans could celebrate once more.
Coming down the hill into Margam Park for the final stage, Burns took the hand of his co-driver Richard Burns and reminded him of one thing: “You’re the best in the world!”
Unashamedly dubbed ‘Super Sunday’ by M-Sport, the 2017 Wales Rally GB delivered arguably the most incredible Sunday afternoon in the sport. Ott Tänak completing the final stage in Brenig delivered Malcolm Wilson’s squad its first world championship since 2007. Minutes later, Sébastien Ogier crossed the line and took the team’s first-ever drivers’ title and, after a brief pause, Elfyn Evans followed his team-mates across the line to win the rally, breaking his WRC duck at home.
“That was something I will never, ever forget,” said Wilson. “The celebrations just kept on coming and coming. It was incredible.”
And anybody lucky enough to be in the center of Llandudno on that Sunday afternoon will likely remember the celebrations for a while too.
It had to be, didn’t it?
Colin McRae drove the rally of his life to come back from dropping two minutes with a puncture in Pundershaw and suspension damage in Newcastleton. As the event progressed south to Wales, McRae’s Subaru team-mate Carlos Sainz looked more and more like a sitting duck.
In Sweet Lamb Hafren, the moment came. Beneath the fireworks and to a backdrop of hillsides full of cheering fans, McRae moved back to the front. From there on, nothing could stop him from leading the Spaniard home to clinch his world championship in British rallying’s finest hour.
Rarely have donuts looked as good as those cooked by the Pirellis beneath a Saltire-waving, spinning Subaru Impreza.