There was, we were told, only so much that could be done with this year’s Rally GB. We had, plenty reckoned, seen just about every iteration of route available. We hadn’t. The original plan for this year’s Deeside-based event included innovation, integration and a final day centered around two runs on a 5.5-mile stage at Oulton Park.
When route coordinator Andrew Kellitt started looking at options for this year, coronavirus was in its early stages, but people were still leading normal lives and lockdown had yet to settle upon us.
The loss of Llandudno and its town center service park was going to be keenly felt on the north Welsh coast this October, but some of that would have been offset by the use of a spectator stage through the streets of Conwy.
Conwy’s the town just next door to Llandudno and, perhaps, sits in its shadow in WRC terms. Or perhaps not. In 2011, after standing and watching the ceremonial start in Conwy, I wrote: “The crowning glory of this great route was the Conwy Castle opening ceremony on Thursday afternoon. Forget the glitz of Monaco or the buzz of Argentina, the quayside in Conwy was the control of the season. Standing ten-deep at the control, the fans were still five-deep on the road out of town.”
A spectator stage, with the noise bouncing and thumping off the Castle walls and headlights flashing across the harbor, would have made for an unforgettable start to Thursday October 29.
Friday was to have been anchored in north Wales, with three classic stages all integrated by the use of closed public roads. A 16-miler in Clocaenog would join the now familiar Penmachno north and south 10-miler and 12 miles of Brenig and Alwen. Back to Deeside for service, then the same again in the afternoon.
The difference, however, was the crews heading south to stay overnight somewhere in mid-Wales. It might have been Newtown, it might have been Aberystwyth. Either way, it would have avoided the usual 5:30pm departure from service bound for the mid-Wales day.
“The issue for the teams,” Rally GB clerk of the course Iain Campbell told DirtFish, “is that leaving service at 5:30pm means the teams are up at 4:15am and in soon after. The plan for the crews to stay in mid-Wales would have avoided that and given the teams a bit of a lie-in. The cars could have left parc ferme at eight and been into Myherin for just after 9am.”
Myherin was the 14-mile version, with the full-fat versions of Sweet Lamb Hafren (18.02 miles) and Dyfi (20.50 miles) on offer either side of the usual remote tire zone in Newtown.
Sunday would have featured the biggest change and the biggest buy-in from the WRC stakeholders, with a brace of runs on a 5.5-mile mixed surface stage at Oulton Park – the second of which would have been the powerstage.
Campbell explained the thinking: “There was still some work to do on the Oulton Park element. The teams were concerned about the powerstage and five points being on offer, but we would have made a challenging and interesting stage using link roads, the circuit and some gravel as well.
“As we can see with Ypres’ plans [to go to Spa-Francorchamps] right now, there is the potential for events to work with circuits and, of course, we would have been building on the really strong foundations we laid with Oulton last year.”
Certainly, nobody saw the Sunday coming and such a change wouldn’t have found favor with drivers who come to Rally GB for some of the finest forestry stages in the world. But, what’s important here is the forward-thinking shown by the GB organizers.
As you might have gathered, GB’s in a bit of a tight spot in WRC terms next season and the need to highlight what’s possible in terms of promotion is vital. The 2020 event would have acted as something of a shop window, demonstrating to interested parties what a partnership with Britain’s biggest motorsport event would have meant.
It was around then that the dressing in the window changed fairly significantly.
As COVID-19 locked us all down, the thinking behind this year’s route shifted from selling the event to another region post-Wales, turning instead to pandemic-aware planning.
“Things like the Clocaenog stage were affected,” said Campbell. “Obviously we’d been out of Clocaenog because of the wind farm work and the plan to go back there with two stages linked down a public road would have meant a fair few site visits and face-to-face meetings. With lockdown in place, that just wasn’t a responsible option.
“What we had to do was think about spectator management in a different way – offering plenty of Saturday stages with plenty of space for the fans. The route had a complete overhaul once coronavirus arrived, but I think we’d still found something really interesting.”
In detail, Rally GB’s final route for this year included shakedown in Clocaenog, a Friday morning 6:45am start out of Deeside with two loops of Myherin (19.33 miles) and Sweet Lamb Hafren (18.02 miles) split by a tire zone in Newtown and a return to evening service at 6:24pm.
Saturday’s longest day meant a 6:25am start and a return to mid-Wales, but this time for two loops of four stages in Aberhirnant (8.27 miles), Dyfnant (10.29 miles), Gartheiniog (6.99 miles) and Dyfi (13.62 miles). Again, there would be no return to main service at lunchtime, instead, the crews would change tires in Bala before more of the same in the afternoon ahead of arriving back in Deeside at 6:41pm.
Sunday’s route would have been the closest to last year’s itinerary, with Alwen (6.46 miles) and Brenig (3.99 miles) identical. Brenig would have concluded proceedings as the powerstage. The only difference to Sunday was the use of a 4.89-mile Clocaenog stage in place of the Great Orme. The cars left service at 6:20am and were scheduled to cross the ceremonial finish in Llandudno at 1:35pm. The route comprised 188 miles, just over four miles short of last year.
That was, of course, the three-day route. There was a version of the above which included shakedown on Friday morning and competition through the rest of that day, Saturday and Sunday.
It’s impossible to overstate the effort the likes of Kellitt, Campbell and, of course, the wider team has put into this year’s Rally GB. And all, ultimately, for nothing.
Once Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford announced hotels wouldn’t be opening in Wales any time soon and sporting events featured a long way down the list of priorities (that’s before he started on how miserable the autumn might be, once cooler, wetter more coronavirus-friendly conditions returned…), the die was cast.
A Welsh government-backed major sporting event utilizing thousands of hotels beds in the autumn became a pipe dream.