It is amazing how one’s fanaticism can change with age. I was an absolute rally fanatic for decades from the 1960’s, but interest in this branch of motorsport has tapered off over the past few years, particularly here in South Africa as the number of competitors shrunk and factory backing for rallying virtually disappeared.
However, I still had a box to tick on my bucket list and this was to spectate on a world championship rally. I was due to go to Finland for the 1000 Lakes Rally in 1998 on a Castrol/Toyota trip for customers and journalists but had to withdraw when it clashed with me taking a group of motoring journalists to Japan for the launch of a new generation Hilux.
I still hankered to watch a WRC event, especially with the new breed of super cars – albeit only a fairly small number – and arranged an overseas holiday to the United Kingdom to include Rally Wales, which this year also commemorated 75 years since the staging of the first RAC Rally in 1932. Rally Wales was the 12th round in this year’s WRC title chase of 14 events.
What a disappointment! Firstly, the weather did not play along, and secondly it turned out to be two days of frustration.
The ceremonial rally start was in Liverpool, but I waited until the Super Special at the Oulton Park race circuit (entrance tickets cost R540) before joining the fans. First disappointment was that the much-vaunted display of historic cars from previous RAC rallies were behind fences about five metres from the viewers. Admiring the cars from afar was interesting, but I would have preffered to have gotten up close so as I could read their history which was detailed on information sheets placed on some of the windscreens. The rally programme did not even give details of the cars on show.
Next disappointment was the “entertainment” for spectators arriving early – the gates opened at 15:00 and the Super Special started only at 19:00. The main offering was a series of cars – mainly Nissans – burning rubber in spinning events, which are pretty pointless in my view. My wife, Meg, and I rather got out of the annoying drizzle and rubber smoke by going for a couple of drinks and a plate of chips in the track restaurant!
One bright spot was the opportunity to chat to Jimmy McRae, the well-known British rally driver I had brought to South Africa on several occasions to drive in major local rallies. He was in good form and due to accompany British cycling star Sir Chris Hoy as he drove an ex-Colin McRae Subaru Impreza as the opening car through the Super Special before contesting the two-day national rally for historic cars in a Porsche 911.
Standing in the cold at Oulton Park, with the occasional drizzle, watching cars going through the watersplash in the night was also pretty boring, except that retiring former world champion Petter Solberg stunned the “establishment” by setting a faster time than all but two of the pukka WRC cars in a two-wheel drive Volkswagen R5, with the more powerful cars spinning their wheels and sliding wildly on the wet surface.
Then it was back to our hotel in Chester by back roads, courtesy of Google Maps.
The next day proved even more frustrating. I had booked day tickets (R630 each) for the Friday special stages in North Wales, believing we could watch two of the day’s 10 stages – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – and planned accordingly.
The programme showed the locations of the various “car parks” which I understood would be organised like those at Oulton Park the previous day. What a rude awakening we had when we followed the road to the so-called “car park” only to be told by spectators that there is no such thing, only parking alongside the muddy gravel roads leading to the stages.
Worse was to come when we were informed that there was no way we could turn our car around where we had stopped. There was only one thing to do: reverse down the narrow, slippery track, lined on one side by badly parked cars and on the other by a ditch that varied in depth. This was a real ordeal as top-of-mind was not damaging the rented Nissan Qashqai!
Eventually, after a couple of kilometres reversing, we found a place to turn. What a relief, but we were now too late to watch the front runners on the stage.
The decision was taken to drive to the afternoon stage, which was a time-consuming affair, with traffic jams and narrow roads. Then it was a case of safety first by parking facing down the hill and then a l-o-n-g walk up the muddy hill to the recommended viewing site. After wading through running water and mud we got to the site, with limited viewing areas and lots of people.
Eventually, after five organisers’ vehicles had passed us, we got our first glimpse of a WRC car in full flight as it flashed past the trees and turned into the hairpin at the gravel pit where we were sitting.
Then further disappointment: the spluttering exhaust note of the turbocharged engines as they turned and accelerated. Oh, how I longed for the scream of a normally aspirated engine “on the cam” and breathing through a pair of Weber twin choke carburettors as it raced through the forests in South Africa so many years ago!
Then came our final disappointment as a medical Land Rover came through the stage to see if Jari-Matti Latvala and co-driver Mikka Anttila required assistance after a spectacular crash into the trees soon after passing our viewing site. At that stage we had only seen about seven cars through the stage, watching each one for about 10 seconds, and it was all over. We decided not to wait to see if the stage would be reopened and set off on the long walk downhill to our car as it was already 16:30.
We certainly weren’t the only ones that were disappointed. Everywhere one looked there were people who were cold, wet, and muddy, dressed in anoraks (usually black, grey, or navy blue) wandering around almost aimlessly. Few walked with purpose, but I suppose they were enjoying themselves in some way or another!
Now, if I was offered the opportunity to attend another WRC event it will be a “Thanks, but no thanks!”
That was the end of the only disappointing part of our wonderful three-week sojourn in the UK, which included visiting the Bicester Scramble (a restoration centre of excellence), the Newark Air Museum and the Motorcycle Mechanics’ Classic Motorcycle Show in Stafford.
By Roger Houghton