Now in its tenth year, the R.A.C. Rally – or Roger Albert Clark – is Britain’s most demanding rally for classic rally cars, with a string of timed special stages through the forests of Northern England. This year the event is based in Sunderland where the rally returns each night, the course loops into famous forests that were the hunting grounds of rally drivers in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Hamsterley and Kielder – the largest man-man forest in Europe.
In the 1970s, over three million spectators watched the RAC Rally – this weekend, thousands will be out watching the revival.
Ford Escorts galore, Saabs from two-strokes to V4s, a lone Lancia Stratos supercar with its 32-valve Ferrari engine, Datsun 240Zs, Lotus Cortinas, a throaty Ford Falcon V8 and other great rallycars will be reliving RAC Rally glory as they tackle forests and tarmac stages against the clock – with the weather playing its part to influence the outcome. Flying a patriotic flag will be a lone red white and blue Triumph TR7V8, with Philip Young back behind the wheel, having not driven a British forest for “umpteen years”, accompanied by former works co-driver from Sweden, Hans Sylvan, who last rallied in a British forest 32 years ago.
Philip drove a works-built Triumph TR7V8 for Leyland parts company Unipart in 1983 accompanied by Hywel Thomas – the ex-Tony Pond/Fred Gallagher car (HRW 250V) was lifted up to third place on the Himalayan Rally that year by Philip and Hywel when disaster struck. Storming the roof of the world, the axle broke just hours before the finish. Philip went to see his old car, still parked where he left it in the hanger next door to the once-famous Competitions Department in Cowley, and opened talks with Unipart’s chairman John Neill, with a view to acquiring the car to restore. One thing led to another – including the light-bulb moment that suggested “why not put a TR7 through its paces once more?”
Three months later a red white and blue, 320 bhp, TR7V8 is on its way to the start line with over 60 other cars for the Roger Albert Clark Rally.
The hairy-Triumph was a last throw for the British sportscar in international rallying – following on from the Big Healeys, and Sunbeam Tigers of the 1960s, a determined effort to get a lusty-engined rear wheel drive sportscar to the head of international rallying saw a determined effort by the tiny factory team.
Only three British drivers could find what it takes to tame the car – Graham Elsmore, Brian Culcheth and Tony Pond, with Pond and Gallagher winning the 24 hours of Ypres, the car showed great promise on tarmac, where it had to beat Porsche 911s, a Stratos and a shoal of Escorts to win outright. Two great wins on the Manx followed on but in the forests, the TR7 revealed a Jekyl and Hyde personality, and was always a struggle to tame – although the sight and sound of a powerful V8 engined TR7 was always a great joy for spectators to witness.
HRW 250V finished fourth overall in Pond and Gallagher’s hands on the Scottish Rally in 1980, Hans Sylvan alongside Per Eklund finished third on Finland’s Thousand Lakes, and led the RAC Rally of 1980 outright until sidelined with mechanical maladies, but the best RAC Rally result in the record books was the year Pond smashed through a fence and collided with a stout wooden table in the lion’s enclosure of Longleat, wrecking the windscreen and roof on the first stage of the week-long RAC Rally. Pond then set about a determined under-dog fightback, finishing 8th overall. It was to go down as the best result in the woods for the British sportscar.
With massive power going into a chassis that has a wheel-base as short as a Morris Minor with a heavy Jaguar axle grafted in, the works Triumph TR7 was the last roar of the rallying dinosaurs,. They were in a tradition that harked back to the days of the Big Healeys winning the Liege Sofia Liege and Alpine Rallies, when the Flying Finns such as Timo Makinen and Rauno Aaltonen came on the scene demonstrating long lurid slides into forest corners displaying techniques that changed the whole style of rallying.
This weekend will be as severe a test of man and machine as the Organising team under Colin Heppanstall can make it.
On Friday the cars set out from Sunderland in darkness. The 6.0pm start sees crews on their mettle and not stopping till midnight. First up, a tricky romp around the Herrington Country Park spectator stage. Who will fail to escape a slide onto wet grass or even into the duck pond? It will be as challenging and as much slippery fun as the Longleats of old, and then it’s on to the serious stuff for two six mile stages in Hamsterley Forest. Saturday sees an early morning blast around the Croft race circuit before heading to the Kielder forest. Night follows day follows night follows day… getting to the finish on Sunday afternoon will be a gruelling and demanding challenge.
The ERA facebook site will be following the action..