So it's out with the seventies and with it went the most important team in British rallying.
Airikkala may have won the championship in a Chevette, but Ford had taken the manufacturers title. what's more Fords had provided the mount for every previous British rally champion since Will Sparrow won it in a Mini Cooper in 1970.
However the end of the decade also marked the end of the Mk II Escort and so Boreham had to go off and develop something else to rally. what that something else turned out to be is another story, but in the meantime their drivers had to find somewhere else to go.
Russell Brookes and Henri Toivonen went to Talbot, Roger Clark went to drive a TR7 V8 where he was joined by Talbot's development driver Tony Pond.
|Copywrite Leslie Ashe|
Absent from the scene unfortunately was reigning champion Airikkala, who was off to tackle the European Championship for Vauxhall, although the money ran out pretty quickly and he never really had a look in. This promoted Jimmy McRae to Vauxhall numero uno. The other change at Vauxhall was that the Chevette HS became the HSR, growing wings and getting back some of the tweaks that Bill Blydenstein had wanted on the HS but that Vauxhall had forgotten to homologate.
A new team joining the top table was Opel, with their Ascona 400. A big car with squared off arches it resembled the Fiat 131 Abarth, which had never gone well in Britain, so people had their doubts.
Also moving up were Toyota, who had re-homologated the Celica back into Group 4 and given one to Austrailian Alan Carter.
But if Toyota were moving forward, Saab appeared to be going backwards. In 1979 the 99 Turbo had been a rally winner and championship contender. In 1980 though they struggled to finish a rally.
This then was the grid. Seven teams chasing the trophy, a record entry of top level teams. The manufacturers had also won their battle with the organisers and the series was down to a more reasonable five events; three on blind gravel, one on blind tarmac and one on pace noted tarmac.
The series started in Newcastle with the Mintex. Swedish Rally winner and World Championship leader Ander Kullang put the Ascona into the lead on the first stage, but on the second the crank let go on his newly built engine.
The first day was mainly a run around the Otterburn ranges and the surprise leader on these tarmac stages was Willie Rutherford. The stages had been used for a National rally a few days before hand and this clearly benefited the private Escort driver.
Once the rally reached the real forests though it was clear who was boss. In stage after stage it was Mikkola from Vatanen, and the blue Escort eventually came home the winner by over a minute. Neither Talbot finished and McRae came third.
Mikkola though was committed to driving a Mercedes in the Safari so didn't join the rest of the field for the start of the Circuit of Ireland in Belfast. Billy Coleman took an early lead in an Eaton Yale Escort with McRae and Vatanen close behind. McRae was literally flying. Into the lead and then over a hedge and into a field.
The Scot was incredibly lucky. The car was virtually undamaged and because most of the leading crews cleaned the stage he only lost one minute. By the second day's halt he was 32 seconds behind Vatanen, who was leading as Coleman's engine had gone bang.
The last night and day of the morning was probably some of the fastest rallying Ireland had ever seen. Both men drove their hearts out, with the Finn holding a slender lead. At one point McRae closed to within 10 seconds, only for Vatanen to pull 7 seconds back on the next stage.
Then, two stages from the end, Vatanen lost control of his Escort at 100mph and rolled. Like McRae, he was lucky, but he lost a minute and damaged the suspension. he threw in the towel and allowed McRae to take his first Open victory.
Battle resumed on the next round with an uncharacteristically dry and dusty Welsh. Mikkola was back, but they'd fitted a racing engine to his car and Hannu found that only by "revving it to bloody hell" could he make the thing go. Vatanen, who'd just become a dad, took an early lead but Mikkola soon overhauled him. They were both leaving McRae in their dust, and the Scot's car eventually refused to start after a service and the championship leader was out.
Eating Mikkola's dust that he was, Vatanen was not giving up. The two were swapping fastest times, but the Rothman's car was slowly gaining on the Eaton Yale one. Just before half way he was back in front. Mikkola chased hard, but picked up a puncture on Epynt.
Then, four stages from the end, Vatanen hit trouble. A timing belt slipped, a valve dropped and an idler pulley jammed. No spares were carried so this looked fatal. Fortunately the mechanics kept their heads. The engine was allowed to cool which freed up the pulley. Vatanen limped through two stages whilst his mechanics found a retired Escort on a trailer and nicked its idler pulley. A relieved Vatanen then returned to Cardiff to claim his win.
There was more dust on the Scottish, and once again it was the Mikkola and Vatanen show.
This time, with a more manageable engine, Mikkola had the edge and led from stage one. Behind the two David Sutton cars Anders Kullang was holding off variety of challengers. Malcolm Wilson looked set to take the last podium place off him, but went off and hit a bridge. It was a bad accident and he broke both ankles, but for a while it was feared his injuries were much worse.
Pond then had a crack with the big TR7, getting the beast up to 135mph at times. However throttle cable problems kept turning his V8 into a straight four and he had to settle for fourth, three places ahead of McRae who'd had a terrible rally.
And so it all came down to the Manx - or rather it didn't. Mikkola was in New Zealand trying to tackle a blind gravel rally in a big Mercedes, and once he failed to show Vatanen was gifted the championship.
The rally though was great.
Blisteringly fast, with cars 'cleaning' some sections and flat out in fifth for some sections - that's 140mph for a TR7 - it turned into a three way duel between Pond, Vatanen and McRae. Vatanen initially had an off song engine and Pond went into a comfortable lead. A puncture then put McRae ahead, but a broken rotor arm then dropped the Scot to third and gave victory to the red Triumph and its Manx based driver. Andy Dawson drove the Chequered Flag Stratos to fifth - a magnificent car but now apparently from a different era.
Vatanen was a popular champion. Four second places and a win was a fine record and British fans once again had a hero who drank nothing stronger than milk and usually wore sleeveless pullovers.
With a victory on the Acropolis as well it had been a triumphant year for David Sutton, but shortly after Vatanen raised the trophy his world fell apart. He turned out to have lost £100,000 during the year, his two main sponsors pulled out and his leading driver left to move to Audi.
With Roger Clark bowing out after a disappointing season, Triumph going too and Sedan handing over the championship sponsorship it was the passing of an era.
Next year it would be the Rothmans British Open, a slicker operation all together. But what would that mean on the stages?