Friday, 23 March 2012

The History of the British Open Rally Championship: 1980

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
Meanwhile Hannu Mikkola and Ari Vatanen stayed in Escorts but moved to David Sutton's private team, where the former kept him Eaton Yale colours but the latter adopted the swanky new Rothmans look.

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?

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The History of the British Open Rally Championship: 1979

Battle commenced on the 1979 British Open Rally Championship before the first car had even rolled off the chilly starting ramp in Yorkshire.

The 1978 season had been a success, and as a result every event larger than a single venue wanted to be part of the action. The manufacturers on the other, who had other series to contend with as well, wanted just a handful of quality events. The compromise ended up as a seven event series, with the Ulster rally in and the Burmah out.

With hindsight it's perhaps hard to see what all the fuss was about - a handful of rallies, mostly in the cold and wet, with small entries and barely a car that could top 300bhp.

But for those of us who remember those days this was the real thing. Rallies that began in the early hours and continued into the night, the crews servicing in lay-bys, farmers fields or anywhere they could find. In Ulster they somehow crammed 250 stage miles into 24 hours.

Then there were the cars. Hairy chested Escorts and Chevettes, burbling TR7 V8s, the odd exotic Porsche or Saab. Tail out, even on tarmac, and most smelling vaguely of Castrol GTX.

Then there were the drivers. The year would see three future World Champions battling it out on our stages and whilst the home grown talent may not be as famous, they were more than able to hold their own.

The action started with the De Lacy Motor Club's bash around the Yorkshire forests, then going under the name of the Mintex International. What had changed though was the weather.

Snow was the order of the day and the De Lacy's had their work cut out to keep the show on the road. Stig Blomqvist had arrived in the whispering Saab 99 Turbo, fresh from giving the car a maiden victory in the Swedish Rally, although he was forced to leave his studs behind.

The front wheel drive probably helped but the turbo though probably didn't. Ultimately it was Swedish snow experience that gave him victory. How else could you explain a TR7 V8 coming second, other than that it was driven by Blomqvist's former Saab teammate Per Eklund?

The series then crossed what James Joyce used to call "the snot green" sea for the Circuit of Ireland. This time it wasn't an excess of snow that the competitors had to cope with, but a lack of petrol.

The Middle East was in turmoil thanks to Iranian Revolution, and the jungle juice was getting hard to find on the Emerald Isle. With a top flight TR7 doing about 4 mpg at full throttle this was a serious problem. The competitors were often diverted to remote spots in the middle of the night in the hope of finding supplies, and many crews dropped out when they didn't materialise.

One team that didn't have a problem though was Vauxhall. Dealer Team Vauxhall appeared to have finally got the Chevette HS to really fly, at least on tarmac, and Airikkala raced to an easy win, ably supported by McRae until mechanical failure put him out.

Russell Brookes entered one the tarmac special Escorts developed to win the Monte Carlo but crashed it. Eklunds Triumph also expired and so the runner up was Irishman Billy Coleman, who for once was in a conventional car, an Escort.

So far though the reigning champion had not made an appearance. For the Welsh though, Mikkola was back, and in the blue Eaton Yale Escort he swept through the rain to a clear victory.

Three rallies, three different winners, and despite only managing eighth in Wales, Blomqvist led the series.

For the Scottish there were two Eaton Yale Escorts, with Bjorn Waldegarde joining Mikkola. The two were taking a break from their battle to be the first every World Rally Champion, and they soon set the pace, with the Finn heading the Swede.

Both were to leave the road though, which gave the lead to a young Finn called Henri Toivonen in an Escort. Electric problems eventually slowed him down, but we'd be seeing a lot more of him in years to come.

This gave the lead to an Englishman; Tony Pond in the new Talbot Sunbeam Lotus. Essentially an old Chrysler Avenger with a hatchback, the addition of a Lotus engineered 2.4 litre four pot turned it into a hot hatch. It was not a happy team, and the Sunbeam expired before the end, but clearly the car had potential.

The beneficiary of all this carnage was Airikkala who took the win and the series lead.

Pond managed to lead again on the Manx, only for the gremlins to again get the car. Mikkola also expired - on the very first stage, and Airikkala was out too.

This left the event as a duel between Russell Brookes and Jimmy McRae, the first of many to come over the next decade. This time though the Englishman's Escort proved to have the legs on the Scot's Chevette.

The Ulster Rally was a high speed blast around the top of Ireland. Mikkola was unable to make it to the event and the result was a Vauxhall one-two. Brookes was again in a shorter, wider tarmac Escort and again found that, whilst it was untouchable on the smooth, flowing tarmac of France, on narrow and bumpy Irish roads it kept trying to tip him into a hedge and eventually succeeded.

Blomqvist peddled the heavy Saab really hard to make third, but only an extremely unlikely Saab win on the RAC could now prevent Airikkala lifting the trophy.

Mikkola once again showed he was the master of British gravel, with Brookes coming a creditable second. Blomqvist staggered round the stages until he eventually hit one tree too many whilst Airikkala nursed a car that looked on the verge of retirement from stage one through to seventh.

The Swede's exit gave him the championship and with three wins to his name he deserved it. So once again the Brits had been beaten by a Finn had won again, but this time one who lived in Berkshire and to be honest, the fans didn't mind at all.

Could the home team do any better next year?

Saturday, 17 March 2012

The History of the British Open Rally Championship: 1978

Russell Brookes started 1978 Mintex International Rally, the opening round of the inaugural Sedan Products Open Championship, as reigning British Champion. Then a young hotshot with a tendency to stuff his car into the scenery, he was the first driver in a generation to be able to match the pace of Roger Clark.

That he was immediately dicing for the lead with Finnish gravel experts Hannu Mikkola and Penti Airikkala shows how fast he really was, but his subsequent career shows the ghetto that British rallying was to get inself stuck in. In Brookes's first full season he had been dicing with Roger Clark, and in his last he was head-to-head with Colin McRae. But whilst Roger and Colin were to claim World Rally victories, Brookes rarely got a drive outside of the UK.

But back to 1978.

As well as Brookes, Clark, Mikkola and Airikkala there was the winner of the previous year's 1000 Lakes, Kyosti Hamalainen in an Escort, Jimmy McRae no longer in a Group 1 Magnum but a Group 4 Chevette, Tony Pond in a TR7 and Markku Alen in a Fiat 131 Abarth. Vauxhall had just had their Lotus designed cylinder head banned, so were down on power this year, whilst Leyland were in the process of shoe-horning a V8 into the TR7, meaning much more power.

Fiats were an unusual sight on British rallies. The previous year the Fiat-Ford battle for the WRC had gone to the wire and Fiat came within an ace of having to take on the Boreham team in their back yard to win. Knowing that the Escort beat the 131s hands down on blind forest stages they sent a car to the Open to get some much needed experience of British forests.

In the end Mikkola expired in the Yorkshire forests and Airikkala overcame the lack of grunt to beat Brookes into second, whilst old Roger Albert managed forth, just behind John Taylor's Haynes of Maidstone sponsored Escort.

The series next moved across the Irish sea for a blast from end-to-end of the Emerald Isle. The Circuit of Ireland was a unique challenge, a long, fast, bumpy and blind tarmac rally. Here the usual Escorts were joined by the Porsche Carreras that Irish privateers knocked together in their sheds whilst local hero Billy Coleman was in the exotic Chequered Flag Stratos.

Once Brookes had got himself sorted out he blew the opposition away, whilst second was Jimmy McRae, who had led for two days. This was not to be the last time these two disputed the top placing. Mikkola disappeared into a field whilst Alen took a podium on a surface the 131 liked, despite at one point getting stuck behind an Irish farmer using a supposedly closed road at night with no lights. Only in Ireland!

The series stayed on tarmac for the opening day of the Welsh, before leaving the Epynt ranges and returning to the forests.

Mikkola dominated whilst Alen looked set to go one better than in Ireland. But our man Clark, fortified no doubt by a few pre-rally pints, showed that he's a fast on day four as day one and overhauled the Finn.

The series stayed on the Celtic fringe for hot and dusty Scottish Rally. It was once again Mikkola in front, but this time it was a young Malcolm Wilson second for most of the event. Unfortunately the now Ford rally boss was a less laid back character then than he is now and he stuffed his Escort into the scenery. Second eventually went to Airikkala's Chevette ahead of Clark's Escort, who'd been off the road and who had fought his way back from sixth. Brookes had got himself stuck in a ditch and only finsihed because Andy Dawson stopped to tow him out.

1978 saw the first and last entry into the series for the other Scottish rally, the Argyll based Burmah International - which was anything but dry and dusty. The likable German Walter Rohrl was driving the Fiat this time, whilst Mikkola debutted the famous Eaton Yale sponsored Escort.

But before the event disappeared into oblivion it earned itself immortality as the only international rally to end in tie. Mikkola appeared to have given best to Brookes and started the last stage thirteen seconds behind the Englishman. But then the Andrews Heat For Hire car hit problems too and the event ended up being halved. Tie breaker rules gave the event to Mikkola for having been faster on the first stage. As modern rallies are timed to a hundredth of a second this record should stand forever.

Next it was back into a boat for the Manx International. Closed public roads and pace notes made this the fastest rally of the year, despite the rain, and with the archetypal seventies moustached man Tony Pond at the wheel, Leyland were finally able to unleash the full power of their V8 TR7. Mikkola managed to keep in front of the red beast until he punctured and crashed, but Pond eventually won by a country mile with part time rallycross man John Taylor second, an Irish Porsche third and Roger Albert Clark fourth. Brookes was excluded for illegal servicing.

All of which meant that Clark entered the last round ahead on points despite not having won a single round.

This was to be a perennial problem for the Open. With no 'best of' rule until 1983, consistency often beat pace.

The last round was our own World Rally, the RAC. With Ford officially on strike both Mikkola and Clark would be in private Escorts. This was enough though and Escorts swept the board, despite a valiant fight by Alen in a black and red Stratos.

Mikkola's Eaton Yale Escort comfortably beat Bjorn Waldegard's similar car. Clark's bid for title ended when he approached a gate with a box full of neutrals and flipped his Escort onto its roof.

It was sad to see the old master exit in such an undignified manner, but few could argue that Mikkola, with four wins to his name, was not the worthy winner of the first British Open.

So it was first blood to the Finns. Could the Brits raise their game and get the title back?

(TV coverage was one of the great things about the British open, with little boys like me eagerly watching the action on Grandstand. thanks to Duke you too can watch the all action from 1978.)

The History of the British Open Rally Championship: Introduction

For twelve years our principle domestic rally championship was a series known as the British Open. At its height it was the second most important rally series in the world.

These twelve years, from 1978 to 1989 are fondly remembered by British fans. These were years in which British drivers rarely entered, and never won, World Rallies and in which two things could be guaranteed our own round, the RAC; that the weather would be awful and that no British driver would even get a sniff at the lead.

However on our home turf the situation was reversed. The world and his wife came to rally on these isles, and more often than not our boys beat them. In fact of the four men to beat the Brits; Hannu Mikkola, Pentti Airikkala, Ari Vatanen and Stig Blomqvist, three would go on to become World Champion and the fourth, Pentti, actually lived here anyway.

The reason for the home advantage was straightforward; our rallies were completely different to anyone else's. Pace notes were largely banned and instead drivers competed on closed tarmac roads or forest tracks blind. Ultimately this trapped British drivers in a ghetto from which they couldn't escape, so it was a rather mixed blessing, and it wasn't until changes were made in the 1990s that talent started to emerge from these islands to take on the world.

The idea of the Open came about because of the foreign invasion of our domestic RAC British Rally Championship. This had been won by Billy Coleman, an Irishman, in 1974, but the real invasion started in 1976. Ford had unveiled the escort RS1800 the previous year and in the hands of Roger Clark, and using a new innovation of slick tires on tarmac rallies, they had blown the amateur rallyists out of the water and raised the bar significantly.

The next year the first round of the series was won by the very British Andy Dawson in the very un-British Lancia Stratos, whilst the series itself went to the very Finnish Ari Vatanen in a very British Escort. Next year it was Russell Brookes wheel to wheel with Penti Airikkala in the new Chevette RS2300 runner up.

The Open was therefore created to both encourage the foreigners to come over, but also to leave a domestic series which could be used to grow future talent.

Home grown talent that had already emerged included, as well as Clark, Dawson and Brookes, Jimmy McRae, Tony Pond and Malcolm Wilson, and over the next dozen years they would give the visitors a tough time.

Technically these were interesting years too. In 1978 a four wheel drive rally car was starting to be developed by Audi and in 1989 a two wheel drive car won its last World event. However as the series was always pretty much half tarmac, four wheel drive didn't have the advantage in Britain it had on the mainly loose surface WRC.

In terms of the rules we went from group 4 to Group B and then to Group A; from highly modified production cars, to rallying specials and back to modified road cars. the supercars certainly came to Britain, but, possibly because we never saw a full blown works 205T16 or S4 Delta, they never quite managed to dominate.

It helped too that we actually had a British cars industry then. As well as Ford, who whilst technically American had their rally HQ at Boreham, Vauxhall and British Leyland produced top flight rally cars.

So these are the British Open years then, when Britain took on the world and often won, when British cars could beat anything on four wheels and when a top level rally car was within the budget of the dedicated amateur.

We will not see those days again.

Year by year: 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989

Obituary: Anders Kullang

It was with great sadness that the world of rallying learnt of the death of the Swedish rally star Anders Kullang, ironically on the eve of this years running of the event he won 32 years ago.

For British rally fans, Kullang is mainly remembered for one car, the Opel Ascona 400, and the one season he used it to compete in our own Open Rally Championship.

The Ascona 400 was an unsophisticated and utilitarian vehicle even in 1980, but Kullang drove it to victory in its second ever world event.

He then brought it here for the Mintex rally, the opening event on the Open, whilst the leader in the World Rally Championship. Yes, those were the days the British series really mattered.

It was a year dominated by two Escort driver; Mikkola and Vatanen, with Jimmy McRae, Russell Brookes, Henry Toivonen Stig Blomqvist and Roger Clark providing a stellar supporting cast.

Kulland, who had previously campaigned the heavy old Ascona and uncompetitive Group 4 Kadett here to little avail, had a respectable but unspectacular series, which made what happened on the RAC all the more surprising.

One of the Escort stars was expected to give the car its ninth straight win, especially as Fiat/Lancia were sitting the event out, having blown their budget getting the aged 131 to win them a brace of World Championships.

Instead it was Kullang who put the Ascona into the lead, with fellow Swede Bjorn Waldegarde snapping at his heals in a Toyota Celica.

The duos Michelin tires seemed to have the edge on Ford's Dunlops and Kullang led through Kielder and Scotland and into Cumbria, where he received an award from the Major of Carlisle during Windermere service halt.

Then those Michelin's let him down and he punctured three times in Grizedale, handing the lead to his fellow Swede who passed it to Henri Toivonen when his Toyota's engine expired. He lost seventeen minutes in Cumbria, and finished sixteen and a half minutes behind the Finn.

Kullang eventually fought his way back to fifth. The next year he had a respectable finish on the Monte and led for a while on the Safari, but Opel's sponsors ran out of cash and he had to leave the team. The dawn of the Group B era saw him piloting an off-the-pace two wheel drive Mitsubishi Lancer.

And that's the way rallying often goes and Kullang remained one of World Rallying's one hit wonders. If it hadn't been for those punctures, or if Publimmo had had a bit more money, he could have added to this tally.

In later life he ran a rally school and Colin McRae and Sebatian Loeb both came to learn about Swedish rallying - although if subsequent performances are anything to go by McRae would appear to be the only one who actually learnt anything.

It almost goes without saying that nobody appears to have had a bad word to say about Kullang. That's usually the case with rally men, but it's worth repeating.

So those are my happy memories of Kullang. Thanks a lot Anders, you'll be missed.