Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Blethers - Rallying losing out?


Those were the days - Mikkola in a Quattro!

There was a time not so long ago when the Lombard RAC Rally was the biggest sporting event in the UK, and now it doesn’t even merit a mention on the main BBC news bulletins. In fact on Sunday night the 10 o’clock News told us a Korean woman had won a golf tournament, but didn’t tell us who won Rally Wales GB.

Thirty years ago, 150 crews set off from York on a four day event which had 68 Special Stages totalling some 436 miles of tests – and millions flocked into the forests to watch. They were attracted by the likes of Mikkola and Mouton in the revolutionary four wheel drive Quattros, Toivonen, Vatanen and McRae in Asconas, Pond and Brookes in Chevettes, Blomqvist in a Lotus Sunbeam and Alen in the Lancia Rally plus many more world stars.

They were joined by a horde of British and foreign privateers able, and welcome, to compete on this World Championship counter. I say ‘compete’ but even then the gap between works teams and private teams was apparent, but that didn’t stop the ambitious and the hopeful from driving those very same tests over which heroes had sped just minutes before, and seeing how close (or how far!) they were from their times.

This was an adventure on a grand scale. The route totalled 1800 miles visiting the English Midlands on the first day then into Wales – and they even rallied in the dark! On the second day they visited North Yorkshire, Eskdalemuir in the Scottish borders and then Cumbria, before rounding off the third day of action in north east Yorkshire.

Roads were busy, forests thronged and atmosphere electric. Daily newspapers sent reporters and photographers, while local TV and radio stations turned out their own staff to follow the rally as it passed through their areas. And yes, there was some mainstream TV coverage. Certainly more than there is now.

Fast forward 30 years and what did we get? A two day event stretched to four which charged spectators a lot more for much, much less.

Rally stars? Sebastien Loeb is a lovely bloke but he’s about as colourful and provocative as French cheese while Jari-Matti Latvala is like the school swot, inoffensive and polite. At least Petter looks excited at the prospects of driving a rally car and sounds excited at the end of a stage.

For sure, their talent is spellbinding and their speed through the forests breathtaking, but two and three half works teams? This year 31 teams contested 19 stages on the International event over 3 days, while the 48 Nationals were restricted to an even  shorter event with just 9 stages in the same 3 days.

So where was the press exposure this year? Flick through any newspaper pages or watch any mainstream TV channel and there was virtually nothing. It was all pay-for-TV and social media, not to mention the 130 quid Gold Passes for spectators and even dearer hospitality packages.

And here’s the thing, what’s the betting Scotland ends up with a National tennis Academy? Andy Murray voiced the need at the weekend and no doubt Wee Eck and his cronies will jump on the bandwagon. They’ve already built a Velodrome in Glasgow.

Good on them for getting that, but what has British and Scottish rallying achieved for itself over the past 30 years?  As other sports have improved their profile and following, rallying has failed to capitalise on its past success. The McRae and Burns years have been squandered with nothing to show for it.

And yet this sport still has a lot to offer. At an amateur level the forthcoming McRae and Mull rallies provide the ideal excuse to get out of the armchair and walk into a Perthshire forest or over a Mull moor to stand there and revel in the exciting, sporting endeavours of enthusiastic amateurs having a good time in cars.

You can’t really appreciate the sheer diversity and unpredictability of the Scottish weather till you’ve experienced it. By the same token, you can’t fully appreciate an open fire in a pub, till you’ve experienced the Scottish weather!

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