Monday 7 November 2022

Rally - Looking back

How did rallying get where it is today? ... The suggestions (not proposals!) expressed in the two previous Posts regarding the future of the current British Rally Championship format appears to have generated interest. They have also sparked distant memories of the old Sedan Products British Open Championship and Castrol Autosport National series and their ilk. Admittedly, these proposals are indeed similar - but also different!

It could be argued that stage rallying reached its peak in the 1970s with a mixture of one and two day events interspersed with rather longer 'internationals'. The decline started in the 1980s, first with road rallying being severely curtailed and selective rallying banned and then with ever more restrictions being placed on stage rallying.

Another change was in the amount of time amateur competitors were prepared to spend rallying. Week-long internationals became much shorter as more amateur competitors were reluctant to spend more than a weekend away from work on their 'hobby'.

And as costs rose so one-day rallies became shorter. The long days of 18 stages and 90 miles of tests fast disappeared before the sport's governing body stepped in to limit 'club' events to 45 stage miles and charged more for Permits to run longer 'national' rallies.  

Then the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile) clattered in with their hob nailed clogs. Group 4 was replaced with Group B as a means of controlling costs and power! That went well, eh?

Furthermore, International rallies were restricted to homologated vehicles only, but the rising cost of homologation meant that manufacturers started to lose interest in the sport at a regional and national level.

Although rallying was still popular and well supported in the 1980s, the decline was already underway. Audi unwittingly played a part in this. The arrival of four wheel drive in Group B shocked the status quo. At first folk tried to laugh it off as an expensive engineering dead-end. All too soon others were scrambling to board the grip and grunt brigade. If the cost of a Group 4 Ford Escort Mk2 was once thought exorbitant, the arrival of 4WD added a few additional noughts to the sums.

Automotive engineering and technical progress was being made at an alarming rate as 600+ bhp (and more!) all wheel drive monsters started appearing on the international scene and factions within the sport started to express concern.

The FIA (Folly In Action) banned all non-homologated cars from contesting 'international' rallies and replaced Group B with Group S. That was why events like the RSAC Scottish Rally had to introduce two separate formats within their events for FIA permitted and non permitted cars.

However, Group S was shortlived as a spate of fatal accidents to both spectators and rally crews in 1986 led to a more draconian response.

By this time, four wheel drive machinery was starting to appear in the hands of privateers which horrified rally organisers right across the country. Some clubs wanted an outright ban but most settled on introducing a Handicap system. Trouble was, championships had different ideas on how handicaps were to be applied. Suggestions ranged from one second per mile to five, but most settled on two or two and a half seconds. As 4WD became the norm so the handicap system was scrapped before the '80s were out, but rallying would never be the same again.

If rallying is to regain wider sporting appeal then perhaps we need to take a step back before trying to take another step forward. The days of tens of thousands of spectators flocking into Wales, or Kielder, or Galloway or the Trossachs are long gone. As forest choice is restricted and available roads reduced, the arrival of 'closed roads' offers hope but with that comes new challenges.

Costs continue to rise, rules continue to multiply, and more man/womanpower is needed to officiate. Not only that, environmental concerns and increasing Health & Safety implementations are dictating how events can and should be run.

The sport needs help and guidance and whilst that should come from the top it appears to have been left in the hands of a bunch of volunteers right across the country - but here again that willing over-burdened band is getting smaller in number year on year.

We need a simplified structure, fewer complex rules and reduced costs both for organisers as well as competitors. Can't be difficult - can it? 

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