Sunday 22ndApril 2018 marked a milestone in British rallying with the first ever closed road stage event taking place in England.
Closed roads tarmac rallying is common across Europe, Ireland, the Isle of Man and to lesser degree in Scotland, but it has only recently been permitted in England due to a change in parliamentary legislation. It has always been possible for bodies to apply to close a road and cycle racing is the obvious example of this, but the new legislation tackles the problem of suspending the road traffic act which includes the all-important speed limits. Some competition such as regularity rallying has always been permitted on the public highway, but flat out stage antics have been confined to private land. With the change in legislation, crews are no longer limited to scarce forestry, decommissioned airfields and racing circuits, and with the ever-reducing availability of such venues, closed roads offer a new outlet for high speed stage rallying.
The Corbeau Seats Rally of Tendring & Clacton was the first event to run under the new legislation, and was organised by a very experienced and capable team at Chelmsford Motor Club. Getting to this point took a monumental amount of work, particularly engaging with local authorities and residents. It’s fair to say that Chelmsford came up against some early vocal opposition from a handful of locals, but following extensive PR work and engagement with communities the overwhelming majority of residents and local businesses came fully on board. After all, having 109 crews and support teams flooding the area spending money on accommodation, fuel and food must have been a welcome springtime shot in the arm to the local economy, not to mention the 1,000 volunteer marshals and multiple thousands of spectators. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Essex Air Ambulance and Riding for Disabled Association also benefitted as nominated charities.
I wasn’t in a position to compete myself but did act as additional service crew for car 65, the Rix Engineering historic specification Mk1 Ford Escort crewed by Ian Rix and Cath Woodman and powered by a 2-Litre BDA. A second team car was present in the form of Aaron Rix and Rob Cook’s hard driven 1400cc Ford Ka. The rally comprised of 15 stages totalling 45 miles with central servicing on Clacton seafront being visited twice during the day. Clacton also served as the start and finish with Rally HQ based at the bowls club, an excellent source of cakes and beer, the latter reserved for those who weren’t competing of course. The route layout offered a rare chance for service crews to see some action during the day too, so we weren’t totally isolated. Unseasonably hot weather encouraged the crowds to come out and the two large official spectator areas soon filled up to capacity. Crews reported residents on stages and in link sections out in their front gardens with barbeques and drinks on the go, cheering on the cars and thoroughly enjoying the spectacle. Back at the service park we also encountered much goodwill, with the older cars in particular proving a big hit amongst the spectators. The rally was won by top seeds Melvyn Evans and Sean Hayde in their Subaru Impreza WRC with Fiesta WRCs bringing up second and third. With no historic class, the genuine old motors were understandably outgunned by the new cars and the old shells with modern running gear, but such is the nature of rallying when classes are set purely according to engine capacity. That didn’t stop everyone from having a grand day out however and spirits in the Rix Engineering camp were high, Ian and Cath finishing in 42ndplace with Aaron and Rob right behind in 43rdoverall and 3rdin class from a total of 69 finishers. Given some of the World Rally Cars and 4WD super saloons being deployed on the very quick roads, this was more than respectable. They both did considerably better than one local crew who managed to extensively roll on the very first stage before even reaching the first real corner…
So, to the cars then, and specifically the ViaRETRO-approved ones:
I’ll let most of the photographs speak for themselves but highlights for me included the 1600 Avenger in red and white Dealer Team livery. I always think the Avenger is a better looking car than an Escort in Group 1 or 2 specification and it’s certainly better handling, but of course the extent of homologated Escort development pulls the rug away somewhat in favour of the Ford. It’s interesting to note that brand new BRM engines are available once again for the Avenger so perhaps we’ll see a limited renaissance for these cars. This was one of two Avengers out but the livery on this car edges the choice for me.
Worthy of mention too is the yellow Beetle registered UWP 401 and driven by Bob Beales. This car may be familiar to some as it has been campaigned pretty much continuously since 1960 and in Bob’s hands since 1965, that’s an incredible fifty-eight years of rallying history. It has been through six engine iterations in that time and currently sports an Oettinger 1300 motor. The car is in genuine historic trim complete with period rarities such as a Halda Twinmaster for the navigator. Overall an amazing piece of rallying heritage.
Star of the show for me was the RSD prepared Fiat 131 Abarth which unfortunately retired on Stage 7 with a broken gear lever. Genuine 131 Abarths are like hens’ teeth and they were absent from British rallying for many years until Rallysport Development embarked on a frankly mad mission to bring them back to life. Having sourced an original they took it to pieces and reverse engineered each and every component to the exacting specifications required to qualify for FIA Historic papers. The difficulty in obtaining donor bodyshells is really a drop in the ocean compared to the achievement of being able to productionise the 131 Abarth again and the results are spectacular. This car sports period Alitalia livery and crew names, although Alen and Kivimaki weren’t making an unexpected comeback at Clacton themselves. The day I win the Euromillions lottery, one of the first items on my to-do list will be to order one of these. Purely a matter of time.
I can’t miss the Rix Engineering Escort from my highlights really, can I? Power from the 2-Litre BDA is understatedly described as “enough” and it’s as clean underneath as it is on top. Ian runs a motorsport fabrications business so the standard of the car is as high as you would expect. It’s a genuine historic specification too, no sequential boxes or Vauxhall redtops to be found here, and it attracted lots of spectator attention when the service park was open on the day before the rally. Thankfully my hamfisted servicing skills weren’t called upon as the car ran perfectly all day in the baking heat. There was also the benefit that the head of the service crew is a man who started his apprenticeship in 1959 and could probably fabricate an entire working vehicle from damp cardboard, bottle tops and baling twine. When once confronted with a wheel that had sheared clean off a hub due to a crater sized pothole in India, he proceeded to fix it with cable ties. The mind boggles.
Finally, just a brief glimpse of this one on the zoom lens. The service area was spread across three locations in Clacton, so I didn’t get to see all the cars up close and missed out on a close inspection of the Mitsubishi Galant VR-4, crewed by Guy Anderson and Steve Link. Never a common car in its heyday, the Galant is a very rare sight on the stages these days and this one is even a genuine ex-works car resplendent in Ralliart stripes. It was originally prepared for the Asia Pacific championship, then shipped to Europe in 1992 to be used as a high speed recce car on that year’s Safari. Given that Ralliart were hampered by the weight and complexity in period, finishing 14thoverall at Clacton seems an impressive achievement.
With the first closed road stage rally in England being a success, I’m confident it won’t be the last. It’s a massive undertaking to organise such an event so it may take a while to gain momentum, but other clubs are in the planning stages. Hopefully Chelmsford Motor Club will be able to repeat the success next year, and it gives me a good incentive to get one of my festering crocks updated to the required technical standards for 2019. In the meantime, here are a few more photographs of a memorable day and a landmark in British rallying history.