Name three famous Belgians, the old joke went. The naysayers would have you believe that nothing interesting happens there, it’s cloaked in a permanent drizzle and they can’t decide whether they’re French or Dutch. But I’ve been often enough to know that there are reasons to visit beyond the obvious Trappist beer and frites.
Plastic Bertrand, he’s a famous Belgian. Eddy Merckx, he’s a particularly mad famous Belgian. There’s Adolphe Sax who allegedly took inspiration for his eponymous instrument from the human voice, but only after several bangs to the head and poisoning from varnish fumes. Of course there is also Jacky Ickx, Marc Duez, Freddy Loix, Gregoire De Mevius, Bruno Thiry and Thierry Neuville. It seems that most of the famous Belgians I can name are racing or rally drivers. Clearly there is plenty of interesting stuff happening in Belgium after all.
The Europeans love a good closed roads tarmac rally. Until a legislation change last year it was impossible to hold such an event in England and Wales, so opportunities for stage rally action on the lanes were limited and almost always involved getting on a ferry to Ireland, the Isle of Man or Mull. However, for those pointing south and east there was another ready alternative a hop, skip and jump away in Belgium. British crews have been visiting for many years, attracted by low entry fees, top quality roads and just the right amount of organisation. Such events take over villages for the duration and life is made easy for spectators in return which encourages a welcoming atmosphere from the locals. Unlike some parts of Europe, the British crews are actively encouraged and the “Belgian Connection” is well established with some teams undertaking all of their rallies there despite living back over the Channel. It’s a pretty special state of affairs and one that the Boucles de Chevrotines demonstrates nicely.
Based in the hamlet of Sautin with servicing in the nearby village of Sivry-Rance, the Chevrotines skirts the French border. Belgian identity is not only culturally split, but the regions feel very different also. This is Wallonia and the gently rolling territory bears no resemblance to the stark and flat landscape of Flanders. It’s therefore more familiar to many British crews used to navigating narrow lanes and the stages, whilst fast in nature, have plenty of variety to keep both driver and co-driver equally busy. Add in the ability to string a loop of four stages together within a compact area of map and you have perfect rallying territory. This year the loop was tackled three times with one stage passing within half a mile of the service area, allowing support crews to see some action before the competitors make their scheduled stops for fuel, tyres and any other attention necessary. With 108 entries and frequent service stops, Sivry-Rance was busy all day with cars scattered across every available, yard, alley and pavement, or in our case at the football club. It made for quite a spectacle and ensured the drinkers at the pavement bar were kept well entertained.
I was in attendance with the Rix Engineering team, exploring Belgium after a taste of the very first UK closed roads event in Clacton earlier this year. Ian Rix is a talented engineer and manufacturer of some of the best competition car components around, so it’s no surprise that his 1970 Ford Escort RS is a stunner. It’s immaculately prepared and meticulously maintained, and with two experienced service crew in attendance my technical assistance duties could be limited to a few gopher runs and drinking beer in the shade. Trust me, that’s a good outcome for everyone. My partner and usual navigator Cath Woodman was once again co-driving, but with temperatures peaking at 37 degrees Celsius I didn’t envy being wrapped in Nomex and a helmet. Instead, I was able to get out to the nearby stages to bring you a flavour of the event and photograph some of the more interesting cars.
The entry is largely comprised of moderns and there is plenty of four-wheel drive Japanese saloon and hot hatch action if that’s your thing, but we’re here for the older cars. “Historic” is a specific term in rallying for cars that conform exactly to accepted period specification, such as the Rix Escort. However, many older clubman cars will have been gradually upgraded over the years and it is also common to find older looking cars with modern engines, sequential gearboxes and state of the art suspension so all is not always as it seems, and such cars run within the general class structure rather than Historic class. With FIA Historic definition now fully encompassing the 1980s it’s not always obvious, but on the Chevrotines any car with a start number above 200 is a genuine Historic, so they’re easily identified in my photographs here.
As always, Escorts dominated the Historic class and made up 7 of the 11 entries. Local crew Christophe Jacob and Isabelle Regnier took class victory in the RS1800 (number 251), also taking 7th place in the overall classification. UK visitors Simon Crook and Grahame Wood took 2nd in class in their bright yellow RS1800, chased hard by Ben Friend and Osian Owen in the Pinto-engined Allglass RS2000, whilst Ian and Cath brought the Rix Engineering car home to a strong 4th in class on their first visit to the Chevrotines. Further down the field, the Ascona crews had mixed fortunes with the orange car of Hugla/Valentin claiming 42nd overall whilst the works coloured number 203 retired with steering problems. The Volvo 340 was an unusual sight, but I’m not convinced that all the spotlamps were strictly necessary in the bright sunshine. Amongst the general classification, I was also pleased to see the Opel Omega take a well-deserved 26th overall, the driver throwing the big three litre saloon around as if it was half the size, much to the approval of the crowd. The very hot weather and tricky roads contributed to 44 retirements which included the Martini-liveried Lancia Delta Integrale, disappearing early on with gear linkage failure.
From the perspective of competitors and spectators alike, there’s a lot to recommend Belgian tarmac rallying. You need to adapt to a diet of cheese & ham sandwiches and Trappist beer (best consumed from the back of a service van), but the pleasant experience of being able to freely move around and soak up the atmosphere can’t be beaten. There’s a reason most famous Belgians are rally drivers.