One of my computers has a hard disk I simply call “ARCHIVE”. It’s full of rubbish that really needs to be cleared out, in much the same way as non-computer people really need to clear out their attic, den, or cubbyhole under the stairs.
Well, one of the directories in there I noticed is called “scans_of_old_docs”. What old docs, I wondered. Many and various it seems, and mostly rubbish. But one caught my eye. Apparently I’ve been twittering far longer than I would have thought.
I found an article I was persuaded to write for the magazine “Revs” of the Owen Organization Motoring Club (of which I was a member) some forty-two years ago. Yes, 42! It’s a very old rallying story that will send most people to sleep, but may be of interest to one, two or perhaps even three old friends.
So, while most of you enjoy a good snooze, I offer the following twitterings verbatim and sans-apology…
When Mike Wood heard that Peter Smith and I were planning to do a rally in Belgium, he asked me to write an article about it for “Revs” which I agreed to do. Having finished 90% it lay in my briefacse until all the recent comments about a lack of articles raised me from my slumbers and prompted me to finish it.
It is not a “Motoring News” type report of the event, but the story of the way the event happened for us, from planning to arriving back home after the festivities.
As with all the best decisions, the one to compete in an international rally in Belgium was made over a few pints of beer. The day on which these particular pints were consumed was way back in January and coincided with the arrival of this year’s FIA year book, and so the conversation between Peter and myself was concentrated on International Rallying.
At the time Peter was considering competing in the “Snowman” and the “Circuit of Ireland” and wanted to find a suitable rally to fill the gap in between. After a quick look through the little yellow book it seemed the most suitable event was the “Boucles de Spa” and by coincidence there was a short description of the event in that week’s Autosport.
I had heard from a number of people who has competed in events abroad that the organizers are always helpful, and that it is much easier to obtain sponsorship than for events in this country. Since neither of us had any money, and I had already opened my big mouth in suggesting we should go, I found myself with the job of raising enough money to cover the cost of competing.
It is of course far easier to think of suitable sponsors when none are required than when one actually gets down to the job of of compiling and writing letters. But I was very fortunate in that the first batch produced some result. After consultation with Midland Road Garage in Walsall they were very generous and agreed to pay our expenses, and the car was, as usual, entered by Hewlett and Sumner Ltd.
So, having found a sponsor, we had committed ourselves to going, and had only two weeks left before the event in which to make all the arrangements. Since the regs. had not arrived I had to telephone the organizers to place an entry, and I also phoned a friend named John Shaw (no relation to Phil) who lives in Antwerp to ask him if he could help me make a recce, during the weekend before the event. Fortunately he agreed to, and although it seemed a little extravagant to make an extra trip to Belgium, it was to prove one of the most necessary parts of the preparation.
About ten days before the event the regs arrived with an accompanying letter giving us our first taste of how helpful the organizers were going to be, and also a very sudden realization of the language problem. The letter began “We have good receive your letter” and proceeded to inform us that “the engagements are entirely free.” Despite there being some excellent specimens of the opposite sex in Belgium neither of us were thinking of going for the purpose of getting engaged, and so we correctly assumed we were being given a free entry. Along with this we were offered three days full board in a hotel in Spa, which really seemed to be too good to be true. We began to get the impression they had misread our names as Roger Clark and Jim Porter, and were expecting us to win by about twenty minutes.
Well, it was too late to back down and so on the Saturday before the rally I made an early departure from Heathrow, and was met at Brussels airport by John, who had driven down from Antwerp. A couple of hours of autoroute later we were in Spa looking for the rally headquarters. Three Alpines parked in the main square provided a useful guide, and since the Clerk of the Course also owned one of the bars in the square, where better for the headquarters than in the bar?
After introducing ourselves we were taken by car to the hotel that had been arranged for us, and then brought back to the bar, even though the roundtrip was less than a quarter of a mile. On arriving back, the son of the CoC appeared, and said he would give me a conducted tour of the first stage, in his DAF Marathon! This turned out to be a typical Welsh forest stage but was defined by tulip diagrams in the road book, and so I was more than grateful for being able to make the trip.
Since forest stages are unusual in Belgium, and it was the longest of the three stages in each loop, the large number of crews who were in Spa for a weekend’s practice were convinced that the rally would be decided on this stage. All effort was concentrated on practicing this stage as much as possible, and since it was close to Spa, it had an added attraction that a couple of beers and a natter could be taken before the next attempt. The social aspect was as much a part of the event as the rally itself, and was made more enjoyable by the hospitality of the locals, and the friendliness of the other crews.
The route itself consisted of five loops of eighty miles, each loop containing three special stages. The rest of the route was divided between time and passage controls in a similar way to a British club rally, the main difference being an average speed of 60kph.
The second stage started at the bottom of the “Spa-Barisart” International Hill Climb course, and after going up the many hairpins turned into a forest for a flat-out two mile straight, ending in a ninety left, and a half-mile downhill straight to the finish. This was the shortest and definatly the fastest stage, the third being a typical twisty-lane Circuit of Ireland type affair.
By the end of the weekend I’d managed to make quite a reasonable set of pace notes, and had been able to cover the road book with all sorts of strange comments to make junctions more easily recognizable. Without these notes I’m sure we would have lost a considerable amount of time during the rally, since everything looked very different, and there were one or two junctions which took quite a lot of sorting out.
The timing was also unusual in that one could only accumulate a total of thirty minutes penalty before being excluded, rather than being a maximum of thirty minutes late at any one control, as is more usual here. Also, one second after any minute counted as the next minute. All these things combined placed a great importance on accurate navigation, and since this was to be my first excursion in the hot seat, the weekend left me in somewhat of a panic.
However; probably the most memorable part of the weekend was being amongst the party of thirsty rally crews making a tour of all the bars in Spa on the Saturday night. I was eventually made “hors de competition” at about 5am, but John survived the final stages and clocked into the breakfast control at 9:30.
The week prior to the rally seemed endless, but by midnight on the Friday night there were five of us and two cars installed on the Dover-Ostend Ferry. All thoughts of obtaining a few hours sleep were shattered by a coach load of rugby players and supporters who were determined to make the most of the duty free liquor.
After an uneventful drive we arrived in Spa at about 9am and proceeded straight to scrutineering … and although we had travelled the furthest that morning we found we had arrived before everyone else, scrutineers included. However, scrutineering proved to be more of a formality, except that is for the noise test, during which our knowledge of French was reduced from very little to absolutely none. We had been asked to rev the engine to 4000rpm, and we knew that the noise limit was 83db. Even with a special cap fitted to the exhaust outlet to restrict the gasses, there was no way we could keep it below the regulation limit. 2500rpm moved the needle quite far enough and so Peter kept his foot right where it was. And so after much gesticulating the scrutineer gave in and signed the card.
The noise problem began to worry us as we had planned on removing the cap and running on an open pipe, but to our amazement an official later suggested we remove it since he was sure the car would run better without it, and that noise didn’t really matter anyway!!
During the morning I managed to show Peter part of the route to give him some idea what to expect, but was very disappointed to find that the forest stage was very cut up owing to the large number of people practicing during the week. After this short recce we all managed to get some much needed sleep at the hotel provided by the organizers. To say that the hotel was luxurious would be an understatement.
The afternoon was taken up by a drivers’ briefing, thoughtfully followed by a shorter English version, preceding the start at 4pm. Apparently we had slept through a reception for the “pilots” given by the Mayor of Spa and sponsored by Martini, but free booze would not have been an ideal start to the rally.
By 4pm the town had become quite busy and all attention was centered on the starting ramp in the main square. The entry consisted of no less than 12 Alpines, 3 Datsun 240Zs, an Escort, 2 Porsche 911s, an Opel Manta and more BMW 2000s than one sees Escorts on a Motoring News event. Amongst the British contingent was a very nicely prepared 1275GT which, unfortunately, was to retire on the 3rd loop with a bent valve. They had no more resources than the average club rally driver, but despite their demise, the had more enjoyment from this one event than a dozen in Wales.
Owing to the fact Groups 4 & 5 were seeded first, we found ourselves running at number 14, and were very soon leaving the ramp for our first loop. For the purpose of familiarization this was timed at 50kph, and the stages were completely untimed. But despite travelling quite rapidly we had underestimated the tightness of two sections containing very loose “whites” and had managed to drop a minute at one time control.
Time controls were quite unique affairs, often situated in villages, with the marshals hidden in the nearest bar. One’s time was not recorded until the time card was placed on the marshal’s table; and so on the very tight sections this involved some death-defying leaping in and out of the car.
Passage controls simply involved receiving a rubber stamp on the “carnet” and some of the marshaling at these was really first class. One particular control was sighted on a hairpin junction, where the time card was taken from us on arriving at the hairpin, was stamped and flung back through the window at the exit of the hairpin! Most marshals though would stand with stamp in hand ready to place it with force on the first object to appear through the window.
During each loop servicing was almost impossible owing to the tightness of the timing, but about fifteen minutes were allowed at the end of the loops for a quick check over. So after a quick look under the bonnet we set out for our second loop.
During this loop snow began to fall heavily in the hilly area around Francorchamps, and we began to think this was going to dictate the pattern of the rally. The only competitive part of the rally in this region was the third stage which we started in a blinding blizzard. However; halfway through we were stopped by a marshal owing to the fact a Porsche had gone off in a big way. The stage was of course cancelled on the second loop, and to our amazement the snow had completely disappeared when we arrived the next time, and so had really made no difference at all.
For us, the third and fourth loops passed without incident and without road penalty, although other cars were steadily falling by the wayside.
At first thought, the idea of a number of identical loops on a rally does not seem very attractive, but in practice it’s very enjoyable, as the route becomes more and more familiar, and you travel faster and faster.
The only work done on the car up to this point had been the bypassing of a faulty electrical master switch, which had caused a couple of hairy moments with no lights. However, as Peter moved up to the start ramp for the fifth and final loop there was a violent vibration from the rear end. At first the clutch was suspected, but after closer inspection it turned out to be the rear suspension. One of the tie rods had become “un-tied” and the other was extremely loose, thus allowing the wheels to move backwards and forwards independent of the body! There was no possibility of continuing without repairs as expensive gearbox damage would have been a certainly.
Fortunately between the start and the first time control there was a stage, and so the average speed to time control was only 30kph. We therefore clocked out from the start of the last loop and tried to make quick repairs as soon as we left the ramp. After an ace piece of work by Mike Stokes our service man, and a monumental thrash round the first stage, we managed to reach the control without penalty.
Unfortunately the repair was only temporary and before the second stage Mike had to do the job properly. This cost us a twenty-four minute penalty and almost certainly a place in the top ten overall. It also put us very close to our maximum thirty minutes penalty, and so we completed the lap knowing that one mistake by either of us would put us out for good.
We arrived back in Spa not knowing whether we would be classified as finishers or not, since during the first loop I had accepted an early time from one control and was not too certain how the penalty would affect the maximum thirty minutes rule.
We retired to our hotel at about 8am and managed to get a few hours sleep during the morning. The provisional results were to be posted at midday, and since Peter was the first to wake he was dispatched to find the news. We were very pleasantly surprised to find that the one minute early time had been subtracted from our overall penalty and that we were classified as finishers in 31st place. Even more amazing though was the fact that owing to the decimation of the entry we were second in class and third in Groups4/5. And so at lunch the wine was flowing like water. In fact this set the pattern for the rest of the day with drinks both before and after, and of course during the official prizegiving at 5pm.
The rest I’m afraid is a little hazy, but I vaguely remember getting in the car to leave, then staggering around in Ostend wondering where the hell my passport had got to, then someone kicking me at Dover to wake me up at 5am. on the Monday morning. So the weekend had ended, and after about an hour’s sleep I was back at work wondering if it had all really happened.
Looking back on it now, the whole event was really excellent from every aspect. The organization was first class, the organizers could not have been more helpful, the other competitors were very friendly, and the route had a little of everything.
- I’d forgotten most of that!
- I’ve been insane for longer than I thought 🙂
- The photos were not part of the original article. In those days small magazines were compiled using the real cut’n’paste method, followed by photocopying and stapling, so it would have been tough to include pictures. These I have also found on my “ARCHIVE” drive, and have cutted and pasteded using the modern method.
- The original I typed with one finger using a small portable typewriter. How the hell did I find the time and patience? Especially the latter.
- Recce in those days was not like today. Once the road book was issued – often three months before the event – the roads were available for practice (in fact it very often was called “practice” not “recce”) at any time. Which is why Björn Waldegård recons he’s spent more of his life in East Africa than he has at home in Sweden.
- Another difference between then and now is that there were no designated service parks. You could, and we did, service at any point on a road section.
- Like most of the people on the internet today, 42 years ago I didn’t know how to spell “definitely.” I’ve since learned.
- Forty two years ago no one had any idea of the dangers of drinking and driving, so practice really did consist of one stage, two beers, one stage, two… And most crews did enjoy Martini’s free hospitality just hours before the start of the rally.
- That stuff I wrote about the unusual timing of the rally makes no sense to me now, so don’t ask. I don’t remember.
- The rally used part of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, and the tudor-looking building to the left of this photograph housed a time control.
- I realize now there is no mention of breaks, rest halts, meals nor anything other than rallying. I also made no mention of the fact the whole rally took place in darkness. That would have been understood by any reader 42 years ago because that’s how rallies were. If you stopped next to your service vehicle on a road section, you had a quick pee in the bushes. And if you were lucky, someone threw a sandwich and a drink through the window, which were consumed while competing. And darkness was normal. Most rallies went through at least one whole night.
- I didn’t admit it then, but I freely admit it now, the two mile straight I mentioned on one stage was nothing short of terrifying. The road was rutted gravel, it was narrow, and it was lined with stout trees that was too close to the road for comfort. The Alpine flat out in fifth gear was hitting 235kph. I would rather have kept my head down and pretended I was somewhere else, but the road ended in a T junction where straight ahead was a rock face. We needed to spot the right markers to reduce our speed as efficiently as possible. Looking back, I recon at any point on that section we were about half a second away from death. And we did it five times!
- In googling the rally I discovered something quite surprising. A interesting book with an interesting entry. I guess I really was there!