Historic gravel rallying – what is the future?
What a difference a year makes. The 2015 Pirelli Carlisle Rally was a bad day for historic gravel rallying. Road conditions deteriorated dramatically and the majority of crews arrived at the finish questioning the enjoyment of driving their cars over such rough stages.
Most were simply steering around the holes and boulders to try and preserve their cars sufficiently to get to the finish.
Fast forward a year and the response to the 2016 event could not have been more different. There were big smiles all round at the Carlisle finish and fulsome praise for the event and the quality of the roads.
So what changed? Well, the return of the British Rally Championship allowed the Pirelli organisers to radically alter the event format and run the historics first on the road as a separate entity on Saturday morning. No double usage was the icing on the cake. It was far and away the best British Historic Rally Championship gravel event since the new running order rules kicked in last spring.
This was an event that has set down a new marker for the BHRC. What is clear is that 22 miles of double usage, with the historics interspersed with moderns in a 120-car field, cannot be the future. If it is, historic rallying on gravel will surely die. It is already badly wounded as more and more drivers either walk away or turn to asphalt.
The Pirelli organisers had some significant advantages, not least a two-day format. But what we really need now is some leeway from the MSA on running order for 2017 and some creative thinking from organisers.
At the core of the issue is the question of the MSA Safety Delegates and their ability to travel through the stages ahead of the first car to check on spectator safety. To fit the blueprint I have described above, it will require two delegates and a sensible time separation between events. But these are far from insurmountable issues.
A little anecdote from the Pirelli is, I think, apposite. I settled into my chosen super-safe location in Kielder about 45 minutes before the first car, MSA media tabard on and camera ready to go. I had the entire corner to myself. The Safety Delegate duly came past and I got a cheery wave of acknowledgement, so all was well. Then, 15 minutes before the first car was due, six spectators arrived. They, too, were totally responsible, chose very safe locations and, like me, stayed until after the closing car. But the fact remains that they arrived well after the Safety Delegate had gone by, as do the majority of spectators.
Unfortunately, the current deadlock over rates for using the forests managed by Natural Resource Wales now hangs over everything. If a resolution is not possible, everything will change and none of us will be going gravel rallying.