‘British RX turns 40 years old’
The British Rallycross Championship is four decades old and going strong. By Hal Ridge.
This year, the British Rallycross Championship is experiencing one of its healthiest periods for some time, with a strong and diverse range of entries in the headline Supercar category. It’s therefore fitting that, on July 25, the series celebrated its 40th anniversary too.
Although the mixed-surface sport famously came into being in February 1967, with the first event being won at Lydden Hill by Vic Elford in a Porsche 911, it wasn’t for another 11 years, in 1976, when the British Rallycross Championship began. Tom Airey, driving a Mini, won the first event at Longridge and in the process beat a certain John Welch, but more on him later.
Trevor Hopkins sealed the first ever British Rallycross title in a Ford Escort, the first of three consecutive crowns, and it wasn’t until 1981 when Keith Ripp won the title in a Ford Fiesta that anything other than an Escort would claim top honours. In fact, such was the Ford marque’s dominance of rallycross in the era that it wouldn’t be until 1989, when Michael Shield ended the Blue Oval’s reign by sealing the title in an MG Metro 6R4 and became the youngest ever champion (see sidebar).
In its 40-year history, 18 British Rallycross champions have been crowned, but none more frequently than Irish legend Dermot Carnegie, who’s record-breaking six titles were in the decade between 1994 and 2004, piloting first a Metro 6R4, a Ford Escort and then a Focus.
Carnegie says the Focus was his favourite of his title-winning steeds.
“At one stage there we had 840 horsepower [in the Focus], then there was no restrictors or any of that carry on, so it was a lot of fun,” he says. “I’m very proud of my championships, especially coming from Ireland to the British Championship. To do it over in England was like one-upmanship against the English, and that made it all the sweeter.”
The Irishman’s success was in no small part down to his calculated approach to motor racing. The qualifying stages of rallycross events are all about making it to the front of the final to stand the best chance of scoring a strong result and points haul, of which Carnegie was a master. Regularly, the six-time champion wouldn’t hit the front of an event until the end of the meeting, instead opting for consistency and staying out of trouble.
“I always drove on the side of caution really, I was never a dirty driver,” he explains. “I never really had any major accidents or anything like that. I would always back out of it if it looked like everybody wouldn’t get round a corner. You didn’t have to win every event but you had to be consistent and to be on the podium all the time and keep collecting the points. I would always drive to finish, rather than trying to win. That paid off for me anyway. It wasn’t easy – there was a lot of good competition.”
Carnegie rates his greatest rival as British legend Will Gollop, himself a three-time British RX champion and the last British driver to win the European Rallycross crown in 1992. “We had good rivalry. Will would never push you off, and I would never push him off,” he says. “You knew you could drive nose-to-tail all day long and you still wouldn’t touch each other. He was brilliant really. Denis Biggerstaff was great as well; there were guys like that but, for instance John Maloney, would always push you off, and you couldn’t trust [four-time champion] Pat Doran either, you’d always be careful.”
With 33 motorsport championships to his name in autotests, autocross, rallying and rallycross, on both sides of the Irish Sea, Carnegie is one of Ireland’s greats. From his time in the Escort to the Fiesta that concluded his career, he was run by now fivetime British Champion, Julian Godfrey, who as a driver has not only continued Carnegie’s mantle of success in recent years but also approaches events in a similar way. “Julian looked after me tremendously,” says Carnegie. “He always gave me the car exactly the way I wanted it, then as more and more electronics came into it, he would show me traces from the year before, what I was doing wrong and things. But, I always drove with the seat of my pants, not what the laptop was saying. He could never understand that. I always drove just the way I felt, rather than being told what I should or shouldn’t do by the computer, but then things change I suppose.”
As Carnegie’s top-level British Rallycross career was gathering momentum in the Metro 6R4, a man who had raced in the first ever British Rallycross Championship event was reaching the twilight of his career.
John Welch was twice a British RX champion, although arguably should have been crowned far more. While 2016 is the 40th anniversary of the British championship; this year also marks 30 years since Welch claimed his second title and the first crown for a four-wheel-drive car. Driving the legendary Ford Escort Mk3 Xtrac, formed as part of a close relationship between Welch, multiple European Rallycross champion Martin Schanche, Xtrac and Gartrac, Welch won the British Rallycross Grand Prix in 1985, and his second British RX title in 1986.
The now British Touring Car Championship team owner says the first of his two titles, driving a Ford Escort Mk2, was probably the best.
“The first British Championship you win is always the most special,” he says. “When you win your first rallycross championship, you’ve beaten your peers and you’ve also beaten some heroes you’ve grown up
watching. I think the ferocity of rallycross is what made it so good. If you look right back into the early days with the Escorts, you had your archrivals like Tony Drummond – there was total hatred between Tony and myself on the track, and that kind of ferocity that would be all the way down the grid, but there was great camaraderie. In the early days certainly we’d just go and just take my mates. It was great really.
“I’m obviously still pissed off about all the ones I should have won with the bloody balance of performance stuff and starting from the back of the grid, but it is what it is. I had such a good time. Between Martin and myself we built some very special cars. At the end of one year, something had gone wrong with mine so Martin lent me his for the final round at Croft. A £50,000 car, and he said ‘if you bend it you fix it, and no doubt I’ll have to help!’ That’s the kind of camaraderie there was.”
Welch says although he enjoyed his time racing at home, he craved winning the European title, but was never able to achieve his goal. “I loved the British Championship, but I wanted to win the European title too. I never managed it, but when the Europeans came over to England we’d usually beat them anyway – the level of competition in England was exceedingly high!” ■
Carnegie’s first of six titles came in 1994
Welch was a key RX player
Will Gollop heads Europeans at Lydden Hill on route to 1997 title Carnegie says Biggerstaff was fair
Reigning British Rallycross champion Julian Godfrey is not only a record breaker in that he is the only driver ever to win five successive titles, but to-date he has not been beaten to the crown since graduating to Supercar in 2011. His Ford Fiesta also holds the record for the most British RX titles with seven. Original owner Pat Doran used the car to earn the crown in 2005 and 2010, while the four-time champion drove it for the first part of his title-winning campaign in 2009 too.