Eng­land will be back on the Wales Rally GB sched­ule for the first time in 17 years. By David Evans

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For rea­sons best known to him­self, Offa felt the time had come to de­lin­eate the land be­tween Wales and Eng­land. From the River Dee in the north to the River Sev­ern in the south, Offa’s men dug a 150-mile dyke. Lit­tle did he know, 1250 years later, his bound­ary would con­tain Bri­tain’s round of the World Rally Cham­pi­onship for a decade and a half.

It’s true. The World Rally Cham­pi­onship bit, that is. We can’t be en­tirely cer­tain what Offa was think­ing when he dug his ditch, but that Eng­land hasn’t seen com­pet­i­tive WRC ac­tion since 1999 is be­yond ques­tion.

It’s been a long 15 years for those on the Mer­cian side of the Dyke.

When Terry Col­ley’s Mini crossed the fin­ish line of SS7, Chel­tenham on Sun­day Novem­ber 21, 1999, lit­tle did any­body think it would take un­til this Satur­day for an­other stage time to be set out­side of Wales on Bri­tain’s round of the World Rally Cham­pi­onship.

It’s seven years longer since a stage started and fin­ished north of Hadrian’s Wall.

This pol­icy of con­tain­ment is the flip side of gov­ern­ment fund­ing. Wales’ money has kept Bri­tain’s round of the World Rally Cham­pi­onship alive, but it has also, ar­guably, kept it away from the masses.

Prior to Wales, Rally GB, Rally of Great Bri­tain and the RAC Rally had three ti­tle spon­sors: Net­work Q, Lom­bard and the Daily Mir­ror. None had any re­gional bias and all three were happy to see their name be­ing flashed on the side of rally cars tour­ing through Bri­tain’s four cor­ners.

In 2000, the event crossed the Sev­ern Bridge to be based out­side of Eng­land for the first time in its then 68-year his­tory. For its first three years in Wales, the event was still backed by Net­work Q, but an agree­ment with Cardiff City Coun­cil rooted the ser­vice park in South Wales and WRC reg­u­la­tion kept it there – such was the re­stric­tive­ness of the then favoured clover­leaf for­ma­tion which in­sisted com­pe­ti­tion com­prise of two loops of stages in and out of the ser­vice park on each day.

Head­ing out of Cardiff and over the bor­der for a stage be­fore get­ting back to the city for lunch was im­pos­si­ble, so the event sim­ply stayed and never trou­bled Offa’s Dyke.

Ac­tu­ally, that’s not com­pletely true. Rally GB has been in Eng­land reg­u­larly and of­ten for the past few years. Not in stage mode, but cer­tainly us­ing roads like the A483 and the A5 to cir­cum­nav­i­gate places like Oswestry, where the bor­der curves cu­ri­ously around the town.

The face of Bri­tain’s round of the World Rally Cham­pi­onship has changed be­yond all recog­ni­tion from the lin­ear events which once routed from Lon­don Air­port to the High­lands and back.

Any kind of a re­turn to that gen­uine round-bri­tain tour is un­work­able both in terms of the cur­rent WRC for­mat di­rec­tives on how long and how far peo­ple can drive with­out a rest. It’s gen­er­ally frowned upon to drive three days and two nights with­out stop­ping, even if there are more ef­fec­tive mod­ern day stim­u­lants than the Sev­en­ties and Eight­ies sta­ple of Coca-cola, Pro­plus and a fag.

A time con­trol in Ch­ester on Fri­day night and a 1.11-mile dash around Chol­monde­ley Cas­tle on Satur­day af­ter­noon are not about the start of a rev­o­lu­tion. But they do mark a sea change in the at­ti­tude of the event or­gan­is­ers and the Welsh gov­ern­ment.

Rally GB man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Ben Taylor has led some­thing of a rev­o­lu­tion in the event, turn­ing around what was a fail­ing round of the WRC and cre­at­ing a rally with a gen­uinely bright fu­ture in the series. Taylor has also re­lied heav­ily on route co-or­di­na­tor An­drew Kellitt’s sub­lime and un­sur­passed knowl­edge of ev­ery avail­able rally road in Bri­tain and clerk of the course Iain Camp­bell’s ded­i­cated and dy­namic ap­proach.

It was the move to Dee­side three years ago, how­ever, that de­liv­ered the most sig­nif­i­cant up­turn in the rally’s for­tunes. Crews voted with their feet in favour of a route re­fresh and this year’s en­try is 100 per cent up on the last year in Cardiff.

And Dee­side has of­fered an easy route back into Eng­land. Ques­tion is, how much fur­ther could it go?

Liver­pool and Manch­ester would both be sen­si­ble, work­able op­tions for a cer­e­mo­nial start, while a day in the Lakes could just about be made to work with a re­mote ser­vice or tyre zone. But is there a day’s ral­ly­ing in the Lakes?

When the cur­rent deal with Wales is done in 2018, WRC Pro­moter would like to see the event back near a ma­jor conur­ba­tion. Al­most in­evitably, that means back to Eng­land.

For many, that can’t come soon enough. And that’s noth­ing against Wales, it’s a re­flec­tion of a yearn­ing de­sire to see the best of the best back in York­shire, Kielder, the Tweed Val­ley, all of those places that have missed world cham­pi­onship ral­ly­ing for so many years.

It’s taken a lot of work and quite a shift in mind­set to get us to Ch­ester on Fri­day night – and the sym­bol­ism in tak­ing Wales out­side of Wales is sig­nif­i­cant. Funded by Wales’ Ma­jor Events Unit, the in­vest­ment into Rally GB is to bring peo­ple into the coun­try – but ex­port­ing it and show­ing Wales’ wares on the far side of Offa’s Dyke has to bring ben­e­fit as well.

It’s been a long road from Chel­tenham to Chol­monde­ley, but Wales’ vice-like grip on world ral­ly­ing is loos­en­ing.

Peo­ple of Mer­cia, seize the mo­ment. ■

Eng­land last fea­tured on the rally back in 1999 Jbk jkkb kjkb bkbkjk­bkjkb

Wales: the heart­land of the rally

OC­TO­BER 26 2016

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