EMBRACING BOTH SIDES OF THE BORDER
England will be back on the Wales Rally GB schedule for the first time in 17 years. By David Evans
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. ■