THE BIG ONE IS BACK
Paul Lawrence looks ahead to the toughest special stage rally in Britain for more than 20 years
Around 100 crews will compete over four days and over 280 stage miles in the forests of Wales, Northumberland and Scotland before the jubilant, and weary, survivors reach the finish in Kielder forest on Monday afternoon.
After a two-year sabbatical, this epic event is back and it returns in some style. Rally manager Colin Heppenstall did his research and resolved that crews wanted a real challenge that brought back the sense of adventure and endurance of the RAC Rallies of the 1970s. In an era when most forest rallies cover little more than 40 stage miles and are done in half a day, he has put together an event that equates to nearly a full season of forest events, in one intense rallying fix.
This is not just an adventure for the crews. For the fans it is a throwback to another era when it was possible to follow the rally around the country and a legion of hardy spectators will be out over four days, some of them sleeping in cars and vans. The early morning smell of bacon being cooked and the bark of BDG engines in the forests will make for a truly memorable experience.
The competitor response has been overwhelmingly positive and the biggest entry in the event’s 12 editions will line up at the start in the rural Herefordshire town of Leominster. In total, over 140 crews initially lodged deposits but the cost and logistics of such an event has whittled that down to around 95 starters.
For the first time, the Roger Albert will run special stages in Wales but the competitive action starts in England at the historic setting of Shelsley Walsh for two short, sharp stages at the Worcestershire speed hillclimb venue. The action then moves into the Welsh forests for a day of classic stages including two runs at a mighty 14-mile stage in Radnor.
For the first time in British rallying, a transport section will allow the crews to load the cars onto trailers at the end of Friday for the trip north to Carlisle, where the rally will be based for three days.
Saturday is a long, tough day with stages in the southern block of Kielder and then eastwards across to the mighty tests of Ogre Hill and Harwood. Sunday is all about southern Scotland, taking in famous stages like Ae, Twiglees and Castle O’ER. However the Roger Albert Clark Rally has a real sting in the tail as Monday’s route moves into the central block of Kielder for another tough leg including two 19-mile stages in Caplestone Fell. Just reaching the finish will be a mighty achievement.
Three former winners top the entry, led by 2014 victors Matthew Robinson and Sam Collis. Though the Fiat 131 has been their focus for two seasons, their trusty Ford Escort Mk2 will be wheeled out for this event. Right behind them will be Northern Irish ace and recent BRC contender Marty Mccormack and co-driver Liam Moynihan. The ever-spectacular Mccormack will be a major contender back at the wheel of his beloved Escort.
When Mccormack won in 2012 it was after an epic contest with Yorkshire legend, and 2007 and 2013 winner, Steve Bannister and ‘Banner’ is back this year after winning an entry for his success in the Northern Historic Rally Championship. Bannister will visit the Welsh forests for the first time in many years, but his big push will come once he’s on more familiar territory in Kielder and Scotland.
The final crew in the big four is the pairing of triple MSA British Historic Rally champions Jason Pritchard and Phil Clarke. While Pritchard has only tackled the event once before, and rolled out in Kielder, Clarke was the winning co-driver with Mccormack five years ago and they will both be on very familiar ground on Friday.
The quality in the field is astonishing and strong crews are seeded down into the 40s. Stars like Steve Perez and the Lancia Stratos and 2006 winner Jimmy Mcrae in the Chevrolet-powered Firenza will be real crowd-pleasers, while a couple of 4x4s from the new historic category J2 will add spice, including the Mitsubishi Galant of Tom Coughtrie. Heading the oldest cars in Category 1, for pre-1968 cars, is the evergreen Bob Bean, four months short of his 80th birthday, in his freshly prepared Lotus Cortina.
Running alongside the historic element of the event is the Roger Albert Clark Open Rally for all other two-wheel-drive cars and the pack is headed by Ludlow’s Henri Grehan and Chris Ridge. Grehan is back rallying this year after taking time out with a young family and he will be immediately quick on home ground on Friday. His rivals include David Hutchinson/jeff Garnett and the redoubtable Dave Hemingway and Simon Ashton. Hemingway, who celebrates his 50th birthday during the rally, is one of a very select group to have contested every edition of the Roger Albert Clark Rally and won the Open Rally back in 2008.
In an uncertain world for British special stage rallying, the Roger Albert Clark is a shining beacon of light. Go and watch it if you possibly can: you will not be disappointed.
Mccormack will be a frontrunner
Steve Perez will be a crowd-pleaser
The classics will wow the spectators