THE BIG ONE IS BACK

Paul Lawrence looks ahead to the tough­est spe­cial stage rally in Bri­tain for more than 20 years

Motor Sport News - - Preview: R.A.C Rally -

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

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