For British rally fans, this time of year signifies one thing: our own round of the World Rally Championship. For years and years, certainly since the WRC was inaugurated in 1973, the middle of November has, with one or two calendar aberrations, meant donning anoraks and bobblehats, grabbing flasks of soup and Ordnance Survey maps and heading out into the forests to marvel at the world’s best drivers demonstrating their sublime car control and bravery.
The RAC Rally, which became Rally Great Britain in 1998, is one of our biggest motorsporting events, to which diehard rally fans flock in their tens of thousands. To wait for hours for a glimpse of your heroes, be peppered by loose gravel and inhale that wet-mud-on-hot-exhaust aroma as they flash past is part of the indoctrination. If that does it for you, you’re a real rally fan.
Spectators have been treated to plenty of home success down the years, too, thanks to Roger Clark, Colin McRae and Richard Burns. Between them, Britain’s greatest rallying trio won at home eight times.
This week’s event, the finale of the 2015 WRC season, is set to bring hordes of fans to the fabulous and fast stages of North Wales. And there are two British drivers to cheer on: Citroen’s Northern Irish ace Kris Meeke and Ford’s local hero, Welshman Elfyn Evans.
Meeke is already a winner at the top level, his Rally Argentina victory in the DS 3 WRC earlier this year adding his name to those of Clark, McRae and Burns as British WRC winners. He’s contested his home event seven times, but only twice in a factory WRC machine. His debut in the top class in 2011 netted fourth for Mini, while a late puncture last year dropped him from a top-three finish to sixth. A podium this time round would make for a great end to Meeke’s up-and-down season.
Evans, meanwhile, has had two podiums this year in the M-Sport Ford Fiesta RS WRC – third in Argentina and second in Corsica – so will be all out to stand on the podium in what will be only his second Rally GB in a WRC machine after a strong fifth last season.
While studying the form book, and recalling RAC Rally results of yore, we wondered which other British drivers used to spark interest, offering a glimmer of hope for a home win among all the exotically named Finns and Swedes.
We might have only had three on the top step since 1973, but plenty more Brits have become the rally’s ‘people’s champion’, thanks to strong drives against the odds. These five, then, are our favourites – the drivers who we willed to a win but who didn’t quite deliver.
5. David Llewellin
Moustachioed Welsh farmer David Llewellin made his WRC debut in the 1984 RAC Rally in the outclassed, two-wheel-drive Nissan 240RS, bringing it home 14th. His best result in nine attempts at his home rally came three years later, in an Audi Coupé Quattro, when he took a fine sixth. In 1989, soon after clinching the first of two consecutive British Championship titles, he briefly led his home World Championship event after topping the times in the second stage in Clumber Park. He also gets extra brownie points for winning the 1986 Circuit of Ireland – the first British Championship win for the MG Metro 6R4.
4. Malcolm Wilson
Very much part of the fabric of British rallying throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Cumbrian Malcolm Wilson is also a household name in the WRC, thanks to his successful M-Sport operation that has run the de facto factory Fords for many years, taking the Blue Oval to the manufacturers’ crown in 2006 and ’07. As a driver, Wilson tackled his home event on 19 consecutive occasions, aboard Ford, Audi, MG and Vauxhall/Opel machinery. He finished in the top 10 in four of them, with his moment of glory a third place in a Ford Escort RS Cosworth in the snow-lashed ’93 event.
3. Russell Brookes
Only real WRC aficionados will recall Russell Brookes nailing three consecutive RAC Rally podium finishes, in a Ford Escort RS1800 between 1977 and ’79. Sadly, they were made up of two thirds and a second, the Midlander coming closest to a win in ’79 when he finished 10 minutes (rallies were much longer in those days, remember!) behind Hannu Mikkola’s Escort. Brookes contested 20 RAC Rallies, the first 18 consecutively, with the Brookes/Mike Broad/Andrews Heat for Hire/Opel Manta 400 combo a favourite of rallying at home and abroad in the 1980s.
2. Jimmy McRae
Five-time British champion and father of one of this country’s biggest motorsport heroes, Scot Jimmy McRae was the first to fly the flag for one of rallying’s greatest dynasties (second son Alister was also British Rally Champion and a factory WRC driver). Jimmy tackled the RAC Rally 19 times between 1976 and 2004, twice taking third place – in 1983 for Opel and ’87 for Ford. Despite Colin’s death in a helicopter crash in 2007, McRae Sr continues to fly the family flag, contesting historic events with typical passion and flair.
1. Tony Pond
Softly-spoken, nasal-toned and moustachioed Tony Pond was once our greatest hope. He’d cut his rallying teeth at the top level in the mid-1970s with Opel, Triumph and Talbot products, before a spell with Datsun netted him his first podium – on the Tour de Corse in 1981. But it was his return to the British Leyland fold, via Rover and MG, that endeared him to British fans. Who can forget his opening-stage retirement in 1984 after hurling his Rover SD1 at a Knowsley Safari Park tree? A year later, aboard the debuting MG Metro 6R4, a home-grown Group B supercar taking the fight to the exotic Martini-liveried Lancia Delta S4s of Henri Toivonen and Markku Alén, he took a valiant third behind the Italian monsters. Never had so many British rally fans got behind one of their heroes, willing him to a famous victory.
For me, as a spectating and autograph-hunting 15-year-old, the 1985 Lombard RAC Rally represented a high-watermark moment: my anorak and bobblehat collection has grown steadily since that epic weekend in Nottingham 30 years ago.
Photography courtesy of WRC and LAT