Yesterday I returned from a special pilgrimage – one that I’ve been making at this time of year for over 30 years.
It’s a special trip that requires full immersion in the most raw, uninhibited, visceral motoring sport on the planet; one in which super-human drivers hurl 300bhp, turbocharged, four-wheel-drive machines across hundreds of miles of hostile terrain – much of it that you’d struggle to stand up on, let alone traverse in a motor car – against the clock.
“I’ve chased this holy grail of home-grown events – that takes hundreds of thousands of diehard, anorak-and-bobblehat-wearing enthusiasts to its heart – up and down the country for as long as I can remember”
I’m referring, you might have deduced, to Rally Great Britain, our very own round of the World Rally Championship. This is a sport that pits its stars against every kind of driving challenge it can muster, including icy mountain passes in the Alps, rock-strewn routes through the Argentine Andes, snow-covered Swedish forest tracks and roller-coaster gravel switchbacks in Finland. And add to that Rally Great Britain, an event that’s very much part of the folklore of this most exciting branch of wheeled endeavour.
Run since the early 1930s and part of the WRC calendar every year bar one since its creation in 1973, Rally GB ranks among the toughest to tame and the most exhilarating to experience, among competitors and spectators alike.
Despite all that, though, the event has only recently shaken off a lengthy hangover of unpopular geography, poor promotion, few British names in top cars troubling the frontrunners and a lack of mainstream sporting-media interest.
Purists found themselves banging the same drum: a return to the days when Scot Colin McRae and Englishman Richard Burns grabbed regular back-page headlines over their world-title-chasing antics between the trees at 100mph has for too long seemed unlikely.
Happily, though, a wholesale move from South to North Wales last year, as well as renewed impetus from organisers and promoters whose work has included taking the rally to the people via the use of accessible stages within the grounds of castles and stately homes (remember the opening-day mileage of the classic rallies of the 1970s and ’80s?), seems to have reinvigorated rallying in the UK.
I’ve chased this holy grail of home-grown events – that takes hundreds of thousands of diehard, anorak-and-bobblehat-wearing enthusiasts to its heart – up and down the country for as long as I can remember and came away from this year’s WRC finale feeling confident that Rally Great Britain is back where it belongs.
If we can just get Northern Irish star Kris Meeke – cruelly denied a podium in Wales by a series of punctures – and Welsh youngster Elfyn Evans, who played a pivotal role in every rally this year, to add their names to a list of British rally winners that comprises just three – McRae, Burns and Roger Clark – it’ll be the shot in the arm that the sport deserves.