The Autosport show was a great way to remind ourselves just how good rallying was – and still is. Despite troubles behind the scenes, the WRC has kicked off with another classic Monte Carlo rally, and rallying as a sport is still a must-see event. Forget the politics: watch the stages. The main attraction at ASI for rally fans was the British Rally Heroes Display, which showed off half a dozen classics from the last 50 years of the sport from a UK perspective.
Ford Escorts continue to be a staple of rallying, even forty years later: Escorts of all models could be found all round the halls of ASI, with examples of their historic successes and their continued use in contemporary rallying and rally schools represented.
Short-track rallycross is one of the easiest and most exciting ways to see extreme rally cars do what they do best: a couple of perfect examples could be found at ASI. Although static displays are never the best environment to see any kind of racing car, the stance of the average rallycrosser means that they still look mean even when standing still.
Historic rallying is bigger than ever, and even though various models of the aforementioned Escort are still the typical choice of stage weapon there are plenty of other, more extreme options out there (whether original or in kit form).
Taking pride of place on the British Rally Heroes stand was Paddy Hopkirk's Mini from the 1964 running of the Monte Carlo rally, where Hopkirk and co-driver Henry Liddon put in a true giant-killing performance to win the rally against factory Ford Falcon, Volvo 544 and Mercedes 300 opposition. BMC entered six factory-run Minis in the event – backed up by a staggering 24 additional privateer entries!
The red and white livery of #37 is one of the most recognisable Minis raced. The 1,071cc Cooper S was engineered by John Cooper and became more famous than anyone could have expected: further victories in Monte Carlo followed in '65 and '67 amongst successes both on gravel and tarmac. They should have won the '66 Monte as well, had it not been for the officials finding a technical infringement that allowed the local Citroen team to take the win…
Such illustrious drivers as Jackie Stewart, James Hunt and Niki Lauda got behind the wheel of Minis early in their careers. Its direct, kart-like handling and light weight often made up for any straight-line speed deficiency and made it the perfect place to learn car control.
The next iconic car was Roger Clark's MkII Escort RS1800 in 1976 Lombard RAC Rally colours. Clark won the '76 event (running as part of the Group 4 rules-era WRC), as he had also done in '72 when it was a national round. Clark passed away in 1998 but his legacy has been honoured by the creation of the Roger Albert Clark historic rally, which covers some of the same ground as the original RAC (Royal Automobile Club) stages.
Like Prodrive, Britain's M-Sport team are another British company synonymous with rallying, and like Prodrive the team boss was, in his time, involved at the highest level of the sport. Whereas Prodrive's David Richards was a successful navigator to Ari Vatenen, M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson drove to many rallying wins. This is his #1 Ford Escort RS Cosworth, the car in which he won the 1994 British Rally Championship.
Now this is what I call a lighting pack! It's from a time when rallying was truly a challenge, with long stages running well into the darkness. Wilson spent the majority of his pre-M-Sport career with Ford, where for a time he was the company's chief test driver (he helped develop the RS200) – though he also drove a Metro 6R4 Group B in the world championship.
The British Rally Heroes stand also displayed two cars of rally drivers ripped from the sport well before their time. The first is Richard Burns' #3 Suburu Impreza S5 WRC99 in its livery from the 2000 Safari Rally.
The Safari Rally in Kenya was the WRC's jewel in the crown for many years – its mini-Dakar. The conditions were tough – cars needed special equipment to cope with the choking dust and water splashes. The Safari was sadly dropped from the WRC after the 2002 running, though since then the event has run as a round of both the IRC and ARC.
Next up is Colin McRae's Ford Focus from the Acropolis Rally of 2002, the last year McRae drove for the factory Ford team before his switch to Citroen. That year he won his 25th WRC event, making him the WRC's most successful driver at the time.
Bringing it up to date, the Ford WRC team's new factory livery for 2012 was revealed at ASI. These are the colours that Jari-Matti Latvala is running in this year – he was leading the Monte last weekend until mishearing a pace note and rolling the car. But it was still a strong start to the year; maybe Loeb won't have it all his way for once!
The Fiesta RS WRC was developed by M-Sport and Ford from the previous S2000 car – its 1.6-litre, Garrett-turbocharged engine pushes out 300bhp at 6,000rpm and delivers 450nm of torque at 4,000rpm. I think it's a great looking car. It's so chunky from the rear!
M-Sport were also showing off the national rally Fiesta R1 on their own stand: the entry-level R1 applies a £7,500 upgrade kit to a standard donor car and can be run in the Fiesta Sport Trophy in the UK, a series for up and coming young drivers – the winner of the series gets a test in a Ford Fiesta WRC.
I'll include this car here, although it's not strictly a rallying tool – in fact, owner Dave Rowe hasn't actually decided what exactly he will use it for!
Six years in the making, Dave has fitted his S1 Quattro with a 3.8-litre Audi A8 V8 running twin-turbos but no intercoolers – he reckons they aren't necessary, as it's running on pure methanol. This is what it sounds like. Epic.
The EPS S1 Quattro has a full space-frame with honeycomb floor – there's very little Audi left in it, in all honesty. It's likely to get a couple of hill-climb run-outs, and with 750hp compared to a 950kg weight that's going to provide quite some spectacle. Watch this space, as we're planning a car spotlight on this monster…
Prodrive were of course long associated with Subaru, but their new MINI Countryman project has heralded a new start for the company in the WRC to complement their Aston Martin sportscar programme.
The MINI John Cooper Works WRC car is anything but mini in the flesh (though Maxi has terribly connotations for anyone familiar with the '70s car of that name) – it's enormous! It's a real shame that the car's potential is looking unlikely to be properly exploited due to the lack of BMW support for the programme this year.
And so onto a trio of Escorts, three of just many examples of MkI and MkIIs at the show. The majority of Escorts were also in pristine condition: like this Mexico.
Although original Mk1s are becoming rarer through accidents and damage, MkIIs are still available in relative abundance and are the perfect choice for learning tail-out, loose-surface style.
One of the most gleaming MkIIs was this one on the North Humberside Motor Club display, due to be entered in this year's MSA Asphalt Rally series. Owner Dave Hawkins is an inspirational driver: after starting his competition career in the '70s, he became a paraplegic in 1980 – but was out and competing within three months of being discharged from hospital. He's part of the British Motor Sports Association for the Disabled, who work with the UK motorsports governing body, the MSA, to ensure that disabled drivers have the same opportunities as able-bodied competitors to earn their licences for entry into road or rally events.
The Escort is fitted with full hand controls and a sequential box – it's in the final stages of build for this year's rally season.
The engine bay is absolutely pristine: the Ford unit produces over 300hp, so it's going to be quite a sight on the stages!
The Race2Recovery programme is also affiliated with the BMSAD: they're involved with helping and supporting injured service personnel compete, most notably in a set of these heavily modified Wildcat Land Rovers. They're aiming to become the first seriously disabled team to compete in the Dakar rally, which will be a fantastic achievement.
I managed to make it to a round of the European Rallycross Championship last year: until you see just how rapid a rallycross Supercar is, you don't know what acceleration means. Lydden Hill is the spiritual home of rallycross in the UK, and their stand at ASI was proudly promoting the sport.
To close, some oldies. Ross has already mentioned the RS200 on display at ASI, but it's such a phenomenal car it's impossible not to post up a couple more shots.
This RS200, in full works livery from 1986, was originally driven in period by the great Stig Blomqvist. It stands in stark contrast to the Pike's Peak version we've already covered!
The original power unit is in place; Stig has driven his old car since – in the Live Arena at ASI in fact – as has Malcolm Wilson at an event at Silverstone – and I've seen the sister car to this one hammering round the Goodwood Festival Of Speed rally stage. Quite a sight – and sound.
Finally, one of the most beautiful rally cars ever: the Lancia Stratos. This Alitalia car is actually a Hawk kit car, but it perfectly replicates the beauty of the original.
Another Stratos replica was parked up in the main hall, unexpectedly on the CSMA stand – the Civil Service Motoring Association!
Replica or not, it's just a pleasure to get close to a Stratos. The last time I saw one screaming through the forest was at Goodwood a few years back, as with the RS200. Buying an original is the preserve of the very rich, so I have no issue with the thought of owning an homage to one for a tenth of the price – and being able to hammer round a stage in it without fear of bankruptcy…
The Stratos is another reminder about all that is great about rallying – and there is plenty, as long as you're willing to step outside into the Great Outdoors and take on the forests, just as the cars themselves do.