As the snow blizzard grew even more intense, I stood nestled against a sodden bank. Shivering, the flash of light along the treeline and rasp of an exhaust signalled another rally car passing by, but I didn’t look.
I was cold, miserable and tired, and a turn of the head only meant an absolute onslaught of hail to the face.
Rallying in Storm Arwen, an extratropical cyclone that lashed the United Kingdom with gale-force winds, driving rain and snow, teetered on dangerous.
But this was the Roger Albert Clark (RAC) Rally – one of true great rallying adventures left anywhere in the world, so everyone just got on with it (for as long as they possibly could) in an old school motorsport kind of way. And snow in late November was always inevitable, right?
In an age of compact itineraries, the 2021 RAC Rally route bucked the trend by stretching over five days, the competitive special stages alone amounting to 313 miles (504km). That made it 50% longer than Rally Portugal, the longest event on the 2021 World Rally Championship (WRC) calendar.
All in, this was the longest single UK rally event since 1991, and the Lombard RAC of old.
While the ‘original’ RAC has morphed into Rally GB and is a Welsh-based (and hopefully soon to be Northern Irish) round of the WRC, the Roger Albert Clark is a celebration of rallying’s bygone era. Limited in one part to ‘Historic’ cars, those over 35 years old, and 2WD vehicles in the ‘Open’ section, the marathon event is as big a throwback as it is an incredible test of team and machine.
Based in the city of Carlisle, the 2021 RAC would see action in Scotland, England and Wales, with some of the most legendary gravel stages – Kielder, Kershope, Ae, Dyfant and Walters Arena – amongst a 31-stage route plan.
Running since 2004, and a bi-annual affair since 2017, the Roger Albert Clark (itself a celebration of the legendary driver who claimed RAC success in 1972 and 1976) has grown into a monster event, with an oversubscribed entry filling within days of registration. Come the rally start, 139 cars lined up.
For me, the 2021 RAC began at 1.30am on Wednesday.
This event was on my radar for a long time, and with the nature of the current world and the constant swing from restriction to restriction, it was time to just say ‘yes’ when the opportunity arose. I’d sold my Hyundai i30N the previous week, so had some surplus funds to pay for the week-long rally adventure, but that now also meant doing it from behind the wheel of my Peugeot 106 Rallye. I’ll fill you in on that experience in another post.
It was a quiet drive from home to Belfast in the middle of the night. A ferry across to the UK, followed by a wet and wild blast south through Scotland had me arriving during the rally’s frantic scrutineering.
All around, crews were busy completing final checks. Door placards and windscreen banners were being applied and one by one each car was rolled through for inspection.
Behind barriers, the crowds built. Each bonnet popped grabbed attention, a sea of the finest BDAs, Pintos and more on display for the admiring public.
Under the fluorescent lights, everything seemed to look immaculate. Fresh rally car builds, yet to feel the trauma of gravel rash across their underbodies, sat gleaming.
Navigators ran around, some looking more frantic than others, with the required paperwork. There would be a lot of paperwork over the next few days.Thursday
When Thursday rolled around, all eyes were focused on Kershope and the opening special stages. I arrived 90 minutes before the first car was due, and watched the final strains of daylight drain away over the rolling Cumbrian hills. By 4:00pm, it was near pitch black.
With the sky clear and an array of stars visible in a way not overly familiar to a city dweller like myself, the first exhaust note reverberated through the trees. Game time.
Into a slippy square left with standing water on the inside, drivers desperately needed to scrub off speed from the fast 200m uphill straight before turn in. Mid-corner, an assault of flashlights went off all round. This felt electric on the bank, never mind in the car.
Venturing deeper into the woods as the evening passed, it felt refreshing to be so far from home, making small talk to pass the time before another exhaust note pierced the silence. This was raw, gritty and ever-so-captivating for a rally nerd like myself.
It was 10:00pm in the middle of Kielder when a screaming BDA and the searching beams of four PIAA spots cast out above the trees. Does it really get any better than this?Friday
After a late Thursday night – the special stages finishing up near 11:00pm – it was an early start on Friday morning. Today, the rally ventured into Scotland, with the crews heading northeast to Kielder, the legendary forests on the Anglo-Scots border.
Known as Killer Kielder, the thick banks and unforgiving lanes have claimed many rallying victims over the years. An onslaught of mud, ditches, ruts, trees and all manner of weather, the area holds almost mythical status in the rally world. In the mid-morning sunshine it seemed tame, although that wouldn’t last.
First on the road each day was the sub-1,600cc class, a real oddball mix of classics. Think everything from Peugeot 205s to Lancia Fulvias, an Opel Corsa S1600 to a Rover 400 BRM and pretty much everything in between.
Cutting a swift path uphill through two tree-lined banks, it felt serene from a distance, but Friday was a test in the truest sense of the word. Eight special stages covering 170.1km (105.7mi) – that’s almost the equivalent of three Irish forestry events, but in one single day.
Keeping cars running for such a long and challenging event is a huge logistical task. Like the old days, pop-up remote service parks were a daily occurrence, while the end of every stage was lined for miles by chase and management crews. Some opted for full service-like ground sheets, while others made do with grassy roadside banks.
As the daylight began to fade, I shot across to another stage. It was here, as I made the slow climb down a bumpy forest track to the parking area, that the first wistful snowflakes began to appear. The forecast did say snow at 4:00pm; they arrived at 3.57pm. Oh joy.
I’d only ever experienced a whiteout once before on a rally, but this was different. A cutting wind whipped the damp drifts of precipitation into a frenzy, falling more erratically than the picture-postcard style winter wonderland. It didn’t settle, and drivers became extra cautious, especially through the sections requiring more commitment.
It would be but a warning. Here, on the Chirdonhead special stage, I don’t think anyone knew what lay ahead.
SS12: Bewshaugh 2 is a special stage I will never forget. It was the same location as earlier, but with just a slight change in conditions.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this story, Storm Arwen absolutely battered the area. Amazingly though, the banks remained lined with spectators.
In a forest, at night, in blizzard conditions, we stood. Masochists maybe, but this felt authentic. This was proper RAC weather, like ’73, ’93 or ’96.
I must admit though, it was not a pleasant experience. The gloves I wore lost badly to the damp quite early on, and my camera began to act up after 25 minutes. I lasted about an hour, which was enough time to see the leading 10 cars. I still had to make it back to my hotel though, and the 65-minute B-road blast in the morning ended up being a near 2.5-hour nerve-racking return ordeal.
Gale-force winds whipped across the road from all directions and the lashing snow and rain reduced visibility almost down to zero. After negotiating mile after mile of standing water and avoiding fallen trees on the road, I was relieved to arrive back in Carlisle. Others weren’t so lucky.
In the woods, mobile phone signal is nonexistent, so most of the time I lived a life disconnected from the rest of the world (again in keeping with the original RAC fantasy). It wasn’t until the next morning that I began to learn of the ongoing situation. The special stage I had been on, Bewshaugh 2, was eventually cancelled. Safety was the priority and it was getting pretty clear things weren’t great. The teams still waiting on the start line – roughly 20 of them – thought the cancellation would be the end of their night, but it turned out to be the beginning of another challenge.
Completely blocked roads meant many teams, rally officials and spectators had resigned themselves to sleeping in their vehicles. A small reprieve came when a local pub opened its doors to provide shelter for some.Saturday & Sunday
It was near midday on Saturday when some crews returned to Carlisle, but by then a call had been made to abandon the day’s rallying.
Disappointed to now be heading north to Ae, crews got to work fixing the Kielder damage before loading up for an earlier-than-expected trip down the M6 towards Wales. I went off on a day trip to the Lake District, before eventually packing up and heading south as well.
Next morning, with the sun shining, Welsh rally fans came out in numbers. Well-known terrain for many, the roadside car park at Dyfnant stretched for nearly 2.5 miles.
Bobble hats teetered happily in a breeze tinged with log-fire smoke and the rich aroma of fried sausages. Anyone who’s been to Wales Rally GB in recent years knows the scene, but there were no WRC monsters to be seen on this day.
The RAC is, to be truthful, an absolute festival of Ford Escorts. Of the 139 starters, 95 were either Mk1s or Mk2s. The leaderboard heading to Wales was chock-full of BDA-powered Fords, with Jason Pritchard and Phil Clark holding the start in their newly-built Scott Williams car.
Behind, the chasing pack was led by the hard-charging Osian Pryce and Noel O’Sullivan, themselves bouncing back from BRC heartbreak in their VW Polo R5 the week before, and the more experienced combination of Paul Barrett and Gordon Noble.
The crowds stretched two, sometimes three-deep for hundreds of metres out of the big junctions. The ground, frozen solid in places, proved to be a real challenge for some drivers.
Over time, the ideal driving line became clear: Scandinavian flick, run the rear end wide and put the power down in an attempt to get back into a straight line as quickly as possible. It’s just the most timeless and pure driving style on gravel, and save for the odd interloper, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was 1978. Oh, and the noise. Dear god, the noise.
Such is the layout in Dyfant, the roars of screaming BDA engines lingered for three, maybe even four minutes before the Escorts they powered emerged into sight, sideways of course.
With the massive crowds, it became clear that grabbing a second stage would be a challenge, so instead I took the chance to dive into Dolgellau to catch the ‘midday service’. That name was misleading given how dark it was by the time the lead cars arrived.
Quickly, the quiet, organised awnings became hives of activity. Fresh tyres, more fuel and a cleaning rag was standard, while other team mechanics wheeled out welders and big hammers to keep their machines going.
In the air, the mood was of disbelief – event leader Jason Pritchard had gone off, thrusting Paul Barrett into the lead. Osian Pryce was pulling time with every passing stage, but the real talk was the Porsche-shaped imposter now on the podium.
Ryan Champion and Craig Thorley had led a quiet life on the event, keeping out of the Escort battle at the front in their Tuthill-built Porsche 911. No mechanical issues, just all under control – it would prove a wise strategy later on.
Someone not having such an easy ride of things was Chris Harris. A true ‘one of us’ journalist (any man with a taste for French tat and German performance metal is proper hero status) and Top Gear presenter, his RAC had been eventful. Harris slid off the road and got stuck in a ditch on the opening night, and ended up as one of the Storm Arwen-stricken crews the next. By the time the event hit Wales, Chris had had quite a ride, but credit where it’s due because he got to the end. Not even a dashboard fire could stop him.
As the night dragged on and the leading cars headed off into the forests once more, I headed south. Four long days was starting to wear me down, but at least I had a warm room to look forward to. Many bedded down for the night in cars and vans parked up in woods and lay-bys, so it almost felt like I was cheating.Monday
The bitterly cold final morning began in South Wales. Just outside Neath, Walters Arena is another name carved into rally lore, and I made it stage-side for sunrise. The arena has become a go-to location for rally car testing and off-road pursuits, so it was a perfect place to finish off my RAC experience. While the event would stretch into the dying light of the fifth day, I had to make do with a single stage before a brisk drive to the port.
Watching nature put on its stunning morning show gave me time to stop and think about the mammoth effort that goes into organising and running a rally like this. Any event is a huge task, but to do it on this scale is crazy. The team at DeLacy MC usually have two years to organise the RAC, but Covid gave them less than six months. It explains the frantic running needed at times.
Against the wide expanses of the rolling Welsh Hills, the forest tracks criss-crossed in and out of sight below my viewing spot. I had to be tactical; there were likely better spots to seek out, but I knew I had a ferry to catch at 1:00pm, so discipline and sticking to the plan were the order of the day. That still allowed a bit of moving around and shot variety, and the three images above were all captured within 100m of each other. The ice-hardened hairpin would prove deceptively tricky for some.
In rallying, you always have to expect the unexpected, and within a few miles, on the last day of the marathon, both the first and second-placed teams bowed out of contention. Paul Barrett sent his Escort into a ditch breaking the suspension, while further back in the stage, Osian Pryce suffered a stub axle failure.
That left Ryan Champion and Craig Thorley to cruise home to victory in their Porsche 911 and claim British rallying’s ultimate crown, in doing so breaking a 15-year Ford Escort stranglehold on the Roger Albert Clark Rally title. Not bad for a ‘steady, middle of the road’ drive, but such is the epic nature of the RAC that it proved fruitful.
After six days on the road and nearly 2,000km racked up, I made it to the ferry port with six minutes to spare. The few hours more on the far side felt the longest all week, but that was the post-rally comedown.
Following the RAC was a dream list item ticked off, and it most definitely did not disappoint. Now, about the 106…Cutting Room Floor