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  • Writer's pictureDrew Bentham

Reflecting on the Roger Albert Clark Rally 2023

As with so many things in life, people (including myself) hark on about how things were better in years gone by, and you know what, I think a lot of things actually were. Rallying has come under some intense criticism over the past few years for not delivering to the teams, crews and fans alike. But if you look a little harder, a little deeper, you begin to find that the old ethos of rallying, the passion and talent that was always the backbone of the sport is still there. Events like the Roger Albert Clark show Rallying for all the right things it should be, and I feel this year that's more important than ever before.


McCormak wins RAC for 4th time

The RAC had it all this year, constant drama, top 10 changes not just top 3, joy, excitement, worry, heartache and more. Nostagia oozed from every minute of coverage, corner, jump and interview and brought us right back. It was a joy to experience, even from home, but why? Why did this rally out of all the rallies that have taken place across the country, make such an impact, such a tsumani of emotion, such love and admiration? No matter who you speak to, or read about on the socials the buzz around this rally is something else, something very different.


Now back in the day this was the norm , the case for most rallies and a lot were run because of the popularity. Today....well not so much. Rallies are being cancelled, finding venues are harder to come by, the loss of valuable TV coverage on terrestrial TV channels, not to mention the cost. The pinnacle of the sport is on it's knees with next to no support from Manufactuers and drivers alike. The existence of professional part time drives is an abomination in my humble opinion, but that's for another story. Even at home, the once king of international domestic rallying, the British Rally Championship has struggled. I once asked them about the issue of TV coverage to which their reply was, to paraphrase, "there wasn't enough demand to justify it" citing that "YouTube and social videos are enough to satisfy the demand." I am paraphrasing here, but reading that made my heart sink. How was it that such a great sport could be headed this way?


Special Stage and MCR Media, or Matt and Bex, have been producing quality online video coverage for years. And we the fans have been very grateful for without them there'd have been nothing. So when they came together with an idea, a dream, they produced content equal to that of the WRC. With that I can almost hear some of you say 'but the WRC is crap these days'. There is definitely a lot wrong with it, but the quality of the coverage is excellent. Multi camera action from the stages, heli shots, the commentary (mostly), the online additional content, all of it - is amazing and much more of a feat to produce than you may realise. I don't even mind paying the £11 a month for the priveledge. Its still a ton cheaper than Sky, Virgin or BT Sport and you don't get the additional filler with it. Sorry, sorry, sorry I meant other sports on the channel. No wait, I did mean filler...


I digress...


So if the quality of the coverage was the same as we can see elsewhere, what else could it be? I'm not going to sit here and make you read as I go round the houses so let's just get to it. I've been thinking about this for the last few days. I just couldn't shake it.


Competition.


The field for the RAC was made up of several classes of car that brought with it an openness. This meant there were more people out on the stages and more that could be in with a shot at a result. I've made this point before in an earlier WRC article, but yes more people in more cars fighting for places throughout the top 10 and beyond can only be a positive. All the way through every class. Seeing Neil Weaver in that S1600 Corsa in the top 10 and a 17 minute lead in the Open rally was great to see. It was reminicent of Dave Metcalfe in the Nova back in the day. If you're unfamiliar with Dave Metcalfe, have a look at the video. The way he drove that car was a joy to behold as you'll see. This certainly is one of the vital missing elements in today's rallying, particularly the WRC.





Individual Stories


Perez's Stratos took us all on a journey

The reason there's a buzz is the fact you as a fan, can get behind one of the players. Maybe it's their backstory, previous bad luck, controversy. Whatever it is it's there. And for the RAC it was in abundance. Seb Perez in the glorious Stratos for example began by sirring our souls. The sound of that Dino V6 howling through the forests, the smell of the hot exhaust as it drove passed, the show they put on was enough in itself. But it's a Lancia and that brought with it the uncertain reliability in tough conditions. The difficulty to drive the machine in British forests and of course the struggles Steve has had with the car all added together. So as crew and car swept through Wales and into Scotland, we were all willing them on with so much energy it must have been palpable, tangible maybe. Day 5 broke with them in 2nd place and we all dared to dream. Onto the big one and we all held our breath, just one more stage, c'mon lads! Cars went by and no Team Stratos. Knots appearred in the pit of our bellies and then.....then we began to hear. The poor Stratos cried no more as it finally cooked it engine mid way through SS33 and the dream was over. I think we all shared in the crews utter disappointment and heartache. A cruel end to an heroic effort. Valour was indeed earned in this battle.


Did I over egg it? I don't think so but you get the point. And there were many many other such stories that took place throughout all 5 days of the rally. We all wondered if Solberg and his Escort could hang on, poor Jason Pritchard suffered horrible luck and yet still scored 3rd place and many many more besides fell by the wayside. Everywhere you looked there was a story to be told.


A Connection


Fans forge connections with their favourites. We see something we believe we share or are just endeared too. Humour, honesty, grit for instance. Ultimately, its the stage end and service park interviews where we get to know our heroes, but with Rallying we can actually go meet them too. Those characters build into legends. And legends are part of the reason spectators band together to haul cars from ditches and send them on their way. WRC today is cold. Nobody smiles anymore, you don't see a Vatanen character joke around with another driver. The fun has gone. With the current champion going part time it seems the desire is too. Whilst what they do is still impressive, I don't see a hero in their midst in the same manner.




Vatanen & Salonen joking after Vatanen rolled on the 1989 RAC


Drama


From the first to the last, drama filled the stages on the RAC. You couldn't have scripted it better. An adventure we were all witness to, gave us exciting plot twists and leading character losses, danger and peril, unexpected come-backs, proper edge of the seat stuff. When was the last time you got that from a WRC round? Which leads me onto....


Stuck In A Reaction


Post Group B, changes had to be made, there's no getting away from that. What resulted were tamer, perhaps easier to control cars in stricter regulations on shorter events all of which did their job. But it's not the late 80's anymore. Lessons were learned, crowds controlled. So can we ease our grip on the reins now? I'm not the only one who thinks so. During an interview, Dave Richards also raised the suggestion of moving away from the sprint format and returning to longer events. And I whole-heartedly agree. The main reason I think the RAC was so entertaining was the endurance aspect. The story had time to develop and unfold. Things had time to go wrong but also for crews to fight back or to just bide their time until mounting a push later on. There was no need for a power stage. Crews were tested in a way they are not able to be on most of todays rallies. Tactics came into play along with stamina.


Stagnation has set in atopped with apathy. This is just the way its done and yet it doesn't have to be. Yes changes need to be made, but some are more subtle than others. The FIA are in the process of reviewing the next set of regulations but if success is to be found, these elements should be included too. Really important lessons can be learned from this rally and I hope they are.


KITT from 80's Show Knight Rider
KITT from 80's Show Knight Rider

For its not about any individual driver, or car or team. What rallying needs is space. Space for the stories to develop, legends to be made and reputations to be earned. Rally 1 should be dropped in favour of cars with real links to real road cars you can buy that don't look like the 2nd gen KIT from Knight Rider. As a life long fan, I hate to say this but top tier rallying is irrelevant today. I know the sport needs to keep with the times but I don't believe EV is the way. But motorsport already has a candidate in sustainable synthetic fuels. Fuels that can be used in modern engines, that could be delivered through the existing distribution channels so that we too can benefit and use it in our road cars. Yes there may be need for some adaptations to the the fuel systems but that wouldn't be any different to the change to unleaded fuels. This works and the sport should be championing it to the world, in cars that are once again relevant to the public on rallies that showcase, test and provide a proving ground for the cars, allowing for those heros and legends to rise to the top.


I hand on heart hope that the powers that be are aware of what the RAC invoked, that they listen to opinions like this and that real changes are implemented soon. There is a proven future waiting for rallying......



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2 Comments


paulrs1800
Dec 08, 2023

Spot on couldn't agree more, let's hope DR decides to save rallying instead of killing

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Drew Bentham
Drew Bentham
Dec 09, 2023
Replying to

I hope he still thinks that way. I’m hoping to find out in a future podcast. If he agrees to guest, I’ll be sure to ask him.

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