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RAC Rally

Max Le Grand discovers the origins of rally horsepower in Cheltenham. crack

“In days of old, when knights were bold, And motor cars weren’t invented. There were pot holes in The Promenade, which coach and horses circumvented”.

The Promenade between the Montpellier Gardens and Neptune’s Fountain was an accident black spot in the late 1800’s. There were no traffic lanes. So, coach and horses travelled erratically down the hill. A coach driver with a full load on board found the sheer weight of passengers created an inertia, pushing the horses out of control.

Negotiating the chicane at The Queens Hotel, witnessed accidents, as the driver fought to slow his team, and invariably turned the coach on its side.

At this time, The Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland was inaugurated.In order to promote the pubescent British motor industry, the “Thousand Miles Trial” was organised in 1900. The route started in London and went through Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh and back to the capital. This was not a race or a rally. More an endurance test, to promote the capability of the new fangled horseless carriage, to the great unwashed in the provinces.

Enroute, Cheltenham was an important service stop and rest halt for the 100 crews. Residents spotted luminaries like The Honourable Charles Rolls, from Monmouth, who drove a Panhard. He later formed a partnership with Frederick Royce, to manufacture luxury cars. Well known racers, Selwyn Edge and Charles Jarrott provided some spirited driving. They turned a blind eye to the regulation 12 mph speed limit.

For many Cheltonians, this was their first opportunity to see carriages that popped and banged, rather than the clip-clop of real horse power. They wondered how these steaming and often, smokey velocipedes, could move so fast and yet be under control. One thousand hair raising miles later, Charles Rolls was first to arrive back in London. He received a gold medal for proclaiming the motor car and expertly showing its versatility.

Thirty two years later, The Royal Automobile Club, as it became know, organised the first British rally in March 1932. Torquay was the destination where several 1,000 mile routes were plotted from London, Norwich, Buxton and Newcastle around the country. Such well known racing drivers as Sir Tim Birkin and William Rootes tested their skills. Dame Barbra Cartland headed fifty-two lady drivers.

Cheltenham again featured as a service area and rest halt. Society journeyed from London to cheer their respective teams. The social aspect almost overwhelmed the event. Some people had to be awoken from liverish slumbers, to witness their member of the family passing through. There were road tests and concours des elegance in Torquay. Colonel Loughborough was declared an honourable winner in his Lancaster.

After World War II, the RAC obtained international status for the Rally of Great Britain which started in June 1951.

Holding a nationwide event during mid-summer was deemed madness by seasoned competitors. Cheltenham was promoted to a start point, along with Skegness, Brighton and Harrogate.

Over 260 entries from Europe and Britain started off. Cheltenham hosted 80 teams, their service crews, the national media and supporters. The town went en fete for almost a week during the build up to the departure. It’s a wonder any drivers were sober enough to start!

Many competitors along the 2,000 mile routes, were docked time penalties for lateness due to bottle necks. This time the rally converged upon Bournemouth for road tests along the promenade, where competitors thumped sand bags and mobile pylons along a timed section to the finish. Fastest were Ian and Pat Appleyard in a Jaguar XK120.

The RAC did not announce an outright winner, in fear of causing a race on public roads. Instead all cars were entered into various classes according to horse power, each awarded a winner.

Cheltenham became a talking point during the 1955 rally. Stirling Moss that year won the Mille Miglia, a 1,000 mile non-stop race around Italy. While his achievement became part of motor racing folklore, Stirling’s sister Pat, was emerging as the best female rally driver, in an MG. After an arduous night rallying from Scotland, Pat pulled up outside The Queens Hotel while her navigator Pat Foichncy, went in to book breakfast and a bath room. Not Pat, she famously fell asleep in her car. She then had to drive to Prescott Hill Climb, through the Bishops Cleeve morning rush hour, feeling dishevelled and anti-social.

In 1982, a huge battle raged between Finland’s Hannu Mikkola and Britain’s Tony Fall. After servicing their cars in Cheltenham, the crews crossed the River Severn. The outcome was settled in the Forest of Dean off the road timed stages. This was the last in a record of four RAC Rallies won by Hannu Mikkola.

At last Cheltenham received a contract to play host town to the Network Q Rally of Great Britain between 1997- 1999. The November rally was based at Cheltenham Racecourse, a week after the prestigious jumps meeting.

Edward Gillespie, Managing Director of Prestbury Park, was totally unfazed at juggling the two meetings. RACMSA were most impressed by what they called, the best Rally Headquarters in the world.

Two champion rally drivers won the Cheltenham based rally. The late legend Colin McCrae won for Subaru in 1997, and then Richard Burns claimed victory in 1998-99 before he suffered a fatal illness. Burns victory in 1998 was over shadowed because of the most dramatic climax to a World Rally Championship in history.

Favourite was Finn Tommi Makinen, championship leader in the Mitsubishi. He crashed on the first day. Thus effectively handing the championship to runner-up, Spanish driver Carlos Sainz in the Toyota. On Margam in Wales, the last stage on the final day, Sainz car burst into flames 400 yards from the end. Tommi’s brother Tuomo was a spectator. He immediately phoned Tommi at the Golden Valley Hotel and uttered “Congratulations, World Champion”. Who said Cheltenham could not provide dramatic sport, regardless of the horse power.