There’s an undeniable attraction to long distance rallying. Combining motorsport and travel with the adventure and challenge that comes with rallying every day for over a month, the opportunity to compete in an event like the Sydney-London is a once in a lifetime opportunity. When it passed through South Australia’s Barossa Valley recently, Any Given Reason just had to get out and see it.
The Sydney-London is mooted as a reverse direction re-run of the famous London-Sydney rallies of 1968 and 1971, the likely never to be seen again pinnacles of long distance competition. Unfortunately the modern interpretation is far from the original, but that’s more a sign of the world we live in than anything else. The 1968 original raced through Turkey to Iran stopping in Tehran, through Afghanistan stopping in Kabul, and through Pakistan to Delhi. The route then traveled through India to Bombay (now Mumbai), where the cars boarded a boat to Perth. The Middle East is a stunning part of the world but sadly these days it’s more renowned for war and violence than anything else, and the thought of running a car rally through some of those countries seems vaguely laughable right now.
Hopefully in our lifetimes we’ll see these countries politically stable enough to host a car rally, but that isn’t the case right now so for 2014 the Sydney-London flies over that part of the world. Legs 1 & 2 last for 12 days and sees the competitors travel 7750km from Sydney to Perth, with 33 timed Special Stages (1133 competitive km). After an airlift the rally resumes in Ankara (Turkey) with 6000km through Europe comprising Leg 3 to Rijeka, and then Leg 4 with some classic stages through Wales on the way to the London finish.
Whichever way you slice it the Sydney-London is a crazy expensive rally, and there’s only so many people out there with the ability to drop close to a full season’s Australian Rally Championship budget on this single event. I like to think that in tough times the true enthusiasts still find a way to compete at some level, however these types of extravagant events are the first to feel the pain. 106 teams competed in the 1993 rerun, and 100 in 2000. For 2014 just 15 crews are still racing across Europe as I write.
Whilst the field may not be as strong as in the past, competition is still fierce amongst the top few cars. The Australian Coconut Car Racing crew of Geoff Olholm and John Doble hold the outright lead in their Datsun 260Z, built and prepared by Adelaide’s Garry Kirk. Any Given Reason took a closer look at the 260Z just prior to its departure for Sydney in an earlier story.
After getting out to some of the stages we visited the overnight service park at the Novotel Barossa Valley. It was there that I was watching a mechanic service the white 911 for its Belgian driver after a hard day of rallying. Eventually after some conversation the mechanic introduced himself as none other than Francis Tuthill, winner of the 1993 London-Sydney (in a 911 of course) and probably one of the best Porsche race mechanics in the world. It was an honour to meet him.
As Francis was adjusting the fan belt he was explaining to me how at the recent East African Safari Rally in Kenya a few months ago Tuthill Porsche took a crew of 120 to run and maintain no less than 17 classic 911 rally cars, including one for ‘Björn’. All cars finished without a problem except for ‘Björns’ 911 which was involved in an accident when a pacenote error caused him to approach a bridge travelling way too fast. It took me a little while to realise that ‘Björn’ was the 1979 World Rally Champion Björn Waldegård himself.
Walking around the service park it became readily apparent that there were two distinct groups of cars – those that had been built and prepared specially for this event such as the immaculate Welsh prepared Historic Rallysport Ltd Escort MkII of Keith and Mary-Anne Callinan…
… and those with the patina that only years of hard adventure brings, such as the Mercedes-Benz 280SL of Pat and Brad Cole. I can remember seeing pictures of the distinctive Falken liveried Pagoda on the pages of Classic & Sportscar magazine, and it wasn’t until I did some research that I realised just how many times this car has been around the world.
This Mercedes has seen the 1993 London-Sydney (30 days, 16 countries, 16,000km), the 1995 London-Mexico (30 days, 15 countries, 17,000km), the 1997 Panama-Alaska Rally (23 days, 8 countries, 15,000km), the 1998 Shield of Africa Rally (21 days, 6 countries, 13,500km), the 1998 Middle East Rally Championship (Abu Dhabi – UAE) and the 2000 London-Sydney (34 days, 18 countries, 16,000km).
Competing in an event like this is an adventure for the service crews just as much as it is for the competitors. The crews don’t know what the conditions will be like where they will be servicing and what will be available, so they must be as self sufficient as possible. Some of the teams hired vans for the Australian leg, but the serious guys brought their own vehicles out. Is there anything more ‘right’ than an English registered Land Rover Defender servicing for a Mk1 Escort? It was a picture perfect scene.
Since the service crews follow the same path as the rally (skipping around the special stages, of course) they will spend a lot of time in these cars, often covering up to 1,000km a day. And once they arrive at their destination there’s no relaxing, as they must set up and spend the next several hours servicing the rally car, and fixing any problems they find.
This service park at the Novotel, relatively close to the Adelaide CBD, is about as luxurious as it gets. The crews must carry absolutely everything they could ever possibly need, as there’s no quick nipping down to Repco to pick up a lower ball joint when you’re camped halfway across the Nullabor. And if you miss a stage or the rally leaves without you the next day, your chances of a good result are gone.
The competition crews rally across the world following the road books provided by the organisers, however the service crews have no such luxury. They must navigate themselves with their own maps, including planning stops throughout the day for roadside service or maybe even the odd chance to catch a quick look at a stage. The service crews need to find the right balance between getting to the destination with enough time to prepare for evening service, and being in reasonably close proximity to the rally throughout the day in case the competition car has a problem and requires urgent assistance. This is hard enough to plan in a place that you’re reasonably familiar with, but must be nigh on impossible to work it out on the other side of the world.
As I write now on May 8th, the rally has departed the arid and dusty conditions of the Australian outback and has just hit the famous Col de Turini in France. I tackled this road on my Vespa a few months ago and found it to be an amazing drive, so I can’t imagine how much fun it would be in some of these machines.
Words and photos (except for the non AGR watermarked shots) by Andrew Coles. For more transcontinental rallying action on Any Given Reason, have a look at the story of AGR’s visit to the finish line of the 2013 Peking-Paris rally.
AGL released this excellent video when the rally competed on a stage through their Hallett Wind Farm in South Australia. Well worth a watch.
Have a look at this in-car highlights reel of the ’67 Mustang of Richard Bennett and Matt James-Wallace on the winding roads of Croatia. A far cry from the dust of outback Australia.