Report from Autosport of 29th October 1987
Report: Keith Oswin - Photography: Tony North
Knockout in the eighth
Exactly a year ago, Alistair Sutherland clinched the Marlboro/AUTOSPORT National Rally Championship, just 8secs between him and Andrew Wood. No-one thought that a championship could ever again be as closely fought. Wrong! On Saturday, David Gillanders won the Audi Sport Rally to claim the 1987 title, taking the lead with less than three miles to go and then winning the event by a mere 4secs.
Had Pat Doran not made a wrong tyre choice on the penultimate stage and handed the advantage to Gillanders, the Scot would not have picked up the requisite points to clinch the title for his two rivals, Trevor Smith and Russell Brookes, were locked in battle for the Group A crown. At the end of the rally, the pair were on equal times, Smith’s quicker first stage time splitting the difference. Beat that if you can...
The atmosphere at the start of the eighth was electric. The crowd gathered to watch as the main contenders fought for the slightest edge, everyone rooting for different parties. The underdog had nothing to lose, but could enhance his reputation by getting ahead when it mattered most. The favourite would be shattered should he fail to clinch it now.
But the underdog seemed to have a slight advantage and the tension mounted during the closing moments of the round. Suddenly the big guy dropped his guard for a second and the favourite pounced, hammering home his advantage. Briefly, the other fought back but it was too late, the round was over, his chance gone, perhaps forever.
Bruno versus Bugner or Gillanders versus Doran, the choice is yours. But believe me - and everyone else who was in Telford in Saturday - when the big fight hit the screens that evening, those final seconds of the eighth round were almost a mirror image of the final moments of the eighth round in the National Rally Championship.
Throughout the season, the Gartrac 6R4 of David Gillanders has been the target for the others to chase. He took the lead of the series on the second round, shrugged off all challengers from within the Open category and seemed set to wrap up the contest long ago. But, thanks to some spirited driving during the latter part of the year by Trevor Smith, and a run of unbroken reliability from Russell Brookes since the third round, a Group A driver could have whipped it from under him at the last moment. To be certain of the title on Saturday, the Scot had to take his fourth set of maximum points or, should Smith or Brookes get top Group A points, they would get the nod. The permutations were endless.
When Metros took the first five places on the opening test in Dyfnant - and Gillanders was only the fourth fastest - the pattern seemed set. The Aberdeen garage owner was not getting much help from his fellow 6R4 owners. Steve Whiteford grabbed a clear lead in the slippery conditions, the stages actually having stood up remarkably well to the appalling weather of the past weeks, with Ken Wood 7secs behind. Pat Doran was a further lOsecs off the pace with Gillanders fully 19secs adrift of Whiteford and four up on Bill Barton. “I thought that I’d lost it then,” admitted the British Car Rental driver.
Although Group A was being led by seventh placed Timo Salonen’s Mazda 323 Turbo, the former World Champion was not registered for points and would therefore not affect the championship race. Hence, Trevor Smith was on course for the title, the Hendy Ford RS Cosworth heading the championship contenders. Russell Brookes had dropped 4secs to the Ford by overshooting a junction and those same 4secs would ultimately cost him the Group A title. Meanwhile, he set about regaining the advantage as the route set off into Dyfi Forest.
It had been an early start for most crews, the actual rally start (at 0830) a full hour’s drive from Rally HO at Telford. The run had provided a scare or two along the way, Trevor Smith discovering that his co-driver had left the road book behind, Mark Lovell having to coax the Daily Mail liveried Cosworth into life as the battery had died in the night, while Alistair Sutherland’s Mazda developed early engine trouble but was ultimately sidelined later on with the traditional broken gearbox.
From Dyfnant, the rally swung through Dyfi towards Machynlleth and the first decent service opportunity. Pat Doran would need the hour to change his gearbox, the original decidedly sticky and keeping him from showing what he can do when allowed. But Whiteford’s chance was suddenly swept away when the Metro encountered a tricky corner on the second stage, the red and blue car (winner of the recent Cumbria round of the series) shot into the ditch and immediate retirement. What had promised to be Gillanders’ biggest obstacle was now out of the way, he and Wood tying for top spot on the stage, Wood now leading the event by 12secs from his near neighbour.
By the time the crews arrived at Machynlleth, Wood led by a mere 2secs from a hard charging Doran with Gillanders 9secs further back. It was close indeed but close would not be enough for Gillanders, he had to get past the other two Metros. Perhaps he could persuade Wood to slow a little, a bit of Aberdonian hospitality on the cards maybe, but Doran was a different prospect. He wanted to win and to hell with what the others wished...
The factory Mazda was having a fairly steady run, Salonen and Seppo Harjanne getting to know the character of the forests ready for November and unable to challenge the Metros over much. As team boss, Achim Warmbold explained, “We only have 250bhp and so we cannot beat the Metros on fast roads. But where there are bends, we stand a chance. But we are here to learn, not to test, and we are only hoping that Timo’s engine holds together.” For the time being, Warmbold had two other pressing problems, the identity of his second driver on the RAC Rally and keeping his boisterous son, Anthony, happy!
Mark Lovell was spinning his way through the forests, the spectators -who included a few well-known faces making their annual appearance in the woods - notably Messrs Airikkala and Mikkola - thoroughly enjoying the sight of both sides of the Ford as it careered towards them at times, Lovell not getting the yard by yard assistance provided by Roger Freeman, from his one-off co-driver, Jerry Williams of the Daily Mail. “I keep getting fits of insecurity,” joked Lovell, while Williams still looked nervous as he recounted various spins and near misses along the way.
A couple of other drivers were getting used to new partners, Russell Brookes and Neil Wilson together again for the first time in 15 years or so, Wilson set to partner Brookes in the Lancia on the RAC Rally. Smith still led the Group A title hunt by 9secs at this point, Brookes admitting to playing too much with the fourth brake pedal that was fitted to the Andrews Kadett for the first time. Also in the GM camp was Malcolm Wilson, Mike Broad alongside the Cumbrian on his first outing with the team. Broad was having to work harder than he ever did with Brookes, Wilson used to detailed descriptions of every metre of the stage, Brookes’ vast knowledge serving him well enough with just a gentle reminder of the bad bits required. “That’s why we’re here,” explained Broad. “The second day of the RAC Rally is no place to learn about each other from scratch.”
More immediate problems were befalling Wilson, the gear selectors having scrambled themselves early on and work needed if the car was going much further. Elsewhere at the Machynlleth halt Doran was fitting his new gearbox, Graham Middleton needed a new axle on the Toyota Corolla, BTRDA Champion Ian Beveridge was counting how many tyres still had air, Jeff Churchill was seeking the solace of the bar thanks to a broken gearbox in the RS200 and several crews were revising suspension setting to improve traction.
Fed and watered, they began the return journey through Dyfi, the stages firm enough to withstand second usage. Salonen, fastest on the stage before lunch, set joint fastest time with Gillanders on the first stage afterwards. The Finn had led, and would lead, Group A all day, the championship battle still led by Trevor Smith, although Brookes closed the gap every so often. Gillanders was also closing in on the leaders but now it was Doran ahead of Wood, just 5secs covering the top three. Gillanders had mounted his attack and, while never setting consistent times, he was drawing inexorably closer. By stage seven, Doran now only had a lead of lsec over the tying Wood and Gillanders, Doran slipping to second equal on the next test as Wood took a brief lead. At the close of the Dyfi tests, Doran was back ahead and a strong drive in Gartheiniog had increased his lead to 5secs from Gillanders, Wood a further 2secs adrift. This was almost more than we could stand but there was a lot more to come...
Attention was firmly focussed on the fascinating championship battle but it would be wrong to overlook a fine debut drive in Group N by Allan Edwards. He stepped into a Cosworth for the first time, took Lyn Jenkins along for the ride and was never headed in the category, eventually finishing a couple of minutes clear of champion, Simon Stubbings, in his regular Mazda on a day which favoured the four-wheel drive car more so than the rear-drive option. These two eventually ended the day some 4mins clear of John Saint’s Corolla which fought off the attentions of Mike Riddick and David Brian for honours among the Toyota gang.
Ford Rallysearch winner, George Donaldson, was by now only playing in the forests for extra RAC Rally practice,
his official participation ending with an unfortunate incident before lunch. Rounding a corner he found the road blocked by a Lancia and the remains of a log pile, the Ford given no option but to hit the logs, rather than the Lancia. Co-driver Fred Gallagher is the latest recruit to the Donaldson fan club, the driver needing only better luck than of late to get the results that he deserves.
A last run through Dyfnant highlighted the different styles of the leaders. There was Salonen, totally committed and on the perfect line through stages that cannot be familiar to him. There was Lovell, spectacular but struggling to extract the best from Ari Vatanen’s 1000 Lakes car. And there were the series contenders, Doran on full chat and proving that of the many Metro drivers that came along in 1987, he was one of the few that actually managed to drive the thing with any sort of commitment; Gillanders, tidy but not giving the impression of driving flat out, even if the times of both him and Doran were identical; Smith, the Cosworth putting the power down well and a couple of seconds quicker than Brookes who was flinging the little Kadett between the trees at maximum attack. It was all good stuff.
But the sting in the tail was back in Telford, the town park hosting a couple of runs through a 1.3 mile test which twisted and turned between trees where leaves made the road awfully treacherous.
Just 5secs separated the leading duo as they started the stage. Doran, however, was one of the few drivers who had not walked the test the previous day and rivals were horrified when they realised that he was starting the stage on intermediate racers. It was too late to stop him and he slithered round as best he could. The others all opted for forest covers... and set better times. Gillanders was ahead for the first time, his lead a mere 2secs but even that would be enough. There was one more stage to run in the 1987 championship and it would be vital as a similar 2 secs gap separated Smith from Brookes. Just 1.3 miles remained...
“I was going to have him,” explained Doran afterwards, fighting emotions of frustration and anger yet managing to remain a sporting loser. “I knew that I was faster on the second run but we came round this corner and found Frank Meagher’s Escort in the middle of the road. It wasn’t his fault, it could have been anyone, but I had to drive round him and that’s what cost the time.”
Gillanders was fastest again, this time only by 2secs, but the gap was now confirmed. Whatever happened in Group A - Brookes and Smith equalled each other’s times on the first run, Brookes faster by 2secs on the second to leave the pair tied at the end of the rally, only Smith's faster time on the first stage clinching it for him - Gillanders was the champion. And there was a tear in his eye when he saw the finish ramp at last. He could not have left it any later.
In the end it was a slightly curious championship title race. At 37, Gillanders was the youngest of the three contenders. And with Group A cars coming so close to toppling the outgoing supercars, it was perhaps inevitable that there were some parties who felt the wrong car had won the day. But whatever anyone feels about the outcome, no-one can deny that it was a cracking contest to the last, summed up by Russell Brookes who commented, “The points system may have appeared complicated at first but it certainly produced one of the best competitions ever. It could have been better, however. I could have been a second faster on the last stage...”