Local motorsport broadcaster and journalist Larry Carter looks back at the 1986 National Breakdown Rally when heavy snow played havoc with the opening round of the British Championship.

THERE used to be a time when high-performance projectiles reverberated through forest tracks at all times of day and night with the echo of horsepower rebounding off the trees as thousands of eager spectators lining the roads watched in awe.

Special Stage rallying was massive, as showcased by the annual jaunt around the UK in the guise of the Lombard RAC Rally and one conservative estimate by the organisers one year was that about six million people had watched the event at some point during the five day (and night) marathon.

It didn’t matter that it as 4am in the depths of Kielder Forest, in sub-zero temperatures with a three mile walk to get to the action, as the sleet turned to snow. You had slept in the car for two nights already but a rally jacket, a bobble hat and a flask of soup was all you needed. And a load of equally excited mates to await the action.

Of course, growing up in North Yorkshire with its riches of forest locations, most of which were revered in rallying folklore, it was difficult not to get bitten by the rallying bug. The likes of Dalby, Cropton, Gale Rigg, Langdale and Wykeham were staple tests on many events and nearer to home, the likes of Silton, Boltby, Wass, College Moor, Deer Park and Ingleby were lesser used but no less daunting.

Sadly, with the march of progress coupled with environmental and health and safety pressures, despite the sport upping its game considerable especially in the safety ranks, it’s hard to believe that there are no events planned for the foreseeable future. Okay, Covid-19 has done its best to wreck the sporting industry in the UK, but nonetheless, the future is anything but bright for British forest rallying.

Some 30 or 40 years ago, that wasn’t the case and one such event that stands out was one of the many times I was stood in the middle of nowhere at some unearthly hour. The unforgettable 1986 National Breakdown Rally.

It was late February, and the event comprised the opening round of the British Open Rally Championship which was a vitally important marketing tool for the manufacturers, even if their thoroughbred rally cars bore little resemblance to the road version cousins. The four-wheel drive revolution was well underway with fire-breathing 400bhp "Supercars" as the traditional two-wheel drive brigade hung on, it made for an interesting spectacle all round.

With one of the major motoring organisations backing the rally, which started in Bradford at 10pm on the Friday evening, the plan was to incorporate a handful of "spectator stages" into the vast amount of mileage undertaken in the battlegrounds of the fast-flowing forests of the Yorkshire Moors. It was to be a virtually non-stop endurance test of man, team and machine incorporating 260 stage miles over the weekend with the weary crews expected at the Bradford finish on Sunday lunchtime having had the total sum of two hours rest during that time.

But it didn’t quite go to plan. There had been a lot of snow in the run up to the event, necessitating snowploughs to clear the stages in the days preceding, and there was a worrying forecast of more heavy white stuff over the weekend. So, with all eyes on the weather and snow starting to fall in the opening two stages of Bowling Park and Harewood House, the crews arrived at Boltby just after midnight.

It was Finn Mikael Sundstrom and co-driver Voitto Sylander who led in their Peugeot 205 T16 ahead of the MG Metro 6R4 of Welshman Dai Llewellin and Yorkshire co-driver Phil Short. Third was the slow-starting winner from the previous year, Hannu Mikkola and fellow Finnish co-driver Arne Hertz in their short wheelbase Audi Quattro S1 as they briefly serviced in the car park at the top of Sutton Bank.

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The cars then slithered through stages in Wass and Deer Park just after 1am as snowflakes the size of footballs fell (as I was there and can vouch!) and subsequently closed the A170. After negotiating a ten-miler in Cropton at about 3am, it was becoming apparent to officials the event as planned could not continue.

A chaotic service area in Pickering saw the experienced clerk of the course Jon Sharpe announce to crews that the next loop of stages were impassable, so the remaining competitors were re-routed to the tests in Guisborough and Ingleby forests which reportedly had nearly a foot of snow in them. Sundstrom still led by a minute over Mikkola as more stages were cancelled amidst the chaos.

Following an impromptu three-hour rest halt in a transport yard in Pickering, the cars were despatched back into battle as the sun rose. A couple of forest stages near Thirsk completed first thing, it was on to the spectator stages at Lightwater Valley and Croft where the fans had turned out in their thousands. The tarmac at both venues resembled a skating rink and it was at Lightwater that Sundstrom, with a two-minute lead, hit a tree which ripped a wheel off the 205 causing instant retirement.

Mikkola slithered around Croft to set fastest time equally with the Metros of Llewellin and Jimmy McRae but the weather once again closed in and it became clear the remaining stages, apart from a second run through Ingleby which was next up, would have to be canned. Another rapidly convened meeting between competitors and organisers saw the possibility of two runs through Dalby meaning those two stages would comprise the last two of the event late on Saturday night.

And as it turned out, they were pivotal as Llewellin held a ten second lead over Mikkola going into the final test only to stall on a hairpin and the resulting time loss saw him lose out to the Finn who crossed the Bradford finish ramp in the early hours of Sunday morning, 16 seconds to the good. McRae claimed third ahead of the two-wheel drive Opel Manta 400 of Russell Brookes.

It turned out to be a triumph over adversity in the most extreme conditions as one of the organisers quipped afterwards that the rally should be renamed "The Nervous Breakdown Rally". It’s such a shame that events like this, once commonplace all over the UK, have fallen victim to modernisation. Much of me wishes they hadn’t.