30 Sep 08
This sort of thing doesn't happen very often. A local car club by the name of Coltness decides to invite a celebrity driver to take part in the Colin McRae Forest Stages rally to mark the anniversary of his tragic death. Within a few months, the idea has snowballed and the greatest-ever line-up of rally legends has been assembled to drive a selection of classic WRC cars from the 1970s and 1980s.
Suddenly the local car club is organising and hosting an event featuring names such as Hannu Mikkola, Bjorn Waldegaard, Ari Vatanan, Andrew Cowan and, to maintain the family connection, Colin's father Jimmy and brother, Alister. Oh, yes, and 35,000 spectators.
The weekend starts with all the rally legends assembling in the clubhouse of the local horse-racing track. It looks like a scout hut, which sets the tone for the whole event - many of the greatest names in the history of rallying in a completely informal setting. All the drivers are at their ease and are happy to reminisce.
We chat to Hannu Mikkola about his London - Mexico rally win in 1970. His longest stage was an epic 12 hours, 20 minutes and the pace could be leisurely by modern standards. His Escort was designed for reliability and so did not use the usual competition-spec 16 valve twin-cam engine - it stuck with the standard pushrod engine from the lower end of the Escort range tuned to give just 130 - 140 bhp. However, that was at sea level: as the route rose to 4,000 metres, Mikkola had to stop and adjust the jets in the carburettors to compensate for the thin air (otherwise the oxygen-starved fuel mixture would have burned through the pistons). Mikkola reckons the car was down to just 65 bhp at the highest point. Imagine a car with two occupants plus all the rally gear (including a heavy 'roo bar to protect the front of the Escort) trying to climb a steep track with less power than a modern Ford Ka.
Not that the lack of power made life easy for the drivers - they had to work extra-hard just to eke out whatever performance was available. Meanwhile Andrew Cowan told us about his career that included one of the unlikeliest victories in rally history - the 1970 London - Sydney rally which he won in a Hillman Hunter. For those too young to remember, the Hunter was possibly the most mediocre four-door family saloon you could buy at the time: it made the contemporary Ford Cortina look like a paragon of engineering excellence.
On the day of the rally we position ourselves on one of the hairpins in the beautiful Scottish forest and it is immediately obvious that the great names are not content to rest on their laurels. They are keeping Colin McRae's memory alive by using his 'maximum attack' driving style, with the boots of the cars threatening to overtake the bonnets on every corner. Last night's promises to take things easy and enjoy the experience are lost behind the red mist: these guys are racers and the fact that their passports show they are mostly in their sixties is neither here nor there.