Elfyn Evans should have been fighting Toyota Gazoo Racing team-mate Sébastien Ogier for the World Rally Championship on home territory this month in the depths of the Welsh forests. Instead, the sad demise of Wales Rally GB has cost the WRC one of its majors and robbed British motorsport of a beloved season highlight. Let's hope that it's merely a hiatus and the event formerly known as the RAC Rally returns with a new promoter very soon.
In the meantime, the burgeoning historic scene has burst out of the pandemic to fill the breach in style. The Roger Albert Clark Rally will start tomorrow (Thursday) in Carlisle, run over five days and take in 31 classic special stages around the north of England, Scotland and Wales, finishing in Carmarthen on Monday.
Named after Britain's first WRC rally winner, who conquered the RAC in 1972 and 1976 and whose initials created a happy coincidence for the title, the Roger Albert Clark Rally recreates all that's gruelling and great about the UK's premier stage rally. More than 150 crews will line up in a wonderful mix of historic machinery, naturally with Ford Escorts taking numerical superiority.
Hillman Avenger proves a marvel
Among those leaving the start ramp in Carlisle will be a familiar motorsport face and committed amateur competitor. TV pundit and PR guru Tony Jardine is an experienced rally campaigner who has notched up an impressive 26 starts on Rally GB in its different guises over the years. Now he has chosen to return to his roots for his first assault on the Roger Albert Clark Rally.
"Coming out of Covid, I was looking for an event," says Jardine. "There's no Wales Rally GB, so it has got to be the Roger Albert Clark Rally. It has got the old traditional five days, taking in England, Scotland and Wales, and returns me to classic stages like those in Kielder Forest. Next I was looking for a car and ended up going to Tim Tugwell, who is a Hillman Avenger expert - and an Avenger just happened to be my first rally car. I've gone full circle." Jardine will share his 1973 Avenger 1600 GT with navigator Allan Harryman, son of the legendary Terry, who sat beside the likes of Ari Vatanen, Paddy Hopkirk and Malcolm Wilson during his long career.
"Allan and I have done a couple of rallies before; he's a really good guy and very experienced," says Jardine. "My big thing was I didn't want to be another Escort runner. I love Escorts, don't get me wrong, but I wanted something different, and the Avenger is tried and tested."
Going green in the forests
Beyond pitching for a decent result on their first historic rally together, Jardine and Harryman have a higher motive behind their campaign this week. They promise to be the only carbon-neutral crew on the rally by using a new online scheme called Net-Hero.
This has been developed by Jardine's day-job employer, Hero-Era, the organisation behind old-car marathons such as the Peking to Paris. In a nutshell, it's a web-based system that enables owners of cars of any age to offset their emissions for any journey for as little as two pence per mile.
"We need to blaze a trail with the rally folk," says Jardine, "offsetting everything from the rally car to the service van, chase vehicles and even Allan's flight in for the event. I can't think of a better place to do that than the forests of England, Scotland and Wales. We want to protect all this, and motorsport has got to do its bit, put its own house in order and put back what we're taking out."
It's a good point. No code of motorsport is more vulnerable to scrutiny on sustainability than rallying, given the nature of racing ICE cars through beautiful countryside. If those who enjoy and make their living from classic cars and motorsport want to keep what we have now, sustainability and a proactive approach are essential.
F1 sprint is here to stay
The third experimental Formula 1 sprint race at the São Paulo Grand Prix proved a hit, largely thanks to Lewis Hamilton's magnificent drive to fifth from the back of the grid in just 24 laps. It was the best Saturday-afternoon race yet, in the wake of the first two held at Silverstone and Monza, and was certainly helped by the Interlagos track itself, which always inspires great motor racing.
As track designer Clive Bowen told Autocar earlier this year, it's his favourite circuit in the world for this reason, the Apex Circuit Design boss citing the nature of the relatively slow Junção corner that leads into the long run uphill back to the start/finish line as the key to its success.
The sprint format clearly isn't going anywhere, and it's now just a question of how (and how often) it's used next year and beyond. I'm still uncomfortable about it deciding the grid for the grand prix. That's what qualifying is for - the only time when a driver's outright pace over one lap is truly tested over a weekend.
The sprint certainly adds extra spectacle, but I reckon it would fit better on the Fridays to spice up what is a fairly mundane day at grands prix. The engineers love the free practice sessions to hone cars for when it really counts, but they add little for paying spectators and the all-important TV audience. But then without their grid positions to fight for, what incentive would Hamilton and co have to race and risk damaging their cars with wheel-to-wheel action? More thought is required.
But reverse grids? They make me shudder. They're great for the British Touring Car Championship but an artificial step too far for F1.