When 1964 Monte Carlo Rally winner Paddy Hopkirk agreed loaned his Mini Cooper S 6 EMO to Steve Entwistle for the RAC Rally of the Tests, he did it on one condition.
“They’d better win!” he pronounced.
And after finishing third and second of previous Tests, Steve and navigator Mark Appleton made it onto the top step of the podium with a superb victory on the 2019 event.
They did it in fine style too, leading from start to finish in what was acknowledged as the toughest Rally of the Tests ever.
After a champagne celebration at the Chester finish, Steve’s first thought was to ring his mentor.
He said “I wanted to give Paddy the news firsthand, so interrupted him on his cruise to tell him, he seemed pretty pleased!”
Organisers HERO laid out a 750 mile route starting in Torquay and finishing in Chester, with overnight halts in Bristol and Chester.
With 30 special tests and 22 regularities packed into 13-hour days, it’s no wonder competitors described it as “bloody gruelling”.
A short Prologue on Thursday night sorted the seeding for day one, and Steve and Mark soon made their intentions clear.
As rain plus extra leaves from the recent high winds made the going difficult at times, they made a good start, leading from the flying Opel Ascona of Dutch crew Alexander Leurs and Bas de Rijk.
Steve reckoned even the first test around the Exeter Race Course was ready to catch crews out: “It was green, it didn’t help that we were first car in, but I had one big moment in there!”
Following the relatively gentle Prologue on Thursday, the RAC Rally of the Tests hit its full stride on Friday with a hammering ten tests and seven long regularities.
The first two tests were back at Exeter Racecourse early on Friday morning, this time in the daylight, and they were a wake-up call. The first test was a real high-speed blast that required commitment in the long sweeping turns, then total car control in test two, a high-speed slalom on gravel and broken tarmac. One section contained a quite disturbing dip that pitched the cars into buckaroo-style yaw, but most kept the throttle pushed down hard to ensure the car pulled through.
The regularities caused consternation right through the long day as tricky sections over narrow, slippy roads tested the best. A hidden timing point on a triangular road on regularity three caught out even the top navigators as they went the wrong way.
As the challenge has increased so did the level of competition,
But Steve and Mark shrugged that off to lead by 20 seconds from a new second-place crew, Mike and Matthew Vokes in a Ginetta G15.
“We are just pleased to hold on after a tough day but it’s still very tight, and 20 seconds can go in a blink of an eye,” admitted Mark.
Day two featured two highlights – for very different reasons.
“We have the NEC showcase test which should suit the Mini, short, tight grippy but Swynnerton is to come later, that’s a big one.” said Mark.
The first ever live classic rallying competition to happen at the NEC as part of the Lancaster Insurance Classic Car Show was deemed a great success by the NEC, Clarion Events and HERO Events who run the heritage RAC titled rally.
Hundreds of spectators gathered to watch and applaud as 6 EMO appeared on the start line as car 1.
Next up northwards from NEC, described by Steve as “just like a Derbyshire night event”.
Crews they headed into torrential rain and biting winds over the top of Leek and into two airfield tests, visibility was an issue for some in the inky black night. The Roaches was a spectacular regularity, the sixth and last of the day with a blast across a muddy and rocky farm yard with a fast right though a gate which revealed a timing point.
Then it was off for the Big One, the Time Control Section at Swynnerton military ground. The facility has gained its reputation as a foreboding venue that can shatter a team’s results through its complex and devious routes.
After some 35 to 50 minutes in there, depending if you managed stay on track, crews emerged either with big smiles, big frowns or utter dejection on their faces. Rallies have been won and lost in Swynnerton.
No dejection from the Mini men though, despite the arrival of sleet, to make the driving even harder.
They increased their lead to nearly two minutes after a great performance in 6 EMO.
“It was frantic in there, good fun though, I’ve worked up a thirst.” said Steve.
Sunday saw crews head out from Stoke to special tests at Rednal and Glan-y-Gors karting tracks, both used in previous years.
But snow and sub-zero temperatures had rendered the grip levels sub-zero too, as crews had to tiptoe round on surfaces described as ‘sheet ice’.
After that, a string of regularities in North Wales took them into the finish at Chester.
And there were no last minute hiccups for the rally leaders, who held their nerve to take a brilliant win, the first Mini to take a Tests victory, and the first crew to lead from start to finish.
Steve was still beaming an hour after getting back to rally HQ
He said:. “It’s sunk in now, I’m over the moon. When we arrived initially I was a bit low key as I’d spent all afternoon thinking it’s going to go wrong, it’s going to go wrong, then we got here and I thought no, no its alright, it’s alright!!
“I’ve spoken to Paddy and told him his car has won with 2 different drivers now, once with Paddy & now me, not even the greats Rauno Aaltonen or Roger Clark managed that feat in 6EMO, I’m very proud!
“I’ve been rallying for 30 years and this the best thing that has happened to me. It’s also a win on the Mini 60th Anniversary plus 54 years since a Mini won the RAC Rally! I have been an RAC rally lover since I was three.
“Mark Appleton is faultless, I can’t thank him enough. We get on great, he’s brilliant, we have been powered by humbugs and cherry menthol sweets as he’s been losing his voice a bit, it must be the noise inside the car. This is absolutely brilliant, the man is ace.”
Mark in reply felt that Steve’s driving was pretty good too!
Blog courtesy of Steve Entwistle, Tony Jardine & Neil Johnson.
Featured photo courtesy of Tony Large.