A Man for All Seasons - Derek Bell Octane Column - October 2012

25th November 2012

These days racing drivers rarely stray beyond their own particular specialism. I suppose this is understandable, especially in light of the dreadful accident that befell poor Robert Kubica on a rally in Andorra last year; 
I cannot imagine a Formula 1 team principal allowing their star driver to risk injuring themselves ‘off piste’ anytime soon. With the exception of Kimi Räikkönen, a man who has participated in everything from rallying to powerboat racing, 
I cannot think of another current Formula 1 ace who would actually want to compete elsewhere on their weekends off.

It wasn’t always thus. The heroes of my youth would contest 
all manner of different circuit racing categories, while also taking time out to participate in hillclimbs, sprints, trials – you name it. The likes of Stirling Moss really were all-rounders. For my own part, I have mostly stuck to 
circuit racing but I have always enjoyed savouring other types 
of motor sport. Over the years I have sampled everything from dragsters to karts, enduro ’bikes to lawnmower racing. I also dipped my toe in rallying, which resulted in some of the more memorable episodes of my career, if not always for the right reasons!

I must admit that I had always fancied a crack at this particular arena of motor sport prior to taking part in the 1987 RAC Rally. However, back then I was dovetailing drives in the World Sports-Prototype Championship and in IMSA, so I had little free time to compete elsewhere. That said, it was during that year’s Brands Hatch 1000km meeting that I was first sounded out about having a go. Paul Davies, the PR man for Rothmans, which sponsored the factory Porsche team cars, casually asked me if I’d be interested in doing a rally and I said ‘Yes’. I thought nothing more about it until out of the blue 
I received an offer from General Motors asking me if I wanted to drive a Group A Astra. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity. 

Despite some tuition from the highly gifted Malcolm Wilson, who now fields the works Fords in the World Rally Championship, I felt completely unprepared. I wanted to have a good time, but I also wanted to make it to the finish. I was realistic about my chances as this was new to me. However, it helped that my 
co-driver Mike Nicholson was cool, calm and collected. After so many years of making my own split-second decisions, it felt alien to be relying on someone to provide me with information on the road ahead. It didn’t help that I couldn’t get my head around the ‘Fast K, 90-right’ lingo. He might as well have been speaking Swahili. But bit by bit I began to trust what he was saying.

As it happens, it wasn’t a great rally for me or the team. The car died early on, traversing a water splash. I was practically at walking pace going into it, but the air intake, ducted through the front spoiler, guided water straight into the cylinders. Remarkably, the mechanics managed to get it going again, but a conrod went pop later on as a direct result of our watery excursion. However, the team manager, Melvin Hodgson, had already asked me if 
I would like to have another go the following year and my reply was ‘You bet your life I would!’

This time around, I knew what to expect. Prior to the ’88 running, Mike Nicholson and I did a practice event on gravel, which was huge fun. Unfortunately, I overcooked it on the final stage and virtually destroyed our Astra after rolling it into a ball. Mike took it in his stride, rubbing his neck before breaking into a smile and saying: ‘It’s been a long time since I had a bloody good crash…’ On 
the RAC Rally itself, it snowed 
like never before. With only front-wheel drive, we had to be pushed to the start. I’ll never forget sliding around on one of the night-time forest stages and catching sight of a couple of marshals with large brooms, brushing the ice like it was a curling rink. They wanted to make it even more slippery! 

As it happens, the only real problem came about after Mike told me to make way for a top-seeded driver who was trying to make up time following an earlier problem. I did as I was told and went wide on a special stage. The bastard only went and clouted me! Nonetheless, we finished 27th, which I think was a decent effort. 

I never did another frontline rally. I had always fancied contesting the Paris-Dakar, which my dear friend Jacky Ickx won outright. That never happened but you can’t do everything. The closest I come to rallying these days is taking part in the wonderful (and genteel) Ennstal-Classic. Essentially a regularity event, it offers rather fewer opportunities to injure yourself!
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