Closed-road motorsport in Britain? Game On!

Despite the presence of Ford’s near-legendary Boreham skunkworks – where the fire-breathing RS200 rally car was developed – my part of the UK has never really had much of a claim to motorsport. There are no designated racetracks – though some would suggest that that roads around Basildon qualify – yet thanks to a long-awaited change in legislation, my home county has just hosted England’s first closed-road stage rally.
Even better was the fact that one of the rally stages was held less than a mile from my house, but best of all, it happened to follow the very route that I championed as my very favourite road for a rewarding, impassioned drive. This was not an event I had any intention of missing and, since it was held on my birthday, I had every excuse to attend.

Historically, an Act of Parliament has been needed in order to hold a closed-road motorsport event, and for decades has this prevented clubs from even attempting to stage organised races or rallies on public highways. It’s worth mentioning here that the Isle of Mann, located just off England’s West Coast and home of the world famous TT motorcycle races, is a self-governed crown dependency with its own road traffic laws that obstruct motorsport to far less of an extent than those in England.
In fact, evidence of just how much benefit – from tourism, publicity and investment – the TT races bring to the IOM was among factors that led to the 2015 Deregulation Act being passed. The result is that, since 10 April 2017, local authorities have the authority to not only suspend the Road Traffic Act – necessary for public events such as street parties, parades and carnivals – but to issue a Motor Race Order as well. Crucially, where such an order is enforced, the national speed limit, well, isn’t.

And so, with sponsorship from Corbeau Seats, the Rally of Tendring and Clacton came to being as England’s first closed-road motorsport event. Why here? Well, Chelmsford Motor Club was quick to seize the opportunity to take part in a motorsport first, and – even though it’s pretty much the opposite end of the county, chose the roads of North-East Essex for the event. The Cycling ‘Tour de Tendring’ is already held here, and there’s probably more convenient variety of road types and elevation changes than anywhere else in the county. And, of all these roads, that which passes through Bradfield and into my village of Mistley is the greatest of all.

So that’s where I spent my Birthday. The spectators’ area afforded a sweeping, if unspectacular view of Special Stage 2, 7 and 12, but the Greatest Corner In Essex™ was clearly visible with the aid of a long lens. The list of entries was pretty diverse – the pioneering nature of the event attracted entrants from all over the country, and saw cars as diverse as a 1967 Monte Carlo works-spec Mini Cooper S and an up-to-the-minute R2-spec Opel Adam that its driver is currently contesting in the Opel Adam cup in Germany.

As is inevitable, a host of Mitsubishi Lancer Evos and Subaru Impreza WRXs took part, one notable example of the latter being P2WRC, an original works-spec Impreza WRC S6 that Colin McRae drove in the 1997 Monte Carlo rally. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a proper rally without a strong Ford Escort contingent, and every generation of the company’s race-friendly family car was strongly represented.
Here are some of the most memorable machines of the inaugural Corbeau Seats rallye of Tendring and Clacton.

Of course, the compact, rear-wheel drive, first and second generation Ford Escorts remain very popular as Clubman rally cars – indeed it seems probable that there are more of them in rally spec than in regular production format. They’re a versatile platform, and aren’t necessarily limited to the 1.6 or 2.0-litre four-cylinder engines that most were fitted with when new.

They can be pretty spectacular in corners, too.

This ’92 Mitsubishi Galant VR4 was one of my favourite machines of the day, largely thanks to its rarity and the fact that it still carries its original works rally livery. It sounded pretty fantastic, too.

Probably rather less familiar is the Darrian T90, a purpose built rally machine that affords its team something of a blank canvas. There were two competing in the Corbeau, one with a race-spec Nissan V6, and this one with a much smaller and lighter, but very, very turbocharged, Fiesta EcoBoost engine.

We gave a big cheer whenever this wide-bodied Peugeot 306 Maxi came past, mainly because we have a 306 at home – although this one has a 2.3-litre engine, which is 300cc bigger than anything fitted on the 306 production line.

An E30 BMW M3 wasn’t something I expected to see on the day, but I very much approved, and it was one of the best sounding cars on the stage. (Edit: And this isn’t it, as Wunno Sev rightly points out. This is a 325i. I managed to miss snapping the M3 somehow)

Speaking of sounding great, the a twin-cam Fiat howl rang across the valley when this 131 Abarth came past – once. Sadly this was the only shot I got of it, as it sadly retired with a gear selector fault. The previous car to come around the Greatest Corner In Essex,  incidentally, was the one that I was most looking forward to seeing – the Metro 6R4. And I did see it, and hear it, literally just as we arrived. Sadly I didn’t get a chance to train the camera on it.

I wasn’t expecting to see this, either. A Hillman Avenger, AKA the Plymouth Cricket, with those delectable L-shape rear lights. This one’s a regular 1.6-litre, but there was also a rather tricked-out 2.2-litre Vauxhall-engined one that used a sequential manual gearbox. Mad.

And then there was the Sunbeam. This Scottish-built hatchback of the late 1970s was based on a shortened version of the Avenger’s floorpan, and used the same engines and rear-wheel drive layout. There was a Lotus Sunbeam, too, and one of those was in today’s rally. But I failed to get any decent shots.

This Ford Anglia was suspiciously quick, and a look at the entry list has it showing as 2.0-litre engined – at least 800cc bigger than that originally fitted.

Another strong candidate for the best sounding car of the day was the Triumph TR8, but a split hose caused it to retire, so I only got to hear it once.

There were two Ford Pumas in the race. This one is actually a Racing Puma replica with the 1396cc engine, but there was also a genuine Ford ‘kit’ rally Puma with the 1.6-litre, 200bhp engine. I got a few shots, but they were blurrier than this one.

A Ford Ka is always a welcome sight. I’ll always have a fondness for these, having spent a good portion of my life behind the wheel of one.

And what rally would be complete without a Paddy Hopkirk-era Mini Cooper S?

So who won? Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was a Subaru Impreza S12B, helmed by Melvyn Evans and Sean Hayde….

…while second place went to Hugh Hunter and Robb Fagg in a despicably quick WRC spec Ford Fiesta.
So, a fantastic day out that really couldn’t have been more convenient. And, best of all, it’s been confirmed as going ahead next year.
(Images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2018)

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11 responses to “Closed-road motorsport in Britain? Game On!”

  1. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    not an M3. missing the flares.
    looks like a fun event! I’m always reminded by events like this of how starved we are for good driving roads in the USA.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      You’re entirely right on the M3, that’s an M-badged (for some reason) 325i. There was an M3 in the race, and I didn’t manage to snap it. And yeah, I’m frankly spoilt by the roads I’m surrounded by. Plenty of slow-car-fast action, which suits me and my fleet just fine.

      1. Zentropy Avatar

        It’s funny, because if I had a legit M car, I’d do whatever I could to make it NOT look like an M. I like cars that punch much higher than their (apparent) weight.

  2. crank_case Avatar

    As a resident of the “Free State” on the Island next door – delighted for you, we’ve had closed road events for years and it’s about time the UK got them too.

  3. Sjalabais Avatar

    The Darrian looks like a Lotus Elise after a night out in an English pub…great photos, and the text really carries the delight of having such a historic race done in your backyard. Very cool!

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      Thank you!

  4. outback_ute Avatar

    You have to wonder what the difference is between closing roads for a cycling race, assuming that suitable roads are chosen of course. I am guessing the ban would be a hangover from the early inter-city grand prix races?
    There are quite a few tarmac rallies/targas run in Australia, they can work well in the right area, so long as they are organised well not to impact too much on local residents and safety precautions are stringent.
    The cars and photography are great Chris, the good shots do make up for the ‘others’ don’t they?

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      Some of them are distinctly ‘soft’, but thanks! And you’re not wrong – the ‘discard’ pile would have been knee deep were it not all digital. I’m cursing myself for not having used a longer lens, but our 70-300mm isn’t really fast enough. Made do with my 18-200mm and a high rejection rate.

  5. dukeisduke Avatar

    Wow, that looks like a lot of fun. Thanks for the great pictures, and a belated Happy Birthday.
    Here’s a link to the official page for the event:

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      Ah, yes, I should have done that. Thanks.

  6. Zentropy Avatar

    Love the pics. Nice mix of cars, there.