08 Jun: The Origins of Rallying

How it all came about …

You may think that rallying wasn’t invented until the car came along, but you’d be wrong. Long before there were cars, there were wheels. Just ask the Romans.

But even before we had the wheels, we had to get the navigation bit sorted out and there were various methods around in the early days. The Egyptians used Pyramids as triangulation points but there was one big drawback, they weren’t very portable. In fact, if you’ve ever watched Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s historically accurate and mesmerisingly authentic portrayal of ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’ you’ll know that it took veritable thoosan’s of slaves and herds of bullocks to drag the damn things into position in the first place.

After that came the Romans, and things took a mighty leap forward because they used native tribesmen with drums for sending messages. These drums were called tom toms, but they were about as accurate as a drunk spear chucker. You could hear the damn things but you didn’t know where the din was coming from or rely on the information. Just like a certain modern SatNav of the same name!

On that basis they had to learn to draw diagrams and invent charts and then maps to help conquer and rule faraway places. In fact those early maps were the reason the Romans built straight roads across the UK, because they only had rulers and didn’t have protractors and so couldnae draw round corners.

That also made it easier to the draw the maps. To this day that’s why Ordnance Survey print their map sheets in squares, although folded for portability. Sadly the originals were not always reliable, hence sailors needed something different.

For instance Christopher Columbus used the stars. A fat lot of good that did him, he sailed west looking for India and discovered America – and look how well that has ended, nowhere near his intended landing point. In fact, that same system is still used to this day – by Easyjet. So although maps proved easier to manage than the stars (they only come out at night), accuracy was still somewhat lacking.

Similarly, the Vikings were fully intent on invading France on their first forays, but instead landed on unexpected different shores where the uncultured natives spoke a funny guttural language, the fashion conscious men-folk wore brightly coloured chequered skirts and they carried cutlery down their socks. As for the diet, instead of the anticipated delicacies such as snails and tasty frog legs on scorched bread they were offered soggy oats and sheep’s stomachs. Admittedly the ‘wine’ was rather more invigorating and fiery than they were expecting.

By this time the rudiments of navigation had been established, which was handy if you were well into the business of fechtin’, arson  and pillagin’ and wanted to know where the action was. Think about it, if you didn’t know where the opposition was you couldn’t engage in the manly pursuits of blood-letting, dismemberment, disbowelment and wholesale slaughter which were the principal pastimes in those days. Of course, this was long before they invented the manly art of hitting wee ba’s wi’ long sticks into holes in the ground.

Mind, you, it still wasn’t perfect, the Charge of the Light Brigade would never have happened had they had a full 7 digit post code for the Russkies.

Hannibal also used this new navigatory science to great effect when he led his elephants across the mountains. That was a mistake. He thought he was heading south into Africa but took a wrong turning. Instead of mount Kilimanjaro he encountered the Swiss Alps, but this is a mere detail and shouldn’t detract from his successful trek, even if he thought the alpine snows were a tad colder and wetter than the desert sand he and his elephants were supposed to be crossing.

No matter, his achievement inspired Getalookat Hur, the father of Ben Hur, whose chariot racing matches ultimately led to banger racing in stadiums (which is just as bloodthirsty!). First he had to train his charioteers in the gentle art of survival by taking them to a faraway wilderness, abandoning them and then telling them to get home by their own means. Last man home went to the feed the lions in the Coliseum. Literally. Rallying was born.

Both the science and the sport have been greatly developed and refined over recent years with the UK’s armed forces using it to great effect. Even today the army sends its trainee troops on night navigational exercises as part of their preparation for invading foreign parts and protecting Iceland from the weekly shoppers on ‘Lockdown’ looking for cheap chips and fish fingers for their weans. This tradition is still continued today with regular appearances of the Land Rover crews tacked onto the end of British Championship rallies.

Mind you the science and art still wasn’t perfect. When Margaret Thatcher mobilised the navy and the troops to invade some islands off the west coast she used her wee map in the front pages of her pocket diary and gave them the wrong map reference. They invaded the Falklands instead of the Utter Hebrides. They went west alright but north rather than south and ended up just ever so slightly off course – by about 8,000 miles.

Really, it was the arrival of the motor car that brought rallying into the 20th century, just ask Jonathan Lord, he was there at the start.

The more adventurous soon got fed up racing their cars round and round in circles, which led to the  discovery of an original Roman charioteer training manual in the foundations of Hadrian’s Wall which introduced two man crews, one to drive and the other to shout, curse and swear while indicating the direction of travel. The competitive side of the sport was born.

Over the years rally organisers have created some fast and furious events, primarily the Monte Carlo Rally, which is a bit like the Mull Rally, only it’s French, smaller and less technical, while the Col du Turini pales into insignificance compared to the terrors of Gribun Rocks. Indeed the Rally of a Thousand Lakes over there in Vikingland often defers to our very own ‘Rally of a Hundred Thousand Puddles’ which in the year 2000 was the wettest Mull on record.

And if you think the Safari Rally is tough, then you’ve never been in Clashindarroch or Kielder. The jungle and plains of Africa hold no terrors like the dark green depths of British forests. At least when you hear noises in the jungle you know it’s only lions and wildebeests. When you hear noises in Knapdale you haven’t a clue whether it’s whigmaleeries, banshees or merely the frantic beating of millions of bloodthirsty midgie wings. Or you might well have stumbled into the fierce and unpleasant rituals of haggis mating.

But that is the also part of the attraction of rallying. It’s not only about man and machine versus time and distance, the terrain plays a vital part. There is nothing designed to test the reactions of the sphincter muscle to approaching danger faster and more efficiently than a yump in a hundred mile an hour straight – and no sightline beyond.

And yet, the voice in the intercom is yelling ‘flat’! That is no time to wonder if the map is accurate or the Note correct. Yee Haa.