World Champions Down In The Woods : Network Q Rally GB Media Days 1998-99

Carlos Sainz’ Toyota Corolla by the lake at Mallards Pike in 1999

Two decades ago last November the World Rally Championship decended on a picnic area beside a lake in the Forest of Dean for the annual pre-Rally GB (or RAC Rally if you are of an older generation) media day.  At the time the event was based in nearby Cheltenham and with Colin McRae , the 1995 World Rally Champion, firmly installed as a national folk hero and arch rival Richard Burns on the verge of similar greatness, the event was at a peak which it, sadly, rapidly decended from shortly afterwards.

Tommi Maknen’s Mitsubishi Evo at Mallards Pike 1999

In 1998 and 1999 ( I don’t recall if  it happened in 1997 too) the car park at Mallards Pike was turned into a service area filled with factory WRC team vehicles instead of tourists and dog walkers. A mile or so down the road a short special stage was running trough the forest near Blackpool Bridge.

Alistair McRae( Subaru Imprezza) in 1998. Blackpool Bridge in the background

Public access to both was free and easy. For spectators it was a gift.

Nicky Grist (McRae’s navigator) with arch-fan Rob Richards, who later navigated for me

A sizeable crowd  looked on and mingled with the star names in a way that would not have been possible once the Rally itself was underway, and with the top runners tackling the same stage several times within a few hours they had more views of Colin or Richard, Juha or Tommi than they would normally have chasing  the event for it’s entire three days.

Colin McRae (Ford Focus) 1999

Over the two years a dazzing number or past and future world rally champions appeared : Colin McRae, Richard Burns, Carlos Sainz, Juha Kankkunen, Didier Auriol, Tommi Makinen, Marcus Gronholm, Petter Solberg and veteran Ari Vatanen.

Juha Kankkunen in 1999

Colin McRae with team boss Malcolm Wilson in the background, 1999

Carlos Sainz in 1999

Petter Solberg (Ford Focus) in 1999, then a rising star.

The great Ari Vatanen with local rally navigator Paul Willetts & son Nick.

Martin Brundle in 1999

But they were not alone, other motor sport world champions also appeared, 1992 World Sportscar champion (an of course ex F1 driver) Martin Brundle took part in the 1999 event in a Toyota Corolla.

The previous year I took a photo (below) of another Toyota driver and only later did the identity of those around him suddenly strike me . From left to right are future World Superbike champions Colin Edwards (2000, 2002) and James Toseland (2004, 2007) Didier Auriol (WRC champion 1994) & Aaron Slight (2nd in the world Superbike championship 1996, 1998) .

That really was a lot of world titles in one place!

Didier Auriol and the superbike racers in 1998

Juha Kankkunen (Ford Escort WRC) entering Mallard Pike 1998

Richard Burns (Mitsubishi Carisma) at Mallard Pike 1998

Marcus Gronholm’s Toyota in the service area 1998

Didier Auriol (Toyota Corolla) Heads off to the special stage 1998

Colin McRae in the service area 1998

Sadly of course both the British world rally champions are no longer with us. Colin McRae and his son (along with family freinds) died in a helicopter accident in 2007 .

Richard Burns who won both the 1998 and 1999 Rally GB events, succumed to a brain tumor aged just 34 in 2005.

This final shot here is one I took of him at the 1999 media day and it remains one of my favourite photos.

Richard Burns , Subaru Imprezza 1999. (Prints available, click image for details)

In 2000 I didn’t attend, I had some Finnish journalists arriving at the shop . They were covering the rally and they could only be there on that specific day.  I think the venue had changed to a different local wood and a less accessable service area.  Either way the brief era was over. The Network Q Rally GB had moved from Cheltenham to Cardiff that year and in the popular conciousness a decline to near invisibility had begun.

It had been good while it lasted. But was it over twenty years ago already? Blimey!