BBC4 go through the gears to deliver Rally's Craziest Years
10:48 GMT, 2 April 2012
I’ve never been a petrolhead. Indeed, if you were to ask anyone who knows me, they’d tell you that during the last week of fuss and nonsense, I was more concerned about hoarding pasties – my tank being neither half full, nor half empty, as I don’t have a tank.
And when it comes to watching telly that prays at the altar of the internal combustion engine, well suffice to say that a show presented by three members of a Queen tribute band (minus a ‘Freddie Mercury’ – unless that’s the one in the white jumpsuit) is, like most of the cars I did once own, a bit of a non-starter for me.
Clearly though, there are plenty of people for whom the roar of a finely tuned engine is sweet, sweet music.
Who phoned a taxi Tony Brooks took a cab to Monte Carlo
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And for them, there was a period in the eighties when the racing reached positively Wagnerian proportions: a time reflected on with an appropriately melodramatic, high-octane mix of thrills and tragedy in BBC4’s Madness On Wheels: Rally’s Craziest Years.
This documentary told the story of the four turbulent, turbo-charged years of Group B racing, ‘when fans, ambitions, politics and cars collide’.
And it did so with a mixture of incredible, often frightening archive images of these cars in action, and a series of sedate, reflective interviews with a veritable production line of middle-aged gentlemen (and a single lady driver, Michele Mouton) who either designed, managed or drove these four-wheeled rockets around the most challenging of terrains.
The story began with a brief glimpse at a more romantic time for rallying when for example, as we saw in a quaint black and white clip, amateur driver Tony Brooks took a London cab on the Monte Carlo Rally.
However, the programme soon shifted gear to a period when the ‘madness’ of the title came to the fore – and as the film told us, it was a form of mass hysteria that affected everyone from the race organisers, through to the designers and drivers, all the way to the fanatics who would insist on putting themselves in harm’s way to be part of the rallying experience.
Or as former Austin Rover team director John Davenport probably summed up best, ‘it was madness to go rallying in the first place. All this was, was a sort of refined madness’.
This whole time was overseen by FIA (or FISA) president Jean-Marie Balestre – a clearly mercurial, all-powerful individual only seen in this documentary in a series of enigmatic still shots – of whom Davenport said ‘(his) dream, if there was one, was that he was going to get a lot of manufacturers in, and a lot of people were going to pay a lot of money to get rallying’.
Making a splash: Stig Blomqvist
This led to car companies creating ‘monster machines’ for professional drivers, but without the FIA ‘necessarily understanding what they were creating’, according to then Autosport editor Peter Foubister.
Thus we had a ‘clean sheet’ for designers, and quite literally no rule book for competitors – something the documentary reminded us of with a relentless stream of skidding, spinning, even flying Lancias, Peugeots, Audi Quatros and Austin ‘shopping cart on steroids’ Metros.
There was also a narrative from former drivers such as Ari Vartenen, Walter Rohrl and Stig Blomqvist remembering how ‘you couldn’t see the road, (only) the crowd opening, and closing’, how ‘you could hear boom, boom, boom where you are hitting people’ and how to help avoid actually doing that, you had to ‘treat them like trees’.
But of course all of this eye-watering action and misty-eyed reflection was tainted by a series of accidents that killed spectators (one incident recalled by two spectators at the location as having started with ‘bonfires and drinking’ and ended in the death of a mother and child), officials and competitors alike.
However it wasn’t until 1986, when Henri Toivonen and his co-driver Sergio Cresto were burned alive ‘sat on their petrol tanks’ (we see the car winched away from the tree in which it landed, no more than a charred frame) that Group B was finally brought to a shuddering halt.
Yet in spite of all of this, as the drivers reflected on Group B at the end of the documentary, there was no regret – only memories of fast times and thrilling races; a period in time described by Vartenen as ‘a pearl’ – an image this engaging, insightful documentary certainly captured, but without avoiding the grains of mercenary ambition and heart-rendering pain that went with it.
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Friday evening on BBC 2, and David Tenant returns to talk us through the trials and tribulations of Head Of Deliverance Ian Fletcher and his crack team in Twenty Twelve. Fletcher is on a diplomatic mission with politician Richard Parker who ‘doesn’t have time to suffer fools gladly, or in any other way’…
Sunday, April 1 and on Sky Sports News Andy Murray is part of a story telling us there is to be a speed limit on tennis serves. Dead pan delivery is what was required, and guess what…