WRC History: RAC Rally 1985

RAC Rally 1985 has become legendary for being such a tough event.  The route was longer than ever with conditions as treacherous as always, but the cars had taken giant leaps in terms of performance. As usual, no pace notes were allowed. 

Cover image by Howie Fowler / 569 Motorsport Media / Flickr (C)

Maps in detail at rally-maps.com

RAC Rally used to be an unique event by being a blind rally. This meant that the route wouldn’t be known or practiced beforehand, and pace notes wouldn’t be allowed. Instead, the co-drivers would just look at the map and road book, trying to warn the driver of the dangers ahead. Thus  experience from earlier editions of the rally or local events with the same stages was crucial.

RAC was one of the longest rallies of the 1985 season. The total length combining special stages and liaisons made up 3465 kilometres. Only the African rallies and Monte Carlo were longer. The route covered almost all of Great Britain, from England to Wales, Yorkshire, Scotland and Lake District.


The route map of RAC 1985. Please note that the numbers refer to spectator points, not special stage numbers.

The rally was spread out over five days from Sunday to Thursday, but with only one proper night break between Monday and Tuesday. There were 79 hours of driving and only 33 hours of rest. In comparison, the 2019 Wales Rally GB had 37 hours of driving and 32.5 hours of rest.

Many drivers and team doctors complained in advance of the tough schedule, claiming it’s unsafe for the drivers to be out in the public traffic while being so tired. The organizers responded merely by advising the co-drivers to take up the task of driving on the liaisons in order to give rest for the drivers, as if the co-drivers would be any bit less exhausted.

Sunday – Mickey Mouse stages

The tradition of RAC Rally in the 80’s and 90’s was to start the rally on Sunday with spectator stages at English parks and motor circuits, usually on tarmac surface. These stages were called “Mickey Mouse stages” – although they were proper special stages compared to today’s short super specials with donuts and ramp jumps.

The rally started on Sunday morning at 8:00 in Nottingham. The start ramp was right before the start line of the first special stage at Wollaton Park. A total of seven park stages were contested during the day with a two hour break in Worchester at 16:00.

Monday – Wales

This time the drivers would not get an overnight break after the super specials. Instead, they proceeded for some forest stages in South-Western England. These stages haven’t been driven since in a WRC event. Subsequently, after three long forest stages in Southern Wales, the drivers had three hours of rest in Swansea at 2:00, but no chance to get much sleep.

The rally crossed Wales during the morning and day. Only the Northernmost section of the country was skipped this time, putting the drivers onto a long liaison from Dyfnant 2 (known also as Aberhirnant) directly over to England’s side for a second version of the Trentham Gardens park stage. One more run of the Donington circuit stage completed the day and the drivers finally got a proper night sleep at 19:30.

The rally had started almost 36 hours earlier with only short breaks on the way. 400 stage kilometres were behind, but more still lay ahead. Many of the top drivers, such as both works Audis and Peugeots had already retired by this point, but Markku Alen claimed the rally would only start at this point.

Tuesday – Yorkshire

The restart on Tuesday was at 10:00. The first stage of the day was the repeat of Donington, succeeded by a pair of fast-angular stages in Clipstone forest.  However, most of the 157.4 km of the day’s stages were driven in Yorkshire.  This included the longest stage of the rally, Dalby, which was 41 kilometres long.

The  next rest halt was reached at 23:30 in the Lake District city of Carlisle. However, it wasn’t to be a night halt, since the next leg started already three and a half hours later.

Another unique aspect of RAC Rally was that the average speed of 112 km/h (70 mph) was not allowed to be exceeded. Anyone driving faster than that would receive the minimum time to their timecard. However, the stage results imply that three stages during the day were faster than the limit, with Langdale being the fastest of the rally with Alen’s stage win exceeding 123 km/h, at icy conditions and with no pace notes!

Wednesday – Kielder and Scotland

The drivers had the most feared and challenging section of the rally ahead of them – the Kielder forest – the stages Churnsike, Falstone, Redesdale and Ogre Hill. As if darkness and fatigue weren’t enough, it also started to snow, and studded tyres weren’t allowed. In fact, the Ogre Hill stage was canceled because the organizers thought the 2WD cars wouldn’t make it through the stage.

The rally proceeded over to Scotland’s side for a handful of stages before returning to Carlisle at 13:00 on Wednesday for a seven-hour rest halt. This would be closest to a proper sleep the drivers would have between Tuesday morning and Thursday afternoon.

The final leg of the rally started at 20:30 on Wednesday evening. The leg rotated again in Kielder and Scotland. Some stages like Kershope and Bewshaugh were reserved only for this leg, but some roads were reused. Wark shared a bit of its route with Churnsike as did Rooken Edge with Redesdale. Ogre Hill was re-run as Spithope, and Twiglees was an extended version of Kilburn Hill, while Craik was repeated in its entirety.

Thursday – Lake District

Yet another short break was held in Carlisle at 3:30. However, already at 5:00 the rally started returning towards Nottingham through stages in the Lake District, most notably two tests in the twisty snow-covered roads of the Grizedale forest. After that only a couple of short stages and long liaisons remained as the rally finished at 15:10 where it had started four and a half days earlier – Wollaton Park in Nottingham.

The total length of the rally was planned to be 896.98 km, but three of the 65 stages were cancelled, making the competitive length still a whopping 855.77 km.


New rules were imposed on all WRC events after the tragic events in Tour de Corse 1986. Although some stages were still driven in dark, night breaks of nine hours were mandatory. In addition, stages over 30 km in length were banned. Thus the 1986 RAC Rally was 1000 km shorter than its predecessor, and the competitive length was decreased to 515 km.

In 1988 pre-rally practice and making of pace notes was allowed for the first time in RAC Rally, but only for the super special stages. It wasn’t until 1990 that the rally joined the other WRC events by having a complete reconnaissance run.

Rallies started becoming considerably shorter in the late 90’s. The non-WRC year of 1996 remains the last true RAC Rally, since after 1997 all forest stages have been driven solely on Welsh soil. The name RAC disappeared from the title in 1998 whereas the tradition of opening the rally with a day of English super special stages ended in 2000.

Was it better back then?

Like the concept of Group B cars, outrageous is a good word to describe the itinerary of this event. It’s good material for nostalgia, but things are now better in many ways.

For starters, the competition is now more tight. In 1985 Juha Kankkunen finished fifth and was 38 minutes behind the leader. That translates into 2.66 s/km. In 2019 that kind of loss per kilometres would have put you onto 14th place.

If you look at the 1985 TV footage I’ve attached here, some of the cars look very unspectacular around day four, driving with minutes of gap around them, trying to stay awake and avoid punctures or other issues – remember, with no pace notes. Nowadays we see that kind of cruising only when one’s saving tyres for the power stage on Sunday, having lost everything earlier in the rally.

Of course the powerful cars and the long rally does not make a good match. I think it’s fair to say that the old endurance type of rallying without pace notes worked well for the RWD Group 4 cars, but when turbos, 4WD and Group B came along, it was time to move on.

The rallies of today might be shorter, but it almost feels there’s the same amount of action, as if all the best bits have been condensed into a shorter number of kilometres. At the same time, the drivers get enough rest to drive their cars to the maximum all the time, making it exciting for the spectators  – who have now better chances of attending the stages, since the rallying happens during the weekend!

UPDATED 2.5.2021: Added rally-maps link and details about repeated stages in Kielder and Scotland.

2 thoughts on “WRC History: RAC Rally 1985

  1. I’m very interested to see this. My mum took me as a very young boy to watch the rally cars go through Leek, but I was too young to have an accurate memory of it, just a vague recollection. I’ve been trying to work out when it was. Although my mum remembered where we stood (the cars came through the town centre on the A53 and A520 as shown on the route plan) she couldn’t recall the year, she wasn’t interested in rallying, she just thought I might like it. I can now put a pinpoint on exactly when this was.

    Liked by 1 person

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