Rallying is one of the only forms of motor sports that still retains the atmosphere of the heyday of motor racing. Imagine what a throwback a vintage rally is. I have just been to one.
(pictured: a Fiat 131 in Alitalia colours; the fact that you can't see it is because I am not a photographer)
Whether you like your racing on the couch or up in the grand stands, there is nothing comparable to rallying - standing just a few feet away from the edge of a piece of public road, machine gun pop off valves sending the Morse code "Here I come!" from a distance quite far away, engine screaming, tyres squealing. The car leaps into frame, headlights piercing the night, glowing disc brakes illuminating the ground, bit of opposite lock, exhaust fuming in red and off it goes. For the second time, and it's gone for good.
I always wanted to go to the Mecsek Rally, a Hungarian classic for the 6th decade now. A tarmac rally designed for an acceleration-heavy dash through the paved public roads on the slopes of the Mecsek mountain, just North of Pécs, a cultural cradle in the South-West region of Hungary. The event is mostly known for international competitors as a round of the - now defunct - Intercontinental Rally Challenge a couple of years ago, and as the final of the Historic European Rally Championship since. This is how it looked in 2011:
(Disclaimer: despite it is mentioned multiple times in the commentary, the crashes were not the spectators' fault per se. There was an issue with one particular tyre-barrier in one of the corners, which was removed by the spectators where quite a few cars crashed, but according to some of the competitors' accounts it was a string of errors that caused the accidents - problems in the preliminary itinerary, the confusing number of barriers and the actual tyre-column in subject generally having designed to be in the wrong place, proving completely ineffective. Therefore its removal did not contribute to the crashes. Tyre-chicanes in general were subjects of criticism by international competitors. The organisers were made sure the chicanes would not be featured the next year, but the event had to drop out due to insufficient funds, and was replaced by the tragically ending Targa Florio for that year.)
It has been a while since I last was at a rally, on a completely different part of the continent, and watching vintage cars dashing through the public roads I know fairly well is absolutely a no-brainer spectacle to attend, especially at such proximity.
Therefore I geared up with Mikey - with whom I visited the DTM and Formula One round-n-rounds at the Hungaroring earlier the year - and we drove down on highway 61 and 66 for the annual run of local heroes and international legends.
The repeated runs of the Orfű - Árpádtető road section as Special Stages 5 and 8 on Saturday has often seen a bunch of crashes down the hillside into the woods, but we would have been more than sad to see some of the vintage machines go down as such. We did see some cars with substantial damage coming through and some of the "anoraks" around us were updated by their fellow rally fans at other parts of the stages on the go to know when to expect a break.
The stage was easily approachable with the finish being only a few metres away from an intersection on the highway. We parked the car, crossed the road, walked into the B-road and there we were on the stage. We went as far as we could before the first of the course cars came through, and it was a perfect part for spectating. An earth-bank on the outside of a corner so that you could see cars coming and going with a bit of drift if so they wished. The only unnerving factor there was a fox-hole-like formation on the top of the bank where - apparently - a tree was missing from, not being sure if a car took it out in the past. But since this was one of the approved spectators' area with a bunch of regular rally-goers spitting sunflower and pumpkin seed coats in masses giggling and sharing stories.
After the three or four course cars have left, there was a noise coming through the trees that I was quite familiar with, although have not experienced it like this before. A carbureted, naturally aspirated flat-6 was screaming down the road, and with a bit of care - as it was the first run on that stage - the first of the 911 RS's in full rally-glory came through. I could not help but think that in forty-years' time the current 911s competing in the recently announced FIA R-GT Cup will be such a sight as well.
The European and the domestic vintage field ran in a mix, so it was not uncommon to expect a Group B Lada VFTS followed by an Alfa Romeo, a Jaguar or a Ford Escort. On these slopes all the international vintage cars received their fair amount of appreciation, but the fan favourites were still the Ladas, whose drivers knew their audience well and went sideways wherever and whenever they could, followed by the roar of the fans.
I tried to restrain myself from taking pictures or filming in an attempt to soak up as much of the sights and sounds as I could - knowing only having potato-equipment on me - but I couldn't help myself and pulled my old camera and even older cell-phone to frame the moment, as the cars were coming back for another round anyway.
The Historics were followed by the domestic contenders in their S2000 and whatnot cars, giving a clear image how time has passed between them and the previous batch of contenders. The pace seemed incredible at some points, sending leaves in the air, popping, screaming, squealing, dashing around the corner. Sandwich packs were broken, cans of beer were at the ready, flavoured by high-octane racing fuel fumes.
The big boys were followed by the "amateur" Rally 2 category, but all were virtually rolled into a big lump of cars as the regular breaks disappeared due to other "crash-breaks" somewhere up the stages. By the time the Historics returned for another run, things started to get darker and high-beam headlights were fixed on the front of some of the cars.
And then this happened:
A low gurgle coming from the forest, and a white car suddenly appeared that I did not recognise at first due to having left my glasses at home. It wasn't fast, but the sound was familiar. Someone shouted the number "four" in Italian and the thing went past in fully-flared wheelarches and winglets. Mikey and I looked at each other for a brief moment and then we looked back at the car to watch it as long as we could until the car was gone and the sound died. It was in fact a Group B Audi Quattro, most likely a replica and not an actual machine, but it still was one of them.
Darkness was falling, cigarette ends glowed in the dark, sounds got softer till the second arrival of the domestic runners, which was definitely one of the highlights with the brake discs and exhaust pipes firing in red, the high-beam lighting equipment scanning the road surface at a greater pace they did so in the light. Only a few cars were left and it was truly dark.
By the time the final course car made its way through, the spectators started walking off. Another year till the full glory, but it's only a week until the sprint runners in the same area.