Lombard-RAC Rally 1980

'The single most successful event for the Talbot Competitions Department.'

Talbot Competitions Director, Des O'Dell, had spent the 1970's in frustration at not being able to beat the dominant Ford Escorts at rallying. Despite valiant efforts with the (Hillman-Chrysler) Avenger, including an almost disastrous tie-up with BRM, overall success was always no more than a dream. The only successes were to be had on the race circuit, where Bernard Unett had three times been crowned British Saloon Car Champion. Had it not been for a loyal following of clubmen rallying private Avengers, the department may have been closed long since - the Special Tuning division played a large part in keeping them going.

Having started his motorsport career with Aston Martin and then with the Ford GT40s, Des was not used to failure, and had taken the job at Rootes on the basis of turning it into a winning team. The only major rallying success so far had been on the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon - victory was therefore long overdue.

1977 had brought the prospect of a new car - the smaller Sunbeam; in essence a shortened Avenger with updated styling. Des immediately saw the potential of a small rear-wheel drive hatchback car that used pretty much the same mechanicals as he had been working with for several years. Within a short space of time he had blagged a bodyshell off the production line's first run of cars and shoe-horned a Lotus 2-litre engine under the bonnet (soon becoming 2.2 after development by Lotus) and convinced management to take it into production. Early competition was promising - the car was very quick and handled well, first with Andrew Cowan and then Tony Pond and Jean-Pierre Nicolas, but reliability was not brilliant and there were too many "incidents" leading to retirements. In 1980, Des had brought in two new faces, the young Finn, Henri Toivonen, who had already made his mark in a 1600 Sunbeam on the 1978 RAC, and the more experienced French Rally Champion, Guy Fréquelin, who was more familiar with asphalt events (co-driven by a certain Jean Todt!). Results came very soon - Henri won the Arctic Rally and Guy won the Mille Pistes Rally, with other good finishes in Europe; Des's plan was to contest only a few selected events in 1980 before launching a full-scale attack on the World Championship the following year. Apart from this ultimate goal, he also longed to win the RAC and Monte Carlo rallies. Quite ambitious for a Group 2 machine!

November 1980 dawned, and for once Henri was promised to be the main attention of the team - previous favour had often gone to the French combination; perhaps not such a coincidence given the French parentage of the company and the relationship between M. Todt and the Peugeot family. Henri's greatest problems so far that year had been the lack of consistency with co-drivers - his regular team-mate had previously been his good friend, Antero Lindqvist, but his failure to speak decent English had become a problem in domestic events, where the more-experienced Neil Wilson and Paul White had been tried with increased success. The latter, or "Chalkie" as he was known, was therefore chosen to partner the young Finn - a demanding role since he was also Team Manager!

Des had been suggesting that the cars were down on top-end power, and Phil Davison had been working on a new cylinder head layout - the "Big Valve Head" - and this was therefore allocated to Henri's new car, with Guy running the normal spec. engine and a lower-tuned version provided for Russell Brookes in his privately-entered Andrews Heat For Hire car (an ex-Tony Pond factory-built right hand drive car).

At the start of the rally, no-one was really expecting or predicting any form of success for the Talbot team. Tony Pond in a TR7 V8 was favoured by some, with Hannu Mikkola going for a hat-trick victory in his Escort, and stiff competition from Bjorn Waldegaard in a Celica and Anders Kullang in an Opel Ascona, not to mention Ari Vatanen, who - in Des O'Dell's words - was "quick to say the least". The early lead, however, on the slippery tarmac stages around the country's stately homes was taken by Tim Brise in another Escort; although his rally ended when night fell and electrical problems forced him to use up all his spare alternators. Pond, too, had suffered on the first day, slipping off the road at Longleat and crashing into a lion feeding station - credit to the BL mechanics for restoring the car to a roadworthy condition, but Tony had lost a lot of time. Toivonen was up with the leaders already, though, and the following morning found himself in the lead when Kullang's tyres repeatedly punctured and Waldegaard - having lead the event for only a matter of minutes - lost his oil filter bowl and consequently his engine. The Talbot PR man was not prepared for the inundation of interest now that the lead Talbot was the lead car overall! Henri had not just chanced upon 1st place due to others' misfortunes, though, for he immediately started to pull out a lead. The experience of co-driver Paul White was to play a vital role for the remainder of the rally; Henri was not used to being first on the road and felt nervous about not having wheeltracks of others to follow. Paul calmed him down, however, and as the finish at Bath approached, a lead of five minutes was held over Henri's hero, Hannu Mikkola, who had long since admitted defeat. The only real scare in the Talbot came when Henri tried to take things easy in a bid to avoid unnecessary accidents - in fact that was the worst thing to do as he almost did crash! Back up to full speed and a sight to behold - the driver on full song and the car at its peak, the only question remaining was who would be the best other Talbot finisher? Russell Brookes had been ahead of Guy Fréquelin since the start, but a final night of punctures for the Englishman and some superb driving from the French Champion (on his very first rally in Britain, remember!) had seen Guy and co-driver Jean Todt (yes, the Ferrari man!) leapfrog Brookes into third place.

Talbot positions, then -

1st Henri Toivonen/Paul White KKV 444V

3rd Guy Fréquelin/Jean Todt KDU 111V

4th Russell Brookes/Peter Bryant EVC 666T

Unfortunately, Talbot had not been entered into the team competition, so missed out on that prize (something about the Team Manager overlooking the entry!). Still, success was sweet. The Ford domination had been broken, Mikkola's hat-trick plan was in ruins, Henri had become the youngest ever winner of a World Championship Rally, and Talbot had seen their best result since 1968. Understandably, Des was smiling in Bath.

Moreover, history now shows that this was the last victory for a two-wheel drive car on the RAC (now known as the Network Q Rally of Great Britain). It was not the end of the Sunbeam's success, though, for the following year Talbot won the World Rally Championship for Makes, despite stiff competition from Ford, Datsun and Audi.

Not bad for a low budget, extremely small team with a Group 2 car. World Champions at the first attempt, indeed!

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Last Modified on 28 January 2003