Danny McCance 7 Mar 2019 07:11pm

The scenic route

Long distance rally driving is the ultimate escape. Danny McCance finds out what drives this enduring breed of motor enthusiast
Caption: Long distance rally driving is the ultimate escape

Rallying is a term that covers a wealth of vices, encompassing a tangle of different rules and idiosyncrasies. All its forms share a similar aim, however – that of getting a motorised vehicle from point A to point B before everyone else.

In many cases, A tends to be quite some way from B. While elements including time-controlled stages, the type of vehicle used and the terrain covered may differ greatly from one event to another, the point is generally the same – to test one’s driving ability, at high speed, along the road less travelled.

“Forget any plans you had and make it up as you go,” could be the tagline for The Adventurists’ Mongol Rally, says ‘ambassador of adventurism’ Matt Dickens. One of the best-known, and arguably most ill-conceived long-distance rallies, it was cooked up 15 years ago “in a pub in the Czech Republic” by founders Tom Morgan and Joolz Ingram.

The pair decided it would be a good idea to drive a “clapped out Fiat 126” from where they sat drinking all the way to Mongolia. It led to a race in which “hapless idiots” cover 10,000 miles from somewhere outside Prague to Ulan-Ude in eastern Russia, with nothing larger than a 1.2-litre car or 125cc motorbike.

“In the first official rally there were six teams. In the last edition there were around 400, so nearly 1,000 people. I think it’s the largest vehicle rally in the world, and it happens annually,” Dickens says.

The Adventurists now organise around 20 events per year, including rickshaw runs in India, the Himalayas and Sri Lanka; rallies on “monkey bikes” – little 50cc motorcycles – through Peru, Romania and Morocco; and, from 2020, the Ice Run, a motorbike event across the frozen surface of the world’s deepest lake, Baikal in Siberia.

Putting the class in classic

At the opposite end of the motoring scale sits the Endurance Rally Association (ERA), which organised the famous Pirelli Classic Marathon – the first international rally for classic cars.

It was established by adventurer, rally enthusiast and classic car aficionado Philip Young – who died in a motor accident in 2015 – and its members are required to own classic or vintage cars. Rallies organised by the ERA include Peking to Paris, the Classic Safari and Lima to Cape Horn.

“These events are popular with the people who own the cars because they provide a vehicle – if I can use that word – to give them an adventure,” says Gerard Brown, part of the ERA for over a decade. As Brown explains, it’s all well and good owning a classic car and pottering off to the Cotswolds, but for those wanting to experience the thrill of their prized possession, the ERA’s events are perfect.

All roads lead to Thessaloniki

What unifies rally drivers is their spirit of adventure. “The reason we use vehicles that are totally unsuitable is because when they break down – and they do break down – the participants get themselves into trouble. Not legal trouble – just enough trouble that they have to interact with the local people,” says Dickens.

It was such circumstances that left Hannah Blackmore, co-founder of the Lada Rally, thumbing a lift in the middle of a Slovenian forest. “We had to try to get someone to come and get us, which involved hitchhiking to the nearest town, where we met the only English-speaking man in a supermarket, who then took us down to a mechanic,” she recalls.

Thanks to some initiative (and Google translate), Blackmore, her teammates and the Slovenian mechanic were able to diagnose the problem. Blackmore and her three friends came up with the idea for the Lada Rally when they were comparing notes from travel app Been, which keeps track of countries visited.

“We realised there were vast swathes of Eastern Europe that we hadn’t seen,” Blackmore explains. The event takes individuals 4,000km from Tallinn to Thessaloniki via seven countries over the course of a week. “It’s just a big adventure. You can plan for a day, where you want to get to, but you don’t know what’ll happen to your car in that time, or you might pass through somewhere really cool that you want to spend more time in, or have issues at a border and have to take a different route,” she says.

As the owner of a classic car, the driver must take a more rigorous approach to preparation. “You need a good and reliable car. You need to be able to look after that car,” says Brown. On an event like Peking to Paris, there will be up to 20 officials with the rally, alongside mechanics, timekeepers and medics, but Brown says that participants still need to look after themselves.

“You’re expected to be able to change a wheel if you have a puncture. You have to change your oil every night. You need to do spanner checks every night, so you must be self-sufficient with a can-do attitude, and you need to muck in and help yourself, and your fellow competitors, out.

Open to all

For many, these events offer an antidote to the ease of modern life. “We’re all sitting too much in our comfort zone. People want to get out of it,” says Barbara Litzlfellner, general manager of Travel Scientists – the company behind the India’s Cup. The event crosses the world’s seventh largest country from Chennai to Goa.

“It’s very unusual, it’s an adventure,” Litzlfellner says. “You’re thrown into driving in a country like India, with crazy traffic and a completely different culture. There’s nothing relaxing about it; afterwards you need another holiday.” But this “all you can drive rally tour” is not all about driving. “We try to find some kind of balance, things to experience between the driving parts,” Litzlfellner explains.

Despite their inherent challenges, neither the India’s Cup nor the Mongol Rally fail to draw a clutch of willing participants. “Our demographic is extremely widespread,” says Dickens. The event attracts 18-year-olds who’ve just passed their tests, honeymooners, and groups of stags and hens. “Then we have people enjoying their first mid-life crisis, and people in their golden years ticking off a bucket list.”

Driving change

While environmental issues such as damage to ecosystems, disruption in areas not geared towards heavy traffic, and pollution continue to be a concern, rallies can at least drive social change. One of the principles behind the Lada Rally was to provide support to worthwhile organisations, says Blackmore. “We wanted to build a community from it,” she says.

Participants raise money for refugee charities and hand over their vehicles to those charities at the end of the race. Similarly, one of the few rules when signing up to the Mongol Rally is that participants must raise at least £1,000. Half of it is earmarked for the Adventurists’ official charity, Cool Earth, while anything else raised goes to a charity of the participant’s choosing.

Dickens says the Adventurists have “officially” raised £8m for charity, although he estimates the total figure to be much higher. “We have a double reason for people signing up. Not only to get out there and have some fun, but also to do some good and save a bit of the planet.”

On your marks:

The Mongol Rally
Best for: Anyone keen to get themselves in a spot of bother.
Route: Somewhere near Prague, Czech Republic, to Ulan-Ude, Russia.
Duration: Roughly 10,000 miles taking three to seven weeks.
Prerequisites: An open mind. The aim is to create as broad a challenge as possible, so the organisers offer participants little in the way of support. Rules are minimal, and outside of the engine size the only requirement is that teams raise £1,000 for charity

Peking to Paris
Best for: Classic car aficionados pushing themselves to the limit.
Route: Beijing, China, to Paris, France.
Duration: 36 days.
Prerequisites: The event is open to anyone who owns and maintains an appropriate pre-1977 car. The event is not a race, but is timed, and the clock starts ticking the minute you cross the start line. There are tightly controlled time sections, with time penalties for tardiness.

The Lada Rally
Best for: Adventure within a tight timeframe.
Route: Tallinn, Estonia to Thessaloniki, Greece.
Duration: 2,485 miles in seven days.
Prerequisites: Adaptability and a competitive streak. Teams get points for countries and landmarks visited, as well as for completing daily challenges. A dedicated app means that people back home can follow the participants’ progress online.

Paris to Dakar
Best for: Serious competitors.
Route: Lima, Peru, to Pisco, Peru.
Duration: 10 stages over 3,100 miles with an additional 1,860 miles of special stages, totalling almost 5,000 miles.
Prerequisites: Considerable experience in both rallying and vehicle maintenance. Possibly one of the best-known events in longdistance rally calendar, the Paris to Dakar began in 1977 with founder Thierry Sabinet getting lost in the desert in Libya. So why South America? Following the murder of four French citizens and three Mauritanian soldiers before the 2008 event, the organisers relocated the brand to Peru.

Gumball 3000
Best for: Five-star motoring.
Route: In 2019, from Mykonos, Greece, to Ibiza, Spain.
Duration: 3,000 miles over eight days.
Prerequisites: An unrestricted driving licence and access to a luxury sports car. Began after entrepreneur Maximillion Cooper invited a handful of influential friends on a “road trip” across Europe. Rather than bedding down on a pile of sand or in a Romanian hostel, participants are more likely to find themselves sipping mojitos with celebrities at the glamorous celebrations held along the route.