There was a time a few years ago when Edinburgh University Motorsport Club did lots of road rallying. I’m not saying this to be a moaning old codger, by the way, I’m saying it because it gives a good introduction to where I’m going with this piece. Anyway, we used to appear at events en masse, rocking up with matching hoodies and window stickers in a fleet of three, four, sometimes five cars. We would then proceed to blast round the route in our respective classes, more often than not returning home in a procession with all the event trophies in the boot. I thought this was pretty impressive for a university motor sport club – until I met the team from Tokyo University at this year’s Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique.
The first I knew about the university team was when five of them appeared at my marshaling post outside a garage in downtown Glasgow the morning before the rally. They were in a brand-new white Toyota Corolla that had all the hallmarks of having been picked up at the airport – no smoking logos on the inside, ‘Toyota GB’ branded number plates on the front, and a ‘Diesel Only’ sticker on the petrol cap. Despite being reasonably small guys, the five occupants filled the inside of the Corolla by virtue of their massive yellow all-weather jackets.
Before I’d had time to connect the dots and realise this was quite a slick outfit, two Avensis estates and a Toyota van pulled in behind, chaperoning the team’s rally car – a 1973 Toyota Sprinter Trueno – into a parking bay. The doors of each vehicle burst open and squads of yellow-jacketed young men poured out. A couple of older chaps pulled a few spanners out of the back of the van and started to fettle the car, while the rest of the team busied themselves with their various camcorders and video cameras. Fifteen thousand miles from home, fifteen crew members and five official vehicles. This was student motorsport, Tokyo University-style.
Before I go any further, I should maybe say something about how it came to pass that this small band of gents from Japan wound up in Glasgow, along with dozens of other competitors from exotic locations with equally exotic machinery. The Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique is a rally for old cars, prior to the early 1980s, and harks back to the rallies of old. That means that competing crews start from a whole number of different locations, ‘rallying’ round a central point before heading off into the hills to race each other over a few days. In the case of the Monte, said central point was Monte Carlo in the Principality of Monaco, and for the 2011 event, held at the start of February, the starting points included Marrakech, Warsaw, Barcelona and Glasgow.
No matter where each crew hails from, the rally organisers assign them a start city more or less at random. The cars are transported out to each start location, where the teams sign on for the event, have their car scrutineered and take part in a ceremonial start before heading off on the long slog down (or up) to Monaco. Although the real, competitive action doesn’t begin until the cars get to the south of France, the journey from the start city to the Principality is part of the formal proceedings, with a number of checkpoints en route to keep the navigators on their toes. Once everyone gets to the most famous city in the world of motorsport, it’s off into the mountains for three days of flat-out stage action where the winner – just like on a normal rally – is the person who gets round the course fastest. The Historique is a massive, massive event, with more than 300 entries. Far more, as it happens, than the modern Rallye Monte-Carlo.
And so it came to pass that on a cold, damp February morning, these talented young engineers from one of the world’s most sophisticated nations found themselves standing outside a garage in Partick. In fairness, the ceremonial start the following day would take place outside the old Royal Scottish Automobile Headquarters in posh, leafy Blythswood Square, but for now the participants assigned Glasgow as their start point found themselves hanging around in an area a friend of mine described as “pure bandit country like,” a place where you’d “get jumped” after dark. The Tokyo University-Kanto Industrial College Trueno was getting a thorough spanner check, having only been driven a few miles from the dock since it was loaded onto a ship in Yokohama some three months previous. All around, Dutch, French, Germans, Belgians and Finns similarly took advantage of the opportunity to check over their cars before heading in for scrutineering. Porsche engines gunned away as mechanics checked valve timings, Renaults spluttered back into life after sitting inert for weeks on a trailer, and Lancias creaked as their service crews frantically tightened the various nuts and bolts that held them together.
Two things quickly became apparent about the Tokyo team. One was that only a very small portion of the group actually seemed to have anything to do directly related to the successful running of the car, and the other was that there was clearly a fair bit of support behind the outfit. The team had a driver and co-driver, both of whom seemed to be a bit older than the others (lifers, if you will), a couple of mechanics, and about ten cameramen. Most of these photographers and film-makers did have other tasks such as logistics, design and chase car navigation, but the whole squad seemed to move around the scrutineering area as one, a vast yellow shoal surrounding the dark green car. Every vehicle in the team’s flotilla had a big artistic ‘T’ on the front, and the lurid yellow jackets worn by each and every one of them were adorned with Toyota stickers. Nobody said as much, but it was pretty clear they were getting a helping hand from their homeland’s favourite purveyor of vehicles that can’t stop.
While the MSA scrutineers gave the car a good checking over, I took the opportunity to chat to some of the students (when they put their cameras down, that is). The project, it turns out, is a collaboration between Tokyo University – Japan’s best and most famous university – and Kanto Industrial College. It’s an interdisciplinary effort that brings together student expertise in engineering, logistics, mechanics and media. The upshot of this is that those involved can get marks and credits for their university courses whilst taking part in one of the biggest, most famous and most prestigious rallies in the whole world. One could question why all fifteen of them need to fly halfway round the globe to take part, but with everyone working so hard behind the scenes, it’s only right that the whole team gets to enjoy the glitz and, er, Glasgow, of the event.
The Sprinter flew through scrutineering, and the students departed to check into their hotel and get ready for the gala dinner in the evening. Once they’d gone, I got a chance to check out some of the other machinery on display, and my schoolboy French was called into action on several occasions to explain directions and problems to some of the Francophone crews. You always get loads and loads of Porsche 911s doing historic rallies, but thankfully there were plenty of rare and unusual things to keep me occupied throughout my marshaling stint and stop me nodding off at the sight of yet another coupe with the engine at the back. If you know me, you’ll know that I love old French cars, so I was particularly delighted to see a number of retro Renaults, classic Citroens and prehistoric Peugeots limbering up for a journey back to their homeland. There were a couple of scarlet Datsun 240Zs, and a reassuring number of low-budget classics such as a Mark 1 VW Golf GL and an old and surprisingly rust-free Renault 5 GT. Heck, I even got excited at the sight of a Porsche – admittedly, it was the oddball, boxy 914, but a Porsche nonetheless.
After a good six or seven hours of standing around, scrutineering closed for the night, which was just as well because I was near-on spent. In addition to the usual end-of-rally stupour, familiar to many rally volunteers and caused by a combination of too little sleep and too much low-quality caffeinated beverages, I’d also had to deploy German, French and Japanese language skills over the course of the day to keep everyone moving and iron out a few problems. Given that my official job was to effectively be a human orange arrow – standing on a corner and pointing cars to a parking bay – I was glad of the chance to do something challenging over the course of the day and even more glad that my day would be rounded off with a gala dinner.
Said gala dinner was supposed to be a black tie affair at a swish new hotel down by the River Clyde, but for my new-found pals from Tokyo University-Kanto Industrial College, black tie translated to red-and-black polo shirt with JAPAN in massive letters on the back. The cameras and peace signs were out in force as the team’s webmasters sought to record every minute of the squad’s sojurn from Tokyo to Glasgow and on to Monaco. In another sign that these chaps were slightly different from British student motorsport fans, they managed to pass through the pre-dinner champagne reception venue without decimating the place of its alcoholic contents, and refrained from getting ripped into the vats of haggis that were placed in the centre of each table. The student team were taking it easy, and rightly so. The next day would be one of stringent preparation, a ceremonial start and then a grueling overnight drive down through England. A cross-channel journey would follow, and then a drive right the way through France. And all of that before the cars have even clocked a competitive stage mile. I kept a keen eye out for the Japanese names on the timesheets the following week, and was pleased to see their dedication and hard work had paid off with a 42nd overall finish out of well over 200 cars that had made it to the end back in Monaco.
After dinner, we exchanged business cards, and I left with the promise that they’d take me out on the piss next time I came to Tokyo. As I headed for home, one deeply worrying thought struck my mind. Given the seriousness and professionalism with which the Japanese students approached rallying compared to their British counterparts, with what kind of zeal and enthusiasm might they approach going out on the randan? I’m not entirely sure I want to find out. But then again, I might not have any choice in the matter.