London - Sahara R4 World Cup Rally 2001
by James Sims Williams and Tristan Connell, 9 February 2002
This is the tale of two determined drivers who took a restored Renault 4GTL from London to Morocco and back, as entrants in the World Cup Rally during September and October 2001.
This was the first such rally to be held since 1974, aiming to recreate the classic rallies of old, focusing on standard hatchbacks rather than racing cars or specially adapted vehicles. The Renault 4 is often cited as being the world's first true hatchback car, and so it would have been unfitting not to see one take part. Amongst the competitors in the same category as the R4 (which was the lowest cc group), were a Citroën 2CV and a new Mercedes Smart Pulse, whilst the remaining sixty or more contestants were made up of all sorts of old and new hatchback vehicles. The contest was started by Stirling Moss at Brooklands Museum in London, and involved a 3-week trip across Europe to Morocco and back, taking in 6,000 miles and many special sections and tests along the way.
The two drivers, James Sims Williams and Tristan Connell, salvaged the R4 from a scrapyard earlier in 2001 for just £75, making it the cheapest vehicle in the rally. This was a good position to be in, since not many people would give it a chance, and they could take others by surprise as the written-off underdogs. The car was then prepared over several months by Chris David of the Corner Garage in Melplash, Dorset, for the thousands of miles of driving that lay ahead. No major modifications were allowed. Everything had to be original to keep a more level playing field, bar the addition of roll cages for safety, and other minor enhancements to the suspension in order to handle the bumpy roads in Portugal and the deserts in Africa. Some of the crews were experienced motorsport drivers, and a few were representing major manufacturers who had entered new vehicles, but most were just normal drivers being given the chance of taking part in a long distance rally event for the first time. The R4 pair received much attention from the public, press and spectators along the route, and just about made it back in one piece, finishing somewhere mid-table. Here is their account of some of the many strange experiences.
"On day one we left Brooklands in high spirits. As well as our friends and relatives, amongst the crowd was a kind gentleman who had come specially to see us off. He gave us a metal Renault Owners Club badge for the car, which soon became our mascot. Ahead of us was a 6,000 mile adventure that would take us and our red Renault 4 from London to the Sahara and back in just 21 days.
"The first competitive Special Tests were just south of Poitiers in the forests around Ruffec. We certainly brought smiles to the faces of the on-looking villagers, farmers and police as we began to find out how well the Renault coped with the farm tracks and woodland rides of the first test. Gravel and dust flew as we lurched around the corners, overtaking two modern production cars on route to the finish. A press photographer had caught our excited faces on one of the corners and the picture appeared in the Telegraph and Motorsport News - we suddenly became a story that many followed.
"Back on the tarmac again, we had an intensive drive down to Marbella in southern Spain. Our fan broke just before we left France, so Tristan used his best GCSE French to find a local garage and purchase a second hand one. All was going to plan, our car was proving to be fun to drive on the competitive sections and problems were easy to repair ... just as we had hoped.
"OUR BEST DAY ... Extract from the official rally report:" [this report was previously housed on the 'carnetnews' website which is no longer accessible]
"Head north into the hills above Marbella, find the Gun and Country Club, a delightful wooden chalet perched on a hilltop, and if you had decided on the Chicken Caesar Salad from the veranda at lunchtime you would have heard more than the odd gunshot ricochet around the cliffs. The rugged country is blessed with a network of empty gravel roads and it was here that the London-Sahara-London World Cup Rally got down to a severe shake-up over roads just as testing as anything found on the infamous Greek Acropolis Rally. Bounce over this and do well and you'll bounce over anything. "Give us one more days just like this one and we'll be challenging the leaders", was the verdict at the end of it all from the two students in the battered Renault Four. They gained 19 places to now occupy 27th spot and their names are now on the first page of the Results ... they would have been even higher had they not been the only crew to book into a time control early, and collect a bucket of penalties ... but adrenaline had been running from the moment they left the Don Carlos hotel, as with no trip-meter they found just getting to the Gun and Country Club on time a breathless affair."
"We left Spain not only in 27th place but 3rd in our class! For the first time in the rally, we had a trophy in sight. Africa was where the excitement escalated - we travelled down to Marrakech over steep mountain passes and through villages bustling with curio stalls and children running everywhere. We had left the 'homely feeling' of the EU and were now in Africa. Naturally we found the hill climbs among the Atlas Mountains a bit tougher than some of the other, more modern cars, but as soon as we were off-road on the Moroccan pistes the car was back in its element. However, tracks were coming up thick and fast and we were seen disappearing over a far horizon ... lost ... only to return and complete the test in a respectable time!"
R4 speeding past the palms in Morocco.
"We nearly went off a cliff twice. The first time Tristan said to me, "quick get out and push", as we sat with one wheel jammed in the rocks at the edge of the road. I opened the door to find that there was just air and a rocky fall below me. Another few centimetres and our car would have been stranded, rocking in a see-saw fashion over the cliff-face. Our adrenaline was so high that problems such as this were quickly resolved. We kept driving on, striving to do better."
close up of the R4 driving past the palms
"That was until day eleven. Just over 100k south of Erfoud in the Sahara Desert - where the road runs out on the map - the car stopped. We were stranded on the crest of a sand dune, watching as the last of the other competitors sped past. Soon after dark, the 'sweep' vehicle came and towed us to the tented camp that was our stop for that night. There was a gaping hole in the side of the engine and a con rod had broken inside."
stopping at one of the checkpoints
"The fact that our chances in the competition were now blown away was the least of our worries. We were now stuck, at possibly the furthest point from home, with no engine. The rally waits for no-one and all our friends and competitors had to drive on. After an abortive attempt to find a Moroccan engine to fit we jumped on a transporter with a fellow broken down competitor (about five other cars broke down in the desert sections) and followed the rally. Luck was on our side ... the worst floods in the Sahara for seven years came down and the competition was stopped for a day. While waiting for the raging torrents to subside, we met a Welshman who lived in Marbella, who said that he had a spare engine at home! The replacement was from an early Renault 5, but as you know the engines are identical."
parking, after a long day
"In the posh Don Carlos hotel car park in Marbella, eight other competitors teamed together for an emotional day fitting our new engine. It was just like a scene from a Herbie rally film as the old Renault 4 coughed into action again.
"Ahead of us lay some of the most famous and exciting rally circuits of Spain and Portugal. Sadly we had to take it easy. Getting back to London in one piece was our new aim, which we achieved. Reflecting back, there are so many ifs and buts ... if it was not for the engine we would certainly have held onto our 26th place and might even have made it into the top 20."
where it all ended, sort of
I asked the team if some of the media reports were true, such as the apparent problems with gendarmes holding the R4 back in traffic and waving all the other competitors through, not believing that the Renault 4 was part of the rally?
"Very little of what was written about us in the press was true! They just printed whatever was fun and interesting that they could think of. We did not mind too much, because coverage is coverage, even if it is not quite true. The only thing that annoyed us slightly was the news-thread that Motorsport News started, suggesting that the scrapyard that we bought the car from would buy it back from us if we made it back. The gendarmes certainly were amused by us, both in France and Morocco, but they waved us through just the same - the car looked too mad and British to be a local vehicle."
So, what happened to the little R4 at the end of it all - does it still survive or was that its last puff?
"We made it back all together and running just fine, unlike one of the professional teams, who also lost a con-rod and had to splutter back on three cylinders. It is being stored in my garage at the moment."
And if you were going to do it all over again, would you do it in an R4?
"We would love to race it in the London - Athens World Cup Rally 2002 but can't afford it. We may sell it to someone else who wants to compete in this race - it would certainly get tonnes of publicity a second time around. Otherwise, much as we love it, you may see it on your classified ads sometime. Otherwise, we might try and persuade Renault to give us a Kangoo."
So, in its fortieth year, the Renault 4 completed another extraordinary chapter in its history, and proved itself a very capable car in virtually any conditions, which is the reason it sold in the millions and still survives today as a trusted friend to proud owners around the globe. Be it the Argentinian ski instructor seen elsewhere on this site, who drives his R4 up the mountains to work each day to the amazement of onlookers, the African owners who regularly navigate the dusty and bumpy roads of the desert, the fanatics like myself in drizzly northern Europe who battle against the elements to save the cars from rotting away, or the many other enthusiasts in far flung corners such as Australia, Japan, Canada and Colombia, who remain determined to drive nothing else, the Renault 4's legendary place in history is assured. And let's hope it very much remains in the present too.
You can find out more on the rally and the two drivers on their website - www.simswilliams.com