The tribal nature of motorsport means it always feels odd to cross the streams.
The tree-lined roads leading to Oulton Park make me remember youthful visits during the heyday of the British Touring Car Championship’s Super Touring era, but today’s trip is to celebrate a far muddier form of competition – one that’s also more appropriate to the Yaris GRMN that has been my not-especially-civilised companion for the journey here. Because Wales Rally GB is set to return to both England in general and the Cheshire circuit in particular this October.
Although super specials are often looked down on by hardcore fans, who regard rallying as something that happens in forests, they have long offered a way for less dedicated fans to get close to the action without the need to don full survival gear.
They have also come on considerably since the days when a spectator stage meant a poorly marked muddy track around a stately home where only the tallest were guaranteed a view. My memory of a childhood trip to Haigh Hall on the 1986 RAC was a sea of nylon-clad backs muffling the sounds of unseen Group B cars. We’re promised that Oulton will be different on the event’s return here for the first time since 1993.
After a ceremonial start in Liverpool outside the Cunard Building, the first competitive stage on Thursday night will be a 2.5-mile course at Oulton. This incorporates both a fair chunk of the Fosters circuit, from Lodge down to Cascades, followed by a loop back around the small lake next to Knickerbrook through a specially constructed water splash. Cars will then blast up Clay Hill and onto a bit of Oulton’s own rally stage, normally used for experience days. With the chance for some proper speeds, and cars tackling a fair amount of Tarmac on gravel settings, the spectacle should be a good one. Oulton’s very three-dimensional layout also means there should be no shortage of great vantage points. As this is the 75th running of the event, which Autocar had a hand in founding, there will also be a celebratory display of some of the most famous and best-loved cars to have competed.
Visiting Oulton well ahead of the stage being constructed, with the circuit busy for a motorbike track day, means imagination is required to work out what it will be like at night and with thousands of spectators here. The water splash will definitely be the star attraction. We’re allowed to take some pictures of the Yaris on the rally stage and, even at low speeds, its clear there’s very little grip from the slick Tarmac surface, the GRMN’s locking front differential kept busy in the search for barely existing traction.
Rally GB’s visit to England will only be fleeting. After Oulton, the remainder of the competitive mileage is all in Wales. But before crossing the border, the Yaris and I have to make another stop, at Chester Racecourse. This is the oldest in the country, founded in 1539 to offer an alternative to the bloody (and often fatal) Goteddsday mob football matches that were previously played here. But it’s not horses that inspire the stop, rather memories of the course’s role as the finish of the 1995 RAC Rally.