Whichever way you turned, the mood was darker than the leaden skies overhead downtown Tobermory last weekend.
Never one to miss out on an opportunity to cross the Sound of Mull, I extended a couple of days of work in Scotland, reminded myself Oban was just beyond the Glasgow suburbs (it definitely isn’t…) and headed west.
All around the island, there are reminders of last year’s rally. Some of the locals still carry the recce decals on road cars while plenty sport the official 2017 rally sticker. This year, things will be very different come October in Tobe. There’ll be a targa rally on Friday, October 13, followed by a gravel sprint through the woods on the Saturday.
Inevitably, however, Friday night won’t mean the usual dusk to dark dash over Mishnish Lochs, the preceding week won’t have packed the island wall-to-wall with practicing crews and the preceding month won’t have had the locals counting the days until the start.
The Mull Rally really is that important on the Hebridean island.
That much was obvious as I made my way among Tobermory and its 1000 locals. Take the girl serving behind the counter in Tackle & Books. Sporting last year’s Mull Rally hoodie, she was a good place to start my research.
“It’s terrible,” she said. “It’s really bad for the income on the island. I know they’re trying to do something else that weekend, but it’ll not be the same. I just hope it comes back. We need the rally.”
It was the same in the Mishnish bar just up the road and the Bellachroy over the hill in Dervaig. The owner of Tobermory’s famous fish and chip van said he would be counting the cost for some time.
“It will hit us hard,” he said. “It’s been a tough year so far. We should have had a few more of the cruise ships coming in and they’ve not been and now this with the rally. It’s bad – that rally helps us come through the winter.”
The MacKinnon family is a big part of the Mull Rally history, with father Neil a 12-time winner and son Paul just 10 behind him.
Paul’s putting his back into running the Staffa Tours sightseeing business – a brilliant opportunity to have a MacKinnon drive you around the island with an 8.3-litre engine at his disposal (even before you factor in the Puffins, White Tailed Eagles and Basking Sharks) – but he can’t imagine and autumn without one of Britain’s most popular rallies.
And why would he? Like fellow rally-winning islander John MacCrone, he’s never known an October without rally cars touring the island of Mull.
Let’s stress, once again, there will be car-based competition on Mull over the second weekend in October and, if you were planning to go, you’d be mad to change your plans. You’ll get a day of asphalt action and, for the first time in ages, the chance to see cars going through the woods.
The usual golf competition and clay pigeon shoot will run on Sunday and, most importantly, the Monday bash in Dervaig with a hog roast and general day-long quenching of thirst remains a firm fixture.
This time more than ever, it’s vital we get to Mull and support an island economy which has played host so enthusiastically to the Tour of Mull and Mull Rally down the years.
News of Mull Rally’s demise was as shocking as it was surprising, but the good news is that the biggest hindrance to the event’s return – Scottish parliament following Westminster in devolving road-closing powers to local council – is in the pipeline. Currently, that pipeline is a little bit blocked by the Fatal Accident Investigation into four deaths on the 2014 Jim Clark and 2013 Snowman Rallies. The investigations began earlier this week.
It’s hoped the FAI will be concluded in around a month, allowing time for necessary political hoops to be jumped through in Holyrood and the Mull Rally proper to return in October, 2018.
Worth remembering at this point, however, the Fatal Accident Investigation into the Glasgow bin lorry crash in 2014 took five months. And that investigation was, in some ways, more straightforward. We should learn to love what’s coming in October, because it’s perfectly plausible this year’s bridging event might be extended to two years.
Learning to love most things about Mull is not difficult. And certainly, learning to love a trip to one of the most beautiful parts of Britain in its most colourful season is even easier.
The scenery’s one thing, but it’s the roads that we all go there for and, having driven everything which featured on last year’s itinerary, you can rest assured those lanes are just as epic as ever.
As Calum Duffy (and MacKinnon in 2015) showed, the only way to get across the island is with 350-odd horsepower paddle-shifted up and down a sequential gearbox. So I followed their lead. Admittedly, Audi’s twin-turbo A6 allroad didn’t rev to 9000 and the scream of a Millington Diamond probably had the edge over a whistley three-litre bellow, but out of a wet hairpin above Tobermory, Ingolstadt’s finest dropped a £100k Ford Escort.
And, probably just as importantly… when you change things like the volume on the stereo, you do so on the transmission tunnel next to the gearlever. And that never fails to make me feel like Petter Solberg adjusting the ‘diff map mid-stage in a factory Subaru.
Even on the tightest, twistiest sections of Loch Tuath, the allroad felt light on its toes and far more manoeuvrable than it probably should have done. But it was on the longer corners and quicker sections of Glen Aros where the torque really did its work; grunt and grip in perfect harmony.
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to take an RS6 to Lydden for Britain’s World RX round and I thought I’d found the perfect Audi. Mull last weekend forced a rethink. Six-hundred horses would likely have ditched me down those lanes, but the allroad and its 2017 World Rally Car levels of power kept me on the straight and occasionally very narrow.
As always, it was with a heavy heart that I turned left onto the boat out of Craignure. Local concerns over the island biggest annual event rang loud, but the need for support come October rang even louder.