Friday, 30 July 2010

Louise Aitken-Walker



Louise and Tina in Monte Carlo, 1990

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Louise Aitken-Walker was one of Britain's best-known rally drivers. She was a popular figure on television - an appearance on Blue Peter led to this Scotswoman becoming a personal hero of mine from childhood.

She got a surprise start in motorsport, courtesy of her brothers. They entered her into a Ford "Find A Lady Rally Driver" contest they had seen in the Radio Times and as a result, she was selected for the Fabergé Fiesta Challenge in 1979, a race and rally competition for women. Nineteen-year-old Louise was fourth overall and won two of the rally events, Scarborough and Halewood. She also drove in the RAC Rally as a result, although she did not finish.

Preferring the rally side of four-wheeled competition, she continued to drive her Fiesta in British club and regional rallies, gaining more experience all the time. By 1981 she had progressed to a Ford Escort RS2000 and finished her first RAC Rally, after another retirement in 1980. She was nineteenth and fourth in Class Three. She also drove in the Scottish Rally, and was 41st in a Fiesta. Her best result was a class win and fourteenth place in the Manx Rally. Her co-driver was Ellen Morgan, another Fabergé graduate. They were to be a team for the next eight years.

The pair won their class in the 1982 RAC, despite not beating their previous finish with a 20th spot. Their first taste of international competition came courtesy of the Rali Vino Madeira, in which they were ninth, and second in class. Away from the dizzy heights of the World Championship stage, and the European top ten, they also won Class One in the British National Championship.

1983 was the year that Louise's career really took off. Her shining achievement that season was winning a British national event outright, the Peter Russek Rally (now the Swansea Bay Rally). This was the first time in the modern era that a national rally had a female winner; an achievement that would not be repeated for almost  thirty years. Louise was awarded a Pirelli Diamond in recognition of her feat, and her fame led to offers of more drives. She drove an Alfa Romeo Alfasud TI in the Monte Carlo Rally, and finished ahead of a group of eight female teams in similar cars, securing the Coupe des Dames. In her first attempt at the snowy Swedish Rally she won class N2 in an Escort XR3, and the British Junior Team offered her an Escort RS1600i for the RAC event. Sadly, she did not finish. In National competition, she was seventh on the Circuit of Ireland in the Escort, and tenth in the Ulster Rally, also in the Escort.

Louise and Ellen were members of the Junior team again for 1984. Their second visit to Sweden gave them another class win, and a more competitive 23rd place overall. They did not finish the RAC Rally again, but were effective elsewhere in Britain, finishing third in the National Championship, in a Ford Sierra. A seventh in the Mewla Rally was their standout result. Elsewhere in Europe, Louise was enjoying relative success. With Ellen, she was twelfth in Italy’s Costa Smeralda Rally, and 19th in the Rallye d’Antibes. With German co-driver, Monika Eckardt, she was fifth in the Skoda Rally in the Czech Republic.

The pair signed for Peugeot the following year. They stuck to British rallies this time out, and proved that they could handle the Peugeot 205 GTI as well as the Ford Escort, finishing third in the British Open Championship, the highest level of national competition. Their best result was a near-repeat of their 1983 Peter Russek win, where they were second behind Mark Lovell. In the Ford, they were fifth in the Gwynedd Rally and sixth in the Granite City Rally in Scotland, as well as seventh in the Mewla event again. Louise also scooped the Coupe de Dames on the RAC Rally, and won class A6, with a sixteenth place, in the Peugeot.

After a good year with Peugeot, the former shepherdess from Duns was in demand. Nissan Europe took her on as a works driver for the 1986 season, for the British Open series and the RAC Rally. She maintained her speed across the UK, and moved a little further up the RAC leaderboard with a fifteenth spot. Her best British Championship result was fifth again, in the Welsh Rally, and she had further top tens, a sixth and seventh, in the Scottish and Ulster Rallies. The Nissan 240RS she was driving was a fully-fledged Group B car, capable of taking on the big guns. It was also relatively reliable, with only one gearbox failure in Ireland.

It was back to Peugeot for Louise and Ellen in 1987. Reunited with the Peugeot 205 GTI, they continued their UK rally adventures, starting well with sixth and a class win in the National Breakdown Rally. Louise managed another class win in the Manx Rally, and was eleventh overall. In between, she was seventh in the Circuit of Ireland. They looked set for a top ten finish on the RAC Rally until fate intervened. An oil filter split while the duo were in seventh position, right in front of the TV cameras. Until this misfortune, Louise had been a British fan favourite with spectators and TV viewers.

It was an unfitting end to a generally excellent season though. The 205 took its crew to five class wins from five British Open events completed, and Louise was rewarded with number one driver status for 1988. Her heroics on the snowbound RAC Rally netted her an Autosport National Driver of the Year Award. Life as number one at Peugeot treated her well. She came close to another win in the Cartel International Rally, but settled for second. On the Isle of Man, she was seventh, and second in class A7. She was also seventh in the Fram Welsh Rally, and eighth in the Circuit of Ireland. This was in spite of non-finishes in the Scottish and Ulster Rallies. She was fifth in the British Championship. Her only really big disappointment was another non-finish in the RAC Rally.

It was now time for a hike in power. For 1989, Louise was invited to join the GM Vauxhall team, driving their Astra GTE. This was to be a joint attack on the British Rally Championship and the British Touring Car Championship. She rose to the occasion admirably, winning the 2-Litre class of the rally series, and coming fifth in the BTCC, despite not having raced since 1979. She beat her team-mate John Cleland to class wins at Thruxton and Silverstone. Back on the WRC stage, she and Ellen won their last Coupe de Dames together on the RAC Rally. The Vauxhall was 18th overall, third in class A7. In the British Championship, they were fifth on the Isle of Man, their best result there. Louise’s other top ten finishes were a ninth in the Cartel Rally, and seventh in the Circuit of Ireland. Her other events, the Scottish and Audi Sport rallies, gave her top-twenty finishes. She was seventh in the British Championship.

It was a new decade and a new focus for Louise in 1990. the GM team, now GM Eurosport, had entered the World Rally Championship and were taking her with them. Her new co-driver was Swedish expert Tina Thörner. The season started quite well in Monte Carlo. Louise steered the Astra to eleventh overall, second in class A7. However, the team's second outing, the Rally of Portugal, ended in disaster. Louise and Tina had a serious off on stage three, rolling the car down a bank and deep into a lake. The Vauxhall was fully submerged and it was lucky that Tina had trained as a pool lifeguard and was able to react quickly. Thankfully, both crew members swam to the shore and escaped unharmed.

Two months later, Louise was back in action on the Tour de Corse. She avoided trouble this time, but went out on the last day with cambelt trouble. The following month in New Zealand, she was much more fortunate, coming in eleventh and winning class A7. This was her best World Championship finish to date. She was thirteenth in Australia, eighteenth in Sanremo and seventeenth on the RAC Rally, with a class win each time. After the season-ending RAC, she and Tina were awarded the FIA Ladies' World Rally Championship trophy, a first World Rally title for a British driver. In recognition of this, Louise was named Driver of the Year by the Guild of Motoring Writers.

1990 was her only WRC season. She moved to the UK Ford team in 1991, still with Tina Thörner. They campaigned a Ford Sierra Cosworth around Britain, in the Open Championship and the RAC Rally. Paradoxically, Louise achieved her best-ever WRC finish that year, a tenth place in the RAC. This gave her a single point in the WRC Drivers' standings. Her best Open finish was a second in the Plains Rally, although she was driving strongly, and was third in the Fram Welsh Rally, and fourth in Scotland. She was still the highest-achieving Briton in motorsport, and won the Jim Clark and Seagrave trophies: the first is for the highest-placed Scot in a motorsport series and the second for the most meritorious performance by a British person. To round things off, she was awarded the MBE in the Queen's New Year Honours list in 1992.

1992 was Louise's last full year of competition before retiring into family life. Still with Ford, she drove an experimental environmentally-friendly Sapphire Cosworth in the British Championship. Their season was a good one, beginning with seventh in the Vauxhall Sport International Rally, and fifth in the Pirelli Rally. A halfshaft went part-way through the Manx National Rally, which was not really one of Louise’s best events. The Scottish and Ulster Rallies gave her fifth and sixth, with a class win in Scotland. The Manx International Rally went no better than its National counterpart: the clutch went on the Sierra. Louise was sixth on the Elonex International Rally in Telford, behind Colin and Alister McRae, Tommi Mäkinen and Mark Higgins, but in front of Richard Burns. She was fourth in the British champioonship

After having two children and devoting time to family and business interests, she did come out of retirement in 1996, for another stab at the British Championship and the RAC Rally. She was driving a 1600cc Honda Civic for Honda UK, which was not the quickest or most reliable, but the development work she did with it proved valuable. Her only finish came on the Scottish Rally, where she and Claire Mole were 29th. They also drove in the 24 Hours of Ypres.

She has never really left motorsport entirely, and continues to test and help develop rally cars, as well as driving the course car on the Duns-based Jim Clark Memorial Rally. More recently, she and her husband Graham have started their own rally school and Louise has helped her children's former nanny, Jane Nicol, get started in the sport. In 2005 she was inducted into the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame.

In 2008, she came out of retirement once more to compete in the Colin McRae Stages, as a tribute to her countryman. She was driving a Talbot Sunbeam Lotus in Andrews Heat For Hire livery. She was one of a number of international and British champions out in the forests.

Louise in 2008
(Picture from aitken-walkerdriving.co.uk and fia.com)


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