IN SWEDEN they have the very odd situation in which the country’s premier international event, chosen by the CSI as a qualifier in the World Rally Championship for Makes, does not form part of the National Rally Championship. This is an oddity which does not occur in countries in which the motor sporting authorities are also organisers of events; Britain, for instance, where the RAC Rally and the administration and control of all sporting matters are both handled from Belgrave Square. One could hardly expect the RAC to drop its premier event from its own National Championship series, but it is only fair to add that no-one would want them to do that.
The International Swedish Rally is organised by the KAK (Swedish Royal Automobile Club) which also provides road patrols and other services for motorists just like Britain’s RAC and AA, But all motor sporting matters are controlled by an entirely separate body, the Swedish Automobile Sport Federation, which never itself takes the role of rally organiser.
After last year’s Swedish Rally, the ASF (in Swedish the initials are different) did not consider that the event was particularly well organised and felt that there were other rallies more suitable for inclusion in the national championship, particularly as the Swedish Rally was the only one which announced its route beforend providing opportunities for practice—a costly business, and one which few amateurs can afford.
Predictions in Sweden were that private entrants would not be so eager to enter the Swedish Rally if championship points were not at stake, preferring to concentrate on cheaper events which were part of the championship series. This sort of thinking gave rise to fears that perhaps the event would not be held at all, for private entrants are really the providers of life blood for any event. No rally can exist solely on the support of factory teams and other professionals, for there simply aren’t enough of them, and if the privateers were to keep away from the KAK Rally (as the Swedes call it) then there would almost certainly be no rally at all.
Then came another shock. For some time the Swedish Government has been considering the pros and cons of studded tyres, arguing the safety factor on the one hand against the damage to road surfaces on the other. As a temporary measure, legislation was introduced restricting studs to a certain number per unit surface area of tyre tread. This hardly affected normal road traffic, for the number of studs per tyre used on an average car is little more than 120 or 150 or so, adequate for normal road use but hardly for high speed special stages and ice races in which 600 or even 800 studs per tyre pre quite common.
Whether the KAK had been influenced by the dithering of the Monte Carlo Rally organisers, whether they wanted to make up for their loss of Swedish Championship status and render the event more attractive to amateur budgets by eliminating costly tyre studs altogether (one competition stud can cost anything up to ten pence), whether they were seeking to endear themselves to the Swedish Government by taking the initiative (a move which could have the best possible motives and which could also have more sinister ones), or whether they simply wanted to spark off a controversy which couldn’t fail to attract publicity, is not at all clear and probably never will be.
We like to think that the motives of the KAK were the best possible, but we are unable to agree that winter rallies such as the Swedish should be run without studded tyres. If there is a government ban on their use, it would be unthinkable that that should he taken as a reason for stopping all winter rallying, but the route-finders would no longer be able to include frozen rivers and lakes.
The ban on the use of studded tyres prompted Sweden’s Opel and BMW teams, operated by dealer associations, to stop all their preparations for the event. Both outfits are well respected for their ability and it was quite a decision for them to make. Other teams decided to take part, but that is not to say that their drivers were in favour of the ban on studded tyres: The Saab team, for instance, was officially of the opinion that it was a useful experiment (the Saab’s agility on snow and ice is well known) but their drivers’ personal opinions were somewhat less tolerant. Three members of the team were present at a meeting of the Rally Pilots Association which took place at Karlstad after the rally was over. The meeting was unanimously agreed that studded tyres should he allowed on winter rallies such as the International Swedish Rally.
Among the factory-entered cars were two Saabs, two Lancias, two Renault R12 Gordinis, a single Alpine and a single Fiat 124 Spider. In addition there were several accomplished drivers using such cars as Opels, BMWs, Volvos, Volkswagens, a Daf and a Skoda, and there was a complete five-car factory team from the USSR. The Fiat factory in Russia manufactures the 124 and markets it as the Lada. Unfortunately, that happens to be the Swedish word for barn door, so the name VAZ was used instead.
In conjunction with the rally, Ford of Stockholm was running a special competition for Group 1 Mexicos, though it was obvious that the interpretation of Group 1 varies from country to country. This competition was held only during the second part of the rally, so that results achieved by competitors in Mexicos could not really be compared with those of runners in the main rally—a point which caused even Mexico runners themselves to complain. If someone wants to go rallying, let him have the opportunity to take part in a whole event, not half of one.
The same arrangement was made for Group 1 Volkswagens, but whereas the Mexico contest was based only on the second part of the Swedish Rally the VW category formed part of a series of competitions which make up the Volkswagen Cup, a marque championship rather similar to the Mexico Championship which was started last year in Britain, except that it has far fewer qualifying events. Backing up the many runners in the VW category were several entries in the main rally of Group 2 cars for prominent drivers, Björn Waldegard for instance. But there were no works Fords to set an example to the Mexico people, unless you consider that the Mexicos provided for racing people such as Peterson, Wisell and Emanuelsson were works cars.
During the weeks before the rally there were fears that the rally would be no more than an enormous slither to a standstill. There was hardly any snow at all, just ice, and on such very slippery surfaces there was nothing whatsoever to give unstudded tyres any grip at all. Competitors going out to make pace notes were spending more time pushing and shoving than they were notemaking, and one crew reported that it took at least half an hour for them to get their car away from the stage start line. The winter had been freakishly mild, but the Norse Gods are kind to rally people, and just two days before the start of the rally the snow finally came.
There was hardly enough of it to create the reassuring snow banks normally left in the wake of snow ploughs, but at least it gave the ploughs some work and it did leave a powdery, half-packed surface on which plain tyres could find a little grip. Without that snow there seems little doubt that progress would have approached the impossible. As it was, there were numerous cases of cars slithering helplessly off the road, through the low snow banks and into ditches. Normally the banks act as cushions and prevent cars penetrating to the trees beyond, although sweaty work with snow shovels is invariably required before they can be released. This year the banks were much smaller, and the incidence of body damage consequently higher.
The reader should not get the impression that the coming of the snow brought the rally back to normal. Without studded tyres it was anything but normal, and competitors were finding that even the slightest of bends had to be taken with extreme caution. There were several hairpins which would have been the scenes of multiple collisions had not the spectators helped by pushing cars after they had spun to a stop. Even at the starts of some stages, competitors were unable to find enough traction to leave the line and were only able to get going at all through the assistance of spectators who soon saw what was happening and gathered at the line to help every car on its way. Rather a ridiculous situation for what is supposed to be one of the world’s premier events.
To echo the words of the Rally Pilots Association, it was like turning a game of skill into a game of chance, and even Stig Blomqvist will agree that luck played quite a part in the 1973 Swedish Rally. Rally drivers are prepared to face all manner of natural hazards they don’t complain about unguarded drops into ravines-but they do like to have the right tools for the job.
As usual, the rally was based at the town of Karlstad in the province of Varmland, where the forests of the Billerud and Uddeholm companies provided most of the roads used as special stages. The famous river stage at Stollet had to be scrubbed for instead of the usual coating of ice there was a raging torrent. The route was divided into two parts, the second exactly the same as the first except that it started and finished with a race, in four-at-a-time heats, around the frozen ponytrotting track at Farjestad, a Karlstad suburb. The style is a popular one, for everybody can establish a base at Karlstad without having to transport personnel and equipment to distant overnight stops.
Sweden, like Finland, has a talent among its rally drivers which few other countries can match, and it takes quite a performance to impress Swedish enthusiasts. But even the Swedes were open-mouthed at the performance put up by Stig Blomqvist. Undoubtedly the best performer on ice and snow in the world, Blomqvist (who prefers gravel rallies, incidentally) took a twenty-minute delay to repair a faulty fuel pump in his stride and made up the deficit to win comfortably.
Of the 73 starters, only 42 managed to finish, those figures referring to competitors in the main rally, not the Volkswagen and Mexico runners in the second half. But the difficulties were so great that the organisers had to use Safari tactics and increase the maximum permitted lateness from one hour to an hour and a half. Climate conditions in Africa are so variable that the organisers have to reserve for themselves the right to increase the maximum lateness beyond which competitors are excluded. This is also the case in Lapland where blizzards can sometimes stop the Arctic Rally for several hours. But in Sweden in February there were no sudden onsets of car-stopping weather conditions; it was simply a case of inability to meet the required averages on unstudded tyres. Rallying in Sweden, and indeed all over Scandinavia, is an immensely popular sport, but enthusiasts this year were not quite as enthusiastic as they usually are. Apart from those who stayed to push cars which had spun, many watchers were leaving the forests long before the cars had stopped coming through, and the KAK must take heed of the possibility that they might reduce the popularity of winter rallying if they continue to ban studded tyres. It’s not much fun pussyfooting a car around for two nights on snow and ice, hardly daring to go a fraction faster lest the car should slide gradually but relentlessly towards a ditch.
Studded tyres owe their development to the sport of rallying. They represent a winter safety factor second to none, and both the general public and those who go rallying have the right to continue using them.—G.P.
Readers' letters, November 2014, November 2014
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