Rally Review, April 1975

Swedish Rally

The International Swedish Rally, the only real snow rally in the World Championship, ironically suffers a great deal at the hands of the weather. There are always doubts as to whether there will be enough snow to keep the forest tracks covered despite the biting of the tyres and to provide snowbanks sufficiently high and deep to provide protective cushions. In the weeks before this year’s event there was very little snow in the Swedish province of Varmland, but fortunately it came in sufficient quantities with only a day or two to spare. Lancia, Fiat, Saab and GM Sweden were the teams in with a chance, not to mention a single works-supported Skoda from Norway and a Daf backed by Volvo, now owner of the Dutch firm’s car division.

Rather poorly supported with just 58 starters, the rally indicated that Swedish amateurs are far keener on the shorter events of their own national series than the costlier international event. Studded tyres were allowed this year after the highly unpopular experiment of two years ago when studs were banned altogether. But there was a limit on the number of studs which could be used in each tyre and it turned out that Finnish-made tyres, developed for the Arctic Rally earlier in the year, were in great demand.

Fiat had little success, one car going off the road and the others finishing fifth and sixth. GM Sweden had even less success with its Asconas, one going out with a dropped valve and the other after a huge time loss when its distributor points seized. It was left to Saab and Lancia to set the pace and in these teams the two outstanding drivers were Stig Blomqvist and Bjorn Waldegard. The latter driver had the much faster car, but at the end of the first half it was nevertheless Blomqvist who was leading by nine seconds. On the first test of the second half Blomqvist’s engine stopped when the coil faded and he was pushed for one and a half laps around the frozen pony track by his team-mate Eklund. For this he was penalised 500 seconds, a deficit which he immediately set about reducing. Blomqvist is never quicker than when he is endeavouring to recover from a time loss and in the whole of the second half he drove amazingly well to beat the Stratos on nearly every stage. But that 500 point loss was too much and eventually Waldegard won by a margin of less than two minutes.

The little snow meant that tyres were sometimes biting through to the gravel beneath and this meant that precious studs were being lost from driven wheels. On the Saab this resulted in a loss of traction and steering, whilst on the Lancia it meant loss of traction only. Saab was able to renew its tyre stocks by getting the team manager of Saab Finland to fly a consignment from Helsinki into Karlstad (Klaus Lehto has a pilot’s licence). The tyres concerned were Kumi-Helenius remoulds made with a tread pattern similar to that of Hakkapeliitta tyres developed by the Nokia company for the Arctic Rally after much testing and evaluation by Ford driver Timo Makinen.

The rally was far better organised than in the past, but those responsible for choosing the World Championship qualifiers of the future are concerned about its lack of local support, the feeling in Sweden that it should be organised by experienced rally people rather than by the Swedish RAC (which organises no other rallies and is not the country’s governing body like the British RAC), and stories of plans to turn it back into a summer event with that old title, Rally to the Midnight Sun. At present the choice of a snow rally for the championship lies between the Swedish Rally and Finland’s Arctic Rally. Selection of the latter would mean that Finland would have two World Championship events. We see nothing wrong with that, but the FIA is more concerned with selecting events in countries which have the biggest manufacturing industries rather than on competitive merit, so it remains to be seen which snow rally will appear in the World Championship next year.

Fiat changes course

The appearance of this issue of Motor Sport coincides with the ending in Nairobi of the Safari Rally, third qualifier of the 1975 World Rally Championship. Although we cannot say anything this month about the running of that greatest of the world’s road rallies, we are in a position to comment on the decision by one major manufacturer, Fiat, to cancel its entries in the event after all the plans had been made and all the practice cars shipped to Kenya.

When Fiat joined the list of those motor car manufacturers who were running active rally teams it did so gradually, almost without being noticed, beginning by supporting the better class private drivers who were using Fiat cars and slowly increasing its support until eventually there was no doubt at all that a properly functioning works team was operating, with all the necessary equipment and with an adequate budget allocation. This brought the number of Italian teams up to two, for the only other outfit was the HF Team run by Lancia.

When Fiat acquired Lancia there was much speculation as to whether both teams would continue to operate. There was no need to speculate for long since it soon became apparent that team loyalty and marque pride were sufficiently strong to overcome any budgetary considerations. Fiats and Lancias continued to appear in the same rallies with teams operating quite independently. The situation continued until 1974 when Fiat began the year, shortened by a few cancellations due to petrol scarcity, with a fine 1-2-3 win in Portugal but went on to suffer disappointment after disappointment, Lancia eventually stepping in to wrest from its parent team the coveted World Championship trophy which Fiat had begun to consider its own. It was a bitter blow to Fiat and one which prompted renewed asking of that vital question, “How long will Fiat put up with this fierce competition between itself and a subsidiary, particularly as the subsidiary was coming out on top?”

The year 1975 started with both Italian teams making renewed and independent efforts to tackle the World Championship series. Both teams engaged new drivers and made a full-scale assault on the Monte-Carlo Rally, operations which cost a considerable amount of Lancia money and Fiat money, but both coming indirectly from the Agnelli purse. The Fiat people wanted to win; so did the Lancia people. But how long would Agnelli put up with this costly duel between his left and right hands?

The Swedish Rally was the next round. Here a Lancia won again and Fiat really had to ask itself whether it was worth going on in the face of such a commanding lead as Lancia had achieved in the early stages of the series. The next round was the Safari, an expensive event in which both teams had entered cars and had made all the arrangements to ship cars, equipment and men to Kenya. Fiat was obviously going to carry on with the series, no doubt expecting that the homologation of its X1/9 with a more powerful engine would provide a car capable of beating Lancia’s Stratos. But whilst those concerned with the day-to-day running of the teams went about their business, the struggle for supremacy was being discussed in the Turin boardrooms. There was never any doubt about the need for both Fiat and Lancia to run rally teams with separate identities, but it was futile and financially wasteful for both to chase the same trophy. The success of one would be offset by the failure of the other. Far better that each should be seen to be successful. The decision was then made to maintain both teams but to point them at different goals. Lancia would continue to contest the World Rally Championship for Makes but Fiat would drop out of this series and redirect its efforts towards the European Rally Championship for Drivers.

Immediately word was sent to Nairobi that the Fiat entries in the Safari would be withdrawn and this was the first manifestation of the rationalisation of competition activities. The first effect is that four very good drivers are left without cars. Alcide Paganelli could be fitted into some European event instead; Bjorn Waldegard must have been kicking himself for accepting a Fiat offer only hours before one came from Lancia; East Africans Robin Ulyate and Vic Preston are left in the cold even after carrying out a year-long test programme for Fiat, driving 124 Abarths in local events and feeding information back to Turin. For Preston the decision must be even more galling, for last year he was suddenly and inexplicably dropped from Fiat’s RAC Rally team even after coming all the way from Nairobi to London at Fiat’s request.

Lancia is now left as the only competitive works team with a declared interest in the World Rally Championship. With such a strong early lead, the team is very likely to keep the trophy which it won in 1974. But points have still got to be earned, and in Kenya they will have had Peugeot, Alpine Renault and Mitsubishi to consider. In Morocco they will not find it easy to beat the French crews, nor the Swedes and Finns in the Thousand Lakes, nor even the Ford drivers in the RAC Rally. Fiat’s task becomes a little more complicated for there are more than 30 qualifiers in the European Championship, some overlapping and all with coefficients varying between 1 and 4. Furthermore, points are scored by drivers, not by makes, so there will have to he careful and strategic planning of entries.

It is always sad to see a competitive team drop out of the world’s premier series, but under the circumstances we can only agree with the decision to turn an in-fighting spearhead into a doubly competitive fork. After all, both teams will continue to function, and that is the important factor.-G.P.