Saabs Supreme in Snow
When two rallies are combined by their respective sets of organisers there is always some discussion over which good points should be kept from each of the separate events, and which bad points should be dropped. In most cases of such mergers, both organising teams are working towards the same end so there is seldom any argument over something which concerns the quality of the combined event.
In Sweden during February it was not like that at all, for two organising teams who together produced the 1976 International Swedish Rally had differing aims and differing ideas as to what the final product should be like. The result was a World Championship qualifier which was really a confused mixture of two events, one international and the other national. There were even separate sets of rules and penalty systems.
The KAK is the Swedish equivalent of the RAC, but it is not the country’s sanctioning authority for motor sporting events, as the RAC is in Britain. However, it is the organiser of the Swedish qualifier in the World Rally Championship. In past years it has been argued that an organisation without any real sporting connection Should not be entrusted with the running of one of the world’s major rallies. There was considerable discontent with the efficiency of the rally and there was a risk that it would lose its status if it did not improve.
Meanwhile, the organisers of a summer rally called Varmland Runt were obliged to move into the winter simply because forest roads became less available during summer due to forest operations. Both this rally and the KAK Rally, as it was then called, took place in the province of Varmland, just a few weeks apart. The KAK Rally was not a Swedish Championship qualifier, but farmland Runt was, and consequently attracted far more local entries than the KAK Rally. The dropping off of entries for the latter event put it in serious financial trouble, for its solvency depended on a reasonably full entry list and an income from entry fees.
Discussions took place and the result was an agreement to run a combined rally called simply the Swedish Rally, with both sets of organisers involved in the organisation. To ensure a full entry, it would have to qualify for the Swedish Championship, but before they would allow this the country’s Automobile Sport Federation insisted that certain requirements be met.
In the first place, national entrants would take part in just half of the main event. This was pretty easy, for the rally was made up of two near-identical loops around the same route and the same special stages. The national runners simply stopped at halfway whilst the others went on. But there Were penalty differences too; for instance, an international competitor was penalised for early arrival at a time control as the rate of 20 seconds per minute, whilst national runners were penalised at half that rate. This could have been very confusing indeed in the caseof competitors who were running in the international class but competing for Swedish Championship points as well.
Sweden has its own regulations for cars taking part in rallies, and they are not at all in line with the terms of the CSI’s Appendix J. Therefore the classes were different for both sets of competitors. One would have expected the classes to be kept apart in the entry list so that at least there would be some kind of order, but they were not. First came the FIA seeds, but after them came the leading national runners, at least for the first half of the event.
On paper the entry list was formidably strong, with 203 cars leaving the start ramp. But of those only 68 were tackling the whole event in the international class. For the organisers, that number would have been too low for economic well-being but the inclusion of the national people made the balance sheet much healthier. If only the Automobile Sport Federation had the sense not to impose its demands On the organisers and insist on rule and penalty difference.s the whole thing might have merged far better into one smooth event. As it was, it was so obviously two events running at the same time with a little overlap.
Among the international starters there were really only three works teams present, Lancia, Saab and Simca. Dealer organisations were representing Opel and BMW, and there were a couple of Dafs entered by Volvo.
With three powerful Straws, Lancia was confident of another World Championship win, for had not Waldegard taken a Stratos to victory in 1975? But on that occasion Blomqvist had been penalised more than eight minutes for being pushed by team-mate Eklund during a test on an oval track, and the final difference between Waldegard and Blomqvist had been far, far less than that eight-minute penalty.
Before the rally there had not been all that much snow, and the temperature was nothing like as low as it had been during the Arctic Rally just a fortnight before. But the snow came down quite heavily after the rally started, creating conditions which are Probably the most difficult of all to cope with. Most rally drivers will tackle anything, bin they all know that the best tyre and stud combinations are no match against fresh snow which can send cars slithering in all directions.
On such surfaces the Lancias were completely outclassed by the Saabs. The power reserves of the Dino-engined Straos were embarrassing and their drivers Simply couldn’t get enough positive traction to Make rapid headway. The Saabs on the other hand, using very narrow Dunlop tyres, were amazingly sure-footed even running at the head of the field and clearing two tracks through the snow for everyone else to follow,
A rally without Much close competition loses much of its interest, and the only chance of some close fighting was a second half without any fresh snow. But down it came again and the Lancias had no hope Of getting to grips with the Saabs. But to say that there was no interest would be quite wrong, for two drivers indulged in a close personal struggle which was really the talk of the event.
For years Per Eklund has been the Number Two in the Saab team, having to put up with such nicknames as “Stig Blomqvist’s Shadow” and the like. He has been regarded almost as a professional runner-up to his team-mate. Whether he has liked this or not has never been clear, for the two Swedish drivers have always been good friends and they are invariably together when “off duty”. But in this rally Eklund started off by marginally bettering his partner’s performance, and he became determined to stick to his advantage.
With the Lancias fairly safely out of the way, and Kullang’s Opel Ascona equally far behind, the two Saab men began to have such a tussle as would have caused most team managers to start laying down the law. But this wasn’t the case in the Saab camp. The supremacy of the f.w.d. Trollhiittan cars in the snow had been established-; now there was something more important to consider, for everyone would he watching with interest the duel between Eklund and Blomqvist. Other managers would have stopped the battle by deciding who should win and telling both drivers to take it easy in order to ensure finishing. But the Saab men didn’t do that; they simply told their drivers that as long as a Saab won they would be satisfied. After all, both Eklund and Blomqvist had been in the game long enough to be able to decide for themselves what was required of them without any special directive from above.
Suddenly, the Swedish Rally assumed a special significance; it became a straight fight between the two Saab drivers, with a lot of others coming along behind for good measure. With matched cars both displaying the same reliability, and in conditions which were virtually the same for both, Blomqvist and Eklund drove as fast as they possibly could and it was sheer bliss to watch them master the atrocious conditions. Blomqvist was actually the first man on the road, and he indulged in a little trickery to get his teammate (and rival, by now) to go ahead, hoping for the very slight advantage that he would get from the path carved through the snow. But Eklund was just as wily, and even though Blomqvist deliberately took a minute’s lateness on the road to get behind, Eklund did the same and the order was unchanged. The Saab management didn’t like this at all, and quite understandably, for both their cars had collected a minute’s penalty for nothing.
Even if they were still a long way behind, there was still the Ascona and the three Stratos to consider.
Eventually the end came and Eklund had stuck to his lead, finally casting off that old idea that he always played second fiddle to Blomqvist. It was a fine performance by a fine performer.
All was certainly not well in the Lancia camp and the Italians just couldn’t understand how a Stratos could possibly be beaten by a Saab. It was even suggested (quite wrongly) that the Saab drivers had practised, but that was not the case at all. It was simply that the Stratos had too much power for the conditions. Practice was not allowed this year (a national rule in Sweden) and it was obvious that everyone was going much more slowly than they would have done with notes. On the snow, the Saab was far more forgiving than the Stratos, and for any given hazard (a blind brow, for instance) the Stratos drivers had to slow down just a little more than the Saabs. That extra braking for every hazard was giving the advantage to the Saabs, so finally the Straws men made a greater effort. The result was predictable; both Waldegard and Walfridsson put their cars off the road. Lampinen went on to finish fourth, but not before a stone buried in a snowbank had deranged his front wheel alignment.
The Eklund/Blomqvist duel will be remembered for years, but if the rally itself is to progress in the future its organisers should really sort out this conflict of national rules against international ones. After all, it is only by having common international rules that drivers from one country are able to compete on equal terms with those from another.- G.P.