The Portuguese Rally
In most rallies nowadays, tyres play a vital role. It is of the utmost importance to provide cars with as much grip as modern tyre technology can achieve, so on tarmac special stages one finds tyres not at all dissimilar to those used on racing circuits, on rough roads one finds chunky treads, on smooth, hard roads a compromise of the two and on ice or snow a combination of good tread blocks and the appropriate kind of hard metal studs. Grip is the all-important factor in each case, for one felt that puncture resistance was an aim which the tyre men had already achieved. After all, it's a long time since strengthened sidewalls, for instance, were brought in to combat punctures caused by sideways movement of cars in rallies such as the Safari.
But at the end of February the clock seemed to be turned back, because the most significant feature of the rally was the number of punctures experienced by leading runners, and there can be no doubt at all that this had a direct bearing on the result.
The three major teams taking part were those of Fiat, with four 131 Abarths, Ford, with three Escort RS1800s, and Toyota, with two Celica GTs, The Fiats were using the latest kind of Pirelli P7 tyres, of various tread types for various conditions, the Toyotas were using older Pirelli tyres and the Fords the latest type of Dunlop tyres, again of various types. In the whole rally, Fiat only experienced one puncture, and that because of direct contact with a sharp piece of rock, whilst both Toyota and Ford had more than their share, even on relatively smooth roads where one would have expected to be able to swing the tail of a car around without causing punctures.
Because of these punctures, the lead in the rally changed hands frequently, two Fiat drivers, two Ford drivers and one Toyota driver each taking it over at one time or another.
The rally ran from Estoril, near Lisbon, to the north of the country, taking in 44 special stages, but long stops extended the event from the Wednesday afternoon to the Sunday morning, a period which was much longer than was really necessary. The first two stages were on tarmac, and on these the superior handling of the Fiats showed in the times. Fulvio Bacchelli went into the lead, his team-mates close behind, and it was not until after the sixth stage that Ari Vatanen was able to take over in his Escort.
Two early retirements were those of Roger Clark and Hannu Mikkola. The British driver needed to have the clutch of his Escort adjusted several times before finally there was none left and full pedal travel would not disengage the plates. The release bearing was changed, but this operation took so much time that it was pointless to continue. The Finn retired in a more dramatic manner when a vibration at the rear of his Celica gave just a little warning of wheel stud failure before the wheel came off and sailed into the bushes.
Vatanen drove amazingly quickly but was later overhauled by Andersson who, just one stage later, picked up punctures and lost the lead. But it wasn't Vatanen who went back into the lead, for he overcooked a bend which was immediately after the flying finish line of a stage, and before the stop line, and crashed into a rock which just about demolished a front corner of his Escort. There was no chance of continuing, but it was ironic that when the mechanics arrived after responding to a radio message another Escort, driven by a Portuguese privateer, crashed into the back of Vatanen's car.
Bacchelli's progress was slowed by a sudden but non-damaging roll, after which spectators rushed in and righted the car before the occupants could scramble out, but after they had unbuckled their belts. This is a dangerous practice, and we feel somewhat proud that the more enlightened British spectators check first with the competitors before they set an overturned car back on to its wheels. It has happened in the past that competitors who are uninjured in a roll have sustained injury in the second "roll" of the rescue procedure when they were unprepared for it. An amusing sequel was a shout from Bacchelli, after they discovered that they were able to continue, "The steering wheel has gone!" Co-driver Francesco Rossetti answered very quickly, "No it hasn't. I've got it". In the melee of the roll and the righting process, they had changed places without realising it. A common effect of rolling is directional disorientation, and crews often have to sit and think for a while before deciding which is the correct direction to continue, but this did not happen in this case.
Later, Bacchelli retired when a driveshaft broke, though his team-mate Maurizio Verini was able to survive such an incident when colleagues Jean-Claude Andruet and Markku Alen stopped to push him up a hill, after which he was able to drive on the remaining wheel to the end of the stage. Verini also had a front suspension collapse, as did Bacchelli.
All this left one car of each of the three makes left in contention, but both Ove Andersson's Celica and Bjorn Waldegard's Escort collected punctures, sometimes singly and sometimes two at a time, and these were enough to drop them back so far that Alen's position in the lead was unassailable, short of some mishap. It was with this very possibility in mind that Waldegard drove to the limit of his ability on the last night, getting ahead of Andersson into second place and making best time after best time on the stages. But Alen, not normally renowned for his restraint, drove just fast enough to keep his lead without taking too many chances. After all, the important thing for Fiat was a maximum score of points for the World Championship, and that is what they did score.
To put one's finger on the cause of all the punctures is bordering the impossible. Various theories were put forward, but none could really be substantiated and the impression was left that tyre men went away with a determination to delve into the problem but without a firm lead as to where they should begin. That the special stages were generally rough cannot be denied, for the brilliant sunshine which, two days before the start, ended weeks of heavy, incessant rain, baked the ruts and potholes rock hard. But punctures were taking place on relatively smooth gravel roads as well as the rough ones, which leads to the possibility that damage done on the rough was not manifesting itself until the smooth.
At the beginning of the year the only works team with an expressed interest in campaigning the whole of the World Championship series was Fiat. So far, after three events, they have a lead which puts them beyond reach in the space of one event, for ten points are awarded for a win and they now have 26 points compared with the 15 apiece scored by Opel and Ford. Fiat is not competing in the Safari at Eastertime, but they plan to tackle every other round, which amounts to more events than any other team has on its programme. The weight of possibility, therefore, is heavily on the side of Fiat winning the series this year, but please don't take that as a prediction from us; we've discovered the hard (and expensive) way that crystal balls have no place in rallying, and if Ford win both Safari and Acropolis, which is by no means unlikely, the balance will have toppled the other way.
Markku Alen/lIkka Kivimaki (Fiat 131 Abarth (4)) . . 6 hr. 51 min. 47 sec.
Bjorn Waldegaard / Hans Thorszelius (Ford Escort RS1800 (4)) 6 hr. 55 mm. 43 sec.
Ove Andersson/Henry Liddon (Toyota Celica (4)) 6 hr. 56 min. 08 sec.
Jean-Claude Andruet/Christian Delferrier (Fiat 131 (4)) 7 hr. 06 min. 34 sec.
Maurizio Verini/Ninno Russo (Fiat 131 Abarth (4)) 7 hr. 07 min. 00 sec.
"Megepe/ Miguel Viler (Opel Kadett GT/E (2)). . 7 hr. 28 mm. 55 sec.
Franz Wittmann/Kurt Nestinger (Opel Kadett GT/E (4)) 7 hr. 38 min. 27 sec.
Giovanni Salvi /Pedro Almeida (Ford Escort RS2000 (1)) 7 hr. 44 min. 32 sec,
Americo Nunes/Mira Amaral (Porsche Carrera (4)).. . 7 hr. 46 min. 36 sec.
Klaus Russling/Klaus Klammet (Opel Kadett GT/E 91)) 7 hr. 46 min. 43 sec.
101 starters — 27 finishers.