Rally review - Strange decision
When the CSI published its list of World Rally Championship qualifiers for 1978, among the 11 rallies was New Zealand's major event which last year we saw for the first time. It was a well-organised rally, run by dedicated enthusiasts, and with a superb collection of long, tough, forest stages in its six-day duration. Indeed, it was a rally which proved to be eminently worthy of its place in the world's premier series.
But in January we saw among the mass of paperwork piled in the headquarters of the Monte-Carlo Rally, publicity material from both Fiat and Lancia which listed the 1978 Championship rounds without including the New Zealand event. Puzzled because there had been no announcement which would have been early enough to be printed in those publicity papers, we checked and found that, true enough, the CSI had dropped the rally from the list of qualifiers and substituted the Bandama Rally in the Ivory Coast.
Dismayed at what appeared to be a rather underhand move, we discovered that the official reason given to the New Zealand organisers was "because it was not difficult enough". From our own experience, we can say that this is complete rubbish. Such a reason is either no more than a convenient excuse, or an indication that the CSl's inspectors on the 1977 event were perhaps biased, perhaps not taking note of what they should have been noting, or perhaps both.
Strange that the Italians seemed to know before anyone that the rally had been dropped from the series. After all, the Fiat people had really crossed swords with the organisers last year, openly driving wedges into every loophole they could find in the regulations and giving rise to a great deal of bad feeling.
When the rally was being considered for the 1977 series, the CSI asked the organisers if they could contribute to the travel and accommodation costs of visiting crews from Europe, and this eventually became a condition of the event's acceptance as a championship qualifier—a condition which has not applied to any other event in the series. The organisers complied by providing reduced travel and accomniodation rates, and this was accepted by the CSI. However, it seems that visiting Europeans chose not to take advantage of the reduction, made their own travel and hotel arrangements and then expected the organisers to chip in with a cheque for a proportion of those costs.
This was grossly unfair, particularly as the reductions offered by the organisers had not been accepted. The CSI demand was bad enough for the organisers who, unlike Grand Prix organisers, had no budget for such purposes as appearance money. But they did their bit by negotiating their own part sponsorship deals, the benefit to them being the cost reductions which they expected to pass on to the visitors.
The whole business has a highly unsatisfactory smack about it, and our sympathies aa entirely with the New Zealand organisers having their rally withdrawn from the World Championship without any real justification whatsoever. The entire system of inspection and selection by the CSI and its committee and delegates is very much a closed shop, and even if its workings are in some small way democratic, they certainly do not manifestly appear to be. A complete revision of tb system is long, long overdue.
Last month in Motor Sport we reviewed the Swedish Rally which provided a British-built Ford Escort with outright victory, albeit in the bands of a Swedish crew. One week later there was another excellent snow rally across the Gulf of Bothnia in Finland, and there too a British car was victorious, with two Finns crewing it. This time it was a Vauxhall Chevette driven by Pentti Airikkala and Risto Virtanen.
Airikkala has spent some years rallying in Britain, even giving up his Finnish competitions licence to get a British one which would enable him to take part in British events of less than international status. He is a contracted driver with Dealer Team Vauxhall and has enjoyed considerable success since he decided that British rallies would offer him more opportunities for advancement than those in his own country. But this was the first occasion that he has returned to Finland with his British-based team and won a major rally against the kind of tough, determined opposition that only Finns can provide.
There was a time when the most significant snow rally in Finland was the Arctic Rally, but with the decline of sponsorship due to Finland's ban on any form of tobacco advertising, so the rally has declined, and this year the Hankiralli in the south-west of Finland was far more attractive, which a comparison of entry lists showed.
Ford and Fiat were there with two cars apiece, DTV with Airikkala's Chevette, Timo Makinen with one of the ice-racing 104s from the Peugeot factory and Saab works driver Per Eklund who borrowed a fairly standard 99EMS from the factory, arranged his own sponsorship deals and went along privately, albeit with some of his mechanic friends, both Swedish and Finnish, to help him.
A feature of nordic snow rallies is the protection afforded by roadside snowbanks left in the wake of the ploughs, but there really wasn't very much of them this year, and he who indulged in bank-bouncing as a cornering aid was taking a considerable risk. Ford driver Ari Vatanen was nudging the banks far more than anyone else, if the comments of other drivers are anything to go by, and eventually he went off the road and straight into a tree. But it really was not entirely his fault. Plough drivers sometimes make too wide a track and plough over the ditches leaving a deceptively smooth surface level with the road surface. Those who put weight on that surface sink into the soft snow which fills the hidden ditch. Vatanen did just that, and went straight off the road.
Team-mate Hannu Mikkola, whose Escort seemed almost certain to take victory, stopped on a stage when the throttle cable broke away and he had to jam it open and drive on is with a hand always on the ignition key. There always a danger of over-revving when this happens, however careful the driver, and true enough not long after the engine went very sick indeed with what was probably a bent valve.
Alen was another challenger in his Fiat, but suffered almost continuous gearbox trouble. In fact, he had the unit changed twice and even then finished the rally with missing gears in his third gearbox. Eklund drove his heavy and comparatively low-powered Saab very well indeed, but was slowed when he lost a complete tread from one of his Kumi-Helenius tyres (which are remoulds after all) and later when a blown fuse stopped his fuel pump.
From start to finish nearly every runner came up against some problem or another, and in the bitter cold night of a Finnish winter it takes a special kind of enthusiasm to work on a car out in the open. Winter rallying in those conditions is not for the faint-hearted, although nearly everyone involved has a perpetual hardiness common to most rallying people. Whilst racing is nowadays very much dependent on artificialities, rallying remains very close to nature indeed, and therein lies much of its appeal and its vital ingredient, adventure.-G.P.
The Mintex International Rally
The UK's premier rally championship for 1978 the Sedan Products British Open Rally Championship commenced somewhat shakily on February 25th/26th with the De Lacy Motor Club of Pontefract's Mintex International Rally. The Harrogate based Yorkshire event was chosen as the first round of the seven event series (open to foreign international rally licence holders, unlike the new Castrol/ Autosport "National" championship) which will culminate with the Lombard RAC Rally in November.
The vagaries of this winter's weather patterns served to exaggerate the geographic limitations of the North Yorkshire area as a forestry playground in which to hold an event of international status. Snowdrifts of considerable depth had to be ploughed clear during the few days prior to the rally, an action undertaken by the Forestry Commission with the help of several motor club volunteers, which coincided with a sudden thaw.
The net result ensured that the Mintex could, indeed, be held as scheduled, but conditions in the state forests were grim, with rivers of melted snow causing frequent deep quagmire sections. Other areas of greater altitude were still affected by snow with localised mist patches further inhibiting progress. Most forest sections were driven more than once which accentuated problems of traction.
Although none too popular with top drivers, it was perhaps just as well that the Mintex used several tarmacadam "spectator" special stages as a way of building sufficient competitive mileage into the 550 mile route (less than 40% of which counted). One severe example was the running of two consecutive two-lap stages over an airfield near Church Fenton resulting in more than one-tenth of the total competitive mileage being made up of largely "flat-out" motoring over flat and featureless ground. Hardly an arena for the exhibition of world-class talent.
Such talent however did win through in the time honoured way, with Finland's Pentti Airikkala giving Vauxhall their second important victory in as many weeks. The DTV Chevette driver inherited his lead early in the event from compatriot Hannu Mikkola whose Ford Escort RS1800 suffered a stripped differential towards the end of the third forest section. Mikkola had beaten Airikkala by 13 sec. on the first two, showing that he would have been hard to catch.
Ford's loss of face was partially restored by bringing RS 13oos home in second to sixth places, with current RAC Champion Russell Brookes followed by a thoroughly on-form John Taylor ahead of Roger Clark; new works assisted driver Graham Elsmore and Finn Kyosti Hamalainen. - I.S.