Rally review

Swedish Rally

Scandinavian winters being what they are, long and cold, it's almost inconceivable that February's Swedish Rally should have taken place on anything but roads plentifully covered by ice and snow. Sweden becomes white for months every winter, and remembering that the Monte-Carlo Rally has snow only on some parts of its route, the Swedish Rally is the only event in the World Championship which can be regarded as a true snow rally.

What does vary, of course, is the depth of the snow, and whilst there was plenty in the north, and even in the south, the central Swedish province of Varmland had no more than a moderate amount - which by British standards would nevertheless be enough to stop our traffic, trains and aeroplanes and goodness knows what else. But in Sweden things carry on normally in winter, and during the Swedish Rally there were even problems created by the lack of sufficient snow to keep the roads covered after the disturbing passage of rally cars.

In limited numbers, studs are permitted in tyres, the same regulations covering competing rally cars and normal traffic. They are relatively small, protrude no more than a millimetre or two, provide much extra grip on hard packed snow or ice, but are not so effective on fresh snow and not at all on bare tarmac.

None of the surfaces we have just mentioned have a really harmful effect on studs, save perhaps for some wear if driven on bare tarmac really hard or for long periods, but there is one type of surface which spells disaster for studded tyres and that is loose gravel or dirt roads, especially if they have been made rock hard by temperatures well below zero, as they were in Sweden.

We certainly don't agree that studs are seriously harmful to tarmac surfaces, along which tyre grooves are probably caused by subsidence more than anything else, but in the process of gripping packed snow or ice they do wear through the winter coating and given sufficient studded traffic the base surface can quickly be exposed. So it was in Sweden. The coating was thin enough when the one week practice period started, and when the rally itself began there were ruts which had cut right down into the gravel, stones and dirt, The second leg of the rally was even worse in this respect, for it used the same stages all over again.

The effect was serious; on the gravel the hard-driven cars were losing studs at a tremendous rate, leaving damaged treads which had insufficient studs to provide the grip necessary for a respectable performance. Many cars came off stages with no more than half a dozen studs left in tyres of their driven wheels and, with precious little grip on the snowy portions of road which followed, a high proportion of them slid off the road into the snowbanks. These are usually protective, but they are also remarkably retentative and it usually takes a sweaty spell with shovels in order to get going again. Incidentally, all cars on Scandinavian winter rallies carry wide-bladed, lightweight snow shovels.

Loss of grip was not the only problem, for tyres which have lost their studs are hardly of any use on a snow rally, and since one stage was enough to destroy the effectiveness of a pair of tyres nearly everyone found himself rapidly running out of tyres. Professional teams guard against this possibility by laying on adequate extra supplies, but the privateers running on limited budgets were not so well off and there were many mid-rally bargaining sessions as those still running made offers for the unused stocks of those who had retired. There was no profiteering in evidence, though, for there is an understanding between most competitors which prevents that sort of thing.

Having first spoken of the cart, now to the horse, and the most significant aspect of the event is that it resulted in a win for the first time by a turbocharged car. A new, 3-door Saab Turbo was entered by the factory for Stig Blomqvist, and an older, 5-door Turbo for Per Eklund. The latter driver had no end of problems with his car's turbocharger, occasioned by an early fracture of a pressure pipe, and eventually retired, but Blomqvist's car ran beautifully and he won by go seconds from the works Escort of Bjorn Waldegård.

Initially the lead changed hands several times, from Alén to Mikkola to Kullang to Vatanen and finally to Blomqvist: Fiat, Ford, Opel, Ford and Saab. The loss of grip that drivers were experiencing after losing studs was having its effect, and some spun off, some got stuck and held others up, whilst some had nudges with other cars as they tried to squeeze through narrow gaps.

Most uncharacteristically, Waldegård went into a snowbank on the very first stage and lost a good five minutes digging himself out, whilst Mikkola lost some three minutes only a few stages later. These incidents undoubtedly affected the result, for although Waldegård pushed hard and recovered to second place, Mikkola seemed to slow a little after that, and when Vatanen went out with a blown head gasket the remaining Escorts scored second and fifth places.

Blomqvist never seemed to put a wheel out of place and although Waldegård was generally quicker than the Saab driver in the second half, the f.w.d. car seemed to be losing fewer studs than the r.w.d. cars. Some said that Blomqvist drove at slightly less than his maximum pace in the second half, but we find that very hard to believe, for the margin between him and Waldegård was too small to provide for any relaxation.

Invariably there are unexpected difficulties encountered in many rallies, and even though the stud loss on the Swedish was critical and expensive, it still resulted from a natural hazard, and such vagaries of nature are part and parcel of the sport against which no-one can complain.

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Portuguese Rally

Since it began in the late 'sixties, the Portuguese Rally has always enjoyed adequate financial backing, originally being sponsored by the national airline and now by the country's port wine industry. Competitors were provided with various considerations to induce them to take part, and there has hardly been a year when the entry list was anything but healthy, save perhaps during the time of political strife when some were deterred.

But no amount of money in an organisers' bank account will compensate for his lack of experience, and when the rally began it was nowhere near accepted international standards. However, although money cannot buy experience it can often buy the means of getting it, and even in 1968, its first year of prominence after starting in 1967, factory teams were attracted by generous contributions towards costs. What is more, various CSI officials were also visitors to the rally, and when the three-year-old International Championship for Makes changed its name to World Championship in 1973, the then TAP Rally joined the list of qualifying events.

Competitively, the Portuguese Rally has always been difficult, to say the least, from the hit-or-miss kilometre-stone navigation and strings of three minute regularity sections of 1968, to the very rough special stages and very tight road sections of today. Victory is never won easily, and even to finish is no mean achievement for those who attempt a worthwhile result.

With plenty of strong competition most rallies can hold interest, and contests between rival teams often overshadow any little shortcomings. The Portuguese Rally has always attracted plenty of top class competitors to provide this interest, and last year the excitement was at high pitch right to the end when Alén (Fiat) snatched the lead from Mikkola (Ford) on the last stage after the Ford driver had collected a puncture. This year things were different. There were no works Fiats to challenge the three-car team of powerful Group 4 Ford Escorts, and when Bernard Darniche stopped with electrical failure in his Lancia Stratos of the French Chardonnet team, all reasonably matched opposition to the Escorts was gone. With it went all the steam of the rally and after the first night the only thing left in doubt was the margin by which the two Escorts (the third had retired) would be ahead of the rest of the field.

In opposition to the Fords were two Group 2 Toyotas, a Group 2 Datsun, a Chevette in the hands of Portugese driver Manuel Pereira (pseudonym "Mèqèpè") and two new Audi 80s from the factory, presently with just 1.6 litre engines and homologated in Group 4 only. All these cars, plus the Group 2 Kadett of Anders Kulläng which retired early, were far less powerful than the Escorts and their drivers could hope for no more than the places which were left after the Fords had reaped off the top.

Vatanen, who lost six valuable minutes on the very first stage when a rod broke, removing the link between accelerator pedal and fuel injection system on his Escort, later retired on the first evening, but not for any mechanical reason. On the Swedish Rally in February he had hurt his back whilst digging and lifting to get his car out of snowbank, and a head-on collision with a private car during practice for the Portuguese Rally had aggravated the injury. He started the rally in considerable discomfort and pain, even having to use a hot water bottle between his back and his seat, and when it seemed to be getting worse, team manager Peter Ashcroft decided that he would be better off on his way home, particularly as the very rough roads ahead could well have serious effects on the Finn's back.

Next to go was the Stratos, which suffered an electrical short circuit beneath the dashboard, destroying the alternator and draining the battery. Much later, on the second night, Thérier's Toyota stopped with a bang, the Frenchman describing the stoppage on the radio to his mechanics as "explosion moteur". He had already been experiencing wheel bearing failure, and a third bearing was loosening when he eventually retired, but he had still been holding third place.

Throughout what was left of the rally, the two Escorts simply extended their lead, but on the third of the four legs of the rally, the return run southwards after two nine-hour stops at Povoa de Varzim on the coast in the North, some pretty high drama was experienced in the Ford team.

After a rough stage in the Arganil region, Hannu Mikkola's Escort was emitting serious noises from its differential, which was also very hot. At the service point after the stage, mechanics found that a pinion tooth had broken off, causing a crack in the back plate through which oil had been lost. There was no time to replace the differential, so the back plate was removed, the crack welded, the unit topped up with oil and the car sent on its way with every pair of fingers crossed in the hope that the damaged crown wheel and pinion would survive without breaking up completely or causing further damage.

Fortunately it did survive, and not long afterwards the car drove into a service point where mechanics were all set to replace the rear axle which they did in some 23 minutes, Mikkola arriving at the next time control within his last minute of penalty-free time.

Each of Ford's Transit service vans carries one spare axle, since it is highly unlikely that more than one will be needed at any one point, so when Bjorn Waldegård radioed ahead that his differential was also making noises and emitting the fumes which denote overheating, there was some consternation in the camp. But Dame Fortune was on their side. In that area the route made a complete loop to pass through a group of stages twice, and it so happened that there was another Ford service point nearby. To best cover the loop, one van had been placed at one end of a small town, and another at the other, so it was a relatively simple job to get them together so that there would be a spare axle on hand to be fitted to Waldegård's car.

Once again the job was done in a remarkably short time and Waldegård arrived unpenalised at the next control. However, his troubles were not over, for as he arrived at a time control before a special stage he felt all the resistance go out of his accelerator pedal. The same linking rod which had broken on Vatanen's car had broken on his own, but this time there was a spare bar being carried in the car, and the Swedish crew had just enough time to get under the bonnet to fit it in place of the broken one.

That, more or less, was that. The fourth leg, during the Saturday night, was over three special stages in the Sintra area, just north of Estoril, and whereas last year this turned out to be an enthralling climax to the rally this time it most certainly was not. The Escorts had sufficient time advantage to take things relatively easy and not risk any failures, whilst those behind knew that they had no hope of catching up, either with the Escorts or with each other, for nearly an hour spanned the first four cars, and that's a huge margin by European standards.

The result extends Ford's lead in the World Rally Championship for Makes to 50 points from Fiat with 26 and Opel and Datsun with 22 each, but more significant is Bjorn Waldegård's lead in the World Rally Championship for Drivers which exists officially this year for the first time. From three second places in three events, he has 45 points and is followed by his team-mate Hannu Mikkola with 36, Fiat driver Markku Alén with 22, and both Bernard Darniche (Lancia France) and Stig Blomqvist (Saab) with 20 apiece.

Ford is not contesting the next round, the Safari Rally at Easter, but both Waldegård and Mikkola will be driving for Mercedes Benz. Fiat will be there with a team, but how they fare remains to be seen, for in practice and testing they have experienced considerable serious failures on the 131 Abarth on the rough roads. - G. P.

Mintex Rally

Just a week after his Swedish world championship counter victory, Stig Blomqvist drove a Saab Turbo for the newly-formed UK Saab Dealers Team on the first of this year's domestic seven-event Sedan Products RAC Open Rally Championship rounds, the Mintex International Rally. The pugnacious Swede's drive culminated with the turbo-charged Saab's second international victory.

After effects of this winter's severe weather gave the organisers - the De Lacy MC of Pontefract - several headaches, with much of the scheduled three-day 1,000-mile route hidden under a thick and sodden blanket of melting snow. Based on Harrogate, and held principally in Yorkshire, a last minute decision was taken to cancel the first day completely and to string all the salvable miles together. It was run from the afternoons of Friday to Saturday. The gamble paid-off and the resulting rally provided a set of results that accurately reflected driver effort.

Lack of re-preparation time after the Swedish meant that Blomqvist drove the heavier three-door Turbo in place of the newer two-door saloon shelled car which will now make its UK debut on the Circuit of Ireland. The Turbo's first international event had been last year's Lombard RAC Rally, when both cars retired in the Mintex's Yorkshire territory with driveshaft failures. The problem had been due to an incorrect assembly tolerance which put a location loading on the shaft that it was never designed to receive. The Swedish proved that such a problem no longer existed and prior to the Mintex Blomqvist was undoubted favourite - especially as there was more snow in England than there had been in Sweden.

Quite predictably, Scandinavian drivers revelled in the conditions and the runners-up places were fought over between Finns and Swedes. One of the most accomplished, thoroughly professional, drives came from Blomqvist's Saab team-mate, Per Eklund, who, for this rally, was in BL Motorsport's employ and brought his l.h.d. Triumph TR7 V8 to an impressive second place, the TR7 using the same 15 inch six-inch diameter Dunlop snow tyres as Saab for much of the event.

After lack-lustre performances from Kyosti Hamalainen last year, the PCA/Total team has grown to two cars this year, for up and coming Finn, Henri Toivonen and the UK's equivalent, Malcolm Wilson. The British driver suffered a variety of mechanical delays, but Toivonen's superb third place was just reward for the team and the Finn seems set for UK recognition in a similar vein to that afforded to Ari Vatanen in his formative days.

The best that British drivers could manage was fourth place, but it was no reflection on any lack of skill or talent just a huge lack of experience with such atrocious conditions. This place was held first by Brian Culcheth, then John Taylor, Malcolm Wilson and, finally, Russell Brookes..

Brookes' drive was typical of this never-say-die Midlander and towards the end of the event he had analysed and adapted his driving to such an extent that his stage times began to match, and then better those of Toivonen in his similar Escort RS1800.

The category for Gp 1 cars was won by Tim Brise for Opel with sixth place overall and, needless to say, it marked Opel's eighth successive victory on Sedan/RAC events. - I. S.