Punishing rallies in which a car cannot be driven at the upper limit of its performance without grave risk of destruction are precious few in Europe these days. Indeed, in the World Championship it could be said that there are only two events which can, and do, run over rough roads, and one of those events is the Portuguese Rally which took place early in March.
The fearsome jumps of Finnish forest roads can destroy suspensions if taken two hard, Sweden’s snow tracks can send cars slithering into the trees, and even the RAC Rally has many pitfalls which can shake a car to pieces, but none of these can really be considered to have rough surfaces.
Roughness has always been part of the Portuguese Rally, although it does have many smooth forest roads as well, and even a fair number of special stages on tarmac. However, taken as a whole it does demand that cars be made as robust as possible, and it is certainly no place for low, lightened racers.
The retirement rate has always been high in Portugal, partly due to damage caused on the rough roads and partly to the high average speeds which are needed to meet time schedules on open sections. For instance, damage caused on a special stage will result in a stop for repair, and that is pretty certain to mean a late arrival at the next time control. In itself that will mean a penalty, but it also adds to the total lateness which results in exclusion if allowed to build up too much.
This year’s retirement rate was as high as it has ever been, only 16 cars finishing from 101 starters, but there was a contributory cause which was just as noticeable, if not more, than damage and time loss; accidents.
It’s all very well to say that before you can win you must finish, but there is so much fierce competition nowadays among professional crews that winning is the only sure way to keep a place in a works team. Top drivers are well paid, but they don’t achieve their earning power by results only just inside the top ten. The highest fees go to those who score outright wins, and they must go on winning if they want to keep their bargaining power.
In a rally which has a good array of well-matched talent the winner will certainly not be he who drives cautiously, and in one such as the Portuguese Rally it is always necessary to drive on the absolute limit of adhesion. To be always on that limit without actually crossing it demands peaks of skill, judgement, and concentration, and it is very easy indeed to overstep the mark. People quite often do, of course, even top liners, and most of them occasionally spend time getting their cars back to the road or eyeing them sadly as they rest crumpled against trees.
For some strange reason many of the world’s leading professionals chose the Portuguese Rally to have their occasional departures from the road, and it was quite amazing to see the list of accident retirements grow steadily as the event progressed. Indeed, three entire professional teams were eliminated when their cars left the road.
The line up was impressive to say the least, and no less than ten factories were represented either directly or through dealer or sponsor-operated teams. The ten were Fiat, Lancia, Mercedes, Opel, Ford, Leyland, Talbot, Datsun, Toyota and Polonez.
Following Kulläng’s win in Sweden much was expected of the two Ascona 400s, but both went off the road quite early in the Rally. Salonen went off in his Datsun and although damage was slight he was unable to continue as he’d struck his head on the roll bar and become concussed. This was on a road section and he was not wearing a helmet. Much later in the rally Dawson left the road after crossing the flying finish of a stage and wrecked his Datsun against a row of four cars parked in a small forecourt on the outside of a bend.
Mikkola went off backwards on a right-hander and his Escort landed on its roof ten feet down a bank. By an amazing turn of fate, team-mate Vatanen went off one minute later on the very same bend and his car landed exactly alongside Mikkola’s, though on its wheels.
Just a few hundred yards along the stage Toivonen’s Talbot Sunbeam Lotus stopped with its rear axle broken in two, and it says much for the co-operation between rally teams that the mechanics waiting to go in to rescue the two Fords agree to take in a new axle for Toivonen, and fit it, leaving Talbot’s service fleet intact to carry on looking after Frequelin who achieved an excellent third place.
Leyland lost its fuel-injected TR7 V8 when sudden oil loss stopped Pond’s engine. The 4-Weber car driven by Eklund went on much further, but needed attention on the way and eventually stopped when the Solex fuel pumps failed. The tenacious Eklund filled his screen washer bottle with fuel and transferred the pipes, but the washer pump wasn’t able to keep the carburettors sufficiently fed.
Darniche’s Stratos, although it took an early lead helped by the tarmac stages in the first part of the rally, stopped with a blown head gasket, while Fiat lost one of its three 131 Abarths when Bettega went off the road. The other two moved ahead, both Röhrl and Alén driving without any thought for car sympathy, working on the gamble that if something broke they would be able to reach one of the team’s many service vehicles which covered the route most effectively.
Gearboxes, axles, suspensions and other components were changed at various times during the rally, and one of the Fiat staff remarked that he had never before seen rally cars taken so close to destruction point without actually stopping. Towards the end of the rally the two Fiat drivers did ease off a little, but only after much of their opposition had vanished and their lead had been built up to a reasonably safe level.
Thérier’s Toyota Celica stopped with a broken half-shaft, but Andersson’s went on to give the team’s manager and now-occasional driver sixth place overall.
The Mercedes operation was interesting in many ways, firstly because it was the make’s first official factory appearance on a European rally for 17 years. The two cars in the Monte-Carlo Rally this year were actually entered by a dealer.
To accommodate the wide wheels and tyres necessary for the tarmac stages, the two 450SLCs were fitted with wheel arch extensions, but there must have been some reluctance over this because the company is anxious to preserve as standard an external appearance as possible. Bodywork remains as pristine as ever, of course, Mercedes not entertaining any possible of sordid non-company advertising appearing on its cars.
So far the team’s appearances with the 450SLC have been on endurance events in which reliablity is more important than performance and handling. Portugal provided the first taste of sprints over relatively short special stages in which every second counts, and although the cars were easy to drive and certainly not noisy, bumpy or fatiguing, they weren’t agile enough on tightly twisting roads.
What is more, their brakes were being made to work harder on the twisty roads than they have on the much less winding roads of Africa, and a serious overheating problem was the result. Not only were they fading, but the pad friction surfaces themselves were breaking up and crumbling, and we imagine that when they next appear they may have larger discs and pads, as well as a four-ratio automatic gearbox in place of the present three-ratio unit.
Apart from the brake trouble very little went wrong with the two cars and they finished a reliable fourth and fifth in the hands of Waldegård and Carlsson. This wasn’t high enough for Waldegård to keep his lead in the World Championship, and he is now second, six points behind Röhrl. — G.P.