When a new car is rallied for the first time its manufacturers will already have put it through the most comprehensive test and development programme possible, for although a showroom car might be fine for normal use it is unlikely that it will be able to withstand the concentrated pounding of rallying.
However, no matter how stringent the test sessions, it always seems that it takes actual competition to bring some weakness into the open. Indeed, there is a common belief that dormant gremlins invariably come to life when numbers are put on a car, and it might take not just one but several rallies to expose all likely faults and result in a car which can be called reliable.
In the Monte-Carlo, Audi’s new Quattro did display a few faults, one of which caused depressingly frequent shedding of the alternator drive belt and another which resulted in total brake failure. By the time one works Quattro went to the Swedish Rally both faults had been rectified and in the hands of Hannu Mikkola and Arne Hertz it ran totally reliably to an unchallenged first place.
But it wasn’t reliability which made the Quattro stand out in Sweden. On the ice and snow of the special stages its four-wheel-drive traction, coupled with turbocharged five-cylinder power, made it quite unassailable. Its surefootedness on the slippery roads was quite amazing and whilst two-wheel-drive cars were sliding their tails to get around corners the Quattro invariably got around as though it was on rails. It was fractionally slower than other cars going into corners, but noticeably faster coming out and always facing its direction of travel.
Mikkola’s opposition was by no means light, for there were well driven Ford Escorts, Saab Turbos, Opel Asconas, Porsches and others all ranged against him, but his superiority in the Quattro was all too evident. Indeed, knowing that victories are not improved by increasing the winning margins, Mikkola indulged in fine tactical strategy to keep just sufficiently ahead of his rivals without taking the risk of trying to stay at 100%. Sometimes he eased off to measure the strength of the opposition, but then he went faster as if to show them who was in command, always advised by the calculating Hertz. Indeed, if any rally deserved comparison with a game of cat and mouse, this was it.
Tyres and studs always play a big part in snow rallies, and this year the combination which seemed to work best was that of Finnish-made Timi remoulds with Kometa studs, also made in Finland. Mikkola used these tyres, but Klebers, which Audi contracted to use, were always ready to be used on dry main roads, or if gravel began working up through the ruts in the ice on special stages – which it did not.
Behind the Quattro the two Escorts of the Rothmans team, driven by Finns Vatanen and Airikkala, finally made second and third places, followed by the reliable Opel Ascona 400 of Kulläng, whose tyres were not as good as the Timis.
Saab is no longer rallying, of course, but Blomqvist was able to borrow a turbo from the factory and he drove it with his own personal sponsorship by Clarion, not to mention that of the Publimmo Company from Monaco which had its colours on no less than five cars, all of different makes. An Opel, a BMW, a Porsche, a Ford and a Saab made a strange looking team when lined up together.
Alas Blomqvist lost much time when his fuel injection went wrong and had to be replaced, and again when a heavy landing against a rock ripped off a rear wheel. But he is quite accustomed to driving Saabs with only three wheels, and he was able to get off the special stage with the loss of just 2 minutes.
Previous Swedish Rallies have used a route consisting of two ‘laps’ of an identical circuit around the forests of the province of Värmland. This year each stage was used only once and there was none of the rutting which used to damage tyre studs in the past. Temperatures were low, and the ice on the forest roads was quite thick under the light coating of snow. But the snow banks were not as protectively high as usual, and perhaps the comparatively low retirement rate was due to drivers not wishing to risk going off the road into the trees without being first cushioned by banks of snow.
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Results are what count in the long run, but it doesn’t always take a win to prove the mettle of a car or the skill of its crew. Just as the Monte Carlo Rally showed that the Audi Quattro, even though it did not finish, had the edge over its rivals on snowy and icy road surfaces, so last month’s Portuguese Rally served to demonstrate, again without the indelible stamp of a win, its ability on surfaces varying from dry tarmac to muddy slippery gravel.
As a result of the illogical choice of the FISA the Portuguese Rally was the third qualifier of the 1981 World Rally Championship for Drivers, but only the second for the Championship for Makes. Those interested in both were there, including professional representation of Fiat, Audi, Porsche, Talbot, Ford, Toyota, Datsun, Opel and even the Dacia factory in Rumania which build Renaults under licence.
The competition thus ranged against Audi on this extremely tough event was considerable, but even though Hannu Mikkola failed to finish there was no doubting its all-round potential as a production-based car.
Some refereed to the Quattro as “that special car”, and others even murmured about the wisdom of continuing to allow 4-w-d vehicles to compete in major rallies. Was this the result of genuine, righteous concern over technical advancement leading to soaring costs, or was it a simple case of professional jealousy?
There have been no past objections to Land Rovers competing in European Championship events, but when Jeeps, and properly homologated ones at that, began to achieve success in rallies in the USA the CSI, as the FISA was then called, banned 4-w-d probably because some manufacturers feared that American motors would begin looking to Europe.
Later the ban was lifted, and we heard no complaint concerning a Range Rover and seven 4-w-d Subarus competing in last year’s Safari. If they are not successful, it seems that the powerful giants of the BPICA accept 4-w-d vehicles, but it has become quite a different story now that one such car has won and shows every possibility going on doing so.
For Portugal Audi increased the power output of the Quattro to a stated 340 b.h.p., not only by turbocharger pressure variation but by using a different camshaft configuration. This might have been the cause of the car’s retirement, some loss of reliability resulting from the increased power for in the third leg the engine stopped, one smashed spark plug telling of piston failure, a dropped valve, or both.
With Mikkola out, Ari Vatanen inherited the lead, but only one special stage later he left his braking a little late after a short straight and ran his Rothmans-backed Escort straight off the road and down a steep bank. It was a pure driving error and Vatanen made no attempt to excuse himself, particularly as his lead of nearly five minutes did not warrant driving quite at 100%.
Then it was down to Markku Alén in his Fiat 131 Abarth, but closing fast behind him was last year’s RAC winner Henri Toivonen in a Talbot Sunbeam Lotus. Alas, when the margin got down to just two seconds a rear hub broke on the Sunbeam and the delay, both in getting off the special stage and having the broken part replaced afterwards, resulted in a time loss which the Finn could not make up, even though he kept his second place.
One of the most prominent features of the Portuguese Rally is the total lack of spectator control anywhere, and in view of the irresponsible general attitude of the vast crowds there was an extra element of danger which was unfair on competitors. On special stages the crowds packed on to the roads and only opened up narrow avenues when cars approached. On approach roads the driving style of some spectators was nothing short of reckless abandon, whilst at service points the crowds were such that mechanics would have had more room to work right outside a Wembley main gate immediately the Cup Final was over.
Pilfering takes place on most events, but never on such a scale as in Portugal, for almost every team reported losses of wheels, tyres, spares, tools and even cameras and personal baggage. Several service cars were forced open by crowbars, and some mechanics took to sleeping in their vans rather than hotel rooms wherever they could not find garage parking space.
In such a long, narrow country, the service planning for the event is never easy, and the demanding nature of the rally has its effect on mechanics as well as competitors. Time schedules are extremely tight in parts, providing the bare minimum of service time and resulting in some pretty dicey motoring on a poor road network and among other drivers whose standards leave much to be desired.
Markku Alén now has 24 points in the World Championship, holding a slender lead over Henri Toivonen who has 23 and Guy Frequelin who has 21. Hannu Mikkola, Jean Ragnotti and Anders Kulläng share fourth place with 20 points apiece. In the manufacturers’ category, Talbot is in the lead with 34 points. The next round will be the Safari Rally at Eastertime, when Frequelin and Kulläng will be the only two of those six championship leaders taking part. Factory teams are those of Peugeot, Datsun, Opel and Dodge, the latter with 4-w-d- Ramchargers being shipped from the USA. – G.P
The Things They Say . . .
“If there is one thing I enjoy more than anything else it is listening to experts talking shop, always providing the shop is not cars, postage-stamps, or motor-cars” – James Agate, in his book “Ego 8”. No comment, says W.B.