UNSEASONAL weather has become so common nowadays that one wonders whether climate has ceased to follow any pattern at all. African rains seem to choose their own times, Britain has been both tropical and arctic in the space of a handful of years, and even the French Alps have had dry roads in January.
Scandinavia is not exempt from these departures, and when a rapid thaw set in just before February’s Swedish Rally it was only the depth of snow and thickness of ice from the previous weeks which prevented the event losing its winter character.
In the space of a few days the forest roads of Vårmland Province lost their snow coating, but at least the banks formed by the ploughs were hefty enough, and the ice coating on the gravel surfaces slack enough, to withstand the effects of the temperature increase.
Some roads were covered in solid ice, others were potholed and some were under pools of water and slush, but they all had one common property; they were all very, very slippery. Cars with the greatest traction were at a distinct advantage and it was no surprise that four-wheel-drive Audi Quattros were making the best times.
Indeed, there was a time when a 1-2-3 victory looked almost certain for the Ingolstadt factory team, and it was only a last-night debacle involving two of their cars which deprived them of this.
A Quattro still won, but it was driven by Stig Blomqvist and Björn Cederberg, and since Hannu Mikkola is the man destined by Audi’s planners to become World Champion this year the result was not entirely to their liking.
Just two factory teams, from Audi and Opel, and privately backed entrants such as Vatanen in an Escort, Eklund in a Saab Turbo, Stromberg in a Saab 99EMS, Asterhag in a Toyota Celica and Walfridsson in a Renault 5 Turbo, rendered the event as deprived of professionals as the Monte Carlo Rally was, and even home country stalwarts such as Waldegård and Kulläng were unable to get themselves organised to compete. Based at Karlstad, where each of the three legs started and finished, the rally used only forest roads, for the lake and the river stages had to be cancelled due to water and slush on the ice, a condition which does not exactly produce peace of mind!
On the first stage Blomqvist stopped when his electronic fuel injection metering device failed and it was not until nearly three minutes had passed that he was able to carry on after coupling up to a spare. But, in his customary manner, he took the bit between his teeth after his initial delay and made best time on every remaining stage in the first leg.
He continued in this way in the second leg, all the time gaining time on Mikkola who was holding first place, but for every three advances he made one retreat and one gained the impression that perhaps he had been told that it might be a good idea if Mikkola were to win. There is absolutely no evidence of this, of course, but Mikkola does have a full World Championship programme ahead of him in 1982, whilst (at the time of writing at least) Blomqvist does not.
The Quattro is probably the best handling four-wheel-drive competition car ever to have been made, but compared to a “conventional” rear-wheel-drive car it is by no means easy to drive. It is decidedly unforgiving, and one cannot throw it around as freely as an Ascona or an Escort. Mikkola and Mouton each took some time to get used to the car, and although they now know its idiosyncrasies extremely well they readily admit they cannot take chances.
Blomqvist seems to have taken far less time to get used to the car, for he only began driving it towards the end of 1981 and only competes for Audi Sweden. It could be that the transition to 4-w-d is less severe from f-w-d than it is from r-w-d, and Blomqvist has, after all, spent most of his rallying life driving Saabs.
In the third leg there were Quattros in the first places, Mikkola, Blomqvist and Mouton in that order, but then came the incident which changed the situation radically.
Mikkola went into a right corner slightly too fast, perhaps having left his braking too late, and went off the road, through the snowbank on the left. Blomqvist came by, slowed, but was waved on by Mikkola who by then was slowly regaining the road. He had half completed this when along came Mouton who, with no red triangle to warn her, drove straight into the back of Mikkola’s car, pushing it further into the snow. Neither car was badly damaged, but each was delayed considerably, Mouton dropping to an eventual fifth place and Mikkola to sixteenth.
It was fortunate for Audi that Blomqvist, driving for an importer rather than the factory, was up there among the leaders, for when the two works drivers suffered this mutual delay he proved to be the team’s saving grace.
World Champion Ari Vatanen, despite losing a wheel and picking up a penalty for push-starting out of a closed park, took an excellent second place as a privateer, whilst former Champion Walter Röhrl drove his works Opel Ascona 400 sensibly and without risk in his first Swedish Rally to take a worthy third.
Ola Strömberg, who had been as high as second place in his old Saab 99EMS, was unfortunate enough to drive into a snowbank. He carried on without first checking that his radiator was not blocked by snow and the result was a blown cylinder head gasket, a misfortune which befell others, including Per-Inge Walfridsson in his Renault 5 Turbo, a car which seemed not to be at home on the slippery surfaces.
The Swedish Rally qualified only for the World Championship for Drivers, not the series for makes, and she situation after two rounds was Röhrl 32, Blomqvist 20, Mikkola 15, Vatanen 15.
SMALL mistakes can often result in huge forfeits, for even the tiniest lapse of concentration can cost a driver dearly when he is on the absolute limit of adhesion. Hannu Mikkola lost a certain win in Sweden through such a mistake — no man is a faultless machine after all — but he was far more angry with himself three weeks later when a similar error of judgement cut short another winning performance, this time on the Portuguese Rally.
Just as in Monte Carlo, Opel Ascona 400s were superior to the Audi Quattros on the tarmac special stages, but there were only nine of these grouped at the beginning of the rally and once the contest got into the dirt road stages, of which there were 31, Mikkola moved ahead in his Quattro.
Alas, his lead did not Iast long. In thick fog, and in darkness, he misjudged the distance between two bends in his pace notes, the second of which appeared before him far sooner than he expected. It was too late to brake adequately for the sharp left-hander and the Quattro left the road and rolled. Neither Mikkola nor Hertz was injured, nor was the car badly damaged mechanically, but there was no chance of regaining the road within the time available. After Mikkola had retired the way was open for Opels, Datsuns, Toyotas and the two remaining Audis to bid for the lead, but this was by no means as straightforward as it seemed. It had been’ Toivonen in his Ascona who had led in the early stages, until slowed by a puncture, but as the rally progressed he encountered all manner of problems, breaking a wheel against a rock, losing the centre bearing of his prop-shaft, requiring two replacement rear axles and finally retiring with a broken clutch.
He and co-driver Gallagher had strived gallantly to climb back through the field, fighting against ‘flu as well as their other difficulties, and they were even passing as many as six cars on one stage. When the end came, it brought a mixture of disappointment and relief, as anyone who has endured adversity after adversity will appreciate. Walter Röhrl, the other Opel driver, was also up with the leaders, going for safe World Championship points rather than the immediate glory of a win. After a year in limbo without any regular drive he was anxious to prove that he had lost none of his ability. Indeed, if anything, he has become a more intelligent driver and has certainly lost all his old pessimism.
But all his skill was not enough to prevent a steering breakage which sent his car rolling off the road and out of the rally, fortunately without any injury. Some might think that the retirement of both Opels signified that they are not as strong as they might be. On the contrary, it merely confirms that the Portuguese Rally is one of the two roughest rallies (the other is the Acropolis) in the European section of the World Championship, and is exceptionally hard on cars. Toyota fortunes were mixed, for Waldegård retired his Celica with a broken differential whilst Eklund went on despite two gearbox changes — accomplished without road penalty, to the credit of the mechanics — to take second place. Datsun had two cars in the event, both called Violets but one with the body shape of the Silvia. Tony Pond, driving the car with the old shape, emulated Röhrl’s performance by getting up to second place before retiring dramatically, though not rolling as Röhrl did. Pond’s gearbox lost its oil so suddenly that a substantial pool was left on the stage surface and, very soon afterwards, the box seized solidly, in turn jamming the engine and breaking the propshaft. Indeed, the crew were fortunate to escape injury, for the broken shaft punched a substantial hole in the car’s floor pan. Salonen had various troubles with his car, at one time having difficulty steering due to flexing of the bulkhead to which the mechanism was fixed. Later brackets broke at the rear of the car and the axle began to float, almost parting company with the car. Much welding was necessary to put this right, but it simply could not be accomplished in the time available.
Meanwhile, after Mikkola’s departure his Audi team-mate Michele Mouton took over the lead and remorselessly extended it. At the end she had an advantage of no less than 13 min. over Eklund, a difference more usually associated with long endurance events rather than those with just about 400 miles of special stages, as this one had. No less than four hours separated the first and last finishers and there can be no doubt that the rough roads contributed most to these differences. If a driver did not have absolute confidence in the strength of his car he had no choice but to slow down if he wanted to finish at all. The faster cars of the professionals were generally stronger too, although the tougher a component, the faster a car has to be driven before it breaks, and if that does happen the consequences are usually serious or spectacular. Mention must be made of the disappointment of the British driver Malcolm Wilson who went along with private backing in an Escort prepared by MCD Services. Towards the end of she first special stage the car’s oil pressure dropped and very soon afterwards the appearance of oil and water indicated a blown cylinder head gasket. Rough roads were not the prime hazards of the Portuguese Rally. Even more dangerous were hordes of spectators who seemed to take a pride in being stupid. Driving on public roads, most of them narrow, twisty and congested, many of these enthusiastic followers of the sport allowed their exuberance to outweigh whatever thoughts they had for their own and others’ safety, but it was really on the stages themselves that mass lunacy became evident.
Spectators showed no appreciation whatsoever of what a car can do at high speed when its driver oversteps the mark even slightly. They lined both sides of stages and were often ten deep right up to the edges on the roads themselves, both on the insides and outsides of bends. They stood in inside ditches which drivers frequently use to increase cambers in their favour, on low parapets of narrow bridges and even on the very edges of drops over which they would be taken by any car leaving the road.
It was particularly trying for competitors to drive between dense walls of excitable humanity knowing that if they made a single mistake they could kill dozens. Amateur photographers stood in the middle of the road to take head-on pictures, jumping clear at the last moment, and some leaned out so far when cars went by that they were missed by only inches.
Complaints about the total lack of any form of spectator control only produced shrugs of organisational shoulders. Indifference was more than evident, and one eyewitness told as that she had been struck on the arm by a car which left the road, killing the young man standing next to her. The official bulletin stated that he was being treated in hospital. It is miraculous that wholesale slaughter does not take place on this rally, and decidedly strange that FISA, which is supposed to inspect safety precautions on Championship events, chooses to overlook their complete absence in Portugal. Equally strange is that the BPICA, the manufacturers association, has several times voted the event “Best Rally of the Year”, rather an undeserved accolade under the circumstances and perhaps more of political significance than sporting.
Current World Championship points are listed below, and the next round is Kenya’s Marlboro Safari Rally at Easter where the protagonists will be Opel and Datsun, supplemented by privateers which include Sandro Munari in a Porsche and none other than Vic Elford in a Subaru. — G.P.