Portuguese Rally

Close finish between Audi and Lancia 

Ten years after visiting the Monte-Carlo Rally what is likely to be the visitor’s major recollection, displays of driving skill in the Alps or the picturesque harbour of the Principality and the vast crowds on the Col du Turini? After a Safari, will a duel between Datsun and Peugeot have lodged most prominently in the memory, or will it have been overshadowed by the sheer grandeur of the Kenyan countryside? More pertinent than these questions is a similar one concerning the Portuguese Rally, for when that event ended in Estoril at the beginning of March there were as many people talking of the suicidal behaviour of spectators as there were of the close contest between Audi and Lancia, and the tremendous final push made by Michèle Mouton.

From Estoril, just on the coast to the west of Lisbon, all the way to the north and back, the uncontrolled behaviour of spectators was the cause of great concern for competitors. They lined the roads very closely indeed, hardly providing any space for even the slightest of tail slides, and often stood on the roads themselves as cars approached, only jumping clear at the last moment. The cause is nothing more than sheer excitement and enthusiasm, which in itself is laudable, particularly as the entire population seems to be affected, but a greater degree of control would be a better safeguard against a sudden reduction in that population, and would give competitors a little more peace of mind. After all, no-one can really give of his (or her) best when driving at high speed along a narrow avenue lined closely by a solid mass of excited humanity.

This apart, the Portuguese Rally, again sponsored by the country’s Port Wine industry, is indeed a tough contest, hard on cars and made tight by a time schedule which necessitates high speed work by mechanics to replace anything which may have broken, however small.

The early days of the TAP Rally, when navigation was by no more than lists of kilometre stone numbers, and special stages were often supplemented by strings of very tight sections of around four or five minutes, just like British road rallies of old, have long gone, and the present event is very clear cut indeed. It is rather strung out along the country, adding to the work of service crews, but since the sponsoring industry is based in the north the organisers are obliged to go there. ln any case, dirt road stages are becoming more difficult to find in the southern part of the route.

The main contestants this year were the teams of Audi and Lancia, the latter backed by Martini. Lancia, with their light, spaceframe, rear-engined cars, were expected to take the lead on the early tarmac stages, whilst the four-wheel-drive Audi Quattros were expected to catch up on the dirt roads, especially if the going turned out to be wet and slippery.

Some two weeks before the start there was even snow on high ground in the north, but that had all gone before the start. Some of the roads were still rather wet, but most of the going was on dry roads in very pleasant sunshine.

Audi brought three cars for Mouton / Pons, Mikkola / Hertz and Blomqvist / Cederberg, whilst Lancia also had a trio in Röhrl / Geistdörfer, Alén / Kivimäki and Vudafieri / Perissinot. Nissan Europe had one 240RS for Salonen / Harjanne, and there was a similar privately-entered car driven by Britishers Kaby and Arthur also having the support of the team’s service network.

There was a Renault 5 Turbo driven by Therier / Vial, and although this was entered by the driver it was most certainly the product of the factory. Indeed, the car was entered very much for development purposes and one of its features being tried out in competition for the first time was a wider front track. Alas, this is a feature which will need redesigning, for the car suddenly lost a front wheel during the event and Therier was only just able to stop short of a rather formidable drop.

Another privateer was Austria’s Franz Wittmann in a borrowed works Quattro with no more help from the works team, and another the Belgian pair Marc Duez and Leon Lejeune in an Opel Manta. The latter pair were sponsored by the coffee company Chat Noir as the result of a chance meeting by Lejeune and a principal of that company on the flight home from the Monte-Carlo Rally in January. Amazing how casual conversations can lead to financial deals!

The Spanish driver Antonio Zanini was in a Sunbeam Lotus backed by an outfit which could only be described as cosmopolitan. Entered by the French factory, it was supported by Frenchmen, Spaniards, staff from the Coventry factory and from the Cumbria Talbot dealers, Little Brothers.

There was no entry at all from the Opel factory, for the team had decided to concentrate all its efforts on the Marlboro Safari Rally. Indeed, so many spares, cars and personnel had been sent to Kenya that they would have been hard pressed at Rüsselsheim to equip even one service car.

Lasting from Wednesday morning until late on Saturday night, with various stops along the way and a supplementary slalom (not part of the rally itself) at Estoril Circuit on the Sunday afternoon, the event began with a daytime leg in the area of Sintra, making three loops around a tight route containing three special stages. After these nine, all on tarmac, was an evening stop before heading northwards through more tarmac stages to the first of two stops at Povoa de Varzim on the coast just north of Porto.

On those tarmac stages the Lancias moved into the lead, but the margin between them and the Quattros was not as high as was expected. It seemed that both teams used tyres not exactly right for the warm tarmac, and this tended to level them out. Perhaps someone should have taken some air temperature readings; the warm sunshine was plain for all to see.

Further north, still among the tarmac stages, Lancia’s move ahead of Quattro progressed, but very slowly, and when three stages were cancelled due to striking glassworkers blocking not only a stage but a vital bridge over the wide river at Figueira da Foz, the prospect of Lancia gaining a working advantage that would last through the dirt stages was just about removed.

Indeed, after a stop at Povoa, where huge, unruly crowds made the job of suspension raising difficult and even arduous for mechanics, a Quattro moved into the lead — that driven by Stig Blomqvist. The Swede was driving magnificently, and held that lead despite two broken struts (not at the same time) and a puncture.

A second stop at Povoa, after a short loop to the north, was again made irritating, frustrating and even dangerous by uncontrolled crowds massing in the service area. Theft was also commonplace, not only there but in the hotel car park that night, when service cars were broken into and all manner of professional and personal belongings stolen. Thieves exist everywhere, but this has happened so often in Ponugal that one wonders why the organisers cannot arrange for a policeman or two to stand guard during those stops when large quantities of valuable equipment have to be left outside. The whole scene at Povoa was like having the Cup Final on an open piece of Clapham Common! 

Blomqvist’s lead, alas, came to an end when his rear differential seized, locking the rear wheels. He managed to get going with some help, but at the next service point there was no spare diff in the Audi vans, so all that could be done was to send him on his way with front-wheel-drive only. He needed more service later, and he realised that he was out of time, but he nevertheless continued so that at least he could drive through the stages to be able to help his team-mates should he come across them stopped for some reason. But at the next main control his cards were retained and he could go no further. 

Mikkola inherited the lead from Blomqvist, but Röhrl was fighting hard and staying in second place, ahead of Mouton. Various mishaps occurred, including punctures, and on one stage Röhrl lost all forward illumination when the plastic section of his bonnet containing the car’s lights broke off. Mikkola had his turbocharger intercooler changed, partly before the second Povoa stop and partly after, whilst Salonen lost a road minute having a simple brake pad change. Later, the Nissan driver had his leaking rear axle changed.

On the final return leg to Estoril positions were still close, and a puncture could easily change fortunes completely. A crop of these came up on the rough stages — Arganil was one, where Mikkola stopped to change a wheel and had to watch Röhrl go by. Ironically, Röhrl punctured later on the same stage, but chose to carry on the remaining ten kilometres without changing the wheel. In this distance Mikkola caught but could not pass him, and the two cars arrived at the flying finish in line astern.

At about the same time Mouton put on an amazing spurt and got ahead of Röhrl into second place. With just a handful of stages to go, the situation up front was becoming tense.

Salonen had by this time gone out when his gearbox jammed, but Kaby was putting up a fine show, staying inside the leading ten despite a variety of problems, including a plug lead which fell off, twice! Wittmann, too, was having a trying time fettling various breakages on his rather old and well-used Quattro, which had actually served as a practice car in Portugal. At one point he lost time simply because the car’s jack collapsed as he was changing a wheel, but he nevertheless stuck to it and finished seventh, just ahead of Kaby.

Röhrl fought hard to get to grips with the two Audis ahead of him, but he just couldn’t make it and eventually accepted that he could only muster third place, less than a minute behind Mouton.

In the World Championship, Mikkola now has such a lead that he can’t be overtaken in the next round in Kenya, whilst among the manufacturers Audi is almost certain to move ahead for Lancia is not contesting that event. After the Safari, the next round is the Tour of Corsica during the first week of May.

The technical organisation of the Portuguese Rally is fine but the manner in which unruly crowds are allowed to run wild points to inexcusable negligence on the part of the organisers. We have spoken to them about this on many occasions, as numerous others have done, and the answer has never been more than a shrug of the shoulders. If government or tourist board officials read this, we suggest they take note and implement steps to help the organisers by arranging for more police supervision of stages, not just at road junctions. The organisers should also do their bit by enrolling many more marshals. If they want a lesson in precision stage control, they should go to Finland to see how it’s done there. — G.P.