Close Finish in Portugal
It is usually the case that smooth rallies produce narrow penalty differences, whilst rough ones result in much wider margins. Alpine rallies used to be characterised by very close finishes indeed, whilst nowadays even forest rallies can keep their suspense until the end. On the other hand, the Safari, for instance, is timed in minutes, not seconds, and the time span between first and last finisher can often run to something approaching a completed day! There are exceptions, of course, and we can recall the Kenyan event producing a dead heat!
Another exception, though not as startling, was last month’s Portuguese Rally in which the winner only had a 27 second advantage over the runner-up. True that one complete leg was made up to tarmac special stages, but the three others were on dirt roads, some of them pretty rough at that.
The close duel turned out to be between Hannu Mikkola in an Audi Quattro and Markku Alén in a Lancia, and it was reigning World Champion Mikkola who eventually triumphed against his fellow Finn. But there was far more to the contest than that, for others shone in turn and there were some pretty surprising performances and incidents.
Main contestants were the teams of Audi and Lancia, for the former eager to repeat their victories in Monte-Carlo and Sweden, and the latter thirsting for vengeance after their severe defeat in Monte-Carlo. Four Audi Quattro’s were driven by Mikkola / Hertz, Röhrl / Geistdörfer, Blomqvist / Cederberg and from South Africa, Sarel van der Merwe and Franz Boshoff. Four Lancias were in the hands of Alén / Kivimäki, Bettega / Perissinot, Biasion / Siviero and, a new partnership within the team, Toivonen / Piironen.
Not in the same league, but certainly not without a chance in such an unpredictable rally, were Toyota, with a turbocharged Celica apiece for Waldegård / Thorszelius and Kankkunen / Gallagher, whilst Nissan brought a single 240RS for Salonen / Harjanne. Unfortunately, Salonen was laid out during practice with severe back pains, probably caused by a slipped disc, and he was flown home to Finland, to be replaced by fellow countryman Erkki Pitkanen.
Renault Portugal brought in an R5 Turbo for Ragnotti / Thimonier, and there was a works VW Golf GTI for Grundel / Dickmann. Another pair of Frenchmen were Dorche and Thimonier (son of the other one) in a Citroen Visa Chrono, whilst American driver Jon Woodner brought a Talbot Sunbeam Lotus to be shared by English co-driver Brian Harris. The only complete British crew were Russell Gooding and Rodger Jenkins in a Vauxhall Chevette, a far cry from the early days of the former TAP Rally when convoys of GB-plated cars used to make their way down from Dover; days when there was no roadbook, just lists of kilometre stone numbers, and when road sections included strings of four-minuters as there were in the halcyon days of British rallying.
In all there were seventy starters, a somewhat meagre figure compared with past years, and indeed with some other rallies today, but easily explained by present day costs and the roughness of the event. Its appeal to privateers was once a selling point of the Portuguese organisers, but even though the country is still pleasant, sunny and brimful of wild enthusiasm, the rally no longer lends itself especially to the shallow pockets of private entrants.
As usual, the event was based in the Cascais / Estoril area, about a dozen miles West of Lisbon, where the start took place at 9 am on the Wednesday. There followed three laps of a three-stage loop in the Sintra area, a two-hour stop, then an overnight journey northwards to Póvoa de Varzim, on the coast just above Porto. All 15 stages in this leg were on tarmac.
As expected, hordes of spectators converged on the area around Sintra for that first group of tarmac stages, and although road behaviour was far better than it has been, and police control much more organised, there was still no attempt to prevent the suicidal crowding of roads within the special stages themselves. Even when there were fast kinks which lent themselves to straightening by the competitors, every grass apex was occupied by watchers and it was decidedly unnerving for drivers who found themselves flat out between solid walls of humanity.
The outstanding performance on these early stages was that of Toivonnen who made best time on each of the first five, only to crash on the sixth on a bend which was somewhat gravelly, a condition which one has to expect on these twisty, narrow roads.
Another to crash and retire was van der Merwe, whilst Kankkunen damaged his front left brake disc and Biasion was troubled by a broken seat. A moment of inattention also cost Röhrl some time. On the way from one stage to another, he raised one hand to remove his helmet, went a little wide, and clouted a stone so hard that he broke a wheel, the repairs resulting in the loss of seven minutes on the road and a drop to 20th place.
Alén inherited the lead, but on the way northwards a puncture dropped him to third place and team-mate Biasion took over and stayed there until the arrival, at 5 am on the Thursday, at Póvoa. Lancia’s advantage on the tarmac had been pronounced, and Bettega was second, Alan third, ahead of the Quattros of Mikkola and Blomqvist. Röhrl was twelfth, but steadily climbing among the 52 cars which were left from the 70 starters.
With suspensions changed for the looser, rougher surfaces ahead, cars left Póvoa at 2.30 pm and after just one stage Bettega was up level with Biasion. Röhrl on the other hand, being among somewhat slower runners, was seriously troubled by dust, and in his efforts to escape the choking trials of two stages, overtaking between the stage arrival controls and the actual departure lines some hundred or so yards ahead. We see nothing wrong with this, but it was actually forbidden by regulations, so at a stewards’ meeting he was later fined a total of 3,000 US dollars. Kankkunen also indulged in the same manoeuvre and was fined 1,000 US dollars.
Brakes, shock absorbers, suspensions, tyres and transmissions were all taking a pounding on this leg, and replacements were common wherever there was time. Kankkunen did about three miles without any brakes at all, whilst Pitkanen needed his Nissan’s gearbox changed after losing at least half an hour on the last stage of the leg.
Blomqvist’s front right suspension broke and he limped off the stage on three wheels, to lose at least eight minutes, whilst a lot must be said for Röhrl’s team spirit as he stopped to see if he could help even though he was striving to make up his own time deficit.
By the time that leg was over, and 25 stages gone, Alén was up in the lead again, but this was very short-lived. The early stages on the Friday were somewhat slippery and it took just one of them for Mikkola to move ahead of the two Italian-driven Lancias and jump from fourth to second. Two stages later he was in the lead, albeit by only one second from Alén.
By this time Pitkanen’s second gearbox had jammed and it was not long afterwards that he finally stopped, his differential teeth stripped.
Then things really began to happen. Firstly, Röhrl indulged in a most uncharacteristic roll, considerably damaging the body of his Quattro, but was able to continue after being pushed back to the road by spectators. He got off the stage, had the car fettled and carried on to finish sixth, more than 45 minutes behind the winner. Blomqvist also clouted the front of his, so it seemed that people were trying very hard indeed.
Kankkunen, who had been markedly quicker than his team-mate Waldegård, tried to struggle off a stage after a front suspension had collapsed, only to stop completely when the other one folded up. This must have been rather worrying for a team about to tackle the Safari for the first time, especially as Kankkunen had twice lost wheels during practice, and we gather that more testing will be done in Portugal to supplement that being done in Kenya.
By that time Waldegård had already suffered a double puncture, and this must have sent damaging shocks through the transmission, for just one stage later he stopped with a broken propshaft. A mechanic was dispatched into the stage with a new shaft over his shoulder and it says much for his ingenuity that he was able to persuade a parked motorcyclist to give him a lift. Amazingly, he got a lift on a second motorcycle, arrived at the stricken Toyota and got it going again. Alas, when Waldegård arrived at the next control he was beyond his maximum lateness.
Not long after, Blomqvist rolled, just as uncharacteristically as Röhrl, and once again the German driver stopped to help his team-mate. But there was little which could be done in the time available and Blomqvist dropped right out of the running.
After a stop that night, the restart was at 5 am on the Saturday, first port of call being a double loop through the infamous, rough stages at Arganil, Candosa and Lousa. The difference between Mikkola and Alén had been about 30 seconds, but, amazingly, the Lancia driver began to whittle down that lead. It got down to nine, and tension grew among both Italian and German camps, not to mention the thousands of others who were interested.
But Mikkola, who had not started the rally particularly dramatically, was determined not to give way and he stuck to that lead to the end. In an attempt to lessen the dust ahead of Alén, his two team-mates deliberately booked into controls ahead of him, collecting penalties for being early, then stopping soon after the start of the stages so that the effective interval between Mikkola and Alén would be much greater than it should have been. This gave no material advantage, but it did provide more time for Mikkola’s dust to disperse before Alén came along.
The outcome was an extension of Audi’s lead in the World Championship for Makes, but among the drivers Blomqvist still leads with 35 points to Mikkola’s 32, Röhrl’s 26, Bettega’s 20 and Alén’s 18. Next round is Easter’s Safari, counting for both series, where the Audi / Lancia tussle will be buffered by entries from Datsun, Toyota, Opel and others such as Subaru and Citroen. – G.P.
1st : H. Mikkola/A. Hertz (Audi Quattro GpB) 7 hr 35 min 32 sec
2nd: M. Alén/I, Kivimäki (Lancia Rally GpB) 7 hr 35 min 59 sec
3rd: A. Bettega/M. Perissinot (Lancia Rally GpB) (6m) 7 hr 52 min 21 sec
4th: M.Biasion/T. Siviero (Lancia Rally GpB) (10m) 7 hr 49 min 22 sec
5th: J. Ragnotti/P. Thimonier (Renault 5 Turbo GpB) 8 hr 13 min 42 sec
6th: W. Rhörl/C. Geistdörfer (Audi Quattro GpB) (10m) 8 hr 11 min 22 sec
7th: K. Grundel/P. Diekmann (VW Golf GTI GpA) 8 hr 39 min 00 sec
8th: J. Ortigão/J. Batista (Toyota Corolla GpA) 9 hr 19 min 44 sec
9th: C. Dorche/G. Thimonier (Citroën Visa Ch. GpB) 9 hr 25 min 03 sec
10th: R. Gooding/R. Jenkins (Vauxhall Chevette GpB) (3m) 9hr 31 min 37 sec
(Figures in brackets indicate road penalties)
70 starters 20 finishers