The Swedish Rally
Cricket squares are not shaped that way by accident. The cherished centre of a ground is made deliberately larger than a game requires so that wickets may be moved along when necessary, allowing a worn surface to recover and providing a fresh one for the next match.
Alas, the same cannot be done with the surfaces on which rallies are held, and if the passage of 10 cars causes wear which diminishes adhesion, the driver of the 11th simply has to grin and bear it. Furthermore, there's not much an organiser can do about rutting and other surface damage caused long before the start of a rally by the considerable recce traffic passing over special stages in order to make and perfect pace notes. Practice could be banned, of course, but such a rule would be unpopular with drivers and difficult to enforce in countries where public announcements of road closures have to be made in advance. In any case, FISA forbids practice bans on World Championship rallies.
It is a logical assumption that a Winter rally in Sweden will take place on snow, ice or a mixture of both, and planners usually prepare for such conditions. But the good strategist, a cut above an ordinary planner, would know that Mother Nature is rarely logical. He would also know that the Swedish Rally has a history of "uncharacteristic" conditions, and would prepare for surfaces other than just ice and snow.
Since the Rally to the Midnight Sun moved from the Summer and became the Swedish Rally, cars have become more powerful and tyres far better at putting that power to use. The pounding given to the rally's stage surfaces has increased, and for many years it has not been unusual for a road's covering of snow and ice to become worn very quickly down to the gravelly dirt and even into it.
There may even be deep ruts and potholes, and car builders have to consider that not all the going will be polished and smooth. Audi claimed to have been caught by surprise when stages on February's Swedish Rally were mixtures of ice, snow and dirt, often rutted badly, but this might just as well have been an admission of bad planning, for these conditions have been pretty frequent in our experience — and the history books are there for all to read!
Roads worn down to the dirt are also disastrous for tyre studs. Although they remain sharp and firm on ice and snow, hard running over abrasive gravel chips will soon blunt, deflect or even dislodge them, seriously diminishing their effectiveness on whatever ice or snow may follow. This was probably the worst hazard of the rally, and it was clear to all that adhesion near the start of a stage was generally better than near the end.
At least one driver, Blomqvist, made an effort to diminish the hazard by employing a crew to drive through the stages just before the roads were closed, to record the exact positions of dangerous gravel patches or ruts; similar work to that of the ice-note crews of Monte Carlo. It was not a new ploy, however, for others have done the same in both Scandinavia and Africa — in the latter case to record mud holes.
The best surface for a snow rally is one where packed snow covers a thick layer of solid, well-established ice. For this to happen, the temperature should fluctuate between plus and minus, the former to melt the snow and the latter to refreeze it into ice, thereby adding laminates which wear better than snow, no matter how firmly packed. This Winter the temperature had been too low for too long, the snow had not melted, and the ice layer was on the thin side. Mild conditions can produce the same result, of course, and have often done so, opposite cause, same effect!
But however difficult the conditions, it was reasonable to predict that the winning car would be one of five — three Audis and two Peugeots. After all, four-wheel-drive was going to be an immense advantage whether the snow and ice would be tainted by gravel or not. Four of those cars finished in the first four places; the fifth retired.
The Peugeot 205 Turbo I6s were driven by Vatanen / Harryman and Salonen / Harjanne, the former, after their many victories since the middle of last year, firm favourites even though only once before had the Swedish Rally been won by a foreign driver.
Audi's hopes were pinned on World Champions Blomqvist / Cederberg, very much on home ground, and they were backed by Mikkola / Hertz and Rörhl / Geistdorfer, the latter comparatively inexperienced on Scandinavian rallies.
Others of note were Eklund / Whittock and Lampi / Kuukkala in long-wheelbase Quattros, and Carlsson / Mellander in a Mazda RX7, not to mention a respectable British contingent braving both the cold and the cost.
Throughout the 29-stage event, based at Karlstad and packed into 24 hours between the mornings of Friday and Sunday, there was no doubt that Vatanen was in complete command, confident, relaxed and showing no concern that Blomqvist was striving to get ahead. When Quattros first made their appearance, they were unspectacularly stable compared with sliding Escorts and Opels. Things have changed, for the Peugeots are now the sure-footed ones and the Quattros slide and bounce all over the place.
Little by little, Vatanen steadily opened out a lead during the ten-stage first leg, returning to Karlstad a minute and a quarter ahead of Blomqvist, who in turn was 36 seconds ahead of Salonen. Rörhl was fourth, followed by Mikkola, Eklund and British driver Malcolm Wilson in a Quattro.
Eklund had been experiencing a bad misfire and power loss, cured to a certain extent, after much searching, by replacement of both battery and alternator. His lack of power brought Rail close behind him, but the German also lost time as it was very difficult indeed to overtake through the clinging white mist known as "ice dust". A two-minute interval applied to the front runners, but even this was not enough when a car experienced trouble and slowed.
Mikkola came very close to retirement when he slid into a ditch, but rather than stop and begin a digging operation he blindly kept his foot down and, some 40 yards on, was rewarded when the car leaped back to the road again, miraculously undamaged.
Lampi wasn't so lucky; when he went off it took them half an hour to dig their way back again, dropping to 88th place. He completed that leg, climbing back to 46th, but then decided that it was futile to go on wasting effort and valuable tyres, so he promptly withdrew and returned to Finland to prepare for the Hankiralli the following weekend. Welshman Dai Liewelin got his Quattro into a deeper predicament, and took all of three hours' spadework to regain the road, by which tittle it was too late to continue.
After a seven hour night stop, Audi men were delighted when the Saturday morning brought a steady snowfall, for the Quattros were suffering more from stud damage, especially on front wheels, than the Peugeots, explained by the fact that Audi has an equal power division between front and rear, whereas Peugeot can reduce front and increase rear.
Fresh snow is always difficult, but it made no difference to Vatanen even though he was first on the road. His car was not immune from stud damage, however, and he lost half a minute in an encounter with a snowbank. But instead of digging, he was able to reverse out quite easily and he stayed ahead of Blomqvist. Team-mate Suborn went off twice, but held on to his third place.
Towards the end of the second leg Rörhl stopped rather dramatically when, without warning, his engine blew up. Complex, to say the least, Quattro engines have seldom been trouble-free, but it was unusual for one to succumb in quite that way. Rebel had been doing very well, but we get the impression that his early return to Karlstad was not tinged with much disappointment on his part, or his co-driver's for that matter.
Another Audi driver to stop with engine failure was Wilson whose turbocharger, strangely enough, was said to have been affected by ice. In ninth place halfway through the second leg, he was able to continue for a while but eventually retired when the engine seized.
At the end of the second leg, Vatanen's lead was only four seconds more than it had been at the end of the first, bathe was firmly entrenched and Blomqvist could do nothing to shake him. As expected, the final leg produced no drama among the leaders, and that was the way the rally finished, Audi dismay being such that stories began circulating of a withdrawal from rallying unless results in Portugal and Kenya were more encouraging. This is something that the Ingolstadt board must be considering, for the coming of the new Peugeot has put a sudden end to Audi supremacy, and no-one likes losing after all. There is also talk, not denied, that work is being carried out on a rear-engined car for the future.
The Group A tussle between Ericsson and Pettersson, both in Audi 80 Quattros, became very close indeed at times, but the former had his hopes dashed when, after spinning, hitting the snowbanks and thanking his stars that he hadn't left the road, his engine lost nearly all its power, found later to be the result of snow blocking the air intakes. Pettersson ended as group winner, with sixth place overall. Best placed Britishers were Lovell / Davis who were 24th in a Ford Escort 1600. Jackson / Orrick were 27th in an Opel Manta 400, Rose / Vegel 35th in a Nissan 240KS and Nicholls / Jenkins 48th in a Vauxhall Astra GTE.
By the time this issue of Motor Sport is published, one more World Championship qualifier, the Portuguese Rally, will have taken place and teams will be embroiled in preparations for Easter's Safari. Those two events could well produce changes in the championship situation.
1st: A. Vatanen / T. Harryman (Peugeot 205 T16 GpB) 4 hr 38 min 49 sec
2nd: S. Blomqvist / B. Cederberg (Audi Sport Q GpB) 4 hr 40 min 38 sec
3rd: T. Salonen / S. Harjanne (Peugeot 205 T16 GpB) 4 hr 42 min 15 sec
4th: H. Mikkola / A. Hertz (Audi Sport Q GpB) 4 hr 50 min 32 sec
5th: P. Eklund / D. Whittock (Audi Sport Q GpB) 4 hr 55 min 50 sec
6th: G. Peterson / A. Pettersson (Audi Sport Q GpB) 5 hr 02 min 03 sec