Rally review - The Sweddish Rally

Several significant developments have taken place in Sweden in the past two decades. Among the more trivial (though some would say otherwise) are the nation's lump sugar finally becoming soluble and its toilet paper at last perforated, whilst evolution of a more weighty nature has included the shifting of the driving lane from the left to the right, and the country's premier rally from Summer to Winter.

The Rally to the Midnight Sun was a name at one time as well known as Acropolis, Thousand Lakes and Safari are today, and its dirt roads just as popular, though there was always a little apprehension over what the innovative organisers would devise in the way of special stages, one in particular descending to the underground tunnels and galleries of an iron ore mine! The rally changed seasons in the sixties, and much later merged with another former Summer event, Varmland Runt.

The shift opened the door to what were, for non-Scandinavians at least, more innovations, such as setting up stages on the ice of frozen lakes and rivers, although doing likewise at the time were the Norwegians and the Finns. But of even greater import was the consequent increase in demand for those superb Winter safety aids, tyre studs. From bulky, bolt-through contraptions, strange clock-spring devices moulded into treads, and others which had tob e pulled out with pliers at the start of every stage and were effective for hardly half a mile, emerged highly efficient, precision made studs of so many varieties that every conceivable surface condition had its corresponding type.

Alas, misguided authorities claimed (wrongly, in our opinion) that tyre studs seriously damaged road surfaces, and imposed strict limits on their size and number. Some even banned them altogether, obviously more concerned with road repair costs than saving lives. We have never seen convincing evidence (we'd be glad to, if anyone has it) that the parallel troughs which appear along tarmac roads are caused by stud wear rather than by subsidence due to heavy vehicles.

The outcome was disappearance of the spikes, chisels and porcupines which were common in Scandinavia and even the Monte Carlo Rally, and the introduction of rules limiting the length, weight and shape of studs, and the number allowed.

Regulations have varied from country to country, so there were no standard stud rules for rallies. However, a common requirement seemed to be that the number of studs should be limited to 12 per 10 centimetres of tread circumference. This was the case in Monte Carlo this year, but the Swedish Rally organisers, taking heed of competitors' remarks that an increase in the number would improve safety, decided to raise the maximum to 20 per 10 centimetres of tread circumference.

The Swedish Rally has been settled for some years in the city of Karlstad, and its route contained within the province of Varmland, where there is an abundance of forest roads and where enthusiasm is always at a high level. The route formed three loops northwards from Karlstad; the first of 400 miles via a stop at Malung, about 110 miles to the North; the second of a similar distance to Torsby, and the third of 250 miles in the area to the North-West of Karlstad. There were 30 special stages in all, totalling nearly 350 miles.

Peugeot, Lancia, Austin-Rover, Citroen, Volkswagen and Mazda were all in Sweden, but the greatest interest centred on the first championship appearance of the Ford team with its RS200. Not only was the car new, but the faces in the team too, for in the years of activity confined only to workshop, drawing office and test track, most of the mechanics left Boreham to join other companies or become freelance. However, a strong nucleus of experience remained, and the team seemed to be well knit and efficient.

It was appropriate that the newly-homologated RS200 should make its first major appearance in Sweden, for the team's new drivers for this year are all Swedish. Stig Blomqvist moved from Audi and teamed up with new co-driver Bruno Berglund (Bjorn Cederberg decided to cut his travelling), whilst Kalle Grundel and Benny Mellander moved from the German Peugeot team.

Peugeot has long forsaken its patriotism in favour of the policy that success sells cars even if its drivers are not French. Driving its two 205 T16s in Sweden were Timo Salonen/ Seppo Harjanne and Juha Kankkunen/ Juha Piironen, all of them Finns. Lancia, too, continues to emply Nordic talent, and its two Delta S4s were driven by Markku Alen/ Ilkka Kivimaki and Henri Tolvonen/ Sergio Cresto.

After an unhappy Monte Carlo Rally, the Austin-Rover team took one of its Computervision-backed MG Metro 6R4s to Karlstad, driven by Malcolm Wilson/ Nigel Harris, and merged its service arrangements with those of Per Eklund/ Dave Whittock who were driving a Clarion-backed Metro 6R4 prepared by Schmidt of Germany.

Driving the two factory Citroen BX 4TCs were Jean-Claude Andruet/ Annick Peuvergne and Philippe Wambergue/ Jean-Bernard Vieu, the big cars somewhat difficult to drive on the winding roads rutted by the practice tracks of narrow cars. One GpA Mazda 323T, a four-wheel drive car like all the others so far mentioned, was driven by Ingvar Carlsson/ Jan-Olof Bohlin, and one works Volkswagen Golf GTi by Kenneth Eriksson/ Peter Diekrnann.

Group A has always been popular in Sweden, and it has formed the basis of the national championship since the peculiar Swedish categories called "Standard A" and "Standard B" were abandoned in favour of the international system. It was natural, therefore, that the list should contain a high proportion of GpA cars, although some of the visiting GpA runners viewed some of the local cars in that category with a suspicion that they made no attempt to hide. However, no protests resulted.

Practice in Sweden is strictly controlled in order not to endanger, or even inconvenience, those who live or work near special stages. For instance, it was allowed only for two weeks, at speeds no greater than 44 mph, and not during the morning and evening periods when people travel to and from work and school. Some teams, Ford for instance, kept their recces and their test sessions apart, but Lancia combined theirs, with the result that note-making was frequently interrupted due to engine problems and the need to revise suspension settings. The Metros, too, gave some engine trouble before the rally. Eklund's shedding a cam drive belt and Wilson's doing the same thing after scrutineering.

Although practice is important, it can wear down the ice and snow coating the forest roads so that during the event tyres may bite through to the rock and chippings beneath, causing damage to vital studs or even loss of a significant number. Some crews arrange to have advance knowledge of this by employing the equivalent of Monte Carlo's ice-note crews, which, on the face of it, seems a ridiculous ploy in a Swedish Winter when the entire landscape is white. However, such advance knowledge can be of immense help, but it was strange to see Harri Toivonen making notes for his brother Henri — in a Metro! He was about to start a series of British events in a Metro, and Austin-Rover decided to let him become familiar with the right-hand drive car. That this was a good thing cannot be doubted, for not only did he learn the hard way by savaging the left side of the car, but Austin-Rover picked up useful notes for Eklund and Wilson into the bargain.

From the start on the Friday morning, it was Salonen who made the running. His second place in Monte Carlo hadn't been much to his liking, and he was keen to prove that he was capable of a much better performance, which he is. On those stages which were unchanged from previous years, he broke record after record, and after six stages he had opened out a lead of nearly a minute over Toivonen. The Fords didn't seem to handle as well as expected, although narrower tyres improved this.

The biggest dramas affected the Metros, and it must have been daunting indeed when Eklund stopped very suddenly on only the second stage, a piston having broken up. Wilson, on the other hand, was in a compromise situation. He wanted to do well, and gain a place on the list of A-seeded drivers, but his engine had not been replaced after losing its cam belt, only given new cylinder heads overnight, so he had to treat the unit with consideration. To make matters worse, he lost most of his gears, but although the box was changed (not by Cowley men), the linkages were not replaced properly and this left him short of ratios again. All this cost him nine minutes on the road (90 sec in actual penalty) and this dropped him to ninth place.

Toivonen went off through a snowbank whilst travelling rather quickly in fifth gear, but recovered and kept his second place. Team-mate Alen was struggling with far less power than he should have had, and the search for the cause continued unsuccessfully for so long that we heard what must be the Italian equivalent of "Cry Wolf". Just about everything was checked, even changed, but it wasn't until the whole turbocharger was changed after the second leg that full power was restored to the engine, and a satisfied grin to Alen's face.

Salonens performance was outstanding, but it was sadly short-lived. In the middle of a 30-mile stage oil pressure warnings flashed and it became obvious that there was no hope of carrying on. The leader turned off the stage at an access point, and out of the rally, the oil having been lost from the filler bowl, apparently via a damaged gasket.

Toivonen then found himself in the lead, but only by 14 sec from Kankkunen. Behind them, Alen, his engine not yet giving full power, got up to third place for a while when Blomqvist lost road time having his water pump changed, a job as time consuming as it has always been on Ford engines. However, Alen needed an alternator replaced and the two changed places again. Back at Karlstad, those four were followed by Grundel and Wilson, less than a minute and a half apart.

Blomqvist, his car handling more to his liking and its final drive ratio lowered by a replacement transfer box, was confident of being able to improve on his third place, but hardly had the second leg got under way than it all went wrong for him. Without any warning whatsoever, his engine suddenly stopped inexplicably.

Notwithstanding this early retirement, there can be no doubt that Blomqvist had taken well to the RS200. It is by no means a lightweight, currently has less power than its rivals and has not yet been "evolved", as FISA would have us say, so prospects for the future are pretty good.

Grundel all but followed his team-mate when he dived into a snowbank and spent some two minutes having the car heaved out by spectators. The recovery process was about over when along came Wilson who promptly took to the bank to get past. Neither wanted to drive in the ice dust of the other, so Grundel set off and both cars sprinted together for the next corner.

The episode got Wilson ahead of Grundel, but almost immediately he wondered whether it had been worth it when the car began to misfire and overheat after snow had entered front and rear — a problem which regularly caused rear-engined Alpine A110s to blow gaskets years ago. Proper ignition and temperature were soon restored, but very soon afterwards Wilson's fine drive, and his hopes of an A-seeding, were ended when the cam belt came off and there was no time to have it replaced properly. In any case, there was valve damage so a change of belt would have been futile anyway.

This second double-retirement was hardly welcomed by the Cowley team, but at least Wilson had shown that both he and the car are capable of holding their own against the big guns of the rest of Europe. Grundel, meanwhile, was back in third place, which he held to the end and collected his position on the list of A-seeded drivers.

Toivonen was continuing to keep Kankkunen at bay, and seemed set to notch up yet another World Championship win, but it all went wrong for him just as abruptly as it had for the others. Driving to keep his lead rather than extend it, he wasn't taking any chances with the car or with his own concentration, but suddenly there was an explosion and the engine stopped, an exhaust valve broken.

Kankkunen then inherited the lead, and from that moment never looked like losing it, not even when he landed nose-first after a jump and the sudden pitch backwards which immediately followed caused the rear wheels to splay. The third leg was mundane and processional by comparison to the first two, although Wamburgue didn't think so; his Citroen joined the list of engine failures, leaving Andruet to finish sixth. No less than six GpA cars finished in the first 10, the group leader being Mikael Ericsson in an Audi 90 Ouattro.

The Swedish Rally does not usually have a high retirement rate among the front runners, at least not since the days of water splashes suddenly jamming brakes or steering with ice, and metal components becoming brittle and snapping, but this year engine failures reached an unprecedented level. Could it be that slippery surfaces and very high speeds together make over-revving inadvertent? G.P.