Disastrous Portuguese Rally

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People have been predicting it since the World Championship began, wondering how on earth an event as highly popular with spectators as the Portuguese Rally could continue year after year without any form of crowd control whatsoever and escape a major disaster. This year it happened. A car went off the road on the very first special stage, straight into the crowd, killing several people, causing injuries to dozens of others and turning a sporting arena into something resembling a battlefield.

There have been fatal accidents in the past, in other rallies as well as the Portuguese, but we can recall nothing as horrifying as this one, and we must say at the outset that no blame whatsoever can be laid on the driver of the car. So crowded was that stage, and so unconcerned were the organisers that the road itself was crammed with a solid mass of excited, uncontrolled, almost hysterical humanity until seconds before a car arrived, that the responsibility must be theirs alone, although their attitude afterwards suggested that they thought otherwise.

So concerned were the leading professional drivers about the situation that, after consultation with their team managers, they withdrew from the rally, and when It eventually restarted to head northwards, it did so without the teams of Peugeot, Lancia, Audi, Ford, Austin-Rover and Volkswagen. Indeed, according to the organisers retirement list no less than 39 cars went no further, including all the Visa Chronos of the Citroen Challenge.

We have been to every Portuguese Rally, or TAP Rally as it was formerly called, since it became international, and although crowds in the sixties were not as numerous as they are now, and popularity of the event steadily increased and it was easily the first rally that we can recall being criticised by competitors for its total lack of crowd control.

The organisers’ default in allowing a situation almost guaranteed to produce an accident was not one related to the 1986 event alone: it is one which has been continuing for years during which crowds have increased unbelievably. Indeed. those accustomed to watching the RAC Rally or the Thousand Lakes could never imagine what takes place during the Portuguese Rally unless they see it for themselves.

Portuguese spectators seem to lose their individuality and become a unified, pulsating mass. To them it is not enough to watch the rally and to witness the displays of skill: they want to become part of it. It is not a sport for drivers, but for them, and the drivers are only there to provide them with the means of displaying bravado and publicly demonstrating their ability to walk tall when only inches from death.

They crowd the roads completely and only part to form a narrow avenue for oncoming cars when they are just yards away, and even then they stay close enough to reach out to touch them as they pass, drawing applause from their fellows if they succeed: amateur photographers squat in the middle of the road, determined to get the business end of a rally car as large as possible in their frames before jumping clear; where a wall borders the outside of a bend, it will be completely hidden from a driver’s view by a solid row of people sitting or leaning on it, and it is a point of honour not to get scared and move away: if a driver has trouble with his car and is obliged to slow down, they feel cheated that their adversaries are not fighting back properly, and demonstate their anger by waving sticks and even throwing stones, as happened this year; escape roads are blocked, and crews find it impossible to use pace notes because landmarks, junctions and verges are all invisible, and they are presented with a solid wall of humanity through which somehow or other they are expected to find a way.

Such a brand of rallying, apparently to the organisers’ liking, does not deserve the title, and we wholeheartedly agree with the decisions of those competitors who had no wish to continue running such a dangerous and foolhardy gauntlet.

The organisers made it clear that they didn’t share this view and would report the drivers to FISA. Indeed, there was talk of threats to suspend licences, but fortunately neither the drivers nor the team managers took much heed of this. We found it quite amazing that bulletins which appeared after the incident seemed more concerned with self-praise than anything else, emphasising how many ambulances they had mustered and how quickly they got them to the scene. What a classic case of accepting a secondrate remedy for a disease without caring a hoot about its prevention!

The public, too, became involved, and it seemed that they could not understand why the leading drivers had withdrawn just because a few unfortunate people had been killed. They were angry that their brand of fun had been taken from them, and the atmosphere at Estoril on that Wednesday evening was so charged that the local representatives of some withdrawn teams arranged for police to be present, although that did not prevent thefts from service cars, another hazard of the rally which has existed for many years.

A nauseating example of at least some local opinions was a printed leaflet produced before the rally eventually ended, proclaiming in rather bad English that the works drivers would never be welcome in Portugal again. It also attempted to explain that to Portuguese people rallying was like bullfighting, and would not be exciting if there weren’t any risks. Even worse was the remark that if one bird dies, it’s not the end of Spring!

If the Portuguese people want their sport this way (we cannot believe that they all do) and are prepared to put up with the risks, then they are perfectly at liberty to play crazy games in their own backyard. But they are NOT entitled to bring in professional drivers from overseas and, under the guise of world class sport, trick them into playing at gladiators in a highly dangerous arena. Neither are they entitled to have their event in the World Championship when It is locally considered more the equivalent of a bull run than a rally.

Midst all the harsh words, the works teams went on with their packing up, whilst organisers and remaining competitors prepared for the restart of the rally. Meanwhile there was a run on airline seats out of Lisbon, for even pressmen felt disinclined to stay, some because they felt the rally no longer worth covering and some through disgust at the organisers’ indifference.

What can be said of a rally that had lost its fire with the departure of Salonen, Alen, Rohrl, Blomqvist, Biasion, Pond, Kankkunen, Toivonen, Grundel, Wilson, Santos, Duez, Eriksson and Wittmann? Although the first stage was cancelled after the accident — and it had been the unfortunate Joaquim Santos who had been forced off the road into the crowd — the organisers did produce a classification and indeed ran two more stages, equally dangerous, before the front runners pulled out.

As the rally moved northwards, using more tarmac stages than it has in the past, it was Joaquim Moutinho who established himself in the lead in his Renault 5 Turbo, followed by Carlos Bica in his Lancia Rally and Giovanni Del Zoppo in a Fiat Uno Turbo, the latter car being in the GpA category.

Without any nominated drivers among the finishers, no manufacturers scored championship points, for the series is now for manufacturers rather than makes, and each team must nominate in advance the drivers it wishes to be considered eligible. That does not apply to the drivers’ series, and those who finished in the first ten will score points, which explains why Moutinho is jointly second with 20 points, a score on which he is hardly likely to improve during the year.

Next round, at the Easter weekend, is the Marlboro Satan Rally, where spectator behaviour even in remote parts of the bush will be infinitely better than it was in Portugal. G.P.

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