Rally review: Swedish Rally, April 1987

Mazda conquers snowy Sweden

To anyone who has never experienced a Scandinavian winter, the idea of a Swedish Rally on dirt roads in February is unthinkable. Yet it has been just like that on many occasions, when a fairly shallow covering of snow and ice has been worn away by the passage of cars during practice, leaving ruts which have bitten through the ice, deep into the dirt beneath.

On the face of it, one might expect such conditions to be welcomed, as frozen gravel on a firm rock bed would tend to provide better grip than solid ice or polished snow, and certainly better than fresh snow.

But the philosophy of rallying isn’t like that nowadays. On a stage which is covered by packed snow except for two ruts penetrating to the dirt beneath, the increased grip in those ‘tramlines’ is an embarrassment rather than an advantage. Tyre technology has become so sophisticated, and the combinations of tread, compound, structure, size and stud pattern so numerous, that what everyone wants is consistency; uniformity of conditions right through the stage, so that there is no doubt which tyre to choose.

There is usually a comprehensive selection of tyres available, covering a variety of road conditions, but no-one likes mixed-surface stages which demand a compromise choice and all the pondering and head-scratching which go with it.

Tyres chosen for their grip in those ruts may be disastrous when the car hops to one side and starts running on sheet ice. On the other hand, honest-to-goodness ice tyres may be less than effective in the ruts. Even more important is the effect those ruts can have on tyre studs.

There are limits nowadays on the dimension, weight and shape of tyre studs, and the number which can be inserted in a given length of tread circumference. Such rationing makes each one precious, and tyre studding is carried out very carefully indeed, so there is the least possible chance of studs becoming dislodged under the severe stress of fast driving and being forced to one side so that a retaining flange is presented to the road surface rather than the harder tip.

Studs are intended to provide additional grip on packed snow or ice. They are of little use on surfaces worn down to expose abrasive gravel, which can cause studs to lose their retention and be lost completely. Exposed dirt and gravel near the start of an otherwise snowy stage is the worst possible combinations, for unless drivers take care not to put their studs at risk on the dirt, they will have seriously diminished grip on the snow ahead of them.

The Swedish Rally has sometimes had so little snow that, after its stages have been well worn by two weeks of practice, it has been almost like a dirt road rally from start to finish. This year, happily, it wasn’t like that at all. In fact, there was almost too much snow at times.

To save on administration and minimal road closures, the organisers have, in recent years, used stages twice, which has not helped to preserve road surfaces. This year the two legs were quite different, and there was a marked improvement, aided by the abundant snowfall which kept the danger of gravel exposure to a minimum.

Heavy snowfalls came early in the winter, and although there is no shortage of snow-ploughs, this early arrival did cause a problem which led to the cancellation of a special stage. It had been planned to run this on the frozen surface of a lake, a common practice in both Sweden and Finland, but, although the air temperature dropped sufficiently, the deep snow insulated the ice so well that it never reached the required thickness. No wonder igloos are such cosy dwellings!

The prospect of a real snow rally, with more or less similar conditions for all leading runners, was a very pleasant one. There were none of the unpleasantries of Monte Carlo, and everyone expected a straight fight on equal terms.

Alas, Mother Nature ca be as fickle in the Arctic as she is in the Tropics, and when Karlstad stirred its slumbers on that Friday morning it was to the result of all-night snowfall. Indeed, it was still snowing, and although it was to warrant taking ploughs through the stages, there was enough fresh snow on the surfaces to give the early runners a major disadvantage.

At high speed, tyres (whether studded or not) provide far less traction and steering effectiveness on fresh snow than they do on packed surfaces, and it wasn’t until about half a dozen cars had gone through that enough of the new snow had been swept away to expose the harder stuff underneath.

This was a bitter disappointment for Juha Kankkunen, who was running at number one in his Lancia Delta. He had to act as the plough for the others, and it wasn’t much better for Stig Blomqvist at number two in his four wheel drive Ford Sierra, nor for Timo Salonen in his Mazda 323 at number three.

Markku Alen had things a little better in his Delta number four, as would Kalle Grundel at five had not his Sierra coasted to a stop in the middle of the very first stage, an elbow weld on its main gear selector shaft having snapped halfway through a gear change, leaving the unhappy driver with a permanent neutral. By the time mechanics got to him on foot and replaced the shaft, there was no point going on.

In the second leg of the rally the same thing happened to Blomqvist, but he was fortunate to have got into a gear before the shaft broke and was able to drive out of the stage to have it replaced.

Another problem on that grey, murky first day, with light snow falling most of the time, was visibility. Not only were the roads white, but the fields, verges and ditches too, the whole landscape merging with the sky. Pace notes became as vital as they are in fog, for there was no definition to the road, save the approximate guide of the tree line.

Whilst those in front were floundering through fresh snow, behind them much better times were being set, one of the surprising performances being put up by Mikael Sundrstrom in his Mazda. Running at number twelve, he actually led for some time, but came to a stop when he hit a snowbank sideways and rolled over it into the trees. The occupants were unhurt, but were unable to get the car going in time.

Markku Alen was not at all happy with his misfiring car and had just about every removable component changed at some time or another. But team-mate Mikael Ericsson was perfectly happy, taking full advantage of his start number, and at the end of the first leg was leading Ingvar Carlsson’s Mazda by 14 seconds.

The other Eriksson, Kenneth, came close to stopping very early in the event when a broken fan belt gave rise to over heating and loss of water due to a damaged cylinder head gasket. However, equal measures of good luck and an effective sealant seemed to do the trick.

With confidence restored, Eriksson, the 1986 Group A World Champion, even put up no less than five fastest stage times – with only two driven wheels at that.

The leaders on the road were still at a tremendous disadvantage up front. The road timing system (a control at the start of every special stage) made it impossible for any reshuffling to take place, as was the case some years ago when the same situation (even on the RAC rally) would have cars hiding up every side turning waiting until the last possible moment so that others would go in front.

The second day might have been a totally different rally. Gone were the clouds and the snow, and in bright, often sunny weather the roads offered the same conditions to all. Now a different picture was presented, for no longer did later runners have the advantage, and Timo Salonen wasted no time displaying his talent.

As the Lancias of Kankkunen and Ericsson needed water and gearbox oil respectively, that of Alen eventually suffered turbocharger failure and he just managed to scrape home in fifth place.

Salonen eventually moved up to take the lead, and it was quite a celebration in the Mazda camp when the make took its first World Championship victory. Those long months pursuing Group A development when other teams were still using Group B cars had obviously paid off.

However, when it was all over an ominous FISA announcement declared that the results could only be provisional until certain technical matters had been cleared up. It transpired that this referred to two turbo-charger options available for the Mazda, a fact not made clear on the homologation forms, but when this was cleared up some days later, the results were confirmed.

Throughout the rally a small FISA technical delegation led by Gabriel Cadringher had made spot checks on cars, even to the extent of weighing them and checking the densities of fuel used. No irregularities were found.

Hopefully, the year will continue in this fashion, with no squabbles and no tricks. GP