World Rally Championship: Portuguese Rally

No more stage fright

Sitting before the start of the Portuguese Rally at the event's headquarters in Cascais, the fishing port and tourist resort some twenty miles west of Lisbon, we overheard the remark that "times have changed". Several other visitors spoke up in agreement, and we wondered what had prompted this nostalgia, for such expressions usually imply regret at the passing of some popular feature from the past.

But, far from regrets, these remarks were, in fact, quite the opposite, voiced by those who felt that, by dint of rerouting, a strong publicity campaign and increased police activity, the dangers of massive spectator attendance at special stages this year would be greatly reduced from the past two years, when deaths were caused by watchers being allowed to stand on the verges themselves, where they were hit by cars leaving the road.

Rally enthusiasm in Portugal is unbelievably intense. Indeed, we would describe it not merely as enthusiasm but as total emotional fanaticism. A couple of years ago it went even beyond that into the realms of frenzy, when it was not enough just to watch the progress of well-driven cars: the watchers wanted to join in, to become part of the sport, and to reach out and touch the cars as they sped by. Indeed, it seemed to be a matter of honour to get as close as possible to passing cars, watched by the thousands of others who were milling around. Happily, those times have changed, and although spectators continue to gather in thousands, still sometimes rather too close to the verges for the competitors' liking, their seemingly suicidal tendencies appear to have been held in check and the rally is far better for it.

The opening tarmac stages of years past in the area of Sintra, close to the populated area around Lisbon, were dropped after the tragedy of 1986, and this year there was an intensive safety campaign throughout the entire country, backed by a strong police presence at every special stage.

Although considered one of the senior events of the World Championship, this rally is really the youngest of the older qualifiers of the series, having started little more than twenty years ago as a recreational activity for members of the national airline's sports club. After it became international in 1966, it soon gathered momentum by arranging concentration runs from various European cities (including London), as the Monte Carlo Rally still does, and utilising the good offices of TAP, the sponsoring airline, to bring in pressmen from all over the continent.

The converging point was Madrid's Jarama circuit, where the first test took place, whilst other circuit tests were at an oval in Porto and around the banked cycle-track of Lisbon's Jose Alvalade Stadium. There were forest stages, of course, but also figuring prominendy in the competition were strings of road sections on sandy surfaces, some as short as two minutes and reminiscent of the great Welsh, Yorkshire and Lakeland road rallies of old. Imprudent indeed were those who failed to recognise and appreciate the tightness of these short sections.

Navigation was also decidedly tricky in those days, as the many British private entrants discovered. There was neither a roadbook nor a reasonable map, and those who had not made a complete recce were left to find their way around the route, even on special stages and tight road sections, by no more precise means than keeping a close watch on the numbers displayed on roadside kilometre-stones.

Such features have long since faded into the past, of course, and nowadays the Portuguese Rally, sponsored by the country's port wine industry rather than its airline, conforms to FISA's standardisation demands. As usual, this year the route ran from Estoril circuit near Cascais to Povoa do Varzim on the coast north of Porto. Two rest stops at Povoa and one at Viseu divided the rally into four legs, and the 1320-mile route, extending from Wednesday to Friday, contained 37 special stages totalling 368 miles. Surfaces varied: in the first leg nine of the ten stages were on tarmac, the other mixed; the stages of the second and fourth legs were entirely on dirt roads, whilst there was one tarmac stage among the eleven of the third leg . Consequently, only minimal suspension changes were necessary after the first leg, but surface variation afterwards meant that a wide tyre-choice was necessary for works teams. There was even ice on one stage!

As expected, by far the most prominent make among the front runners was Lancia, with no less than four factory Delta HF Integrales appearing for the first time, driven by Alen, Biasion, Ericsson and Recalde.

The car is basically an improved Delta HF, with a 2-litre twin-cam transverse engine and a new turbocharger and intercooler providing 260 bhp at 6500 rpm. There are also changes to suspension, brakes, clutch and differential system, and the drivers say that the whole is a complete transformation for the better. Older Deltas were driven by Loubet and Fiorio (entered by the Jolly Club) and Bica (for a local importer), and of these seven Lancias only one failed to finish in the first ten. A non-works Integrale was driven by Del Zoppo, whilst a private Italian team entered three Deltas for Caneva, Zanon and Swede Soren Nilsson.

The Mazda team did not bring Salonen along, and its two cars were driven by Mikkola and Carlsson. Similar cars were entered by importers for Ercolani (Italy) and Gaban (Belgium).

There was no Ford works team as such, preparations having been interrupted by industrial action, but Boreham staff were there to back the efforts of the three UK concerns preparing and servicing the Sierra Cosworths of Blomqvist (Sweden), Auriol (France) and Sainz (Spain). There was also a Sierra Cosworth driven by local man Santos.

Volkswagen brought a solitary Golf GTI for Weber, who finished seventh, whilst Citroen was there to back the three AX Sports of Fontes, Vergnaud and Montagne.

Audi was represented by two cars from Britain, a 200 Quattro driven by Welshman David Llewellin and a Coupe Quattro by Sebastian Lindholm from Finland . However, unlike past years, when British privateers seemed to flock to Portugal, shunning the spacious but costly Hotel Estoril Sol in favour of cheaper establishments (of which there are many of excellent calibre), there was only one private crew from the UK this year— Simon Stubbings and Roger Jenkins who finished seventeenth in their Mazda 323 4WD.

There were no Peugeots or Renaults, but a French privateer in an R11 Turbo drew comments that Renault "was there" even in its absence. His name was Patrick Leroy!

Although the rally did not start properly until the Wednesday morning, there was a crowd-pulling circuit test at Estoril on the Tuesday afternoon, a prelude much in the same vein as the Tatoi Airfield test which used to precede the Acropolis Rally and which, after being replaced by a road stage, was later banned by FISA.

Just as many a driver regretted taking chances on that Greek opening stage, so Alen had cause to wish that the mixed-surface Estoril stage was not actually part of the rally, like the post-event tarmac slalom at the same venue. A differential failure slowed his Lancia to a crawl, and his time for the 7.25-mile stage was all of 20 minutes, almost 12 minutes more than stage-winner Biasion.

Dropping to 94th place sounds disastrous, as it would have been had it happened late in the event, but there was still a good chance for the Finn to recover into the top ten to gain championship points. Such a recovery is not the miracle that some TV commentators would have us believe, for it is the time loss which counts, not the position.

But Alen was furious nevertheless, for this was his hundredth World Championship rally and he was hoping fora repeat of his previous successes in Portugal, in his continuing efforts to become World Rally Champion. However, he must have spent a calming night, for in the morning he was uncharacteristically philosophical, perfectly at ease and all set to start the task of regaining that lost time. He no longer had any great hopes of winning, but he was determined to make an impression nevertheless, which he certainly did by climbing to sixth place.

On Wednesday morning's Montejunto stage, Biasion was fastest, followed after two seconds by Alen, then by the three Sierras of Auriol, Sainz and Blomqvist. On the next, Auriol set the pace, but the half-expected early lead by the Fords over the Lancias did not materialise.

As the day progressed, Biasion pushed hard, and when the rally arrived at Povoa he was leading by nearly two minutes from Auriol. Three more Lancias followed closely, ahead of Blomqvist's Sierra, the Mazdas of Carlsson and Mikkola, Weber's Golf and Llewellin's Audi.

From here on, Ford's chances of matching the Lancias diminished, for even though the ground was largely dry, on the loose surfaces the 4WD cars would certainly have an advantage.

Early in the second leg, Ericsson's Lancia stopped with a transmission failure thought to be in the gearbox, but this and Alen's earlier trouble were Lancia's only real problems in the whole event, Biasion's shock-absorber replacement after a puncture being no more than a routine precaution. Blomqvist's turbocharger was changed whilst the Mazdas of both Carlsson and Mikkola needed new suspensions.

After a very dusty spectator-stage at Braga, where the flour-fine surface dust will be damped down on future occasions, Auriol lost his second place, and indeed the possibility to go on, when his Sierra stopped, its front suspension broken. This put Loubet into second place, which pleased the Frenchman no end because he is not particularly fond of dirt-road stages.

Fiorio also moved up, to third place, which meant that at the end of the second leg there were three Lancias leading a Mazda, a Sierra, a Mazda and a Golf. Although the Mazdas were no match for the Lancias, Mikkola was driving extremely well, demonstrating clearly that there is no real substitute for experience.

In the third leg, the gearbox of Santos' Sierra seized, whilst Frenchman Pierre Bos struggled on in pain after breaking a rib. Biasion broke his left front suspension, but the Lancia support machine soon had that replaced, whilst Fiorio had new shock absorbers fitted. Llewellin, after losing drive to his rear wheels for two earlier stages, complained of a steering problem. Christian Geistdorfer, formerly Walter Rohrl's regular partner for several years and now Mikkola's co-driver in the Mazda team, remarked that although spectators were close to the road, they were well-behaved and it was great to perform in front of such an enthusiastic audience. What a welcome change and a great relief! Portugal is a fine country and its people wonderfully friendly, and we hope the stage safety situation will continue in the future so that many can go on enjoying the country's many delights.

Lindholm's Audi lost its power-steering, had a transmission fault, and was then put off the road. From the end of that stage it was pushed, not driven, to the service point close by. Llewellin was another who had to work hard on the wheel after a hydraulic failure.

The fourth and final leg contained two visits to the Arganil stage, which has been infamous from the very beginnings of what was then the TAP-Rally. Blomqvist and Weber each wanted to finish as the best 2WD driver, but the Ford had the edge over the much less powerful VW, especially as Weber lost a wheel and later needed repairs which cost him an eight-minute road penalty.

The time differences between those in the leading group were not really big enough for anyone to take it easy, yet everyone was desperate not to make a mistake or risk a breakage, especially on Arganil which turned out to be icy. Carlsson stopped with a broken suspension, whilst Mikkola, by collecting a puncture, lost his chances of getting ahead of Loubet into third place.

Even at that late stage of the rally, Biasion had some pretty intensive work done on his car, including having a new turbocharger and a new gearbox fitted. But the end was in sight, and it was indeed a rousing Italian welcome which greeted Biasion and Fiorio when they got to the finish in first and second places.

In the World Championship, Lancia is streets ahead, with three wins to its credit in three events, but these have been by three different drivers, so the man at the head of the table after Portugal was Alessandro Fiorio who had amassed 30 points from two second places. Only four points behind him is Alen, and the Finn will certainly be making a strong bid for the World title this year. Outside Lancia, he has little opposition. GP