Rally review: Portuguese Rally

Problems, problems

When 1988 ended with the prospect of three competitive teams providing close contests in 1989, it was felt, certainly hoped, that with it would end the Lancia domination of the sport, which has continued since Peugeot withdrew from World Championship rallying. Lancia, like any other team, goes rallying to win, but so often has it done so that things have become monotonous. Contrived positioning within the team has been less obvious, but it is nevertheless somewhat on the boring side when, time after time, Deltas finish first, second an third.

Toyota and Mazda have both demonstrated that their cars can match those of Lancia, but in the first two makes series events this year the Italian cars have walked away with everything, taking the first three places in Monte Carlo, and now the first three again in Portugal. Indeed, in the Portuguese Rally, there were no less than seven Lancias among the first ten finishers.

Filling the top places in this way does not bring Lancia any more points, for only the highest placed car of each make can score points, but it does help obtain a substantial championship lead very quickly by keeping other makes out of the top points scoring positions. Already the make has the maximum of 40 points from two wins, while nearest rival Mazda has only 24 - and half of those were from a Group N win by a non-works driver in Portugal.

There were no works Mazdas in Portugal but Toyota was there with three cars and it must have been a great disappointment to the Cologne team that not one of these finished. If it is any consolation at all, the dismay is shared by many other followers of rallying who appreciate close competition between cars of different makes.

When the Portuguese Rally began in the mid-sixties it was run by the sports club of the national airline, TAP. It was very much a club event, organised by people who made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in experience, but when it became international in 1967 they had the benefit of substantial backing and there were even nine starting points in various European cities, including one in London in what was then called the Centre Airport Hotel.

In that year there were certainly special stages, but there were also short and very tight road sections much on the lines of those strings of two and three minute sections which used to make Welsh road rallying so difficult, and so popular. If you lingered for just a few seconds longer than necessary at some of those controls, you were sure to lose a few minutes by the time you got to the end of the string, even if nothing had gone wrong.

There was no proper road-book in those days - not even the equivalent of map references - only a list of numbers marked on roadside kilometre stones. If you were a privateer who hadn't made a complete reconnaissance of the route you were at a serious disadvantage. Even powerful torches couldn't pick out some of the route numbers, and co-drivers often had to get out and part the foliage to establish whether the junction ahead was the one at which they should turn.

In the years which followed, the sports popularity, and that of the event itself, increased enormously, but it came close to being its complete undoing. Spectators became so numerous, so enthusiastic, and so excitable that they crowded the special stages, even filling the roads before jumping clear in the final seconds to allow cars narrow gaps through which to pass. There was no spectator control whatsoever, and the inevitable culmination came in 1986 when several spectators were tragically killed and the leading professional crews withdrew, packed up and left for home because they considered the rally too dangerous.

Fortunately, there has been a big improvement in safety standards. This year the stages were well patrolled by police and officials and the crowds obeyed instructions by remaining behind the lines marked by plastic ribbons.

The Port Wine industry, not the airline, is now the official sponsor of the rally, but its backing is considerable and the rally has he full support of the government and its active National Tourist Office, unlike some events which are somewhat short-sightedly left to their own devices.

Portugal is a "long and thin" country stretching from north to south, with Lisbon about two-thirds of the way up on the coast. The rally is based a dozen miles west of the capital, at Cascais, the fishing village which has rapidly expanded to become first a residential area for city commuters and then a booming tourist centre. But it retains much of its old character, paticularly around the harbour itself, where narrow streets converge on the indoor fish market which provides quite a spectacle when the nightly catch is auctioned each morning.

The start was at the Estoril motor racing circuit, a few miles inland, and the finish outside the casino at neighbouring Estoril, where a slalom test through the gardens used to conclude the event. The post-rally slalom is still held, but nowadays it takes place at the racing circuit, where timing is by means considerably more advanced than those of previous years, when the clock was activated by cars breaking a thread as they crossed the line!

A pre-event, rallycross-type stage, far removed from the four-lap stadium test around a banked oval in central Lisbon which used to take place in the sixties, was held on and around the racing circuit on the Tuesday, and the real start took place the next day. The 1370-mile route was divided into four legs by two nights stops at Povoa de Varzim in the north, just beyond Porto, and one at Viseu, about halfway up. Of the 38 special stages, eleven were on tarmac, twenty two on dirt and five on mixed surfaces.

Stages were generally grouped according to surface, but unlike the complete division practised in Sanremo, there were exceptions. Even the tarmac stages were not always smooth, and there were several affected by leaves, mud and shale brought down by the gales and heavy rain which darkened Portugal's sunny spring only days before the event. Fortunately only one of the 38 stages had to be cancelled due to surface damage.

Martini Lancia's three cars were driven by Biasion/ Sivierio, Alen/Kivimaki and Auriol/Occelli, whilest two entered by the Jolly Club were driven by Fiorio/Pirollo ans Andreocci/Cassina. Fiorio's car was fitted with the electronic clutch system which he has used before and likes very much, but on this occasion it gave trouble and manual controls had to be fitted during the rally, a job which can be accomplished in a matter of minutes.

The Delta has become a very popular car in many European countries, and no less than 25 of them started the Portugease Rally, among them the Group N cars of Gaban/Chevallier from Belgium, Nilsson/Perssen from Sweden and the Swedish-German pair Skoghag/Dickmann.

Toyota also had three works cars, driven by Kankkunen/Piironen, Waldegard/Gallagher, and the team's most recent acquisitions from Ford Spain, Sainz/Moya. That was about the size of those likely to contest the lead, although there were several notables in other makes of car: Belgians Duez and Lopez, for example, in a Prodrive BMW M3 which finished fifth, the only two-wheel-drive car in the first ten.

Fischer/Zeltner brought an Audi 200 Quattro from Austria and did extremely well to get such a big, heavy car into fourth place. Shinozuka/Meadows drove a Mitsubishi Galant, whilst Group N Mazda 323s were driven by Del Zoppo/Baruffa from Italy and De Mevius/Lux from Belgium. A similar Mazda was driven by Stubbings/Corner from England.

The results of the Tuesday rallycross stage were not particularly significant, for only ten seconds separated first from tenth over the three and a half mile distance. However, it enabled Sainz to show his mettle, for he shared the lead with Lancia drivers Biasion and Alen. All chances were ruined for Santos, whose Sierra Cosworth stopped with a malfunctioning fuel pump, and Nilsson, who put his Delta off the road and lost a wheel: both managed to struggle to the end to continue in the event, but with heavy time losses.

The first stage of the rally proper was at Montejunto, where the old dirt road which has been used for many years has now been covered in tarmac. Here Sainz was fastest, and at least Toyota was able to say that one of their cars led the rally for some of the time. Auriol changed to a slightly softer suspension after the first stage, and promptly went on to make best time on the next. Sainz was slowed by a puncture after hitting a rock, and the lead was then shared by Auriol and Biasion. However the French driver seemed to be revelling in the slimy. gravelly conditions and he soon moved ahead of his team-mate.

Alen compleined of losing his front brakes, and since his mechanics seemed unable to rectify the problem he was losing time on every stage. Fiorio had his prop-shaft break as he left the start of a 15.5 miler and was left to do the whole distance with just two-wheel-drive. He lost some two minutes, plus another on the road having the shaft replaced, and it was at this time that his electronic clutch was also converted to manual operation. No reason was given for this change, but it was obvious that whatever had gone wrong could either not be traced or not be replaced.

Tragically, yet another rally claimed a death when Portuguese driver Augusto Mendez went over a 2000ft drop in his Opel Kadett GSi and died while on his way to hospital. His co-driver was miraculously unhurt.

After dark, Biasion began to better Auriol's times, but the overhaul process was speeded up when Auriol went off the road and over some rocks. He lost several minutes and had to continue with a flat tyre because he had collected two punctures and was only carrying one spare. Even after the end of the stage he was still in trouble, because the tyre carcass had wrapped itself around the drive and he was unable to change the wheel until mechanics got to him.

Kankunnen had the misfortune to roll at a spot where there were very few spectators, and that is indeed a rarity in Portugal. It took more than 20 minutes to regain he road. This produced the inevitable road penalties and when he was 16 minutes late on section for which maximum lateness is 15 minutes, exclusion seemed inevitable.

However, it turned out that the route to that control had been changed by the police, who diverted traffic due to surface damage. The diversion was 2km longer, and Toyota felt justifiedin protesting against exclusion asking the maximum lateness for that section should be increased. The protest was rejected on the grounds that it was made by the co-driver, not the entrant. In the case of company or team entries, only the driver is allowed to protest on behalf of the team, not the co-driver nor even the team manager. However, reason prevailed and the time allowance for the section was increased, thus allowing Kankunnen to continue.

One may wonder why a protest was made in the first place, for Kankunnen's car was not exactly in pristine condition after its roll, and the time loss had been so great that the Finn was down in 67th place. It seemed hardly worth continuing, especially as it was going to very hard work indeed overtaking slower cars on stages.

On the other hand there is no better test-bed than actual rally conditions, and since both rallying and testing are expensive, and all the team mechanics were present in Portugal anyway, Ove Andersson considered that they might as well use the opportunity to continue for development purposes. "Now that we are all here, we should make use of every test kilometre we can cover", he said at the time, and it was sound reasoning. Kankunnen himself was not so happy at having to continue, but continue he did, sometimes fighting his way past car after car. Eventually, his engine blew up, and that was that.

Meanwhile, team-mate Sainz had clawed his way back to second place, less than two minutes behind Biasion, whilst Alen was another 82 seconds behind, still complaining of vanishing front brakes. Auriol, Waldegard and Fiorio following in that order.

The restart from Pavoa took place in heavy rain, and the going on the rough stages of the north was even more difficult than usual. On the fourth of these stages Sainz' fine run came to a very abrupt end - against a tree! The stage has a few hundred yards of tarmac at the start, followed by a right-hander, and it was on that bend that car slid bodily off the road.

"Sideways into a tree" has always been the type of accident last on rally crews' list of preferences, and this particular crash was as violent as any, destroying the car. However the impact was taken by the bulkhead, and both driver and co-driver were able to walk back to their service van. Sainz' feelings were a mixture of disappointment and anger - anger at himself for allowing a momentary misjudgement to eliminate his chances of getting ahead of Biasion and scoring a win for his team.

With Sainz out of the way, the Toyota threat no longer troubled Lancia, and immediately all three works cars had their engine reliability increased by reduction of turbocharger output pressure.

Some of those northern stages provided conditions similar to those of Kenya's Kedong Valley in a rainstorm. Normally on the sandy side, with occasional rocks and boulders, in heavy rain they become very muddy indeed, and many considered themselves lucky to get through. It was with relief that competitors heard that the last of the second-leg stages had been cancelled, for it threatened to be the worst of the lot, and certainly the two-wheel-drive cars would have been in trouble. That Duez came trough so well placed in his BMW is much to the Belgian's credit. He did have a badly slipping clutch, caused by mud entering the housing.

On the return journey from Povoa to Estoril, divided into two parts, Alen's problems increased. First he was delayed by clutch failure, then he came to a piece of road that had been narrowed by roadworks since he made his notes. He hit something hard with the right rear of the car and emerged from the stage with the wheel folded under. All this put Auriol back in second place.

The Finn lost more time later when he slithered off the road and into a tree, denting the left door and smashing the window. However, he soon found himself back in second place when Auriol stopped suddenly, his clutch having broken causing all drive to be lost. Later, Alen was at risk of losing more time when his fuel-pump stopped, but it was replaced in time and he kept his second place.

By this time the rally was virtually over, for no one was aiming to break records at that stage. Surrounded by people who had experienced problem after problem, Biasion provided a relaxed contrast. He had virtually a trouble-free run, brought an unmarked car to the finish, and won by the comfortable margin of more than two minutes. We have not always been impressed by the manner in which Biasion has had victories arranged for him by his team, but in Portugal he put in a fine drive indeed and displayed all the professionalism of a World Champion. His will be one of three Lancias to tackle the next event, the Marlboro Safari Rally at Easter. GP