Rally Review -- Swedish Rally

Spawn of the North

Sandstrorms are inevitable in the Sahara; the Cook Straits will never be without their winds; and snow is a meteorological certainty during a Swedish winter. Each of those statements seems as logical as calling a leopard spotted, and it is almost incomprehensible that any of the locations mentioned should be without its associated climatic condition. Nevertheless, it is quite possible to cross the Sahara without encountering a single sandstorm, to find calm water off Wellington and even to visit Sweden in wintertime without seeing any snow whatsoever. None of them is a permanent feature which occurs regularly and predictably during established periods.

Climate follows general patterns, but within those patterns the actual detail is extraordinarily assorted. Kenyans are probably more weather-conscious than most, and are well aware that even during the season of the Long Rains the sky can be clear and the ground rock-hard. But the Safari Rally is competitive whether it is wet or dry, whereas at the other extreme of the scale, the absence of the Swedish Rally's essential ingredient can be disastrous for the one real snow rally of the World Championship.

It seems unthinkable, but such disasters can, and have, happened. We recall several Swedish Rallies held on special stages which were almost clear of snow, but by far the worst case was in 1990 when conditions were so bad that the event had to be cancelled altogether; and by bad conditions we mean the opposite to those which prevailed in Britain during the snows of mid-February.

In winter rallying parlance, the adjectives used to describe weather situations are the reverse of those used by radio and television forecasters. Heavy snowfalls followed by ploughing usually produce ideal conditions for a snow rally — a good, firm base of packed snow on the frozen surface, and the road lined by substantial, protective snowbanks. Roads which have little or no snow covering, which have dirt and gravel exposed, or which are soft or even muddy due to unseasonally high temperatures are certainly not what Scandinavian winter rally organisers and competitors hope for.

Ask a passer-by what he knows about motor competitions on snow and he will almost certainly respond by mentioning the Monte Carlo Rally. He will probably know little of the other winter rallies of the world; even less of ice-racing, that spectacular Nordic pastime from which were bred those fearsomely spiked tyres known as "porcupines"; and almost nothing of snowmobiling, the exhilarating winter sport in which simple belt propulsion on snow can produce initial acceleration superior to that of a Formula One car on tarmac!

In years past, journeying to Monte Carlo in January was considered the pinnacle of wintertime motoring adventure. What better appeal to the venturesome motorist than something which promised a satisfying, yet perilous, means of journeying to winter sunshine on the Mediterranean? The routes crossed pass after snowy pass, and just getting there in those early days was achievement enough. But times have changed, and no longer is the downward (sideways, if you were Italian or Polish) journey much of a challenge. The real contest now comes afterwards, and whilst we would be the last to make light of the toughness of the present Monte Carlo Rally, what is nowadays called the concentration run is no more than a non-competitive prelude maintained merely to follow tradition.

But if it's snow you're after, Monte Carlo is hardly the place to head for. The Alpine passes can be quite dry even in January, and to find consistent snow you'd be far better off making for Sweden, Finland, Norway or even the Soviet Union which, contrary to a Land Rover announcement of October, 1989, was running international motor competitions many years ago, and still does. What's more, the Soviets were indulging in races for big military vehicles long before truck racing was even thought of in the UK.

No less than ten events appeared on the rally calendar for January, 1991; five in Sweden and one each organised in Finland, Norway, Poland, the Soviet Union and Monaco. Finnish Lapland's Arctic Rally (or Tunturiralli as is it locally known) is so far to the North that snow is guaranteed, but the far more southerly Monte Carlo Rally depends very much on prevailing weather conditions in the Alps.

Somewhere between these two is the Swedish Rally, but please don't misunderstand us when we say that this is an event which can suffer from lack of snow. It is very much a winter rally, and the absence of adequate snow is the exception rather than the rule.

When the 1990 Swedish Rally was cancelled, conditions in the province of Värmland, where the rally is based, were hardly wintry at all. The snowfall had been very light, and ambient temperatures had not dropped to anything like their normal winter level, with the result that lakes had not frozen and forest road surfaces were wet and muddy rather than hard and frozen. Indeed, it even rained, and some roads were covered by flood water. They were hardly ideal conditions for a winter rally, but it nevertheless took a great deal of heart-searching before the organisers took the decision to call it off.

The cancellation itself was disastrous enough, but the organisers had another worry. The Swedish Rally hasn't really enjoyed the strength of a firm foothold in the World Rally Championship. Although it is the only true snow rally in the series, its position has been tenuous, and even now it is only a qualifier for the drivers' series, not that for makes. The fear was that the 1990 cancellation might result in its being dropped altogether.

Fortunately, this did not happen, and the 1991 event kept its place in the championship as one of four events (there are 14 in all) which count only for the drivers' series. However, the organisers did not want to risk a repetition of the 1990 cancellation and took steps accordingly. The rally is traditionally held in Värmland and is based at the capital of that province, Karlstad. That city lies on the northern shore of Lake Vänern, Sweden's biggest inland water mass which is roughly in the middle of the country's southern half and about as big as Cornwall.

Past Swedish Rallies have been held in the area immediately to the North of the lake, rarely venturing much further than Torsby, about fifty miles from Karlstad as the crow flies. The region abounds in fast, undulating forest roads, but the organisers felt that it would be safer this year to venture a little further North, where the land is somewhat higher, the temperature lower and an adequate quantity of snow less uncertain.

As it happened, the snowfall had been adequate, the ice beneath quite solid, and temperatures low enough to prevent slush from forming. By day, it was generally around -10°C, falling to about -15°C at night; cold enough, but a far cry from the -40°C recorded by day in 1966, the coldest year in the history of the Swedish Rally since it moved from Summer to Winter in 1964.

The base was kept at Karlstad, but the route extended as far as Falun, some 110 miles to the North-East. The first two legs were divided by a night stop in that town, whereas the third formed a loop starting and finishing at Karlstad, using familiar stages in the region of Torsby.

No doubt also due to the fear of mild weather, there were no stages on frozen lakes or rivers this year, which was rather a pity but quite understandable under the circumstances. Lake stages have been cancelled in the past, and we recall one stage on the river Klar being considerably shortened due to the effect of warm water being pumped in from the cooling plant of a power station!

Whether frozen lakes are used or not, it is important to keep cars as free from ice as possible, and chipping away at underbody formations is one of the routine tasks at service points during the Swedish Rally, just as baked mud is chipped away during the Safari.

Sweden has strict rules concerning tyres which may be used in wintertime. Summer tyres, such as those which are used all the year round in Britain, are frowned upon, but so are tyres which are too heavily studded. There are limits on the length, weight and shape of each stud, and on the number which can be inserted into a unit length of tread circumference.

However, for the rally itself, slightly longer studs were permitted, and more of them. No-one complained about this, of course, but it did mean that during the rally competitors found themselves with far better grip than they had experienced during practice, and therefore had to "uprate" their pace notes accordingly. First time competitor Didier Auriol was one driver who stressed the importance of this point, also saying that it was against all his instincts to use the snowbanks to "bounce" his car around a corner, although he was learning fast.

Bank-bouncing is a technique well known to experienced drivers in Swedish and Finnish winter rallies. When stages are ploughed, the snow is piled on both sides of the road. The more it snows, the more they are ploughed and the bigger and more compacted the banks become. Bouncing a car sideways against one of these banks can help it around a corner which it might not otherwise be able to negotiate.

But the procedure demands skill, timing and judgement. If a front corner of the car hits the bank first, not the complete, flat side, the chances are that the whole car will dive into the snowbank rather than bounce off it, and that can mean considerable time-wasting digging, as many crews discovered during practice.

If the bank is not high enough, hitting it sideways may result in the car rolling over the top and off the road. If the bank conceals a rock or a tree stump, the driver can only hope that the snow cushion will be thick enough to prevent any serious damage.

Many years ago, when Saabs were enjoying their successes, it was not just their narrow "bicycle" tyres that other teams used to laugh at. Their insistence on having hub caps on their wheels during snow rallies also caused some mirth. In those days, smooth-sided, lightweight wheels had not come into vogue, and Saab drivers had discovered to their cost that when four revolving wheel studs and nuts came into contact with a snowbank, they drilled their way in, the whole car then following. With hub caps, there was far less risk of digging in, and it was not long before people stopped making jokes about them, and about the narrow tyres!

Towards the end of last year it was thought that the World Championship might be affected in some way by the Gulf War, and there was even talk that the Monte Carlo Rally could be called off. Had that happened, it seems that the plan was to bring the Swedish Rally into both sections of the series rather than that for drivers only. For that reason, some teams placed entries in the Swedish event, only to withdraw them when the Monte Carlo Rally did take place. However, the rally nevertheless attracted a good spread of competitors, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Mazda, Lancia and Ford all being represented in one way or another.

Although Toyota Team Europe was not officially taking part, Celica GT4s, staff and equipment were sent from Cologne for the benefit of Sweden's Toyota team, whose drivers were Mats Jonsson and Leif Asterhag. Mitsubishi Ralliart, having announced its withdrawal from the Portugal Rally in March, took three Galant VR-4s for Kenneth Eriksson, Timo Salonen and Lasse Lampi, the latter having been the team's behind-the-scenes test and development driver for some considerable time.

Prodrive was there in the form of two Subaru Legacies driven by Markku Alén and François Chatriot, whilst Mazda had two 323 GT-Xs for Hannu Mikkola and Ingvar Carlsson, a third car being driven for the Swedish importers by Björn Johansson.

Martini Lancia was not there, but Fina-backed driver Didier Auriol has his sights on the championship this year and went to Sweden in search of points after his disappointing retirement in Monte Carlo. Another Delta Integrale was driven by that stalwart Swede Per Eklund.

Ford was not fielding a full side, but Gwyndaf Evans was having his first taste of a Group A Sierra Cosworth 4x4, his first taste of left-hand-drive and his first taste of driving on studded tyres. A Group N version of the car was driven by Tommi Mäkinen from Finland.

On the first day, fresh snow in some areas gave a disadvantage to those running in the front positions, especially Carlsson who was at number one. Indeed, the first lead was taken by Jonsson in his Toyota, although he and Eriksson were very close and changed places once or twice.

Alén complained that his Subaru was jumping out of gear occasionally, and later the gearbox was changed. He was also splitting drive shaft joint gaiters, which may have been due to their becoming brittle in the low temperatures, although his team-mate Chatriot was not having that problem. At the end of the first day, Alén's turbocharger was also changed.

Chatriot was coping well with the conditions until he was slowed by a breakage in his gearbox and a broken centre differential. He even hit a wall whilst struggling off that stage, but caused very little damage. Ten minutes were lost, and the French Subaru driver was out of the running.

Among the Mazdas it was Johansson in the dealer-entered car who was making best progress. Mikkola was suffering badly with flu, whilst Carlsson was not at all happy with his shock absorbers which did not seem to be warming up properly. Softer settings were prepared for him that evening.

Jonsson had a shock absorber jam towards the end of the day, and his poor time dropped him to third place. Lampi had an engine mount break, the resulting vibration causing a turbocharger pipe union to be dislodged.

Among the Fords, Evans had been in the top ten until the rear of the car hit a bank and the jolt turned it over. It slid along the road upside-down for a while, and it became decidedly uncomfortable inside after the windscreen popped out and the aperture acted as a snow scoop. Replacing the screen was given priority afterwards, but the time loss dropped the Welshman to 71st place.

Mäkinen also lost the Group N lead for Ford when a gearbox failure left him with just fourth gear. The man who took over the category was Torsby driver Stig-Olof Walfridsson (brother of Per-Inge) in a Mitsubishi Galant.

At the end of the leg, Salonen held a 14 second lead over Eriksson who was just 10 seconds ahead of Jonsson. Alén followed after another minute, whilst Johansson was fifth.

As service crews prepared for the second day's work, their "chimney-stack" exhaust extensions sending plumes of smoke into the air and away from their working areas, the rally set off from Falun at 8am on the Sunday for the return journey to Kalstad. Nine stages had been held on the first day; twelve to be tackled on the second.

After a spectator stage in Falun came a forest stage at which some indifferent marshalling caused several problems. First man at the line was Salonen, and it seems that his countdown from ten started long before he expected it, and when he was not even ready to go. Having hurriedly got his helmet, intercom, belts etc prepared, he set off into the stage not exactly in the right frame of mind for a good performance. The distraction had its effect; he went off the road and out of the rally. What he said afterwards is unrepeatable!

Watching the performance of Salonen being rushed into the start was his teammate Eriksson, and it turned out that he was later penalised one minute for jumping the start signal by one second, an allegation that he strongly denies. Later in the day, on another stage, Mikkola was penalised a minute for the same thing, he also denying it emphatically.

Auriol had been getting used to the event and was improving fast, but he went off the road on a very fast left-hander, dived into a snowbank and spent some three minutes digging the car out. Fortunately, the damage was slight.

Alén had not been happy with his engine's performance and his turbocharger was changed twice during the day. After the second replacement, his attitude changed. The power was back to normal, his times improved and he beamed with satisfaction at service points.

When Salonen retired, Eriksson should have moved into the lead, but the one minute penalty put him in second place, 41s behind Jonsson. However, stage by stage he whittled this down and at the end of the day he was in front again.

The final day, through eight stages totalling 75 miles, brought a tense fight between the three front runners, Eriksson (Mitsubishi), Jonsson (Toyota) and Alén (Subaru). At no time is the dividing line between performance and risk any finer than on a snow rally such as this, and whilst each of the three strove for every second, none took any chances.

Alén had a scare when he broke a front wheel, but the tyre did not deflate and he lost very little time. He had been fastest on the first stage, but after that he slowed a little and complained of oversteering. Throughout the rally he had been occasionally trying tyres which had been studded in Finland, but it turned out that these had only been suitable for fresh snow.

Mäkinen needed another gearbox change and had no chance at all to take the Group N lead from Walfridsson, whilst Evans had been withdrawn after the spectator stage which opened the second day. It had been too risky trying to maintain a good performance whilst running in the seventies, among much slower cars. Eklund lost time having a comprehensive transmission change, whilst Chatriot dropped several places when he went off into a snowbank on the last stage. As the day progressed, Eriksson's advantage went up and down, but it nevertheless remained an advantage and he stayed resolutely ahead of his rival and finished the rally twenty seconds ahead. Perhaps Mitsubishi may now be regretting the decision, taken in Japan, to withdraw from the Portuguese Rally. -- GP

***

Swedish Rally, 16-18 February, 1991 -- Round 2 of 14 rounds, World Rally Championship for Drivers

Results (top five):

1st. Kenneth Eriksson (S)/Staffen Parmender (S) (Mitsubishi Galant VR-4): Gp A -- 4h 56m 16s

2nd. Mats Jonsson (S)/Lars Bäckman (S) (Toyota Celica GT4): Gp A -- 4h 56m 36s

3rd. Markku Alén (SF)/Ilkka Kivimäki (SF) (Subaru Legacy RS): Gp A -- 4h 57m 20s

4th. Ingvar Carlsson (S)/ Per Carlsson (S) (Mazda 323 GT-X): Gp A -- 5h 01m 55s

5th. Lasse Lampi (SF)/Pentti Kuukkala (SF) (Mitsubishi Galant VR-4): Gp A -- 5h 02m 57s

109 starters, 72 finishers