Game, set and Mats - Swedish Rally

Twenty years ago; five years ago; even one year ago, had a driver spluttered to a halt on a special stage because he was out of fuel, but was fortunate enough to stop where a spectator was able to provide a can of petrol to get him on his way, it would have been considered part of the game. The driver and co-driver would have been criticised for running out in the first place, but their stars would have been considered the luckiest in the galaxy because they happened to stop where a spare canful was at hand.

It would all have been part of the hurlyburly of rallying; one of those lucky coincidences which get a competitor going again after a mischance. No rules would have been broken, and there would certainly not have been any move to penalise the crew for some malpractice. Honest-to-goodness rallymanship was then accepted.

Tyre change points have frequently been set up within special stages – a Lancia initiative when Sanremo’s Passo di Teglia was dry and rocky on its ascent and snow-covered on its descent. Water, oil, fuel, even gearboxes and differentials have been donated to competitors by enthusiastic spectators and local residents, whilst on the Morocco Rally of old it was absolutely essential that service be arranged within special stages, because one of these was all of 500 miles long!

However, gradual but relentless changes of regulations have transformed the sport. Nowadays, it’s less of what you can do and more of what you can’t .Rule changes; vastly higher budgets; the transformation of cars from mechanical devices to electronic slaves; all have combined to transform the character of rallying. Servicing became so comprehensive and so efficient that old-fashioned reliability became less and less important. If a part lasted one special stage, it was enough; it could be changed afterwards.

The 1993 rules restricting service opportunities and limiting the number of times certain parts could be changed were designed to reduce costs, but they will no doubt have the effect of increasing reliability. Whether a manufacturer will accept that the price for this is a possible loss of performance remains to be seen, but we welcome the reduction in service opportunities. This facet of rallying had escalated beyond measure and it was about time something was done to place a limit on it. Perhaps the authorities should be made even more restrictive.

During the Swedish Rally Toyota driver Didier Auriol had a serious leak of engine oil and, on a road section where service was banned, he accepted a considerable quantity of oil from a spectator who later turned out to have been a former professional driver. The oil was put into the engine and the car was driven away. Later, the problem became more serious and, when there was no point in continuing, Auriol withdrew.

But the donation of oil by a spectator had been witnessed by a judge of fact and, even before Auriol had pulled out of the rally, notice of his exclusion for illegal servicing had been posted by the organisers.

Servicing was once defined as “planned assistance organised in advance”. Had Auriol’s oil pick-up been so planned? Or was it a fortuitous piece of luck that someone happed to be there with oil available? The first would have been against the rules; the second we think not. But it is extremely difficult to determine which is the case.

This year all 13 rounds of the World Rally Championship qualify for both drivers and makes’ titles. For the past several years, the Swedish Rally has been a round of the drivers’ series only, and the increase in manufacturer interest brought more works teams to Sweden than in recent years.

Toyota had four Celicas for Didier Auriol/ Bernard Occelli, Juha Kankkunen/Juha Piironen, Tomas Jansson/Ingemar Algerstedt and Mats Jonsson/Lars Backman, the latter crew running at number one as they were winners in 1992.

Subaru had originally entered two Legacys for Colin McRae/Derek Ringer and Ari Vatanen/Bruno Berglund, but as Vatanen was unfit due to a back injury his place was taken by Hannu Mikkola.

Ford decided not to send its French and Italian drivers, but nevertheless had three Escort Cosworths in the field for Malcolm Wilson/Brian Thomas, Sebastian Lindholm/ Timo Hantunen and Mikael Ericsson/Tina Thorner. Respectively, the three cars had been prepared in Britain by Malcolm Wilson, Gordon Spooner and Mike Little.

Driving Mitsubishi Galant VR-4s were Stig-Olof Walfridsson/Gunnar Barth, Kenneth Backlund/Tord Andersson and Jarmo Kytolehto/Arto Kapanen .

Driving a new Mazda 323 GT-R, prepared in Belgium by former employees of the now defunct Mazda Rally Team, was Bjorn Johansson, partnered by Anders Olsson. Another new car was the 4wd Opel Calibra, entered by the Opel dealers of Sweden but built by MSD in Britain. This was driven by Stig Blomqvist/Benny Me!ander. In the ’60s, Team Opel Sweden, run by a consortium of dealers, was really the first team to take these German cars rallying with any success and, just as MarshaIls of East Africa pushed Peugeot into the sport, the Swedes caused Rüsselsheim to take notice and form its own factory team.

Alister McRae/David Senior drove a Group N Ford Sierra Cosworth, and Josef ‘Sepp’ Haider/Klaus Wendel a new Audi Coupe S2 prepared by Konrad Schmidt in Germany. Tommi Makinen/Seppo Harjanne drove a Group A Lancia Delta HF integrale entered by Italy’s Astra team, and Per Eklund/Johnny Johansson a Subaru Legacy. Mohammed Bin Sulayem/Ronan Morgan were in a Group N Ford Escort Cosworth.

The Swedish Rally has been a winter event since it moved from the summer some 30 years ago and ceased being called the Rally to the Midnight Sun. Although the Monte-Carlo Rally often has snow on its mountain passes, the Swedish became the only real snow rally of the World Championship. However, even in Sweden winters can be mild and this year there was precious little of the white stuff.

Not only were the special stages barely covered, but the banks formed by snowploughs were non-existent simply because there had been no ploughing. The stage surfaces were mostly of dirt and gravel, with very tricky ice patches abounding. Strangely enough, dust was a problem, sometimes snow powder but sometimes real, honest-to-goodness dust.

Conditions were certainly nothing like those of past years, when temperatures have been as low as -40degC and snow banks as high as eight feet. Snow banks can be comforting. Not only do they offer barriers which prevent cars going off the road into the trees but they provide cornering aids. Bank-bouncing was a technique perfected by Saab drivers in the past when the Trollhattan cars always had hub caps on their wheels to present flat surfaces to the snow and prevent the studs from drilling into the snow. If the latter happened, the car would probably not bounce off the bank but be dragged into it, getting stuck.

As usual, the event was based in Karlstad, with a number of stages in the familiar Varmland region around Torsby and Hagfors, but it also ventured as far to the North-East as Falun and as far to the North-West as Branas, passing quite close to the Norwegian border.

One of the features of the event was the number of times the lead changed hands — no less than eight. But it was really a struggle between four crews, any one of them capable of pulling off a win.

After a short opening stage outside Karlstad, where the surface had been liberally sprayed with water so that ice would form, the first forest stage came at Alvsbacka. It was here that Wilson posted fastest time, but he got no opportunity to continue showing his mettle. On the very next stage two closely-following crests caught him out and he went off the road, damaging his suspension too badly to continue. Johansson was slowed by a puncture and Auriol found himself in a five second lead.

In this area, a light fall of snow had covered the roads. It was certainly not enough to last, but it was enough to give the first few drivers on the road (Jonsson, McRae and Kankkunen, for instance) a distinct disadvantage.

Johansson broke a half shaft, Mikkola experienced loss of hydraulic pressure in his centre differential and Blomqvist had his turbocharger fail. The Swedish Opel driver had to do another stage before the turbocharger could be replaced, but even after this had been done there was little improvement in performance. Much later, the intercooler was changed and this did the trick.

Ericsson, having his first drive for about 10 months, stopped when his clutch broke up. This had the effect of jamming the starter motor, so the second of the three Escorts was out.

Jansson, the nominated Toyota driver who found himself hastily included in FISA’s list of A-seeded drivers to make him amenable to the fuel and component change rules which apply to such drivers, had been experiencing a bad misfire. Eventually, the engine stopped altogether due to some electronic fault and he was out.

Lindholm went off and damaged his track control arm. He carried a spare in the car, but not the correct spanners with which to fit it, so he resorted to the use of a tie-belt and continued. However, he lost much time and dropped to 23rd place.

Alister McRae also had TCA trouble. A bolt snapped, causing a wheel to drop out of line and sending the car off the road. They managed to get to the end of the stage, but later, when McRae and Senior were themselves changing the TCA, a judge of fact heard instructions being given to them by a mechanic and saw the mechanic’s vehicle in a no-service area. The result was exclusion for the Sierra driver.

Bin Sulayem, another Group N Sierra driver, was having his first experience of snow, although there was precious little of it. He didn’t have much time to savour it because he also stopped in this first part of the rally, his gearbox broken.

Colin McRae was putting up a stirring performance despite having to hold the lever in place each time he chose fourth gear. Mikkola lost some time due to an electronics-induced misfire and later had to disconnect his heater because leaking anti-freeze was dripping on to the electronic engine control box. He endured spartan conditions for a while.

On the ninth stage of the the rally, the first after a 45-minute regrouping stop, Auriol had a wheel come off, sending his Toyota off the road. Spectators were convinced he had no hope and were not inclined to help him, but he finally persuaded them and he got to the end of the stage on three wheels. He lost a few minutes and dropped to fourth place.

At the end of the leg it was McRae who was leading, 17s ahead of Kankkunen. Jonsson followed after another 51s and Auriol after another 43. Another minute behind was Makinen in his Astra Team Lancia.

The first stage of the second day brought quite a shock, especially to McRae. Auriol was fastest, but the Scot suddenly found that his lead had jumped from 17s to 1m 42s. It was hardly credible, but the reason was simple. Kankkunen, Jonsson and Makinen all had punctures. Blomqvist also punctured on the somewhat rocky stage.

McRae’s lead was short-lived, alas. On the next stage he broke a front half-shaft which in turn damaged his brakes and made them ineffective. He lost two minutes, whilst Kankkunen also lost time being held up in McRae’s snow dust. The effect was to elevate Auriol to the lead.

The fourth stage of the day was the rally’s longest, more than 26 miles of it. McRae was fastest here, but Auriol was only 4s behind him. Mikkola did much of the stage with just rear-wheel drive after a small clip broke in the gearbox, allowing a half-shaft to become disconnected.

Later, misfortunes continued when Auriol collected a puncture and McRae was slowed by a mysterious electronic failure later traced to a broken sensor wire. At the end of the leg, it was Kankkunen who held the lead, 5s ahead of Jansson. McRae followed, another 15s behind and only 8s ahead of Auriol. These four were very close indeed, and Makinen was 1m 55s behind Auriol.

Meanwhile, Lindholm, driving the last of the three Escort Cosworths of the nominated team, had stopped when his engine blew up. Eklund had a water hose burst but contained the overheating by dropping the temperature of fuel being injected into the engine.

At Karlstad after the second day, much servicing was done, both preventive and essential. The Toyotas of Kankkunen and Jonsson had their cylinder head gaskets replaced. Blomqvist also arrived with a blown gasket (he said he had smelt it before its effects became apparent), and did not restart the next day.

Auriol’s trouble on the third day began at the moment he started the engine. An oil pump gasket failed and the result was a serious leak. He managed to get through the first stage but was in trouble on the following road section when the pressure became dangerously low. He had no spare oil and service was not allowed in that section. This is when he was given cans of oil and was spotted by a judge of fact, leading to the incidents we recounted in the opening paragraphs.

McRae, now without any fourth gear at all, coped famously with the handicap and set best time on the opening stage, but on the next he hit something hard in a small snowbank and broke a front wheel.

When Mikkola had arrived at service the previous evening, an unusual noise was detected in the engine and it was felt that this came from the valve mechanism. Nothing could be done about this at the time, and it was with crossed fingers that he restarted. However, on the second stage of the day his engine packed up altogether.

With Auriol out of the way, there was no thought of a last minute dash to victory a la Monte-Carlo, but things were nevertheless close between Kankkunen, Jonsson and McRae. It was another light fall of snow which may have settled the issue. Running first on the road, Kankkunen had the disadvantage and Jansson got ahead of him.

On the last stage of the rally, McRae, still without fourth gear, made his final push but went off the road and damaged his intercooler. He had to be content with third place, but his performance was nonetheless creditable. It can’t be long before this young Scot begins heading for the top of the World Championship table.

Jonsson won for the second year in succession, doing so by just 13s from his team-mate Kankkunen. McRae finished only another 15s behind. It was a very close finish indeed, resulting from a well-matched contest that lasted for the entire event.

Rules for the World Championship now declare that, for points to be awarded to any make, its official team must have nominated its drivers well in advance of each event it intends to enter. Thus if a Ford wins a rally and its driver has not been nominated, no points are awarded to Ford. We feel this is wrong. If a private driver does well enough to get his car into a pointsscoring position, surely the maker of the car should also get credit?

It is for this reason that, despite the fact that Makinen got his Lancia into fourth place, no points are awared to the marque in the Championship. Similarly, Mazda, Audi and Opel get nothing.