King Francios the First - Rally of Portugal

It is a common belief that the Ford Escort came after the Ford Cortina, but this is a misconception. There was a Ford Escort made in the '50s, a kind of estate car, sister to the Squire and based on the Prefect of the time. It was never rallied by the factory. at least, not that I recall, but it did make many appearances in club events.

But it is the later Escort, the one which at first had rectangular headlights, which is the best known. In its halcyon days as the car used by the Ford works team, when differentials were entirely mechanical devices, electronics were gadgets which made radios work and chips were things eaten from bags wrapped in newspaper, it fought many memorable battles: those between Ford and Fiat, for instance. The car enjoyed success after success at every level and in all manner of events, even on the World Cup Rally from London to Mexico.

For the past five years, Ford's presence in rallying has been little more than a token. True that the Sierra has been used with aplomb, but it was no more than a stop-gap whilst much work went on behind the scenes to develop the four-wheel-drive Escort Cosworth as Ford's car for the World Rally Championship and other series.

On its first appearance in Monte-Carlo this year it performed magnificently, leading for most of the way in Francois Delecour's hands and only being pipped at the post by a startling final sprint by Toyota's Didier Auriol. In Sweden it barely had chance to shine at all, but in the Portuguese Rally it scored its first World Championship victory. Indeed, it was Ford's first such win for five years, and the post-rally celebrations certainly reflected that.

What is more, it was Delecour's first ever outright win on a rally of any kind, Hitherto, he had not even won a club rally in his native France.

The Portuguese Rally dates back to 1964 when it began as a competition for employees of the country's airline. It soon became international and, like the Monte-Carlo Rally, had starting points in various European cities, including London. There was no roadbook in those days and the only navigation data supplied by the organisers was based on the numbers displayed on roadside kilometre stones. For privateers who had not practised, finding the way was a nightmare.

It's vastly different nowadays, of course, and the event fits the standard FISA pattern for the world series. Spectator interest continues to be at a huge level and although the watchers no longer throng the stage roads themselves, they still get very close indeed. Even after the disaster of 1986, when works crews withdrew on the first day after a car left the road and ploughed into the crowd, killing several people, crowds are still so big that competitors are acutely conscious of the potential hazards. A spectator was knocked down this year when a car overshot a corner, but fortunately there was no serious injury.

Starting and finishing near Cascais, the route, containing 38 special stages, was divided into four legs by two night stops at Povoa de Varzim, on the coast just north of Porto, and one at Viseu. But there was nevertheless plenty of night running.

The event retains its mix of stages on both tarmac and dirt, which means that competing teams - professionals at least - have to bring suspensions, transmissions, tyres and various other commodities to suit both surfaces, all adding to the expense. Costs are further increased by a special stage layout which does not really lend itself to economical service planning.

Notwithstanding restrictions on service opportunities, it takes an extensive fleet of service vehicles to cover the route properly, even without taking 'undercover' operations into account. No doubt the latter will continue to take place. regardless of the rules, as they have since unmarked cars, some with folding bicycles in their boots, used to prowl the no-go areas of past RAC rallies.

One way to reduce servicing costs dramatically would be to forbid the carriage by helicopter of engineers, spare parts, tools, fuel etc. I am very much in favour of helicopter usage, but on rallies the use of these machines should be restricted to (perhaps) team supervision and (certainly) emergency medical assistance.

Having entered four cars in Sweden and then opted for the opposite extreme by sending its team to Kenya, Toyota decided to give the Portuguese Rally a miss. Nevertheless there was plenty of competition in Portugal, no less than four teams each nominating two crews for the championship.

Ford's two Escort Cosworths were driven by Francois Delecour/Daniel Grataloup and Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero, whilst the two Prodrive-prepared Subaru Legacys were in the hands of Colin McRae/Derek Ringer and Markku Alen/lIkka Kivimaki. Prodrive's boss is former co-driver David Richards.

Another Japanese make to run most of its rallying operations through a British company is Mitsubishi, under the name Ralliart, and this too has a former competitor at its head - ex-driver Andrew Cowan. Two Lancer Evolutions were entered, for Armin Schwarz/Nicky Grist and Kenneth Eriksson/ Staffan Parmander. Finally, two works Lancia integrales were entered by the Jolly Club for Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya and Andrea Aghini/Sauro Farnocchia.

A team not nominated for World Championship points was that of Skoda, which entered two Favorit 136Ls for Pavel Sibera/ Petr Gross and Emil Triner/liri Klima. Another was Opel Team Belgium which had an Astra GS, (built at Britain's MSD) for Bruno Thiry/Stephane Prevot.

The Italian Astra team had two Lancia Delta integrales for Alessandro Fiorio/ Vittorio Brambilla and Jorge Recalde/Martin Christie, whilst local crew Jorge Bica/ Joaquim Capelo drove a similar car. French ladies Christine Driano and Christine LaIIement drove a Citroen AX Sport, not the AX GTI originally entered.

The name de Mevius did not appear among the Group N contingent, but the group was well contested nevertheless. Winners of the category were Alessandro Fassina/Luigi Pirollo in their Mazda Familia GT-R. Mohammed Bin Sulayem stopped when a track control arm pin snapped on his Escort Cosworth; Carlos Menem when the turbocharger of his Top Run Delta gave up; Hiroshi Nishiyama when he crashed his Nissan Sunny GTi-R.

Subaru's dramas began the day before the start when a local pilot neglected to set his car's handbrake at Cascais airfield. It then rolled slowly down a slight slope and crashed into the team's helicopter. Fortunately, the damage was just cosmetic.

The first leg began at 7.30 am on the Wednesday and Alen broke a rear halfshaft on the very first stage, just after leaving the line. Recalde stopped on the next when his engine blew up, whilst Schwarz came to the end on three wheels, having lost his left rear. Despite intercom failure and a broken alternator belt, Delecour set best times on the first three stages. McRae broke a rear halfshaft as he was leaving a service point, practising stage-start techniques, and had to put up with fwd only for a while as there was no time for repair.

Delecour lost his lead to Biasion (by 3s) when he punctured on stage four, but regained it for the same reason on the next. McRae had the misfortune to have both his front tyres burst, dropping to 13th place. Punctures were as prevalent as sausage flies during the Kenyan rains. Sainz did about 10 miles on a flat, and the most common items of take-home litter in Portugal that week were shredded tyres and broken wheels.

The servicing restrictions meant that crews could not get new tyres in some places where they needed them, so a common sight was a car stopping and its crew getting out to swap tyres front to back. Perhaps tyre companies should now start thinking about old-fashioned reliability, not just about short-term performance. Shades of SP44 Weatherrnasters and the like!

Before a two-hour stop at Arganil, Biasion collected another puncture whilst Alen had a front brake disc crack. After the stop, McRae spent nearly half a minute in a ditch, but the biggest disruption of this leg came after the first stage following the rest stop.

The FISA technical delegate had set up a check-point for taking fuel samples from the works cars at the start of the leg's second stage. This is a recognised procedure, for which tap-off valves must be fitted to the cars, but the places where the samples are taken are not disclosed in advance.

When fuel was taken from Delecour's car, for some reason the valve could not be closed properly afterwards. The result was a boot awash with petrol and a considerable quantity on the ground. Almost overcome by fumes and with the back of his car soaked in fuel, the Frenchman was understandably reluctant to start the stage, and he made this very clear. Gabriele Cadringher, FISA's technical man, instructed Delecour to summon mechanics to fix the problem, but as it it was a 'no service' area, this could not be done very quickly.

Some half an hour passed, during which tempers began to fray, among competitors, team managers and spectators. Eventually, a Ford service car arrived (remember that this was a place where they were not allowed) and the leak was stopped. But several competitors objected to having to start the stage after degrading their tyres by driving through a pool of petrol. They were quite right, although it's difficult to resolve the on-the-spot blame apportionment which went on. Some people blamed FISA for setting up the test in a no-service area: others, the Jolly Club (Lancia) team manager in particular, blamed Ford for not ensuring that its fuel take-off valve was foolproof (my word, not theirs!).

The stage was eventually tackled as a road section, a subsequent stewards' meeting deciding that, rather than halted cars being given the times of the slowest car, the entire stage should be scrubbed, and the times of the three cars to complete it ignored. The decision was not to everyone's liking (Lancia in particular), but I cannot think of any fairer outcome of a spontaneous FISA check which went wrong in its early stages.

No matter who may be blamed or attempted to be blamed, it is a well established principle of law that a perpetrator (instigator) should be held responsible for the consequences of his own acts, and in this case it was most certainly FISA, not Ford, who lit the fuse, although FISA seemed to try to wriggle off the hook, helped by comments from the Jolly Club team manager who felt that Ford should have have made better facilities for FISA's petrol sampling.

Among spectators, tempers were even more frayed. Stones, pieces of wood, bottles and cans were all thrown on to the road and at cars, and the situation became decidedly delicate. Rubble of all kinds was strewn over the road, but cars struggled through and the rally eventually resumed its tempo, albeit somewhat delayed.

On the last stage of the leg another hiccough took place. Sainz was lined up for the start when he saw a course car enter the stage, only a minute ahead of his own due start time. Naturally, he objected to starting so close behind a course car. The first action was a radio instruction to the course car to stop and pull over, but very soon afterwards, presumably when someone had thought of the possible consequences of running an unchecked stage, its driver was instructed to continue.

Another delay ensued, and the first car did not arrive at Povoa de Varzim until 1.40 am. Delecour was then leading by 38s from Aghini, with Sainz just another two seconds behind and Biasion another three. Fiorio followed, another 1m 41s behind.

Soon after the morning restart, Mitsubishi lost one of its cars when Schwarz crashed head-on into the wall of a house. It happened on the way to the first stage, the result of some component failure, it seems. Happily, neither driver nor co-driver was hurt, but the car could not continue.

On the second stage of the day, Biasion landed very heavily after a jump and broke his radiator. He also injured his back, causing him pain and discomfort for the remainder of the rally. McRae spun on this stage but then made a succession of best times despite losing his power steering towards the end of the leg. Eriksson, after hearing a disturbing noise in his gearbox, found it difficult to select gears. Before the end of the leg he lost fifth gear altogether.

A spin by Sainz allowed Biasion to move up to third place. The latter was still experiencing a water leak after his radiator change, and this persisted even after a long, probing service stop to tighten an inaccessible hose joint. Even at the end of the leg, after the loop which started and finished at Povoa, his engine was still running hot and his back was still causing pain, but he had nevertheless got up to second place, 43s behind team-mate Delecour. Sainz was another 27s behind, whilst Aghini was just one more second back. Fiorio followed in fifth place, leading the surviving Mitsubishi, which was given a new gearbox at Povoa, and the two Subarus.

Two stages into the third leg Lancia lost one of its cars when Sainz landed on his nose after a jump and rolled end over end. The car was destroyed, but the two Spaniards were miraculously unhurt. This put the Jolly Club on the defensive. To allow Aghini to attack would be to risk losing all Lancia's championship points, so the instruction was that he should finish.

McRae bent a rear strut against a rock and later damaged a front one when he ran over a tree stump, whilst Biasion continued to lose water and was topping up at every opportunity. Nevertheless, the Italian was driving at 100 per cent, explaining afterwards that his object had not been to catch his teammate but to increase his lead over Aghini. After the last stage of the leg, a misfire in Delecour's car was put right by changing a spark plug.

The leg ended at Viseu, where Delecour led his team-mate by 36s and Aghini followed after another 1m 17s. Alen had got ahead of Fiorio into fourth place, but only by 32s.

There was talk that evening that Ford might have given orders to its two leading drivers. Team manager Dobinson said that he had told both to "drive safely" and we can safely assume that this meant that they should hold station and not fight each other.

The final leg began at 4.30 am. At every opportunity, Ford mechanics were checking Biasion's overheating engine and the team doctor his painful back. The radiator was being topped up regularly and the fan system was modified so that it would run at maximum efficiency all the time.

Delecour had a worrying stage when his low charge warning light came on, but this was soon rectified and the Frenchman continued at unabated pace. Aghini, having been told to drive to finish, nevertheless repassed Alen into third place, whilst the fight between Eriksson and Florio was resolved when the former finished 40s ahead of the latter.

Subaru's dramas continued when McRae rolled and lost some seven minutes before his car could be pushed back to the road. He lost more time on the road but still managed to finish seventh.

To say that the Ford team was jubilant would be to make a severe understatement.

Boreham was back with a winning car and with men who could drive it properly and men who could fettle it. Delecour jumped to the lead of the World Championship, eight points ahead of Biasion, whilst Ford moved up to second place, just three points behind Toyota. Among the two-wheel-drive cars, the Opel Astra of Bruno Thiry was best placed, finishing 10, nearly six minutes ahead of Pavel Sibera's Skoda.

Next round of the World Championship is the Safari Rally over the Easter weekend, but Ford is not planning to send its team there.