The mechanical soft-touch isn’t always best, says David Williams; sometimes brutality has the edge
Suppose Freddy Loix hadn’t had the puncture, what then? Rui Madeira looked thoughtful. It would, he agreed, have been difficult. He had led the Rally of Portugal from the fourth of the 33 stages, and now, with the second lap of Arganil and four further stages to go, victory was very definitely in sight. Of course it would be a great occasion: no Portuguese had won the event for 10 years and, assuming he kept the GALP Toyota on the road, he would become only the third Portuguese driver to win the event since it joined the first division (the European Championship in those days) in 1970. Granted, none of the acknowledged aces had taken part, because the rally counted only for the Two-Litre (two-wheel drive) World Championship this year, but a win is a win.
Yet Madeira knew that how he won was almost as important as the victory itself. Like his Grifone Toyota team-mate, he is seeking to make the grade, to move on from junior categories to works machinery and the big time. Winning in the absence of Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz might spur Portuguese companies into sponsoring him, but if he was to impress team managers, he needed to win well and Loix had set 22 fastest stage times to his six.
In a sense, Loix’s puncture had been the worst thing that could have happened to Madeira. Beating fellow countrymen such as Fernando Peres and Jorge Miguel had scarcely taxed him, while Ari Mokkonen (the third rising star seeking to make an impression) was desperately keen to erase his reputation as a crasher and drove too cautiously to be a threat. He crashed his MLP-tuned, Ford-backed Escort Cosworth nevertheless, at the start of the final leg.
Accordingly, Madeira had been able to keep something in hand. This was a no-sweat performance, much like winning the Group N world title in 1995, in which he hadn’t explored the limits of his works-type Celica GT-Four. By Arganil. the Portuguese explained that he had learnt more about the car, that he was sliding it with more confidence but he still felt that Loix’s background, driving a front-wheel drive Group A car, had been a better preparation than his own in much more standard Group N Fords and Mitsubishis, even though they had given him more experience of four-wheel drive.
“The car is fantastic very strong. For me, the big difference to learn is the gearbox,” he explained. His only previous experience of Group A had been a Citroen AX, and even that hadn’t been ideal preparation for the bullet-proof, nonsynchromesh Xtrac gearbox fitted to the Celica. It had nothing in common with the kid-glove technique demanded for the overstressed synchromesh transmission of a Group N Cosworth or Lancer.
“It is very difficult car, the Formula Two car I remember two years in the Citroen AX in the trophy. I think in the Group A, it is very different to go the corners. In the Group N, it is very soft. In the Group A, you must be hard.”
He had also found that his pace notes needed slowing down, the extra 50bhp provided in Group A more than compensating for the extra grip.
For speed, Loix had clearly had the upper hand. He had the advantage of an extra rally in a Celica, having finished second in the snow of the Boucles de Spa in Belgium a fortnight previously, whereas Madeira had had to make do with one and a half days’ testing. He had extra tyres too. FIA-seeded drivers like Madeira are only allowed to carry one spare wheel in the car on World Championship rounds this year, which is quite a handicap when service is limited. While Loix could fit new front tyres for the last stage of each group between service areas, Madeira could only swap front to rear and initially picked a harder compound to be on the safe side, further reducing grip. However. Loix had also graduated from the alternative route to the top: a front-wheel drive, Formula Two car. In most conditions, the Astra GSi he has driven for the past three years would be slower than Madeira’s old Lancer. However, it was prepared to Group A rather than Group N tune which, put bluntly, allows the driver to ring its neck. Most of the best front-wheel drive cars even the Astra are still a trifle vulnerable to mechanical failure on World Championship events, but the Astra has an Xtrac gearbox, and slamming gears in and out, with or without the clutch, is second nature to Loix.
Freddy’s problem had been different. The extra traction was a welcome development, naturally; the extra 300kg were not. The weight made the Toyota more likely to slide on corners and its braking was less good downhill. He sees his greatest obstacle as gaining experience of the rallies and making accurate pace notes quickly, rather than learning how to drive the car.
The times told one story, the result another. Loix had been 12 seconds in the lead when he clouted a rock with sufficient force to destroy a Michelin and break the right-rear wheel. He lost three minutes stopping and changing the tyre, and spent the rest of the rally balancing the need to finish to gain experience against salvaging the best possible result.
He had clawed his way back to third by the last morning and began to reel in Peres at a rate of knots until the Portuguese Champion’s Escort snapped its cambelt, handing the Belgian second place on a plate. Loix had set the times, but Madeira had got the result. On that basis, the softly-softly Group N approach had paid off handsomely. Talent rather than background will tell eventually, but in the meantime, Loix’s years of thrashing an Astra within an inch of its life are likely to give him the upper hand against a man who has spent a similar period preserving the fragile, production-class alternative.
If F2 is to mean anything as a World Championship category, it should be a nursery for stars of the future, which it certainly wasn’t in Portugal. The local men were visibly ill at ease on loose surfaces, as the vast majority of Portuguese rallies take place on asphalt. Neither Jesus Puras, the F2 winner, nor his Seat team-mate Erwin Weber were much better. A 90bhp power advantage told in the end but after being pressed to the limit by the ably driven Skodas of Emil Triner and Havel Sibera, Seat management is entitled to wonder if it picked the right drivers for its 1996 World Championship Campaign.