If a bookmaker had to give odds on the runners in the RAC Rally, the Monte Carlo Rally or the Thousand Lakes, he would hardly be likely to place among the favourites anyone driving a Peugeot 504, for such cars are far too big and heavy to he anything like as competitive as the smaller, lighter and far more agile cars which regularly achieve success in the faster, smoother rallies. But in really rough country strength becomes more important than anything else and in the continent of Africa the durability of the big French cars has become a by-word.
In the days when Peugeot’s Safari activities were confined to the splendid efforts of MarshaIls of East Africa, 404 saloons were regularly among the winners. More recently the factory itself has become involved and were this year rewarded by an outright win on the Safari with a 504. In June, the make scored its second World Championship win of the year when Hannu Mikkola and Jean Todt led 15 finishers into Casablanca’s main square at the end of a tough Morocco Rally.
The tracks through the dry, dusty, rocky deserts of Southern Morocco are indescribably rough, passing over countless dry river beds each amply scattered with huge boulders. When such terrain as this has to be crossed against the tick of a clock, discretion has to prevail and one always has to remember that survival is far more important than sheer speed. It’s no good driving at camel’s pace, of course; an optimum speed must be found so that the car is not broken, fairly quick progress is maintained and those behind do not get within striking distance of overtaking and sending back their dust clouds.
The Morocco Rally has always been noted for its long special stages. This year the organisers linked a number of familiar ones together to create one enormous stage almost 800 kilometres long. No car could complete that sort of distance without service, even if only for refuelling and changing tyres, so both professionals and amateurs alike set up service points within that long stage, mostly at the oasis settlements of Tata, Foum Zguid and Zagora.
The Safari has no special stages, the whole thing being run on an open-road basis with timing only to the minute. In Morocco, the organisers ran their event almost in the same style, for they timed the special stages only in minutes, using seconds only for the first special stage which was used to determine the running order thereafter. In effect, the remaining eight stages became very similar to a “road” event, which of course is simpler to run and involves simpler results calculation.
Distances are so great, and the road network so sparse, that servicing is by no means easy. Aircraft have been used in the past to supplement ground vehicles, but airstrips are nothing like as numerous as they are in Kenya so the work of an aircraft is largely one of an airborne radio relay station, ensuring that messages can get from car to car without being blacked-out by the Atlas Mountains. This year the only team to have an aircraft was Fiat. Both Peugeot and Opel had radios in their cars but found themselves severely restricted without a high relay station. Fiat even went one better by renting a helicopter from the Moroccan Gendarmerie, packing it with as many spares, wheels and fuel cans as it could carry, installing two Turin mechanics and flying it along the route of each special stage. Although a costly exercise, it was most efficient and the Fiat drivers knew that they would have instant service wherever they needed it. Alas, the helicopter’s range was limited and when trouble started the machine was either away being refuelled or grounded at night.
Not one of the three works Fiat Abarths finished the event, Darniche retiring early when his engine flooded in a water crossing and both Waldegård and Alén stopping in the desert, their cars broken on rough boulder crossings. Two works Opel Asconas were even less fortunate, Aaltonen having blown a cylinder head gasket and Röhrl having had his second replacement suspension break beneath him.
There was no team from Citroen, as there has been in past years, but two Paris-registered DS23s were in the hands of Ponnelle and Deschazeaux. The latter driver, a veteran who lives in Morocco, is a wily master of finding little short-cuts in the desert, but his cunning could only get him to fourth place this time after he had been delayed by a broken radiator—a problem which he overcame by pouring red pepper powder through the filler.
In the early stages the Fiats held the lead, but when they fell by the wayside it was Makinen’s Peugeot which took over. But when the Finn looked all set to win he suffered a broken driveshaft on the very last stage, dropping to fifth and allowing teammate Mikkola into first place.
The Peugeot jubilation at the finish bordered the emotional, for the team had won not only the Safari and the Morocco Rally, but the Bandanta Rally as well, the non-championship event in the Ivory Coast which is regarded as very important in France. The two championship wins were those of which Peugeot had the greatest chances, but it is not likely that the make will be able to improve its championship position significantly in the events which are to come, for they aren’t really of a type which favours the 504. However, the team achieved what it set out to do, and that is reward in itself.—G.P.
Announced in July were a few changes to the RAC Rally of Great Britain which takes place between November 22nd and 26th this year. Sponsored again by Lombard North Central, the rally will keep its forest style— any changes there would be unthinkable—but its timetable will be revised so that the whole of the Saturday will be taken up by stages in the Yorkshire forests before returning to York for a night stop. On the Sunday morning will begin the journey southwards when, for the first time in many years, the route will penetrate into the West Country. The return trip to York will be via Wales and, after a second stop during the Monday night, the final leg will take in the North-West, the South of Scotland and those notorious north-eastern stages in Kielder Forest. The field will return to York on the Wednesday morning and presentations will take place later that day.—G.P.