Bo Hellberg: rallying Diplomat
Reason, sweet reason: we have recently been fortunate enough to meet the man who personifies the objective view in motorsport. Just as Sweden is known for its neutral stance, Saab Competitions Director Bosse "Bo" Hellberg seems to be the only one of the manufacturers' representatives from whom one can get an almost impartial report of the latest controversy. Naturally Bo is still conscious of his responsibilities toward Saab, but his election as the representative of the manufacturers on the CSI's sporting subcommittee that deals with off-road matters tends to reinforce the view that Hellberg is a skilled diplomat with the long-term interests of international tallying at heart.
Born in Stockholm in 1932; Hellberg was brought up in a rallying atsmosphere through his father's participation. Even while at the local high school he had begun to co-drive with a school friend, usually borrowing father's cars, which were neatly assessed as, "many types, including an A40 and even a Packard Clipper: it wasn't possible to bring them back in the same shape as they started very often!" From school he went on to study electrical engineering, a subject that became somewhat neglected by the young Hellberg in the heat of more and More rallying, though he was still good enough to be offered an extremely attractive employment within IBM, later in life.
The application to co-driving started to show real results pretty quickly in a VW, as Hellberg recalls, "a friend of my father's did the driving and I think it's fair to remember that we would have been Swedish Champions in 1952 ... but they didn't -start the series until the following year."
By the time he was 20, Hellberg's quiet organisational talent had spread from the codriving perch to the substantial responsibility of the KAK Swedish Rally, the international on which he had himself finished third when co,driving. From the Swedish he spread his wings further with annual involvements to organise both the Rally tO the Midnight Sun and the Mobil Economy event. This, and employment within both Scania Vabis and Mobil took Hellberg through the 1950s, but in 1962 he had to choose between electronic engineering at IBM, or an offer from Saab to take over and develop the role of their competitions department.
For the first two years Hellberg. reported to engineering chief Rolfe Melde, then in 1964 Competitions was transferred to act as part of the public relations division. Ho says you can judge how much he wanted to work for Saab because, "I asked my wife first, because really all 1 %vas doing was to follow my hobby as 2 job!"
Nowadays the Saab Competitions centre is described by llellberg as "a separate unit, something of an island: sometimes this is .good and others bad. especially when We may need help from within the company".
Turning to the topics that currently occupy much of his time in CSI conversations, we asked how Hellberg felt regarding the 1976 regulations that have effectively re-defined the modified Group 2 saloon cars and outlawed the use of specially homologated items such as four-valve cylinder heads . . . Saab having been literally the last of the major makers to homologate a special 16-valve Cylinder head, late last year.
"At first I was not in favour of the new regulations, but I am changing my mind a little now. Over 30 manufacturers have homologated such cylinder heads (only the RS1800 Ford Escort and Dolomite Sprint come to mind as being available for public sale with four-valve per cylinder heads and they are eligible for 1976 Gp 2) and that is an awful lot of engineering money spent all over the world. Thinking of this, I suppose it was right that the CSI over-ruled all our advice (from the interested manufacturers) and permitted such cars to run in International competition within Group 4 whilet-ey h develop new equipment for the new Group 2. In my opinion all those %.% ho have homologated these parts should be allowed to carry on for longer than just 1977: it's such a waste of engineering and money, and the cars are very entertaining in speed and variety, where for the 1976 Group 2 rules there are really only the 16-valve production cars that can be competitive.
"It must be possible to find some regulations that look after all those who have done their development work, and newcomers, so that competition is at less cost. The object must be to get more cars on an equal footing and an interesting choice or different cars that could win."
This brought us naturally to the .subject of Sweden's own national rally championship, which now puts just those sort of ideals into practice. The subject is more fully discussed in our Saab Colour feature this month, but what they have done in Sweden is provide two basic classes for their interpretation of FIA Group 1, the cars divided by their power to weight ratio: aside from performance equality the Swedish system also allows body and braking modifications that allow improved safety and durability. It's not cheap rallying but the sheer variety of cars is exceptional, especially when compared with the phalanx of Ford Escorts that dominate our own rallying outlook from treasure hunt to international level.
We asked if Hellberg had tried to interest other overseas organisers to try the Swedish system ? "Well I have talked about it at CSI meetings of sporting manufacturers, but I don't think you can really understand our formula unless you see it."
Naturally the view of the mass producers of popular saloons tend to conflict with those of Alpine-Renault and Lancia, so I asked what Hellberg felt the future held for vehicles such as the Stratos ?
"If you look at the entry list for an international rally, even, there are not many of these cars used: really it's just for the works. For most car makers the interest is in the cars we make and I think it's not quite fair that a special aerodynamic 2-seater with a light body should compete against us on equal terms."
Following on from this question is the possibility that rallying may, before the 1980s are reality, have to be confined to cars of a comparatively unmodified nature: i.e. Groups I and 3. "OK, one day we may have to do this, but when that day comes, something like the Stratos will probably be totally illegal everywhere.
"The major problem is noise, not power. You need a caravan towed behind full of silencers to get some of today's cars within the proposed legal limits for future rallies. In Sweden, because of exhaust emission and noise regulations you have very thorough checks of modified cars: in practice the cars now have to be pre-1975 if they are to enter in the modified class, owing to the exhaust regulations. This means that class will gradually die out, but I think this is the best way rather than just suddenly crying stop!"
Another thorny problem at present concerns the proposal, since adopted by the CSI with exemption clause for organisers who wish to opt out, that all World Championship Rallies should have practice facilities beforehand. The RAC was specifically excluded, and other organisers could apply for release from this obligation. What were Hellberg's feelings, "I am against all practice. Rallying is more sporting, and cheaper, without practice." It is popularly believed amongst the senior rallying folk that this proposal emerged from some of Lancia's misfortunes on un-practised events, and it certainly seems that the Scandinavians and British are largely in favour of unpractised events with the French and Italians a lot more used to pace notes. Hellberg continued, "If drivers really want to find out a route, they will. Usually it is only the middle class of driver, not the top men who try and do this, and although it's not fair, it's difficult to stop. I think official practice for a rally is bad too: I shouldn't like to live on a rally route, and the continuous practice can be bad for the sport."
I wondered if the Scandinavians thought the British used notes culled from their participation in our RAC Rally Championship to boost their chances? Speaking for himself and Saab Hellberg said, "I don't think the English practise the stages beforehand, but they are often used in other events and so they have some experience. That's OK, we have the same in Sweden, though I must say I think rallying is easier here because we have more suitable space and it's cheaper to use."
I asked about his attitude to sponsorship, as the Saab team in rally trim seem to run very much as serious factory cars without outside assistance. Hellberg replied, "I don't really know why, but we don't have any really big sponsors in Sweden, though the rallycross cars are helped by sources outside motoring in Holland.
"I think cigarette advertising will soon be restricted in Sweden, so we have not explored that possibility. In general we have sat and waited for people to come to us, not gone out and looked for extra money. If we were going to have sponsorship, it would have to be for a season, because special jackets and paint are too much bother for just one event: it's much better for everybody if the link between companies can be firmly established over a period. I think sponsorship has done good for motorsport, though it would have been better sport without commercial interests: now costs arc o much higher, nobody can do without some type of sponsorship."
Looking back over the last 15 years connected with rallying we asked Hellberg how he thought the sport had developed ? "Oh, before it was much more sporty, it's too professional now for it's impossible, almost, for privateers to win the big events. That's a pity because every new winner makes the sport more interesting."—J.W.