Rally review - The Morocco Rally

Stab a pin into a list of European rallies and the chances are that you'll pick one which is little more than one series of short sprints after another, making up a reasonable total distance but with considerably more time spent switched off than switched on. There are exceptions, of course, but these are usually in countries of low traffic and population density, and perhaps where a certain amount of volatility in the national character is not subdued by the wearing of a uniform of officialdom. Generalisations are usually pretty meaningless, but this one tends to hold good whether the competitive action is on tarmac, gravel or honest-to-goodness dirt.

Outside Europe things are different, except in other countries where the advance of civilisation has produced over-emphasised safety phobias and crops of stunting regulations which strangle society just as surely as weeds overpower the most attractive blooms.

Happily, there are places without any of these difficulties, unfettered by too many restricting rules and not too badly scarred by those ribbons of spoil-sport tarmac. Kenya is a prime example, for there they still run even the Safari as a road event without the need for special stages. Another is Morocco, where the heat, the dust, the rocks, the endless pounding and the seemingly interminable special stages go together to form an endurance rally of the most physically and mechanically

fatiguing kind. It has just nine special stages, but one of them alone runs for some 500 miles, far more than the entire stage distance of last year's RAC Rally.

Unlike sprint rallies with short stages, where a lost second can be vital and a puncture a near-disaster, the Morocco Rally has its accent more on reliability than anything else, and that applies to competitors as well as cars. It's not exactly a hare and a tortoise job, and power cannot be lightly sacrificed, but tenacity of man and strength of machine are the two factors which count the most, this being borne out by results over a number of years.

This year there were some very fleet machines taking part, including two works Escorts, three of the new Fiat 131 Abarths which surprised everyone by their performance and reliability, and even a lone Lancia Stratos from the factory. But it was a bigger, heavier and less powerful Peugeot 504 which finally headed the cavalcade into the Massively crowded city centre of Casablanca on the Saturday evening. Jean-Pierre Nicolas, a former contracted driver for the old Alpine Renault team, is equally at home on twisty, tarmac roads in the Alps and on long, demanding, rough stuff where stamina counts more than speed. He has twice before won the Morocco Rally and the Peugeot people knew what they were doing when they signed him up for first the Safari and now the Morocco Rally, two of the few events (they only appear at rough endurance rallies) which they tackle each year.

The tenacious little Marseillais, who loves rugby as much as rallying and whose effervescent humour has produced some memorable pranks, emerged a very popular winner, having had no more trouble than three punctures. His co-driver was former Alfa Romeo Privateer Michel Gamer. Second place went to Simo Lampinen and Atso Aho in another works Peugeot 504, again with troubles no more serious than punctures and a cracked distributor cap.

Third place went to Sandro Munari and Silvio Maiga in the single Lancia Stratus entered by the factory. Theirs was no real attempt to win, but a means of picking up a few more World Championship points to compensate for those not gained in Kenya and Greece. Their main rivals in the series are the Opels and it was a blow to them in Greece when a good place by a privateer added a few unexpected points to the Germans' total. Munari drove fast enough to be up there among the leading runners when faster driven cars fell out, but carefully enough to avoid any seriously delaying breakages. It was a -disciplined effort backed by tactical use of far fewer service vehicles than usually accompany the team, although on such occasions Fiat and Lancia make reciprocal use of each other's facilities in cases of emergency. Lancia's lead over Opel is now back up to 20 points and the remaining rounds in Finland. Italy, Corsica and Britain are likely to see them keeping that lead.

The works Escorts from Boreham, on their first team visit to the Morocco Rally, began reasonably well, hut fell out when Roger Clark's car bad a camshaft seize up after much overheating and loss of water, and Timo Makinen's when an inlet valve stuck open. Maldnen's car was on its fourth gearbox when it went out, the small bearing at the rear end of the crankshaft, into which is located the forward end of the gearbox primary shaft, broke up and the massive vibration of the shaft caused gearbox failure three times.

The three Fiats started amazingly well, even taking first, second and third best times on the first test. Verini retired early with a broken half-shaft but Bacchelli and Alen stayed in first and second places until suspension failure on the long (500-mile) stage across the arid, rocky wastes on the edge of the Sahara delayed first Alen and then Bacchelli and dropped them right out of contention. Hannu Mikkola was at the wheel of a V6-engined Peugeot 504 coupe. but its engine (on carburetters, not injection like the normal 504s) didn't like the many changes of altitude in the ascents and descents of the Atlas Mountains. Eventually it retired when a sudden encounter with a sharp dip in a fast tarmac road (with a shock-absorber bracket already broken) broke a half-shaft and the differential.

The troubles along the border with Algeria had not helped the organisation at all, and mines were going off on desert tracks even before competitors had finished their practising. But that really didn't excuse a rather scrappy roadbook (much of which was "lifted" from last year's anyway) and last-minute route changes which were done simply by choosing a line on a map rather than from actual ground knowledge gained from a proper route survey. One such change was so vaguely presented—by nothing more accurate than a list of village names—that many factory drivers got together to defy the organisers and to take their own shorter, smoother route which had none of the loss of way potential of the official route. Most privateers took the latter and found themselves scattering about all over the place in an effort to tie up the organisers' instructioins with the map, and the map with the road as they found it. Penalties were amassed by everyone, but after complaint and protest they were all scrubbed.

It was not at all in situation in keeping with what is expected of a World Championship event. The competition was tough and fierce, but the rather slap-dash way in which these route changes were presented to competitors left much to be desired. The Morocco Rally is a most worthy round of the Championship, but somewhat indifferent organisation has led the CSI to say that it will he dropped for 1977. That will be a great pay, or such events are rare, and we trust that the shortcomings of the past, and of 1976, will he put right so that it will remain among the world's top twelve.