Rally Review - Total Rally of South Africa

It is a common belief that the world's best rallies are those which are qualifying rounds of the World Championship for Makes. This is largely true, but there are exceptions. Indeed, there are several rallies here and there around the globe which are every bit as competitive and worthwhile as those which are championship qualifiers, but are not chosen for that series because it has no more than a dozen or so events — this year there are eleven — and there are always more organisers who seem to want their events in the championship than there are places for them.

One such event is South Africa's Total Rally, this year run for the twentieth time with backing from the petroleum company from which it takes its name. Based on the European system of closed special stages rather than the open road sections which still form the successful style of Kenya's Safari Rally, and which have been copied in other African countries such as Morocco and the Ivory Coast, the rally is a kind of mixture of Africa and Europe with its own spicing to give it a uniquely South African character.

Like British events, it has a secret route and no practising or note-making is allowed. But unlike the very simple style of special stage events in Britain, in which the navigator's role is very basic and could easily be undertaken by a driver alone in the car (unless they have forbidden notes), competing in the Total Rally is very much a two man-affair. In Britain it is often said that drivers win rallies and navigators lose them but in the Total, and other events in that country, a combination of both skills is required for success, and lack of either one can bring failure.

On British special stages, cars are kept on the right road by means of a sophisticated system of arrows which are put up after careful thought as to lines of vision from cars approaching at high speed. In South Africa they do now use arrows, but they are put up in a rudimentary fashion and are not always easy to interpret at high speed. Anyone driving on arrows alone would need to slow down so much at junctions to pick out the arrows and ascertain the direction in which they are pointing that he would have no hope of putting up competitive times.

The roadbook for the Total Rally gives detailed navigational diagrams for every special stage, as well as road sections, and it is the navigator's job to interpret these precisely and quickly, reading from accurate distance recorders to give the driver a "count-down" to every junction and hazard on each stage. A good navigator can keep his driver at optimum speed throughout a stage, but it demands continuous concentration and a great deal of mental agility, for he must not only keep a check on how the roadbook compares with the road ahead, but also watch his distance recorder and add or subtract hundredths of a kilometre at every junction in order to prevent small errors accumulating into big ones.

So much for the technicalities of who does what In the car, but before we go on to the rally itself we must make another point not concerning the actual competition. A year ago, when we wrote about the 1976 Total Rally, we made a brief comment on how our opinions of South Africa's political system were at variance with those of newspaper writers who had not necessarily been there to see for themselves. We were mildly criticised for so doing, but we don't hesitate to repeat the comment, for whilst countries all over the world allow politics to interfere with their international sporting fixtures it is most satisfying to realise that in rallying this does not happen, not in South Africa and not in any of the other countries in which we have rallied over the years. The 78-strong field for the Total Rally included entries from South Africa, Rhodesia, England, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, Germany, Italy, the USA, Denmark, Portugal and Holland, and before any shallow thinking persons decide to level criticism against the sportsmen from these countries for failing to subscribe towards a stupid boycott, let us assure them that there were coloured persons among both competitors and officials.

Notwithstanding the attraction of the Total Rally, and the travel facilities extended by both Total Oil SA and South African Airways, it remains a costly business to transport cars from Europe to South Africa, and since the number of South African rally teams with driverless cars are few it naturally follows that Europeans who are offered drives are equally few.

This year Ove Andersson went along to drive a Toyota, Harry Källström to drive a Datsun, Andrew Cowan and American driver Hendrik Blok to drive Colts, Roger Clark to drive an Escort, Billy Coleman to drive a Chevrolet Hatch, Jochi Kleint to drive an Alfasud and Jill Robinson to drive a private Colt which regrettably broke its valve gear before scrutiny and was not able to start the rally. Two cars were transported from Europe, a Corolla from Toyota Germany for Achim Warinbold and a Lancia Stratos, together with six mechanics, for Sandro Munari.

Within the seeding groups, starting order was by ballot, and when Ove Andersson drew number one he had the immediate advantage of leaving all the dust behind him. This is a big problem in South Africa, for the dust can be so thick in the dense, windless forests that visibility can be as little as a few feet several minutes after a car has passed. At the end of the first leg, Andersson was leading and consequently started first on the second leg as well. He looked all set to win when a silly failure stopped the car in the middle of a stage with no oil with which to continue.

He had lost the oil near the end of one stage when a jubilee clip loosened on an oil union (in Europe Aeroquip fittings are more common) but he was able to coast to a service point where mechanics replaced the clip. Alas it happened again, and this time there was no going on or going back and what seemed to be a certain winning car was eliminated. The lead was taken up by current SA Rally Championship leader Sarel van der Merwe in a Datsun, but this car's engine blew apart and the lead passed to several times SA Champion and four times past Total winner Jan Hettema.

Despite several mishaps, a clout or two with the odd post and a roll on to his side, Hettema, with extremely able navigator Franz Boshoff (another past Total winner) in their works (SA) Ford Escort RS1800, was able to stay ahead to win. But it was a near thing, for towards the end of the second leg a mystery fault caused the engine to run on three cylinders and it was seriously lacking in power for the whole of the third leg. Meanwhile, Munari was driving remarkably well for a man who is openly opposed to secret stages without pace notes and even on his first visit to South Africa he was able to get his Stratos up to second place.

Of the visitors, Clark had a clutch seize, Källström his gearbox (the same failure which stopped him in the 1976 RAC Rally), Coleman broke a half-shaft and both Cowan and Blok had their plastic fans distort by the upsurge of water during a small stream crossing and puncture their radiators.

Finally, after a list of mechanical failures which would depress even the most optimistically—minded car builder, only 14 of the 78 starters made it to the finish. Without doubt it is a tough and enjoyable rally, but some rubbing off of rough edges is still needed. Very tight road sections designed to minimise opportunities for roadside servicing, were out of place in a country with ridiculously low speed limits and a police which rigidly enforces them, and there is still room for improvement in special stage definition and precautions to prevent short-cutting and the inadvertent (and extremely dangerous) taking the wrong roads. With these matters put right (and they can be done so easily) the Total Rally would be a superb event. The organisers have already shown themselves to be innovators by sponsoring the design and manufacture of electronic printing clocks which, although troubled by small teething faults, are superior to anything we have seen in Europe for special stage timing. We are sure they will be happy to supply details of these clocks to anyone who writes fo them at PO Box 227, Pretoria 0001, South Africa. - G.P.