Rally review: Sanyo Rally of New Zealand

Lucky for some

There is no such thing as a racing certainty; a fact of which Audi is becoming acutely aware. Pre-season favourites to take the World Rally Championships for Makes and Drivers if for no other reason than that they had the only team prepared to contest all 12 events, Audi Sport is now the underdog. Despite having competed on all seven championship events to date, Audi is being soundly beaten by Lancia, the Italian team having entered two fewer rallies. So what is going wrong for Audi? A combination of bad management decisions, below par servicing, and a dose of less tangible, but nevertheless as significant, bad-luck have had their effect. Indeed the rot set in when Audi first appeared with the evolution version of the Group B Quattro. With its slightly smaller turbocharged engine (2,109 cc instead of 2,144 cc to take advantage of a lower minimum weight allowance) this car made its debut in Corsica. There the Quattros were swamped by the Lancia Rallys (first four places overall). On the Acropolis all but one of the Quattros retired leaving Lancia to take a surprising and significant victory, the situation repeated in New Zealand at the end of June.

Whereas Audi stagger from crisis to crisis, Lancia seem to go from strength to strength, but one must not lose sight of the fact that in New Zealand at least the Quattro was the quickest car. Michele Mouton was uncatchable until a rare engine failure cost her her first championship win of the season, handing current champion Walter Rohrl his third victory of the year. Now he has 22 points over Mikkola, but with five drivers rounds remaining it is not as cut and dried as it may seem as Rohrl is determined that he will compete on only one more event, October's Sanremo, whereas Mikkola will drive on all of them, or as many as necessary to earn him his first world title. However, in the Makes Championship the situation is much more difficult for Audi. Lancia's avowed aim is to be top manufacturer. Rohrl's possible third championship crown a by-product, and with four Manufacturers Championship qualifiers left they show every sign of achieving their aim with the amazingly reliable supercharged 037 Rally.

At the time of writing the Argentine Rally has yet to be held, but the presence of snow and ice on this event must give the edge to the four-wheel-drive Quattros. On the 1000 Lakes and Sanremo rallies it will be a different story, as it may well be on the RAC in November. There is no way that Audi can afford to relax, in fact if they are to gain the Makes Championship title for the second year running there will have to be some serious re-thinking within the team.

For its part Lancia is not going to give Audi a chance to relax. That became very obvious in New Zealand. The Italians hounded the Germans at every turn, the bone of contention being the late entry of a third car for Stig Blomqvist. After their defeat in Greece, Audi Sport's Roland Gumpert decided that he must try and increase his odds for New Zealand. With the entry list officially closed he asked if it would be possible to field a third Quattro. Fourteen days after the closing date he received a telex from the organisers saying this would be acceptable. Blomqvist would be welcome.

Lancia were none no pleased when they heard the news, particularly as they'd withdrawn a third car when they couldn't nominate a crew by the closing date. Under the circumstances they had then been happy enough to pit the two 037s of Rohrl and Attilio Bettega against the Quattros of Mikkola and Mouton. Blomqvist's late call-up added another dimension.

First FISA stepped in. They contacted MANZ, the governing body of motorsport in New Zealand, and told them that Blomqvist's entry was too late. Therefore the rally organisers shouldn't have accepted it. Under this pressure the Rally Organisers Association of New Zealand had no alternative but to change its mind and turn down Blomqvist.

By now however Gumpert had set the wheels in motion. The car had already been air freighted around the world, and Blomqvist was flying in from Sweden. Blomqvist and co-driver Bjorn Cederberg arrived in Auckland three days before the start (they couldn't arrive earlier due to prior commitments), and despite the not inconsiderable jet lag set off on a very brief practice session. In a growing storm they had time to look at just eight of the rally's 33 special stages. For the most part they were going to have to rely on borrowed pace notes from team-mates Hannu Mikkola/ Arne Hertz, but these would have to be translated from English into Swedish as they went along.

Although everyone had a good idea who had stirred FISA into action, the Blomqvist issue didn't finally come to a head until scrutineering. Gumpert appealed to the highest motor sporting judicial body in New Zealand, the National Court of Appeal deciding that car number four should be allowed to start, subject to Appeal. This wouldn't be heard until the day after the finish of the four-day 1,632 mile rally. It seemed a sensible course of action, and one which wouldn't prejudice any decisions by the Court. At least this way Blomqvist would get a run, and if it was decided that his entry was invalid then he could be disqualified from the results, if he finished. Certainly the rally couldn't be run again if he was barred from starting and the National Court subsequently decided that he should have been allowed to take part. This way justice would be seen to be done, but unfortunately Lancia didn't see it that way.

So began a series of protests and appeals which meant that final permission for the third Audi to start wasn't actually given until 45 minutes before the first car left the ramp. Blomqvist was now running subject to three Appeals, all on the same subject, but Lancia were still not prepared to let justice take its course. Team co-ordinator Nini Russo protested yet again, and although his protest was on the same topic, amazingly it was given a hearing. Not surprisingly the stewards again decreed that Blomqvist should not take part, but this time the decision was taken at such an hour to make it virtually impossible for any counter-action to be taken.

Perhaps Gumpert was by now tiring of the whole matter. Certainly Blomqvist was. Despite his lack of practice, those stages he'd visited hadn't included any in the first leg, he finished the first day in second place, a mere four seconds behind Mouton. He'd been leading at one point, and had been fastest on two stages, but as darkness fell his lack of familiarity with the stages did show. Still it did leave one wondering what weeks of pace noting proves!

The stewards' decision that Blomqvist should be barred from going any further had been given verbally at 06.29, too late to stop him from leaving the overnight parc ferme. He was however held at the start of the ninth special stage (the first of the second leg), and his time cards were confiscated. He could go no further. The whole matter was now virtually at an end, the final act coming when the Court of Appeal met after the finish. It wasn't a surprise when Chairman Mr Justice Coates and his three colleagues decided that Audi Sport's entry for Blomqvist should not have been accepted, but he did make it plain they were not impressed by the steward's decision to exclude him once the rally had started. He said that they had "frustrated justice" and their action had been "high handed".

We can only echo his rhetorical question: "Would it have made any difference if he had been allowed to run, because he knew he ran the risk of exclusion after the event?" If Lancia thought their pursuit of the issue might in some way upset the rest of the Audi team's equilibrium, they were sorely mistaken. In fact, if anything, it hardened their resolve; particularly that of Mouton. To say that she was unimpressed with the treatment meted out to Blomqvist would be a considerable understatement. She was furious, and channelled her anger into showing everyone a clean pair of heels. After 20 stages, she had nearly five minutes in hand over Rohrl's Lancia. With 13 stages remaining this seemed enough for her not to take any risks and earn her first Championship win of the season. In appalling weather (the first two legs were run in near perfect conditions, but there had been touches of early morning frost and ice to catch out the unwary), she kept a close eye on Rohrl's times, and although he was making up some ground, it was nowhere near the rate it should have been for him to pose a threat. At any rate, the Quattro was in its element over stages which were often awash in torrential downpours. Then it went totally wrong. Six stages from the finish she changed up to third gear and the engine literally went bang. There was a large hole in the side of the block, subsequently diagnosed as being caused by faulty materials in the manufacturer of a connected rod bolt. The last of the Quattros had gone. The way was now open to Lancia.

Mikkola had fallen by the wayside on the last stage of the second leg. For some time the engine had been sounding rough, efforts to trace the fault having proved fruitless. Then there was a brief underbonnet fire caused by a fuel leak from the injection system, the heat melting the sensors, and leaving the Finn stranded after he had fought his way up to fourth from last place after the first stage. This time there was no team helicopter to come to his rescue, the failure happening during darkness whilst the machine was grounded. Twice before, however, it had come to his aid.

The first time was on that first stage when the camshaft belt twisted after the pulley had vibrated loose. Stopped a half-mile from the finish of the stage, a mechanic was flown in to get the car going. It took Mikkola nearly 24 min to complete the 4.4 miles, the engine miraculously undamaged. There hadn't been time, however, to re-connect the intercooler, and Mikkola lost another minute to the leaders when he had no choice but to do the next stage without the benefit of turbocharger boost pressure — it can be pretty frustrating having just 100 brake horse power instead of the normal 360! The second time Hannu had cause to be thankful for airborne assistance was at the end of the fourth stage when he lost oil pressure. He was off the stage, and a mechanic was flown in with a new oil pump drive belt to replace the broken one. Certainly, helicopters are a great advantage, but already there are mutterings over whether their use is unfair. No one quibbles with the use of light aircraft to act as radio relay stations on events such as the Safari, but airborne emergency service from a helicopter does seem to be going a bit too far.

Lancia have been the recent pioneers of the use of helicopters in a support role on European rallies, and of course had one in New Zealand. At times it looked as if there was an aerial battle between the Audi and Lancia machines as they followed their respective charges along the stages. Like Mikkola, Bettega had cause to be thankful for a shadowing helicopter when on one stage he came over a crest in fourth gear to be confronted by a herd of cows. He missed two, but hit a third, sending it bouncing up the bonnet of the car before it slipped back and became jammed under the front wheels. Within seconds the helicopter had landed nearby, Lancia team personnel spilling out to help Bettega lift the car off the unfortunate beast. This incident cost him around eight minutes, damage to the Rally being surprisingly light, and the Italian going on to third place overall.

Rohrl suffered no such dramas, his car again the epitome of reliability, but he was far from happy with the handling. He blamed the tyres which were too wide to give grip over the small stones which littered the generally smooth-surfaced stages. Once on these "marbles" the Lancia would swing dramatically from understeer to oversteer and back again. Rohrl had two spins (one which resulted in a small amount of body damage) during the event, and not unnaturally was not prepared to take too many chances with such unpredictable handling. Rohrl reinforced his argument by pointing out that at times he was being harried, and occasionally beaten by Timo Salonen in his Nissan 240RS. It was a bit harsh as Salonen was driving better than he has done all year in a car which for the first time on a special stage rally showed some potential. A past winner in New Zealand, Salonen undoubtedly likes the smooth, flowing stages which in surface at least remind him of his native Finland. Happier with the handling of the Nissan for the first time, Salonen's reward was a worthy second place, albeit nearly 15 min behind Rohrl. It was Salonen's best result so far, but although the Japanese personnel were delighted (the team was a well run combination of staff from Nissan in Tokyo and New Zealand mechanics from the local importer) they still have to come to terms with the gearbox problems which have dogged the 240RS whenever it has appeared.

Mehta again completed his supporting role by finishing a steady and drama-free fourth, whilst New Zealander Cook had looked forward to being top Kiwi on his debut with the 240R5. Unfortunately he went off the road for 17 minutes when the windscreen wipers stopped during the heavy rains of the final leg, dropping him down to seventh and leaving Jim Donald to take this honour. Driving the Nissan Bluebird Turbo normally used by Cook, Donald managed fifth place despite his total lack of experience with the car.

Although a somewhat hollow victory, it was nevertheless a significant one for Lancia. However, the rumpus they caused in New Zealand is bound to reflect on the organisers. Undoubtedly they had the best intentions in accepting Blomqvist's late entry, but obviously didn't consider to what lengths visiting teams find it necessary to go in order to achieve their goal. Twice before when Italian teams have visited New Zealand, this delightful country has found itself without a World Championship round the following year. Coincidence perhaps? Only next year's World Rally Championship calendar will tell. Politics apart, the Sanyo Rally of New Zealand was exceptionally well organised, competitors from Europe being impressed not only with the challenge of the stages (completely different from last year), but the efficiency and friendliness of the marshals. Undoubtedly the inclusion of regular New Zealand competitor Kevin Lancaster in the organising team contributed greatly. New Zealand should be judged on its worth as a highly competitive and well organised rally, not on pre-event polictics which centered around a simple desire to please. MRG