Sanyo Rally of New Zealand
A crucial win
The importance that New Zealand had in this year's World Rally Championship was underlined by a decision taken a week after this most southerly and one of the most far flung events in the series. With Markku Alén finishing in second place in his late-entered Lancia Rally 037, the Turin management promptly lost interest in seriously contesting the next round in Argentina. As far as team boss Cesare Florio was concerned the championship was now lost for Lancia. Audi was clear to re-take the Makes' Championship and Stig Blomqvist for the first time the Drivers' title.
It was Blomqvist who emerged victor in New Zealand, his second World Championship win in a row, a success which put him eight points in front of Alén in the Drivers' Championship and gave Audi a 10 point margin over Lancia in the Makes. Effectively Blomqvist and Audi just need another victory to put the issue beyond any doubt, and in view of Lancia's decision to shelve its plans to go to South America, then that win should have been attained in Argentina as this issue of MOTOR SPORT goes to press.
Blomqvist's New Zealand win was not easily come by, and in many ways his success on this well run 1,600-mile, four-day event was his most difficult win so far this season. It wasn't so much how fast the Swede went, but more a case of controlling himself and resisting the severe temptation of becoming involved in personal rivalry with team-mates Walter Röhrl and Hannu Mikkola. Those temptations were great indeed.
Both Röhrl and Mikkola have been crowned World Champions in the past — the German the only driver to have been so twice — and so have learnt to come to terms with sacrificing attacking driving for valuable points. For Blomqvist it is a relatively new experience, one which he admits he is not entirely happy about, but needs be that needs must.
The enigmatic Swede went as far as saying that his wins in Greece and New Zealand were "boring", hardly the word that we'd use, but one takes the point. Like Mikkola last year, Blomqvist is feeling like a dog on a leash. He can't wait to be set free for a run around the park. The fact that the championship issue was all but brought to a conclusion in New Zealand means that his frustrations won't boil over as Mikkola's did last year when he had to go the whole distance of 12 events to make sure the title was safely in his hands. Of course, the fact that Blomqvist hardly says anything to anyone makes it difficult to assess exactly what he is feeling, but this makes the rare eruptions of emotion all the more dramatic when they do come. Mikkola on the other hand is much more open in his feelings. Last year was punctuated by harsh words, disagreements with other drivers, and at an times very untypical iciness with the press, all the more surprising because Hannu's genuine open nature has always ensured his popularity with the media.
All this isn't news to Hannu. He has admitted that he was at times far from happy with his driving last season, and once he had won the title he then found it hard to motivate himself. On his first rally of what was intended to be a much more relaxed and quieter year, he was unhappy. Monte Carlo wasn't a good start, although third place would normally be a source of major satisfaction to most, he felt his driving lacked rhythm, and he wasn't enjoying himself. But after a win on the opening round of the British Open series in February, that old magic returned. Mikkola was driving again "for fun", and his tremendous success in Portugal reflected this rekindled enthusiasm. He won this third round of the World Championship after an awe-inspiring dispute with Alén, and admitted: "Now I'm driving just for driving's sake. It's marvellous, I'm really enjoying myself."
By a strange quirk of fate as Mikkola's fortunes were taking an up-swing, Blomqvist's were very much on the down. By dint of being the only HB Audi team driver committed to a full championship programme — both Röhrl and Mikkola were originally scheduled for six rallies each, although Hannu has ended up with eight, whilst Michèle Mouton has appeared so far only three times and by her own choice has become the forgotten first lady of the sport — it was supposed to be Stig's year. The season started well enough When he was runner-up to Röhrl on the Monte, followed by a first in Sweden but against minimum opposition. Then it turned somewhat sour. Blomqvist rolled in Portugal, suffered engine failure on the Safari, and was relieved to pick up the crumbs of fifth place in Corsica, a rally on which he was far from happy. Compare Mikkola's progress on the same events: first in Portugal, second on the Safari, absent on Corsica. On the Acropolis Hannu was second to Stig whose revived fortunes came just at the right moment, but nevertheless Mikkola was unwittingly proving to be a major threat.
Last season Blomqvist had signed with Audi on the understanding that he would support Mikkola's championship bid, and if the situation arose (it did only once) would forfeit first place to his team-mate. And this year if it came to the push would Mikkola have to do the same for Blomqvist? In Greece the Finn was ordered not to pressure the Swede during the final night.
And New Zealand? Circumstances ultimately dictated that such a decision never had to be made, although if Mikkola hadn't experienced a most unfortunate, low-speed roll there is little doubt that the Audi management would have had to do something to take the heat out of the situation.
Originally, New Zealand hadn't been on Mikkola's schedule. But when he found himself a mere point behind Alén in the championship, Audi decided at the last minute to enter him. It was intended as a means of maintaining pressure on the Lancia driver, but also served to keep Blomqvist on his toes.
Initially it had been Röhrl who set a pace which the two Scandinavians couldn't match. The German was obviously savouring the New Zealand stages which are fast, smooth and flowing, new ones in the first leg to the north of the Auckland start. bearing more than a passing resemblance to those of Finland's 1000 Lakes, even down to some big jumps. At one point Röhrl's admission that he enjoyed “flying on the stages" brought an invitation from Mikkola for him to try his luck on the Finnish classic, the German refusing with a large grin, remarking that the Finns know their roads too well.
Despite losing much of the drive to the rear wheels after hitting a rock on the first stage, Röhrl was still able to pull away from his team-mates, only to retire during the first day when the Motronic electronic management system which controls the engine functions on Quattro engines failed. It was now left to Mikkola and Blomqvist, the Finn seemingly baiting the Swede to become involved in a scrap. Blomqvist maintained that he wasn't being drawn into such a battle, instead, choosing to quash his natural instincts and bide his time. He said the proof of his policy was the fact that he rarely broke into a sweat, a sure barometer of how hard he is having to push himself. For Mikkola there was no such easy explanations. He was bathed in perspiration, and trying very hard, harder probably than he's done for some time in terms of totally committed driving. On the stages he was using every inch, and more, of the road, the Quattro engine on the ignition cut-out in every gear, further confirmation of Mikkola's on-the-limit driving coming from the normally imperturbable Arne Hertz. Beads of sweat gleaming on his forehead, co-driver Hertz remarked: "He works me hard!" The way he said it left one in no doubt that he thought his driver was going quite fast enough. If anything Mikkola appeared to be taking an impish delight in pushing himself, his car and Hertz to the limit, relating with great relish a story of how he'd never been so sideways for so long on one icy corner, when half-way through the incident he noticed out of the corner of his eye that Hertz was trying to find the door handle!
On the 45 stages, Mikkola claimed fastest time on 22 occasions and was runner-up 17 times. Blomqvist was fastest on 12, second quickest on 19.
Hannu's downfall came on the penultimate day when he cut a comer too fine, glanced a small earth mound, and found to his utter amazement that his Quattro was tipping over. It ended up on its side, the ever-present Audi helicopter landing nearby, its occupants helping to push the car back onto its wheels, and put out a somewhat persistent fire caused by the turbocharger oil pipe coming off and spraying lubricant onto the white hot unit itself.
This cost 13 minutes, and a place, dropping Mikkola behind Alén. and so relieving Blomqvist of any pressure. Stig could now cruise home, conserving his engine by changing gear early and never going within a I,000 rpm of maximum revs. Hannu however didn't slacken his pace. Now he had focused his attention on Alén whose Lancia had been running with its usual reliability, but simply lacked the ultimate power (320 bhp maximum compared with the Quattro's 360 bhp minimum) and traction to cope, especially over icy night stages. In five stages, Mikkola took back more than three minutes. On average he was 1.8s a Mile faster than the Lancia driver, Alén unable to do anything but pray for the day when the Italian team is ready to use its new four-wheel drive car which is loosely based the Delta.
However, Mikkola's charge was ultimately to come to nought. He had a couple of enormous spins, and decided on a more prudent course of action, not willing ultimately to throw away third place. Alén breathed a sigh of relief, but there was little consolation in second place. His championship chances had virtually vanished. Now he would concentrate on winning the 1000 Lakes and forget about the Drivers' title.
New Zealand hadn't only been Alén's Waterloo. Toyota had travelled to the Antipodes with high hopes of repeating its 1982 victory, but was only able to salvage fifth through Safari winner Björn Waldegård who lost a lot of time when a fuel injection came off his Celica Turbo. His young Finnish team-mate Juuha Kankkunen faired much worse. He rolled on the some stage which had been Mikkola's downfall, but with more permanent results, ending up well off the road, and on his roof.
Arch Japanese rivals Nissan had a little more to shout about by winning the team prize with Timo Salonen fourth after his best drive of the season, the Finn nevertheless disappointed not to have finished its the top three as this had effectively been his last chance to retain his coveted FISA "A" priority seeding for next year. Amazingly he had also rolled on the 22.7-mile stage which had caught out Kankkunen and Mikkola. — M.R.G.
New Zealand Results
1st : S. Blomqvist / B. Cederberg (Audi Quattro A2GpB) ...........10 hr 40 min 41 sec
2nd : M . Alén / I. Kivimaki (Lancia Rally 037 GpB) .....................10 hr 45 min 28 sec
3rd I H. Mikkola / A. Hertz (Audi Quattro A2 GpB) .....................10 hr 48 min 10 sec
4th : T. Salonen / S. Harjanne (Nissan 240RS GpB) ....................11 hr 05 min 29 sec
5th : B. Waldegård / H. Thorszelius (Toyota Celica Turbo GpB) 11 hr 35 min 58 sec
6th : R. Cook / W. Jones (Nissan 240RS GpB) .............................11 hr 44 min 20 sec
7th : M. Stewart / D. Parkhill (Ford Escort RS1800 GpB) ............11 hr 46 min 00 sec
8th : P. Bourne / M. Eggleton (Subaru Leone4WDGpA) .............12hr 04 min 46 sec
9th : T. Teesdale / G. Smith (Subaru Leone 4WD GpA) ...............12 hr 21 min 01 sec
10th : B. Robson / D. Campbell (Mitsubishi Lancer Turbo GpA) ..12 hr 25 min 08 sec
63 starters, 35 finishers