Whistle blows at half-time
AImost a decade and a half ago, when Michigan’s Press-on-Regardless Rally was a World Championship qualifier, a County Sheriff in the State’s Upper Peninsula became a little agitated by both the presence and the speed of what to him was a racing car being driven on the public highway. What happened next was Keystone-like in its absurdity. The Sheriff, in his huge, cushion sprung law enforcement vehicle, went off in hot but futile pursuit of Sandro Munari’s Lancia Stratos, ignoring the pleas of marshals at a stage start and giving chase along the special stage itself.
It was just one incident in many and, although many of the local people were fascinated by the influx of foreigners speaking strange tongues, most were quite unaware of what was really going on, and their only notion was that it was some kind of race on public roads.
The authorities were equally vague in their understanding. They had all given their approval in advance, but when the preliminaries gave way to competition in earnest, they were obviously quite unaware of what to expect.
This lack of appreciation of rallying was unmistakably evident, but among competitors and organisers there was supreme optimism that things would change; that the public would develop an enthusiasm for a a kind of motorsport which was not centred on an oval track; and that publicists, sponsors, newsmen and film-makers would realise its potential and begin giving it full backing.
Alas, this has never happened, and the process of educating the great American public has been a losing battle. Competitors are even fewer today than they were in the early seventies, spectators still painfully scarce, news media unenthusiastic and publicists disinterested in an activity which has no tangible venue and no turnstiles to click.
However, US organisers persevered with representations to FISA, and last year an American event was back in the World Championship — the Olympus Rally in Washington State. It took place in the Autumn and was a qualifier in only the drivers’ series of the championship.
This year it was in both drivers’ and manufacturers’ series, and moved to late June. The change from fog, rain and mud to sunshine and sweltering heat was welcomed by most people concerned, even though dust became a problem and the task of organising had to be crammed into six months rather than twelve.
Entry lists have never been easy to fill in the USA, and native car manufacturers have always seemed reluctant to homologate any of their models for international competition. Most US-made cars have not been suitable for rallying in any case, so competitors have generally used models imported from Europe or Japan, which is perhaps one of the main reasons for the lack of interest in rallying by US manufacturers. There have been exceptions, of course, and we still feel that it was a Press-on-Regardless win by a Jeep Wagoneer in 1972 which prompted the then CSI, perhaps fearing an onslaught on European rallying by American Motors, to introduce a ban on four-wheel drive cars. That ban was subsequently lifted just in time for Audi’s introduction of the Quattro!
American Motors’ interest in rallying eventually waned and, apart from the various subsidiary operations of General Motors and Ford, there is no manufacturer in the USA interested in mounting a programme to contest a rally series, whether World or National. Considering the present confused state of the World Rally Championship, and the clumsy manner in which FISA administrates it , who can blame them for staying out of it?
Last year the Olympus Rally had difficulty attracting entries, although the minimum of 50 was eventually exceeded by one. This year the barrel again had to be scraped, and although the number of entries seemed to vary, 47 cars eventually left the starting ramp.
Sadly, the only team left with an interest in the World Rally Championship is Lancia, and there was no doubt that the three Italian cars, backed by two refettled practice cars, would dominate the event. The works drivers were Juha Kankkunen, Markku Alen, and Massimo Biasion, and the only pre-start question was not which of these three would win, but which would be allowed to win.
In the past twelve months or so it has become commonplace for Lancia to dominate World Championship rallies to such an extent that the team management has been able to choose its own winner from among its leading drivers. More recently, the story has been that whoever is leading at half distance should keep that lead to the end, thereby confining all the fighting to the first half, after which sufficient time should remain to recover from any unexpected disaster.
Some will argue that a team manager has every right to make sure his drivers do not indulge in battling between themselves, risking retirement for the sake of personal glory rather than that of the team. After all, he who pays the piper calls the tune, a principle with which we entirely agree and which is all too often ignored nowadays.
We find ourselves in sympathy with Cesare Fiorio to a certain extent, for it is his brief to achieve maximum success for his team, not one driver more than another, but it has seemed that favouritism has crept in occasionally — during the Monte Carlo Rally for instance.
A Lancia victory by a chosen driver may be good for the team, but it certainly does not do rallying any good. On the contrary , the sport’s public image can only have been tarnished considerably by a practice which gives the impression drivers can choose among themselves which of them should win.
Another bad effect of such management control is the effective reduction of competitive distance. FISA’s curbs have left rallies with greatly reduced distances and much of their traditional and vital punch weakened to a mere slap. A team manager’s decision that only the first half should be tackled competitively, leaving the second half a mere token procession simply to stay ahead of the opposition, shortens the distance even further.
What we really need, of course, is more teams capable of matching Lancia’s Group A performance, making it very risky indeed for a manager (Fiorio or anyone else) to slow one man down so that another can win.
In Washington, Lancia’s opposition was hardly in the same class. Only Nissan and Toyota sent teams of any note, and only because the two Japanese manufacturers value the US market. Despite the skills of Bjorn Waldegard and Lars-Erik Torph in Toyota Supras, and of Mikael Ericsson, Per Eklund and Shekhar Mehta in Nissan 200SXs, their cars were no match for the Lancias, which really had things all their own way.
Fiorio’s long-range team instructions from Turin were simple. If the Lancias held the lead positions when half of the total stage distance had been completed, they would keep those positions until the end. After that halfway mark, there was to be no more fighting within the team, and if positions did inadvertently change, they should be changed back before the finish to those of half distance. He was acting in his team’s interests, of course, but for the leading drivers at least, he was effectively reducing a rally of some 380 stage miles to one of just 190.
In that first half, starting with two tarmac stages which were designed to attract spectators but which did not succeed too well, it was Biasion who made the best times. Alen was none too happy, having encountered a crashed course car and then a non-competing car on a special stage, fortunately being driven in the direction of stage travel, whilst Kankkunen was slowed for a while by a broken brake-pedal box. As the magic halfway point approached, the order up front was Blasion, Kankkunen, Alen — although Kankkunen was very close behind the leader and reduced the gap to a mere six seconds.
Finally, Biasion slowed, his engine not producing its customary power and misfiring noticeably. Then came one of those ridiculously simple occurences which often have serious consequences; a plug lead came off. down on power, Biasion was unable to prevent Kankkunen getting ahead, and at half distance the Finn was in the lead. Biason was bitterly disappointed, knowing that although he would have a good chance of regaining the lead in the second part of the rally, he would be bound by team orders not to do so. Kankkunen, on the other hand, was delighted. Having followed instructions and given up certain victory more than once since joining the Lancia team, he found himself in the unfamiliar situation of being on the benefit side of team politics fora change.
As the rally progressed. Biasion made a series of best times, and in fact regained the lead, but this was by no means an indication of what the result would be. Just as Kankkunen had slowed, even stopped, near the end of the Monte Carlo Rally’s final stage, so Biasion slowed towards the end of the Olympus Rally, allowing his team-mate Kankkunen to win by just twelve seconds. Alen finished third, and that, in fact, is the present order at the head of the World Championship table.
As for the rest of the competitors, Torph first put his Toyota off the road, and later retired when his engine blew up; Mikael Ericsson’s Nissan never seemed to be running properly, and endless ignition problems delayed him so much that he eventually exceeded his maximum lateness and was out; John Buffum rolled his Audi Coupe Quattro and could not regain the road, whilst Recalde did the same to his Lancia, though he did manage to get going again; Eklund, hitting an unexpected watersplash which had been dry during practice, grabbed for the wiper switch only to discover it was the fuel pump switch, and promptly stopped!
Rough edges still need to be smoothed from what is now the USA’s premier rally, and it could certainly do with more support from the authorities, the public, the news media and from competitors, but everyone who went this year seemed lo enjoy it. Biasion was disappointed, of course; Alen too, after various small problems had slowed him. But all three Lancia drivers are still in with a chance of becoming World Champion, and the fight ahead could be very interesting —If they are allowed to fight, that is! GP