When Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya scored their first win World Championship victory by winning the Acropolis Rally in June, the unanimous comment was that it was an achievement which they had richly deserved for some time. They had amassed such a string of near-misses that it could only have been a matter of time before that elusive first place would be theirs. The Greek event must have given them just the impetus they needed, for a month later they travelled to New Zealand and added another win to their tally, surging substantially ahead in the points table of the World Rally Championship for Drivers.
The New Zealand Rally has never attracted professional teams on the same scale as events in Europe, partly because of its distance from the European bases of the majority of those teams, and the consequent costs in terms of time and money, and partly because of its chequered history in terms of World Championship status.
Although eminently worthy of a place in the world series, it has been in and out of the championship several times, has sometimes qualified for both drivers’ and makes’ series and sometimes for the drivers’ only, as it was once again this year.
We have always considered it illogical that when a drivers’ series was added to the World Championship (previously it had been just for makes) its list of qualifying events was not exactly the same as that for makes. This year there are ten events in the makes’ series, whilst the drivers’ series was to have consisted of thirteen — that same ten, plus three others. It so happens that this year’s series for drivers will have just twelve events because the Swedish Rally was cancelled due to floods and the absence of snow.
The more significant of the two series is that for drivers, because it is both rational and logical that a World Champion should be a real, live human being, not the company which manufactures a mechanical device. The accent, however, has been placed on the makes’ series, and drivers have become poor relations. If a rally becomes a qualifier in both sections of the championship, it is considered to have greater status than one which is listed only in the series for drivers. To be taken out of the makes’ series and included only in the drivers’s series is considered a relegation, and is usually done when FISA considers that an event is not up to scratch.
That the New Zealand Rally should be so treated is quite wrong, for it is of excellent quality, is well organised by very capable and friendly people and has special stage roads which are nothing short of superb. It has been said that its relegation was due to lack of security on these stages, and failure to ensure that they should be clinically cut off from all other traffic. Yet a non-competing car strayed on to one of the Tour of Corsica’s special stages this year, and we cannot imagine France’s qualifier in the world series having its status diminished.
The only drivers with reasonable chances of gaining the personal world title are those who are contracted to works teams which have substantial programmes and plan to compete in the majority of the rounds. A privateer does not have the resources to compete on the same level. It therefore happens that a driver becomes World Champion as a result of his team’s efforts to gain the makes’ title.
It is one of FISA’s requirements that before a manufacturer can be considered for the makes’ title it must have taken part in at least eight of the ten rounds, and this is usually enough for a driver to amass enough points to gain the personal title.
Lancia has manipulated the contest in the past by making sure that its wins are not spread among its drivers but are scored mostly by one man who therefore moves quickly ahead of the others in the championship table. The team has rarely found it necessary to contest the rounds which qualify for just the drivers’ series, and Biasion, for instance, became champion solely on his results in events which qualified for both series.
Due partly to transportation costs and partly to the absence of World Championship for Makes status, the New Zealand Rally did not attract works teams in such numbers as regularly compete in European events. Were it as well known to the car-buying man-in-the-street as the Monte Carlo Rally or the Safari, the situation might well have been different, and some teams might well have taken part in order to win that one event rather than simply to score points in a series. The absence of major teams often detracts from the interest taken in a rally, but it can sometimes lead to closer, more intense competition between other competitors who are then not outclassed by the sheer weight or resources mounted to support their professional rivals. This has happened several times in New Zealand, and although the event has many times been won by well-supported works drivers, there have been situations in which people of lesser means have found themselves in with a chance, and fighting hard to keep rivals at bay. In 1987, for instance, the winner was Austrian Franz Wittmann, in 1988 his fellow countryman Josef Haider, and last year Ingvar Carlsson.
This year the entry list, as expected, was not particularly well populated by works teams, although statistically it looked healthy enough. For instance, the makes represented by professional competitors included Toyota, Mazda, Subaru, Mitsubishi, Volkswagen, Renault and Opel.
Toyota obviously considers that its number one driver’s situation in the World Championship is as important as that of the team in the makes’ series, and they readily arranged to have one car and its support entourage sent to New Zealand. They scored no makes’ points as a result, but Sainz’ victory and his strong position in the drivers’s series were rewards enough.
Mazda had two 4wd 323s, one for 1989 winner Ingvar Carlsson and one for New Zealander (but for many years a California resident) Rod Millen. Subaru sent two Legacies, one for local man Peter Bourne and one for Kenyan driver Mike Kirkland, but these cars came from Japan, not from Prodrive in Britain, and were to Safari specification which rendered them quite unsuitable for the much smoother, faster roads of New Zealand.
Entered by Simon Racing of France was a Group N Renault 5 GT for Alain Oreille, whilst others concerned with the Group N section of the World Championship were Uruguayan Gustavo Trelles and Argentinian Jorge Recalde, both in Lancia Delta Integrates.
Following its disastrous debut in Greece, Volkswagen’s Rally Golf G60 again made an appearance, one car being sent for Erwin Weber. Mitsubishi had one Galant for Australian Ross Dunkerton and were supporting another which was privately entered by Japanese driver Kiyoshi Inoue.
The two girls chasing the ladies’ title of the World Championship this year were both in New Zealand, Italian Paola de Martini in her Audi 90 quattro and Scotland’s Louise Aitken-Walker in an Opel Kadett GSi entered by GM Euro Sport.
As we have said before, New Zealand’s geographic situation means that it attracts no stop-over travellers. People either go there because that is their destination, or they don’t go there at all. It is cut off from through routes, and if you look at any map of international air routes you will see that the red lines go as far as New Zealand but no further.
Its isolation has resulted in New Zealanders considering their education incomplete until they have travelled overseas, but it is also one of the great attractions of the country, for it is largely unspoilt by the ravages of intense modernisation which have spread across Europe. Indeed, some of its country towns can have changed very little since the days of colonisation, and in many of them all obvious activity seems to stop at the end of the working day as abruptly as though someone turned off a switch! “Where is everyone?” we’ve heard people ask in the evenings, for when shops and businesses close for the day, traffic seems to vanish and the streets are deserted even by pedestrians.
To many outsiders, New Zealand is a place where sheep are bred, and where shearing is the number one manual occupation. How wrong they are! It is a country of many varied professions and pursuits, its friendly people always eager to swop yarns with visitors. One of its major industries is timber production, and the dirt roads through its many forests are used as special stages in the New Zealand Rally, just as forest roads are used in Britain, Finland and other countries.
Not all the stages are on private forest roads. The country has a network of minor roads which have dirt surfaces, and these are just as popular as special stages as those of the forests. Indeed, the public roads seem to be more popular, especially among visitors, because the pine-lined forest roads could be anywhere, whereas the public roads are in more in the open and reflect the character of rural New Zealand.
There was a time when the special stage routes were secret and all reconnaissance forbidden, just as on the RAC Rally in the past. However, pressure from FISA eventually forced the organisers to seek means of allowing pre-event note-making. The forest authorities, whilst agreeing to the rally itself, were not at all keen on the idea of practice, because it would disrupt logging operations and constitute a distinct hazard in view of the volume of timber traffic regularly using the roads — and some of those timber transporters, most with trailers, are positively enormous and travel at very high speed!
Realising, however, the pressure to which the organisers were being subjected, the forest authorities eventually agreed to allow a limited period during which competitors could drive along forest stages and make notes, but under the strict control of forest and organising officials. When such recceing was first introduced in 1977, it was done in convoy. Nowadays it’s not like that, although the limited period means that competitors get no more than some two opportunities to drive through each stage.
There are no such restrictions on the public roads stages, although speed limits are enforced and practising at rally speeds forbidden.
The days of alternating the rally between the two islands have gone, and the rally has become established in the North Island, with headquarters at the commercial capital, Auckland. The administrative capital is Wellington, from which the rally was organised in its days as the Heatway Rally and the Radio New Zealand Rally. It moved to Auckland when Motogard took over sponsorship and gave its name to the event, although it has since returned to the South Island, one year starting at Nelson and finishing at Christchurch.
Many people regard New Zealand as a land of constant sunshine, but it is almost as far into the Southern Hemisphere as Britain is into the Northern, and the climate is just as varied. Winter snow is common in the South Island, whilst storms can be quite violent.
“Variable” is a word which weather forecasters seem to enjoy using, perhaps because it can put a convenient camouflage on any doubt, but this is exactly how we would describe conditions this year in New Zealand. Sometimes there was sunshine, sometimes heavy rain. Like other World Championship rallies, it went to bed for each of its three nights, so most of the running was in the daytime.
The first leg, through nine special stages, started and finished at Auckland on the Saturday, but the other two night stops were at Rotorua. There were twelve stages in the second leg, ten in the third and twelve in the fourth, making 43 in all.
The first stage was a spectator-attracting tarmac affair in Auckland’s Domain, a sport and leisure area. A sudden squall soaked the roads, and it was Ingvar Carlsson’s Mazda which registered the best time, marginally ahead of Weber and Millen. Sainz, on the other hand, was far more cautious, knowing that on these short prelude stages one can gain very little but lose everything.
New Zealander Ray Wilson all but failed to make the start, the gearbox of his Mazda siezing up on the motorway as he was driving into the city. The box was quickly changed on the motorway verge and he managed to get to the pre-start closed park with just seconds to spare.
Weber lost third gear from his Golf, and although it was feared that broken teeth might cause complete seizure there was no opportunity to replace the box until the afternoon. Happily, it survived, although the result was sixth place for Weber at the end of the first day. Japanese driver Inoue was delayed by a blown turbocharger.
As the rally progressed into dirt stages, Sainz became accustomed to the rhythm of the roads and his speed increased. He moved up to second place behind Millen and, as the sun began to break through late in the afternoon, he eventually took over the lead, although at the end of the day Carlsson was just one second behind him. Sainz’s position was a surprise even to himself, for his engine had not been running well, and for much of the time he was unable to get more than 5,500 rpm.
The next day the weather was fine as crews and mechanics, this time their overnight bags packed, headed for Rotorua, a town surrounded by volcanic steam vents and notorious for its sulphur-laden atmosphere. “Rotten Rotorua” is an unfair description which we’ve heard more than once, for it is otherwise a delightful place.
As on day one, the first stage on Sunday was on tarmac, through the streets of Manukau, just to the South of Auckland itself. Weber, now having all his gears again, was fastest, but once more the forests brought changes. Sainz lost his lead after an electrical fault caused his engine to splutter to a halt no less than three times in the second of two stages in Maramarua Forest, but he nevertheless lost no more than a minute.
Kirkland, on the other hand, came to a permanent stop when his Subaru slid sideways into a ditch and stubbornly refused to be driven out. Eventually the clutch siezed and the hapless Kenyan could do no more than wait there until the stage was over so that the car could be towed out by a tractor.
At Rotorua it was Carlsson who held the lead, but Sainz was only 20 seconds behind, followed by Millen, Weber, Dunkerton, Bourne and the Italian Rayneri in his Lancia.
In readiness for the third day, Toyota mechanics had slightly increased the boost pressure of Sainz’ Celica, and it was not long before he had removed the 20 second advantage held by Carlsson.
From Rotorua, the route headed westwards to the coast, via a short stop at Opotiki, a place where time must have stood still for decades, and on into the spectacular mountain roads of Motu. It was here that Millen lost his chances when his turbocharger blew and he arrived at the end of the second of the two Motu stages laying a trail of dense blue smoke. Sainz, on the other hand, quite undeterred by long, steep drops into a river, took first 34 then 43 seconds from Carlsson and moved into the lead. It was not a comfortable advantage by most standards, but for a man who drives with such car sympathy as Sainz, it was enough.
Rayneri later stopped when he hit a cow, his Lancia being so badly damaged that he could not continue, whilst Ernesto Soto from Argentina retired when the turbocharger blew in his similar car.
By the time the rally got to Rotorua the second time, Sainz had extended his lead over Carlsson to more than two minutes, whilst next in the order were Weber, Dunkerton and Bourne.
Among the Group N contenders, Trelles held a slender 6 second lead over young Finn Tommi Mäkinen who was in a Mitsubishi Galant VR4 accompanied by the experienced Seppo Harjanne who for many years was Timo Salonen’s co-driver. Oreille had been struggling for grip in his 2wd Renault and was down in fifth place in the group, behind Recalde and Italian privateer Gilberto Pianezzola (Toyota Celica GT4).
On the final day the sunshine had vanished. High winds caused heavy rain to lash down, and mechanics looked pretty miserable at the prospect of having to kit themselves out with waterproofs.
Sainz didn’t put a wheel wrong, of course, but a puncture just four stages from the end reduced his lead to two minutes. Bourne lost his chances of catching Dunkerton when he lost firstly three minutes on the road having his rear differential changed and later more time when his gearbox also had to be replaced.
Mäkinen settled the Group N dispute in his favour, whilst Inoue hit a bank so hard with his Mitsubishi that the engine promptly failed. Australian Greg Carr also went off the road in his Lancia.
Louise Aitken-Walker took the Ladies Trophy by finishing eleventh overall, putting herself in a good position to fight off the challenge from Italian girl Paola de Martini.
There came a nice gesture after the finish when Crown Prince Filipe of Spain, in New Zealand for an official Royal Visit, invited Sainz and Maya to visit him. The Prince’s presence meant that there were plenty of Spanish press and TV men in the country, and was a newsworthy bonus for them that a Spanish crew should win the rally. Not being motor sporting people, they simply could not understand why Sainz was not allowed to go to meet the Prince at the wheel of his winning car. It happened to be undergoing scrutineering at the time!
Sainz now leads the World Championship by a comfortable margin from Frenchman Auriol, but a lot will depend on which drivers compete in the remaining six rounds of the series. Points differences are not all that substantial, and the series is still wide open. GP