Rally Review -- New Zealand Rally, August 1991

Sainz’ Kiwi Adventure

The New Zealand Rally has, for a number of years, experienced a love-hate relationship with FISA. It has been in and out of the World Championship several times, and even this year was not among the first list of definite qualifiers announced by FISA. Instead, it was in the short list of four from which three qualifiers were chosen late last year, long after the bulk of qualifying rounds had already been named. Furthermore, it is a qualifier only in the drivers’ series, not the series for makes. Many people quite rightly consider the former to be more significant than the latter, but FISA takes the opposite view and regards the drivers’ series as a sort of Second Division.

The rally enjoys immense popularity among those who compete in it, including the visiting professional crews and teams, but yet FISA considers it below the standard required for inclusion in the makes’ championship. One wonders at the value of observers’ reports!

Even as the Heatway Rally, before approaches were made to have it included in the World Championship, it regularly attracted competitors from Europe, and in the early Seventies names such as Andrew Cowan and Hannu Mikkola appeared in the list of winners.

It was in 1977, under the title of Radio New Zealand Rally, that it first joined the world series, which was then for makes only. After that, it has been in and out like a yo-yo, and perhaps this was something to do with reports brought back to Europe in 1977 by the Fiat team which, initially, seemed to consider that the organisers were inexperienced in the wiles of high level rallymanship and were capable of being bluffed. It turned out that they were not, and a few tricks backfired.

The rally used to alternate year by year between the North Island and the South Island. Indeed, one year it used both, competing cars and support vehicles being taken across the blustery, seldom-calm Cook Straits by ferry. But it has not been to the South Island for a decade and nowadays it remains in the North Island, no longer even visiting Wellington from which the event was at one time organised.

This year, start and finish were located in Auckland and the route confined to the northern part of the island. The first day, a Wednesday, comprised a short evening section within the environs of Auckland, including a one-and-a-quarter mile special stage. The next, with ten special stages, went via Hamilton and close to the west coast before turning inland to Rotorua. The Friday contained twelve stages and formed a long, narrow loop running eastwards to Opotiki and then southwards to Gisborne before returning to Rotorua.

On the Saturday, the return trip to Auckland included eleven more stages, and the final day, confined to the area just North of the city, six more. In all, there were forty special stages, making up some 390 miles in a total distance of 1275 miles.

The New Zealand Rally’s dirt road special stages are often compared to those of Finland, without as many jumps. They are loose, often slippery, very twisty, but not at all rough. Some are public roads, others through forest land, where care must be taken during practice not to have any brushes with timber trucks.

Toyota Team Europe, having made a World Champion of Carlos Sainz last year, is aiming for the makes’ title this year. It would not have been unreasonable of the team to have given the New Zealand Rally a miss, as it is not a round of the latter series.

However, knowing that the chances of repeating last year’s victory were good, they decided to send one car for Sainz and Luis Moya, so that they could aim at improving Sainz’ lead in the drivers’ series over Juha Kankkunen, his former teammate now back in the Lancia camp. A Group N version of the Celica GT-4 was entered by Toyota Italy for Alessandro Fassina and Massimo Chapponi, and another was driven by New Zealand pair Ross Meekings and Steve March.

As Lancia has three drivers behind Sainz in the drivers’ championship table, it was not unnatural that at least two of them should be sent to New Zealand. Kankkunen and Juha Piironen drove a Martini-backed Delta Integrale, whilst the similar car of French pair Didier Auriol and Bernard Occelli was in Fina colours.

Subaru also took two of their Legacies. They were Prodrive cars from Britain, but their engines were Japan-built flat fours. The crews were Markku Alén/Ilkka Kivimäki and Peter Bourne/Rodger Freeth. New Zealanders Brian Watkin and Stewart Roberts drove a locally prepared Group N version of the Legacy.

Ingvar Carlsson and Per Carlsson, winners in 1989, drove a 323 GT-X for Mazda Rally Team Europe, whilst expatriate New Zealander Rod Millen came from California to drive one of his own 323 GT-Xs with Tony Sircombe. The car from Belgium had an engine built in Japan, whilst Millen, who is contesting the Pacific-Asian Championship used an engine built by a Swedish tuner. Other 323s were driven by Ray Wilson/Bob Saunders and Neil Allport/Jim Robb.

Mitsubishi was represented by Ralliart Australia with a Galant for Ross Dunkerton and Fred Gocentas, a pair also contesting the Pacific-Asian series, whilst Ford man Brian Stokes, twice a national champion, drove a Sierra Cosworth 4×4 with Jeff Judd. Also in a Galant, rather than the Sierra Cosworth which he had originally entered, was Finnish Group N exponent Tommi Mäkinen with his usual co-driver Seppo Harjanne.

Although there had been considerable rain during the practice period, mostly in the early days, the roads had suffered little, if any damage. Like those of Finland, they have good foundations and drain quickly. Those in the western part of the country were a little soft, perhaps, but those of the eastern sections remained hard and, if anything, abrasive, resulting in fairly rapid tyre wear.

The opening “superspecial” stage was, as most of these are, nothing more than academic. As we’ve often said before, you can’t win much on these preliminary tests, but you can certainly lose a lot if you aren’t careful. Alén, Auriol and Kankkunen were jointly quickest, two seconds ahead of Sainz and Carlsson.

The next morning, Sainz took the lead and kept it all the way to the finish, although both Kankkunen and Auriol were constantly snapping at his heels. It was a fight in which serious mechanical failures played little part, and the result was a furious battle which held everyone’s attention.

After losing half a minute due to a spin, Auriol decided to completely revise the set-up of his Lancia. He was new to New Zealand’s roads and had been unable to carry out any worthwhile, high-speed testing in advance. Both rear camber and front spring stiffness were changed, and the result was a car which his team-mates would not have liked, but it seemed to suit Auriol, for he began matching Sainz’ times occasionally.

Sainz needed a new door window — it simply smashed as he closed the door — whilst both Kankkunen and Auriol had brake defects, the former due to a small hydraulic lead and the latter when a pipe union came undone. The Frenchman also lost time when his windscreen wipers failed just as it began to rain!

During the Thursday there were heated words exchanged at some controls when co-drivers, mostly early runners, found that some marshals were not exactly familiar with the job of filling in time cards. However, a word in the ear of a senior official later resulted in an immediate directive and control efficiency improved considerably afterwards. Alén’s engine began overheating after its turbocharger intercooler pump failed, whilst a bad tyre choice left him with no tread at all after just ten miles.

It was not long before Bourne’s rally came to an end. Subaru preparation had been rather rushed because the cars only arrived two days before the start, and matters were made worse when he blew an engine during a test session, necessitating a hasty rebuild of a replacement. He could not have been particularly surprised, therefore, when his car began leaving a dense smoke trail. Very quickly afterwards, the engine blew and he was out.

Millen lost some road time after some difficulty was experienced replacing a broken strut, whilst team-mate Carlsson suffered the ignominy of running out of petrol. It was hardly his fault, as the gauge was found to be faulty, but considerable time was lost as he waited in a stage for a mechanic to run some two miles with a jerrycan. At the end of the day, he was down in 48th place, last but two, and facing the prospect of being baulked by slower back-markers.

Towards the end of the day, Mäkinen’s exhaust pipe loosened at the front and the hot blast melted his radiator, boiled the fluid in his clutch master cylinder and destroyed his alternator diodes. Miraculously, thanks to a long road section, things were put right with no loss of road time, but the alternator change had to be deferred until the next day.

Fassina’s foray from Italy came to a premature end when an electrical defect stopped his Toyota, whilst Wilson’s Mazda came to a halt due to a blown piston.

At Rotorua, where plumes of steam erupt from hot sulphur springs in the surrounding countryside, Sainz’ lead over Kankkunen was just 18 seconds. Auriol was another 69 seconds behind, and Alén another 34. Australian driver Dunkerton led the Antipodeans, in fifth place.

The next day, Sainz showed that he was not content with his slim separation from Kankkunen and made a series of best times to move further ahead. The Lancia drivers also pulled out all the stops but it seemed that they could make no impression on the Spaniards and their Toyota. Signs of body damage, though not serious, bore witness to their efforts. Auriol had even spent a little time caught up in a fence. Dunkerton had a slipping clutch replaced, whilst Millen was having a trying time indeed coping with failure after failure of turbochargers. It seemed that a whole batch of them had not been put together correctly, and they were blowing one after the other. Eventually, an older, well-used unit was installed and that held together.

Stokes put his Sierra off the road and when he found that he could not get back up the steep bank he simply drove on, down into a field and promptly found a gate through which he returned to the road.

Auriol lost time when front differential failure left him with rear-wheel-drive only for some five miles, whilst Alén had his turbocharger changed after he complained that his engine was down on power. Earlier, the Finn had to a pay a considerable on-the-spot fine for speeding, no doubt reminding him of his similar transgression in 1977 when he outran a police car, only to be confronted at his hotel very quickly afterwards.

Mäkinen’s rally ended when his head gasket blew, no doubt having been damaged as a result of the previous day’s overheating. The Group N lead was then taken over by Meekings who, during the day, had suffered a broken strut, an inadvertently disconnected intercom, and engine overheating which could only be kept just below the danger mark by full use of the car heater.

Carlsson had been making progress through the field, helped by a stewards’ decision quite the reverse of those made by their counterparts in other World Championship events. Rather than run among the back-markers, he had been allowed to take a spot immediately behind the last of the seeded drivers.

The journey back to Auckland, via a short stop at Hamilton, began with a little ground frost here and there. Surfaces were slippery, but due to being soft rather than frozen. Kankkunen went off the road twice in his efforts to catch Sainz, and the latter simply extended his lead from 40 seconds to almost a minute and a half.

Auriol’s gearbox, which was not changed the previous evening as there had been no time, was leaking oil, and this was not at all appreciated by those behind him who found oil on the road at stage starts. He was still pushing hard to get ahead of his Finnish team-mate, though his chances were slim as Kankkunen also had the bit between his teeth.

Alén cracked a brake disc but everything else seemed fine. By this time, he had no chance of improving on his fourth place, but was well clear of those behind, so he spent the remainder of the rally testing, sometimes running without a spare wheel.

Dunkerton had been indulging in corner-clipping, sometimes lifting inside wheels over ditches in the fashion of Europeans, but he did this in one place where it should not really have been attempted. A wheel went into the ditch and the car promptly rolled, coming to a stop upside-down on a tree stump. The driver was trapped in the car for some time, until a concerted effort by many hefty arms wrenched the steering column out of his way so that he could be hauled out, fortunately unhurt.

With just the six stages of the final day left, Sainz still had a lead of almost a minute and a half over Kankkunen, whilst Auriol was another 35 seconds behind. By this time, the two Lancia drivers realised that there was little to gain by continuing to push, and everything to lose by even a small mistake. On the other hand, Kankkunen knew that he could very well take the lead if Sainz suffered a mishap, so even if he did ease off, he certainly kept it to himself.

The only battle left by this time was between Allport and Stokes who had started the day in fifth and sixth places, just nine seconds apart. Allport all but lost the fight when he ditched, but Stokes also had a mishap when he lost a tyre and dropped something like three minutes. Not only did he fail to get ahead of Allport, but he allowed Millen to get in front of him. Behind him, Carlsson had done remarkably well to climb through the field to eighth place.

Run in splendid countryside on superb special stages, the New Zealand Rally certainly deserves its place in the World Championship, and not just what FISA considers to be the second rank. The sooner both championships are based on exactly the same series of events, with New Zealand included, the better.

The situation in the makes series remains as it was after the Acropolis Rally with Toyota leading Lancia by just three points, but among the drivers Sainz has increased his lead from seventeen points to twenty-two. Even though there are seven more drivers’ events to go, it must be psychologically reassuring that this difference is greater than the number of points allocated to a rally winner. — GP


Results (top five): New Zealand Rally, 26-30 June 1991

1. Carlos Sainz (E) / Luis Moya (E) (Toyota Celica GT-4, Gp A) 6h 57m 18s

2. Juha Kankkunen (SF) / Juha Piironen (SF) (Lancia Delta Integrale, Gp A) 6h 58m 33s

3. Didier Auriol (F) / Bernard Occelli (F) (Lancia Delta Integrale, Gp A) 6h 59m 36s

4. Markku Alén(SF) / Ilkka Kivimäki (SF) (Subaru Legacy RS Turbo, Gp A) 7h 03m 02s

5. Neil Allport (NZ) / Jim Robb (NZ) (Mazda 323 GT-X, Gp A) 7h 28m 19s

World Championship Situation:

Drivers (top five after 7 of 14 rounds): Carlos Sainz (E) 95 pts; Juha Kankkunen (SF) 73 pts; Didier Auriol (F) 54 pts; Massimo Biasion (I) 39 pts; Markku Alén (SF) 30 pts

Makes (top five after 5 of 10 rounds): Toyota 57 pts; Lancia 54 pts; Subaru 18 pts; Ford 14 pts; Nissan 10 pts