Seconds out. . .
Rallying doesn’t come much closer than this. Argentina witnessed an epic battle between the WRC’s top two protagonists
There have been many close tussles in the World Rally Championship, even on such a high penalty event as the Safari, which once recorded a dead heat and required the tie-breaker to be invoked to decide the winner. But there can be very few events indeed, World Championship or otherwise, in which the performances of two crews have been so closely matched that, even on the last day, they changed positions almost stage by stage.
So it was in Argentina this year, when the sixth round of the World Championship produced an amazingly close and dramatic tussle. Over the 29 special stages totalling 351 miles the lead changed hands several times, Didier Auriol (Toyota) and Carlos Sainz (Subaru) swapping places almost as often as they changed tyres, even on the last day.
There was no question of easing off to avoid risks. The margin was so small that an absolutely flat-out pace had to be maintained right to the end of the final stage, when a margin of six seconds meant a performance difference measured at considerably less than 0.02s per mile.
The remarkably close finish was highly dramatic, appreciated immensely by the enthusiastic crowds to whom rally winners are national heroes, no matter what their nationality, and causing tension among the two teams concerned such as has rarely been seen before.
Unlike 1993, when the only full teams present were those of Toyota and the Jolly Club, plus a single car from Ford for Biasion, this year three major teams made the trip, plus that of Mitsubishi Germany. Local interest is at a high level in Argentina and no less than 90 cars crossed the start ramp.
Toyota sent two Celica Turbos for Juha Kankkunen/Nicky Grist and Didier Auriol/ Bernard Occelli. For Kankkunen and Grist it was something of a special anniversary, for it was on this event last year that they first formed their partnership after Juha Piironen, Kankkunen’s co-driver since 1986, suffered a brain haemorrhage during the practice period and needed emergency surgery. We are happy to record that his slow but steady recovery is going well and that his reputation as a dedicated professional and one of rallying’s gentleman comedians continues. Both drivers were recent winners of the rally, Auriol in 1992 and Kankkunen in 1993.
Subaru, represented as on most World Championship events by the UK Prodrive outfit, sent two 555 Imprezas for Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya and Colin McRae/Derek Ringer. Sainz considers this event as one of his favourites. Not only has he won it once before, but he feels almost as much at home in Spanish-speaking Argentina as he does in his homeland. For both McRae and the Subaru team itself it was a new experience.
Ford Motorsport, representing the only major car manufacturer still operating its own in-house team, entered three Escort RS Cosworths. Two of them were for Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero and Bruno Thiry/Stéphane Prevot. The third, the crew of which was undecided until the Acropolis Rally, was driven by Ari Vatanen/Fabrizia Pons, who drove a Schmidt-prepared car to fifth place in Greece. Biasion has three times won the rally in the past, but for Vatanen the memory of Argentina is quite different. Nine years ago he crashed very seriously, came close to losing his life and was out of the sport for a considerable time.
Apart from its Boreham operation, the continuation of which is currently under review by the company, Ford also uses outside preparation shops, some run by ex-Boreham mechanics (Gordon Spooner, for example) and some not. Thiry’s car, for instance, fitted with the sequential gearchange system, was prepared by RAS in Belgium, whilst those of Biasion and Vatanen were Boreham products. Thiry, who did his recce in a standard road car, was driving an Escort Cosworth on dirt roads for the first time.
Two Group N Escort Cosworths were taken to Argentina by Mike Little Preparations for Argentinian Peugeot crews whose 405s were not ready in time. These were Carlos Menem Jnr/Victor Zucchini and Jorge Bescham/Jose Garcia. Bescham’s car was actually Menem’s re-prepared recce car and it was the first time that he had used a 4wd car, or even a turbocharger, on a rally. MLP did not have to prepare a car for Mohammed bin Sulayem, for the Emirates driver had decided to give the event a miss in favour of concentrating on Middle East events.
Mitsubishi Ralliart chose (or, more likely, the choice was made for it by the budget allocation of the outfit’s Japanese overlords) not to go to Argentina. However, the virtually independent Mitsubishi Germany is committed to winning the World Championship Ladies’ Cup for Isolde Holderied, and so took a Group N Lancer Evolution for the German girl and her Swedish co-driver Tina Thörner. They went a step further by taking a second Group N car for Argentinian pair Jorge Recalde/Martin Christie. The team was wise not to divide its entries between Groups A and N, for that would have seriously increased the spare parts requirement.
That eminent adventurer Rudi Stohl from Austria took his Audi Quattro S2 straight from Greece, where son Manfred had driven it until its gearbox failed. His co-driver was Berliner Peter Diekmann. Apart from the Safari, this was Stohl’s first event since the Rally of Argentina in 1993. Spaniards Jesus Puras/Carlos del Barrio drove a Group N Ford Escort Cosworth whilst other locals Gabriel and Juan Raies and Luis Oxoteguy each drove a locally made Group A Renault 18 GTX and Gustavo Ramonda/Horacio Berra a Group N Mitsubishi Galant.
Last year was the second of a two-year contract which the organisers had signed with the city of Tucuman, where the rally then began. But this meant an unpopular run-out southwards to the competition area around Cordoba, where the country’s rallying enthusiasm is largely centred. That was not the case this year when start, finish and rally headquarters were all located at Cordoba, doing away with the need for a long, tedious, non-stage road section. Although the start was in the city, HQ was at the football stadium of Carrera, just outside.
The event was divided by two night stops into three legs, containing 11, 11 and seven stages respectively. The third leg was somewhat more sandy than the other two, giving rise to much dust, but there was some wind this year to blow it away fairly quickly, so there was not a lingering visibility problem (nor the bickering between drivers) such as that of last year when dust clouds hung in the windless air for long periods. However, those who actually caught up with slower runners this year and were driving in the thick of their dust still had enormous problems passing.
The Thursday morning dawned with a stiff breeze blowing as crews prepared for the 8.15 start. For Menem, son of Argentina’s president who himself used to compete, it was a morning of dejection. As he engaged gear at the start of SS1, his Escort’s gearbox mainshaft broke and he was left with a noisy car that would not go anywhere.
On the first stage, a 12-miler, McRae was fastest by three seconds from Auriol, but his lead was short lived. On the next he hit a bank, lost about a minute and a half, picked up a minute of road penalty, and dropped to seventh place. On the other hand, Auriol also lost time when he hit a rock, breaking a wheel and knocking his steering out of line. Due to his Michelin foam-filled, anti-deflation inserts, the tyre did not deflate and he lost no more than an estimated 10s. After the stage there was no time to make a complete repair and, due to areas in which service was banned, it was not until after the fifth stage that a bent front strut could be replaced, the Frenchman having to endure very peculiar handling until then.
There were several water crossings on this stage and many people fell foul of either drowning their electrics or hitting stones beneath the surface. Puras was one whose engine stopped as a result of the water, whilst Biasion hit a rock and bent his front left suspension. A couple of miles after he’d had it fixed at service, his brakes failed and he had to make a swift backtrack to have a broken brake pipe replaced, but it cost him half a minute of road penalty. Ford’s Italian driver also felt that his centre differential was faulty but, as this was built into the gearbox which could not be changed until the end of the leg, he had to put up with it for the rest of the day. Later, Thiry experienced a misfire, as did Biasion, the latter’s persisting for two stages between which no service was allowed.
McRae’s radiator fan had not been working properly since the start but, after the second stage, there was no time to change it and the engine ran hot for a while, especially on the fifth stage which was twisty, the low speeds reducing the cooling airflow. In fact, the temperature rose so much on this stage that the engine computer cut power.
After a short stop at Jesus Maria, McRae collected a puncture, made worse by the fact that foam from the Pirelli EMI tyre (equivalent of the Michelin ATS) escaped. He also lost his power steering and when he arrived at the finish, almost a minute behind, a front wing was missing from the car.
Kankkunen dented his right bodywork against a rock, whilst Vatanen complained that his front brakes were not working and master cylinder replacement was subsequently carried out at the roadside. Later, a turbocharger pipe came off on a road section and, although it was refitted, it came off again on the last stage of the day, a spectator affair opposite the football stadium which served as both rally HQ and overnight closed park, costing the Finn about 20s or so.
During the day, Auriol had been slowly whittling down Sainz’s lead, but the Fords seemed to be getting nowhere, the highest placed being that of Thiry who was fourth. Indeed, after going out to watch on one stage, some of Boreham’s senior staff concluded that their cars had plenty of torque but not enough power at high rpm.
The cars of both Biasion and Vatanen were given new gearboxes at the end of the day, more for their integral centre differentials than anything else, whilst the Italian also had attention to his front brakes and the possible cause of an engine misfire.
Stohl arrived at Cordoba with a cracked windscreen caused by a thrown stone, as did IsoIde Holderied. The German girl was furious, but the experienced Austrian was unruffled and quite unperturbed, the same having happened to him several times in the past.
That evening, Sainz led by 20s from Auriol, whilst Kankkunen was another 43s back. Thiry came next, another 1m 39s in arrears, followed by McRae after 18s and Biasion after another 10.
McRae began the second day in fighting spirit, making best time on the first four stages, but on the fifth his rally came to a sudden end. He went off the road and hit the concrete edge of a culvert, ripping off his front left wheel and causing considerable other damage. He managed to struggle on with just three wheels, delaying Biasion in the process, but eventually the sumpguard and sump objected to being scraped along the ground and engine oil was dumped on the road, reducing pressure to zero and necessitating an immediate stop.
Meanwhile, Auriol had been wearing down Sainz’s lead. After four stages they were level and after the fifth, on which Sainz punctured one of his foam-filled tyres from which the sealant core became detached, the French Toyota driver was ahead. The Subaru’s imbalance affected the hydraulic pump of the power steering system, so that full power assistance was no longer available. He also needed a new turbocharger. A rear suspension arm loosened on Thiry’s car, causing a wheel to flap, whilst Kankkunen’s engine began misfiring badly and Biasion’s rear shock absorbers went soft. These problems occurred on a stage before a ‘no service’ road section so all three drivers had to complete another stage before their cars could get attention. If manufacturer advertising is to become anything approaching credible, we need more of these non-service sections so that car reliability becomes more important than it is today.
Sainz lost a little time due to two spins, breaking both a spoiler and a headlamp lens, whilst Kankkunen lost about a minute when his engine began misfiring.
After eight of the second day’s 11 stages, Sainz was back in the lead from Auriol, but just by a single second.
Since having his new gearbox and centre differential the previous evening, Vatanen was much happier with his car, although his brakes gave trouble on one stage due to a hydraulic leak from a slave cylinder. Biasion, on the other hand, still complained, saying that his car was just as unstable under braking as it had been the day before.
Vatanen suffered a sudden drop in engine power on the ninth stage of the day, losing about a minute, but this was found to be caused by no more serious a fault than a flattened exhaust pipe. This fixed, performance was back to normal, though serious overheating set in towards the end of the day, due to failure of the turbocharger water injection system. Kankkunen again experienced a misfire but, after the engine management computer and the fuel pumps were replaced, it ran properly again. Just before the last stage of the day, again near the Carrera football stadium, Biasion’s oil pressure suddenly dropped. There was no time for a proper diagnosis and repair so, with extra oil added, the Italian began the last stage. Alas, the engine failed and he was out of the rally.
Back at Cordoba at the end of the leg, Auriol had retaken the lead and was five seconds ahead of Sainz. Kankkunen followed after 2m 50s and Vatanen after another 3m 9s. Thiry was just three more seconds behind, followed after 8m 21s by Recalde.
When the third and final leg began on the Saturday morning, one could sense the tension among the teams of Toyota and Subaru. The crews themselves showed nothing, but management staff, even mechanics, were not their usually lighthearted selves. A lot was at stake and the odds were just about even. On the first stage, Sainz gained 5s on Auriol, which put them back on level pegging again, but immediately afterwards the Spaniard had two bent struts replaced, which indicated how hard he’d been pushing on that stage.
On the second stage Auriol moved ahead again, by just 4s, whilst Kankkunen, who had been holding a secure third place, experienced the 11th hour disappointment of having his engine suddenly stop. After much talking on the radio the engine finally fired up, but it stopped twice more before the end of the stage and refused to start. Thiry, who narrowly avoided a collision when he encountered Kankkunen’s car, spent some time having a broken wishbone mounting welded and picked up a 20s road penalty for being two minutes late, whilst Vatanen needed a new radiator after making a very heavy landing following a bump.
When the two leading teams were left with just one car apiece, all then depended on the duel at the front. Which of the two would emerge the leader at the end? On the other hand, would they push so hard that both would go off the road, giving victory to Vatanen or even Thiry? These were questions that many people had on their minds. The spectators understood the situation well enough and, although there was considerable support for Vatanen who had won the hearts of the Argentinians after his recovery from his injuries of nine years ago, no one really wanted a win by default. On the third stage of the day, where Vatanen had his accident in 1985, the lead changed hands yet again. Sainz gained 6s on Auriol and moved ahead by two seconds. With just four stages to go, the atmosphere was electric. Wild whoops greeted the cars as they went by. There seemed to be no favourite with the crowd. It mattered little to them who would win. Auriol and Sainz were providing an amazingly exciting spectacle. After a stage on which Auriol and Sainz set equal times came a half-hour stop at Santa Rosa. Then came a 28-miler on which Sainz’s anti-deflation tyre inserts broke loose again, causing a vibration which again affected the power steering pump. Smoke was seen coming from beneath the bonnet and, to cap it all, his windscreen cracked. Auriol, on the other hand, landed very heavily after a jump and was lucky that his shock absorbers survived, allowing him to move ahead again by 8s.
Stohl stopped to check the reason for an alarming rattle and found it to be due to the battery having fallen over. When he fixed this, all was well again and the Audi driver continued.
No service was allowed between the last two stages of the rally and when Sainz took 4s from Auriol on the first of them, thereby halving the Frenchman’s lead, the nervousness and tension among the two leading teams matched the excitement of the crowds.
Soon, it was all over. Auriol beat Sainz by 2s on the final stage and thereby won by six, an infinitesimal margin on an event of this nature. It had been as close a fight as any in the World Championship and one which drove the appreciative Argentinian crowds almost wild with delight. That the Celica beat the lmpreza meant very little in the long run. Both cars are just about equally matched, and both have the edge over the Escort Cosworth. Sainz moves ahead in the drivers world championship after holding equal first place with Kankkunen after the Acropolis, whilst Auriol moves up to second place, only five points adrift. Among the makes, Toyota stays ahead, having increased its lead over Subaru by three points. Some 16 points now separate these two, with four rounds left to be held, in New Zealand, Finland, Italy and Great Britain. G P