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Time was when nearly all French rallies, save those which took place in Winter, were very close to being road races, the division into stages and the siting of controls being done in order to satisfy laws which forbade road racing. The Alpine Rally, with its complex permutations of special stages and selectifs, often overlapping, was the last of these very fast summer events on the narrow, tortuous, tarmac roads of the Alps and all that now remains on the French mainland is a handful of short events which use the same special stage up to ten times or so.
Summer events in the French mountains suffered greatly at the hands of the local authorities who were reluctant to allow the closure of public roads at times when they would be in great demand by tourist traffic and even more reluctant to allow rally cars to mix it with other traffic on the sections between stages, which were often nearly as fast.
The Alpine Rally, and others of its kind, have gone, but there is one place where enthusiasm for rallies akin to mountain road races is still sufficiently high to convince authorities that they should he allowed. That place is Corsica.
Corsica is a rather special piece of French territory, for its islanders do not consider themselves French at all, much as Manxmen are jealous of their birthright. An island with considerable Italian influence to be seen in its place names, the names of the inhabitants and even their language and dialect, Corsica has an atmosphere which is almost colonial and a pretty large chunk of the population resents being ruled at long range by a government seated in Paris. However, these political matters never stopped the Automobile Club of Corsica running an annual event called the Tour of Corsica, and they did not prevent the authorities giving their blessing to what was virtually a mountain road race.
Not so many years ago the Tour of Corsica was not part of the World Rally Championship and could therefore accept prototype cars. This was undoubtedly the hey-day of the event, for there was pretty well no limit on the type of car which could be entered and it was a highly exciting spectacle to see what were virtually sports/racing cars being driven on the limit of adhesion around the unguarded mountain roads.
Then came the manacles of homologation, for when the organisers applied for, and were granted, World Championship status they were obliged to limit all entries to cars of groups one to four and at once all those purpose-built mountain racers were barred from the event to which they were most suited. This took away much of the event’s attraction, and that is the case even now despite the presence of such cars as Lancia’s powerful Stratos and the little leech-like Alpine-Renaults.
For Lancia, the 1975 Tour of Corsica was of vital importance, for if they scored a place in the first four they would clinch the World Rally Championship. That would mean that they would be able to go to the RAC Rally without any worries about championship points, as they had last year, and instruct their drivers to go all out to win rather than to preserve their cars in places just high enough to score sufficient championship points. A Lancia did win the Tour, but it was not a works car and its drivers were not Italian. In fact, it was the car owned by the French Lancia importers which Bernard Darniche and Alain Mahé used to win the Tour de France a little earlier in the year. Darniche only found the necessary financial backing for the event about a month before the start, which was most fortunate for Lancia as neither of their own cars finished.
The Italian team felt, and quite rightly, that they had the best winning chance in Corsica, for their cars were the most powerful and their drivers, Munari and Pinto, had plenty of experience in such terrain as the Corsican mountains afforded. They therefore brought just two Stratos, both in the green and white colours of Alitalia, one with a 24-valve V6 engine (for Munari) and the other with a normal 12-valve engine. The water jets fitted to cool the brakes in Sanremo were no longer there; instead there were bigger Lockheed brakes to cope with the tremendous usage they get in fast mountain events—so much in fact that the discs glow almost white-hot when a car arrives at a control, after a steep descent.
Alpine-Renault, now with more Renault identity than ever before, brought three work cars and another on loan to Larrousse who was privately sponsored. Of the works-entered cars, two were A310s, bigger than the more familiar A110 but powered by the same basic engine. One of the 310s had a 16-valve engine for the first time in a major international rally and the other a normal engine. The third car was the 110 driven by Nicolas, a rather nostalgic appearance for the little cars are soon to be phased out of major competition by the factory (though not from production) as a result of the CSI decision to introduce minimum weight limits in each group from 1976. In its lightened trim for Corsica, the 110 weighed a mere 685 kilos.
Among the rest of the runners there were two well-prepared Asconas entered by the Marseilles-based, BP-backed Opel team, an Alfetta GT from Autodelta itself for French driver Andruet (1974 winner in a works Stratos) and a whole string of private and partially-backed cars numbering 77 in all. The car most predominant in the list was the Alpine-Renault A110, for it is light, agile and made mainly from readily available Renault parts, all of which must have considerable appeal to French amateurs with limited financial resources.
In 1974 the rally took place in December, after the RAC Rally, but this time it moved back to its early November date which meant that there was none of the sudden ice patches and odd bits of snow which caught out many drivers. But the weather did turn out to be varied; it was fine and sunny by day whilst at night rain came down in torrents sending streams of water cascading over the roads. Most cars had slicks and slightly grooved racing tyres available for use, but in the pouring rain there were several frantic changes taking place in the very little time there was available for service.
The make up of the rally was simple, with eight special stages on scratch timing and two long (150 km.) tests with target times–impossible ones, of course. Between these, time allowances were only just sufficient and if anyone had any trouble a penalty was the inevitable result. The whole took place in the mountainous Corsican interior from 1 p.m. on the Saturday to just after 3 p.m. on the Sunday. Start, finish and the three-hour half-way stop were at Ajaccio, the south-western seaport town where one may still visit the birthplace of Napoleon.
It was no surprise that Munari, the extremely polished Italian driver, rather edgy at times but fantastic to watch in action when he has simpatico, went into an early lead, but lost it all as a result of a momentary loss of rhythm between himself and his co-driver Mannucci. High in the mountains, they were within sight of the control in the valley far below when Munari asked Mannucci how far they had to go and how much time they had left. It is a normal thing for a driver to ask, for the answer tells him whether he still has to press on or whether he can ease up a little. After all, there is no sense in going really fast only to arrive early and have to wait outside the control for a few minutes. The section was not a scratch stage, on which there is no real time allowance, but a tight, difficult road section with a target time.
It was during this momentary break in the notes that a right-hand bend came up which was tighter than it appeared and the Stratos went off the toad, dropping some ten to fifteen feet. The car was not badly damaged but it was impossible to get it back to the road. The favourite was out.
Lancia’s hopes for twenty points went right down, for Pinto had severe suspension trouble after running with flat rear tyres early in the event. Later his clutch stopped working and although he finished the route by making clutchless gear-changes he had lost more road time than his maximum permitted lateness could absorb. Fortunately, Darniche was still running well so then we had the situation in which a large team of highly mobile, radio-controlled, Italian mechanics, tyre men and supervisors leap-frogged around the mountains to make sure that a French crew finished highly placed. Darniche managed to keep his lead, but only just, for the tenacious Nicolas was determined to give the Alpine A110 the going-away present which it deserved, outright victory in the only French event to qualify for the World Championship. The final margin between them was just 32 seconds.
The Tour of Corsica could be referred to as the nearest French equivalent of the Targa Florio, rendered different by the type of cars taking part, the positioning of controls here and there, and the running by night as well as day. The organisers desperately want the event to continue and to expand, but there were political demonstrations this year by those who want autonomy for the island, including the placing of tree trunks across some roads causing the cancellation of three special stages. Whether this will jeopardise the future of the rally remains to be seen. Among other championship rallies it is the cuckoo in the nest, but it will still be very sad indeed if it has to be dropped and certainly bring no advantage to the cause of Corsican self-government.-G.P.