Rally Review, December 1977

Fiat clinches World Championship in Corsica

At the beginning of the year, when Fiat was the only manufacturer to declare a firm resolve to tackle the World Rally Championship for Makes, announcing a programme taking in all but one of the eleven qualifying events, it was commonly felt that they would succeed. Since the championship began it had never really been hotly contested, for the financial drain of tackling every rally in the series, including forays outside Europe to Kenya, Canada and New Zealand, would be too much for most teams’ budgets to stand. Inevitably, one team would move ahead in the points scores as a result of successes in events which were entered solely on their own merit as good publicity catchers, and that team would then stay ahead to win the series.

With a strong team, first class drivers, a car which seemed to be as fast and as reliable as any, and a programme of ten rallies for which the budget must have been the envy of all other teams with an interest in the sport, all the odds were in Fiat’s favour, particularly as they seemed to have no regular opponent to challenge them in every qualifying round.

Small wonder, then, that the Italian team should have won the championship. They finally clinched the series on the Tour of Corsica in early November, just a fortnight before the RAC Rally of Great Britain. But the surprising thing was the doubt which remained concerning the outcome of the series right up until the finish of the last round but one. It was fully expected that, with their powerful resources backing them on ten events (the one they missed was the Safari), Fiat would have gone into an early lead without any significant challenge from anyone, for no other team was planning such a major onslaught on the series.

But early in the year they didn’t score as many points as they would have liked, and when Ford began to notch up a series of successes in the few events which they had entered as single sorties, without much thought for the series as a whole, it became obvious that the British team could well be a serious challenge to the Italians. Ford won the Safari, 1,000 Lakes and Acroplis, and there were good points scores in other events, and in mid-season the Boreham team moved marginally ahead of the incredulous Italians who had almost come to regard the series as rightfully theirs from the start.

Ford held meetings and a budget to tackle the remaining rounds of the series, hitherto not planned, was approved. Suddenly the World Championship took on a new significance. For the first time there was a real fight between two major works teams and the series was injected with energy and interest which it has never had before.

Ford and Fiat stayed closely matched at the top for a while, until the Sanremo Rally on Fiat’s home ground when the Italian team moved substantially ahead. In Corsica they scored maximum points and this was enough to assure them of victory no matter what the result of the last round, the RAC Rally. Corsica is a mountainous, Mediterranean mixture of French and Italian, governed by France but with strong Italian influences and an even stronger movement for breakaway from France and for independent government. There are often troubles on the island in this connection, but the annual spectacle of the Great Corsican Road Race, as the Tour is often called, is appreciated so much by Corsicans as well as mainland Frenchmen that none of these troubles is allowed to interfere with the running of the event.

Enthusiasm for motor competitions being so strong, among the authorities as well as the populace, it is possible to run a rally in Corsica in a manner which would encounter official disapproval, to say the least, in mainland France. The days of flat-out motoring all through the mountains on Alpine Rallies are well in the past, but in Corsica they live on. Indeed, the organisers go out of their way to give the event the flavour of a long-distance road race and make no secret of the fact that they have the Mille Miglia very much in mind when they lay out the route.

Base town alternates each year between Ajaccio in the South-West and Bastia in the North-East. This year it was Ajaccio’s turn, and the 26 hour event (from Saturday mid-day to Sunday afternoon) climbed and meandered its way all over the island, crossing and recrossing itself along steep and tortuous mountain roads. There were nine special stages and four much longer tests which were virtually special stages but which were given another title. Furthermore, some of the inter-stage road sections were so tight that even a quick stop for a brisk pouring-in of fuel would bring a danger of losing a minute at the next control. The whole thing was at an extremely fast pace, and the authorities co-operated by closing so much of the rally route to other traffic, including road sections, that service crews had difficulty getting from point to point.

The weather plays a big part in the event, for the island can experience bright sunshine, gales, thunderstorms and even snowfalls all in the space of an autumn day, but this year it stayed fine and sunny throughout, save for a sharp deluge at Ajaccio on the eve of the start, holding up scrutineering for some five minutes as the large crowd moved en masse into the quayside tent which was used as a vehicle inspection bay.

Fiat brought an armada of 131 Abarths to the event, whilst Ford fielded only two of its works Escorts. Lancia, now working even more in conjunction with the Fiat team as the two outfits move closer and closer towards total integration into one team (which might even include Ferrari eventually), brought three Stratos, whilst Peugeot sent three of their little 104 ZS saloons from the factory and Leyland two of their Triumph TR 7s from Abingdon.

Sandro Munari went into an early lead in his powerful Stratos, but retired early in the first half when he hit a patch of gravel which had been strewn across the surface of a bend by spectators. The car flew off the road and could not be extricated. With the favourite out of the running, eventual winner Darniche (Fiat), Bacchelli (Fiat), Pinto (Lancia) and Nicolas (Ford) began contesting for the lead. Nicolas gave the lie to the theory that a Fiat will always be quicker on twisty tarmac than an Escort (due to handling superiority) by staying up with the leaders, moving into second place for a while and making fastest time on more than one stage. Alas, after being delayed first by a deflated tyre and then a differential oil leak, his prop-shaft balance weights flew off and the severe vibration caused the shaft itself to fail, putting Ford’s only hope of points out of the rally. Long before, the second Escort of Brookes had gone out when it grounded on the steep apex of a hairpin and cracked its differential casing allowing the oil to pour out.

Of the two works TR7s, Pond’s retired on the very first stage when its gear selectors jammed, but Culcheth’s went on reliably, save for some minor troubles, to take eleventh place. Jean-Claude Andruet’s Fiat came to a stop on a hairpin when its battery finally ran out of power after alternator failure, whilst Timo Makinen put his Peugeot 104 off the road on the same hairpin as he went around the corner with eyes on the stricken Fiat. Team-mate Jean-Claude Lefebvre went on to win the Group 2 category and take a creditable tenth place overall.

Each year the Tour of Corsica emerges as a sort of hybrid event, half race and half rally. Taking this form causes no small problem for those who have to plat service arrangements, but perhaps it is the only form it can take and stay within traffic regulations. However, it would be better if the organisers and authorities were able to put their cards on the table and run the event openly for what it is, a road race. One envisages a race in four parts; Ajaccio to Bastia and back, the two-way journey being done twice but not necessarily along the same route. Time controls could be done away with, save for the start and finish of each part, and correct routing could be ensured either by a system of non-stop passage controls or even by simple road blocks. –G.P.