The Bandama Rally and the Tour of Corsica
Two world championship rallies have taken place since last month’s review was written, the Bandama Rally in West Africa’s Ivory Coast and the Tour of Corsica on that French administered Mediterranean island which has a character so markedly half Italian and half French. The outcome of these two events was an obsolute clinching of the Championship series by Fiat, although even before there could hardly have been anyone prepared to bet that the Italian team would not become champions again.
There were no cars from Turin in the Ivory Coast, save for one entered by Fiat France which didn’t finish anyway, but Fiat’s rivals scored no points either, so the result didn’t really matter. In Corsica, the Italian team took first, second, third and fifth places, making absolutely sure that no one would be anywhere near them in the points list. Indeed, of the ten events which had been held when this was written, they entered eight and won no less than six.
The Bandama Rally was in the series for the first time, replacing the New Zealand event which was dropped so undeservedly after its fine showing in 1977. We are pleased to record that the New Zealand Rally will be back in the series in 1979.
Since the Ivory Coast is former French territory its major rally generates considerable publicity in France. Furthermore, it is one of the rough events which are regularly tackled by the Peugeot team, and that factory sent a strong force to Abidjan. They remembered the humility of being beaten by Mitsubishi last year, and took every step to make sure that the same didn’t happen again, though there were no Japanese teams this year, not even from Datsun.
Renault sent two of their little R5 Alpines and, at the last moment, Fiat France decided to send a 131 Abarth and brought team manager Jean Vinatier back into the role of competitor to drive it. The only other entry of significance was that of an Opel Ascona from the factory to be driven by that exponent of endurance rallying from Kenya, Shekhar Mehta.
Alas, both the Fiat and the Opel left the fray early, the Fiat when it was almost destroyed by a lorry which turned across its path when Vinatier was in the act of overtaking, and the Opel when cam followers, clutch and finally camshaft itself gave up. This left the Peugeots and the Renaults, and although it seemed at one time that Jean Ragnotti, that fine driver and ebullient comedian who works as a film stunt driver, might even have challenged for the lead, the little car couldn’t match the V6 Peugeots. Nevertheless, Ragnotti finished in a fine third place, followed two places later by his team-mate Guy Frequlin.
Initially it was Timo Mäkinen who led, but suspension and drive shaft failure set him back and he finished second behind team-mate Jean-Pierre Nicolas. Nicolas has had a remarkable year, driving Porsches, Peugeots, Fords and Opels. He has won the Monte-Carlo Rally, Safari and the Bandama, and is as much at home on car-breaking desert tracks as on the ice of the French Alps or the tarmac roads of Corsica. He can easily switch from car to car, and he is well liked by team managers and mechanics since he is by no means a difficult man to work with. On the contrary, he is always readily co-operative and is prepared to tackle anything his team manager wants.
There was a time when the Bandama Rally had special stages, but it now copies the simple but effective formula of the Safari Rally which times everything in minutes and steadfastly refuses to resort to seconds whilst there is no need. The event is run by enthusiasts in a country populated by enthusiasts, but in budget-conscious times it could be that a cost level which produces a bill for £3,000 for just a month’s rental of a medium-sized saloon car may deter competitors who would otherwise want to go.
Corsica is a rugged, mountainous, often tempestuous island which France guards with more police and troops per square kilometre than anywhere on the mainland. There is a strong Italian influence there, but in the main the islanders would like to be neither one nor the other of its nations of origin; they are Corsican, and that’s the end of it, even if the CSI does take a liberty by referring to the Tour of Corsica as the Rallye de France.
With four works 131 Abarths, two in Alitalia colours and two in the tricolour stripes of Fiat France, Fiat was the strongest team in Corsica, although there were two works Stratos on loan, another private version, a cluster of private but powerful Porsches, a factory Opel and several from Conrero, several old Alpine-Renault A110’s and, making a significant sortie to show the mettle of their Triumph TR7 V8s on this all tarmac event, a two-car team from BL Cars in Abingdon.
Alas, the British team, with Tony Pond and Frenchman Jean-Luc Therier as drivers, never got to the point where it could show its worth, for both cars retired in the very early stages with gearbox failures caused in most mysterious circumstances.
The two Triumphs were driven some 300 miles before getting to their base at Bastia on the North-East coast of Corsica. In that distance no faults showed up and there was no cause for concern. However, after being left overnight in the supposedly guarded closed park at the harbourside, they started the rally at 1 p.m. on the Saturday and almost at once their gearboxes ran hot, they left smoke trails and eventually retired. Both cars were found to have loosened gearbox drain plugs, and since each was prepared by different mechanics the chances of the plugs being left loose by mistake were very remote indeed.
At Bastia the BL team stayed in an isolated hotel outside the town, and the two Triumphs were parked in the rather dark hotel car park the night before scrutineering, and left in the official closed park during the night before the start. It could well be that someone tampered with the cars, but there is no firm evidence of that, of course.
In contrast, the Fiat team used a closed garage where their cars were locked up each night, whilst for some reason or another they obtained official dispensation from the need to leave their cars in the closed park on the eve of the start. Instead, they turned up for scrutiny early on the Saturday morning, and only then were they parked in line with the others.
Amazingly enough there were 116 eventual starters despite a strike by French seamen which brought ships from Marseille and other South of France ports to a standstill. French mainland crews became concerned, but Corsica Ferries was still sailing from Italian ports and most of them shipped their cars that way.
With the unknown quantity represented by the Triumphs out of the fray the event became a Franco-Italian affair, for Nicolas’s Group 2 Opel was no match for the Group 4 Fiats. Initially it was Munari who took the lead, but a suspension misalignment which caused excessive tyre wear slowed him and the lead was taken over by the French driver Andruet. Early in the second half he had to stop for a gearbox change and this brought a road penalty which let Darniche into the lead, which he never lost. Darniche, although French, was driving one of the official works-entered cars in Italian colours.
Corsica’s road network is tortuous to say the least, and the organisers use much of it in this 24-hour event which is as much race as rally. There were just six special stages, but they were supplemented by four very long “impossible” sections which were as near stages as made no difference. Furthermore, many of the road sections were very much on the tight side, and the whole thing was more a road race disguised as a rally than anything else. In Corsica such an event is received with enthusiasm and supported by the authorities, but it would not be allowed on the French mainland.
Legislation has attemped to thwart Mother Nature by telling us that we must not distinguish — sorry, discriminate — between male and female, but the fact remains that there have been very few women rally drivers who have been able to match the performance of their men counterparts. Among the women rallying today there is just one who can command the respect of leading professional drivers and hold her own among the strongest World class opposition. Michèle Mouton from Grasse has driven a variety of cars which are by no means easy to handle at high speed, including Stratos and Alpine, but she is invariably among the leaders and is far quicker than most of the male competitors in any event. In Corsica she drove one of the Fiat France 131 Abarths and finished a most commendable fifth.
Results, Bandana Rally, Ivory Coast, Africa, October 21-24 (top five):
1. J-P Nicolas/Michel Garnet (Peugeot 504 V6) (4) — 2hr 30min
2. T Mäkinen/J Todt (Peugeot 504 V6) (4) — 2hr 57min
3. J Ragnotti/J-M Andrié (Renault 5 Alpine) (2) — 3hr 40min
4. S Lamoinen/A Aho (Peugeot 504 V6) (4) — 5hr 06min
5. G Frequelin/J Delaval (Renault 5 Alpine) (2) — 5hr 39min
51 starters, 9 finishers
Results, Tour of Corsica, (WRC), November 4-5 (top five):
1. B. Darniche/A Mahé (Fiat 131 Abarth) (4) — 6hr 47min 34sec
2. J-C Andruet/”Biche” (Fiat 131 Abarth) (4) — 6hr 51min 59sec
3. S Munari/M Mannucci (Fiat 131 Abarth) (4) — 6hr 52min 59sec
4. J Alméras/C Perramond (Porsche Carrera) (4) — 6hr 57min 44sec
5. M Mouton/F Conconi (Fiat 131 Abarth) (4) — 6hr 58min 12sec
116 starters, 37 finishers