Rally review - Ivory Coast Rally, December 1981

When this issue of Motor Sport is published the World Rally Championship of 1981 will be settled. At the time of writing, October’s Ivory Coast Rally has taken place but the Lombard RAC Rally, the final round in November, has not.

There was a chance that the series would be settled in the Ivory Coast, leaving no climax for the last qualifier, but that didn’t happen, for the otpected tussle between Finn An Vatanen and Frenchman Guy Frequelin petered out to almost nothing and neither scored enough ptiints to settle the outcome.

Some of the 12 events in the World Championship are able to stand on their own feet and attract entries without the additioruil pull of the seri.. They need no prop for they generate enough publicity in their own tight to make the prospect of a win attraction enough, even for teams with no declared interest in the World series.

The RAC Rally, for instance, invariably gathers a field consisting largely of competitors, professional and otherwise, who are interested only in their results on that one event, not any series as a whole, and the same can be said of the Monte-Carlo and the Safari, although the latter does have the disadvantage of being at a costly distance from the rallying centres of Europe. The Ivory Coast also has that disadvantage, but by no means has the popularity of the other rallies we have mentioned, which means that its organisers are very hard pressed indeed to gather a worthwhile field of entrants.

FISA bans rule which provides that in order to here-elected to the series the following year each event must have at least 50 starters. That rule has been ignored by its makers whenever it has suited them but on this occasion the taming of a blind eye was not necessary because at the final count there were 51 cars leaving the start ramp.

But this was by no means an honest figure and it was perfectly obvious that a last minute recruiting campaign had been mounted in order to achieve the required number of starters. Even the Rothman’s team was persuaded put numbers on the sides of Vatanen’s practice car, but when the rally started it failed to complete the first easy liaison section, a simple run of 40 non-competitive kilometres on tarmac. It was not alone by any means, for of the 51 starters only 33 arrived at the end of that first easy section.

The main protagonists were the Rothmans team with a Ford Escort for An Vatanen, the Peugeot team with V6-engined 504 Coup. for Guy Frequelin and local driver Ambrosino, and the Datsun team with Violet GTs for Tim Salonen, Shekhar Mehta and local driver Mitri. This was the entire strength ill World Championship interest, some after points in the Drivers’ series and some in the series for manufacturers.

Frequelin usually drives a Tali.., but since that seam had amassed enough points to leave Datsun with only a very theoretical outside chance of moving ahead, even with two rallies to go, the Peugeot • Talbot hierarchy decided that they should go to French-speaking Ivory Coast With a French crew and a French-built car.

The Toyota team was also there with Celicas for Per Eklund and Bjorn Waidegard, whilst that indefatigable French privateer Bob Neyret had no less than four cars sponsored by Gitanes, two Porsche 924s for Marianne Hoepiner and actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, an Alpine-Renault A310 for himself and a Mitsubishi Lancer Turbo for his son Stefane.

The 5,000-odd kilometre event is based on the format of the Safari, with no special stages and the entire competition based on open road sections. This works very well in Kenya but much less so in the Ivory Coast where opposing traffic was a distinct problem even though the organisers had tried to avoid populated areas and had opted for more nighttime running rather than the daytime which was more prominent last year. The latter move only works when road traffic obeys lighting laws, and when truck drivers decide to keep going even after their lights have failed the dangers arc increased rather than reduced.

The whole event was stretched between Monday and Saturday, for the rest stops were considerable, and from start to finish the event lasted a day longer than the Safari which is of comparable distance.

Start and finish were at Abidjan on the coast, whilst the two main stops were at Yamoussoukro, a rather insignificant inland town which boasts a somewhat out-of-place hotel of considerable capacity perhaps only because the town happens to be the president’s birthplace.

The West African terrain is rather more vegetated than that of East Africa, and although it does have plenty of straight, fast roads, dense bush does rather reduce length of vision. There are few of the vast open plains which Kenya has, none of the steep escarpments such as those around the Rift Valley, and nothing like the steep, twisty climbs through the Chevanganis or the Taita Hills.

The weather invariably plays a major part in determining the course of events in Africa, for many roads can be used only in dry weather. Even tarmac roads can become impassable during violent storms which cause floodwater to rise in minutes.

Much of the going in this year’s Ivory Coast Rally was dry, although rain in certain areas did leave sticky mud holes in its wake and competitors had to seek help from African bystanders — and pay for it, incidentally — use their own winches or get together with rivals to push their cars out of the mud in turn. This usually works quite well, although the crew of the last can left in the mud will invariably be concerned lest they be left behind by people prepared to accept help but not so ready to give it. A concentrated and violent thunderstorm during the first leg of the rally separated the field, and when Frequelin dropped back after suspension repairs the two Toyotas of Eklund and Waldegard were able to move ahead and stay in front of she storm. They had the advantage of running on dry roads whereas those behind were slowed by rain and wet, slippery roads. Consequently they were able to open out a not inconsiderable lead.

It was Waldegard who moved ahead of his team-mate Eklund. but before the rally reached its first main stop at the end of the first leg his Celica had ground to a noisy stop with seized main engine bearings. There had been no loss of oil, and mechanics assumed that the oil pick-up pipe had become blocked or pinched.

By this time all was certainly not well among the title-chasers. Frequelin had lost time with suspension problems, and later lost much more, whilst Vatanen had all but been put out of the rally by a truck which came at him around a bend, using far more of the road than was necessary. He could not avoid hitting the truck, and she Escort almost embedded itself beneath the front of the big vehicle.

Damage was considerable; even worse was the fact that they could not separate the can from the lorry, whose driver had fled from the scene. When Frequelin came along, the extra help managed to prise the two vehicles apart, and much was made in the French press of this apparently sporting g.ture by Frequelin to his biggest rival. Without wishing to detract from his sportsmanship, we have to point out that the road was blocked and he had no choice basso stop to help to get the Escort out of the way. In any case, its damage was so severe that it didn’t appear that it would go on in the rally.

But Vatanen and Richards fettled the can and struggled on. Mechanics worked wonders to keep it mobile, and although they lost much time and were obliged to take things easy on rougher sections, they stayed just within their exclusion time limit to finish ninth of the nine finishers. One of their difficulties — not to mention steering, suspension, bodywork, lights, cooling, etc. — was the failure of the windscreen wipers, not that there was much rain ahead, but there certainly were wet roads and plenty of mud. Forward vision was restored in these places by Richards manipulating a piece of string running through the windows of the can and tied to the wiper arms.

Later, other difficultiru compounded the situation, and it is to Vatanen’s credit, and that of his mechanics, that he was able to finish at all. However, the Rothmans people must be wondering whether the whole operation of sending a whole teagm to West Africa was worth just two championship points to Frequelin’s eight.

Up front the fight was between the Japanese teams. Salonen (Datsun) and Eklund (Toyota) were having quite a tussle, but as the rally progressed Eklund was troubled by a worrying oil leak from the differential and he dropped back. Indeed, at one time he was down to third place, sandwiched between Mehta and Mitri. The Datsun people began to raise hopes that perhaps Eklund would fall back even further leaving three Violets with the first three places.

But this was not to be. At one rather deep mud hole Toyota had positioned a Land Cruiser for the express purpose of helping any Toyota which got stuck. Datsun had no such 4-w-d assistance at that spot, for it is impossible to have blanket coverage along the whole route.

Salonen’s Datsun got through with the aid of a manual heave for which he had to pay the going rate — and earning push-money can be quite lucrative — but Eklund was not as fortunate and he got stuck in the middle. The Land Cruiser immediately got to work and was engaged in pulling the Celica out when along came Mchta. The vital requirement for getting through any mud patch is to keep moving. To stop is usually to get stuck, and one really has to enter the mud with quite some vigour in order that some momentum will survive the drag either mud and get the car through. Mehra attempted lode this, but the presence of both Celica and Land Cruiser blocked his path and he had to stop.

When the Celica was free of the mud the rope was unfastened and both Toyotas drove off, leaving Mehta rather angry that the vehicle which had caused him to get stuck had not returned to help him. However, it was part of a rival team after all. Most times there is a great deal of inter-team co-operation, but when enough chips are down it becomes every one for himself, as in all things.

The result gave Datsun the maximum score of 20 points in the World Championship, but to win the title they must also have won the RAC Rally, and against all the talent in that event the chances will have been rather slim.

We cannot end this review wnhout mentioning a freak incident which. though it did not affect the rally itself, served to immobilise a film crew covering it.

Using both ground and air transport. the crew were waiting at an isolated airstrip fan the return of the twin-engined light aireraft which they had chartered, and they had parked their estate car alongside the end at the strip a’ wards which the aircraft would be landing. When it arrayed as seemed lo approach a little on the high side, leaving insufficient run-on distance in which to brake.

After landing it veered from side to side, then lathe great alarm of those watching it ran straight into the waiting estate car putting both aircraft and car out of action .d scattering the watchers like ninepins.

We have heard of all manner of incidents with aircraft, both amusing and serious, and taxying accidents are not exactly uncommon. but this is the first time we have heard of an aircraft landing and running straight into the car whieh was meeting it.

For 19132 the Ivo, Coast Rally has been dropped from the Driver’s Championship and kept only in the manufacturers’ series. Undoubtedly FISA will conveniently ignonoek. the an blatt use of he entn r es to swell the ranks of starters. — G.P.