Ivory Coast Rally

TWO months ago we spoke of the drift towards very lean entry lists for World Championship rallies, and how the Rally of the Thousand Lakes was an exception to this — the Lombard RAC Rally is another outstanding exception. Since then there has been an event at the opposite extreme, illustrating that a rally can only hold interest proportional to the calibre of those who take part in it. Even the best symphony in the world needs a full orchestra to do it justice.

October’s Ivory Coast Rally, last qualifier but one of the World Championship for Drivers, drew such a poor response from competitors that there was a risk of not achieving the minimum of 50 which is needed for a qualifying round to keep its status the following year. There was an obvious injection of contrived entries just to make up the required starting number, and the number of early retirements really stuck out like a bandaged thumb. There were 51 starters, but only 16 were left after the first of four legs.

Were it not for the close fight between Opel’s Walter Rohrl and Audi’s Michele Mouton for the 1982 champion’s laurels there would have been little significance in the rally, and the Toyota team would have collected a one-two result similar to that which they scored in New Zealand earlier in the year.

Rohrl has a self-confessed dislike of endurance rallies, and is not particularly fond even of the Safari. After the Sanremo Rally, where he did not clinch the title, he made it clear that he was not prepared to go to the Ivory Coast, obviously figuring that whatever result Mouton achieved in West Africa he could still beat her points tally by his performance on the RAC Rally, the final round.

But his team and sponsors were not at all in agreement, and it took a waving of the contract to persuade the lanky German that it would not be wise to refuse. He is leaving Opel at the end of the year to drive for Lancia, but he still needed a car for the RAC Rally, and Opel would have been in a position not only to drop him from their team for that event but to prevent his driving any other make of car.

It looked decidedly sour after the Italian event was over but it turned out all right, for Rohrl won the Ivory Coast Rally even though he gained some of his lost assertion by “confusing” flight arrangements and turning up just before the start, with no time at all for any recce. All his notes were completed by his co-driver Christian Geistdorfer, who was driven around by Bruno Berglund, another Opel co-driver for this event.

The line-up in Abidjan was rather strange, for Opel’s second car was driven by Bjorn Johansson and Berglund, their purpose being to act as a competing chase crew backing Rohrl. The same tactics were employed by Audi, for the second Quattro was in the hands of Hannu Mikkola and Roland Gumpert, the latter being the team’s chief engineer, and they were there simply to render assistance to Mouton if she required it, and to make a switch of parts from one car to the other if that became necessary.

Mikkola’s regular partner Arne Hertz was in another Quattro, driven by Sanremo winner Stig Blomqvist, and their role was to drive ahead of the rally to report conditions by radio, and to wait at difficult spots to help the two girls if they became stuck.

But it turned out to be a mistake to have Gumpert in what was virtually a competing car. He was ill, could not read the notes properly and was not able to supervise vital servicing, with the result that Audi efficiency in the field was not up to its usual standard, although Blomqvist and Mikkola did sterling work in their chase cars.

By way of contrast, Toyota Team Europe put up a well engineered, smoothly organised effort rewarded by second and third places for their two Celicas, driven respectively by Per Eklund and Bjorn Waldegard. There had been a third car on the start line, driven by team manager Ove Andersson and team engineer Robbie Grondahl, but this was merely a practice car fettled for use as a chase car, there just to make up numbers at the request of the organisers, and it “retired” to go its own way half-way through the first leg. Even without really trying, at that point it was in twelfth place!

Lancia decided to give its rear-engined Rally a trial run on African roads — perhaps prior to a Safari entry next year — and sent one car for Adartico Vudafieri and Maurizio Perisinot. Alas its engine broke in the first leg, another in a growing list of engine failures which have stopped this model. The Italian pair’s practice period was cut short when their recce car broke and they were unable to get a replacement. Eventually, after some days, they were obliged to buy a Lada Niva of which the local Fiat importers are now proud owners!

Renault sent two of their R5 Turbos for Jean Ragnotti and Bruno Saby. The latter finished fourth, but Ragnotti retired most unfortunately when he arrived at a series of four jumps just when co-driver Jean-Marc Andrie was obliged to interrupt his notes to respond to a radio call. The car cleared the first three jumps, but landed heavily against the up-slope of the fourth, destroying a front suspension and breaking the steering column in two. Andrie was most despondent about this afterwards, but he need not have blamed himself so much. Co-drivers have made far worse errors in the past, and will doubtless continue to do so. In any case, it hadn’t entirely been his fault.

Dirt tracks form the basis of the Ivory Coast route, as rough, dusty (or muddy) and car-breaking as those of the Safari, but much narrower and more overgrown with vegetation. Indeed, the country is generally under more dense foliage than Kenya, which has vast, open plains not found in the Ivory Coast. Animals, too, are not as abundant as they are in the East — which is more than one can say of reptiles and insects — but more than making up for their absence as a road hazard is the number of trucks moving around the country at rally time. In the past this has proved extremely dangerous, but this year the risk of collision was far less and there were no reports of near misses.

Another feature of the Ivory Coast is its very high cost of living. Rented vehicles, for instance, cost a fortune, even if you can get any at all, and Audi considered it less expensive to ship its service vans from Germany rather than to rent them locally.

The start and finish of the rally were at the Hotel Ivoire, a substantial modern establishment on the shore of one of Abidjan’s network of lagoons and waterways connected to the sea. The first leg went northwards to Yamoussoukro, a town whose only distinction seems to be that it is the president’s birthplace and consequently has one large, modern hotel. Second and third legs went in loops starting and finishing at Yamoussoukro, one to the North close to the borders with Guinea and Mali, and one southwards to the port of San Pedro, passing close to the Liberian boarder. The fourth and final leg returned to Abidjan, the whole event spanning from the evening of Wednesday, October 27 to the afternoon of the following Monday.

The centre of all interest, of course, was the prospect of a duel between Rohrl and Mouton for vital championship points. The German’s dislike of the rally was well known, and many felt that this would affect his performance. On the other hand, it was Mouton’s first African endurance rally. What is more, she was under immense emotional strain, for she had been told the day before the start that her father had died.

Her first impulse on hearing this was to return home at once, but it was her father who had encouraged her most in the sport, providing her with her first car, an Alpine 110, so she said nothing and carried on, determined more than ever to add to her victories, just as he would have wished.

At the end of the first leg it seemed that this was exactly what she would do, for she was firmly in the lead, eight minutes ahead of her watchdog team-mate Mikkola. Rohrl was another twelve minutes back in third place, followed by Ragnotti, Johansson, Eklund and Saby. Waldegard was ninth, having been delayed by the need to change his gearbox and steering rack, and by electrical failures which occurred every time the car was driven through water. This also affected Eklund’s car, and it puzzled the Toyota people that this should happen in this event when it has never happened before, even though the car’s waterproofing has not been changed.

Both Renaults needed a variety of replacements, but there seemed to be little wrong with the Opels, although overheating was traced to mud splattering up and blocking the radiator, and it was a common sight throughout the remainder of the rally to sees mechanic playing a water jet through the grille of Rohrl’s car.

The Quattros were having clutch and differential problems, and slipping plates were being roughened by applications of Coke! However, their traction was superior on roads which were still slippery from the heavy rain which fell before the start. In any case, it was likely that Rohrl was playing his customary waiting game, preserving his Opel so that more tired and worn cars would be less likely to stop his final push.

In the second the chase cars of both Opel and Audi retired from the actual competition, Johansson’s Ascona when its cam drive broke and valves hit the pistons, and Mikkola after gearbox and differential failures. Mouton also needed a new rear axle, and there was an amusing incident at the hotel in Yamoussoukro when a radio message was phoned to the wrong room, and Samir Assef, a Toyota driver who had retired from the rally, prepared to take a Celica rear axle to the airport for a light aircraft flight up-country. Fortunately, the message then got to the correct room, and the Quattro axle did get to its destination.

All the Quattros were also having radiator leaks, and several changes took place during the course of the event. The radiators are actually mounted diagonally across the front left corners of the engine compartments. The central radiators are in fact turbocharger intercoolers.

In the third leg Mouton was still well in the lead, but since competitors were closed up at each rest stop the actual distance between them on the road was much less, and Rohrl made a bid to get ahead of Mouton so that he could have a dust-free run. By then the roads had dried and had become very dusty, with the added hazard of muddy ruts baking into trenches as hard as concrete.

The penalty gap between them became much less when the French girl had to stop for a radiator change, a broken driveshaft to be replaced, and a new gearbox. But at the start of the fourth leg there was great consternation when her Quattro refused to start, and even more time was lost when the fuel injection system was changed.

By this time the difference was marginal, and interest in a somewhat indifferent event was fired up tremendously by the prospect of a close, exciting finish. But that finish didn’t materialise, for Mouton overdid things a little and rolled the car. A radio message brought help in the form of Blomqvist and Hertz in the chase car, and mechanics in another. The car was righted, repaired sufficiently to continue, and off went the girls again, displaying a tenacity which would put most men to shame.

Alas, their vital pace notes had been lost in the confusion of the roll and subsequent recovery, and Fabrizia Pons only had the roadbook to direct her driver — a very poor, unprofessional roadbook at that. Coupled with this was the added hazard of fog, and it became very difficult indeed for the girls to follow the correct road at a competitive speed. The inevitable happened; they went off again, this time causing damage which could not be repaired in time. In almost the same place Rohrl also went off, but he managed to get going again to coast back to Abidjan, a comfortable winner and with the Champion’s title assured.

It was a bitter blow for Michele Mouton, and it was probably only then that the full realisation of her father’s death came to her. She went quietly to her room, packed and caught that evening’s flight home. Although she has won three events this year she has not become World Champion, but her determined fight will be talked about for years to come.

Seven cars finally made it back to Abidjan, although one was later considered a non-finisher since its maximum lateness had been exceeded. Nowadays, the toughness of a rally cannot be measured by its retirement rate, for that depends entirely on the section times laid down by the organisers, but it is no picnic to drive nearly 5,000 kilometres in the African bush, competitive or otherwise.

So Walter Rohrl has become World Rally Champion for the second time, the title being settled before the final round, the RAC Rally of Great Britain — which will have taken place less than a week before this issue of MOTOR SPORT appears. The Ivory Coast Rally was not a qualifier for the World Championship for Makes, so the RAC will have been the decider in that series, just as closely contested between Audi and Opel. If 1983 produces such close rivalry it will be another interesting year, although a revision of the points system so that more teams stay in the running for a longer period would seem beneficial. — G.P.

Ivory Coast Results
1st: W. Rohl / C. Geistdorfer (Opel Ascona 400) (4) ……..8hr. 43 min.

2nd: P. Eklund / R. Spjuth (Toyota Celica) (4)……………..10hr. 17 min.

3rd: B. Waldegard / H Thorszelius (Toyota Celica) (4)…….11hr. 00 min.

4th: B. Saby / D. Le Saux (Renault 5T460) (4)………………17hr. 52 min.

5th: A. Ambrosina / J.F. Fauchillle (Peugeot 505) (2)……..19hr. 43 min.

6th: E. Salim / C. Konan (Mitsubishi Lancer) (2)…………..23hr. 48 min.

51 starters: 6 finishers