Back in the 'seventies, after a string of sometimes vociferous complaints by competitors, the organisers of the Ivory Coast Rally announced an improvement. They decided to run many of the competitive sections by night instead of in the daytime in order to minimise the chances of confrontation with huge trucks on narrow roads in the forests.
This year they announced another improvement, some of those forest sections were put back into daylight so that more people, including photographers, could go out to watch. But in the meantime the trucks had not moved on elsewhere and it was only by chance, and a great deal of skill, that there was no serious head-on collision between competing cars and enormous timber transporters whose work did not stop simply because the rally was passing through.
This is one of just two rallies in the World Championship which runs on public roads not closed into special stages. The other is the Safari, but at least in Kenya the whole country is aware of what the event means and recognises it as an important national and international occasion, giving precedence accordingly. In the Ivory Coast that is not the case, and the dangers are therefore more acute.
The popularity of the event is by no means high, and were it not for the presence this year of Audi and Toyota there would have been a very mediocre competition indeed. What is more, there were far fewer entries than the minimum of fifty required by FISA in order that the rally should keep its World Championship status next year, and bogus starters were clearly evident when the field began leaving the start outside Abidjan's Hotel Ivoire on the Tuesday evening. There were exactly fifty starters, but in less than a few hours forty per cent of those had vanished without trace, and by the end of the second of five legs only eleven cars were still running!
Audi was there simply in order that Hannu Mikkola could consolidate his position as leader of the World Championship, but they did enter a second car (which happened to be Mikkola's practice car) to perform the role of competing service vehicle so that emergency assistance would be available in sections where regular service vehicles are not allowed.
At the wheel of this car was Finnish driver Lasse Lampi, accompanied by a German mechanic, but during the second leg it was withdrawn from the event to become a chase car, along with another Quatteo driven by John Buffum from the USA.
Toyota's presence was due to the marketing needs of the local importer, who reckoned that payment of the team's costs would be more than recouped from increased sales. The team has several years of experience of the event, but it was not until now that they scored a win, and a richly deserved one at that.
Björn Waldegård and Per Eklund were the two drivers, but a third car was entered, driven by Finn Juhu Kankkunen, merely to provide emergency service for the other two. These chase car tactics often cause complaints because of the additional dust they throw up, but the organisers were delighted since they added to the vital number of starters.
The route covered almost the whole of central and southern Ivory Coast, from the Liberia and Guinea borders in the west to the Ghana border in the east. Rest halts at Yamoussoukro, the country's new inland capital, and at the seaport town of San Pedro divided the event into five legs, and the whole ran from Tuesday evening until Sunday morning.
Although the skies were largely cloudy, with temperature and humidity at high levels, the rain kept away and on that first windless night it became obvious that overtaking would be virtually impossible. Changes of position would therefore depend more on mechanical reliability than power, and it so happened that each time the lead changed hands it was, in fact, due to the need to stop for some vital repair.
All the way through there seemed to be just three cars in the rally, the Audi and the two Toyotas, with a larger group of stragglers spread out a long way behind. On penalties, Eklund was appreciably separated from the other two due to early, time-consuming problems, but when the field was closed up at each rest stop he was always there, ready to help Waldegård if necessary.
From the start Mikkola, running at number one, had the advantage of a dust-free run, but at the end of the leg his lead over Waldegård was just two minutes. Eklund was slowed by faulty fuel injection, and then had to stop to replace the planks of a wooden bridge before he could cross. The passage of Mikkola, Waldegård and Lampi had dislodged them so much that gaping holes were caused, and Eklund was not risking getting stuck, with his wheels protruding through the gaps.
Kankkunen had been delayed beyond the maximum by a mysterious electrical failure, so his Celica assumed the rOle of chase car rather sooner than was planned, whilst Lampi's supporting Quattro had needed a new alternator.
During the second leg Waldegard got ahead of Mikkola, but by no means because he was able to penetrate the dust of the Quattro. Mikkola crested a rise and found what seemed like a barricade of hefty logs across the road. There was just no time to take any avoiding action and the front wheels his the logs so hard that Mikkola was amazed that the impact hadn't ripped them right off the car. There was instant fettling to be done, including two punctures to deal with, and the work was helped by Buffum and two mechanics who were not far behind. But even after they got going again the front suspension was not as it should be, and when he later stopped for a lengthy session at a service point, this allowed Waldegård to get ahead.
At the end of the leg Mikkola's Quattro was given more attention, but although the rear suspension was changed, the front was not. Mikkola seemed to have a disagreement with the management about this, he wanted the front suspension changed, but tram manager Gumpert decided that there was no need for this. However, later during the third leg, both those front suspensions were changed in two separate service stops, first one, then the other.
Waldegård also hit those logs, but not as hard and the damage was not nearly as extensive. Eklund, too, saw them ahead of him, but he was going much slower due to dust and he was able to avoid them.
Later, Comport lodged a protest in order to have penalties on that particular section cancelled, but the stewards eventually decided to reject the protest. Another protest, concerning a wrong time given to Mikkola by marshals at a control, was upheld and a wrongly attributed penalty of three minutes removed from the scores. Wrong times were not the only organisational hiccoughs, for there were several cases of passage controls being in the wrong place, whilst some were missing altogether.
Although the rally had resolved itself into a contest between Mikkola and Waldegård, with Eklund sticking tenaciously behind, all three remained firm friends, and at rest stops they were invariably seen eating together. All their practice had also been together, the Quattro and the two Celicas travelling around in a wide-gapped convoy so that they could help each other in the event of a problem.
The presence of only two teams made all sorts of direct comparisons possible, one being the efficiency of service crews. The difference was outstandingly evident. Audi crews were slow, clumsy and badly organised, whilst those at Toyota, with mechanics from Sweden, Britain, Japan and Germany, invariably put up a copybook display of how field servicing should be done.
A rough section in the third leg was cancelled due to the likelihood of a winch-powered ferry boat not working, but during practice all three works crews had overcome this by hiring a canoe to take Eklund across the river, whereupon he deftly removed the padlock and chain securing the winch gear and cranked that ferry single-handedly back across the river to collect the three cars. From such tenacious stuff are successful rally drivers made!
During that third leg Waldegård ran across a rock buried in a mud hole, one of the few in the rally, and bent both his right-hand wheel rims. More damage might have been caused than was then apparent, for towards the end of the leg, in fact only five miles from the control at Yamoussoukro, he was joining a main road at a T-junction when the right halfshaft slid out, and both wheel and shaft parted company with the car.
There was a knot of spectators at that junction, and although most of them managed to jump clear of the wheel and its flailing shaft, one little girl didn't and she caught the full force of that hefty lump of metal. Tragically, she died later in hospital. Having been summoned by radio, Toyota mechanics took a spare axle out to Waldegård’s car, but there was no chance of getting the work done in time for the Swede to keep his lead, and when cars eventually arrived at Yamoussoukro Mikkola was back in the lead, 12 min ahead of his rival. Eklund had been delayed again, this time by a dislodged rear brake caliper which lost one of its pads and then jammed, and he was another 50 min behind.
The fourth leg went generally south-westward to the coast at San Pedro, then looped through the dense Forest of Tai before stopping for rest again back at San Pedro during the Saturday afternoon. That forest was where Mikkola encountered, no fewer than four times, huge logging trucks coming towards him filling the whole width of the track. On each occasion he was able to take to the bush to avoid them without doing too much damage, but on one occasion, when co-driver Arne Hertz took a split second away from his notes to check dashboard gauges, they did go off and clout the right rear wheel against a rock, putting it completely out of line.
That, together with the near-misses and the need on one occasion to switch over to the spare electronic control box for the fuel injection, cost time, and at the end of the leg only seven minutes then separated Mikkola and Waldegård.
That night, Mikkola still had the dust advantage, but in readiness for an all-out final push, Waldegård’s car was stripped of everything not absolutely essential, including one of its two spare wheels, and the turbocharger supply pressure increased to its maximum. Eklund, still running third on the road, deliberately clocked in early at one control to get ahead of Mikkola, and this annoyed the Finn. Chase cars often have a disrupting effect on competitors, and, although Eklund was still competing, his role was simply to give Waldegård as much help as possible, and this particular piece of strategy was considered to be part of that role.
Earlier in the event, Gumpert and Toyota boss One Andersson had got together and agreed that neither side should send chase cars into a section until the three from runners had passed, but Eklund was still a competitor after all, and part of a team ben on getting Waldegård to the winners rostrum.
The fact that Eklund was able to gte ahead of Mikkola on the road was not due to radar-like vision through the dust. Mikkola had actually stopped when, having misheard a note from Hertz, he entered a corm without realising that it tightened fiercely. The back of the car slid off the road, and again that right rear wheel was clouted, this time causing damage which really had to be repaired. After that, there was no chance that Mikkola could catch the leading Toyota, and he eventually resigned himself to second place.
The 15 championship points which he thus scored are pretty well enough to ensure that he becomes World Champion, but they are not absolutely decisive, for Walter Rörhl, by winning the RAC Rally, could just oust Mikkola from the pedestal. But Rörhl dislikes the RAC Rally, and he is not about to persuade Lancia, for whom he drives this year, to send a car to Bath in November. In any case, he is moving to the Audi camp in 1984, and he is not likely to do anything which would upset his future employers.
The other chance was that Audi would give Rörhl a Quattro for the RAC, but this too, is beyond possibility, for it would cause great animosity within the team, and even Audi would not want that.
Even though this is being written before the RAC Rally, final championship round takes place, we have no hesitation it referring to Hannu Mikkola as the new World Rally Champion. Despite all manner of setbacks and a run of incredibly bad luck, he has finally realised an ambition which he has nursed since losing the title to Waldegård by just one point in 1979, when the series for drivers began.
Toyota was equally cock-a-hoop at the finish, for they have been close to winning this rally on many occasions, and at their after-rally lunch there were very few indeed who escaped being thrown in to the sea.
Finally, can it be that this rally deserves to keep its status as a round of the World Championship? Many people think not, but it seems that FISA is not concerned with quality alone when making its choice. When a World Champion remarks, "I don't ever want to go back there again", it gives food for thought. — G.P.
Ivory Coast Results
1st: B. Waldegård / H. Thorszelius (Toyota Celica Turbo Gp B) 5h 18m
2nd: H. Mikkola / A. Hertz (Audi Quattro Gp B) 5h 29m
3rd: P. Eklund / R. Spjuth (Toyota Celica Turbo Gp B) 6h 58m