ivory coast rally



Ivory Coast

CONVERSATION after the Sanremo Rally seemed to centre not on the World Championship title duel between Stig Blomqvist and Markku Alen, but on the remarkable way in which An Vatanen and Terry Harryman had driven one of Peugeot’s four-wheel-drive cars to its second major victory, trouncing both the Audis and the Lancias.

The new car had twice made an appearance, and had twice got among the leaders to snatch the limelight. Would it be able to sustain that performance? Would it score similar victories next year? How would it perform in the cold, wet, dank conditions of the RAC Rally, and on the unpredictable bush tracks of Africa?

These were questions many were asking, and it seemed at the time that at least one of them would be answered in the early part of November when Peugeot was expected to enter the car in the eleventh round of the World Rally Championship for Drivers, the Ivory Coast Rally.

Then came the surprising news (the Ivory Coast is a French-speaking country after all) that Peugeot would not be going. The two championship protagonists would be able to fight it out with no buffering influence of a cat among the pigeons.

Both teams had declared that they would leave their final decisions on Ivory Coast entries until after Sanremo, although Audi had always planned to take at least one car for Blomqvist, their number one driver of 1984. Alen still had a chance, albeit a small one, of beating Blomqvist to the top of the series in the two remaining rounds, but taking the team to the Ivory Coast would be a costly business, and when this was weighed against Alen’s very slim chance of becoming champion, the Italian team decided not to go. Without Alen, Blomqvist could almost

consider himself champion already, but Audi was not making any boast until the title had been clinched absolutely. Off went Blomqvist and his co-driver Bjorn Cederberg to begin practice for the West African event, and when this was over, their practice car was refettled and cleaned up so that Hanna Mikkola, the reigning champion, could drive it in the rally as a competing chase car, always close behind Blomqvist so that assistance could be given if required.

The interest shown by professional teams in the Ivory Coast Rally has always been a bit thin, and no doubt officials were concerned lest there should be no competition to speak of. But Kenyan driver Shekhar Mehta decided to make the trip from the other side of the continent, with Rob Combos as co-driver, with a rather old and well-used Nissan 240 RS. Like the rally itself, Mehta is sponsored by Marlboro, so there was a pretty strong reason for his presence, with mechanics from both Japan and Kenya. Another Kenyan pair to take part were David Horsey and David Williamson, current Kenyan Motor Sportsmen of the Year. Having won the Total Zimbabwe Challenge, they were sharing the lead of the African Rally Championship with three others, and the Mombasa builders of their Peugeot 504 pick-up quite rightly felt that winning such a series would provide them with considerable prestige. The Ivory Coast Rally was the first of two remaining qualifiers; enough reason for Horsey to make the trip, along with mechanics from both AVA, assemblers of the pick-up, and

Marshalls Ltd., Nairobi’s Peugeot importers. That was about the strength of the foreign contingent. The best local drivers were Main Ambrosina in an Opel Manta 400

which had been supplied by the factory, Eugene Salim in a Mitsubishi Lancer Turbo, and Samir Assef in a similar car. The start list numbered 51, but just as in previous years there were some very unlikely-looking cars in the line-up. To keep World Championship status for the following year, each round has to attract at least 50 entries, and it is undoubtedly the case in the Ivory Coast that numbers are made up by the inclusion of cars which are not intended to go further than the first few sections. The organisers know it, the competitors know it, pressmen know it and even the FISA inspectors cannot have failed to spot it, but it has nevertheless been allowed to continue.

To illustrate the point, only 14 of the 51 starters made it to Bondukou, halfway through the first leg. Presumably, most of them had gone a respectable distance, taken off their numbers and gone home. One early “retirement” was Kenyan engineer Sorinder Singh driving Mehta’s practice car. He started at number eight, but the numbers were off almost before he had left Abidjan, and he assumed the role of chase car. Although the Ivory Coast has a good network of tarmac trunk roads, its minor roads are nothing like those of Kenya; nor are they as numerous. The countryside is generally more vegetated, there are hardly any mountains to speak of, and the changing character of the bush tracks makes it very difficult indeed to achieve a driving rhythm. Both this and the Safari take place in Africa, and neither uses special stages, but that is where the similarity ends.

The rally started and finished at the seaport of Abidjan, commercial centre of the country, but its two substantial rest halts were at Yamoussoukro, two or three hours drive away to the North along a good tarmac road. The president’s birthplace, it is the official Capital, but it’s not difficult to understand why the palatial Hotel President, standing out as an imposing but lone landmark, is rarely used to its full capacity. The first leg made a loop to the North-East, close to the border with Ghana, the second a loop around the middle of the

country, and the third went south-westwards to the Liberian border, making two stops at the seaport of San Pedro. Between these stops was a long section in the Forest of Tai, the most difficult of the whole event.

Torrential storms during the weeks before the start had made practice difficult to say the least. Crews got stuck for varying periods, and some were not able to complete their notes. Half of the Tai section, for instance, was impassable for most of the time, and it was not until the end of the second leg that competitors were told that this would not be cancelled.

During the rally itself, the weather was mostly hot and dry, and the deeply rutted mud baked hard into car-breakers of the worst kind. The going turned out to be very rough, with clouds of dust to make eyes red, voices hoarse, and overtaking very hazardous indeed.

Just as expected, the two Audis forged ahead in the first leg, Blomqvist’s Sport version in front and Mikkola’s older and slightly longer car some five minutes behind. There was no duel between these two; they were running just as planned, Mikkola close behind to help his team-mate if necessary. Up above, of course, circled a Piper Aztec which acted as an airborne radio relay station for the team’s communications. There was such a gap between the Audis and the others that third place became a prized position to avoid any dust. Mehta and Ambrosino were closely matched in the fight for third position, and they changed places several times. Ambrosino opened a lead when Mehta had to stop to replace a broken fan belt which had wrapped itself around a pulley spindle. Later, Mehta had the chance to get ahead when Ambrosino’s service stop took rather longer than his own, but his Nissan refused to start and whilst it was being pushed the local driver moved off, ahead of the Kenyan.

In the second leg, the Audi drivers stayed ahead without really having to drive at 100%, but some 60 kilometres short of a brief stop at the town of Divo, Mikkola felt a sudden rattle and the onset of very peculiar handling. For no apparent reason his front left strut had broken and he had to drive very carefully to Diva where the strut was replaced just before the control. The episode cost him about half a hour, but he was nevertheless in no danger of losing his second place.

Behind them, Mehta and Ambrosino were still playing cat and mouse, but Mehta finally got ahead when, perhaps overplaying himself to stay ahead, Ambrosino slid off the road at a hairpin. Mehta arrived just as he was manoeuvring to regain the track and, very properly, he let the Nissan pass before carrying on with his recovery operation. Various repair jobs were undertaken at the end of the leg, many of them precautionary of course. Axles and suspensions were getting most attention, whilst Blomqvist had half of a propshaft change before the control, and the other half after the restart the next morning. When his Quattro was driven into the closed park, it was actually a front-wheel-drive car! There had been several complaints concerning the inaccuracy of the roadbook, and of controls which where several kilometres from where they should have been. At one place, where the route had been changed due to impassable flood damage, there were cars using a tarmac road in both directions in search of the control, and it reminded as of the decoy tactics sometimes used by the organisers of “hunt

the marshal” night navigation trials. One astute competitor realised that a misplaced control could be turned to his advantage, and he was able to take a tarmac road to avoid a dirt track, and still arrive at the next control from the correct direction.

In the third leg the confusion worsened. In the Forest of Tai the roadbook just would not tie up with the road, and both Blomqvist and Mikkola took wrong roads. They milled around for some time, but eventually found their way out, happily still in first and second places, although it had been a close thing. The situation had been even more tense because earlier Audi’s radio aircraft had returned to San Pedro airfield with dangerously low fuel pressure to the starboard engine, and the team was without proper communications until the Aztec was repaired and airborne again.

Mehta, too, was not happy with the situation, whilst Salim encountered a fallen tree and had to round up some villagers to use saws and axes to clear it. Horsey found his way similarly barred, but he chose the natural solution; with similar aid, his pick-up was manhandled over the obstruction! With tales of Safari tenacity obviously in their minds, brand Williamson got first the front of the car up on the hefty trunk, then they used see-saw tactics to raise the rear, which was finally dropped to ground level.

Alas, the long delay was too much for Horsey’s maximum lateness to stand, and he got out of the forest just three minutes over his limit. However, he was allowed to continue in the rally because he complained of the bad routeing in the Tai, the matter being left to be decided after the finish at Abidjan. Meanwhile, unknown to Horsey, the front runners had also complained, even lodged an official protest written in French by Mehta and signed by Arne Hertz. The Kenyan privateer was thus in good company

although he did not get to hear of this until he got back to Abijan, via more misplaced controls and consequent confusion.

Something of a diversion was caused at San Pedro when Michele Mouton, who was there as part of the Audi team, was whisked away from a restaurant by police who alleged that she had insulted one of their senior officers. It was quite farcical, though unpleasant for her at the time, but reason was fortunately brought to bear and she was released after a few hours.

At Abidjan on the Sunday morning the first four cars arrived in a group, having been bunched some 40 kilometres before the city, and the other two some time later. When Horsey got in he was asked to stay to be on hand when the stewards called him for a hearing. It was quite disgusting that he and his co-driver were kept hanging around all day and most of the evening, still grimy and tired, whereas earlier arrivals had been allowed to go off to their hotels to sleep. The stewards’ hearing took so long that the prizegiving was delayed, but eventually, after argument and counter-argument, they cancelled the troublesome section of the Tai, and various other sections where controls had been in the wrong place. The outcome was that there were six finishers rather than four, and Horsey, now leading the African Rally Championship, must stand an excellent chance of becoming Champion. Final round is the Rwanda Rally early in December. If he takes the title it will delight the AVA company at Mombasa, whose executive happens to be Safari clerk of the course Peter Hughes.

We have always marvelled that the Ivory Coast Rally should be allowed to remain in the World Championship. It has so many shortcomings that FISA’s inspectors have either not known where to look, or chosen to look elsewhere. It could so easily be made substantially slicker, but now that its mediocre reputation has been established for no long, it would take considerable time and much persuasion to convince anyone that it has been improved at all.

Stig Blomqvist has, with the aid of co-driver Bjorn Cederberg, become World Rally Champion, a title he has thoroughly deserved from the time he drove underpowered Saabs and beat drivers of much more powerful cars. But having clinched the Championship, Audi will not be entering him in the Lombard RAC Rally of Great Britain, which will be taking place as this issue of MOTOR SPORT goes to press. G.P.