Toyota Supreme in Ivory Coast
There can be no doubt that the Ivory Coast Rally is not the most favoured event in the World Championship. Although run in Africa on lines which follow those of the Safari, it has never matched the popularity of the Kenyan event, and each year it has quite a struggle not only to attract just a small handful of professionals but even to achieve a start list numbering the required 50.
This year the situation was no different, though not simply because both sections of the championship had already been settled, and any real tussle for the lead could come from no more than two Toyotas, two Nissans and an Audi. Furthermore, there were exactly SO starters, and he would be blinkered indeed who would not perceive that this figure was realised only after artificial swelling of the ranks by cars which were not really there to compete, or which were no more than fast service cars taking full advantage of a chase car opportunity presented on a plate.
In the Ivory Coast it has never been quite as blatant as the stunt in Spain when Madrid taxis were decked with numbers for a race at Jarama, but it has been obvious nevertheless. However, FISA has always turned a blind eye to such matters, the country being French speaking after all!
This year the rally was somewhat better organised than it has been in the past. Sponsored by Marlboro and various local organisations including the airline Air Afrique, which somehow always manages to be at variance with its timetable, it moved its start / finish location for the first time from Abidjan, the country’s commercial centre at the coast, inland to the new capital Yamoussoukro, which is the president’s birthplace and which boasts an enormous modern hotel, a presidential palace, a wide, well-lit, tarmac avenue and very little else!
However, the move did have its advantages, for both organisers and competitors were able to base themselves in one place rather than divide their time between two as in past years when the start and finish were at Abidjan, and intermediate stops at Yamoussoukro.
Toyota has an enviable success record in Africa and, when the local importer pledged support, the European team entered two turbocharged Celicas and backed them properly with mud and chase cars, aircraft for radio relay, and a well-planned service schedule.
Their careful preparation and attention-to detail paid dividends, for the result was a dead-heat for first place, albeit contrived, between the Celicas of Juha Kankkunen/ Fred Gallagher and Bjorn Waldegård/Hans Thorszelius, well clear of their nearest rivals. Kankkunen was actually the winner due to his being a minute quicker than his team-mate on a tie-deciding section in the first half of the rally, but that did not detract from the obvious team spirit at the finish, when they even tried to get both cars on the ramp side by side! A Toyota chase car was driven by Lars-Erik Torph and Benny Mellander, though this was not actually entered in the rally.
Nissan went to great pains to emphasise theirs was a private entry, although the car to have been driven by Shekhar Mehta was prepared in Japan. Mehta didn’t make it to the start, due to the illness of his father, and his place was taken by fellow-Kenyan Mike Kirkland. Indeed, it was Kirkland’s second drive in this event, and his second appearance as a last minute substitute. He had no time to practice, and he and co-driver Rob Combes used some of Mehta’s 1984 notes and some copied from those of local teammates Alain Ambrosino/Daniel Le Saux, “translated” and adapted from the French. This was by no means ideal, for there is no substitute for notes which you have made yourself, and you can never drive at 100% on those borrowed from someone else, however good that someone may be.
The combined Nissan team seemed to include as many Kenyans as local men, and a chase car (entered as No 10 in the rally) was driven by service manager Sorinder Thatthi and team manager Jim Heather-Hayes who in “real life” is a Captain with Kenya’s Flying Doctor service.
There didn’t seem to be any point in Audi contesting the rally, for there were no longer any championship points to chase, but enter it they did, with just one car for Michele Mouton and Fabrizia Pons. Among their other drivers, Rohr!, who is favourite with Audi management, has no liking for African events, whilst Blomqvist has even been ‘ denied a car for the RAC Rally because he has had the effrontery to sign up with Ford for next year -a silly display of foot-stamping self denial on Audi’s part, for Blomqvist might easily have won the RAC Rally and given Audi at least something to crow about at the end of the year.
The Ivory Coast Rally was important for Mouton, for she has been so occupied with other series that it was her first World Championship event of the year, and a place in the first three would mean that she would renew her FISA “A” seeding for 1986. Backing her as a chase car was a second Audi Sport (her practice car refettled) driven at No. 11 by Audi engineer Franz Braun and service planner Arwed Fischer.
Prohlems for Michele Mouton began long before the rally started, for her co-driver reacted badly to anti-malaria and other medications and had to return home to Italy. As a substitute, along came Arne Hertz, and immediately Mouton had to get used to English pace notes which she has never before used. She speaks excellent English, of course, but responding quickly to unfamiliar notes is another matter altogether.
Heavy rain produced the usual crop of practice incidents: crews getting stuck in mud, having to seek help to remove fallen trees, having to repair a broken ferry before crossing a river, and many more. But there was none as frightening as that which caused Mouton and Hertz to lose their practice car and make it necessary for Audi to fly another from Germany – it was going to be needed as a chase car.
As in Kenya, competitors tend to practise in groups, and the Audi was leading a· trio completed by the two Toyotas. The track was narrow, bordered by tall elephant grass, and led to a level crossing over the main railway line from Abidjan to Bouake. Trains are by no means frequent and, after slight braking and listening, Mouton continued to cross the line.
That slight braking may well have saved their lives, for suddenly their complete way was barred by an enormous locomotive hauling a passenger train. Had they been a second or two sooner they would have been hit broadside by the loco and no doubt pushed along the line, but this was a case of the car hitting the train and not vice versa.
Even so, the impact was tremendous. The car was flung violently sideways, its whole front almost ripped out and its engine turned almost through 90 degrees. Stunned by their narrow escape, and with a car which had just about been destroyed, Mouton and Hertz made no more notes that day! It turned out that as a result of this incident, in which they collected no more than bruising and stiffness, they had no time to recce the fourth and final leg of the route. But by then Fabrizia Pons was feeling much better and she returned from Italy to complete the fourth leg notes for her regular partner.
The car which was airfreighted as a replacement had not been built to African specification, as Mouton’s actual rally car had, so extra staff had to be sent over so that it could be made as strong as possible in the short time available. It had actually been Blomqvist’s car in the New Zealand Rally, and still bore on its windscreen the small “temporary importation” sticker placed there by New Zealand Customs. This seemed of little consequence at the time, but later in the rally that sticker became very significant indeed.
Among the local drivers, Sanlir Assef, Lebanese but now an Ivory Coast resident, drove a very well prepared Opel Manta 400 brought in from Germany, and engaged engineer Paul Ridgeway from England to supervise its service. Patrick Tauziac had a GpA Mitsubishi Lancer, Eugene Salim a similar car but in GpB, Michele Mitri a Toyota Corolla, Adolphe Choteau an Audi Quattro and the Italians Molino and Massela a 4-w-d Subaru.
The 4,192 km route formed a cloverleaf pattern around Yamoussoukro, the first and second legs forming a loop to the south-east, to Abidjan and back, the third to the northeast, passing close to the border with Ghana, and the fourth to the south-west, stopping for a short while at San Pedro and then penetrating the Forest of Tai, close to the Liberian border. There were ample rest stops, and the whole thing lasted from the Wednesday morning to the Sunday morning.
The Hotel President, surrounded by spacious grounds, ample parking areas, wide avenues and no other buildings, as though it were in a statutory green belt, attracted very few spectators to the Tuesday scrutineering sessions, but at least the area was kept clear and functional, with no purveyors of T-shirts and other paraphernalia.
Although violent rainstorms had lashed various parts of the country in the weeks before the rally, bringing their usual wake of fallen trees, broken bridges and badly damaged roads, it was hot and humid on the Wednesday morning as cars left the start ramp. Retirements came thick and fast very early in that first leg, as the number swellers decided to break for home and the odd chase car, Nissan’s for example, was taken out of the rally in order to gain more flexibility.
Halfway down to Abidjan the leading bunch were still clean, but then Waldegård broke his right rear brake caliper and lost seven minutes. By Agboville, late in the afternoon, Kankkunen and Mouton were joint leaders, marginally ahead of the others in their leading group.
Kirkland, obliged always to keep something in reserve as he was driving on unfamiliar notes, was unfortunate to come across a mud hole containing a non-competing car which was well and truly stuck across the road. He tried to get around· it, failed and got stuck himself. Later, Assef joined the melee, and both lost about an hour. After they got away, Assef made rather a mess of the front left corner of his· Manta by hitting a tree, but he did manage to struggle on, losing more time having the damage repaired and eventually exceeding his maximum lateness.
At Abidjan Kankkunen and Mouton were still jointly in the lead, having lost 14 minutes apiece, but Ambrosino was only two minutes behind and Waldegård another four. Braun, the German engineer in Audi’s chase car, was fifth with the loss of 43 minutes, whilst Kirkland, having lost all that time in the mud, shared sixth place with Mitri, with a penalty of 63 minutes.
The rain came back again before the second leg return journey to Abidjan, and the bush tracks were very slippery indeed, though not as rough as they had been during practice. Waldegård pressed hard to join his team-mate up front, only to find that Kankkunen dropped back a little when he collected a puncture and broke a steering arm.
Mouton, in the meantime, had to put up with a bad misfire, and when the Audi people suspected that the electronic components inside the distributor were getting too hot, they drilled holes in the cap to let in some cooling air. They really should have known better, for with plenty of rain and standing water about, the misfire got much worse each time the car hit a watersplash and water got inside the ventilated cap.
Waldegård thus moved into the lead, whilst Kankkunen slowed to a stop very gingerly to replace a wheel after a rear tyre exploded. Salim got well and truly stuck on a broken bridge (the route was dotted with these roughly made wooden affairs) and had to wait for others to arrive to give him a push.
About halfway through the second leg, in the daylight of Thursday morning, there was an incident which later gave rise to considerable rumour and speculation as to whether Audi had indulged in a spot of deception. First of all, Mouton stopped with her engine overheating and smoking, and we heard that her engine oil and cooling water had been contaminating each other.
These were the unmistakable symptoms of cylinder head gasket failure, pretty well a terminal ailment for such a sophisticated car caught in the unsophisticated environment of the African bush. However, along came Braun’s car, and they stopped to give assistance. What happened afterwards became the subject of many a tale of mystery and intrigue, for drivers behind reported not having seen the two Audis stopped on the rally route. Somehow they got themselves up a side track, and one wonders why this reluctance to be seen should have occupied their attentions when there were urgent repairs to be done.
Opinions were that a new gasket would either take too long to fit, or would not be fitted properly and would probably blow again. But, behold, after a delay of an hour and twenty minutes or so, Michele Mouton’s Audi emerged from that section without a trace of a smoke trail and with an apparently healthy engine.
Had that gasket really been changed and, if so, why had it been found necessary to do so in secret? Audi then produced an explanation which, on the face of it, was feasible; it hadn’t been a blown head gasket at all, but a faulty oil pump which had been replaced by the pump removed from Braun’s car. This also explained why Braun’s car didn’t emerge from that bush section, but not why it was never seen again, even at Yamoussoukro.
At the end of that second leg rumours and wild stories were circulating widely, and naturally it got back both to the Audi team and to the organisers. However, neither made any comment; the team not offering to provide concrete evidence and the organisers doing nothing to clear up the matter. There had been no official protest or complaint, and there the matter rested for the time being, with wags taking bets as to whether Mouton would finish the rally in an Iltis!
Meanwhile, all was flurry in the Toyota camp as their cars arrived back at Yamoussoukro and stopped for various component replacements before going into the closed park. Waldegård’s propshaft had been vibrating so this was changed, and since the same trouble had afflicted Torph’s chase car it was considered prudent to change Kankkunen’s propshaft too. Alas, the bolts at the differential end refused to loosen, so the job had to be left until there was time to change the rear axle as well.
During an axle change, oil was seen leaking from a gearbox seal in Ambrosino’s Nissan 240 RS, so this was changed as well. This leak may have contributed to clutch slip which later developed, although it was at the time put down to catch tank leakage.
The Toyotas were by this time firmly ahead, Kankkunen leading with a loss of 1 hr 41 min, and Waldegård six minutes behind. Next came Ambrosino on 2 hr 25 min, Kirkland on 3 hr 4 min and, despite her long stop, Mouton on 3 hr 25 min.
The stop at Yamoussoukro consumed the afternoon and the evening, and when cars restarted at midnight there were a few very interested parties watching some welding and other operations being carried out on Mouton’s Audi, work which was in the charge of a mechanic who seemed more intent on shouting and screaming than getting the job done.
Was there any evidence of a car change? The bonnet, boot and door numbers were intact, and the supporting hinges showed no evidence of recent refitting (the doors were not actually opened at this service point), but the roof number was missing, the wing lamps (mounted close to the bonnet hinges) not there any more, and on the windscreen was that New Zealand Customs sticker which had begun the rally on Braun’s car. When asked about this, co-driver Hertz said that he could not remember whether their screen had been changed.
The mystery deepened. Audi was maintaining a bland silence, almost as though they regarded it their prerogative to do as they chose without any interference from anyone. If they had switched cars, they had: certainly done it in a clumsy manner, ignoring the fact that there were certain basic differences between the two. Just as a liar needs to have a good memory, so a cheat needs to know his game backwards, and Audi has never displayed the professional rallymanship and tactical expertise that other teams have as their stock-in-trade.
Meanwhile, on went the rally, but the stewards had finally resolved to direct the scrutineers to examine Mouton’s car at the end of the third leg and submit a report on their findings.
Mouton ran into more trouble when her alternator stopped working. She was given a new battery by a service crew which was not carrying a spare alternator, and then a new alternator by another crew some 15 kilometres along the road. On top of this, her windscreen wipers worked only intermittently, and she never knew, when about to splash through mud, whether her vision would be completely blacked out or not. Another to suffer from lack of vision was Kirkland, who lost most of his lights in the dark, due to a broken wire.
Back at Yamoussoukro, Kankkunen had that complete propshaft, rear axle and suspension change which he needed, and whilst they were at it the mechanics changed his gearbox as well since he had been without reverse gear throughout that third leg. Waldegård’s car also had a refit, but the gearbox was not replaced.
Due to the extra work done to his car, Kankkunen lost a little more time than his team-mate, and it was Waldegård who was in the lead when they clocked into the closed park for a long stop spanning Friday afternoon and night, and Sunday morning. But they were only three minutes apart, and well over an hour clear of Ambrosino, so there was an air of relaxation among the cosmopolitan Toyota team, whose mechanics and drivers represented many nationalities.
Two earnest discussions went on that evening, one ponderous and grave and the other light-hearted but nevertheless with serious intent. The scrutineers produced the report of their inspection of Mouton’s car (but alas not of Braun’s), later published with the stewards’ findings, and the Toyota people planned a little mischief for the following day!
The report, mentioning certain features on Mouton’s car, declared that no evidence could be found of a substitution, and added that they considered it improbable that a change had taken place. That, as far as the stewards were concerned, was the end of the matter, and it would not be raised again unless there was an official protest – and there weren’t any.
But it did not put an end to the rumours. Many people felt that Audi had been up to something devious out there in the bush, something which they wanted to keep to themselves-. Were the scrutineers sufficiently astute to have discovered a discrepancy if it were there? Had Audi improved on their original cover-up? Had the cars even been switched back again? Or was it all a red herring, conjured by some inventive jester anxious to inject spice into an otherwise lack-lustre rally?
Perhaps we’ll never know. In the past we’ve seen cars emerge from furniture trucks, hurried replacements of doors, bonnets and boot lids, even a line-up of cars all with the same registration number, but on this occasion, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, Audi was exonerated, and that will have to be that. However, we must say that the team’s attitude in doing nothing concrete to clear their name, allowing the rumours to continue unrefuted and merely standing by and watching Mouton’s car being inspected, was very strange indeed.
Meanwhile, Toyota’s plot was being hatched, but it hardly concerned matters as weighty as those which had engaged the stewards. Both Kankkunen and Waldegård felt that their team would reap the best possible dividends if they contrived to make ‘the result a dead heat, and that is precisely what happened. They had sufficient advantage to absorb the loss of a minute here and there, although the drivers knew each other’s pace well enough not to make such deliberate losses necessary.
As the final leg progressed, and the two Toyotas dallied with the lead, first one leading, then the other, some people were deluded into thinking that they were having a serious duel, but it was no more than a friendly game of cat and mouse, the exchanges of position providing a bonus to aid the stage-managed effect. They each professed not to know which earlier section had been the tie decider, but whether that was true is another matter.
Although things on the ground were going well, in the air they were not. Toyota had two radio relay aircraft, one to do the bulk of the work and the other to provide cover when the first needed to refuel. Various things went wrong, and the result was a series of radio blanks except when line-of-sight proximity allowed car to ‘car communication. Bad weather prevented one flight, a blown tyre another, whilst another take-off had to be delayed when a faulty plug was indicated by a mag drop during the run-up.
During the night there were heavy storms near the Liberian border, over the Tai Forest, and even before the noon restart the organisers decided to cancel one of the forest sections leading southwards to a short stop at San Pedro, the seaport town from which huge teak and cedar logs are exported. In its place a tarmac run provided extra service time on the approach to San Pedro.
Anxiously hoping that she would get that far was Michele Mouton, whose Audi began to break up badly during the first part of the leg. It was welded and rewelded so many times that there was a risk of it falling apart, and again we were reminded that her car had been built strongly and reinforced to what the Audi people call Safari specification, whilst Braun’s car was a European version, lighter and not as strong in the body.
By the time the Audi reached San Pedro it was in a very sorry state indeed, and it must have been difficult for Mouton and Hertz to give of their best knowing that any minute they could lose a wheel, or a complete suspension unit, or even have the car disintegrate around them. That was no state of mind in which to continue, so they decided that their best course would be to withdraw and make their way back to Yomoussoukro. After all, their objective had been to get into the first three, and all chances of that had gone. Even from long before the start, theirs had been a traumatic rally and they must have felt relieved that it was all over.
After the 3 am restart from San Pedro came a run northwards through the western part of the Tai Forest. Roads in here were bad, having also been affected by the storms, but the organisers nevertheless decided not to cancel the section. It was rather fortunate that a Toyota mud car went through before the competitors for its crew found a large fallen tree completely blocking the road, and they got to work cutting it away.
Kirkland had almost come to grief: when, to his surprise, he ran out of petrol and stopped. When he checked, he found that something had been chafing against the fuel tank sight tube in the boot and it had eventually broken through allowing most of the tank’s contents to escape. He was quite a way from his nearest service car, but along came one of Toyota’s support cars and, very, sportingly, they stopped, fixed the sight tube and gave him enough petrol to carry on.
Team-mate Ambrosino had tried to get between the two leading Toyotas, on the road at least, and ·although he did actually get past one he had drop back immediately because the stones thrown up by the car in· front smashed most of his lights.
That was not all; deep in the Tai Forest Kirkland was in the process of crossing a wooden bridge when the rear right corner of the car dropped a few feet and they stopped. The wheel had fallen through a hole in the bridge, and when co-driver Combes dropped his torch by accident, the delay before the splash was such that they estimated the water to be a good forty feet below.
That was no place to hang about, so out came the high-lift jack and they began one of the standard de-bogging processes of jacking up and pushing off. The first push put the wheel back in the hole again, and it wasn’t until the third attempt that it actually fell on to a firm part of the bridge.
Relieved that they might now be able to get off that precarious structure, Kirkland went to start the engine only to find that the starter was completely dead. They searched for the problem, even tried pushing, but to no avail, and they just had to wait until someone else came along. That someone was Molino in his Subaru, and quite amazingly the bridge was just wide enough for him to creep carefully past the Datsun. Once past, he backed up, connected a rope and towed Kirkland off the bridge and on until his engine fired. Later, mechanics found that the starter motor cable had broken when the car got stuck.
That was about the size of it. The fifty starters had become only 27 by the end of the first leg, had been whittled to 18 by the second, to 12 by the third, and to just eight finishers by the fourth.
Toyota achieved their aim by getting both cars to the finish together, but their attempt to get the cars on the ramp side by side failed; it just wasn’t wide enough! The result made a few differences to World Championship positions (see below) but the main thing for the team was that they had scored another African one-two, and Kankkunen had become only the second driver to win both the Safari and the Ivory Coast Rally in the same year, although why that should become a statistic we cannot imagine, for one is no more than a shadow of the other.
On the eve of the finish, FISA’s Jean-Marie Balestre had arrived in Yamoussoukro, and when we heard of the “guard of honour” welcome by uniformed organising committee members as he arrived at the President Hotel we shuddered at what might follow the next day.
The Toyota crews and management had been asked to attend a press conference at 3 pm on the Sunday, just five hours after the finish, and many who did not know them personally were glad of the opportunity to hear them speak and answer questions. Balestre was also going to be there, and when he arrived – late, of course – he and other officials occupied every seat on the speakers’ table so that the Toyota people just had to stand around. That was not all; Balestre began talking, in French, and when the time got to 4.30 pm and he was still talking, giving the interpreter no chance to do his job, some of the Toyota people had walked out.
That press conference was to enable listeners to hear from the victorious Toyota Team, and Balestre displayed unutterable arrogance when he ignored them completely and hogged the chair to give vent to his own pompous, hypocritical rantings. Every second word seemed to be I or me, and he just went on and on about the wonderful things that he would do for the Ivory Coast.
For a man who chairs an international sporting body to cast such an ignorant, impudent snub towards true sportsmen who deserved winners’ accolades, not insults, was no more than crass, ill-mannered loutishness. It is quite outrageous that he should be allowed to continue occupying his present position when he is unfit even to be office boy. – G.P.
1st: J. Kankkunen (SF)/F. Gallagher (GB) – Toyota Celica Turbo GpB – 4 hr 46 min
2nd: B. Waldegard(S)/H. Thorszelius (S) – Toyota Celica Turbo GpB – 4 hr 46 min
3rd: A. Ambrosino (C)/D. Le Saux (CI) – Nissan 240RS GpB – 6 hr 19 min
World Rally Championship Points
Drivers (After 11 rounds)
Timo Salonen 127
Stig Blimqvist 75
Walter Rörhl 59
Makes (After 10 rounds)