Neither Cut Nor Dried
The odds in favour of a home win for Lancia in the Sanremo Rally were high. No less than seven four-wheel-drive Deltas were among the first eleven starters in the last-but-one World Championship qualifier of the year — two entered by the factory, two by the Jolly Club, two by the Grifone team and one by French Lancia importer André Chardonnet.
It was no surprise that six of them finished in the top ten, underlining the domination of the Delta which has this year enabled Lancia to win the makes' title with what is now a maximum score of 140 points from seven wins.
But things are by no means cut arid dried in the Drivers' Champions.p. Three of Lancia's wins have been scored by Markku Alén, three by Massimo Biasion, one by Juha Kankkunen. Kankkunen was not entered in the Sanremo Rally, and Alen retired. Biasion emerged the winner, the Italian adding twenty points to his score and moving into the lead, fourteen points ahead of the two Finns who shared second place.
The Lombard RAC Rally, November's final round, will not have changed the manufacturers' situation but the Drivers' Championship certainly hinges on it. After Sanremo, the three Lancia drivers were each poised to become World Champion, but only Alén and Kankkunen were listed to drive in the RAC. Biasion was not, and whether he has become World Champion depends on whether one of his Finnish team-mates succeeded in scoring fifteen points or more from a first or second place.
One cannot talk about the 1987 World Rally Championship without delving a little into Lancia's team strategy to consider the number of occasions on which wins have been contrived by management direction rather than on merit. This is by no means something which has evolved only in recent years, not is it confined to Lancia, but it has become far more obvious since the Delta became so successful that rallies were being led by two or even three of them: it became possible for the team to choose a winner from within its ranks without risking handing victory to a car of another make.
There are two contrasting views of this situation. One is that drivers are merely employees paid to do as they are told — and there is a case, after all, for he who pays the piper being entitled to call the tune. The other is that they are taking part in a sport in which the purity and ethics of contest should outweigh any business considerations, commercial affiliations or even personal or patriotic feelings.
Outsiders' views may be one or the other, or they may not be concerned at all, but a driver's view is likely to be somewhere between the two.
If he is told to win, he will naturally do everything in his power to achieve that, for victory is the natural, all-compelling goal in any contest. Besides, the more wins a driver has to his credit, the greater his bargaining power when negotiating his next contract.
But if he is told to deliberately throw away victory in order to let a team-mate win, he will be disgruntled and frustrated, no matter what acceptance he may show outwardly.
Consequently, when a team manager finds himself having to issue a team order to prevent two of his drivers fighting each other and putting both their cars at risk, this can very easily lead to his going further and preselecting his own winner, thereby creating an animosity which he will be powerless to eradicate.
At Sanremo there was no apparent manipulation of results and Massimo Biasion won fairly and squarely, team-mate Alén having a spot of trouble and eventually retiring when he put his car off the road.
But things have not been as clear-cut as that all the year. In Monte Carlo in January Kankkunen, recruited as reigning World Champion by Lancia after Peugeot pulled out of championship rallying, had what must have been a bitter initiation to the Italian team when be was told to slow down on the final special stage to let Biasion win. He has said nothing publicly against his team since then, but that loss of a win which was rightfully his must have rankled, and the outcome of the RAC Rally could be very interesting indeed.
We now come to the point where we stick our neck out by commenting on something which has not yet taken place, knowing that the comment will not be published until after the event has happened. If we are wide of the mark, we will humbly eat our words.
The Sanremo result, as we have said, placed the three Lancia drivers in line for the world tide, but their team's allocation of events for this year was seven per driver, and since Biasion has already competed in seven, only Alén and Kankkunen have been entered in the RAC Rally. If neither finishes first or second, Biasion will be World Champion, and an Italian titleholder cannot fail to delight Turin.
If Alén becomes champion, this will also be acceptable to Lancia for he has been loyal to the Fiat-Lancia group for many years and is desperately keen for the title before he retires, which cannot be too many years ahead. Lancia will hardly do anything to prevent his achieving that ambition, so between Biasion and Alén we consider that there will be no favouritism.
Kankkunen, on the other hand, is a newcomer and cannot rate the reciprocated allegiance enjoyed by his team-mates. What then, will be the team orders, if any, should Alén and Kankkunen occupy first and second positions as the rally progresses? And what will be the situation if only one of them is among, or close to being among, the leading two?
Our feeling is that if Alén is able to snatch the title from Biasion he will be allowed to do so, but if Kankkunen looks like taking it, the situation could be somewhat different. Without enlarging on that, and having dwelt for long enough on the effect, let's return now to the cause, the Sanremo Rally.
Entries for the Sanremo Rally numbered a healthy 125, although the bulk was made up of privateers — the vast majority from Italy, the odd few from France, Belgium, Austria and Germany, and two from Britain. The five leading Lancia Deltas not actually entered by the factory were driven by Fabrizio Tabaton and Paolo Alessandrini (for Grifone), Mikael Ericsson and Alessandro Florio (for the Jolly Club and the Totip lottery organisation) and Bruno Saby (for Chardonnet of France). Florio, having previously clinched the World Group N Championship has now graduated to a Group A car.
The other works teams were those of Renault, with two R11 Turbos for Jean Ragnotti and Francois Chatriot; GM Europe, with two Opel Kadett GSIs for Guy Frequelin and Josef Haider; and Skoda, with two 130Ls for Laclislav Krecek and Svatopluk Kvaizer. Ford France had a Sierra Cosworth for Didier Auriol, prepared by Britain's Rally Engineering Developments, which entered a similar car for Jimmy McRae and Ian Grindrod. Also from Britain came an Audi Coupé Quattro driven by David Llewellin and Phil Short, whilst another Quattro was in the hands of Austrian Rudolf Stohl.
The rally took place during the week before the violent storms which hit southern Britain. In the Italian mountains heavy and incessant rain in the days before, and at times during the event itself, caused roads to become awash and brought down boulders, undergrowth and mud. Indeed, there were several minor landslides, and drivers had to temper their notes with caution in case an unexpected rock loomed before them.
Starting and finishing at Sanremo, the 1310-mile route stretched, as before, across almost the whole width of northern Italy, from the Riveria of the Flowers (from which the event's forerunner took its name) across to Chianciano, well to the east of Pisa. It was divided into four main legs, and the groups of special stages (19 on tarmac, 22 on dirt) were separated by the usual long main-road runs.
The dirt road stages were grouped, thus facilitating the suspension changes which have become a feature of the Sanremo Rally, and appeared only in the third leg (all 16 stages) and in the second half of the first (six stages). Three stages were cancelled due to weather-damage of their surfaces, but none due to unruly spectators even though crowds were out in large numbers. Perhaps the rain dampened the usual excitable Italian high spirits.
The cancellations, plus the fact that the tarmac stages were generally longer than those on dirt, produced a distance division of 175 miles of tarmac and 156 miles of dirt, which does not sound much when you consider that it was spread over four days, an average of 80-odd competitive miles per day.
From the start the route passed through some famous old Rally of the Flowers territory in the hills immediately behind Sanremo, although all the rough dirt roads have long since been coated with spoilsport tarmac, including the climb from Pigna over the Langen Pass, and that from Carpasio over the Oggia to Borgomaro.
The first tarmac stages were largely wet and slippery, with the result that the Renaults were not so much faster than the Lancias as they might otherwise have been. But quicker they were, and Ragnotti emerged from those stages in the lead by seven seconds from Biasion even though he was without his clutch for some six miles on one stage, a link having broken on his Renault.
Auriol was third in his Sierra and Frequelin fourth in his Kadett. Alén was down due to a puncture. A disappointing retirement at this early stage was that of McRae whose Sierra expired in a cloud of steam, its cylinder head gasket blown.
After the journey to Livorno and beyond came the dirt stages, made even more slippery by the rain. On the first, it was a Lancia runaway, Alén leading six Deltas to make the best six times ahead of Ragnotti, whose two-wheel drive now really placed him at a distinct disadvantage.
At the end of leg one, Biasion was leading Ragnotti by 1min 50sec, but not all the Lancia drivers were happy. Ericsson complained of a serious lack of power, saying that his practice car had been faster, whilst Alén, even after the end of the leg, was no higher than fifth. Llewellin's Audi was not handling properly and his clutch began slipping badly.
ln the second leg Biasion took Alén's place at the head of the queue, and consequently assumed the role of sweeper-up of whatever loose gravel or bits of debris appeared on the road, but he took it all in his stride and stayed firmly in the lead.
Alén's automatic fire-extinguisher was activated by the shock of a jump, the electrical system also going dead at the same time (part of the Lancia's safety system) and he lost time restarting the engine, but Saby had got his Lancia into second place, ahead of Ragnotti, who later dropped further when his intercom stopped working and his power diminished due to a loss of turbocharger pressure.
As the day progressed the roads became drier, and Auriol was able to move up to third place. Later Alén just edged ahead of him, but the Finn's climb up the field did not last much longer for he crashed on the next stage and was unable to continue.
Auriol regained third place briefly, but dropped to fourth after breaking an output coupling from his differential. The drier roads suited Ragnotti better, but the hills did not and his power disadvantage was more than evident. At the end of the second leg he was not even in the first five.
Llewellin's clutch was replaced during the motorway run at the start of the third leg, as were Auriol's differential and turbocharger. The French Sierra driver lost time with a puncture after hitting a stone, and this, plus a renewed burst by the Renault driver, allowed Ragnotti to get back up to third place. A stone mysteriously smashed Ragnotti's windscreen on a stage when there were no cars in front of him, and Tabaton also emerged from the stage with a cracked screen.
The situation remained unchanged throughout the remainder of the third leg, and even in the fourth the leading group kept their positions. It was most certainly a victory Biasion deserved, but even on such slippery stages, and having by no means a trouble-free rally, Ragnotti demonstrated clearly that the Renault 11 Turbo, despite its two-wheel drive and comparatively low power (only 180 bhp), was not a car to be dismissed lightly.
Last year the stewards disqualified the Peugeots in mid-event, and refused to allow them to continue, after an underside flange, fitted to deflect stones, was assumed to have a beneficial aerodynamic effect. This year the same was said of the Renault's underbody protection, which curved downwards at their rear ends in order to protect the rear brakes and suspensions from stones. But at least the question arose at scrutineering, even though the very same undershields had been used on at least one previous World Championship rally, the team had no alternative but to remove them. GP