Rally review: Australian Rally

On top down under

It is never easy for an organising group to enter the World Championship for the first time, no matter how many times their event has been held outside the series. When an event jumps straight into the world series in only its second year the difficulties can be enormous. Experience counts for a great deal, and it says much for the abilities of the organisers of the 10th qualifier of the 1989 World Rally Championship that their event was an immediate success. Australia Rally, take a bow!

For many years Australia's best known rally was the Southern Cross, held in New South Wales in the forests around Port Macquarie. It attracted competitors from Europe and elsewhere (Andrew Cowan and Rauno Aaltonen are both past winners) but never succeeded in becoming a qualifier for the World Championship and was finally held for the last time in 1980. There were, and still are, other rallies in Australia, but it was left to a completely new organising group, led by former competitor Garry Connelly, to launch an entirely new event with the object of seeking inclusion in the world series.

Not content to confine their planning to Australia, and with the support of the Western Australia government and the Commonwealth Bank, they visited various events in Europe to look, listen and learn. The brainpicking sessions paid off. Combined with their own competitive experience and organising skill, the knowledge thus acquired enabled them to produce an excellent rally, and when Ingvar Carlsson emerged the winner of the first Rally Australia in 1988 he was very surprised that it had turned out so well. World Championship status followed, and in mid-September this year it attracted the works teams of Toyota, GM Europe, Mazda, Lancia, Mitsubishi and Subaru, and even Alan Oreille from France in search of Group N points in his Renault 5 GT Turbo.

Toyota had two Celica GT4s for Kankkunen and Eriksson, whilst Lancia had two Deltas for Alen and Fiorio, another two being driven by Recalde and Wittmann. Carlsson, Millen and Ray Wilson drove 4wd Mazda 323 Turbos, and Shinozuka and Dunkerton Mitsubishi Galant VR4s. Malcolm Wilson had a Vauxhall Astra, Haider an identical Opel Kadett, and Peter Bourne drove a Subaru RX Turbo. Among the other runners were "Tchine" from Monaco in an Audi Coupe, Stohl from Austria in an Audi 90, Al Hajri from the UAE in a Sierra Cosworth and local man Carr in an early model Lancia Delta.

The 1103 mile route was divided into four legs, the first being a very short affair of 13 miles from Freemantle to Perth via a spectator stage. The second leg contained 12 special stages totalling 148 miles, the third 12 stages totalling 115 miles and the fourth seven stages totalling 75 miles. The whole ran from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon, and there was a rest stop at Perth during each of the three nights.

All the special stages were on dirt roads, surfaced with very small gravel chips loose enough not to provide much adhesion whether they were wet or dry, but not in sufficient depth to prevent mud coming up when it rained.

The opening spectator stage was quite unrepresentative of what was to come, but this was no criticism of the rally, for such stages are the same everywhere. The one-mile stage around a floodlit stadium entertained the crowd, but it was not rallying at all. That started the next day, when Kankkunen beat Carlsson by eleven seconds over the 12.6 miles of the first forest stage. A Toyota and a Mazda were beating the Lancias!

Throughout the morning Kankkunen extended his lead in a superb display of polished, trouble-free driving. His teammate Eriksson was behind him until wastegate failure slowed him on one stage, but he soon made this up to bring the pair of Toyotas to the front again.

The Lancia drivers were complaining of lack of grip, the stage surfaces being unlike anything they had encountered before. Various tyre types and suspension settings were used, but they could not knock the two Toyotas from their perch. Alen bounced off a tree after a hydraulic leak left him short of brakes, whilst Fiorio was having what was probably his first experience of a Delta short of grip.

Among the two-wheel drive cars, Wilson's Astra was the most surprising, the Cumbrian beating much of the 4wd opposition and getting up to fifth place despite having to stop to have the gear cluster replaced. Carlsson's hopes of repeating his 1988 success were dashed when his Mazda's engine failed, whilst Millen found that his car understeered so badly that he was unable to get it around some of the tighter corners without resorting to reverse gear. Recalde went out with a broken prop shaft, Dunkerton stopped when all his oil was pumped out through a crack in the pipe leading to the pressure gauge and "Tchine" ended his rally when his Audi's engine blew up. Wittmann also went out when he hit a tree stump and ripped out a front suspension.

Eriksson had a scare at the end of the first leg when, after service just short of the control, his engine would not start. The crew pushed it to the clock, losing a minute on the road and 30 seconds for not having the engine running, only to be told that they could not push it in the closed park. With a bit of inertia, they got it rolling, entered the park and left it just inside the entrance. By this time Alen was second, Fiorio third and Eriksson down in fourth. Wilson was a splendid fifth in his Astra.

In the morning, Eriksson avoided further penalty by taking his car out of the closed park on the starter motor. The problem was explained in different ways by different people, but it was nevertheless quickly put right and the Swede soon got up to third place. Wilson needed a gearbox change, which involved the risk of road penalty, but the job was done in less than 21 minutes and no road time was lost at all. A splendid piece of roadside workmanship! Wilson had his work cut out to stay ahead of Millen, but a puncture allowed the New Zealander to get ahead. Meanwhile, Alen was striving to stay ahead of Eriksson, but alternator failure left him without lights in the evening and he was down in third place again, behind the two Toyotas.

The final leg was relatively short, and there seemed little chance that Alen would catch Eriksson, although the latter got a scare when the car started to run on three cylinders, a problem traced to no more than a dislodged plug lead. An unhappy man on the last day was Al Hajri, whose Sierra's differential failed.

By contrast, the Toyota people were over the moon at getting their Celica GT45 into first and second places, the first time they have won against stiff opposition since they began using the 4wd car. Another delighted finisher was Wilson, who proclaimed afterwards that he owed it all to his fast-working service crews. GP