World Rally Championship: Sanremo Rally

It has been some years since the relentless advance of tarmac in the mountains overlooking the Riviera of the Flowers eventually ‘destroyed’ all the decent dirt roads which were used in the Sanremo Rally. Formerly a compact event, all of which was within easy reach of Sanremo itself, it then became extended when the organisers, after trying an all-tarmac route, went further afield in search of dirt roads.

They even went as far as San Marino, close to the Adriatic Coast, and produced a rally which spanned virtually the entire width of northern Italy. It hasn’t been quite as far since, but it still goes as far as Tuscany, where the popularity of the excellent dirt roads is somewhat tarnished by the need to use long, tedious motorway sections in order to get there and to return.

Last year it extended northwards to Turin, a surprising move in view of the many problems caused by previous visits to that city, and one which was disastrously unpopular yet again. One would have expected the organisers to have learned from past mistakes, particularly as an amalgamation with the Sestriere Rally (organised by the Turin club) as long ago as February, 1971 brought many difficulties, not the least of which was a certain conflict between the two sets of organisers. For 1989 the rally was back in its East/West format, starting at Sanremo and venturing as far eastwards as Tuscany before returning four days later. A useless prologue on the day before the real start was a ‘superspecial stage’ (a total misnomer coined by FISA for this type of superfluous nonsense upon which it now insists) consisting of a 1,500 yard track artificially set up in a field and marked by flags and ribbons. The first four real stages of the rally, in traditional Rallye dei Fiori territory, were on tarmac, after which came groups of dirt road stages, totalling nineteen, before the return to Sanremo via a tarmac `superspecial’ at Genoa, followed by a final group of nine tarmac stages held at night.

Apart from its route, the Sanremo Rally has changed very little in character since it became a mixed tarmac-dirt event, yet this year it was one of the most tense and exciting for many years. Just as the 1000 Lakes Rally produced a number of surprises, so did the Italian event, and onlookers were amazed when, Toyota forged ahead of Lancia. Spanish driver Carlos Sainz led for most of the rally, only losing out to Massimo Biasion right at the end after his throttle pedal spring stopped working and he had to lift the pedal with his foot. This cost him considerable time over the 15 miles of Special Stage 29, and at the end of the 33rd and final stage Biasion was ahead by just 25 seconds, whilst Alessandro Fiorio had also inched ahead to finish just five seconds behind the leader.

It was indeed a remarkably close finish, the closest for a long time, and there could not have been anyone prepared to make a firm bet on any of those three leading drivers, even when there was just one stage to go. Sainz and his co-driver Luis Moya put up a splendid performance, and only by the slenderest of chances did they fail to achieve what some believe to be almost as difficult as beating the Finns in Finland outstripping Lancia in Italy. This is not to deny Biasion and Fiorio their accolades, for they too drove remarkably well. Indeed, it must be some time since they were subjected to such pressure for so long.

Lancia’s entries for Sanremo consisted of two cars for Biasion and Didier Auriol, whilst two others were entered by the Jolly Club for Fiorio and Dario Cerrato. The two works-entered cars were using the new 16-valve engines; the other two were not. Group N Lancia Delta Integrales were driven by Pascal Gaban, Giovanni del Zoppo and Gustavo Trelles, the latter having a 16-valve engine.

Toyota’s three 4wd Celica Turbos were driven by Sainz, Juha Kankkunen and Patrick Snijers. A little further down the field, among the Priority Two drivers, were Marc Duez in a BMW backed by the Belgian petrol company Fina, Gregoire de Mevius in a Gp N Mazda 323, Alain Oreille in a Gp N Renault 5 GT, Andrea Zanussi in a Peugeot 405 and Armin Schwarz in an Audi 200.

As it does everywhere, the weather can play a big part in the Sanremo Rally, on tarmac and dirt roads alike. High winds can give roads a complete covering of leaves, whilst in the mountains heavy rain can bring down mud, stones and tree branches, and even cause streams to run across or even along the roads. In bad weather, or even after it, total reliance on pace notes to drive at 100% can sometimes be a risky business indeed.

The results of the opening ‘Mickey Mouse’ stage were merely academic, for the leaders were all within just a few seconds of each other, but for De Mevius the twisty, ribbon-lined track was a nightmare. His petrol pump stopped working properly, and the engine coughed and spluttered all the way around, only just managing to push through enough fuel to enable him to coax the car along in bottom gear. He collected maximum penalty for the stage, five minutes. Sainz went through the flags and continued with ribbons streaming from his roof antenna, whilst several others, Del Zoppo in particular, finished the stage as if they had been to a wedding rather than a rally

After the first group of four tarmac stages, the three Lancias of Auriol, Biasion and Fiorio were leading in that order, separated by 14 seconds. Sainz was fourth, 40 seconds behind the leader. Gaban had broken his gearbox, Cerrato had been off the road and Schwarz had rolled. During the long motorway section eastwards, suspensions were changed for the dirt roads to come, the first of which saw the end of Auriol when he took off slightly sideways on a jump, landed with his left wheels on the edge of the ditch, slipped Into it and rolled. Neither driver nor co-driver was hurt, but the car was destroyed. On the same stage, Biasion punctured, whilst later he had his turbocharger changed.

Rain came later, causing the stage surfaces to become very slimy, but the weather did not deter spectators who turned out in thousands to line the roads. At one point, Duez went off the road slightly and hit a photographer, but he was not badly hurt and Duez continued.

On stage 20 the situation changed when Sainz finally got ahead of Fiorio to take the lead. By this time, the roads were much drier, and at the end of the second leg Sainz had increased his lead over Fiorio to 1m 2s. Biasion was another 42s behind, followed by Kankkunen.

The return journey towards Sanremo, punctuated by further suspension changes, came the final night of nine tarmac stages, one of them containing just three miles of dirt. It was during this night that Sainz had his throttle pedal stick down, allowing Biasion and Fiorio to gain ground. Indeed, the situation after stage 29 was very tense indeed; Sainz and Biasion shared the lead, just 16s ahead of Fiorio. In the final four stages, Biasion inched ahead, finally winning by just five seconds from his team-mate, with Sainz another 20 seconds behind.

During that night the suspense among the three leaders and both their teams was so great that no-one was smiling, or even talking very much. Faces were serious, drawn and sweaty, and at service points each of the six competitors remained in his car, checking times and making sure that he was ready for total concentration on the next stage. It was indeed a close finish, and although Lancia finally took first and second places, Toyota must be feeling very encouraged after dernonstrating, not for the first time, that they have a car capable of matching the Lancias.

The Italian team had already clinched the makes section of the World Championship, and this win by Biasion made certain that he would keep his title of World Champion. It is nevertheless a great pity that the team decided to withdraw from November’s RAC Rally, particularly as this was done after entries closed, giving the drivers (Mikael Ericsson for instance) no chance to seek alternative cars. GP.