Ivory Coast Rally

From the moment the Bandama Rally was held for the first time in 1969, organised by that irrepressible adventurer Jean-Claude Bertrand, it has generated controversy. It began as an attempt to copy the Safari, and then to better it, but it has never succeeded in matching the Kenyan event. Indeed, in an effort to make it more difficult than the Safari in 1972 the sections were timed so tightly they were impossible, resulting in no finishers at all, and there was a huge row when all the prize money was withheld.

Later it became established as the Ivory Coast Rally but repeatedly failed to show that vital spark which sets the Safari apart from other African rallies. It became a round of the World Rally Championship, but later lost its makes’ status and qualified only for the drivers’ series.

This year the drivers’ series developed into a contest between Sainz and Kankkunen, the latter still retaining a slim chance of getting ahead of the former even after September’s Commonwealth Bank Rally in Australia. Both Lancia and Toyota therefore kept their options open regarding sending cars to the Ivory Coast, although they were only planning to do so if they really had to.

At Sanremo the championship was decided in Sainz’ favour, and immediately all plans by those two teams to compete in West Africa were dropped and the rally gathered a meagre field of just 32 starters, among whom the only notable visitors were Alain Oreille in a Group N Renault 5 Turbo, Austrian Rudolf Stohl in an Audi 90 quattro and Kenjiro Shinozuka in a Mitsubishi Galant VR-4.

Among the leading local drivers were Alain Ambrosino (Nissan March S Turbo), Patrick Tauziac (Mitsubishi Galant VR-4), Adolphe Choteau in what was called a Toyota Corolla 16S and, in similar cars, Patrick Servant, Michel Molinie and lady driver Vivienne Evina. Samir Assef drove a Celica GT-Four. Over the years, the organising team behind the event has frequently changed, various people from France having been imported to take over leading roles. This year, after several switches, a Belgian group was brought in to run the event, clerk of the course being Franz Thevelin who runs the Ypres Rally. However, the route had already been finalised before they were engaged, and it covered a larger area of the country than it has in recent years. The notorious section in the Tai Forest, to the NW of San Pedro, was dropped, but there were excursions to distant parts, even close to the borders with Liberia, Guinea and Ghana. A river crossing by ferry was reintroduced, but this time it was a self-propelled, eight-car ferry boat, not a captive, rope-hauled, three-car job as in the past.

Timing throughout was in minutes, and there were no sections timed in seconds as there have been occasionally as a result of the FISA requirement for special stages. Some sections were competitive inasmuch as they were impossibly tight; others were more relaxed, although there was rarely much time for service and it could be said that the whole event was generally on the tight side.

Start and finish were at Abidjan, the commercial capital on the coast, whilst during the four days there were two rest stops, at Man in the West and at Yamoussoukro, the country’s political capital, birthplace of the President and site of the enormous and well-publicised basilica constructed at huge expense.

It was Shinozuka who emerged as the leader, although by the time the rally had passed through Yamoussoukro and was in its second leg to Man, his lead was just four minutes. However, in the northwesterly part of the route furthest from Abidjan, his car dived into a hole very hard, landed on its nose and shortened itself considerably. The radiator, among other parts, was wrecked and there was no hope of continuing, so Shinozuka and Meadows had to sit patiently waiting for their mechanics.

It was Tauziac who inherited the lead, but not far behind him was Stohl, and were it not for an unfortunate incident resulting from a mis-sited control the fight might have been very close indeed.

In a hamlet on a main road, a time control was established at a junction with a minor road which led to the next time control. But there were two such junctions, one into a road which took the longer route, and one which took a much shorter route. The correct place for the control was at the mouth of the longer route, but the officials wrongly placed themselves at the other junction.

Tauziac came along, realised that the control was in the wrong place, booked in but decided not to take the short route indicated by the incorrect control position. He took the longer route.

When Stohl appeared, he too booked into the wrongly-sited control, but figured that the officials knew what they were doing and took the shorter route.

Since both short and long routes converged before the next control, both Tauziac and Stohl would arrive from the correct direction. But the problem was compounded by the presence of a passage control, into which Tauziac would arrive from the correct direction; Stohl from the wrong direction. Had Stohl continued, he would have had a very good case indeed for having any penalty at that passage control cancelled, but he encountered a journalist just before that passage control who advised him to go back and take the original, longer route. It was hardly good advice, but Stohl took it and made the long detour, losing some forty minutes and all chances of winning the rally.

Later, penalties at the mis-sited control were cancelled, but not those at the next, which were more significant and certainly more affected by the wrong position of the previous one. It is a matter only for conjecture whether any passage control penalties would also have been cancelled had Stohl arrived there from the wrong direction. As it happened, every car arrived there from the correct direction, for when the officials realised after a few cars had passed that they were in the wrong place, they moved down the road to the next junction, so that later competitors were not presented with a confusing error.

As it happened, Tauziac won by just over an hour from Stohl, who in turn was nearly an hour ahead of Oreille. Those forty lost minutes were crucial to the Austrian, but whether he would have gone faster in an attempt to recover the other twenty is a matter of conjecture. The future of the Ivory Coast Rally is now in the balance. FISA has said that it may be dropped from the World Championship for Drivers in favour of the ADAC German Rally, and a decision on this will be made in December. If it loses WRC status then its meagre overseas support may vanish altogether, although we don’t doubt that it will continue as the main event of the national series. GP