Aghini's wheel of fortune

Six victories in seven contests is more than enough to put the stamp of favourite on any sportsman and, having won six events prior to the Sanremo Rally, Didier Auriol started very much as favourite. The Frenchman was on peak form, he could handle tarmac and dirt roads equally well and hardly anyone doubted that he would add another victory to his already record-breaking tally.

In the days before the start, Auriol and his co-driver Bernard Occelli showed no sign whatsoever of any tension or nervousness. They were satisfied with their notes, with their service planning and with their car. Indeed, confidence and composure showed in their every remark, their every mannerism.

Alas, what a change came before the rally had even got through its first hour! Their assurance turned into anguish and desolation. On the very first special stage their Lancia careered off the road, into and over a metal barrier and out of the rally.

This was no out-of-character driving error: nor was it the result of a mechanical failure. It was, in fact, the outcome of an oversight in the preparation of one of the car's wheels, a wheel which came off during that stage, causing the car to leave the road.

Lancia wheels have four holes for the studs. They also have four recesses which fit over the heads of the nuts holding the brake assembly in place, allowing the flat surface of the wheel to fit flush against the flat surface of its backplate. Those four recesses had not been drilled, and when the wheel was fitted it was seated not against the flat surface but against the heads of the four nuts.

Not only was the handling impaired by the additional track width, but there was considerable extra stress on the wheel studs which eventually failed. Auriol noticed the indifferent handling as soon as he started the stage. Later, he heard an unusual noise and detected a rumbling. Gradually, the vibration wore away the shanks of the wheel studs and that front right wheel eventually came off, sending the car into the barrier and off the road only about a mile and half before the end of the 7.7-mile stage.

Thoroughly miserable and depressed, Auriol and Occelli made their way back to Sanremo where they wasted no time packing and returning to their homes in France for a short break before beginning their preparations for their next event, Spain's Cataluna Rally.

Not long after this happened, a few unjust tongues began to wag. This is Auriol's last year at the wheel of a Lancia. At the start of 1993 he and Occelli will be moving to Toyota Team Europe, and the rather nasty murmurs being made were that Lancia did not want a reigning world champion to be driving something other than a Lancia next year and therefore rigged the car so that Auriol would not add to his points tally in Sanremo.

This is utter nonsense. Lancia has played some pretty marginal tricks in the past, as have some other teams, but to put drivers' lives at risk is something we cannot believe of anyone. There are numerous ways in which engineers can, if they are so inclined, slow a car down, or even stop it altogether, without resorting to a deliberate piece of crash inducement likely to cause serious injury.

We reckon this was a genuine oversight, one which was not spotted even by the person who actually fitted the wheel to the car. We also reckon that there was no predetermined plan, of whatever kind, to eliminate Auriol's chances of gaining worthwhile additional points in the World Championship. Of course, we cannot be absolutely certain, but gut feelings stemming from more years of experience than we sometimes care to admit are generally not far short of the mark.

So much for Auriol's misfortune. What of the event itself? The Sanremo Rally has a long history of troubles. Some 25 years ago, when it was called the Rally of the Flowers, Vic Elford was disqualified after winning fairly and squarely when a pinion in his Cortina's gearbox was found not to have the same number of teeth as stated on the form of ratification. It was a typing error but, even after it was proved mathematically before the stewards that the figure on the form represented a mechanical impossibility, Elford's protest was turned down and he was deprived of rightful victory.

Later, there were two unsuccessful mergers with the Sestriere Rally and, as though those lessons had not been learned, an even less successful collaboration with the Turin Motor Club to run the event through that traffic-ridden city.

The laying of spoilsport tarmac over the wonderful dirt roads through the mountains immediately inland from Sanremo led eventually to the organisers going in search of dirt roads elsewhere. This resulted in an event so stretched that it ran across almost the entire breadth of northern Italy, even having night stops in the mountain-peak state of San Marino, close to the coastal resort of Brindisi.

Dirt road stages in Tuscany were very popular, but the price paid for them was inordinately high. Getting there meant long and highly unpopular motorway drives, not to mention the lack of immediate control over the event which was the inevitable upshot of stretching it over such a great, noncompetitive distance. Furthermore, the use of stages on both tarmac and dirt roads increases costs for competitors who have no alternative but to provide suspensions, tyres, even transmissions, for both types of surface.

Ask a competitor, even an Italian, and he will probably say that the Sanremo Rally does not figure highly on his list of favourites. Even the general organisation leaves much to be desired and, regrettably, that is the situation even today. For the sake of future survival, the organisers really must consider a revision of format and a general pulling-out and reknitting.

Leaving Sanremo and adopting another base is almost unthinkable, for most of the event's income comes from backers in that city. The obvious solution would be to transform the rally into an all-tarmac affair and to run it in the mountains close to Sanremo. Another would be to base it in Tuscany and run it on dirt roads, but would the income from sponsors then be forthcoming? And would that not be tantamount to killing off one rally and creating another which, by sheer geography, would stand a good chance of being taken over by organisers other than those of Sanremo?

Whatever is decided, it must be decided soon, because waiting in the wings, ready to oust Sanremo from its place as Italy's World Championship qualifier, is the popular, all-dirt Costa Smeralda Rally on the island of Sardinia. The ball has been in the Sanremo court for many years, but never as obviously as now.

The number of works teams at Sanremo, or rather not at Sanremo, could hardly have been to the organisers' liking. Toyota gave the event a miss largely because Sainz, even though he still has a chance of the world title, had already done eight of his permitted 10 rounds during the year, and it made sense that his remaining two should be the Cataluna and RAC rallies. Neither Subaru nor Mitsubishi had planned to tackle the Italian event, whilst both Nissan and Mazda have almost ceased operating.

The line-up was obviously well-stocked with Lancia Delta integrates. Martini Racing had three of them for Auriol/Occelli, Juha Kankkunen/Juha Piironen and the promising Italians Andrea Aghini/Sauro Farnocchia. The Astra team, having embarked upon Sanremo preparations immediately after its successful trip to Cyprus, had a Delta for Alessandro FiorioNittorio Brambilla, whilst ART, another Italian outfit, had one for Piero Liatti/Luciano Tedeschini.

Outside the list of seed-driven cars were two other notable Lancias, one entered by Astra for Frenchmen Cesar Baroni/Philippe David and the other by the Jolly Club for Italian Championship leaders Piergiorgio Deila/Pierangelo Scalvini.

The only real works team opposing the Lancias was that of Ford, and from Boreham there were two Sierra Cosworth 4x4s for Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero and Francois Delecour/Daniel Grataloup. Ford of Italy entered another such car, backed by the fuel company Tamoil, for former works/Q8 crew Gianfranco Cunico/Stefano Evangelisti.

Two other Sierra Cosworth 4x4s were driven by Giovanni Manfrinato/Andrea Nicoli and Mohammed Bin Sulayem/Ronan Morgan.

Two Skoda Favorits from Czechslovakia were driven by Pavel Sibera/Petr Gross and Vladimir Berger/Miroslav Fanta. Nissan Belgium sent a Group N Sunny GTI-R for Gregoire de Mevius/Willy Lux and Opel Belgium a Group A Opel Calibra for Bruno Thiry/Stephane Prevot.

Down the field, Eija Jurvanen drove a Sierra Cosworth 4x4 but once again this was merely to record another start for the Finnish girl's aim to become World Ladies' Champion this year. She drove off the start ramp and promptly withdrew from the event.

The 15-hour first day was given over to eight tarmac stages, beginning with three close to Sanremo followed by five near the inland tourist centre at Il Ciocco. Between the two groups was a long road section, and there was another leading to the overnight stop at Arezzo, resulting in some 90 miles of special stages in a total distance of 450 miles.

After Auriol's retirement the hottest steam went out of the event. Sainz not being there, the only other World Championship contender in with a chance was Kankkunen and he had no tangible opponent to give him a driver-to-driver contest. However, he still had to beat his opponents to score championship points and all eyes and ears were focussed on his performance. On the other hand, there was the competition between Lancia and Ford which, although it had no championship conclusion to give it artificial spice, was still fierce and worth watching closely.

Cunico had a very troubled day, having problems first with his handbrake then with his front differential and then with his turbocharger wastegate which stuck in the open position.

On the tarmac, which Kankkunen agrees is not his 'natural’ environment, Aghini proved to be the best, followed closely by Delecour and then by Kankkunen. At least the first day had not produced any one-make domination, and who knew what the dirt roads could bring?

Among the several retirements, some took place on the tiresome motorway sections, one of them being Bin Sulayem who came to a permanent stop when his transmission cried enough.

After the overnight stop in Arezzo, the second day was somewhat more compact, another eight special stages this time making some 220 miles in a total distance of about 760.

On the dirt, Kankkunen began to shine. He got ahead to take the lead on the final stage ofthe day. Highly satisfied in fifth place, with just two works Lancias and two works Fords ahead of him, was Fiorio.

The final day was a long, drawn-out affair, beginning with three special stages on dirt roads and followed by another long trek back to Sanremo along the inevitably boring, sleep-inducing motorways. One and a half hours after arriving at Sanremo, crews set off for the final night section through six tarmac stages in the nearby mountains, split by a half hour stop on the mountain pass of San Bartolomeo.

The young Aghini, almost as though incensed by Kankkunen's audacity by taking the lead at the end of the previous day, wasted no time regaining it on the first of the three dirt road stages. But the challenge expected of Delecour came to nothing because the Frenchman was suffering badly from lack of sleep and he was far too tired to make a real push.

On the first three tarmac stages, after the long haul to Sanremo, Delecour and Biasion in their Fords were quicker than Kankkunen in his Lancia, but none of them could match Aghini who stayed resolutely ahead. Cunico had gone out, whilst Biasion lost time when his brakes overheated as a result of the loss of a cooling fan. Fiorio was also troubled when his headlights seemed to work only when they felt like it, the lights flickering badly and sometimes going out altogether. However, he was still holding on firmly to his place immediately behind the two works Lancias and the two works Fords.

As the night drew to a close, spectator interference reached its peak, and the organisers had no course but to cancel the last stage but one when the road was literally invaded by masses of humanity bent on getting as close as possible to the action even at the cost of Portuguese-style suicidalism.

By this time, Delia, the Italian Championship leader, was out due to suspension damage which could not be repaired in time, but he nevertheless retained his series lead to take his national laurels.

At this time, the question of team orders began to be asked. Would Lancia insist that Aghini pull back to allow Kankkunen to win, thereby giving the Finn a better chance of snatching the championship from future Toyota driver Auriol?

The option was actually given to Kankkunen but, to his credit, he declined. "I have been ordered to pull back in the past and it is so distasteful that I could not agree to it being inflicted on someone else, let alone a promising, up-and-coming young driver like Andrea who has a whole career in front of him. Anyway, Didier has won so many rallies this year that it really is his series, and I would only want to take it from him on merit, not on manipulation."

That was the size of it. On merit, albeit without Auriol as an opponent, Aghini won a fair and square battle, rendered ever fairer when Kankkunen declined the option of having the path to the winners' rostrum paved for him.

For the World Championship, the Auriol/ Kankkunen/Sainz fight now depends on the rallies in Spain and Great Britain, both of which will be over by the time this issue of Motor Sport, due to printing schedules, will appear on the shelves. All will be revealed in the January issue. After Sanremo (the Ivory Coast Rally counted for nothing, since none of the primary combatants was there) Auriol led by 13 points from Kankkunen, who was just three points ahead of Sainz.

Sanremo Rally of Italy – 12-15 October, 1992
Results

1. Andrea Aghini / Sauro Farnocchia – Lancia Delta HF Integrale, Gp A
2. Juha Kankunnen / Juha Piironen – Lancia Delta HF Integrale, Gp A
3. François Delecour / Daniel Grataloup – Ford Sierra Cosworth 4x4, Gp A
4. Massimo Biasion / Tiziano Siviero – Ford Sierra Cosworth 4x4, Gp A
5. Alessandro Fiorio / Vittorio Brambila – Lancia Delta HF Integrale, Gp A