Ford's first win in Sanremo...or was it?

In 1966, a Ford came to the end of what was then called the Rally of the Flowers in first place. At least, that was what all the stage and road times amounted to. To all intents and purposes, Vic Elford had won the Rallye del Fiori in his works Cortina. It had been a straight fight, and a British crew had beaten the Italians on their home ground, fairly and squarely, bar the shouting. . . which started soon after the event was over; the clamour almost matched that not many weeks before when Timo Makinen was deprived of his Monte-Carlo win because his Mini’s headlights were not standard. When Elford’s Cortina was dismantled afterwards, the scrutineers triumphantly reported to the stewards that the number of cogs on one of the gearbox pinions was not the same as that indicated on the ratification form. Elford was disqualified and, with the support of the Ford team, he protested. Using his engineering knowledge and skill, he proved conclusively to the stewards that the the figure on the ratification form was not correct. Indeed, he was able to demonstrate that, without any doubt, the written figure was mechanically impossible.

But it was like a head against a stone wall. Elford’s cause was lost before it began. Whether the stewards were not of an engineering bent is another matter, but they nevertheless decided to throw out his protest and to conclude that, even though it had been proved impossible, the figure on the ratification (homologation, if you are French) form was the correct one. A bit like deciding that a bottle of Jamaica Rum was actually Scotch Whisky just because it bore the wrong label!

Thus it was that, for the second time in a few months, a British car was disqualified on a triviality after winning a major international rally. The late Leo Cella was declared the winner of the 1966 Rally of the Flowers, and a Lancia replaced the Ford on the winners’ list.

This year, for the first time since 1966, a Ford again led the field at the end of the Sanremo Rally, but on this occasion it stayed there. Driving an Escort RS Cosworth for Ford Italy, Franco Cunico and Stefano Evangelisti beat all the fancied works crews and emerged outright winners. Ford was thus able to salvage some kudos after both its works cars retired, but scored no makes’ championship points because Cunico was not a nominated driver. Beneath the celebratory skin, some Ford people may have been feeling a little embarrassment, because Cunico was, for a short period during Q8’s sponsorship of the Boreham team, a Ford works driver, but his contract was terminated simply by not being renewed.

Victory on a World Championship event by a non-works driver is a rarity, but certainly nothing new. Franz Wittmann won the 1987 New Zealand Rally in a private Lancia, for instance, whilst in 1978 Jean-Pierre Nicolas won the Monte-Carlo Rally in a private Porsche entered by the Almeras brothers.

Italy’s premier event has a chequered history. Not only has it shifted from one end of the year to the other, but it has moved its route several times, even merging (unsuccessfully) with the Sestriere Rally to finish in the ski resort of that name. When the superbly competitive dirt roads in the mountains immediately behind Sanremo became covered in spoilsport tarmac, it went in search of unsurfaced roads elsewhere, even going as far as Rimini on the east coast and having night stops at the famous horse racing town of Siena and the mountain principality of San Marino. Tarmac stages were still included, and for several years the rally was one for which teams had to provide for mid-event suspension changes, although the tarmac was invariably grouped away from the dirt, usually right after the start and just before the finish.

The dirt roads of Tuscany were popular, but the journey there and back was not and some people proposed that the event should be based right there in the east. But that was unthinkable. The organisers are from Sanremo and the event draws much of its sponsorship revenue from that city and its environs. To move elsewhere would be to give up a lucrative backing deal.

This year, the organisers wooed the FIA even more than they have in the past by cutting the event down to three days, eliminating night running apart from a few evening stages held after sunset and cutting out all the dirt road sections. Paris has decreed against mixing stage surfaces within an event in order to reduce servicing costs for competitors, but whoever determined the stage locations for this year’s rally must have done so with just a pencil and a map, without any thought for service practicalities.

The route layout was such that even more service vehicles were needed than before for full coverage, and what teams gained by not having to carry dirt road equipment they more than lost by having to field more vehicles and personnel. ‘Straight line’ running, with competitive sections off left and right, works in some cases – the Mombasa leg of the Safari Rally, for instance – but in Sanremo it did not. And the long, boring, sleep-inducing road sections were as unpopular as they have always been.

Entries for the Sanremo Rally were affected by its place in the calendar, its switch to an all-tarmac format and the fact that the makes championship has already been stitched up by Toyota. The latter team, having made sure of the title by its win in Australia, decided that there was no point in going to Italy when its lead driver Juha Kankkunen has no liking for tarmac stages and even less for the Sanremo Rally itself. Mitsubishi was another outfit on whose programme Sanremo did not figure. Likewise, Subaru was not there in its full strength, largely because the Hong Kong to Beijing Rally clashed, and since that event was sponsored by 555 cigarettes, the team’s own backer, it was pretty well obliged to go to China, the only proper team to do so this year.

This left Ford and Lancia, the latter represented by the Jolly Club, as the only regular World Championship contestants.

Ford’s drivers Francois Delecour and Massimo Biasion were each just capable, with the right end-of-season results, of toppling Kankkunen from his championship lead, so both were there in works Escort Cosworths, their engines improved since their lacklustre Australian appearance. Quite separate from the works team was the Escort Cosworth entered by Ford Italy for Cunico. That he was not part of the wellheeled works outfit was shown by his lack of a full complement of ‘gravel note’ cars. He had just one, which could provide nothing like total coverage.

What is still referred to as the Lancia team is now really the Jolly Club outfit, backed by Totip, Italy’s national lottery. Lancia itself stepped down a long time ago and, even though Lamborghini engineers have been brought in to keep the cars on peak performance, the feeling in the team is almost one of despondency. Indeed, the quest for success seems to have usurped the legendary Italian national pride and there is now a strong possibility that the team will switch from Lancias to Fords before many more moons go by. Even Cesare Fiorio, the man who many years ago started the HF (High Fidelity) team, with its elephant emblem to signify the weight of the cars, was heard this year to say that the competitive hey-day of the Lancia is over.

Three cars were entered by the Jolly Club, driven by Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya, Andrea Aghini/Sauro Farnocchia and Dario Cerrato/ Luciano Guizzardi. Their service organisation was complicated by the fact that Sainz and Cerrato used Michelin tyres whilst Aghini was on Pirellis. This partition was noticeable when, at pre-stage service stops, one driver was casting envious eyes at another’s stock, knowing that they were out of reach.

All three Lancias were in different liveries and Cerrato’s engine was not, apparently, one of those given new camshafts or pistons by Lamborghini. His car was the only one in the old, familiar Martini colours and it did not sport a side-exit exhaust as those of Sainz and Aghini did. The Lancia drivers were hoping for wet conditions in order to minimise front tyre wear, which could be catastrophic on long stages. They got their wish, but it didn’t do them much good.

Another Lancia integrale was the Astra car of Alessandro Fiorio/Vittorio Brambilla, fresh from their second successive win in Cyprus.

Although the Prodrive Subarus were absent, there was an ex-Prodrive Legacy entered by Italy’s ART for Piero Liatti/ Alessandro Alessandrini, and this had been nominated for makes championship points.

Why Subaru should be interested in improving on its third place among just five contesting makes is hard to imagine, especially as such an improvement is not exactly likely. Liatti’s car ran on Pirelli tyres.

Prominent among the 2wd runners were Bruno Thiry and Stephane Prevot in their Astra GSi from Opel Belgium. They revelled in the atrociously wet conditions and won the non-4wd category comfortably even though they had no advance-running ‘gravel note’ car. Elsewhere, Thiry tries to learn the stages by heart, much as the Finns do at home, but in Italy he had to rely entirely on his notes.

Also from Belgium were Patrick Snijers/ Dany Colebunders in a Bastos-backed Ford Escort Cosworth prepared by RAS, whilst a similar car was driven by Gionanni Manfrinato/Claudio Condotta. A Group N Escort Cosworth, prepared by MLP in England, was driven by Mohammed Bin Sulayem/Ronan Morgan, but they were struck early in the event by severe food poisoning which put some of the team in bed for a while. You don’t have to be in Africa or India to fall foul of such a malady nowadays.

The weeks before the start saw torrential rain fall in northern Italy, so much that mountain roads became awash and mud, rocks, branches and even whole trees were washed down from the slopes. The going was very difficult indeed, and soggy leaves presented as much of a hazard as unexpected ice. The conditions continued into the rally itself, and when the first day dawned with cloud touching the high ground, visibility was decidedly lacking, even absent altogether in places, adding to the many other hazards on the narrow, twisty mountain roads.

The first day went through five mountain stages close to Sanremo before a half-hour regrouping stop at Savona. The remaining five stages led all the way eastwards to II Ciocco where there was a night stop at a tourist centre. The next day’s return run passed through seven stages before a halfhour stop at Busalla, some 20 miles inland from Genoa. Two further stages, during evening darkness, took crews back to Sanremo. The final day consisted of eight stages close to Sanremo.

Among the stages were some which have been used since the days of the Flowers. although Coldirodi, CoIle Langan, CoIle D’Oggia, Vignai, Molini di Triora, CoIle Langan and the road above Pigna are now all covered by tarmac.

On the very first stage, starting just up into the mountains from Sanremo, at CoIdirodi, Piero Longhi crashed his Delta out of the rally but was still assured of the Italian championship title. Cunico also went off the road, losing almost a minute and, as there was no time to fix the left frontal damage. losing more time on stage two.

Delecour, proclaiming that his car was much better than that which he had in Australia, was fastest on the first stage, and the next four. On the first few he used intermediate tyres, but the going was so bad that he eventually switched to wets even though the rubble on the road could not be predicted and Michelin has no wet road tyres incorporating anti-puncture foam. He said that he was not indulging in corner cutting and maintaining a middle-of-the-road line. Sainz had his soft suspension replaced by a much harder set-up and later needed a broken exhaust pipe replacing.

Aghini, after having hit a bank with the left rear on the first stage, experienced handling trouble afterwards and it was not until the Savona regrouping stop that a leaking shock absorber was found and replaced. Thiry had trouble starting his car after a service stop and it would only fire up after its ignition coil was replaced by that taken from the team manager’s car. At least in some cases time-honoured remedies have not been completely thrown out by the advent of electronic wizardry.On the stage after Savona the rally took an amazing turn as one potential winner after another vanished from the fray. In atrocious conditions, both on the road surface and in the curtain-like air immediately above, Aghini, who was first on the road, went off and out of the event. Delecour, who was leading, rolled down a bank. He eventually regained the stage by continuing to drive downwards, but this point was a long way back from the scene of his original departure and the whole operation took so long that he was out.

Biasion’s engine began overheating so badly after a water hose split that when he arrived at service after that infamous stage seven (the sixth was cancelled before the start due to disagreement with the landowner) the stench of overheating filled the air and a blown cylinder head gasket meant that there was no chance of continuing. Almost at one stroke, both Ford’s runners were out.

Liatti spent three minutes off the road, losing his front left wheel, then lost more time having repairs, and the outcome was that Sainz found himself leading from Cunico, who had not put a wheel wrong after his first stage mishap.

But that was not all. Cerrato suffered alternator failure and needed a succession of new batteries to keep him going. On one stage he just managed to make the finish as the engine died and had to push the car to service. Later, he even had to drive along the motorway without lights. Imagine his feelings when, after his final battery change, reversed polarity connections damaged the system so much that he was out of the rally!

Snijers, as a result of all this, got up to fourth but lost a minute due to a jammed turbocharger wastegate. Later, his extra front lights were not available when he wanted them and he had to tackle the last two stages in the dark with just two miserable headlights. Thiry had the same problem, compounded by two organisational delays which put competitors even further into the hours of darkness.

Sainz made some bad tyre choices which allowed Cunico to get into the lead, but the Italian was certainly not overcome by his good fortune when the rally arrived at II Ciocco. Indeed, he was most matter-of-fact, made no more significant a gesture than a shrug of the shoulders and went off to sleep. His lead over Sainz was 42 seconds, whilst in third place was Florio, another 2m 37s back. Snijers was next after another 2m 8s, ahead of Thiry by 3m 43s.

The differences were much larger than in most European events, especially after just 118 stage miles, but conditions were so bad that there was no question of drivers matching each other closely.

There was a little less rain during the second day, but the roads were still wet and slimy and there was fog on high ground. Sainz had wrongly chosen slicks during the first day, and on the second he wrongly chose intermediate tyres for the first stage. No service was allowed after this one so he was stuck with them for the second, this allowing Cunico to get even further ahead.

Liatti crashed into the trees on the second stage of the day, needing a replacement intercooler pump afterwards and losing time both on the stage and on the road. Cunico’s engine began overheating when the sensor governing his radiator fan failed and he apparently neglected to flick the manual over-ride switch. But he still led, outwardly unaffected by any stress and displaying a professionalism which belied his status as a virtual privateer. It was quite amazing to see how unruffled he was.

Fiorio’s rally came to an end when a con-rod broke and his engine ran slowly and noisily until it stopped completely after stage 17.

The last two stages of the day, before the return to Sanremo, were in the dark, the second of them ending at Pigna, up the valley from Ventimiglia where, in years past, the mechanics of Abingdon and Boreham used to stage impromptu football matches on the forecourt of Ristorante Adolfo, where service crews used to spend their time between one passage and the next. Alas, even the mountain road up from Pigna is now a tarmac affair.

Back at Sanremo. Cunico had extended his lead over Sainz to 2m 9s, whilst Snijers was another 7m 58s back. Pianezzola (Lancia) had got ahead of Thiry into fourth place, whilst Liatti was sixth. The difference between first and sixth by this time was almost seven minutes.

The final day was the shortest of the event, eight stages in the hills above Sanremo. The weather improved considerably, roads were much drier and there were even periods of sunshine. This pleased most people, except the irrepressible Thiry who lost a place to Liatti on the dry roads. Liatti seemed to be going much faster on this final day, but this was not really so. His excellent times were due to Cunico and Sainz easing off, each realising that holding position was the only proper course on that last day.

Whilst Cunico himself still looked relaxed, his mechanics were certainly agitated because his engine was still overheating after the earlier fan failure. The cylinder head gasket was certainly not in one piece by this time and the question was whether it would hold out. But hold out it did, and Cunico finished the event an extremely worthy winner, albeit in a cloud of acrid smoke. His drive was intelligent and untainted by obvious drama or undue emotion. He was calm and self-possessed throughout. Whether the Jolly Club will cast its eyes in his direction remains to be seen.

The World Championship for Makes has already been settled by Toyota. In Sanremo, Biasion’s engine failure meant that he lost any chance of beating Juha Kankkunen to the drivers’ title. Delecour. however, still had that chance.