By the time this edition of Motor Sport is published the first major rally of 1977 will be just over, but it is most unlikely that January’s Monte-Carlo Rally will have provided any significant insight into what lies in store for the rest of the year. Only one manufacturer, to our knowledge, has expressed any intention of having a determined and organised bid at the 1977 World Rally Championship, and that is Fiat. Indeed, it seems that Italians are more championship-conscious than any other nation, or in the past five years Lancia has won that aeries no less than four times.
During 1976 Fiat stopped using its 124 Abarth Spider in rallies, the group policy being that Lancia should keep a sporting image whilst Fiat should concentrate on proving the quality of cars which have a more general public appeal. Thus Lancia continued to use the Stratos whilst Fiat, after a concentrated and thorough period of development, switched to the Abarth version of the 131 saloon. It was decided some time ago by Fiat’s hierarchy that it was wasteful, both financially and in terms of resources, for Lancia to complete directly against the team run by Fiat itself, as they used to even after the latter acquired control of the former. Nowadays they only appear together in the same event when there is definite kudos to be gained by both or when there is a specific purpose such as keeping other makes out of the points-scoring top ten of final results.
For 1977, Lancia will not officially contest the World Championship, but Flat will. However, their paths will still cross, tor they realise that some events stand on their own pedestals and are well worth winning whether they are part of a series or not. For that reason, Lancia plans to tackle five World Championship events, The Monte-Carlo Rally, Safari Rally, Sanremo Rally, Tour of Corsica and RAC Rally. They do have another reason, and that is the FIA Cup for Rally Drivers, which the CSI has created for 1977.
For years there has been pressure on the CSI to set up a World Rally Championship for Drivers, the simplest way for this to be done being the awarding of points in the Present World series for makes to drivers as well as cars. But the CSI has steadfastly refused, perhaps under pressure from some manufacturers who fear that the emergence of a Champion Driver would detract from Publicity for the car which he drove. Now they have cast a sop its the direction of the drivers by setting up this new trophy, with a completely meaningless name (why couldn’t it have been World Rally Champion?) and with a highly complex method of scoring which will be quite beyond the comprehension of all but the most dedicated enthusiast.
Events which qualify for the new series are those in the World Championship for Makes series, those tn the European Championship for Drivers series and four others put into a category of their own. Scoring is complicated by co-efficients, and when you consider that the European series already has four different co-efficients spread among its mass of qualifying events, you will see that the whole thing is going to be the most top-heavy, incomprehensible series which it has been the CSI’s misfortune to produce.
Meaningless though it may be, it is something new and, series-conscious as the Italians are, Lancia intends that the cop should find its way into Sandra Munari’s trophy cupboard. Our weekly companion, Mooring News, has long campaigned for the creation of a World Championship for Rally Drivers and has over the past several years kept the score of a hypothetical series based on the existing championship for makes and using the same, easily understood points system. For 1976, Sandro Munari came put at the top of that table, and it will be interesting to see at the end of 1977 whether the CSI’s Champion of Co-efficients will be the same as he who takes the more straightforward title. As far as we are concerned, the latter will be the more significant.
Lancia’s programme for the year will therefore include the five World Championship events, various European Championship qualifiers, some Italian National Championship events and perhaps one or two of those extra four—South Africa’s Total Rally, for instance, or perhaps the Bandama Rally in the Ivory Coast. Lancia’s drivers will be Sandra Munari/Silvio Maiga, Raffaele Pinto/ Arnaldo Bernacchini and, on occasions, Simo Lampinen, Mauro Pregliasco and Tony Carello. For the Safari, local driver Robin Ulyate will join the team.
Fiat’s programme is more concise, though not geographically. They Will be tackling every World Championship qualifier except the Safari, and that includes even the rounds in Canada and New Zealand. Having used 1976 as an opener to test the development of the 131 under competition conditions (and scored outright wins into the bargain) they are now embarking on an intensive programme with the object of becoming World Champions at the end of the year. The fact that Fiat is the only team with such an expressed intention won’t make it any the easier, for there will be strong competition in each event and points will not be lightly won.
Fiat’s drivers for the year will be Markku Alen/Ilkka Kivimaki from Finland and Italian crews Fulvio Bacchellia/Francesoo Rossetti and Maurizio Verinin/Ninni Russo. In addition, Finn Simo Lampinen will drive occasionally for the team, when he is not required by Saab Finland for his home events or by Lancia.
Another team with an enviable record in international rallies is that of Saab. With a car that is hardly an even match for the Alpine, Stratos and others, the team has managed to score success after success, particularly on events with twisty roads of less than good Surface quality. The team is under no illusions about the capabilities of their cars (they are now rallying the 99 rather than the 96) and choose their rallies carefully — courses for horses, as it were. What is more, they appreciate that outright victory on a well-known event is worth more to a manufacturer than a whole series of championship laurels. What man in the street outside Italy, they wonder, would know that Lancia were 1976 Rally Champions?
In 1977, Saab will tackle a series of international events, most of which bear no series relationship to each other. Included will be the Swedish Rally, the Welsh Rally, the RAC Rally, the Rally of the 1000 Lakes, and perhaps the Scottish Rally or the Acropolis. A few other European events will be included, and perhaps one or two inside but only if there will be some outside means of extending their tight budget. Drivers will again be Stig Blomqvist and Per Eklund.
Another strong team in Europe is that of Toyota, based at Brussels and managed by Ove Andersson, Like Lancia, they will tackle just five World Championship events, in Sweden, Portugal, Greece, Finland and Britain. Number one driver will be Hannu Mikkola, who will be joined by Andersson himself occasionally. Other rallies will also be tackled, in particular where local importers will help financially (a consideration affecting most teams nowadays) and there are plans to compete in several British national events during the year, either with the 1.6-litre Corolla (180 b.h.p.) or the 2-litre Celica 230 b.h.p.), both with 16-valve engines.
After concentrating more of their efforts in the past few years on British events rather than those overseas, Ford plans to tackle five World Championship rounds in 1977, though the series as a whole is by no means the objective. The Portuguese Rally, Safari, Acropolis, Thousand Lakes and the RAC will make up the main programme, though it is likely that Boreham will be represented in such events as the Total Rally, where the main organisation will be in the hands of Ford South Africa, the Radio New Zealand Rally and perhaps the Southern Cross Rally in Australia.
Team drivers will be Roger Clark, Ari Vatanen and Bjorn Waldegard, the latter driver being signed up when his Lancia contract ended and he felt disinclined to sign for Fiat. Kenyan Vic Preston Jnr. will join the team for the Safari, whereas British driver Russell Brookes. signed with Andrew Dawson to appear primarily in British events this year, will be seen in some rallies outside Britain.
This programme is indeed comprehensive and will give very little respite to the Boreham team during the year, The World Championship is not the goal, as we have said, but with good results in Portugal and Kenya it could well be that Ford will pick up enough points to have a very good chance of taking the laurels back to Boreham.
Datsun plans to concentrate on the Safari as usual, that being the greatest publicity catcher of all in their opinion, going elsewhere only when a local importer or dealer will agree to subsidise the effort. Mitsubishi will no doubt concentrate on events in Australasia, with a foray to the Safari taking precedence. Alpine-Renault is still concentrating on developing the V6-engined A310 and will doubtless expand its activities when they consider the car is on top form and homologated, whilst Peugeot still reckons that the only events worth considering are those on rough roads, notably in the continent of Africa. However, they do have plans to market the little 104 with a sporting image and that car will doubtless make a few appearances as it did in 1976.
Leyland will continue to use the TR7, though appearances outside the United Kingdom will depend largely on what happens in British events and the interest shown by Leyland offshoots overseas. A private team has been set up in the UK, backed by Century Oils, and with drivers Cohn Malkin and Del Lines it is likely that two TR7s will venture abroad occasionally in 1977.
So it seems that the trees themselves are being generally regarded as more important than the forests to which they belong, an attitude with which, until the CSI provides rallying with a simple, straightforward series and a real, live World Rally Champion, we heartily agree. But it will in no way detract from fierce competition in individual events most of which will be as demanding and hotly contested in 1977 as they have always been.—G.P.