Rally Review, February 1981

The year ends in the Ivory Coast

Whilst the Mercedes team was tackling the final round of the World Rally Championship in the Ivory Coast in December, they had no idea of the discussions which were going on back in Stuttgart, discussions which very quickly afterwards led to the team’s withdrawal from rallying. That was just as well, for the demoralising effect of that knowledge may have reduced their fighting spirit and taken away the one overall victory which they scored in the whole series.

Winners were Bjorn Waldegard and Hans Thorszelius in a 500SLC, ahead of Argentinian driver Jorge Recalde at the wheel of a similar car. Opposition to the five-car German team was by no means light, including three Toyota Celicas three Peugeot 504 Coupes, three Datsun 160Js and a lone Fiat 131 Abarth which former works driver Sandro Munari had borrowed from the factory to run as a privateer with his own backing.

In the oppressive heat, soaking humidity and thick dust of West Africa the retirement rate was high, particularly as accidents on the traffic-ridden roads led to several stoppages. Indeed, Andrew Cowan met a bus coming towards him on the wrong side of the road at a bend, avoided a head-on but side-swiped and promptly rolled. Shekhar Mehta had to put his Datsun very smartly off the road in order to avoid a wobbling cyclist and his rally came to an end against a tree.

Formerly called the Bandama Rally, the Ivory Coast Rally has been modelled on the Safari and runs without special stages along roads and tracks which are not closed to other traffic. In Kenya the Safari is so well known and respected that national and local administrators take steps to ensure that no serious non-rally traffic interferes with the event’s progress, but in the Ivory Coast this has not been the case and many competitors complained bitterly of the very fast average speeds required even through densely populated areas and through comparatively heavy traffic.

For every actual collision there most have been countless near misses, and those who dnive as they do in the Kenyan event did so at no small risk.

Eklund had his Celica’s gearbox changed twice, losing nearly four hours in all, whilst Makinen stopped when his Peugeot’s engine seized. Kirkland’s Datsun stopped with an electrical short-circuit which mechanics could not trace, and Andersson’s Celica when its flywheel loosened.

The pace up front was fierce, perhaps accentuating the danger of rallying against opposing traffic, but the fact remains that questions are being asked whether it is fair to include such a dangerous event in the World Championship in its present form. Even the terrain lacks the variety of East Africa. and the event escaped automatic relegation by having lost two starters more than the minimum of 50, although nowadays if sufficient persuasion is offered to certain FISA people they ignore their own rules and select whichever events they please.

The result did not affect Walter Rohrl’s already clinched position as World Champion, nor Fiat’s first place in the Manufacturers’ series, but it did lever Mercedes up to fourth place, not that it mattered very much to them under the circumstances which came to light soon after. – G.P.