Rally review, February 1982

In January’s Motor Sport an advertisement offered for sale a car which had been made ready for the Peking to Paris Challenge but which was no longer required since the event had been cancelled.

It most certainly has not been cancelled, but nevertheless rumours have been circulating that it had, and no doubt people have been accepting those rumours.

When FISA’s president insisted on calling it a French event even though it is organised from Britain. and muscling in on the diplomatic negotiations – perhaps he was after a medal – it led to the change of route necessary when Russia did not grant permission to pass through Soviet territory.

We heard that purists were offended by this, because there would be no chance of bellowing the 1907 route. But that route was not going to be followed anyway. In any case, the 1907 rules were simple; start at Peking, finish at Paris and go whichever was you wish between the two.

That will not be the case this time, for there will be a fixed and mandatory route throughout. A free-for-all, as in 1907, is sadly no longer possible due to progress. Regulons and administrative requirements become more restrictive with every small advance of civilisation, it seems.

From Peking the route will go westwards, following roads and tracks to the North of the Himalayas, then turning southwards into Pakistan along the old silk trading route. From Pakistan it will either go onward into the Middle East, which presents a somewhat boring prospect as far as roads are concerned, or down into India and more mountain tracks in the Himalayan foothills.

A sea crossing from Bombay will then take older cars through Suez to Piraeus, whilst sturdier machinery will be shipped to Mombasa prior to a journey northwards through Kenya, Sudan and Egypt to Alexandria her shipment to join their elder brethren in Piraeus.

The final leg to Paris will be relatively simple, but it will no doubt contain several special stages.

Diplomatic negotiations are now no longer as involved and complicated as they were when Russia was one of the goals, but much work still has to be done, particularly on a route survey, and we would therefore not be surprised to hear that the whole event has been postponed until 1983. Indeed, the organisers mention that possibility in their most recent bulletin. We prefer to consider it a probability.

There has been enough slurring of this event, largely by those who perhaps felt that they should be involved M the running of the whole thing and were outraged not to have been asked. It has not been officially cancelled.

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When Bjorn Waldegård became World Champion after the whole eh 1979 spent in desperately close competition with his friend, team-mate but serious rival Hannu Mikkola, he soon discovered that a champion’s laurels cannot themselves guarantee success.

He was not short of a contract for he then drove for Mercedes, but the big Stuttgart cars were colourful and exciting without being successful and it was not long before this big German spending spree was over.

Walther Rörhl was the next champion, but he seemed to be rather fed up wide driving for an Italian team, particularly as it seemed that Markku Alén would stay with Fiat for there was absolutely no love lost between those two drivers.

He left, signed a contract with Mercedes only to have the whole arrangement tumble about him when Mercedes pulled out of rallying before the ink was dry on the contract. Rörhl had a rather lean 1981 made up of bits and pieces and he discovered, as Waldegård had, that it was no sinecure being World Champion.

The third man tie hold the title is Ari Vatanen, and he seems to be going along the same, familiar road. He has no contracted drive in 1982 and for most of the time he will do no more than undertake test sessions for Ford. He has said that he wants to spend more time at home in Finland this year than he did in 1981, but one wonders what degree of sincerity lies in that remark, and whether it was partly engendered by the need to explain publicly, and without losing face, his lack of a full contract.

It could be a little of both, for he really has had a busy 1981 and we can understand his desire to travel less in 1982. But he is by no means alone without immediate competition appearances, as shown by the sparse professional entry in the recent Monte-Carlo Rally – only Opel and Audi as full works team, and then just the odd Porsche to add interest.

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It seemed that every public information agency in Britain, and even beyond, phoned us in mid-January to ask whether we thought Mark Thatcher would be found, did we think he was stupid and inexperienced; been long could he stay alive after stopping; where did we think he was; would we explain all about desert travel and survival?

Obviously, we could answer none of those questions. But we were left wondering about the persons who asked them, and about an administration which allows a totally inexperienced competitor to tackle an arduous event.

We can make no comment on the state of preparation of the Verney Thatcher Gartner Peugeot. That it broke its diff casing is neither here nor there, for it happens to better cars on less difficult events. But at least they were carrying flares, and they did have enough food and drink.

But his experience was nil and yet he was allowed to compete in this long event, by-passing the usual competition licensing system insofar as it relates to Tom. Dick or Harry who have to climb the ladder from grade to grade on their way to a full international rally licence.

Short-cuts, it seems, are only for celebrities.

Thatcher has held racing licences for some time but it is totally illogical that this should enable him to tackle a rally whether as first or second driver – and we understand that he was the second driver in this event. His pre-event remark that he considered a drive at Le Mans equipped him adequately for a Sahara crossing was totally ludicrous.

He might have the skill to cope with Le Mans, and even the stamina to stay awake and alert for 24 hours, but these attributes alone do not make a rally driver. And they certainly don’t represent all that is required of a successful desert navigator.

Inhospitable, uncomfortable territory, whether it be a hot desert or a cold snow waste, has a habit of wearing down determination. Even the slightest problem is magnified by discomfort, when things get wrong it is the easiest way to call it a day.

It is no disgrace to think in this way. It is perfectly natural to become despond.’ at the, face of trouble, and it takes a great deal experience of tough journeys to maintain all ones tenacity. Mark Thatcher did not have this experience before setting out from Paris.

There can he no doubt that they had wrong-slotted somewhere, which is not difficult to do in that country, but who didn’t Thatcher admit it rather than just hint at it? It would have been no disgrace, but might on the other have emphasised even more his inexperience.

The RAC reserves the right to issue licenses in publicity-commanding personalities whether they have made the step-by-step climb through the grades or not. This has happened in the case of annual events such as the RAC Rally and regular ones such as intercontinental marathons.

It is both wrong and dangerous. Furthermore it brings the sport into disrepute. Only rally experience should qualify for a rally licence. G.P.