The months ahead

By the time you read this, the Monte-Carlo Rally will be over by at least four days and the first points scores of the 1983 World Rally Championship will be known. The Opel/Audi tussle will have been renewed, with the addition of Lancia as a buffer or perhaps even the major reagent, and we will have had the first sight of the new Nissan 240 RS under competitive conditions. Renault will again have displayed its R5 Turbo, and Mazda its 323.

World Champion Walter Röhrl will have shown by his demeanour whether he is any happier back with an Italian team than he was during his last months with Opel, and Alén will have had an opportunity to prove his claim that the Lancia Rally will sweep the board this year, at the same time satisfying himself whether he will be content to drive again in the same team as Röhrl. When they were both driving 131s for Fiat there was little love lost between them.

Opel, again backed by Rothmans, has two Finns and a Frenchman on its driving books, both the former with Ulstermen as co-drivers. The partnerships are Henri Toivonen/Fred Gallagher, Ari Vatanen/Terry Harryman and Guy Frequelin/Jean-François Fauchille. Audi continues with Hannu Mikkola/Arne Hertz and Michèle Mouton/Fabrizia Pons, very sensibly making use of that brilliant partnership from Sweden, Stig Blomqvist/Björn Cederberg.

Blomqvist, formerly a Saab man, has taken to the Quattro four-wheel-drive system quicker than anyone, and although his contract is with Audi Sweden rather than the factory itself, the Ingolstadt people know full well that his capability is such that they cannot possibly ignore it.

Jean-Claude Andruet, he of the succession of female co-drivers, forsook his Ferrari last month in favour of a works Lancia Rally, whilst Renault Sport only had one official car, an R5 Turbo for Jean Ragnotti/Jean Marc Andrié, the similar cars of Jean-Luc Thérier and Bruno Saby were privately entered, with factory support.

British entries were again pretty poor, and although the entry list showed ten crews of British nationality, two were actually Finns, one a German and one a Frenchman, this probably being due to British entrant licences being held by both Martini Racing and Team Nissan Europe. Of the remaining six, two were all-girl crews, Louise Aitken/Ellen Morgan and Ruth Hillier/Mary Fullerton, both in Alfasuds. Their male compatriots were Lord/Gormley (Sunbeam Lotus), Newby/Parker (Reliant Kitten), Price/Thomas (Renault 5 Turbo) and Williams/Greenland (Sunbeam). All six British crews chose the British start and the brisk dash to Eastern Docks from the Granham Webb Hotel in Dover, a far cry from the journeys down from Scotland via Llandrindod Wells which used to produce conditions as wintry as those in the Alps themselves.

Salonen, too, started from Dover, presumably because Team Nissan Europe is based in Shepreth, near Cambridge. After the RAC Rally in November, Nissan changed its contractors for European competition activities, and Blydenstein Racing assumed that role in place of Davison Auto Developments.

Gone are the days when Group 4 cars dominated the higher levels of an entry list. They are still permitted to take part under the new vehicle regulations of the FISA, but professional teams eager to score championship points with A-seeded drivers are obliged to use cars which comply with the new grouping system, and Group B permits the greatest modification. Indeed, the first 13 runners were all in Group B cars, and the first in Group A was Warmbold's Mazda 323, entered from Switzerland. Just two weeks before the start there was hardly any snow at all in the Alps, and Audi people were as despondent as the proprietors of ski resorts. But Alpine weather conditions can change almost as fast as they can in Africa and they could well in the meantime have had the snow which gives the four-wheel-drive Quattro its biggest advantage.

The absence of snow also makes things rather tricky for ice-note crews. If snow-free roads become damp in the afternoon and temperatures drop below freezing in the evening, black ice will have to be precisely located so that drivers will not be caught out on the one icy patch in an otherwise dry special stage.

Ice notes were invented by the British in the '60s, and they came about simply because no matter how much practice a competing crew had done in advance, they would not know the road surface conditions until they were actually driving in the rally. Their pace notes would be perfected during practice, but the presence of snow and ice could never be included.

During the rally, experienced ex-competitors, preferably those who were used to pace notes, had competed in the Monte and knew alpine conditions, were hired by teams to drive over the special stages in advance of the rally, but as close to it as road-closing police would allow. These crews, working on a leap-frog schedule so that every stage could be covered, would be armed with photocopies of their competitor's pace notes and these would be marked, usually with a system of red underlining, to indicate the presence of snow or ice.

Accuracy is vital, and if the notes are made properly a competitor can tell whether the snow is continuous or patchy, whether it is left, right or centre of the road, whether it is on the braking area, into a corner, the apex, or the acceleration area from it, whether it is fresh or hard-packed and whether it is smooth or rutted.

Wet patches are also included, especially if the temperature is around freezing point, and notes made concerning cloud and fog, and whether the thermometer (there's one on the outside of every ice-note car) is rising or falling.

After these notes are made, they are taken to the service point which precedes the stage to be given to the competitor when he arrives, and it is on this information that he will base his choice of tyre / stud combination. Quite often the police will close a road much earlier than the published time, and ice-note crews will endeavour to talk their way past the barriers. Sometimes this works, but mostly it does not, so early arrival is imperative. If, after one trip through, a crew returns to a stage start to find that the road has not yet been closed, they will make a second trip, and then even a third, so that their notes will be as up-to-date as possible when they are given to the competitors.

Of course, on a rally such as the Swedish, when every stage is covered by ice and snow, ice-note crews are superfluous, except when the temperature rises and localised thaws bring gravel to the surface and threaten the security of tyre studs. Similarly, all-tarmac events do not really need these "opening" crews, as the French call them, but they can be very useful indeed on the Safari, when a local storm can produce a small area of mud in an otherwise dry route.

Having thus moved from ice to mud, perhaps it is timely to speak of how the 1983 Marlboro Safari Rally is progressing in the hands of its new helmsman, former winner Mike Doughty. The route is finalised, of course, and roadbooks will be ready by the time competitors will wish to begin their first recces, and this is usually around mid-February. Times, however, are still at the provisional stage, and it is almost traditional in the Safari to make changes even just a week before the start. When crews return from practice with the comments that this particular section is far too tight, or that one too easy, adjustments are often made to the times, but always after an astute assessment of whether a driver is trying to incorporate a change which will suit his type of car more than the rest of the field.

The three legs again amount to just over 5,000 kilometres, the first running southwards to Mombasa and back, via the twisty, hilly sections of the Chyulus, the Taitas and the Shimbas. The second will go northwards via Mau Narok, Rumuruti and Isiolo to return on the eastern side of Mount Kenya through Embu and Meru, whilst the third will go to the North-West via Kisumu, Kapenguria, Eldoret and Nakuru, visiting the high wheat lands of Mau Narok, the dense forests of Tinderet, the tea plantations near Kericho, the high country of the Cheranganis and the stillness of the Kerio Valley.

Very, very little of the route is new, and the continued use of familiar sections is due to caution on the part of the organisers. There is a limit on what can be used on the way out of, and back into Nairobi, but there is still much untapped material farther afield. However, no longer is the weather considered a noble adversary, and roads which are crossed by flood-prone drifts are avoided unless convenient alternatives exist. A bog-up used to be fair game, part of the whole adventure of tackling the Safari, but now it is akin to a disaster and every possible measure is taken to avoid it. Personally, we would love to see the rally go into areas such as the Northern Frontier District, lands of the Turkana and the Rendille, where bushland becomes lava rock and the crust of the Chalbi Desert quivers on the jellied mud beneath as you drive over it, cautiously!

The NFD did figure in the route of the rally some ten years ago, as far up as North Horr on one leg and nearly to Lodwar on another, but rain which threatened to turn deserts into seas prompted the organisers to scrub it all just a week or so before the start. By that time most competitors had completed all their recces up there and had nothing but praise and affection for this inhospitable but fascinating part of the country.

There are rather more controls this year than in the past, due to duplication at towns so that crowded areas can be isolated from complitive sections before and after, but presumably the available manpower will be able to cope. Marshals on this event usually work in family groups and go off into the bush for the whole weekend with several vehicles, tents, beds, radio, and plenty of food and drink. All are unpaid volunteers, and they consider the Safari to be an opportunity tor a unique Easter holiday whilst doing useful work.

The date is earlier than last year, which suggests that it might be a dry event, but seasonal rainfall charts have gone by the board in Kenya and the expression "unseasonal weather" is becoming part of everyday talk. In December, which is supposed to be a dry month, the rain was so heavy that bridges were washed away, roads ripped up, boulders moved hundreds of yards and even the main Nairobi-Mombasa road was closed by huge floods. Rivers ran along the streets of Nairobi itself, manhole covers popped up like champagne corks and water jets spouted upwards like oil gushers.

Kenya continues to ban imports, from cars to foodstuffs, and since saloon cars are not assembled in the country many of the local competitors will be driving Kenyan-built pick-up trucks this year. The Kenyan Shilling has recently been devalued, and there is currently a desperate shortage of both motor and aviation fuel. However, the government is not likely to allow this to threaten the Safari. The worldwide publicity it generates, and its importance for the country's international prestige are well known, and even if the shortage continues until Easter a contingency plan will doubtless be put into operation.

The entry list is healthier than it was this time last year, and already it includes the teams of Audi and Opel, the latter with a few years of Safari experience behind them but the former with none, save for the fact that Mikkola has driven in the event many times, and won it.

If it turns out to be wet, there will be high hopes of an Audi win, but traction isn't everything when you're a long way from a service car, and reliability is going to count for a great deal, as always. After all, the Quattro hasn't yet cut its African teeth.

Audi is going straight into a strongroom full of Kenyan experience, for the team will be based at the workshops above the Preston service station, where both Vic Preston himself and Safari chairman Bill Parkinson have offices. Preston will doubtless organise the recruitment of local staff for the team. such as fuel truck drivers, additional mechanics, mud crews and aircraft support. Vic Preston Jnr. will be driving the third Quattro for this event, along with regulars Mikkola / Hertz. and Mouton / Pons. It will be Mouton's first Safari, but she has already shown herself capable of rallying anywhere, whatever the conditions, and is always tenacious no matter what her personal likes and dislikes.

The Opel team will have two Asconas, one for Vatanen / Gallagher and one for Rauno Aaltonen / Lofty Drews. Aaltonen is a veteran Safari campaigner, from the time he went there in a BMC Mini complete with carrying handles, but although he has come very close indeed to winning he has never quite managed it. This time he will be more determined than ever.

Last year the big struggle on the Safari was between Opel and Datsun, and the Japanese team will be back this year to any for yet another win. Shekhar Mehta will doubtless be one of the drivers of the new Nissan 240 RS, and Timo Salonen another, although crews have not yet been officially named.

Although Ford plans to return to rallying this year, with the front-engine, rear-wheel-drive version of the Escort, the car will not begin production — in Germany — until March, so it certainly won't be in the Safari. The car, which will be turbocharged and fitted with a five-speed transaxle, will probably make its first appearance on the Tour of Corsica in early May, following which four other World Championship rounds will be tackled, and it's our guess that these will be the Acropolis, 1000 Lakes, Sanremo and RAC. The rounds in New Zealand, Argentina and the Ivory Coast will be too costly for what will really be an exploratory year, especially as Boreham has a considerable number of new staff who have not yet seen action in the field. Furthermore, the car has not been tested competitively, and drivers have not yet been named.

Incidentally. Ford will also enter two front-wheel-drive Escorts in the British Championship, to be driven by Malcolm Wilson and Louise Aitken, and will create a one-model British series for drivers of the f.w.d. Escort with turbocharged 1.6-litre engine. — G.P.