Rally review, February 1988

Consequences of conformity

It was entreated, implored, pressed, petitioned, pushed and even begged, but when the CSI of the FIA finally agreed to establish in 1970 what eventually became the World Rally Championship, it created something which, although universally wanted, was quite outside its ken, and which it administered by the crude means of groping in the dark.

Sadly, eighteen years later, the championship is still so badly and unpopularly managed that, rather than having progressed into the prestigious world series which it should have become, it remains stuck in the doldrums, beset by confusion and in its worst shape since its inception.

Indeed, the administration of the series has so alienated manufacturers’ teams that only two of them entered cars in January’s Monte Carlo Rally, the first World Championship qualifier of the year.

Strangely enough, the first trophy for drivers competing in a world series of rallies was not established by the FIA or any other international body, but by Britain’s RAC. The CSI, as FISA was then called, seemed to consider rallying insufficiently “respectable” to deserve a world title, and it was Belgrave Square, not Place de la Concorde, which first decided that successes in a series spanning more than just Europe should be recognised internationally.

Sadly, official records seem to have gone astray, and our requests to the RAC MSA for the full past results of the contests for the RAC World Rally Trophy have drawn a blank.

The Trophy, based on events which included the East African Safari and Canada’s Shell 4000, was not endorsed by the FIA, and until the end of the Sixties the premier rallying series of the world remained officially the European Championship. It was only after much persuasive effort by organisers, manufacturers, competitors and the press that the CSI agreed to create a rally championship which included events throughout the world and which did not have the geographical limit of Europe as part of its title.

In 1970, with a flourish which conveniently ignored both the example set by the RAC and the fact that it was no more than finally acceding to an overwhelming demand, the CSI officially established the International Rally Championship.

Note that the CSI used the word International in the title, not World, even though they were synonymous in such a context. “World” seemed to imply a ranking which “International” lacked, and there was a distinct reluctance to confer upon rallying a status which, by its very uncouth, rough and ready nature, it did not merit. To the FIA, rallying was still very much a poor relation.

Three years later, the word International was replaced by the word World, but it remained just a series for manufacturers. Drivers received no recognition at all, and the subsequent trophy called the FIA Cup for Drivers was no more than a sop cast in their direction.

The pressure soon began all over again. It was all very well for a manufacturer to win the title of World Champion, but a car could not wave from a rostrum, sign autographs or be interviewed on television. The highest accolades of the sport should be given to a real, live person, not a collection of sophisticated mechanical and electronic components, no matter how worthy its team of designers.

For a sport as inherently international as rallying not to have a World Champion was a grave omission, and we at Motor Sport went some way towards rectifying that situation by keeping our own score tallies for a few years and announcing the drivers who would have become champions had there been an official world series. We were flattered when other journals overseas followed our example.

Eventually FISA gave in to the pressure and in 1979—. again with a “look what we’ve done” rather than a “we’ve finally agreed” — a World Rally Championship for Drivers was established. At last the sport’s major series would produce each year a World Champion to whom other competitors and aspirants, not to mention rallying’s millions of followers, could look up.

Alas, rather than escalating in prestige and popularity, the World Rally Championship has gone rapidly downhill, and the blame for this must rest squarely with a muddled FISA administration which has done more harm than good. New rules have popped up as frequently as new officials, and the management of the sport has become grossly top-heavy both with unnecessary regulations and with those who create and attempt to enforce them — many of whom have none of the recent experience necessary for just supervision.

Sudden, drastic changes in the rules governing the construction of cars upset several manufacturers, some of whom had spent considerable sums on development only to have their investments eliminated by rule changes which rendered those cars obsolete. The abolition of Group B was said by FISA to be in the cause of safety, but had a little more expert thought gone into the establishment of the Group B rules in the first place, perhaps there would have been no need to cancel them so hastily.

Rally organisers, too, have become disenchanted by the dictatorial demands of FISA and its president, especially when, for the doubtful convenience of standardisation, rallies have been deprived of their traditional characters.

The creation of limits on special stage and overall distances was said to be in the cause of safety, but this merely concentrated the risks. The insistence on special stages timed to the nearest second, flying finish lines and total road-closures in countries such as Kenya and Morocco is ludicrous and quite impractical. It places needless additional strain on organisational resources, and illustrates clearly that the FISA officials responsible for such rules have no appreciation of what makes a rally tick.

Another stupid and unpopular rule in the so-called quest for safety was the imposition of a 110 kph (68.35 mph) average speed on special stages, leading organisers to introduce all manner of deviations — even excursions through farmyards — just to keep their averages down. Such conditions actually increased the perils, for once the deviations were negotiated drivers reverted to maximum speed, having had their rhythm interrupted.

That average speed limit has fortunately now been lifted, but its introduction and withdrawal indicate that FISA has been dangerously and inexpertly experimenting with safety rules. Anyone having real knowledge of the sport could foresee the situation immediately the limit was introduced, but it still took FISA an inordinately long time to rescind the rule. The World Rally Championship has suffered enough at FISA’s bungling maladroit hands, and only when that aloof body climbs down from its ivory tower and takes note of what competitors, organisers and other real experts have to say will the series have any chance of regaining its significance, its prestige and its variety of international character.

Six or seven works teams used to be about the normal turnout for a World Championship qualifier, but the number has steadily diminished. To have only two entered in the Monte Carlo Rally is a sad reflection on the state of the sport. Lancia and Mazda were the only factories to appear in the first round of 1988, the former beginning another determined assault on the series as a whole and the latter resuming its activities after a year troubled by homologation difficulties. Mazda’s six-speed gearbox is now permitted after a rule-change allowing two alternative gearboxes (rather than just one as hitherto), neither of which has to be produced in homologated quantity. Peugeot and Renault were both absent, whilst Citroen’s entry was for the winners of a national competition rather than for works drivers.

Michelin was out in strength, however, especially as it has replaced Pirelli as Lancia’s supplier of rally tyres after Pirelli could no longer provide the quantity of types required by Lancia. To cope with the extra demand Michelin divided its Monte Carlo cavalcade of trucks into two parts, one to supply Lancia and the other to feed Mazda.

Peugeot has forsaken the World Championship in favour of long distance events such as Paris-Dakar, the Pharaohs (Egypt) and the Atlas (Morocco) and at the time of the Monte Carlo Rally the team was on its way to Dakar with two 205 T16s, two of its new 405 T16s and a fleet of support vehicles including Peugeot P4s, Mercedes trucks and aircraft, transporting 33 people on the ground and 27 in the air.

Renault has been just as dissatisfied as Peugeot with FISA’s rule changes, and 1988 revisions to weight minima, wheel widths and the cylinder capacity coefficient for turbocharged cars (increased from x1.4 to x1.7) mean that the R11 Turbo has lost its biggest advantage — lightness.

Ford, aided by such outside teams as RED and Little, is tackling six national championships in 1988, while Boreham’s World Championship programme is limited to five events, in Portugal, Corsica, Finland, Italy and Britain.

Both Volkswagen and Mitsubishi are waiting until they have 4WD cars available. the latter with the added innovation of four-wheel steering. However, FISA’s President has said that both 4WD and turbochargers will be banned from 1991, and the quality of cars required to be built for homologation purposes reduced from 9000 to 20.

Is this really the way to go? Widening the gap even further between professionals and amateurs, opening the door to privately financed special builders with whom the FISA president will doubtless endeavour to negotiate as he does with Grand Prix teams, and nailing the coffin lid on that traditional but increasingly tenuous, near-erstwhile Iink between competing rally cars and their counterparts available for public sale?

Right now, dissatisfaction is rife — among manufacturers who cannot use the cars they would like to use, among drivers who have very few teams to whom they may offer their services, and among organisers who are furious that they cannot run their events as they know they would be most efficiently and popularly run. Individually, many of these people have expressed their feelings to us in no uncertain manner, but whether they stand up to FISA is another matter.

There have to be car construction regulations, of course, to achieve competition standards, but to insist that rally organisers follow a totally unnecessary pattern, even down to the number of entries per page in the roadbook, is dictatorship carried too far.

The sooner the world’s rally organisers get together, cock a snook at FISA and run their events according to their own traditions and local circumstances, the better it will be for the whole of rallying. GP