Last year there was talk that the Swedish Rally was a candidate for FISA’s chopping-block; that it was in danger of being dropped from the World Championship. Happily, that did not happen, and the series kept its one event which can lay claim to being a snow rally. However, it was dropped from the makes section, a move which is generally considered to be akin to relegation.
FISA’s view that the Makes Championship is far more important than that for drivers is shared by others, notably some manufacturers, but in our own view the latter is far more significant. A team with enough cars to distribute among a number of drivers, not necessarily all full-time professionals, can produce quite an arsenal of points-gathering potential to be spread around qualifying events. But apart from such strategy there is the human factor. The sport needs a figurehead, a live person to wear the laurels, to be interviewed on television and to receive the acclaim of his fellows.
The “relegation” was one thing; a change of date was another, and the combination of these served to deter all factory teams except those of Mazda and GM Europe. Nevertheless there was a very healthy field of 133 starters, including works or dealer-backed representatives of Lancia, Toyota, Audi and Ford.
The Swedish Rally has been a February event since it replaced the former Rally to the Midnight Sun some 25 years ago, and in the World Championship it has been the second round, after the Monte Carlo Rally. However, this year FISA insisted that it move to the beginning of January, and this certainly made competing near-impossible for those planning to go to Monaco.
Just two weeks separated the events so anyone planning to do both would have had to mix his practice sessions and have plenty of service staff, vehicles, spares, tyres and even air-tickets at the ready — a logistical nightmare for even the most experienced of planners!
We always refer to the Swedish Rally as a true snow rally, but even in Scandinavia the weather can sometimes play tricks, and there have been several occasions when the snow coating has been so light, and the temperature so high (by their winter standards), that the rally has become almost like a dirt-road event, sometimes having even less snow than the RAC rally.
This year was almost like that. Pre-Christmas snowfalls seemed enough to cover the forest tracks of Varmland sufficiently, but then it stopped and the temperature rose so that slush and pools of water appeared everywhere. Practice sessions did nothing to help, as constant traffic on the stages churned up the dirt and slush, but when temperature, dropped again, and there was no more snow. ice became the big hazard. Not just black ice but sheets of solid, slippery, packed ice, on which not even legally studded tyres can find much grip, and even those sheets of ice were worn through to the gravel in many places.
The days of “porcupines” and “chisels” have long gone, and nowadays everyone must conform to stringent rules regarding tyre-studding. The regulations vary slightly from country to country, but all place limits on stud size and the number which can be inserted per unit distance around a tread circumference. Sharp points and knife-edges are prohibited. Stud bodies must be circular in cross-section, and must have flat tips.
When tyes are studded, enough of the stud bodies must be embedded in the rubber to ensure retention. They have to withstand considerable punishment, and a stud which becomes partially dislodged and leans over at an angle is worse than no stud at all.
For this reason, it is quite useless to leave a large proportion of a stud protruding from a tyre thinking that it will provide increased bite. There are limits on overall stud length, and because the greater part must be firmly held inside the rubber, the protrusion of the tips is really very small. Very much like icebergs!
On a winter rally, therefore, tyre-studding is very important, and demands skilled technicians and fitters. Great reliance is placed upon these tyres, and when road conditions become such that contact with rough gravel in worn parts of the stage forces studs over at an angle or rips them out altogether, grip will be minimal on whatever icy patches there may be ahead.
Packed snow may seem to be as slippery as ice, but it most certainly is not. Furthermore, studs penetrate packed snow very well, whereas on sheet ice they can do more than scratch the surface. So you can see that a winter rally which has a mixture of solid ice and patches worn right through to the hard, stud-bending gravel beneath presents conditions which are just about the worst possible, short of a light covering of fresh snow to hide it all so that drivers cannot see the road surface.
Mazda’a line-up in Karlstad consisted of two four-wheel-drive 323s for Salonen/Silander from Finland and Carlsson/Carlsson from Sweden. The Swedish crew, Ingvar and Per, are related neither to each other nor to the great Saab driver Erik Carlsson — the name just happens to be as common as Smith or Jones. Having won the rally in an earlier 323 two years ago, Mazda started favourite and the shortest odds were on Salonen.
GM Euro Sport sent an Astra for Britons Malcolm Wilson and Ian Grindrod, and a Kadett for Mats Jonsson and Lars Backman, both prepared in Milton Keynes. Both had six-speed Xtrac gearboxes, just like the Mazdas. Opel Sweden entered two similar Kadetts for Johansson/Olson and Eriksson/ Svanstrom.
Lancia did not go to Sweden, but one of its Delta Integrates was being driven privately by Mikael Ericsson and Claes Billstam. Another, privately-owned Delta was entered by Per Eklund and Dave Whittock.
Toyota’s efforts were concentrated on the Monte Carlo Rally, but the Cologne team nevertheless helped the efforts of Toyota Sweden, which had two Celica GT-Fours for Kenneth Eriksson/Staffan Parmander and Leif Asterhag/Ragnar Spjuth. Stig Blomqvist/Benny Mellander drove an Audi 200 Quattro for the Swedish importer, the car having been prepared in Austria by Rolf Schmid, whilst Ford was represented by a Sierra XR4x4 prepared by Mike Little for Colin McRae (son of Jimmy McRae) and Derek Ringer.
As usual, there was a short spectator-stage to kick off on the outskirts of Karlstad, and even in this distance (just under three miles) tyre studs were being lost or distorted beyond effectiveness. On the longer stages to come it was going to be very tricky indeed to find grip on ice after going through gravel patches.
Salonen had a spot of early trouble when a half-shaft broke on the second stage, leaving him with just rear-wheel-drive for about six miles, but he soon made up the loss. The Lancias of Eklund and Ericsson were not handling very well, and at that stage the front-wheel-drive GM cars were surprising everyone by their performance. Asterhag dropped from third to 21st by rolling, although the car suffered no mechanical damage and he was able to carry on. Having led for much of the first leg, Kenneth Eriksson lost time with a loose rear half-shaft and a broken hub and brake caliper. Not long after, he punctured a tyre against a rock and had to stop to change the wheel. The time loss was considerable, and he found himself down in 13th place.
The Mazdas were then in control, Salonen and Carlsson occupying first and second places at the end of the first leg. They were about half a minute apart, whilst the margin between Carlsson and third-placed Eklund was about a minute and a half. Fifty seconds behind Eklund was his Lancia colleague Ericsson.
In the second leg, although the two Lancias were not all that far behind, the two Mazdas, Salonen and Carlsson took perhaps a little more care than they would had they been pursued more closely, but nevertheless managed to ease gradually further ahead. Their tyre-studs seemed to be standing up to the punishment far better than those of the Lancias, whose drivers were complaining bitterly that after a mile or so they were losing grip drastically. Ericsson’s car was not handling at all as he wanted, especially after a pair of new front struts turned out to have been intended for tarmac rallies!
Kenneth Eriksson was making up time lost earlier, but continued to suffer shock-absorber failure, while Blomqvist slowed visibly when his engine lost power. As the leg wore on, a bruised wrist sustained in the first leg was giving Salonen more painful trouble, and he began finding it increasingly difficult to turn the wheel as fast as the slippery surfaces demanded. This may have had a bearing on what happened at a sharp corner on the 24th of 37 stages. The car went straight on into a snowbank, and it took more than half-an-hour of digging, pushing and jacking to get the car out of the snow, by which time all Salonen’s chances of repeating his 1987 victory had gone.
A point raised afterwards in some quarters was that Carlsson, in the next car to come along after Salonen’s excursion, chose not to stop to help his team-mate. That decision was at first criticised in some quarters, but it should be remembered that Eklund was dangerously close behind, and had Carlsson stopped to help Salonen and gave Eklund the chance to get ahead, he would have been the most unpopular man in the team.
Having earlier been leading by well over two minutes, Salonen dropped to 35th place, but he soldiered on to finish. With just one car up front rather than two, the Mazda camp assumed a very tense, strained atmosphere, although Carlsson, as unruffled as ever, showed not a trace of it himself. Much depended on him and it is to his credit that he took the responsibility in his stride. Behind, Mikael Ericsson was not only keeping Kenneth Eriksson at bay but had closed the gap between himself and Eklund to just 24 seconds. However, things changed in the third leg when he (Mikael Ericsson) went off into a snowbank and “with a K” changed places with “with a C”. That’s how it finished, with Carlsson leading Eklund, Eriksson and Ericsson, and Blomqvist coming in fifth. It had been very close indeed, in the most difficult conditions imaginable, and one can only hope that the remainder of the year will reveal close fight after close fight between Lancia, Toyota and Mazda. GP