Rota blades

Subaru is the favourite for the 1996 World Championship, with Piero Liatti bolstering the driving squad.

The Monte-Carlo Rally will be over by now, but it does not form part of the full WRC this year. We look forward to some of the events which do

The FIA’s method of “rotating” World Championship qualifying events so that, in turn, they lose their main championship status and sometimes count only for the two-wheel-drive series is being continued this year. The result is the same devastating effect on entry lists that robbed a number of excellent rallies of much of their interest last year and the year before.

First event to be affected is none other than the Monte-Carlo Rally, which will just have finished by the time this issue of MOTOR SPORT appears. However, the rally has a weighty reputation and, even though the might of the main teams was absent, there was nevertheless a very healthy list of competitors.

It’s not the first time the famed Monte has been relegated. Some years ago the event lost its championship status entirely, and it was hardly coincidental that the Automobile Club of Monaco was, at the time, embroiled in a furious struggle with the FISA over the Monaco Grand Prix.

When 1995 came to an end, there were only three names in the list of makes which had scored championship points, a far cry from years past when it was nothing to have a dozen or so teams listed. The drop was due entirely to the silly FIA rule which demanded that teams wishing to score Points should nominate their crews in advance, at a cost of many thousands of dollars, naturally!

That rule continues for 1996, so we will hardly see healthy and far more interesting lists of points-scoring makes at the end of the year. A great pity, because if a driver is good enough to finish a rally among the leaders and score points for himself/herself, then the make of his/her car deserves to score points also, whether the driver is a leading professional or a complete privateer and whether nominated by a team or not.

In 1997 there are to be changes which include basing all the sections of the World Championship on one series of events. The list has not quite been finalised, but it’s understood that there will be 14 in all. That is sensible, but certainly not so is the continuation of the nomination system. What is more, that year will also see the introduction of an animal called a “World Rally Car”. Users of these machines will be the only ones able to score points in the World Rally Championship for makes. Moreover, they can only be homologated by teams which have nominated to take part in the World Championship. The FIA has now decided that these machines should be allowed on all internationals.

What a complex web the FIA has been weaving around rallying. What began as a simple but exciting sport has become hamstrung by so many rules, many of which have been changed or replaced with very little warning.

At the end of 1996 we are likely to see precious few makes in the list of points scorers, which is hardly an encouraging factor for some of the less well-heeled makers in the world, and perhaps even a decidedly discouraging one for newer manufacturers.

Some former rally teams have quit the sport in favour of touring car racing and have gained more publicity. Mercedes and Audi are two in point, whilst Vauxhall reckons that a year in racing brought them more acclaim than several in rallying, even if all the contests were in Great Britain.

Not so long ago, you needed a specialist car for racing but something far more ordinary for rallying. Indeed, rally cars could be driven quite comfortably on the road and many were used not only for competition but for weekend shopping trips and taking the kids to school. How times have changed!

If rallying does go the way that the FIA seems to be leading it, we have many things to be concerned about. In the first place, it will place an even greater accent on just a few works teams. Second, the rules will become so complicated that teams will need to add legal departments to their already hefty ration strengths. Third, teams may consider ducking out altogether, which will spell the end of the World Championship as we know it today. Some privateers may welcome this as they would then have a better chance in some of the world’s leading rallies. On the other hand, they may not; after all, they enjoy measuring their performances against the world’s best.

In recent years there has also been a steady and considerable drop in the number of drivers scoring points, but this is for an entirely different reason, for drivers have never had to nominate themselves beforehand. It is almost entirely due to the huge technological advances made by works teams, the enormous resources brought into play by those teams and the fact that leading drivers now contest more events per annum.

There was a time when a skilled privateer could keep pace with a works driver, but nowadays, when electronic diagnosticians are on the spot to fix hitherto entirely mechanical systems such as brakes, transmissions or suspension and helicopters are even called down to rally cars for no greater reason than to have their onboard mechanics change a wheel after a puncture, the narrow gap has become an enormous rift.

Costs have put success beyond the reach of even a reasonably sponsored privateer, so World Championship points-scoring is now the almost exclusive preserve of professionals.

Service support, when it began, consisted of a couple of estate cars packed with tools and various spares and manned by two mechanics, leap-frogging their way around a rally route, meeting their precious charges as often as they could. Nowadays, such backing operations are meticulously planned and involve mammoth movements of troops and equipment, fleets of vehicles and various aerial transport.

The more complicated a car, the less reliable it generally is, and competing cars usually require constant attention and parts replacement to keep them going. There are always expert engineers on hand ready to descend on a car, trace faults, fix them and get it on its way. It’s a far cry from the time when a competing crew relied on a toolbag and a selection of spares carried in their car! The logistics are complex and teams employ platoons of planners; privateers cannot possibly compete on this scale.

Of course, a stricter and better-policed limitation on servicing could change this to some extent. Already service constraints have led to some car parts having to be beefed up to be made more reliable so that they would last a whole day rather than just one stage. More limitations would lead to more reliable cars and narrow the huge gulf between privateer and professional. Works drivers have often been heard to complain that service restrictions are dangerous. This is poppycock.

If a car has a fault or is known to be prone to a certain failure, you drive accordingly, if you overstretch the car you run as much risk as you do when overstretching yourself. You compete according to conditions. If you break your car and are unable to repair it because the rules so decree, don’t blame the rules. Car reliability is as much part of rallying as driving skill and a return to more emphasis on the former (recently there been very little) is only to be welcomed.

When the FIA decided that the Toyota Team Europe’s punishment for using illegal turbocharger airflow restrictors during last November’s Catalunya Rally should be the loss of all 1995 World Championship Points, and exclusion from the series in 1996. It threw various teams and drivers into turmoil. Carlos Sainz had announced, before the FIA decision, that he was leaving Subaru to rejoin Toyota, and this development left him without a car for the 1996 series. However, Toyota released him from his contract and he has since signed with Ford. Among the events in his 1996 programme, is the Safari, a rally which Ford has not tackled officially in nine years. As this is written, Juha Kankkunen remains on contract to Toyota but the team has stated that he is free to drive another make of car if he so wishes. However, it seems that various national Toyota teams are keen to enlist his services, and the programme for the year is already quite extensive.

Contrary to the words of doom expressed by some soothsayers, Toyota intends to “keep rallying in the forefront of the company’s motorsports programme”. The Cologne-based outfit will carry on its development programme, car preparation and parts supply in support of various Toyota national teams and private drivers using the Celica GT-Four. Indeed, we will see at least one Cologne-built Celica in the Safari Rally, in the hands of past winners Ian Duncan and Juha Kankkunen.

Toyota Team Europe will not disappear but will be restructured, both on the managerial and the technical side, with Ove Andersson still at its head. Even though TTE was banned only for 1996, the team has announced that it will not be making a full comeback until 1998.

There was a time when drivers and codrivers could relax between rallies, not returning to work until it was time to start recce-ing for the next event. Nowadays they spend as much time, even more, on test and development sessions as they do on rallies themselves. In early December, after winning November’s Network RAC Rally for the second time and clinching the world title, Colin McRae and his co-driver Derek Ringer flew to Kenya for pre-Safari test sessions before Christmas.

This will be the first time that a Prodrive team has represented Subaru on the Safari. Previous “works” sorties there have been from Japan, so the work on the car was augmented, by McRae and Ringer by the chance to become more familiar with Kenya’s roads and conditions. They have tackled the rally once before, in 1993, but in a diminutive 660cc Subaru(!) Vivio which survived no more than the first day, so their competitive experience in Kenya is really very limited indeed.

McRae’s team-mates at Subaru this year will be Piero Liatti and Kenneth Eriksson.

Another debutant in Kenya will be Tommi Makinen, who, partnered by the experienced Seppo Harjanne, will be in the Mitsubishi team, along with Kenjiro Shinozuka.

The Safari this year will again take place during the Easter weekend, but will be sadly shortened to just three days.

As usual, there will be no special stages, but on-road competitive sections will be generally longer than those of most stage events. After counting only for the two-wheel-drive series last year, this year it is back in the main world series and will have the UK-based teams of Ford, Subaru and Mitsubishi all there. In addition, there will be supplementary events for historic two-wheel-drive cars and production off-road vehicles such as Range-Rovers. Both categories were received with enthusiasm last year.

No doubt that great adventuring family, the Stohls from Austria, will be there, but we wonder whether Berliner Michael Kahlfuss will be there with his equally intrepid co-driver. Their little Trabant, in which they came very close to finishing the Safari in 1994, has finally come to the end of its homologation, but they will be moving up the scale by renting a Celica GT-Four from Toyota Team Europe. In 1994, they were helped enormously by TTE, especially by having their Trabant flown out to Nairobi free of charge in one of TTE’s chartered 747 freighters.

The Portugal Rally is another which has lost its full World Championship status for this year, but we understand that the organisers are confident of attracting a worthwhile field. The rally will once again forsake its traditional home at Cascais and move northwards to Figueira da Foz. Deeper into the year, Finland’s 1000 Lakes Rally will this year return to full World Championship status and will no doubt attract all the leading names — all those who can find cars to drive, that is. It will be the 46th time it has been held, and once again will be based at Jyvaskyla in central Finland, from which the three daytime legs will forage out in a cloverleaf pattern. This is one of the long-standing classics of the world series, held over dirt roads which are the smoothest to be found anywhere in the world, but which nevertheless test transmissions and suspensions to the full by having more jumps per mile than bends. G P