Rally review, January 1975

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World Championship to Lancia

For people involved with World-Class International Rallying, the months of October and November can hardly have been equalled in terms of tight schedules and concentrations of events since the period in the late ‘fifties and early and mid ‘sixties when every European factory seemed to run a rally team. In those days complicated permutations of preparation, reconnaissance and planning overlapped with highly complex travel arrangements to send drivers, cars and mechanics all over the world. Nowadays the situation can be viewed a little more clearly for there is better combined planning and consultation between rally organisers to produce a workable calendar which does not put too much of a strain on the resources of those teams who wish to tackle entire championship series. Even so, a World Championship qualifier in the middle ‘seventies demands so much more planning and preparation that it takes fewer such events to create the intricate schedules of a decade ago.

Crammed into the month of October there were no less than three qualifiers in the World Rally Championship for Makes, the Sanremo Rally in Italy, the Rally of the Rideau Lakes in Canada and the Press on Regardless Rally in the USA. All three have already been summarised in MOTOR SPORT’s Rally Review but we mention them again since they were followed so closely by two other championship qualifiers in the month of November: the RAC Rally of Great Britain and the Tour of Corsica.

Before going on to talk about the two November events we should remind you briefly that prior to October Fiat seemed to have the championship already in its pocket. It was the only team to have tackled the series in its entirety and was in the lead by a substantial points margin. Then came the disappointment of Sanremo, when Lancia won with a Stratos and Fiat only managed second place. There was disaster across the Atlantic when Lancia won again with the Stratos in Canada and Fiat didn’t score a single point. In America, where the POR followed immediately, both Lancia and Fiat were beaten by the French Alpine-Renault team and there is still doubt as to how the CSI will decide the disputed decision which put Markku Alen in second place in his Fiat.

Thus as October ended Fiat was faced with a menacing situation ; it was the only team to have made a full-scale attempt on the championship, and here was Lancia cheekily coming up towards the end of the season with victories which presented a serious threat to the laurels already “claimed” by Fiat.

In the remaining rounds both teams sent strong contingents, but in the RAC they had those experienced forest exponents Ford and Saab to consider whilst in Corsica they had the presence of the French Alpine-Renault team to think about. In the RAC Rally the chances were that Fiat would score more points than Lancia, for the 124 Abarth was a somewhat more suitable car than the Stratos and the Beta coupe was still virtually in its competition development stage. In Corsica, the tarmac roads leaned on the side of the Stratos and the Alpine, so between the two events the odds were about even. Of course, one should also consider that Lancia was no longer tackling each event on its own merit; the possibility of winning the series for the second time (previous occasion was in 1972) had been realised and championship points had become more important than individual results.

The RAC Rally

Having presented the overall picture, let us get down to the events themselves. Notwithstanding the classics such as the Monte-Carlo Rally, the Safari and other such exotic events, the RAC Rally remains firmly at the top of the popularity tree. Entries are always in great demand and there are always far more applications than there are places available. This year the field was numbered to 200 and there were 50 others competing for the Clubman’s Trophy in the second and third legs of the event after the first had whittled down the runners so that the extra 50 could be accommodated without increasing the overall total number of cars running. Non-starters reduced this field a little but there were still far more competitors than other top-class events get nowadays.

For the third year in succession the rally was based at the City of York, and for the second time the route fanned out from there in a distorted cloverleaf pattern, returning to York for rest between each of the three legs. The first leg of the RAC Rally used to span three days and two nights, but this has been changed so that each of the first two legs (the first in the South of England and Wales and the second in the North of England and Scotland) covers two days and a night, and the third just a morning.

From beginnings in which the sport in Britain was popular only among strange-looking, bobble-hatted people who slept by day and drove around little-used country and mountain roads at night, rallying has rocketed to immense popularity, and not only among diehard enthusiasts. Everyone seems to enjoy this exciting spectacle so very much that they will endure cold, wet, foggy November nights to gather in droves along all parts of the route to watch the RAC Rally pass by. Last year an estimated 2 ½ million people watched at some stage or another; this year the figure was easily doubled and that is by no means an exaggeration. The rally had 84 planned special stages and 27 time controls; on each of them there were crowds of spectators. At one time a special stage would have a small knot of enthusiastic watchers at its “likely looking” corners and crests, but this year stages were lined on both sides along their entire lengths by armies of people all eager to see the exciting spectacle of modified road cars being driven very fast and competently along winding, undulating gravel and dirt roads.

The thing to remember is that the audience of the RAC Rally does not merely sit at home to watch on television. The competition arena is the whole country, and the followers of the event actually go out into the woods to see it happen at first hand. By comparison, football and horse racing are minority sports, and that is an inescapable fact, not a mere opinion, which controllers of television and radio programmes and the editors of national newspapers should force themselves into realising. Of course, rallying is not a simple, one-location sport and perhaps these people take the easy way out by devoting most time and space not to the sports which attract the greatest following but to those which present the fewest coverage problems.

Ford, Saab, Lancia and Fiat were the four favourites in the 1974 RAC Rally, the first three on past performances and the latter because of what it had at stake. What is more, there were first-class drivers appearing in Toyotas, Datsuns, Opels, Triumphs, Volvos, Vauxhalls, Hillmans, Porsches, Skodas, Wartburgs and Mazdas. The essential details of what happened to these various people have already been reported at length in our companion weekly newspaper, Motoring News, so we do not propose to go over ground already covered, but there are some aspects which bear reflection. In the first place the retirement rate was high, only 83 cars finishing from 190 starters. This does not indicate incompetent driving, nor does it reflect bad car preparation, for a good rally car (and most of them are good nowadays) is faster, stronger, safer and generally more reliable in extreme conditions than its production line counterpart. It’s just that it is driven much, much harder and over much rougher ground than other cars and is always kept right on the absolute limits of adhesion. Thus if a top-class professional driver retires from an event in a works car it most certainly does not follow that he is not as good a driver as his rivals, nor that his car is less suitable.

After the retirement of Finnish driver Hannu Mikkola on the first day of the rally, team-mate Timo Makinen went into the lead in his works Ford Escort RS. He kept that lead to the end and won the rally with English co-driver Henry Liddon for the second year in succession. British driver Roger Clark made an uncharacteristic slip in the early stages, went off the road and lost a great deal of time which dropped him right down the leader board. However, he made back much of the loss and eventually finished well inside the first ten.

Swedish driver Stig Blomqvist, winner of the rally in 1971, also lost considerable time when his Saab jumped off the road at high speed and rolled over. When it looked as though his rally was over, he and his co-driver managed to get the car back on its wheels, back on the road and moving again. There was little mechanical damage and the Saab mechanics spent the rest of the rally titivating the car’s bent bodywork so that when it arrived at the finish in York it hardly looked unpresentable at all. It says much for Blomqvist’s determination and skill that he was able to get right back up to second place and was even closing on Makinen when the rally ended. It never fails to surprise how anyone can drive a car such as a Saab, with its rather old-fashioned design and the V4 engine which Ford decided should be phased out, so incredibly fast, often quicker than more sophisticated cars of considerably higher power.

Even more surprising was the manner in which the little Swedish driver Per-Inge Walfridsson, so small in stature that he has to have an elevated seat to enable him to see over the steering wheel, drove his big, heavy Volvo 142. With less power and far more weight than any of the ‘other top contenders he drove consistently well to finish a commendable sixth overall. In lighter, more powerful cars it is possible to keep just a little distance’ away from the ragged edge, but in such a car as a Volvo it is vital to maintain as much momentum as possible all the time, using the brakes as little as possible. Walfridsson has become a master of anticipation in this respect and has thus earned a reputation as a spectacular and exciting driver to watch. as well as a skilful one. But his style in no way reflects a devil-may-care attitude; it’s simply the best way of driving a big car fast and coping with its weight disadvantage.

Two other team drivers deserve singling out and they are Björn Waldegárd who drove a Toyota Corolla with 1.6-litre 16-valve engine, and Walter Röhrl who was in an injected Opel Ascona from the Russelsheim-based Euro-Handler Team. Both put up stirring performances. Among the British drivers there were two who were outstandingly good, Londoner Tony Fowkes who prepares and maintains his own Escort RS, and West Countryman Nigel Rockey who was in a similar car. Equally good was the Midlander Colin Malkin, but the power and reliability of his 16-valve Avenger, so far not developed fully, was not a match for the other cars. He got inside the first ten but in his efforts to get ahead he went off the road. Irish driver Billy Coleman also acquitted himself very well indeed in his Escort and there is no doubt that with the right grooming he and a few others from the British Isles would make fine professional drivers. However, seats in works cars are few and far between nowadays and one’s degree of professionalism often depends not on the shrewdness of factory talent scouts but on the amount of sponsorship one can personally muster.

The Fiat/Lancia struggle for points was the biggest single long-term feature of the event, but it was completely overshadowed by the excitement of the event itself. The main reason for this was that it never really materialised, for not one of the four factory Fiats finished in the first ten and the complete absence of any points at all was a big disappointment to the team.

For Lancia it was a different story and there was considerable interest in the first appearance in Britain of the talked-about Stratos with its 2.4-litre V6 engine mounted at the rear. This light, wedge-shaped car had always been said to be a car for smooth roads. Its victory in Santemo could be put down partly to the fact that the Italian event had been run on stages which were 80% tarmac, and its win in Canada to the fact that the opposition fell by the wayside. In Britain neither of these circumstances would prevail, for the Forestry Commission’s roads are on anything but tarmac and there was sufficient first-class opposition to guarantee that there would always be plenty of competitors fighting for the lead. The predictions were that the Straws would not last the pace, not because it was not fast but because at high speeds on gravel roads and bumpy, rocky dirt tracks through the forests it would not hold together. How wrong people were. Sandro Munari, despite the nausea of a stomach upset, drove ‘both fast and reliably, keeping his car in first-class condition to take an outstanding third place. No longer can the Stratos be regarded as a car for smooth events only, The same was once thought of Alpine-Renaults whose fragile plastic bodies and small frames were considered to be custom-built for the Alpine Rally and nothing else. They proved everyone wrong and were eventually World Champions in 1971 and 1973.

Munari, it should be explained, was driving to orders. He had not been given his head but told that the championship was far more important to Lancia and the series-conscious Italian public than outright victory. His terms of reference were to stay sufficiently ahead of the nearest Fiat, but when he went right through to the second leg in second place the Lancia people started to bite their nails. Should they tell him to go faster or should they keep him at his present pace. safeguarding his position and preserving his car? They decided on the latter. Towards the end the furious pace of Stig Blomqvist took the Swedish driver ahead of Munari who then went fast enough to stay ahead of Björn Waldegárd, for by then Lampinen (in a Lancia Beta coupé) was just inside the first ten, ahead of the remaining Fiats.

It was an ideal result for Lancia, another resounding success for Ford, a fine team victory for the team of three Datsun Violets (Sclater, Källström and Faulkner), yet Another demonstration of Scandinavian mastery, a fine show by various British drivers, a most disappointing result for Fiat and a perfect example of how an enormous band of unpaid, voluntary helpers drawn from motor clubs all over Britain can provide the RAC with a co-ordinated organisational set-up which produces the most popular international rally in the world.

The Tour of Corsica

Closely on the heels of the RAC Rally came the Tour of Corsica, the French qualifier of the World Championship. Much shorter than the British event (it spanned only 24 hours) it was nevertheless much more fatiguing owing to the incredibly fast pace all the way through. Located in the narrow, twisty, uneven tarmac roads of the Corsican mountains, the 14 special stages accounted for only part of the competition, for all but a few short stretches on the few main roads, all the interstage transport sections were so tight that competitors were using pace notes on more than 95% of the whole distance. Indeed, if a crew needed to stop for service their mechanics had to be very quick indeed to avoid having the car run into road penalties, and only 30 minutes were allowed on each of the two legs before exclusion. In many places the drivers had discovered from their reconnaissance trips that if they stopped at all they would run serious risks of picking up odd minutes, and this resulted in the most sophisticated roadside servicing we have seen in years. Rally servicing is always a swift procedure, but in Corsica there was all the urgency of racing pit stops to be seen on grass verges, parking places and garage forecourts all over the island.

The similarity between the Tour of Corsica and an endurance race on a road circuit didn’t end there, for the event was undoubtedly the French equivalent of the Targa Florio. Prevented by French law from running a proper road race, the organisers regulate the event like a rally, drop in special stages and time controls, get the permission of the authorities to close public roads (transport sections as well as special stages) and the co-operation of the police in order that the matter of speed limits would not be considered. Twenty-four hours of continuous, high-speed driving through mountain passes, with both crew men in the car all the time and all the natural hazards such as ice, fog, snow, drizzle and high winds, render the event far more demanding and fatiguing than any race, especially as the road averages were as near impossible as made little difference and the special stages based on scratch so that the fastest man got least penalty.

The presence of ice and snow on certain of the higher mountains rendered tyre choice a most vital matter, for the use of studded tyres on dry tarmac would produce bad times just as much as unstudded ones on ice or snow. Most teams had a variety of tyres available for their cars and service planners had one headache after another as they struggled to find means of transporting stocks of tyres around a route which would be virtually sealed off by the police from all except competing cars. Such varying road surface conditions also put a premium on the sort of advance knowledge fed back to competitors by the ice-note crews employed by the professional teams in the Monte Carlo Rally. Again the road closures made proper, detailed ice-noting a difficult, sometimes impossible task, but men were nevertheless despatched to the higher cols to send information back by radio or by phone. In such cases there would be no detailed ice and snow information marked on the competitor’s pace notes, but at least they would know where on each climb the ice would begin and where on each descent it would end. That would give them sufficient information to make the right choice of tyres.

It was precisely in this department that the Fiat organisation made their big mistake. Although they had a man up on the third special stage over the Col de Vergio, for some reason or other he either failed to get the right information back or got it back to have it ignored down below. The entire Fiat team went over that test on racing tyres, with drastic results when they found themselves skating uncontrollably on seven kilometres of ice. Many went off and all lost time and from that moment never recovered. Fiat had already lost the World Championship title which it had chased from the beginning of the year.

The rally then became a fight between Lancia and Alpine, Jean-Pierre Nicolas (Alpine-Renault A110) holding the lead in the first half and part of the second before being passed by the powerful Stratos of Jean-Claude Andruet and “Biche”, the young French girl whose real name is Michele Petit. Munari’s Stratos went out with a broken valve and Ballestrieri’s when a fanbelt slackened and the car ran out of charge. The 24 finishers (from 102 starters) were led home by the Stratos, Nicolas’ Alpine 110 and Thérier’s Alpine 310.

If Lancia formulates a comprehensive programme for 1975 and both Alpine and Fiat (with its soon-to-be-homologated X.1/9) follow suit, rallying could well take on a different face with so many lightweight, specialist cars in the running. But there will always be a place for more conventional machinery, for after all the sport will always remain (despite the ill-informed attempts of acid-penned killjoys to say otherwise) the finest mobile test bed available to the motor industry. What is more, a mere glance at the results of the RAC Rally will show you that conventional family saloons frequently come out best.—G.P.