J.W. joins the Leyland team on the Tour de Corse
During this season Leyland have pursued an increasingly ambitious overseas rallying programme with the Triumph TR7. That their efforts to sell cars to Europe would involve a member of our staff came as something of a surprise that, in execution, turned out just like the proverbial Curate’s Egg . . . Good in Parts. The ideas was simply that a reporter should accompany two works TR7s on their journey to Corsica. Once there, the penultimate round of the World Rally Championship was to decide the fate of this year’ entertaining fight between Fiat and Ford. As reported last month. Fiat won.
I am indebted to Tony Pond’s regular co-driver, Fred Gallagher, for an interesting record of what the Leyland TR7s had achieved internationally, prior to the Corsican elevation into the realms of WCR events.
The year had opened up really well with Pond winning the Boucles de Spa, a sort of winter road race in the famous Belgian road circuit’s vicinity.
After that things were never to be as bright overseas. One the home Internationals both regulars Pond and Brian Culcheth took second overall placings (Scottish and Manx respectively) but on both the Ypres and Hunsruck rallies neither TR7 completed the event. One the Isle of Elba Pond managed a third, while Culcheth (commonly known as Culchetti when abroad!) took fourth in the rough Mille Pistes, a French event held on a tank proving ground.
So I was to accompany the Leyland team from their legendary base at Abington for their first overseas assault on a World Championship status rally, since the emotive days of the Mini and Healy 3000. My rendezvous at Abington was set at 16.00 on a grey Sunday. Filing through the ranks of silent MGs at the Berkshire plant we eventually picked out the new Leyland ST building beyond the old competitions/BMC Special Tuning site.
Unlike the works teams one normally meets, this outfit is loaded and ready to go. They have been away from the mainstream of RAC British Championship rallying for a few months, and the breather has given them time to sort out both an effective tarmac and forest road specification for the sharply styled Leyland two-seater. A new rally engineer, David Wood (formerly of Ford at Boreham, but who has also run his own competition car preparation business with success) has procured much better forest manners and increased speed on sealed roads.
Already in Corsica are a road-going TR7 and a type of 1975 Group I Dolomite Sprint: these cars are serving as reconnaissance vehicles for the crews, Culcheth/Johnstone Syer and Pond/Gallagher. The latter crew have been out there nearly three weeks, and the “seniors”, Culcheth and Syer, for a week less. Much was made in the press of the fact that these were the only factory crews not to enjoy the luxury of full replica rally cars for their extensive practice wandering throughout the island. All the competitive crews – and there were works machines from Fiat, Ford, Lancia and Peugeot – had spent literally weeks on the craggy corners of Corsica looking and learning every one of the 11,000 corners notes in Mr. Gallagher’s now creased foolscap pads. As Syer said in that rich Scottish voice, “I brought six new notebooks; by the time we’d done our notes I’d to buy another two!”
The personnel setting out the Abingdon are really the effective heart of the team. There are four mechanics, and all of them seem to have seen every rally Leyland/BMC have ever been involved in. However, Martin Reade and John West are far from the image of 1960s Mini mechanics. In fact they are paired up with two who really seem to have been everywhere and won everything in the glory days, Brian Moyla and Bob Whittington.
In charge of them is the bubbling Denis Greene, allegedly the workshop foreman but uncomfortably knowledgeable about competition and its place in a large corporation. Heading our trip is Bill Price, the manager of Leyland ST.
Our little convoy is all Pye radio interconnected and consists of the Rover 3500 I am to travel in with Mr. Price, towing Culcheth’s rally car, KDU 497N. Then there’s Green in a Range Rover with Leyland PR Glenn Hutchinson and Tony Pond’s fresher looking really machine astern, OOM 512M. the four mechanics share two Sherpa 240 light commercial vans, both of which share MGB specification cylinder heads, a big single SU, overdrive (3rd and top) and on-board compressed air facilities, amongst the 2.4 ton payload.
Abingdon itself is stuffed full of competition cars inside the workshop. A pile of V8 engines (the former Rover-Buick unit in 155-b.h.p. Rover 3500 trim) sits in the shop full of TR7s in advanced state of completion for the RAC rally, where Leyland were able to mount a four car attack with the front-engined two seater.
Why the V8s? For months the company have been ready to launch such a car on the American market. The rally version is already close to 1 sec. per stage mile faster than the existing car. Good news, for this is a big improvement. True, if accurate, but my impression was that the company still have to embark on a full development programme before the V8 becomes a competition reality, and that is a lot more complicated than slotting a V8 of 240 b.h.p. where once a 220 horsepower four lurked. . . .
The journey: travelling, this kind of group travelling, is a very expensive business. You can expect each man to cost £400-£500 on such a trip as this. Taking into account fuel and boat fares it’s not surprising that just £3,000 is needed to get the team to and from an event. The journey involves two boat trips: Southampton –Le Havre and Marseille –Ajaccio (Corsica). From what I saw the real travel expense is not in the men, but in those who might exploit any scent of success: a film crew (seven persons), and the possible arrival of five Leyland executives. In fact Davenport and Wood appeared, plus just one office gent. Since he was responsible for much of the fact that Leyland are in competition at all today, and for much of the successful exploitation of the sport in the USA, Kevin Best was an interesting arrival.
Our trip did not get away to a flying start. Just a few hundred yards down the Abington by-pass we were encompassed in a pretty solid Sunday night road accident/jam. The radio hissed into life as the enmeshed convoy discussed possible shortcuts through their “home patch!”
Once clear of the accident scene, the trip proceeded much as you would expect, though the TR7 on the back (Culcheth’s example which still bore testimony to the roughness of the Mille Pistes in its crinkly body) towed with a nervous “nibble” at the tow bar that upset the tranquillity of our ex-engineering prototype SD1. The Thoresen Southampton-Le Havre boat had much smaller cabins that I remembered, complete with an oven temperature in our case.
At Le Havre we waited over 1½ hours for the chief customs man to come and sign off the carnets covering the spares and cars. the spares lists are positively frightening, the little Sherpas carrying everything from 50 spare plugs to a complete axle and 5-speed gearbox. j
Once away from Britain the Sherpas proved capable of cruising at 70 m.p.h. The slowest combination in the convoy was the Range Rover with Pond’s TR behind. A long motorway incline could take the RR, which had a good complement of spares on board as well as welding gear, down to 60 m.p.h. and 65 m.p.h. was really the optimum flat road speed. It can be imagined fuel consumption tended to be pretty dismal: The 3500 managed 18.2 m.p.g. including a spell without the trailer at 90/95 m.p.h. The Range Rover came down to 11 m.p.g., and I gather this is not an out-of-the-way figure. The compensation – as I was to discover from Macon (our second overnight halt, Townsend Thoresen providing the first) to Marseilles, is that this massive loud was handled with complete smoothness. By far the best towing combination I have encountered, for you get visibility, comfort, and a fair amount of tackle on board, never mind the trailer and the car tacked on the back.
Paris came and went around midday and we slipped uneventfully to within an hour of Macon on a mainly dry Monday afternoon. Price and I were chatting when there was a dull thump from the trailer. “Something’s broken”, Bill exclaimed, as I thought, “only a leading tyre on the trailer, nothing to worry about.”
The next quarter mile is engraved on my mind. In fact the bracket securing the aft end of the tow hitch to the car had severed, leaving a long flapping lever (still secured at two points further underneath) which set the trailered TR7 off on a really wild ride. I remember being able to read the Leyland Cars motif along one side panel through the rear window: at that point the Rover was swooping toward the righthand Armco while the trailer was snuffling after a fast lane barrier on the left!
Eventually the experienced Price managed to tame the outfit from 65 m.p.h. down to a standstill, half on the slow lane. Then the quality of the men around could be seen. Within minutes Bill and I were heading for the nearest garage/smithy to have the bracket superbly electric welded together, while a Sherpa took on the awesome task of pulling Culcheth’s TR along. In fact the boys decided to get some miles in on the car and eventually unloaded it. You can imagine the faces of the toll-booth keepers when a convoy that had started out as two and two towing vehicles with trailers actually arrived at the booth as one van plus trailer, one snarling competition car, and a towing vehicle without a trailer, etcetera!
In fact we were little delayed on the overall time by the incident. In the Rover, we were able to take half an hour out for the excellent repairs, which were conducted in a tin hut deluged by heavy rain and filled with every wheeled device from a tractor to a sad LHD Midget, yet still catch up. The radio proved invaluable at this point. The range is normally only 10 miles or so, buy by using hilltops we were able to establish contact while still miles behind the convoy: on Corsica the team were able to transmit up to 30 miles. Unfortunately Fiat and Lancia wold find those figures laughable, compared to their superb sets and an aircraft to act as a relay station.
We were at Marseilles by lunchtime on Tuesday, taking the overnight boat (the magnificent nine-month old Napoleon) to Ajaccio, the scene of this year’s start to 21st Tour de Corse, Les Mouettes, our seaside hotel for the next week, proved to be within very handy distance of the local Leyland dealer, Garage Renaud, and the quayside scrutineering area.
Sitting in the strong early sunlight on Wednesday morning I squinted across Ajaccio bay at the mountains stretching up into the clouds. Subsequently I flew over and drove along most of the Island. It is a magnificent site of the ultimate in tarmac, practiced road events. Only one aspect lets it down and sums up the character, the astonishing proliferation of really tight, slow corners. They make the event a 24 hour grind composed of 90% sub-50 m.p.h. wriggles. Because of the tight organiser’s schedule some of the linking road section need to be tackled pretty quickly, the pressure never seems to ease. This applies whether you are running at sea level, or up amongst the vicious grey peaks with your headlamps reflecting nothing but air as the reward for an error. You would be lucky to do more than kiss third gear, before tugging back into first and second for the next succession of twists.
As an insider at Leyland the warts were pronounced by the opposition fighting for the title. The agonising contrast between the men of Turin controlling two teams, and armada of service vehicles (including three refettled practice cars with really god drivers to act as fast spares liaison/stage reporters shortly in advance of road closure), the aeroplane and on-site mobile doctor, make even Ford look penny-pinchers. Gone are the days when Dearborn would go to similar lengths (remember the fleets of GT40s and Falcons on the Monte?) and they benefited in media coverage as David taking on Goliath.
It was in the usual British organisational things that Fiat and Rod looked good, whiel Leyland were struggling a bit, handicapped by a complicated managerial structure which has not yet developed a crips appreciation of sporting reality. For example the Leyland drivers practised in a very standard TR7 and Group 1 Dolomite Sprint. The Sprint was a lovely road car, as I discovered for myself, but the brakes swiftly became a memory in this landscape! Mr. Pond spent some of his reece time plunging through hotel car parks, contrails of smoke emerging from the hapless 8.7 in. dia. Front discs.
Although Ford ran only two cars, they had two factory Escort duplicates (probably the engines were a few horsepower down) so the drivers had a very good idea of relating practice to the event. I found this made the biggest single difference to driver morale. Leyland drivers had their TR7s two days before the event and could only practice/sort the rally car within a fraction of the route, close to Ajaccio. As Pond said, “we’ve been here three weeks and we’ve done three laps of the complete route. It takes about six days to cover the course, so there’s no way you can come here and memorise it. Fred’s taken 22,000 notes, and I reckon about half of those are for individual corners.”
Wednesday was a pretty full day. At the garage, tucked away beneath a residential area we got to groups with TR7 developments. MOTOR SPORT readers may recall a brief colour page introduction (May 1976) when the cars began rallying last year. The opening events were disasters. As with the Jaguars the cars were in competition prematurely, something the shop floor had no chance off deflecting the company from, though they were obviously painfully aware how much development work was needed.
Even this year the programme has been patchy enough for a wryly smiling John Davenport to feel dissatisfied. After Corsica the TR7s had recorded 19 starts, one win, two seconds, three thirds, a ninth, an eleventh overall and eleven retirements. For a car in its second year that does not seem dishonourable. Those were the statistics prior to the RAC, upon which great hopes were placed for Pond’s winning chances.
As prepared for Corsica the TR7 reflected much of the speed found for the Manx home international.
The changes centre on new geometry for the front suspension, up to ½ a degree negative camber included, and the provision of progressive rate front springs, the stiffest poundage set at 280 lb. in. These, combined with 240 lb. ratings at the rear, work in conjunction with Bilstein gas-filled dampers. Of all customers that use Bilstein, Leyland have perhaps been the most strenuous in trying to promote British participation, but it seems to be a hopeless case: neither Girling nor Armstrong operate competition departments at present. Bilstein provide a superb service and product that has proved itself.
The rear axle location has been tightened up a lot lately as well. The basic layout is much as before: the standard lower arms, reinforced and carrying a single coil spring in front of the axle. The vertical Bilsteins rise from behind the axle. New top location rods are provided, and a Watts linkage. For tarmac usage rose-jointing become extensive and the drivers have had to learn to live with the increased harshness.
As introduced, competition TR7 had a Rover 3500 five-speed gearbox. in fact it had to compete with the overdrive four-speed unit before the five-speed was really brought up to competition standards. Now there is to be a kit marketed to make the SD1 casing and ratios suitable for sale (a cheaper, but heavier ZF substitute?) though the impressive truth is that Leyland’s transmissions people at Radfords in Coventry have learned a great deal from the competition programme. Many of the rallying of the changes really are incorporated in production now.
As yet there is no quick release arrangement for this gearbox (very relevant on our Corsican trip) but changes that have already taken place include the substitution, on the mainshaft, of a plain phosphor-bronze bush for easy gearbox changes; the adoption of close ratios and the use of stronger selection fork mechanism. The clutch is a 4-prong ceramic-treated single-plate unit and like so much of the car (such as standard wheelbearings) it comes from a production base.
That also applies to the engine still. I recall testing a 1974 Group 2 Dolomite Sprint and finding that the lower half of the engine was as standard, but dynamically balanced; much the same applies today. Leyland personnel are a bit evasive about the block. As I understand it both Leyland at Abingdon and Ralph Broad ran into strength problems as outputs crossed the genuine 200-b.h.p. mark and some specials were made up to cope . . . a practice that many other manufacturers have had to adopt on the past. I am told these stronger blocks have now passed into production.
The engines are much as we have described before. The single overhead camshaft engine is unique in offering 16 valves activated by the single shaft. This is fantastic for Group 1 configurations, but when you start modifying heavily, breathing through a pair of capacious 48 mm. side-draught Webers attached to the appropriate porting and camshaft, there comes a point where the single cam compromise begins to show up. on the power graphs this usually means a power dip around the 5,000-r.p.m. mark, for the more you try and benefit the incoming gases, the more you compromise your exhaust valve camshaft profile: with separate, dual overhead, camshafts you can profile for each set of valves of course.
As well as running production crankshaft, connecting rods, and pistons with an 11-to-1 c.r., the engines retain a wet sump lubrication system. obviously there is the potential for fuel injection, a new cylinder head layout and dry sump oiling, but her we see the makings of the Leyland dilemma. Make the four into a real competition engine (risking an end product no better than its rivals?) or plunge into whole-hearted V8 work? There seems no comparison to this outsider – after all who has such a light and potentially powerful V8 as production equipment in a two seater? Leyland Cars are the subject of realms of advice from so-called experts, so I must presume they have their own reasons for not wading in with a determined V8 programme straight away. If the company was not “Honest-Joe-Leyland” the TR7 would never have run with anything less than a V8, homologation being the fictional enterprise it is today!
Overall the rise height is down over two inches compared with a car prepared for forest use. At the front this is simple to arrange via the adjustable top spring mountings on the “leg” of the Bilstein MacPherson strut; at the back ride height adjustments can also be quickly made via top mounting plates for the separate dampers. As standard the TR7 has a six tooth rack and pinion layout; this ratio has gradually been quickened to the point where an eight tooth rack and pinion is employed.
For a tarmac event the rims of the Minilite wheels are stretched to 8 in., which means that bodyshell preparation exponents (Safety Devices of Cambridge) have to stretch the standard bodywork uncomfortably close to the limits are the rear.
Four choices of Dunlop were offered for Corsica: slicks; slicks with light pattern grooves; the CR82 intermediate racing tyre and the A2 cover originally hailed as the answer to every problem. Ford’s European experience has shown the Dunlop wet lags behind the equivalent hoping for dry weather, a prayer amply fulfilled in the clear event.
Incidentally you do not adjust the roll bar on the TR7, this integral part of the strut front suspension remaining the same, forest or tarmac: a rear bar was installed on the cars on the way down, but there was a degree of politics over the need to use it drivers feeing it was a necessary aid to quicker responses.
That Wednesday evening, both TRs ventured out into the night for their first outing on the Island, both carrying experimental jettings and chokes for the double Webers. The objective, as explained by the articular Wood, as “to try and fill n the hole. We trade 2 -3 b.h.p. at the top end for up to 7 lb. ft. of torque and better manners for the exit of these tight corners.” In fact Culcheth was to stay with the new, richer, settings, while Pond went back to the original jets and chokes: in both cases the cars came back with just over 7,500 r.p.m. on their telltale tachometers.
I had a ride in both cars, but not for any serious work. There was something a little sad about Culcheth’s comparatively dowdy mount. It was only in little items, like the trim of the centre console coming away and the fact that the older car has the interior brake balance adjustment tacked on below the dash, while Pond’s had the knurled knob installed like a production item on the right of the fascia, but the feeling was there, nonetheless. You do not get the usual ZF clackity racket from the gearbox, and the differential is positively quiet, so the cars feel what they are, rather more production-based than most.
Wednesday evening is spent largely sitting around at the hotel – perhaps in a somewhat strained manner as the reporter had suggested having dinner with some of the rival teams and securing a supply of Dunlop A2s for “our” Dolomite! Around 11 o’clock the drivers, Davenport, Wood, Price, et al, started coming back. The anxious residents wanted to know just how the cars had performed? Were those new jets any good? In fact Culcheth was delighted with his machine, while Pond was to revert back to the original jets for a similar session on Thursday evening.
On Thursday morning I have the privilege of joining Culcheth for some note-taking on two of the first three stages. We take the Dolomite and settle gratefully amongst the supply of fizzy drinks. It really is hot outside for November, but after so long travelling in convoys it is nice to get out and actually see what terrain the drivers have to tackle. The stages we look at begin within 20 minutes’ casual driving of Ajaccio, comprising the 14.9 km. Coti –Chiavari and the Acqua Doria to Stillicioni 16 ½ km. test, which I also see again after the rally is over, complete with black tyre marks into solid rocky scenery!
Brian is a bit suspicious of the first names test because it incorporates some loose surface (or road works in reality): he feels that slicks are definitely justified for the rest of the test, and that it’s worth having them on over the loose, “especially as they’ll probably cut it out.”
The rest of our hours in the car are more typical, my level-headed driver giving a fascinating commentary while we skip over humps, bumps and hummocks, usually in 2nd gear. There are few moments with oncoming traffic, but other drivers are not so careful. The Italian flotilla has already lost a Stratos, reputedly in an end-over-end roll.
For my education I am allowed to read some notes. Luckily Brian is really only sorting out the question marks (is this right Very fast, or Flat out, or Absolutely flat?). As he says, if he had relied on my reading, “the accident would have been four corners ago . . . and all our clothes would be out of style by the time we hit the bottom here!”
The atmosphere is relaxed Mediterranean, until you look at the road, the opposition and the need for the absolute best in knowledge of that road. Everyone else is out learning; somewhere you have to try and learn more, and that’s damn near impossibly as a Briton. The French have a stranglehold on this event, which has only been broken by Munari’s Stratos in recent years. Bernard Darniche (sweeping all before him in the Mediterranean area this season) and Jean-Claude Anduret are indeed formidable recruits to the Fiat 131 team. Ford have another Tour De Corse winner in Jean Pierre Nicolas (1973), but Andruet had won three times, Darniche twice and Munari twice including last year.
I return form the morning a lot more conscious of the dangers inherent in rallying on tarmac through such rugged country. I observe that Pond s the one expected to do the charging. He may well feel the truth of the saying, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, since the combination of Corsican geography and his unloved practice mount might lead to a really large accident. Brian is more relaxed, he has made his mind up how to play things, “I agree with the Leyland France men, it really does prove something just to finish here. Often they have less than 20 survivors; we ought to be amongst them. There is a reliability and car thoroughness message Leyland need to make through comps, as well as the obvious need for speed,” he quietly acknowledges.
They go out again on Thursday evening. I have spent a little of the time being briefed about service in the company of John Davenport, Gallagher and Syer, who are then drawing up the schedule for the support vehicles we brought down, which will be passed on to the crews this evening. The problems are knowing when roads will be closed, and how long they will stay shut.
The two Sherpas, each with its double checked 94-item spares list, are the effective front line; the Rover 3500 and the more fully equipped range Rover are a more agile supplementary service. Rock bottom emergency work and supervision is for Davenport and Wood in a rented Simca Alpine. Also, they have the motley crew of J.W., Hutchinson and photographer Alan Davies in the Dolomite. We are to provide a fuel churn service at three points, including one classic in the middle of a stage (well, a few kilometres from the end).
That evening the faces of the returning testers are not so happy. Pond’s clutch is slipping and the gearbox will have to be changed as 3rd is becoming hard to engage. Gloomy tidings to consider before a twisty transmission torture such as the Tour de Corse. Culcheth is happier with a new driver’s seat and a night check on one stage now completed. Everything has been practices as it will be encountered on the event.
While Pond’s car was fitted with a new clutch and gearbox, at least a 30 minute job, we took Culcheth’s TR7 to a morning press conference on Friday. About 30 journalists eventually appeared for this affair, nearly all overseas men and therefore absolutely vital to the occasion. The drivers, technicians, and one car, were on hand. Leyland were able to effectively announce that they were in the island and give people a little run in the car. To me that seemed a very important and worthwhile break that the company took full advantage of. When you think most of the news coming out of Britain, and especially Leyland overseas, must consist of strike coverage, it is nice to see something being done to emphasise the positive side.
Just before the press conference, Dunlop’s Jeremy Ferguson and John Horton had come up to talk with Davenport. Remarks such as, “You can’t do that, even if your truck driver is Fangio,” emphasised Davenport’s firm but friendly style on an occasion where tact was called for. Dunlop also had Ford to look after, but both teams must be accommodated with all possible equality.
Afternoon is taken up with a walk down to scrutineering. The two TR7s flash through with no fuss whatsoever. It is all over so effortlessly that I stay and watch the other teams turn up. Tony Carello, the light manufacturer’s son, is one of the most popular in his 1978 specification Stratos, which will see the Italian car in its final season of International rallying.
I also note how clean and tidy the Fiat 131s look now, their fuel-injection engines as clean as the interiors. The quayside location and several hundred spectators in the sunshine add to a slight feeling of carnival. I must admit I thought the women in one factory-loaned 131 (Michelle Mouton/Francis Conconi) were a bit of a joke too. I should have remembered they had just won a Spanish International, for their subsequent eighth place on this Corsican event was deserved, earned through courage and skill.
Saturday was a bright and clear as before, our Dolomite heading out into the foothills about mid-morning. though the first car was not due at the test until nearly half past two in the afternoon, we wanted to make sure of parking as close to the time controls as possible, ensuring that we could get out of Tavera village and on to our next fuelling point.
Our amateur aid status was sharply reinforced by the arrival of Ford rally engineer Allan Wilkinson to set up shop near our solitary can and filler. He had a full works car (the Escort that Hamalainen won the 1000 Lakes event with!), an Italian-speaking Dunlop-employed navigator, radio and proper tools. I concentrated on the mountainous view and appreciated Allan’s polite conversation describing some of the earlier struggles in the World Championship.
Heightening ourr discomfort was a growing worry over Pond. Culcheth had been through – taking on a splash of fuel to encourage us, rather than out of necessity. As the myriad Opel Kadett Group 1 contenders arrived, and their competition numbers grew from the forties into the fifties and sixties, we knew the rally’s tight schedule could not alloy Tony’s further participation.
Here we were, standing before the first stage, dressed up in Leyland jackets waiting for a TR7 that had actually selected two gears at once, within 1 ½ hours of the start. Worse things have happened at sea, as the saying goes, but I have spent a lot of time, not wearing a Leyland jacket, waiting for Jaguars this summer.
We had Culcheth though and the urgent commands of that crew that we should be at the tiny one-building-and-a-spectacular-gorge pinprick on the map called Pinzalone that evening. This involved re-joining the main N193 main road that connects Ajaccio with the northern port of Bastia, this expanded replica of a mountain road becoming the lifeline for all service crews to shuttle up and down the island.
Because of the closed roads we had to wind our way north on the main road and then drop back south through minor roads that either were stages, or that had been at some time. I judged this form a solitary English piece of graffiti amongst the Italian and French aerosol can messages. The terse words were, “ALL FINNS ARE MAD DRIVERS”. Somewhat out of place amongst the lonely trees and boulders defying gravity on yet another awesome mountain road, and presumably the work of an irate British co-driver as he picked his way out of the wreckage!
Our service point really summed up rallying in Corsica. We arrived, in daylight, about five. Parked the Dolomite on the stem of a T-junction, where the crew’s lamps should pick it up, even as they tore downhill to the depths of the gorge below. We were 16 or 17 kilometres from the end of nearly the longest Epreuve Routiere, which was 82 miles in distance!
We expected the cars around 7.30. As we had set up our petrol can and dispatched the photographer, there was time for a doze in anticipation of a sleepless night. When my eyes opened, the scene was transformed. There were figures all round the car, and some on it until our protective Gendarmarie swept us a TR7-sized patch, partially illuminated by our sidelights. Perhaps 40 -50 voices chattered in Italian or French around the junction, but all the way up the wooded slopes, beside a bumpy equivalent to a B road, there were literally hundreds more. The police watched impassively as bonfires were lit, even staying put when trees were lit and sparks cascaded won the banks between the competition car arrivals!
The competitors were heralded in bursts of light shafting the night as they climbed briefly, before descending past us in bursts of power. In this terrain the Stratos reigns supreme, quick flicks of the steering and bursts of Italia V6 played fortissimo for a spasm before the next low-gear twist. Up and won the valley below we can see them: I amuse myself, in the wait for Culcheth, by counting the time it takes Tony Carello’s Stratos to cover the straight compared with a swift local (Manzagol) in an elderly four-cylinder Alpine A110: 14 sec. versus 31 sec.
Quite frequently the slightly slower runners are being overtaken by the time they reach us, and Culcheth is closely involved with another car at first sight. However he’s on his own as the red, white and blue Triumph arcs gracefully past our Dolly, a toot of the horn to acknowledge, “yes, we’ve seen you, but we don’t need any petrol after all”.
We pack up shortly after and my personal compensation is a long stint though the night in the modified Dolomite. First we go back to Ajaccio, then from there we traverse the island diagonally up to Ponte Nuova, 19 miles outside Bastia. Altogether I drive less than 130 miles, 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., but as the real drivers say, “it takes hours to get anywhere”. The Triumph’s steering is quite heavy on A2 covers, and there are many tight bends to feed through the standard small rim steering wheel, making my palms quite sore my morning. One glorious spurt in OD top takes this twin 2-in. SU-carburated flyer over 110 indicated m.p.h. The really impressive aspect is the pulling power. This delightful engine getting sufficient strength by 3,000 r.p.m. to pull three adults out of an uphill corner swiftly, revving very quickly indeed to 6,000 r.p.m. with almost mannerly raspberry note from the Group 1 rallying exhaust.
I never manage to do more than temporarily twitch the Dunlops from grip with tarmac. Considering the fact that one in every 30 corners turns out to be a hairpin that is better not tackled at 70 m.p.h. in OD 3rd, this is the finest testament I have ever accorded a tyre. The only penalties are a continuous whine and the heavy steering below 50 m.p.h. This Dolomite is an aged recce beast; it bears the harsh duty it has encountered extremely well, especially in the tremendous engine and much abused overdrive.
Our trip to Ajaccio is really wasted, for we just miss Culcheth as we first pop into the press office to see where he is positioned. After three tests he was 19th, a position he does improve on despite a half hour clutch change: oil is seeping into a TR7 competition unit again. The service crew say, “It should be OK now. Apart from a vibration he hasn’t had any other problems . . . though you can be sure neither of them are too happy about their placing”.
Culcheth’s Triumph is a welcome sight from my perch alongside a bridge on the Ponte Nuova-Teddia “road race” classification section of 60 miles length. The TR looks immaculate and is now running at a position that reflected a final 10th on test times, road-penalised by Monday morning to eleventh overall.
The next viewing is not far away from the coast at Folleli and a large Sunday morning crowd assembles, including Leyland France and one of their guests, the Dolomite Sprint driver in France, Rene Metge. Leyland sell about 30,000 vehicles a year in France, many of those Innocenti specification Minis. Racing is a must from a cost point of view, but the support they put behind the parent company’s French efforts in rallying is born of considerable enthusiasm.
Having watched the Triumph kick up the dirt alongside our bridge parapet, Corsica is all over, insofar as spectating was concerned. We used the rather more direct coast roads to shoot back to Ajaccio for the early afternoon finish. A halt for our own lunch with Martin Reade and Bob Whittington hints at the real work that goes on out of sight: both are grimy, tired and pretty hungry.
They do not miss out food altogether (that sort of thing belongs in the mechanic’s tales from the Spa-Sofia-Liege classic) but a Sherpa van laden with spares is not much of a place to live and drive over mountain roads in a hurry. This is not to disparage the Sherpa, merely to point out something I realised when I spent two years with another works team: the mechanics are the heroes. The breed are astonishingly hardy, very articulate (especially the Leyland men, probably the best company to be found), and they do a mucky job for their own satisfaction.
After the event is all anti-climax. The French have already said to me, as a journalist, that Culcheth will probably be 11th, but I have not the heart to say anything more at Leyland’s hotel as everyone looks pretty fed up about the anticipated tenth result . . . except the PR man, and that’s his job.
After a quiet Sunday evening, the men split up pretty rapidly for the long slog home. A pair of mechanics fly away on Monday morning to prepare more of the four RAC TR7s; another pair take a fast drive from Marseilles to the coast to get Pond’s clean TR back to the shop for re-preparation as Ryan’s RAC mount. All of them, save the flyers, go to Bastia to catch a Monday afternoon boat back to Marseilles. The majority of that party get back to Abington on Thursday afternoon, having had to wait ‘til on Monday morning to retrieve the finishing car 17 from Parc Ferme.
It has cost Leyland thousands of pounds to contest this prestigious World Championship qualifying round. To show for it they have a new, first hand, appreciation of European rallying tarmac at the top level; good pre-event publicity amongst the 190 plus media people who had come to watch this decisive round of the series, but almost nothing in Britain, save a cleverly financed TV film (World of Sport). Davenport is well aware of the difference betwene rallying for publicity (which this was) and rallying for a result and associated publicity (which this could have been with Pond still in). He said, “Neither I nor the team came here to achieve this. It’s got to be about running at the front in future”. – J.W.