New cars dominate Lombard RAC Rally
Had we been asked a few years ago whether we believed it possible for a new car to be entered in a round of the World Rally Championship for the first time and, against reliable opponents with proven success records in the series, to take outright victory, we would have smiled at the ludicrous nature of the question.
The days of building cars, packing vans and setting out for rallies are long gone. Nowadays, any team with ambition has to spend an enormous amount of time and money designing, developing and testing, working from scratch with only a token reference to the drawings of the original showroom model. Two hundred versions then have to be built and they are ready to go.
But even after a rigorous development programme, the old adage still holds good that gremlins seldom appear until numbers are put on the sides. The first competitive outing for a new car is nerve-racking for any team, and its first appearance in a World Championship event even more so.
All the more remarkable, therefore, that in November's Lombard RAC Rally, the first three cars to finish, from a field which included present and previous World Champion drivers and manufacturers, were taking part in a World Championship event for the first time.
True that Lancia's new 4-w-d, rear-engined Delta S4 and Austin-Rover's new 4-w-d, rear-engined MG Metro 6R4 had been rallied before, but this was their first appearance against the determined opposition of other international teams. Lancias, driven by Henri Toivonen/Neil Wilson and Markku Alen/lIkka Kivimaki, took first and second places, whilst the Metro, driven by Tony Pond Rob Arthur. was third.
The might of Peugeot and Audi came to nothing in the first leg of the rally. when both 205 T16s and both Sport Quattros retired in the first leg, leaving the two Lancias and the MG Metro almost in a rally of their own, considerably ahead of the other runners. The second Metro of Malcolm Wilson/Nigel Hams also retired. Fourth place, well behind the closely bunched leading trio, were privateers Per Eklund/Bjorn Cederberg in one of the older Audi Quattros, not the shorter Sport version, whilst fifth place went to Safari winners Juha Kankkunen/Fred Gallagher in a Toyota Celica. the highest placed 2-w-d car.
The first manufacturer to rally 4-w-d vehicles successfully was not Audi, as we've heard suggested, but American Motors, for whom Gene Henderson/Ken Pogue won the 1972 Press-on-Regardless Rally in a Jeep Wagoneer. However, its transmission system was hardly anything but basic, and in any event, probably due to pressure from European manufacturers who feared an American invasion, the CSI, as it was then called, announced a ban on 4-w-d vehicles in rallying.
Possibly under the weight of equal but opposite pressure, FISA subsequently lifted that ban, and very soon afterwards Audi unveiled its Quattro, started winning with it, and set a trend which other manufacturers with rally teams felt obliged to follow.
Peugeot then went one better by combining four-wheel-drive with the already successful (Alpine, Stratos, etc) rear-engine configuration, and cramming the lot so tightly into a short wheelbase car that the two-seat compartment left for the crew could only be described as tiny.
Lancia. Austin-Rover and Ford followed suit, and although the Boreham car has still to compete, it did make an appearance at a test stage just before the RAC Rally — and made best time, incidentally, although that should be considered no more than academic.
It seems amazing that a rally which takes place largely in bleak, foggy, cold, wet and often snowy moorland or mountainous regions should always attract the highest level of entries. The reason for this is twofold: firstly the popularity of the forest tracks which Jack Kemsley first introduced to the event more than two decades ago and, secondly, its location close to the world's leading works teams and greatest concentration of privateers, whose transportation costs are therefore minimal.
The starters numbered 154, among them professional teams representing Peugeot, Audi, Lancia, Toyota, Mazda, Nissan, Opel, Austin-Rover, Skoda, Subaru, Vauxhall, Citroen and lsuzu, some with a greater degree of professionalism than others, of Peugeot's two crews were World Champions Timo Salonen/Seppo Harjanne, and Kalle Grundel/Terry Harryman. Harryman has recovered well from the injuries he sustained in Argentina, but Vatanen's recovery is much slower, though sure.
Driving the two Audi's were Hannu Mikkola/Arne Hertz and Walter Rohrl/Phil Short. Rohrl makes no secret of his dislike of the RAC Rally, largely because he cannot practice and make notes, and his presence must have been with some reluctance. To give him at least a little less disadvantage against those who compete regularly in British forests, he had the services of a British co-driver rather than his regular partner Geistdorfer who worked instead as service planner.
Interesting was the fact that whilst Mikkola's car had a six-speed manual gearbox, Rohrl's had the new five-speed automatic 'box with which the clutch pedal is only used for starting and stopping, and which can be "converted" into manual at the touch of a switch.
The Cologne-based Toyota team although highly successful in tough African events, had no illusions about being able to beat four-wheel-drive cars over a series of comparatively short special stages with ample opportunity for service, but they nevertheless brought two Celicas for Bjorn Waldegard/Hans Thorszelus and Juha Kankkunen/Fred Gallagher. These two partnerships are about to break up for Kankkunen joins Peugeot in 1986 and Thorszelius plans to devote more time to business
Austin-Rover, with a considerable change of staff since Abingdon days, produced two of their oddly shaped Metro 6R4s, functional aerodynamically but certainly not on attractive prospect for the buyer of a road car. Drivers were Pond and Wilson.
Opel had three Manta 400s foi Russell Brookes/Mike Broad, Jimmy McRae/lan Grindrod and Erwin Weber/Gunter Wanger. the latter crew being the pair who came very close indeed to winning the Safari this year, losing their lead on the last morning after engine stoppage. A Group A Ascona came from Sweden for Jonsson/Johansson and there were Group A Vauxhall Astras driven by Airikkala/McNamee, Wood/Nicholson, Nichols/Grist and Davidson/Nicholson.
Mazda RX7s were driven by Ingvai Carlsson/Benny Mellander and Rod Millen/Brian Rainbow, the latter driver being the US-resident New Zealander who uses a 4-w-d version of the RX7 in American events. John Haugland/Jan-Olof Bohlin and two Czech crews drove a trio of Skoda 130LRs entered by the British importers, whilst Subaru Sport brought three 1800 RX Turbos for Pitkanen/Mynott, Geitel/Hakkinen and Morton/Bland.
Following its itinerant trend since the early '70s, the rally was based this year at Nottingham, where, in a city centre hotel, rally headquarters were fortunate to have a multistorey car park in the next block. Without that, there would have been parking chaos, although a few people (not competitors) discovered too late that the gates were kept locked on Sundays!
The route was rather more complex than it has been in the past, not always easy for servicing, and subject to criticism by some competitors because rest periods were short and at odd times, although it wasn't so long ago that the entire event had one night stop and nothing else; the driving was shared so that sleep could be snatched on road sections, and if you were lucky you got the bonus of the odd half-hour here and there after making up time into a main control
The mid-November snowfall had suggested that the special stages, particularly those in Wales and the northern parts would be very slippery indeed. and a great deal of attention was paid to the selection of tyres for such conditions. Austin-Rover was at a disadvantage here, because although the team had done considerable tyre testing during the development of the car, none of it was carried out in really wintry conditions.
Some of that snow disappeared at the start, but it returned in places, and bitterly cold weather ensured a good coating of ice on many of the forest tracks. Freezing fog was another hazard here and there, although the coldest nights were towards the end when a clear sky and a bright moon signalled the absence of any insulating cloud layer.
An innovation at Nottingham was to site the start ramp at the departure line of the first special stage in the city's Wollaton Park. It was just a short one, hardly more than a mile, but as a crowd puller it was most effective, and it was a shrewd move by Toyota GB to sign it up for sponsorship and banner advertising
These opening stages are invariably short, so penalty differences are usually minimal, and it is an imprudent driver who tackles them at 100%. Even if someone made best time on all seven openers, his advantage would be so small that it could be removed entirely at the first stage of any decent length.
Most people therefore treated them with caution, Tony Pond in particular, for he was determined not to repeat his debacle of last year when he put a Rover off the road on the opening stage and retired against a tree. The 11 fastest cars on the slippery Wollaton stage all had 4-w-d transmissions, Alen fastest by one second from Salonen and Toivonen. and Pond 10th fastest but only six seconds slower than him.
The four-mile tarmac stage at Clumber was next, followed by a mixed surface 3.5-miler at Chatsworth. Already McRae was having trouble with his brake calipers, Kaby with his master cylinder and both Alen and Waldegard with their gearboxes.
Carlsson lost a little time when his Mazda went off the road in Trentham Gardens, where the banners were those of Champion, and Toivonen lost a few of his gear ratios after a heavy landing. The Subarus were suffering turbocharger inefficiency due to an oil leak, and their drivers discovered that their standard transmission ratios were totally unsuitable for the event
Toivonen hit some logs in Weston Park, damaging the front right bodywork and perhaps adversely affecting the aerodynamics. It was some time before a new front could be fitted, for the team didn't have enough body parts with them for every service van to carry. Rohrl broke a front shock absorber, Pitkanen had what seemed like gasket failure on his Subaru and retired soon afterwards, whilst Japanese crew Kawahara and Yoda indulged in a spot of bush fettling by wiring spanners together to "splint" a broken steering so that they could gel their Nissan to their service car.
Meanwhile, McRae had cured his brake problems and Waldegard was happier after having a new gearbox fitted. That crowded stop at Worcester signalled the end of the day's "Mickey Mouse" stages, as they are still called, although they aren't as bad nowadays as those bollard-dodging antics in the past around Silverstone's back roads, or along Prestatyn Promenade. By that time, 4-w-d cars still filled the first 10 places, the Lancias of Alen and Toivonen up front, 19 sec apart. Salonen was next, another 18 sec behind, followed by Wilson and Grundel at intervals of two and three seconds respectively.
Mikael Sundstrdm/Paul White were sixth in their Coventry-backed Peugeot, ahead of Mikkola, Pond, Rohrl and Eklund, whilst in 11th place was the best placed 2-w-d car, Waldegard's Celica.
The first forest stages were in a group of four in the Forest of Dean, and almost immediately the leader board began to change. Pond prepared for it by readjusting his lamp angles and adding padding to his seat!
The Lancias, troubled both by gear selection difficulty and by the mysterious onset of power loss, especially when cornering hard, began to drop back, though why the team did not look sooner to the bag-tank equivalent of fuel surge as a possible cause we can't imagine. The tanks were not those which should have been fitted, and it seemed that the outlet to the fuel pump was not doing its job properly. What is more fuel consumption was alarmingly high, so much that Toivonen actually ran out at one point. This, too, was put down to a bad fuel feed from the tank, and it transpired that the tanks had to be topped up frequently in order to keep the level high enough to prevent air being drawn. The Lancia problems, plus a time loss by Salonen due to a puncture. enabled Mikkola to move into the lead by the time the field had got through the rather rough stages of Coed Morgannwg,
Wilson had lost drive to his rear wheels, and various people, not only Salonen, had collected punctures, notably on the rough Rhigos stage. Grundel lost a few spotlights whilst spinning, and Pond began to experience bad handling.
The most notable incident was that which claimed Rohrl'. Towards the end of the 14 mile Rheola stage the road descends steeply into the Neath Valley, and it was on this downhill stretch that the Audi went off a tightening right-hander and rolled several times down a bank, fortunately without injury to its occupants.
Not only was the car stuck in the trees down the steep bank but it was pretty well finished, and after clambering out and handing a red triangle to a marshal to place on the approach to the bend, Rohrl and Short began to gather their belongings and think about getting back to Nottingham.
Before he had actually reached the far side of the bend with that triangle, the marshal nipped into the trees when he heard another car approach. It was Brookes Opel, and that didn't make it either. The car spun and went off into the trees backwards, though without as much damaging effect as the Audi had. After struggling for about a quarter of an hour, they got the car back to the road and were able to continue.
Mikkola, in the meantime, was becoming bitterly frustrated by his team's inability to trace a fault which prevented his engine achieving its peak rpm. All manner of things were checked, but no-one was able to put a finger on the trouble, and no sooner had the problem appeared to be cured, it returned. In Brechfa, where the two stages were called Lady Megan and Tregaron even though they are some distance from Tregaron itself, Grundel lost all adhesion on the icy track and shot down a bank into some trees. He had been using some inside camber which petered out halfway around the corner, and the result was a car not too badly damaged but well and truly stuck. Later, after being hauled back to the road, it was found to be perfectly driveable.
Later, in the first of three stages in Dyfi Forest, Salonen clattered to a stop with loss of oil pressure and terrible engine noises which made it quite clear that he was going no further. The works Peugeots were thus both out but the British car of Mikael Sundstrom/Paul White remained sufficiently well placed for the French to place additional service crews at the disposal of the Coventry team.
On the second Dyfi stage Mikkola's frustration came to an end when his car stopped just a hundred yards or so after the start. He and Hertz checked just about everything they could, but finally they had to give up as the clock had ticked around too far. Later when mechanics appeared the engine fired as though nothing had ever been wrong!
Another to go was Wilson. After a succession of failures, including differentials and power steering, the latter causing aching wrists and shoulders, a broken alternator belt gave rise to failing electrical power and consequent drop in fuel supply. The weak mixture soon had its effect on the engine, or at least that was the theory, which promptly stopped.
Pond, on the other hand, despite moving up and down the list within the first half dozen, had got back up to third after Dyfi and when a wheel stud broke he was extremely fortunate to have it happen on a road section where there was a service van not far ahead, at Dinas Mawddwy, where works teams ignored the official service area at Dolgellau partly because it was optional and entailed an unnecessary seven mile detour, and partly because privately reserved garages were much better than a hopelessly overcrowded service area in a town.
Although this was a weekday, spectators in North Wales turned out in hundreds of thousands, causing not only traffic delays but long lines of stationary cars stretching for miles. It was miraculous that any competitor at all got lathe first Dyfnant stage, although it turned out to be somewhat boring for the spectators there when officials, alarmed at the overwhelming crowds, stopped the stage after only nine cars had passed. In accordance with FISA's rule, the remaining cars were given the same time as the slowest competitor through
Many years have passed since we suggested that the RAC Rally could become strangled by its own popularity, but that has now become a very real danger, though where the remedy lies is difficult to see.
As well as on the ground, there was much traffic in the air too the high flying radio relay fixed-wing aircraft and the helicopters of film crews and even spectators being pined in North Wales by military aircraft on training sorties. Not only were there Hawks indulging in high speed follow-my-leader through the valleys and Sea Kings even closer to the ground but big, droning Hercules doing the very same thing, a truly amazing sight.
After Dyfnant, Clocaenog was ignored, as was much other fine terrain elsewhere in Wales, and the rally turned eastwards for the return to Nottingham via Trentham and Donnington. Still more fuel problems had delayed Toivonen somewhat, and at halfway Pond divided the two Lancias. The gaps had widened, and Alen's lead over the Metro was over three minutes.
Toivonen was only one more minute behind, so Pond's position was tenuous to say the least. Next came Sundstram, Eklund, Kankkunen, McRae, Kaby, Millen and Carlsson, whilst Brookes' excursion in Rheola had contributed to his being down in 11th place.
The killer of the RAC Rally is always Kielder, where long stages difficult going, hard weather and far fewer service opportunities than professionals would like, all combine to produce a higher than average retirement rate.
But this year it was different. Most of the incidents seemed to be in Wales, and when the survivors left on the second leg most of them were in good shape to last out, indeed, changes to the leader board were few, although the biggest area of interest, right to the end, was up at the front where Pond put up a sterling fight against the Lancias.
The first stages on the way North were a group of three in Clipstone Forest, the first of which was delayed for some 10 min, though not without being anticipated, whilst a coal train trundled over its familiar level crossing. Speeds through the trees in the first two Clipstones were exceeding 130 mph on the straights — that's something for racing drivers to ponder — and Alen and Toivonen beat the targets on both of them, Pond and Sundstrom on the second.
The tarmac of Scarborough's Oliver's Mount was just as fast, but very slippery with snow and there were several high speed spins, though not with any drastic consequence.
Next came five stages in the forests of the Yorkshire Dales where a layer of snow, a biting wind and a muddy service area made things difficult for competitors and mechanics alike. Things began to happen here again, for Alen shot up a firebreak, damaged a rear suspension against a tree stump and had to take it easy on the way due to a wheel which wobbled threateningly. He lost some two minutes as a result, and when it appeared that a differential failure had robbed Toivonen of drive to his front wheels, the Austin-Rover people began to wonder whether this would mean Pond's elevation to the lead.
However, Alen's damaged suspension was repaired and, after four stages with rear drive only, Toivonen's front differential was replaced. Pond had an alternator replaced and a broken front spoiler repaired, not to mention being slowed when his screen misted up after a water crossing.
After a stop in Carlisle came the first of two loops through Kielder, Craik, Eskdalemuir and Castle O'er, the first also taking in the Tweed Valley and the second going further West to the Forest of Ae.
Pond lost time with a couple of punctures and Toivonen regained second place, but he all but lost everything when, in front of huge crowds at Castle O'er, he nudged a ditch and rolled on to his roof Fortunately, there was enough manpower to get it back to its wheels and he got away again without losing much time.
Not so lucky was Sundstrom who, whilst in a fine fourth place and determined to keep it, he crested a brow only to find nothing but sheet ice ahead, just where he should be braking for a corner. It would have been folly to attempt to negotiate the bend, so he went straight off, dropped down a bank and rolled several times, losing bits and pieces of bodywork and puncturing both water and oil radiators. It was a dramatic accident, but the pair were unhurt, though bitterly disappointed that they hadn't been able to score that fourth place for which they seemed set.
In Kielder. Alen was about ready to kick himself, his car, his co-driver and anything else that came in his way after he ditched his Lancia very firmly. There didn't seem a hope of getting out, but along came Kankkunen who, with nothing to lose, decided to go to the aid of his fellow-countryman. The Toyota soon had the Lancia out of the ditch and on again, but Alen had lost the lead to his teammate and had dropped to third place.
More transmission problems dogged the new leader, and when it seemed that repairs might cost some road time, Pond again had hopes of moving up front. But the work was done very smartly, and the Finn kept his lead
At Carlisle again, four Lakeland stages remained, and two more on the Thursday run back to Nottingham, and still the positions at the head had not become established that anyone could predict the winner with confidence. However, when the early morning stages proved to be very icy indeed, and Pond made an erroneous tyre choice — again perhaps due to the lack of winter testing — it seemed pretty certain that he would be no higher than third at the finish.
It turned out that Toivonen kept his lead. although a short service stop to have a troublesome intake compressor fettled meant that he was by no means first on the road. The control outside Nottingham had to hold cars until he arrived, for it was fitting. after all, that he should be first up the rarnp at the crowded finish. Alen and Pond finished second and third, the performance of all three suggesting that 1986 is going to be something of a battle betwen mighty midgets — cars. not men!
Eklund drove as tenatiously as ever to take fourth place, Kankkunen equally so to lead the 2-w-d cars, and Britain's Andrew Wood very well indeed to win the Group A category and finish 11th overall in his Vauxhall Astra, a rejection by the final scrutineers being turned down by the stewards when it was proved that the homologation papers carried a misprinted valve size.
What a splendid event it was, producing sufficient drama to fill volumes — if anyone ever managed to find the time to write it! Long may it keep its enviable popularity, though what can be done about the sheer volume of spectators, who are no more than enthusiasts for the sport and not deliberate obstructionists, remains lobe resolved.