Close Fight

Whether it be at Twickenham, Murrayfield or a levelled coal tip on the slopes of the upper Neath Valley, a rugby match is only as good as its players make it. Send a bunch of duffers to Arms Park and the crowd will go away feeling cheated; take the Barbarians to any club ground, however modest, and it will respond with vigor and enthusiasm.

So it is with rallying. The best rally in the world will hardly be memorable if its contestants are such that no real fight takes place. On the other hand, if the world's leading drivers were to tackle a Tour of Romney Marsh, half the population would go there to watch, and would very likely come away satisfied.

There is a third circumstance, of course; one which occurs when an eminent field of teams and competitors turns up at a well organised event held over a route which finds favour with both the contestants and their supporters. Here we have the Barbarians at Arms Park situation, where both the venue and the game are excellent.

This is precisely what the Lombard RAC Rally furnished this year; some of the closest competition that World Championship rallying has ever seen, on forest tracks even more popular now than they were when Jack Kemsley introduced them to the event some twenty-five years ago, thereby transforming it from a series of indifferent and inconclusive tests to its present enviable stature as a renowned competition, known and respected the world over.

As a bonus, there was no interference by officials more concerned with hair-splitting and rule interpretation than anything else, and everyone was treated to a superb contest which ended cleanly, unlike other events in the championship which have been spoiled for one unnecessary reason or another.

The most significant features of the World Rally Championship for Drivers has been the duel between Peugeot's Juha Kankkunen and Lancia's Markku Alen, although by the time this issue of Motor Sport appears the series will have been settled and we will know which of the two Finns has taken over the crown from their compatriot Timo Salonen.

Prior to October's Sanremo Rally the odds were in favour of Kankkunen who had scored three wins, whereas Alen had not been able to get anything higher than second. Sanremo changed all that, as we explained last month, when the disqualification of the entire Peugeot team, followed by Lancia's manipulation of the running order within its own team, gave Alen victory on a plate and Kankkunen no points at all.

As far as the championship was concerned, the RAC Rally suddenly attained greater significance, for the points difference between Kankkunen and Alen had narrowed to just two, and the result of the British event was going to be very important indeed. The manufacturers' series had already been settled in Peugeot's favour, but the French team, with no programme for 1987 since Group B cars were banned from both series from the end of 1986, was anxious to leave its mark by making a Grand Slam in its final year with the 205 Turbo 16.

Lancia, on the other hand, as championship-conscious as Italians have always been, and smarting under their failure to take the manufacturers' title, was determined to salvage the Drivers' title by getting Alen ahead of Kankkunen in the points table.

This was the situation when Peugeot and Lancia brought their teams to Bath for the 1986 Lombard RAC Rally. It was the final round of the manufacturers' series, already decided of course, but only the last but one for drivers, the final round being the Olympus Rally in the USA in early December, too late nevertheless to be included in Motor Sport this month.

It would be a monstrous understatement to say that competition at the head of the field was close and intense. Indeed, so well matched was, the leading group that no one driver emerged as the man most likely to win. For the most part, that group consisted of four drivers who stood out above all others, which is no detraction from the performance of those who followed. The four, three Finns and a Swede, were Timo Salonen and Juha Kankkunen in Peugeot 205 Turbo 16s, and Markku Alen and Mikael Ericsson in Lancia Delta S4s. Each of them led at one time or another, and even at the end of the second leg, after the severity of the infamous Kielder Forest, they were still in a close bunch at the front, just five seconds separating first and fourth.

Later, when the rally was about to leave Scotland and head towards the Lake District, Ericsson took the lead and a situation arose which was probably not appreciated by most observers. The young Swedish driver has only been with Lancia since early in 1986 and, perhaps as the most junior in the team, he had been told that he would not be continuing in 1987. But he was now leading the rally, and the prospect of ending his tour with the Italian team by winning one of the most coveted victories of the year appealed to him greatly. It would show, among other things, that being dropped from the team was perhaps a mistake on Lancia's part, and it would give him greater bargaining power when negotiating for a place in another team.

Of course, had he been followed by Markku Alen there can be no doubt that Ericsson would have been instructed to let his team-mate get ahead of him, for Alen is the only driver in a position to snatch the World Champion's laurels from Kankkunen. But at that moment the two Peugeot drivers were second and third, separating the two Lancias, and there was no question of telling Ericsson to slow down. However, if Alen managed to get into second place, some pretty hard thinking would have been done in that leading Lancia, not to mention the team's management. Whether Ericsson would have obeyed an order to let Alen win is something which will never be known, for later he dropped to third place and in South Wales on the final morning of the event he stopped with a blown turbocharger.

Alen did, in fact, move up to second, one place ahead of his rival Kankkunen, but outright victory was taken by reigning World Champion at the time, Timo Salonen, who, with his regular Seppo Harjanne, finished with an advantage of eighty-two seconds. Alen collected 15 championship points, Kankkunen 12, this was enough to reverse their position at the head of the championship table and give Alen the lead by a single point. Each has scored seven times during the year, and since the best eight are taken into account there is no complication of dropping lowest scores when the final round takes place in December.

However, there is most certainly another complication, for no-one yet knows the result of Peugeot's appeal against that disgraceful disqualification in Sanremo. Already the offending underbody flanges have been said not to produce any aerodynamic advantage whatsoever, indicating that the disqualifications were quite unjust, but it remains for the FISA executive to decide what to do about the results of the Italian event.

If they leave the results as they are, that would be tantamount to compounding the injustice; if they decide that no championship points should be awarded from the event, Alen score will be reduced by 20; if they take the end of the third leg, the point at which the Peugeots were prevented from continuing, to be the end of the rally, Alen score will be reduced by 10 and Kankkunen's increased by 15.

So an important issue demanded an immediate decision, so that the situation would have been made quite clear before the RAC Rally and the Olympus Rally, but FISA procrastinated over the matter and decided that the decision would be taken, and announced, on December 18, after both those events have taken place. We could therefore quite easily have the situation in which the whole of the series is over and no-one knows who has won. Worse, a committee in Paris will then have it in its power to decide which of the two, Kankkunen or Alen, will become World Champion. What a scandalous way to run the world's major series!

To return to the RAC Rally itself, the venue chosen for the start and finish this year was the City of Bath, hosting the rally for the third time since the first in 1976. It ran for four days, from Sunday morning to Wednesday evening, with three night stops of varying lengths at Harrogate, Edinburgh and Liverpool, a far cry from the days when the first leg ran for three days and two nights, the roadbook was not issued until the day before the start and an important part of planning was determining who should sleep on which road section.

The stamina element has gradually been removed, firstly because drivers not clever enough to take advantage of opportunities for short snatches of sleep were likely to become accident risks on public roads, and, more recently, because tiredness was said not to go hand in hand with the proper control of modern high speed cars on special stages.

Peugeot's three-car team was made up by one driven by Mikael Sundstrom and looked after by Coventry mechanics, whilst Lancia was content to have just two cars. Austin Rover, on the other hand, had what seemed like a fleet of MG Metro 6R4s, though some were privately sponsored and not actually part of the factory team. Drivers were Tony Pond, Malcolm Wilson, David Llewellin, Jimmy McRae, Per Eklund, Marc Duez and Harri Toivonen, whilst further down the list were several other Metro drivers, including Tony Teesdale from New Zealand.

From Boreham came three RS200s for Stig Blomqvist, Kalle Grundel and Mark Lovell, whilst further back were three Sierras entered by Securicor. The RS200s, like other high-powered Group B 2-seaters, were having their final fling in the World Championship, but at least Ford is doing something about realising some capital from the stock of what would be unusable cars; they are trying them as police cars and one has already been seen on the roads of Essex.

Other teams present were those of Skoda, Volkswagen, Isuzu and Mazda, whilst Russell Brookes drove an Opel Manta, Lasse Lampi an Audi Quattro, Pentti Airikkala a Vauxhall Astra and Louise Aitken-Walker a Nissan 240RS. The list was numbered to 165, but gaps accounted for 15 and there were 150 eventual starters.

The first day of the rally was devoted to a series of stages in parks and private estates, some on tarmac and some on mixed surfaces. These are as unpopular with drivers as they have always been, for they lack rhythm and consistency and present a high risk in exchange for little advantage. The whole day was taken up with nine of these stages, totalling just over 27 miles, after which less than a minute spanned the first eleven cars. However, the size of the crowds and the amounts being charged for parking and/or admission suggested that the day was a considerable money spinner.

There were all sorts of spins and nudges with trees and walls during the first day. Alen needed new body panels and a steering rack after taking to the trees in Cirencester Park, Pond had his ignition box changed, whilst Andervang hit a tree so hard that not only was the front right suspension wrecked but the car's entire chassis distorted. He struggled on into the next day but eventually had to retire.

At Sutton Park, Louise Aitken-Walker began to spin off on a slippery corner and rather than risk going sideways into some hefty concrete bollards, she chose wisely to steer between them and promptly shot through a bush hedge. Alas, behind that hedge was precisely where an ambulance and a private car had been parked and her Nissan first hit the car then embedded itself in the side of the ambulance. A spectator was also injured and a second ambulance had to be called to take him to hospital as the damaged one had been rendered unusable! The Nissan was able to continue, and we understand that the spectator was not seriously hurt.

Kankkunen had an uncomfortable drive through Trentham Gardens where, after the fuel filler cap had not been properly replaced, fuel entered the car causing such strong fumes that both occupants were nearly sick. They had to finish the stage with the doors open. The Metro crews lost one of their number when Dues stopped with a blown piston. Privateer Ian Robertson had to have his Nissan's fuel system flushed out after the tank was topped up from a diesel jerrican.

After the stop in Harrogate, the Yorkshire forests of Dalby, Cropton and their neighbours were all avoided, which was a considerable break with tradition, and the rally moved northwards through Stang and Hamsterley to Kielder.

Austin-Rover had been somewhat concerned about their differentials right from the start, for the car's power output had been increased considerably since it was designed and there was no room to fit larger, stronger differentials which could cope with the increased power. Failure came after failure, both front and rear, and it seemed that at just about every service point mechanics were engaged in differential changes. Indeed, some observers were taking bets on how long it would be before stocks ran out. There can be no doubt that this inherent weakness was the cause of much delay during the rally, without which Pond and Wilson would have finished higher, although much of Wilson's delay came from going off the road, a plight from which he was rescued by a tow from the Quattro of privateer Chris Lord.

Punctures, body dents, broken drive shafts, broken shock absorbers and all manner of breakages large and small were common in Kielder, and some crews got into difficulty when their service cars were held up by a huge traffic jam caused by spectators' cars queuing to turn right into a car park. The jam could have been avoided if the police had controlled that junction rather than leaving it to the marshals who were doing their best under the circumstances.

Salonen needed a gearbox change after it began jumping out of third, whilst a front puncture cost Kankkunen some time. Toivonen lost even more tirne when their jack broke in the middle of a wheel change followings puncture, and they had to enlist the help of spectators. Lovell's Ford caught fire in Cardrona forest and was completely burnt out. The inevitable delay resulted in cancellation of the stage for those who followed, all of whom were credited with the time of the slowest car to complete the stage.

At Edinburgh, Ericsson held the lead, but only by two seconds from Salonen and Alen who were jointly second. Kankkunen was fourth, only three more seconds behind, altogether an amazingly small separation after two days of rallying.

Early on the Tuesday morning the rally set off westward, then southward towards the Lakes, and already some competitors were saying that they would prefer to go on through the nights than stop for sleep. Others had the opposite opinion; perhaps the older ones!

Down at Lowther Park near Carlisle, Blomqvist's RS200 entered the stage leaving a dense smoke trail, and it was obvious that his engine was labouring under some serious defect. True enough, he and Berglund emerged from that stage on foot; the engine having given up completely after its oil pump seized and its camshaft drive belt stripped. Brookes had stopped earlier also with engine failure, thought to be due to a seized piston.

At Liverpool, with 32 stages gone, it was Salonen who had moved up to the lead, followed by Alen, Ericsson and Kankkunen. The differences between them were greater by this time, for all had lost varying amounts of time, and all of three and a half minutes spanned the leading quartet. Kankkunen had actually rolled in Grizedale Forest, but had got going again albeit with a car which looked an absolute wreck. However, it was all cosmetic rather than structural, and it didn't take the French mechanics long to replace various panels and the windscreen. The most serious thing was being unable to find their time cards among the debris inside the car, although they did so eventually.

During that night violent storms lashed through Wales and there were floods and swollen rivers everywhere the next morning. One stage had to be shortened due to a swollen river crossing, whilst the road into MachynIleth from the North became blocked when the River Dyfi overflowed its banks each side of the bridge. It was rather amusing, though not for them, to see some people trapped on the bridge itself, the arching centre section being above the water.

Everything was wet and muddy in Wales, although by the time dawn broke the rain had stopped. In Perunachno there was standing water over much of the road, causing concern for electrics and waterproofing, although these are things that long distance exponents, particularly those with experience of a wet Safari, take in their stride. It was here in Penmachno that Toivonen retired.

Alen changed his turbocharger after the group of four stages in Coed Clocaenog, whilst Pond lost more time with a puncture. Kankkunen saw that the chance of a win had become remote, so he contented himself with not taking risks and keeping his third place. The Skoda team had had so many punctures that mechanics had to buy an additional stock — of remoulds!

The final group of stages was in Margarn Forest, actually from Rhigos down behind Craig y Llyn and Resolfen to Margam itself, where the going varied from rocks to deep mud. It was here that Ericsson stopped, though those around him had become cautious by this time and were taking no chances. Sundstrom brought his Peugeot into fourth place, so that three of those cars finished in the first four, whilst Grundel was the only works Ford driver to finish, in fifth place. Pond was sixth in his Metro, leading a quartet of such cars, whilst Carlsson finished tenth in his Group A Mazda, ahead of the Group A VW Golf GTi driven by Kenneth Eriksson.

Whatever one might think of the shortened RAC Rally, now more by day than by night, this particular edition will be remembered for its very close fight at the head of the field, even though the actual tussle for the World Championship was dampened considerably by FISA's failure to announce the Sanremo decision early enough for everyone to be aware of the situation. After all, what kind of a race can it be when the runners don't know how far they have to run? — G. P.