Rally review: Lombard RAC Rally, January 1988

Kankkunen’s Kingdom

Last month we took a gamble by suggesting that a Lancia domination of November’s Lombard RAC Rally, very probable on recent form, might give rise to one of the contrived results for which the Italian team has become noted in the past year or so. The gamble ended in deadlock and we find ourselves having neither to eat our words, nor to crow about them.

Whilst Massimo Biasion, World Championship leader before the RAC Rally, waited in the wings ready to step forward and receive his accolades should he not be ousted from that position, Juha Kankkunen and Markku Alen, his team-mates and only challengers for the title, fought it out in the forests, each knowing that he would have to finish first or second, and beat the other, to become champion.

An Italian World Champion, even if he were not competing in the final round of the year, would have suited Lancia admirably. Equally, Alen, who has never held the title and who has been loyal to the Fiat/Lancia group for many years, would also have been most acceptable. But Kankkunen was a newcomer. He had been with the team for less than a year, was not at all happy with the practice of winners being chosen by the management, and had declared his intention of leaving Lancia at the end of the year.

Our feeling, therefore, was that if Alen looked like beating Kankkunen, that is the way it would have stayed. But if the reverse were the case, the two occupying first and second places, it might not have continued that way even though the chances of Kankkunen responding to team orders to give up his lead would have been very remote indeed.

Lancia had three cars in the RAC Rally — two driven by Kankkunen with Juha Piironen and Alen with Ilkka Kivimaki, and the third by Swedish pair Mikael Ericsson and Claes Billstam — and the predictions were that these three would dominate the leader board.

But the outcome was not as much of a Lancia rout as expected. Alen made a few uncharacteristic mistakes, probably due to the tension of such a close fight for the world title, costing considerable time and dropping him down the field out of contention. Ericsson also spent time off the road, and all he could manage at the finish was fourth place, just 15 seconds ahead of Alen.

By contrast, Kankkunen had a superb rally, not putting a wheel anywhere except exactly where it should be, and experiencing no problems whatsoever with his car. He stayed firmly entrenched in the lead throughout the four days, and although Alen made a determined bid to catch up, even making the best times on 20 of the 48 special stages, he never got within striking distance of his team-mate.

No matter what Lancia’s thoughts about who would best serve them as World Champion, their first consideration was, as it has always been, the car rather than the driver. They were certainly not going to do anything to jeopardise a Lancia win on the RAC Rally, and even less likely to risk handing victory on a plate to a Ford or an Audi.

Juha Kankkunen stayed in the lead to the end, scoring an impeccable first time victory in the RAC Rally and keeping his World Championship title for a second term; he thus became the first man to do that since the series for drivers was officially established in 1979.

Continuing its round of selected cities, the rally was based this time at Chester, where a distinct improvement from previous visits to that city was the choice of an out-of-town location for rally headquarters, where one could find a parking space without running the risk of collecting a ticket.

The route was divided into four parts by three night stops, two at Chester and one at Carlisle, a far cry from years past when one night of rest was the only real break in five days of rallying, when co-drivers’ seats were invariably recliners, and when a pillow was essential in-car equipment.

The first loop, on the Sunday, was a round of stately homes and parks in the Midlands, all geared up, just as they were when they were introduced a decade and a half ago, to woo crowds away from the forests, where their parked cars sometimes created obstructions and traffic jams.

These “Mickey Mouse” stages, as they have been called since their inception, have never been popular with competitors, who always had great difficulty negotiating artificially-created corners each marked by a plethora of red cones, flags and arrows. Finding the gaps through such masses of red markers is straightforward at touring speeds, but certainly not at rally speeds.

The Sunday stages are invariably short, and the penalty differences between the leaders at the end of the day were relatively small compared with those after the longer forest stages to come. There is little to gain, therefore, by breaking records, but certainly very much to lose, as many have discovered to their cost in the past, and indeed in 1987.

Recognising this, the organisers relaxed the no-practice rule for the private estate and park stages and gave competitors the opportunity to drive through them a week before the event, and to make pace notes if they wished.

Practising in the forests is very properly prohibited, and competitors appreciate that it would create untold disruption of forest operations, not to mention dangers, inconvenience and had feeling. But they welcomed the chance to practise in the parks and thereby to lessen the likelihood of hitting walls, gateposts or trees during the event itself.

The 4am start on the Monday led to a loop into North Wales through the forests of Clocaenog, Penmachno, Dyfi (which the RAC has forgotten how to spell), Taliesin, Myherin and Hafren, then returning to Chester in the evening via a stage at Oulton Park.

The Welsh loop went no further southwards than Newtown, and many wondered why the fine forests of South Wales were not included. No doubt there are good reasons, but it nevertheless seemed something of a waste. It could be, of course, that these are being left to the Welsh Rally, for a rationing and allocation system exists in order to prevent over-use of forest roads.

Tuesday’s loop, this time starting just after 3am, crossed the Pennines to a concentration of stages in the Yorkshire forests just north of Pickering. It then went northwards into Kielder Forest, and westwards to Carlisle for the third and last night stop.

The final day began at the more respectable hour of 7.45am and made a morning tour of Kielder and southern Scotland before returning through the Lake District to the 8.30pm finish at Chester.

The mistake from which Alen never really recovered was on the first day in the grounds of Derbyshire’s Chatsworth House, when he took a left bend too tightly and clipped a low grass bank with his inside front wheel. The car was thrown up on its two right wheels and continued like this for a while, as if undecided whether to return to its wheels or to roll. Alas, it fell over on to its right side and then almost sedately on to its roof, in front of a huge crowd and the inevitable video camera. The car was remarkably unscathed, and when marshals had pushed it back on to its wheels Alen continued, having lost little more than half a minute.

Already tense in the knowledge that he would have to finish first or second, and beat Kankkunen, to achieve his ambition to become World Champion, Alen must have been wound up even further by this mishap, and his efforts to regain the lost time put him very close indeed to his absolute limit.

He has never been one to keep a little in reserve if there is something to be gained by pushing hard, but this time his efforts were sometimes noticeably in excess of his maximum. In Langdale Forest he clipped some logs and all but wrecked his car. However, he managed to struggle out, whereupon mechanics got down to restoring the distinctly tatty Lancia to something resembling normal.

Team-mate Ericsson also rolled, and although his Delta landed upright, it was perched on some logs and it was not before sufficient lifting and pushing power could be amassed by spectators that he could get going again.

The Lancia phalanx having been divided, and after a spate of retirements, it was Stig Blomqvist (Ford Sierra Cosworth) and Per Eklund (Audi Coupe Quattro) who became involved in a desperate struggle for second place. These two have been rivals for twenty years, since they were team-mates at Saab, and things have not changed at all, even though they are the best of friends outside their cars.

Also among the group dividing the Lancias was the Sierra Cosworth driven by Jimmy McRae and Ian Grindrod, but they were not able to make much impression on the Finn and two Swedes ahead of them. But the Scot and his English co-driver, despite a cracked sump, punctures and a broken gear-linkage which left them stuck in fourth for most of one stage, kept their position and emerged the highest-placed British crew.

A splendid performance was put up by Louise Aitken-Walker and Ellen Morgan in their Peugeot 205, but after getting up to a fine eighth place they ended their rally in Langdale Forest after hitting the logs which had almost stopped Alen. They lost all their engine oil and, although a marshal sportingly agreed to drain his sump and give them the contents, they were not able to get going in time.

Another to have stopped was former World Sportscar Champion Derek Bell, who was driving an Opel Kadett for GM Dealer Sport. On just the third stage of the rally at Weston Park his engine stopped in a watersplash and, although he got going again, it was not long before the engine stopped altogether. However, the Le Mans winner enjoyed his brief encounter with rallying, and said that he would very much like to try It again.

Malcolm Wilson also ended his rally in the Weston watersplash, when water entered his Opel Kadett’s air intake and seized the engine. Later’ on the second day, Russell Brookes’ first experience of four-wheel drive in an LHD Lancia Delta came to an end when he went off the road at a muddy section in Kidder Forest.

The weather was not at all bad for this particular RAC Rally. There was a little fog and the roads were wet and slippery, as they invariably are. Despite occasional heavy rain and a little snow and ice on high ground in Wales, Scotland and the north of England, conditions were by no means unusual for the rally and there were even periods of sunshine to brighten the spirits.

Kenneth Eriksson, the fine Volkswagen driver who won October’s Ivory Coast Rally and who has put up a consistently good performance throughout the year, was having a struggle to match fleeter cars in his somewhat underpowered, front-wheel-drive Golf. However, he was as tenacious as ever, and even after rolling his car in the snow at Clocaenog he picked up to finish ninth overall.

Before the start of the rally, Eriksson’s German co-driver Peter Diekmann was presented with the Golden Halda, an award put up annually by the Swedish tripmeter manufacturer for the person judged by a panel to be co-driver of the year.

Organisationally, the RAC Rally is a huge logistical headache, for an enormous amount of manpower has to be mobilised on the operational side alone, and it is to the credit of Britain’s motor clubs that they regularly provide an army of volunteer marshals without whom the event could never take place. But there was a certain amount of discord this year, and talk that, particularly in Wales, some clubs would withdraw their support due to their dissatisfaction at the way the RAC MSA was making it more and more difficult for club rallies to be held.

That rumoured boycott did not materialise, or at least did not appear to, and when one of the Hafren Forest stages in Wales was cancelled after being thronged by too many spectators, this was due more to the late closure of an officials-only access road than to inadequate marshalling.

On the administration side there was a quite a problem when the computer system installed to calculate results, claimed to be “the most advanced results system ever designed for the Lombard RAC Rally”, refused to perform all its functions. Somehow the problem was overcome, but not before the Press had become totally disenchanted by the slow production of results.

As the rally moved into its final day, Kankkunen continued to make faultless progress. His lead of about three minutes was substantial, but not enough to buffer something like a puncture with any degree of comfort, so he kept just a little effort in reserve to make sure that no mistake would drop him from the lead.

Behind, Blomqvist was still leading Eklund, but the Audi driver was gaining on the Ford man stage by stage, making full use of the sure-footedness of his four-wheel-drive Quattro. With one stage to go, the 17-miler in Grizedale, they went in with Blomqvist just eight seconds ahead, but emerged having changed places, Ekland having made up over half a minute. Preliminary results showed Eklund and his English co-driver Dave Whittock in second place, 3min 12sec behind Kankkunen, but when final scrutineering was over a revised set of results did not include their names at all. They had been excluded after the scrutineers had found some engine irregularity. However, they have appealed against that exclusion, so the results accompanying this review most be considered provisional until that appeal is heard.

The second British finishers were David Llewellin and Philip Short, who were sixth in an Audi Quattro Coupe despite various problems; the only British drivers in the first ten were therefore a Scot and a Welshman. In seventh place were Swedes Jonsson and Johansson in the only surviving Kadett of the GM Euro Team, whilst eighth went to the young Spaniard Carlos Sainz who has been doing so well at home in a British-prepared Sierra.

Now that the dust is about to settle on 1987, FISA has come up with at least some changes to the stifling rules which has made life so difficult for rally organisers — a relaxation of the limit on special stage average speed, for instance. But more will have to be made before rallying can return to its full variety, notably the scrapping of the silly rules which enforce European conditions on events in Africa.

For Kankkunen, even without a full contract to replace his Lancia deal, the year ahead will hardly be stagnant. For our money, he is certain to be asked to drive Peugeots in long-distance events, whilst it would not surprise us to see him also at the wheel of Toyotas again. GP