Group En-ergy !
WHEN the organisers of the Ivory Coast Rally distributed publicity material in advance of the 1989 event, they emphasised that it would not be a car-breaker and that rough roads would be avoided as much as possible. However, when crews went out to begin their reconnaissance they soon discovered that the expression “not rough” was merely relative, and that the route was as rugged and bumpy in parts as it has ever been.
We don’t criticise this at all, for an organiser has to route his event on the most competitive roads available to him, and if those roads happen to be rough, then so be it. After all, no-one would expect an African event to have roads as smooth as those of Finland. Broken surfaces are almost a way of life in many parts of Africa, and it is nothing but logical that they should form part of the character of any rally in those regions. Anyone going there expecting effortless driving on smooth roads would be as bad a planner as one who would tackle the Swedish Rally without any anti-freeze!
With sixty starters, the rally was far better off this year for entries than it has been in the past, when rigged entries were often used to swell the numbers to the fifty required by F1SA for retention of championship status. However, quite a number of the cars entered were, in reality, chase cars, and were only taking part so that they could follow those crews for whom they were providing emergency service.
Not a round of the World Championship for Makes, the rally attracted no works teams as such, particularly as the drivers’ series had already been settled, but the HA Group N Cup within the World Championship was still at stake, and the contest between Group N drivers attracted the greatest interest. There was also the Rally Championship of Africa, of course, and this brought Billy Rautenbach and John Mitchell up from Zimbabwe in their Toyota Supra.
Among the Group N visitors were Alain Oreille, his Renault 5 GT Turbo entered by Simon Racing but supported strongly by the factory, and no less that three Lancia Delta Integrales from Italy’s Top-Run organisation for Pascal Gaban from Belgium, Uruguayan Gustavo Trelles from Spain and Sweden’s Fredrik Skoghag. Gregoire de Mevius and Didier Monin from Belgium each drove a Group N Mazda 323. Rudi Stohl brought his Audi 90 quattro from Austria; Augustin Turuani, more popularly known as “Tchine”, came from Monaco with his Audi 90 quattro, but he was really acting as chase car driver for Oreille; the indefatigable Georges Houel, well into his ‘seventies, brought a Lancia Integrale from France; and Jean-Pierre van de Wauwer brought a 16-valve Toyota Corolla from Belgium. Italian girls Paola de Martini and Umberta Gibellini, having
already driven in the Zimbabwe Challenge in August, were in their Audi 90 quattro. Argentinians De Soto and Lopes were non starters because their Renault 18GTXs were stuck at the docks in
Buenos Aires, whilst local man Eugene Salim was relegated to the role of spectator, an arm and a leg in plaster following an accident during practice. Among the local drivers, the leading favourite was 1988 winner Alain Ambro
sino in a Nissan 200 SX. His rivals included Patrick Tauziac in a Mitsubishi Starion, Alain Oudit in a VW Golf GTI, Patrick Copefti and Samir Assef each in a Toyota Celica GT4, and Adolphe Choteau in a 16-valve Toyota Corolla.
The rally was based at Abidjan on the south coast, and made loops northwards and eastwards. There were stops at Abidjan itself and at San Pedro, plus a 24-hour break at Yamoussoukro to the North.
Rain had made much of the route wet and muddy, but it dried out to a large extent before the start, leaving many sections bumpy due to hard-caked wheel ruts and plenty of mud or water holes here and there.
The first day was devoted to a “superspecial” stage, but at least this one was on a proper forest road of four-and-ahalf miles. Fastest were the two Audis of Stohl and De Martini, the former beating the latter by eight seconds. The main part of the rally began with another special stage (Ambrosino fastest), although we must say yet again that timing to the nearest second on African events such as this is about as sensible as measuring the M1 armed with nothing but a foot ruler! A proper competitive road section of 63 miles followed, and on this fast and relatively smooth road Gaban was fastest in his Gp N Lancia and moved into the lead. Tauziac went out after the special stage when the engine of his Mitsubishi blew up.
It was so hot and humid around Agboville that a priority job at service points was to give ice-cold, wet face cloths to competitors. But Ambrosino predicted rain ahead, and he was right.
In fact, at Balekro the stadium and many houses were flooded, and the section to it was often more like a river than a road. Later, a control site was flooded, and the marshals had to move position in order not to be up to their knees in water.
Not long after, Ambrosino’s chances were suddenly dashed when, cresting a brow at high speed, he found a Pajero service vehicle making a U-turn in front of him, filling the whole road. The Nissan driver had no chance, and the ensuing damage was so great that there was no chance to continue. Fortunately, there were no injuries, but both Ambrosino and Le Saux were understandably angry, and certainly not polite when talking about the driver of that Pajero, Mr. Simon himself, of Simon Racing. Another to stop was Stohl. A petrol pipe union came loose, causing an engine fire which destroyed all the wiring beyond any hope of roadside repair. Trelles stopped when the tensioning pulley of his Lancia’s camshaft drive belt broke off. Struts, wishbones, shock absorbers,
exhaust pipes, driveshafts, even wheels; these were just some of the items that were regularly being broken and replaced, although Oreille seemed to have very few problems with his Renault 5 save for a bent wheel rim, though his shock absorbers and ball joints were changed as a precaution. Time was being lost in mud holes, too, and several people needed pushing power in order to continue. De Mevius was able to continue after losing his water pump drive belt, but De Martini went out after her Audi’s cylinder head gasket blew. Skoghag retired when his petrol pump stopped working. An infamous section in the West of the -country, leading southwards to the port of San Pedro, is the Tai Forest, where much of the country’s hardwood industry is centred. Oreille had to stop in the Tai to chip away caked mud which was blocking his radiator and causing overheating, whilst De Mevius very nearly ran out of petrol after someone forgot to fill his tank at a service point. Gaban first lost a rear suspension bolt and took one from his roll-cage as a substitute,
after which he had a radiator hose burst. He continued for a while, topping up wherever he could, but he eventually had to stop and wait for a service car to arrive with a replacement. Almost immediately afterwards, a joint broke on his front right driveshaft, but the same service car was not far behind him and this was replaced quickly.
After San Pedro came the long run to the North-East, ending with the 24-hour stop at Yamoussoukro. On the approach to the town, Oreille stopped for a long service and dropped 14 minutes, whilst Van de Wauwer went straight in and took over the lead. At that stage, the end of the third leg, only nine cars were still running. De Mevius had put his car on its side and could go no further.
The final leg was held at night and it was here that Oreille finally took over the lead, and made history by winning a round of the World Championship, and an African one at that, in a Group N car. What’s more, a two-wheel-drive Group N car!
Immediately after the restart, Oreille stopped to have his gearbox changed as a precaution, and this made him eighth on the road instead of second. Not wishing to endure too much dust, he deliberately clocked in early twice in succession, thereby recovering to fourth on the road, but collecting penalties of course. His object was the FIA Group N Cup after all, and it seemed unlikely that he could catch Van de Wauwer.
However, Van de Wauwer later got his Toyota stuck in a mud hole for 25 minutes, and suddenly the gap between himself and Oreille was down to a level which made the Renault people think of the possibility of outright victory. Nevertheless, Oreille was taking no chances, and was only speeding up when there was no risk of going off the road. Meanwhile, Gaban was the first to stop in the final leg, his camshaft drive belt having broken.
The leader lost two front lamps when he hit a goat, but by this time it was daylight and it mattered little. Alas, with victory within sight, his engine stopped noisily, a con-rod bolt having broken. He was towed by a service car for a while, but was spotted by officials and eventually gave up. After all, even if he had managed to get out onto tarmac roads on the end of a rope, there was no chance that he could get back to Abidjan without an engine. Oreille, then, inherited the lead after a very polished and sensible drive. He had set out only to win the Group N category, but had taken overall victory on the way and provided an unexpected reason for a huge Renault celebration that evening. Even though the opposition was not up to normal World Championship standards, Oreille still had some formidable rivals within the group, and his performance was impec cable. GP