Rally review - Lombard RAC

To casual watchers, November's Lombard RAC Rally probably seemed little changed from the previous year. Apart from a shift of headquarters from Nottingham to Harrogate, and some differences in the actual special stages used, the style was just the same. Indeed, it was as it has been for some years; stately homes and private estates on the Sunday, followed by forest roads on the weekdays. But beneath the surface lay the greatest and most significant change of character since the event first used forest stages thirty years earlier.

Pre-event reconnaissance of the forest stages and the use of pace notes on those stages during the rally were allowed for the first time, and these features put an indelible stamp on the event. We discussed these changes in last month's Motor Sport, and spoke of the pros and cons of allowing practice on an event which hitherto was traditionally one which had to be driven "on sight", without reconnaissance and without notes. But what was it like when it actually happened? Was the introduction popular? Did it lessen or increase the risks?

The casual outsider may have noticed that co-drivers' heads were this year bent over notebooks rather than upright to provide an extra pair of eyes in the visual search for hazards. They may also have noticed that speeds were marginally higher and that cornering lines were generally neater and tighter. But that would be about all and, unless they knew of the ending of the no-practice rule, they would probably not have appreciated the significance of the change of driving style.

The point most often made by advocates of pace notes is that they make you not only faster, but safer. This is opinion, not fact, and is debatable. Indeed, our final point last month was that although a mistake with or without notes may put you off the road, with notes you will almost certainly be travelling faster!

What happened during the event itself more than bore us out. The number of cars which went off the road was probably no greater than usual, but rather than be limped off the stage to have roadside repair jobs done, more of them stayed exactly where they went off, damaged so badly that they could not continue. Battered bodywork, broken suspension, bent steering, missing wheels and many other effects of hitting trees have been, and still are, very common, but in most cases drivers have been able to keep moving and to have their cars restored by waiting mechanics. In 1990 many were not able to do this. They went off much faster, did far more damage and had no choice but to walk out of the stage leaving heaps of little more than scrap metal lodged in the trees. Safer? We wonder! The retirement rate, though, was lower this year at 46.3% compared to the 55% of 1989.

After the rally we heard several drivers comment that they felt the rally was too fast, and some of them even voiced that opinion during television and radio interviews. The strange thing is that some of the people who made those comments are the very ones who were in favour of introducing reconnaissance and pace notes. The one leads to the other, and campaigning for the introduction of pace notes and then complaining of the event's speed is about as logical as lighting a fire then grumbling about the heat!

In 1990 the average speed of the RAC winner over the entire 351.61 miles of special stages was 61.4 mph. The previous year, over a stage distance of 374.74 miles (not all stages were used both years, of course) it was 59.3 mph. The increase of just over 2 mph is appreciable, and lest you consider speeds of that order not high, remember that they are mostly over narrow, loose-surfaced, tree-lined tracks often so slippery that everyday drivers would be hard pressed to achieve 30 mph.

Nevertheless, when complaints that the roads are too fast come from professional drivers exceedingly well paid to drive some of the world's fastest off-circuit saloon cars over such roads, we can only dismiss them as invalid. There are rallies which are even faster — the 1000 Lakes, for instance, on which the winner in 1990 (Carlos Sainz again) averaged 70 mph!

The World Rally Championship, both for drivers and for makes, had been settled before this final round, but the regular contestants were there almost to a man. Points were no longer critical, but there remained the kudos of winning this prestigious event in the British forests.

As a result, the competition itself became closer and fiercer than usual — gone were any thoughts of tactics. There was no point, for instance, in hanging on safely in second or third place in order to conserve a championship position. Everyone was in this event for one purpose — to win. Nothing else mattered, and it showed. The only way to drive was at ten-tenths, and the one example of easing off to keep a place came right at the end when, for the final group of stages, Carlos Sainz slowed marginally after he had gained a leading margin sufficient to be reasonably sure of victory.

The lead changed hands many times, the margin never being more than a handful of seconds, and several drivers lost both the lead and a place in the finishers' list by simply pushing too hard, going off the road and damaging the car far too badly to continue.

In the past, Lancia have been known to withdraw their entries from the RAC Rally as soon as the championship had been settled on an earlier round, but this time there was none of that. They came with a full team to mix it with their rivals. Driving 16-valve Deltas in Martini colours were Juha Kankkunen/Juha Piironen and Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero, whilst Jolly Club cars were entered for Didier Auriol/ Bernard Occelli and Robert Droogmans/ Ronny Joosten. Another, backed by Clarion, was driven privately by Per Eklund/Jan-Olof Bohlin.

Toyota, having got their number one driver crowned World Champion, could get no further in the series but was nevertheless keen to round off the year with victory on the Lombard RAC Rally, especially as they had seen a win slip from their grasp in 1989 due to transmission failure just a couple of stages from the end. Two Celica 2000 GT-4s came from Cologne for Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya and Armin Schwarz/Klaus Wicha. There was another from Toyota Sweden for Mats Jonsson/ Anders Olsson, and another from Toyota GB for David Llewelin/Philip Short.

From its Ralliart base in England, Mitsubishi brought two Galant VR-4s for Ari Vatanen/Bruno Berglund and Kenneth Eriksson/Staffan Parmander. A Group N version came from Finland's Prosport Team for Tommi Mäkinen/Seppo Harjanne and another from Sweden for Saren Nilsson/Per-Ove Persson.

After its unfruitful but most impressive appearance in October's Sanremo Rally, the Ford Team brought three Group A Sierra Cosworth 4x4s from Boreham, two of them in Q8 colours for Malcolm Wilson/Nicky Grist and Alessandro Fiorio/Luigi Pirollo, and one backed by Autoglass for Pentti Airikkala/Ronan McNamee. A fourth works car, a Group N version backed by Q8, was driven by Gwyndaf Evans/Howard Davies. A Fina-backed car came from Belgium for Marc Duez/Alain Lopes. Privately backed Sierra Cosworth 4x4s were driven by Jimmy McRae/David Senior, Colin McRae/Derek Ringer and Russell Brookes/Neil Wilson, the latter pair being one of more than fifty using lead-free fuel in their cars.

Another team based in Britain is that of Subaru, whose cars are built by Prodrive. Two Group A Legacies were entered for Markku Alén/Ilkka Kivimaki and Derek Warwick/Ronan Morgan. The Mazda Rally Team brought two 323 GTXs from Belgium for Timo Salonen/Voitto Silander and Hannu Mikkola/Arne Hertz, whilst from Finland came another for Mikael Sundström/Juha Repo.

GM Euro-Sport had a Vauxhall Astra GTE for Louise Aitken-Walker/Christina Thorner, and they finished 17th overall to round off their year as winners of the World Championship Ladies Trophy.

There were four Skoda Favorit 136Ls led by Norwegian pair John Haugland and such was the carnage among the more favoured runners that Skoda came away with the team prize. Indeed, theirs was the only team to finish intact.

Vauxhall, Opel, Peugeot, Honda, Saab, Volkswagen, Nissan, Audi, Suzuki, Isuzu, Citroën, Seat, Fiat, MG, Lada and Daihatsu were all represented among the starters, the latter by two of their diminutive Group N Charades, one of which, driven by Terry Kaby/Kevin Gormley, finished 18th overall.

When roadbooks are published for other events in Europe and elsewhere, generally about one month before start date, its is the signal to begin practice and there begins a regular flow of practising rally traffic on the roads which are to be used as special stages. In some cases there are rules governing speeds; in others there are not, but in most the reconnaissance goes on and on as crews first make, then refine, their notes until they are satisfied that they are accurate.

Complete accuracy cannot be achieved unless the final checking is done at something very close to rally speed, and in most cases nowadays this is not possible except by surreptitious means to avoid detection. Although some events do not specify a speed limit for reconnaissance, most of them do, and in the case of the RAC Rally this was 25 mph. Furthermore, there was no freedom to practice whenever you liked. Special stages were divided into groups and one day allocated to each group. There was a strict timetable, in the daytime only, and competitors were allowed just two runs through each stage, using unmarked, unmodified cars.

The reconnaissance period spanned ten days just prior to the start and each day a local HQ was set up so that cars could be checked and passes issued. Each stage was marshalled and it was a case of no pass, no practice. On the continent there are few such controls, most stages being open to both public and practising rally crews during the practice period. In the first year of reconnaissance for the Lombard RAC Rally, it says much for the organisers and their large army of field officials that the whole thing was accomplished without a hitch.

The route this year spanned four days, with two night stops at Harrogate and one at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The first leg, on the Sunday, used eight parkland stages to the South of Harrogate, the most southerly being near Nottingham. The second day consisted of two loops through the forests of the Yorkshire Dales to the West of Scarborough, making fourteen more stages. The third day used nine stages in Kielder and the South of Scotland before stopping for the night at Newcastle, and the final day had six stages in the same border region before returning via four more in the Lake District.

A disappointment to many was the absence of any stages in Wales this year, but the RAC has been endeavouring to cut down non-competitive road mileage and the best way to do this is to reduce the areas visited. Next year will see a return to Wales, at the expense of another forest region.

Finns have dominated the RAC Rally since Timo Mäkinen first won in 1973, only Roger Clark, Bjorn Waldegaard and Stig Blomqvist having managed to beat them during that period. After the first day of this event it seemed that nothing had changed, for Finns occupied the first three places. Indeed, throughout the day, spanning eight special stages, the lead changed hands four times and each time it was a Finn out in front.

Vatanen, Kankkunen and Alén were the drivers who each led, but Vatanen lost time when a tyre punctured. However, Airikkala moved up to join his countrymen, and at the end of the day the order was Alén, Kankkunen and Airikkala. Best non-Finn was Malcolm Wilson in fourth place, who was followed by Carlos Sainz. The World Champion had lost some time overshooting a junction on the second stage, but these opening stages are always so short that penalty differences are small, and he wasted no time recovering. Just 32 seconds separated first from fifth at the end of that first day. Unluckiest driver must have been Jimmy McRae who rolled out of the rally on just the third stage.

The second day saw the start of real rallying, as competitors refer to the beginning of the forest stages. It had rained considerably on the eve of the start, and a little on the first day, but on the Monday the rain really came down in earnest, making the forest roads very slippery indeed. The rain did nothing to deter spectators, and there were the usual crowds in the stages, and long lines of cars queueing to enter the car parks.

On the first of the day's stages Kankkunen took the lead from Alén, but later the Toyota driver was delayed by brake failure and dropped to sixth. However he recovered to second place before the end of the day. Alén, on the other hand, was not as fortunate. Following turbocharger failure, his engine began misfiring badly and finally gave up. He was pushed several hundred yards to the end of the stage, but there was no hope of continuing.

Airikkala, last year's winner, had begun the rally in great form, but on the second day he rolled heavily and was unable to continue. He said later that as he came to a fast straight he felt the front left corner of the car dip suddenly, as though the suspension had given way, and within a split second the car was out of control and rolling.

Vatanen lost time due to a puncture, whilst among the Group N runners both Trelles (Lancia) and Mäkinen (Mitsubishi) retired and so handed Frenchman Alain Oreille, who was not present in his Renault, the Group N championship. In the RAC Rally itself, Gwyndaf Evans dominated the category and won it comfortably.

At the end of the day, Sainz was leading, but only five seconds ahead of Kankkunen while Eriksson was a close third ahead of Salonen. Wilson, the best British driver, was in fifth and Biasion, driving in his first event in Britain, was sixth.

More retirements came on the third day, Salonen putting his Mazda off the road and Vatanen coming to a stop as a result of an act of courtesy. Having damaged his car, he was continuing slowly when he was caught up by another car. The road was narrow, straight and lined by grass with no ditch or bank, so he pulled over to the grass to let the other car pass when suddenly there was a crash and he hit a hidden boulder, destroying his steering.

Wilson also went out on the third day. After puncturing a tyre and losing the wheel, the scraping of suspension and other parts along the track caused showers of stones to be thrown up and one of these happened to get jammed in the cam-belt mechanism. The result was inevitable. The valve timing went out of sequence and the engine stopped noisily.

Another to go out was Warwick who went off the road into a very soft field. He was delighted, though, with his first experience of rallying, and described it as "a great mixture of professionalism and fun."

Everybody was having problems of one kind or another, and Sainz and Kankkunen changed places again after the former collected a puncture. At the end of the third day, the Finn was back in the lead, 24 seconds ahead of the Spaniard, Ericsson and Biasion held their third and fourth places, whilst Jonsson (Toyota) moved up to replace Wilson in fifth place. Two Celts had moved into the top ten to become the leading British drivers, Colin McRae seventh and David Llewellyn ninth, Fiorio, having his first drive for Ford since leaving Lancia, was tenth.

The final day brought the prospect of a close fight indeed between Sainz and Kankkunen. Neither had anything to lose except national pride, for one was the only Finn left in the event and the other the only Spaniard. But the fight didn't last long. Just two stages into the day, both drivers absolutely flat out in the quest for split seconds, Kankkunen overdid it and went off road. There was no hope of continuing, and so Sainz was able to ease off fractionally and not take any risks. He was a happy man indeed when he rounded off his championship year by winning the final round against the toughest opposition he has ever faced.

Kenneth Eriksson inherited second place after Kankkunen's retirement. and finished just 1m 42s behind the leader. Indeed his finishing record is impressive - 11th, 9th, 4th and now 2nd. Two others deserve mention, Biasion and Auriol who finished third and fifth respectively in their Lancias. Both were tackling the Lombard RAC Rally for the first time, as was Fiorio in his Ford. Colin McRae emerged the best British driver, in sixth place, and picked up by way of a consolation prize the NatWest Environmental award for the best placed driver in a car using unleaded petrol.

Lombard RAC Rally, 25-28 November

1: Carlos Sainz / Luis Moya - Toyota Celica GT4
2: Kenneth Eriksson / Staffan Parmander - Mitsubishi Galant VR-4
3: Massimo Biasion / Tiaziano Siviero - Lancia Delta Integrale
4: Mats Jonsson / Anderson Olsson - Toyota Celica GT4
5: Didier Auriol / Bernard Occelli - Lanica Delta Integrale