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Lombard RAC Rally

When Carlos Sainz crashed out of contention on the 1000 Lakes Rally, then rolled several times during the Commonwealth Bank Rally of Australia, it was thought that these were just fleeting slips, unlikely to be repeated elsewhere. His fight to keep his world title would go on undiminished. However, rallies can be lost for reasons other than human error, and in the three events which he tackled after returning from Australia he scored points on just two, and certainly not as many as he needed.

In Sanremo, where arch-rival Juha Kankkunen retired early, transmission trouble prevented Sainz from scoring any more than six points, whereas on home ground in Spain it was his turn to retire early, leaving Kankkunen to score 15 points for second place. The Lombard RAC Rally became the decider, and the jinx struck again. Various car problems dropped him to third place whilst Kankkunen brought his tally of wins during the year up to five and became world champion for the third time.

The RAC Rally entry list resembled a Who’s Who of international rallying. If one adds the names of those who were driving recce cars on behalf of works teams, and those who were competing in the accompanying one-day Britannia Rally for classic cars, then just about everyone who was anyone was in Harrogate.

It was Harrogate, 20 years ago, which wrested the distinction of hosting the RAC Rally away from London, where the event had been based for several years. It’s a pity that the town’s police did not take better steps to protect the valuable property brought in by the rallying visitors, for thefts of cars and equipment were many. Among the cars which vanished were John Handley’s Mini Cooper S, David Greer’s Ford Sierra Cosworth, one of Nissan’s recce cars and at least one fully equipped service car. Various spares were also stolen, including all the Lancia wheels and tyres from the laden roof rack of one of Jochi Kleint’s service vans.

And no matter where the event is based, there will always be a fair amount of road travel as the forest areas of Britain are well scattered.

This year the groups of special stages were in the Midlands (public parks and circuits on the Sunday), North Wales (forests on the Monday), the Lake District and Kielder (forests on the Tuesday) and the Yorkshire Dales (forests on the Wednesday). There were two night stops in Chester and one in Harrogate, but morning and evening running ensured that there was plenty of driving in the dark. Indeed, although the weather was mild, low cloud and occasional fog meant that visibility was not particularly good throughout the entire event.

Among the 151 starters were representatives of no less than 10 works teams, a very impressive line-up indeed. As the entrants of the two title-chasers, Toyota and Lancia were the main protagonists, but ranged against them, and certainly not to be overlooked as potential winners, were Ford, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Mazda. Rounding off the list were Vauxhall, Peugeot and Skoda, each of them bent on scoring class or category wins.

Toyota brought just one works car for Sainz, but a privately entered Celica was driven by Belgian Marc Duez and the two shared common service arrangements. Lancia, on the other hand, sent three Delta integrales for Kankkunen, Didier Auriol and Massimo Biasion, the latter having his last drive for the Italian team before joining Ford in 1992. Other Lancias appeared for Bruno Saby, the irrepressible Per Eklund and Jochi Kleint.

Two Mitsubishi Galant VR-4s were entered by Ralliart Europe for Kenneth Eriksson and Timo Salonen, whilst a third was driven by Ralliart’s regular test driver Lasse Lampi. Another two-car team was that of Mazda, with 323s for Hannu Mikkola and Tommi Makinen, although a Group N version was driven by Belgian Gregoire de Mevius. Three Subaru Legacy coupés were entered by Prodrive, and for the first time in a World Championship event they were fitted with engines built in Britain. Hitherto, they have used units exactly as they were shipped from Japan. The drivers were Markku Alén, Ari Vatanen and Colin McRae, the latter putting up a stirring performance to demonstrate both his own mettle and that of the car.

The Ford team consisted of three Q8 sponsored Sierra Cosworth 4x4s for Malcolm Wilson, François Delecour and Gwyndaf Evans, but a third, backed by Mobil, was in the capable hands of Louise Aitken-Walker. Nissan had two Sunny GTi-Rs for Stig Blomqvist and David Llewellin and, like the Subarus, they were using British-built engines for the first time. Both teams had more power available than previously.

Vauxhall Dealer Sport had a single Nova GSi, driven by David Metcalfe, whereas a similar car was driven by Mark Higgins. Three Peugeot 309 GTis were in the hands of Richard Burns, Jon Milner and Kevin Furber, whilst two Skodas, one from Czechoslovakia and one from Britain, were driven by Pavel Sibera and Kevin Williams.

In 1990 a new chapter of RAC Rally history began when, for the first time, it allowed reconnaissance and note-making in the forest stages.

The same was allowed this year, again at a maximum speed of 25 mph and only at certain times of day. The special stages were divided into regions, at each of which competitors had to register before entering the forests. The recceing was undertaken more or less in convoy, and crews were allowed two runs through each stage, the first to make the notes and the second to check them. Complete refinement was not possible, because this demands high speed checking.

During the rally itself, works teams were allowed to send cars, one per team, through the stages just ahead of the field in order to report road conditions to their competing drivers. This is much the same as the ice-note system which BMC evolved for the Monte Carlo Rally, although on an event such as the RAC it is as important to know the whereabouts of mud, water and loose gravel as it is to be warned of ice in the Alps.

Early on the Sunday morning, no road journey was necessary to reach the first special stage. The start of the rally had been set up at Harrogate’s Yorkshire Showground where the opening stage, a one-and-a-half mile affair on mixed surfaces, was also laid out.

There were eight other such stages during the day, at intervals along the loop down through the Midlands and up to Chester. These were at Rother Valley, Chatsworth, Donington, Sutton Park, Weston Park, Trentham and OuIton Park. They totalled just under 31 miles, a small proportion of the total stage distance but were included, as usual, more to provide spectator appeal than anything else. Penalty differences are usually quite small, and at the end of the day just 41 seconds separated the first and 10th drivers. However, these opening stages, some artificially created, are not to be trifled with. You can’t win very much on them, but you can certainly lose a lot, as many have discovered in the past. The talk of the day was the performance put up by Scotsman Colin McRae who drove his Subaru into Chester in second place, just five seconds behind Kankkunen and three ahead of Sainz and Alén.

Evans put some body scars on his Sierra when he hit a bank in Clumber Park, but more serious was the smoke which signified overheating and a risk to the cylinder head gasket. Aitken-Walker lost second gear and later needed a new gearbox, whilst Mikkola had a huge, high-speed spin, fortunately without hitting anything. Mennem, son of the President of Argentina, retired as a result of damage caused on the first stage.

There was considerable traffic on the approaches to Chatsworth and several of the leading co-drivers took out their Ordnance Survey maps to find ways around the jams.

Kankkunen came close to rolling, but instead made best time, whilst Alén hit a wall and punctured his left rear tyre. In the past, he has rarely been happy with his Subaru’s engine, but this time he was most enthusiastic about the British built unit. Auriol collected a puncture by hitting a rock, whilst Saby discovered in the ford that his Lancia was not properly waterproofed. Delecour needed a new gearbox after Chatsworth, and Salonen new front struts.

Donington was a mixed affair, using both the tarmac and the dirt roads through the undergrowth. Evans’ Sierra was still smoking, whilst Canary Islander Capdevila needed his second gearbox replacement. Alister McRae, brother of Colin and son of Jimmy, stopped when his Subaru’s turbocharger failed and he had to push the car a considerable distance.

Kleint had to use forest tyres all the time, even on tarmac stages. All his others had been stolen during the night before the start. Vatanen had a turbocharger bracket break in Weston, whilst in Trentham both Saby and Blomqvist lost time at the watersplash. Delecour overshot a junction there, whilst Alén lost a few seconds when he spun.

Oulton Park was the last stage of the day, after which some people did their routine servicing there whilst others waited until they got to the ouskirts of Chester. Wilson needed a new gearbox before that journey.

Whilst there had been no rain during the first day, there was a slight drizzle at Clocaenog when cars got into North Wales. There had also been some overnight rain and the stage roads were wet, slippery and often muddy. Just about everyone chose narrow tyres for such conditions.

Both Eriksson and Wilson sustained punctures, the Ford driver later needing a new halfshaft. Across the road in the second of the two Clocaenog stages. Alén’s centre differential failed and this was later replaced.

At Aberhirnant, best time was put up by Colin McRae who promptly went into the lead, one second ahead of Sainz. But it didn’t last long. Two stages later he was down to fourth, having spun in Hafren and lost about a minute. Alén lost about half a minute due to a puncture in Dyfnant, whilst Evans damaged his right rear suspension and bodywork. The unfortunate John Lay had a somewhat draughty time in Dyfnant. He put his Toyota Corolla off the road and when it was being pushed back by spectators they pushed in the rear window!

Wilson’s engine overheated in Dyfnant when a fan lead came off, but one stage later his transmission siezed and he was out. Aitken-Walker stopped to offer assistance, but nothing could be done. Blomqvist completed Hafren with just front-wheel drive after his propshaft broke, whilst Nissan team-mate Llewellin broke a halfshaft.

After a half-hour stop at Machynlieth, where townsfolk were more than pleased with the return of the rally to Wales, came the fast Pantperthog stage where McRae was fastest. However, he did not gain a place. Alén’s engine was overheating, whilst Mäkinen spun twice in his Mazda.

The first of the two 15-mile Dyfi stages claimed a number of victims, among them Evans who finally went off the road and stayed there, fortunately without injury. Mäkinen lost four minutes due to a puncture and later complained that he had lost first gear, which was not surprising because the gearbox casing was leaking oil. Eriksson spun twice and later needed a new front differential, whilst Llewellin’s engine suddenly stopped for no apparent reason. The trouble was eventually traced to a faulty main electrical cut-out switch, but by then it was too late to continue.

Alén needed a new turbocharger before the journey from Dyfi to Penmachno, whilst up front Auriol had taken over the lead from Sainz, followed by Kankkunen and McRae. For a man who professes to dislike the RAC Rally, the Fina driver from France was certainly going well. In Penmachno he lost time due to a puncture, but Sainz had the same experience and the order remained unchanged. Salonen hit a bump rather hard, bending a suspension unit and putting a wheel out of line.

Kankkunen lost a little road time having a broken front differential replaced after the second of the two Penmachno stages, whilst Delecour had the misfortune to have his fire extinguisher go off unexpectedly. The engine stopped and it was a little time before they could get away again.

Back in Clocaenog, Auriol lost his led to Sainz when he went off the road for a few seconds, but he was not particularly concerned. In fact, he was content to allow someone else to be first on the road the next day. Equally, Sainz was unconcerned, neither about being first on the road nor of Auriol’s presence behind him. But he was certainly concerned about Kankkunen and was checking regularly on the times.

The final stage of the day, also in Clocaenog, was the final stage for Biasion’s Lancia. The car left the road and rolled several times. By a miracle, it could still be driven, but when it came off the stage it was a total wreck, front, rear, sides and roof all caved in and windows broken or missing. Fortunately, the crew was unhurt.

At Chester, various routine service operations were carried out, including replacement of various parts in readiness for the next day’s stages in the Lake District and Kielder.

It was in the second Grizedale stage that McRae came to grief. A deceptive right-hander over a crest caught him out and the car rolled off, into a gully. Spectators came to his aid, but there was no obvious way to push the car back to the road. The only alternative was to render the exit as the entry, and the car was eventually rolled back to the road. The whole operation cost 13 minutes, some body damage and an overheating engine.

The same bend caught out many others, including Eriksson, and spectators at that spot probably spent as much time pushing as they did watching. Walfridsson, who had been second in the Group N category, retired after the Comb stage when his Mitsubishi’s engine ran very hot.

Wythop, characterised by many log piles, was where Alén lost a chunk of time. He went off the road and rolled, fortunately without hitting any logs. Once again pushing power was brought to bear and spectators had the Subaru going again, after a loss of five minutes. Kankkunen, meanwhile, damaged his right rear suspension. Around the top of the most northerly part of the route there were seven stages in the huge Kielder Forest. Many drivers dread this area, for it has caused no end of retirements, usually miles from anywhere on a bleak, cold, wet, dark moor. Mäkinen lost about five minutes when the car fell off the jack during a wheel-changing operation after a puncture, whilst McRae also collected a puncture. Alén needed a change of rear suspension after the two first Kielder stages, both in Wauchope forest.

After a visit to a wet Byrness for a 35-minute regrouping stop, Redesdale Forest took on the semblance of a breaker’s yard. Lampi stopped when his transmission packed up, whilst Blomqvist could go no further after a wishbone broke. He took off a wheel and attempted to drive out on just three, a trick he used many times when driving Saabs, but it was not possible.

Vatanen suffered power steering failure. Eriksson’s tripmeter stopped working and Sainz’s Toyota needed considerable work after exploring a firebreak. Right rear suspension, left front body, radiator and fan were all affected. The time loss was such that the Spaniard dropped to third place, two seconds behind Kankkunen.

On the next stage, the Toyota was overheating badly and was down on power. Later, mechanics decided that unless the head gasket was replaced the car would not go very far, so the job was done there and then at the roadside. But still the power was not up to its normal level, although the overheating had been cured.

It was also at about this time that Toyota suffered a communications problem. Their radio relay aircraft, having been instructed by Air Traffic Control to increase altitude, promptly iced up and the pilot had to make a hasty descent and land.

In Pundershaw, all 24 miles of it, there was again carnage. McRae had his second roll of the rally, this time staying off, whilst Alén’s turbocharger caught fire and he was out. This left Vatanen the surviving Subaru driver, and he needed a new steering rack and track-rod ends after Pundershaw.

Eklund stopped when his rear differential broke. Mikkola hit a rock but continued, whilst Sainz went off on the same corner that claimed McRae and came out of the stage minus the sumpguard and with just rear-wheel drive. Kankkunen broke a driveshaft joint gaiter and Delecour was left without brakes when a hydraulic pipe came off.

Auriol, who had regained the lead, lost it again when he went off the road in Shephershield. The car went into a ditch in a remote area where there were no spectators, and it was some time before the French pair could get going again. They lost considerable time and dropped all the way to 13th place.

After Kielder there was one more special stage on the way back to Harrogate, in Hamsterley Forest, and it was here that Mäkinen went out of the rally when he crashed. “Simple. I just went too fast,” he explained later.

Of the 151 starters, 84 returned to Harrogate on the Tuesday night, ready for more car fettling prior to the final day. Mechanics spent time restocking the vans, and many of them decided to head off that night for the Yorkshire Dales. Of those who stayed in Harrogate, we heard of at least one who slept in his van that night, as a precaution against more thefts.

Prior to the Dalby stage, Auriol clocked into the time control long before his due time. Down in 13th place he had nothing to lose, and he could serve his team better if he were close behind Kankkunen, ready to lend a hand if something went wrong.

A misfire in Mikkola’s car was cured when the control computer was replaced, but the spluttering returned on the next stage; Duez needed a new throttle cable; Vatanen’s turbocharger pressure was fluctuating and his power steering pump had to be changed; Delecour had trouble selecting first and second gears and de Mevius stopped for five minutes due to turbocharger failure, a problem which was repeated in the next stage.

Sainz was finding it impossible to make any headway, especially as his car had been down on power since its head gasket replacement and was still not performing as it should. By this time he had resigned himself to third place and to the role of runner-up in the World Championship. Kankkunen had such a lead over Eriksson that he was not going to take chances, and the Lancia team was heaping every possible attention on his car, so the chances of a failure was remote.

And that’s how it ended, with Kankkunen, Eriksson and Sainz in the first three places. McRae had really driven home the point that both he and the Subaru are competitive, whilst Louise Aitken-Walker had the distinction of being best-placed British driver. There were no less than six Japanese cars in the first 10, but no-one can say that the writing has not been on the wall for some time. As long ago as 1969, Datsun, as it was then called, brought three 1600 SSSs to the RAC and walked away with the team prize. GP

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