Rally Review, July 1968

As I have said before, factory rally teams, particularly the two British ones which still have full programmes, are tending to place less emphasis these days on the European Championship and seem to have given up the hard points-chasing simply because the championship has been sub-divided so often it has practically lost all significance.

The tendency now is to participate in those events which are either part of tradition or possess great publicity potential, although most rallies in the latter group are there solely because they also appear in the former.

One such event is the Greek Automobile and Touring Club’s Acropolis Rally, which in itself is a tradition despite its tender 15 years. But even Aristotle would have winced at the meagre line-up of 56 cars which gathered at the foot of the Athens Acropolis this year. This low figure was disappointing, particularly to the organisers, who had catered for many more, but is typical of the present trend in an expensive sport which has no, starting money to artificially boost its entry.

The factory-entered “traffic” consisted of three HF Fulvias from Lancia (Moss-Carisson/Nyström, Kallström/Haagböm and Ballestrieri/Stone, the latter co-driver being the same David Stone who partnered Elford in the Monte), two Porsches (Toivonen/Kolari and Zasada/Dobrzanski), two Cooper Ss and a Morris 1800 from B.M.C. (Mäkinen/Easter, Aaltonen/Liddon and Culcheth/Wood, the latter pair coming together as both Fall and Hopkirk were away in Canada doing the Shell 4000).

Ford of Britain were making their first real team effort with Escorts, three Group 2 twin-cam versions being entered for Söderström/Palm, Clark/Porter and Andersson/Davenport. They all but pulled off a one-two-three victory, but the fact that they didn’t mattered very little, as they captured both the outright win and the manufacturers’ team prize, beating the Porsches into second and third places.

Datsun was represented by two 2000 saloons similar to those which were shipped over from Japan for the East African Safari. They were driven by Finns Mikkola/Jarvi and Lusenius/Letho, but neither finished—one broke its crankshaft and the other suffered brake failure.

British private entrants, who have long had a soft spot for the Acropolis and its helpful, efficient organisers, were noticeably absent, the only one being David Friswell, who entered a Cooper S with Mike Merrick. Since Abingdon only had two such cars, Friswell was roped in to make up a three-car factory team, the idea being to have all three team cars of the same type.

Despite the magic which this rally seems to involve, perhaps because of its proximity to the myths and legends of the ancient Hellenos, it nevertheless remains a perfectly ordinary event with nothing unique in its make-up. I don’t think I am being unkind by making that remark, but I will qualify it by saying that the Greek mountains, through which most of the event was run, provided a magnificent route and the officials made it all the more enjoyable by their pleasant manner.

The special stages numbered 15 in all, some of them run in groups of two and some singly. All were timed on a scratch basis—i.e., fastest man gets zero penalty and others one mark per second behind. This is a fair system which applies to many European events, but not to British Internationals, which labour under an R.A.C. rule never to set stage target speeds greater than 50 m.p.h.

Besides the special stages, there were three additional tests, one as much like a stage as made no difference, one a hill-climb at Distomon, and the third a 1-kilometre standing-start sprint to decide ties only. The slalom held at the finish was for spectator amusement only and the Circuit Race at Tatoi, held the day after the rally ended, was such that it made little difference to the results, except in Söderström’s case, which I will explain later.

With a regularity which borders almost on the ritualistic, overseas competitors choose as their Greek base the Astir Beach Bungalow Hotel at Glyphada, about 17 kilometres outside the centre of Athens. All the factory teams stayed there, many of the private entrants, journalists and representatives of the trade such as Castrol and Dunlop. This togetherness helped enormously on the day of scrutineering when a protest by the Polish driver Zasada against the merger of two classes in Group 2 caused the renumbering of several cars, and it was left to the crews involved to seek each other out and exchange rally plates and other impedimenta.

The merger would have caused difficulties with regard to the allocation of points in the European Championship, which Zasada always, even now, takes very seriously indeed, and since the draw for start numbers had taken place after the merger, a second ballot had to be made with the affected cars separated once more.

This also had much to do with the small entry list. When the merger was announced shortly after the closing date for entries, quite a number of private entrants, nearly all of them Greek, decided to withdraw rather than face opposition cars of a much greater engine capacity than their own.

Astir Beach, despite its mosquitoes, is also convenient in another respect; there is unlimited parking space and work on the cars could be carried out with ease. But unwelcome visitors have no difficulty getting in, particularly at night, when about a dozen Goodyear-shod -alloy wheels disappeared from the Ford camp and a pair of quartziodine lamps from the front of one of Castrol’s white B.M.C. 1800s.

During the rally itself one major point emerged, more significant than any other—the Escorts were a match for the Porsches. The fact that an Escort won does not necessarily prove that this was so, but a study of the faster times on the special stages certainly does.

Of the fourteen stages—for two of them were subsequently considered as one owing to a chronometer failure—six went to Porsches, either Toivonen or Zasada, and eight to Escorts, either Clark or Andersson, so that the Fords certainly seemed to have that slight edge over the German cars. All four pure speed tests were taken by Porsches, although Clark led for much of the time during the circuit race.

The three Lancias proved, as usual, to be reliable, although not quite fast enough to be right up there at the front. If the talked-about bigger engine materialises, the Fulvia will no doubt be on a par with the leaders once more.

B.M.C. again had an unfortunate rally, with Mäkinen’s car overheating to cooking point and Aaltonen’s suffering the same trouble, but getting to the finish with a struggle, to win its class. Friswell and Merrick, the latter driving, crashed and continued only until they found that the team had been broken by Mäkinen’s retirement, when they decided to go no further in their severely battered Cooper S. Culcheth’s 1800 gave no trouble at all and provided its crew with a very comfortable ride, finishing second in its class to Zasada’s Porsche.

There are probably more hard luck stories told and retold front the bar stools of rallying than those of any other activity, but they are all kept in their proper perspective and rarely allowed to assume too much prominence in the diaries of cause and effect. But there were such pertinent “ifs” connected with the Acropolis that I find myself unable to avoid breaking a golden rule never to dwell upon the realms of what might have been.

There were only five cars really in the running; two Porsches and three Escorts. Had not Toivonen been unable to change a wheel quickly due to a buckled jacking point, and had not Zasada had the misfortune to land on a small mound when he momentarily left the road, stopping with all four wheels off the ground, the Porsches might have finished in first and second places.

Similarly, had not Andersson’s car broken its rear right side wheel studs on the morning of the last day, and had Söderström’s car been able to start in order to tackle the 30-minute circuit race the day after the rally (he had to accept a penalty twice that of the slowest car), Ford Escorts might have occupied first, second and third places.

But all this is pure conjecture and should not be taken too seriously, although I must admit that it does tend to show the potentials of the cars—as distinct front that of their crews of course.

The Escort twin-cam, which also won both the Circuit of Ireland (Roger Clark) and the Austrian Alpine Rally (Bengt Söderström), and could also be said to have won the Tulip Rally (Roger Clark) even though no general classification was declared, has therefore emerged as a highly competitive machine with a power/weight ratio which provides it with much potential. Their success so far, bearing in mind that they did not really start until well into this year, has given Boreham a fillip after a rather quiet 1967 and a not too successful 1966. In fact, there is talk of increasing their programme a little to include a few more rallies than they had originally planned.—G. P.