One of the adjectives dearest to journalists’ hearts when describing motor sporting events of long standing is Classic. Exactly what this means is not clear, though it certainly has nothing to do with literature when used in this particular context. But of all events the one to which such a description might best apply is the Acropolis Rally.
Mythology is part of Greece’s national heritage. Yet there is no myth about the country’s premier international rally. It has a reputation for being rough, fast and tiring. The 1969 event, held in the last week of May for the 17th time, was probably the roughest, fastest and most tiring yet.
But there was another, far more unusual, feature of this particular Acropolis; it was possible to predict with reasonable accuracy that the winning car would be one of six. Predictability is something seldom associated with rallying, but when an entry list consists of three works Fords, three works Porsches and a whole host of slower cars one doesn’t need a crystal ball to pick out the group which will provide the winner.
On the other hand, professional drivers drive right on the limits of adhesion (they have to, or they wouldn’t be professionals) and generally punish their cars far more than amateurs do, knowing that not far away are expert mechanics ready to work at speed to replace or repair. Amateurs, and drivers of slower factory cars, realise this and there is generally plenty of competition for the places immediately behind those of the faster cars, each hoping to move into the lead should the works drivers leave the road or break their cars.
Driving for the Porsche team were the experienced Finns Pauli Toivonen/Martti Kolari and the equally experienced Swedes Björn Waldegård/Lara Helmer. Making up the three were Frenchmen Gerard Larrousse/Jean Peramond, former members of the Alpine-Renault team. Ford of Boreham, having won the event last year, had its full team of drivers. Roger Clark/Jim Porter, Ove Andersson/ Gunnar Palm and Hannu Mikkola/Mike Wood, the latter pair having journeyed to Athens direct from Vienna after winning the Austrian Alpine Rally.
These were the six crews to watch, although there were two dark little horses further down the field in the shape of Daf 55s from the factory at Eindhoven. These were driven by Belgian crews Laurent/Marche and Haxhe/Delferrier. They ran almost trouble-free, as they invariably do, and it says much for the ability of the drivers that they were able to keep their diminutive machines ahead of Porsches, B.M.W.s, Cooper Ss and Lows-Cortinas entered by reasonably good amateurs. Indeed, when retirements began to reduce “The Six” to five, four, three and eventually two, the Dafs appeared often in the lists of fastest six on the special stages.
Last winter was a severe one in Greece and many of the unmade roads which the organisers utilise year after year for special stages had suffered considerable surface damage. Tarmac roads, too, had been undermined, rippled and potholed by flood and frost. The result was a series of some 20 special stages which included some of the roughest ever used on the Acropolis.
Just as the weather in the past brought its effects, so did the weather in the present. The heat was so intense that local shops found themselves selling out of polyurethane ice boxes, mechanics burnt their hands on hot bodywork and all pre-rally work in the grounds of the Astir Beach Hotel, where competitors were mostly concentrated, was punctuated by frequent immersions in the Bay of Athens. During the rally itself there was no lowering of the temperature and this, combined with endless and persistent dust clouds, rendered the event one of the most exhausting ever to be held in Europe for some time. At one ferry crossing of a lake, competitors followed the example of Gunnar Palm and jumped over the side, preferring to expend energy in the cool water than to endure the heat on deck.
The first half-dozen or so special stages were benefits for the aforementioned “Six”, but then the whittling-down process began. First, Mikkola lost a rear wheel and drive shaft after puncturing and driving on the rim for a while. The back plate was so badly damaged that there was no hope of repairing it in the available time. When the rally was over and mechanics were sent out to retrieve the car, they found that the axle casing itself was bent, but who can tell whether this was done before, or after, the loss of the wheel?
Next to go was a Porsche. Waldegård’s car, after belching out smoke from its left exhaust pipe for some two stages or so, finally spluttered to a halt with either pistons, valves or both broken along one bank of cylinders. On the very next stage the second works Escort came to grief when Andersson collected first a puncture then a broken steering joint. With the wheel useless in his hands, he was powerless to prevent the car leaving the road and somersaulting over the edge of a drop of hundreds of feet. But it wasn’t quite as terrifying as it sounds. As every rally driver will tell you, in cases such as these there is always a tree, or a bush, strategically placed. In this case it was a bush, and the car rolled to a stop against a stout example of one about 30 yards down, both drivers getting out unhurt.
After Larrousse had dropped out, his engine starved of fuel from a punctured tank, only Toivonen and Clark remained to fight for the lead. Clark had the disadvantage of a penalty incurred on an early stage when his car left the road and was lodged for 12 minutes before enough spectators could muster to push it out. Despite an all-out effort which gave him best time on most of the later stages, Clark was unable to make good the loss and last year’s winner had to be content with second place.
The performance of the works Dafs must he singled out. Laurent’s third place deserves the highest praise, and were it not for an unfortunate timekeeping error the two cars from Holland would have occupied third and fourth places. Delferrier, Haxhe’s co-driver, is an experienced man who used to partner the late Lucien Bianchi. But this was his first Acropolis, and he was unaccustomed to the system which allowed up to five minutes “earliness” at road controls but which did not allow early arrival in excess of that amount to be continued from one control to another. Haxhe and Delferrier arrived five minutes early at one control (good tactics if the next road section is a tight one), four minutes early at the next, then ran nine minutes early for the rest of the rally, collecting a four-minute penalty at each control.
Heat, dust and “The Six” are the things which will probably be best remembered of the 1969 Acropolis; especially the latter, for the works Porsches and Escorts really did seem to be in a rally of their own, with the others following some considerable time later. A glance at the final penalties will explain the situation.—G. P.