Rally Review

The Acropolis Rally

There are eight qualifying events in the International Rally Championship for Constructors. The sixth of them was the Acropolis Rally organised by the Automobile and Touring Club of Greece during the last week in May.

Prior to the Acropolis, Porsche was comfortably at the lead of the championship, Bjorn Waldegard having won three of the previous events in a 911S. Now, they are still in the lead but not quite so comfortably for the team failed to score any points at all in Greece, the cars of both Waldegard and Ake Andersson succumbing to connecting-rod bearing failure.

Since Porsche began using the 2.3-litre engines in their rally cars in place of the 2-litre ones they have had considerable trouble with connecting rods. The 2-litre engines and titanium rods, whereas they have gone back to steel ones for the bigger engines. The answer appears to be a simple one.

The Porsches were not works entered but, as usual, ran under the banner of Svenska Volkswagen AB, the distributors of Volkswagens and Porsches in Sweden. However, they were works prepared in Stuttgart, registered in Germany and supported by mechanics from the factory. There was an amusing incident during practice when team manager Rico Steineman attempted to pull the wool over his drivers’ eyes concerning the cars’ shock-absorbers. The drivers preferred Bilstein because they gave better handling, but Steineman wanted them to use Koni because they were stronger than the Bilstein and more resistant to anchorage failure. The Bilsteins used in Sweden have strengthened anchor points, but these were not available for the Stuttgart cars. Steineman had the Konis painted black so that they would resemble Bilsteins, but the drivers spotted the difference within minutes on the road. Laughingly, everyone agreed that the Konis should be used.

Two works Lancias retired, also with malfunctions within their 1.6-litre engines. It has not been a very happy year at all for Lancia. They rounded off 1969 well with Källstrom, Champion Driver for that year, winning the RAC Rally, but in 1970 their only real achievements in the Constructor’s Championship have been a second place on the Sanremo-Sestriere Rally and a sixth place at Monte Carlo.

Perhaps the most significant feature of the Acropolis was the appearance of the Alpine-Renault team with three of the 1.6-litre rear-engined cars for their own drivers and a spare one for a promising Greek driver to borrow.

Alpine’s racing activities have been curtailed this year in order that more rallying could be undertaken. They went to the snows of the Swedish Rally (but failed) and also tackled the rough Sanremo-Sestriere Rally, which they surprised many by winning. The Acropolis is another rally which has rough stages, and again they have won, only just failing (by the breaking of one clutch) to score a 1-2-3 victory. The driver of the winning car was the young Frenchman, Jean-Luc Therier, and it was he who also won at Sanremo, co-driven each time by Marcel Callewaert.

In the absence of their number one drivers on the World Cup Rally, Ford of Britain had Ove Andersson and Jean-Francois Piot to drive two Escorts on the Acropolis. They were fast and reliable, but they were no match for the pace of the group four Alpines.

There were no works Saabs entered, but it was surprising to find one of the Swedish firm’s number one crews, Hakan Lindberg and Bo Reinicke, driving a Fiat. There were four very “official”-looking Fiats, one 124 Spider and three 125S saloons, and it was one of the latter which Lindberg drove, achieving fifth place.

It was early in 1969 when Fiat interest in rallying developed beyond the passing stage, and it was presumably due to influence by that company that the heavily Fiat-sponsored Sestriere Rally (non-championship) was combined with the Sanremo Rally which was in the championship. There was evidence last year that Fiat had set up a competitions department, but it seemed that they preferred not to publicise the fact. They entered no cars themselves, being content just to help private owners. The degree of help given to the four Fiat crews in Greece was such that there can no longer be any doubt that Fiat has become competition-minded. There were works cars, with works service and crews sponsored to the degree of professionals. Sooner or later it is to be hoped that they will come out in the open and enter their own cars with all publicity attached to other factory outfits.

Perhaps it should be explained that Lindberg, a Saab man, drove a Fiat because his link with Saab allows him to drive other makes of car outside Scandinavia when he is not required to drive for the Swedish firm. He works for Pirelli in Sweden, and there are competition links between that company and Fiat.

It seldom rains in Greece at the time of the Acropolis Rally. This year heavy downpours punctuated the bright sunshine, turning smooth asphalt roads into skid pans. On such surfaces the Alpines were invincible, although Waldegard had been leading until his retirement soon after the fourth of the 21 special stages. To toughen the event even further the organisers had reversed the route. Normally it is so that the rougher special stages and the tighter road sections were at the end, when crews were at their lowest mental and physical ebb. The whole thing lasted three and a half thousand kilometres, and there were no breaks to speak of except an hour or two at each of two ferry crossings, one over the lake at Mavria and another across the Gulf of Corinth. This resulted in an abnormally high retirement rate, and only 13 cars finished from 80 starters - more difficult, by that criterion, than the reputedly superlative World Cup Rally.

After the Acropolis, Porsche still leads the championship with 27 points, but Alpine-Renault is now only three points behind with 24. No other make has a chance of winning, for the Alpine Rally, one of the two remaining rounds, has apparently been cancelled.

The Coupe des Alpes ran into trouble when the French Ministry of the Interior expressed concern over its routing through popular tourist areas at the tail end of summer. A short postponement was not possible, for then it would clash with the Tour de France, due December – and it would have been indeed strange to have the Alpine Rally converted into a winter rally, just like the Monte – but that idea has obviously been abandoned. The Automobile Club de Marseille et Provence assures us that the rally will return in 1971.

This means that the only remaining qualifier will be the RAC Rally of Great Britain in November. The Alpine-Renault team had already said that its cars would be in Britain for that event. Now that they have a chance of winning the championship they will surely cross the Channel in force. It will be their first time in British forests, and the complete ban on practicing will be something to which their drivers will be unaccustomed. Porsche’s Swedish drivers will most certainly be sent over to defend the championship title, and they are well used to driving without notes through the forests.

With the possibilities of Saab, Lancia, Datsun, Ford and Leyland adding to the opposition, November will be an interesting month. One wonders whether Fiat could be persuaded to send its “works” team.

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World Cup Rally

So much happened during the multi-thousand-mile journey from London to Mexico City that no chronicler of events could ever hope to produce a complete record. Of the 96 starters, including hardened professionals, experienced and capable amateurs and enthusiastic but somewhat ill-prepared adventurers, there were only 26 finishers, and three of those had actually gone beyond maximum lateness before the finish.

It was tough, tiring and desperately punishing on both cars and crews, particularly on special stages which often lasted longer than several short rallies put together. The effort of concentration needed to drive a car as fast as humanly possible over rough tracks for as long as ten hours or more was tremendous, but despite the toll on cars, the retirement rate was not as high as it was on this year’s Acropolis Rally, or on East African Safaris in the past.

There were several reasons for this. Firstly the survival instinct among competitors on the World Cup Rally was undoubtedly higher than it is during shorter events. It is unlikely that a car could be driven to Mexico at Alpine Rally rate throughout. The longer the event the greater is the need to save the car, and the 26 finishers obviously had this thought very much in mind.

The other reason lies in the cars themselves. For normal rallying under FIA rules, Appendix J, greatly limits the degree to which bodies, suspensions and transmissions can be strengthened and improved. This was not the case on the World Cup Rally, the regulations for which permitted modifications within very wide margins indeed. The precedent was set by the London-Sydney Marathon in 1968, which demanded that cars should have four wheels and a drive which operated on two of them, and imposed hardly any other restrictions.

For the World Cup Rally the same formula was followed with the result that the majority of competing cars resembled their showroom counterparts in general body shape and very little else. This has been criticised on the grounds that (a) it is hoodwinking the public to advertise that a Ford Escort won when it was such a very special Escort, and (b) that the rally could not possibly be as good a mobile test bed as conventional rallies because many of the modifications were so sophisticated as to have no likelihood of finding their way to the production line.

To answer the first it should be pointed out that Ford, in their advertising, have made it perfectly clear that the winning car was a very special one. As for the second, well it was a sporting contest after all, and a liberal degree of licence had to be offered to competitors in the way of car preparation. The nature of this event was such that no showroom car could possibly have survived, within the time allowance, and I don’t expect any car manufacturer to disagree with that.

All rallies are basically sporting events, although they are used by manufacturers firstly for publicity and secondly for research. Long marathons of this kind are in a special category in which the publicity angle is magnified and the development somewhat diminished, through not eliminated altogether.

The manufacturers most interested in the World Cup Rally were Ford of Britain and British Leyland, although there were works cars from Moskvitch and considerable works support for privately entered Citreons. Hard work, expensive hard work, paid off from the two British teams for their cars filled eight of the first ten places.

If someone were to make a list of the mechanical defects and problems which occurred to each car, the volume could well be as long as the road to Mexico itself. Some of the lesser experienced amateurs dropped out for reasons which would have made even a regular club rally driver hang his head in shame. Tiredness, navigational errors, running out of petrol and various other needless shortcomings contributed to many an abandonment. More common were breakages through hard pounding over the rough roads. This affected factory and private drivers alike, although the works people had the usual massive resources available to put matters right as quickly as possible whereas the amateurs had little more than their own ingenuity. Rallying is a great breeding ground for Bush Mechanics, and if the makers of string, sealing wax, chewing gum and adhesive tape only knew the extent to which their products were used to keep rally cars mobile, their advertising could well be as strong as that of the car manufacturers. Perhaps that is food for thought!

Despite all the planning, the careful distribution of spare parts throughout South America and the detailed itineraries given to top mechanics for their journeys from one service point to the next, things went wrong. Wear and tear was so phenomenally high that parts which had never before needed replacement on normal rallies were failing on this event. Who would have expected Rauno Aaltonen to drive his Escort so hard, for instance, that his sump protection plate just wore away? In several cases new parts had to be flown hurriedly to various airports in South America as the hand baggage of car manufacturers’ employees. An expense which no private owner could afford, but which was very little to a factory budget when compared with the overall expenditure.

After the London-Sydney Marathon the Daily Express said that it would run another one in 1972. Now there is talk of another Daily Mirror World Cup Rally four years from now. Always the publicity seekers are striving for superlatives, and each gargantuan effort must outshine all previous ones. Sooner or later the ceiling will be reached, and then such events will either become four-year perennials, with subtle differences in form each time, or fade out altogether, with perhaps the biggest surviving.

They are so expensive and complicated to organise that such trans-Continental rallies cannot possibly take the place of the regular round of events which comparison has now decided to call conventional.

Great sporting and adventurous occasions are always attractive, and these huge rallies are no exception. They capture the romantic imagination, and awards, souvenirs and other impedimenta from journeys both to Sydney and to Mexico will probably be handed down in families for generations to come. But there is still achievement to a Safari, enjoyment in an RAC, pleasure in an Acropolis, fun in a Swedish, excitement in a Circuit, adventure in a Moroccan and thrills in a Thousand Lakes. May all of them continue unabated for years to come. – G.P.