When Fiat, very quietly and without any fuss or publicity-seeking announcements, began entering cars in the major international rallies a few years ago, the established circus viewed the newcomers with mixed feeling. Were they really serious about entering the field of competitions? Was the presence of the odd "works" car here and there a sign of mere token involvement or were they exploratory entries prior to a major assault? Furthermore, did the giant Italian manufacturer really have the cars which could compete with smaller but more experienced factories with years of sporting development behind them?
There were never any straight answers to these questions for there was not really a specific start to Fiat's rallying programme. It seemed to rise slowly and unobtrusively to the surface, with none of the flag waving and tub thumping in which other manufacturers indulge. If someone were to suggest that the company policy was to remain in the background of the sporting world until there was some tangible success to crow about, then I would say that he was probably very near the truth. Over the past three or four years it has certainly seemed that way, but when the most significant success to date outside Italy came during the last week of May there was still no crowing. Four years ago the very idea of a Fiat winning the Acropolis Rally was unthinkable; yet in May that is precisely what happened, the Swedish driver Hakan Lindberg taking a 124 Spyder to the victory which he has been close to on more than one previous occasion.
At one time Fiat was considered in sporting circles to be the European equivalent of General Motors, steadfastly ignoring competition activities and maintaining that car sales are not affected one bit by success or otherwise in the various sports. Whether the change of heart came as a result of association with Lancia and Ferrari is not clear, but certainly the dates seem to coincide. There was no announcement that a competition department had been set up; news of it seemed just to leak out rather than he publicly declared. At first it existed only to help private competitors, and then when certain "privateers" began appearing oftener and oftener in Turin-prepared cars the existence of a works team could not be denied, although to our knowledge there his never been an official announcement.
Hakan Lindberg joined Fiat from Saab. He is a jovial fellow, with a build to match, and an asset to any team since his ability does not end at the driving wheel; by profession he is a tyre engineer, and though he officially works for Pirelli Sweden he is considered to he an important member of the research and development team in Milan.
Having steered the story to tyres, we can now start talking about the Acropolis itself because like the Monte (though for different reasons) it really was a rally of the tyres this year. There was quite an array of works cars in the list, mainly because the American supermarket and tyre distribution concern, Sears, Roebuck .& Co., were mounting an offensive similar to the one they set up for the East African Safari last year. They made agreements with various manufacturers and drivers to use normal Sears road-pattern tyres in the event (they have no specific sporting tyres) the purpose being to produce film for advertising campaigns in the USA and South America.
Two works Escorts (Milkkola and Hillyar), two works BMW 2002TIs (Aaltonen and Fall), two works Saabs (Blomqvist and Eklund), a Porsche (Waldegård) and a Datsun 240Z (Mehta) all ran on Sears tyres together with a few selected private entrants. Regrettably, but certainly not surprisingly, the tyres did not stand up to the desructive effects of rough roads in the Greek mountains. Much of the rally route, and many of the special stages, ran over hard-bed rock so abrasive that tyres were wearing to shreds far more quickly than anticipated and the Sears runners became very concerned indeed about how long their stocks would last.
As it happened, both Escorts succumbed to mechanical failures and their remaining tyres were transferred to the BMW camp.
Both Italian teams, Lancia and Fiat, ran on Pirelli tyres, as did the BMW 2002T1 entered by Alpina for Achim Warmbold. As it happened, a Fiat, a Lancia and a BMW, all three on Pirelli tyres, finished first, second and third, indicating that there is no easy shortcut around the proper development of high speed tyres for severe conditions.
To celebrate the event's twentieth anniversary, the Automobile and Touring Club of Greece set up special awards for private entrants and offered financial considerations to competitors from outside Greece. The result was an entry list which included cars from nineteen different countries. Alas there was only one private crew front Britain (although several British servicemen made the trip from their bases in Cyprus) and one cannot help feeling that British rally people, once renowned for their pioneering spirit, aren't anything like as adventurous as their counterparts of five or more years ago.
Although a little shorter this year, the Acropolis route was generally rough, very fast even on the road sections between special stages, and physically wearying. It ran for 3,800 kilometres and lasted from Wednesday night to Saturday evening, with a twelve-hour night stop on the Friday. It certainly wasn't a stop-go event, and intensive concentration was required all the way. Seasoned competitors rarely show signs of fatigue, for they know exactly how to get their sleep in short snatches on the move, but on this occasion there was so little opportunity for the occasional doze that some co-drivers were nodding over their notes and more than one driver had to stop to douche his head under a village pump.
There is no doubt that the midnight start had much to do with this, for many crews were unable to get any rest during the day of the start due to scrutineering. A morning start—and an earlier finish— would have been preferable.
A tough rally has to be controlled very carefully indeed and it was in this respect that the organisers fell down rather badly. There was very little interim information available during the event, and the little news which filtered through was rather suspect to say the least. It is important for a competitor to know how he stands in relation to his rivals, for on this information he bases his tactics. A driver with a 10-min. lead towards the end of a rally; for instance, will hardly drive on the absolute edge of adhesion for the sake of a few extra seconds when a slight casing off would increase his chances of finishing intact.
All around the route the only information available was that which competitors were able to exchange among themselves, and when interested outsiders telephoned rally headquarters it seemed that the official line was to tell people the news they would most like to hear. It was quite unsatisfactory and persisted to the end when fourteen finishers arrived at the foot of the Acropolis and the organisers had no idea who should get the champagne. Eventually penalties were totted up, but it didn't compensate for the anti-climax at the finishing ramp. One Greek newspaper made its own calculations, got them wrong and declared in print that Wambold was the winner.
One of the most disappointed drivers was Simo Lampinen. At the overnight stop (at a seaside holiday club as white-kerbed, spartan and disciplined as any army square-bashing camp) no positions were available, even at the restart, so Lampinen and co-driver Bo Reinicke had to accept the figures of the Lancia team manager. Waldegård was leading, but a serious engine malady probably caused by the ingress of dust since his Porsche was without air filters was almost certain to lead to his retirement. At the time Lampinen was second, little over a minute ahead of Lindberg. Alas the team manager for the occasion told Lampinen that the difference was much greater and the Finn felt that his position was more secure than it really was.
The Fiats, the Lancias and one BMW may have had the advantage of considerably better tyres, but the fact remains that a Fiat 124 Spyder was driven to victory in an extremely difficult rally against opposition from Ford, Saab, Lancia, BMW and a representation from Porsche and Datsun. It was a significant achievement, one which could well spur the Italian company to increase its rallying programme.
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The main reason for there being very little British interest in the Acropolis, at least by competitors, was the fact that it was neatly and closely sandwiched by the two Major Celtic events of the year, the Welsh Rally and the Scottish Rally. Both are very popular in Britain since both use special stages on loose-surfaced roads in the State Forests.
The Welsh is virtually a weekend event, the whole of the action being compressed between Friday evening and Sunday morning. With no breaks other than at meal times, it is an extremely tiring rally and since there is very little time for extra-curricular pleasantries the event hasn't really been able to develop its own particular atmosphere. In the main, competitors arrive early on the day of the start and depart soon after the finish.
In Scotland it is quite different, with the rally and its preliminaries being stretched between Saturday and Wednesday. Furthermore, competitors usually arrive on the Friday and stay until Thursday, so that the whole job lasts a week more or less. It has been of this format for many years and with so much spare time available the event's competitors and followers have created an atmosphere which has been pounced on by the organisers as a means of attracting more competitors in successive years.
The Welsh Rally attracted well over 300 applications for entries, of which 234 cars started. Of these 143 finished, winners being Roger Clark and Jim Potter in a works-built Escort RS1800 which Clark campaigns under his own financial agreement with Esso Uniflo. Second place went to a young man from Essex with far greater experience of autocrossing and stock-car racing than of rallying, for Barry Lee's number of rallies to date [is] hardly be more than a half dozen.
The Welsh Rally was short but intense, and organised by people who are themselves regular competitors. The latter point is important, for such people are able to put themselves in the shoes of competitors and anticipate problems even before they arise. However, they are somewhat lacking in promotional experience, and this has shown up in the meagre number of foreign competitors who have journeyed to Wales each year.
In Scotland the opposite is the case. Plenty of advance publicity brings a fair number of talented competitors from overseas, particularly from Sweden and Finland, but on the other hand there have been administrative difficulties on several occasions which have ruined an otherwise good event.
This year the rally was potentially as good as ever, but unimaginative selection of special stages resulted in 24 of the 50 special stages being possible within the target times which were set. This destroys competition completely, and nothing is more demoralising for a competitor to beat the target time by half a minute or so knowing full well that he has gained no advantage whatsoever over those who have beaten it by just one second. Furthermore there were so many queries resulting from timing oddities and other matters that the timetable after the event was over went completely haywire. Competitors were left in a rather seedy dance hall whilst the organisers deliberated in a comfortable hotel at the other end of town. The prize giving ceremony didn't take place at all and competitors left feeling disgruntled and cheated.
Outright winners of the Scottish Rally were Hannu Mikkola and Hamish Cardno in a works Escort, followed by Clark and Porter in a similar car. Third place was contested fiercely by Britain's Chris Sclater and John Davenport in yet another Escort and Sweden's Anders Kullang whom I partnered in an Opel Ascona. Timing errors rather spoiled the interesting fight between these two drivers but the decision went to Sclater.
It was interesting to see the reaction of British drivers to the performance of the Asconas, three of which ran faultlessly to finish high in the list. They are considerably cheaper to buy and to prepare than Escorts (which the majority of British drivers use) but, driven properly. they can more than hold their own against more powerful cars, in speed, handling and strength. A pity that the UK Opel dealers have no organisation similar to the one in Sweden which has its own comprehensive workshop and a rally team run just like that of a factory.
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Once again the classic Coupe des Alpes has run into trouble. Scheduled for Mid-June, the organisers of this once popular event were obliged, little over a week before the start, to cancel it. Various reasons were given, but the most significant one was the tremendous scarcity of entries, only eighteen applications being received. The rally was cancelled in 1970 due to lack of finance and in 1971 the same thing very nearly happened. BP stepped in at the eleventh hour with monetary backing but there was very little time left to organise the event properly and to go about attracting entries. Only thirty-odd competitors started and they found themselves in a shambles of an event, nothing at all like the glorious Alpine Rallies of years past. Obviously the taste of 1971 lingers, for the response this year was even less. Whether this cancellation will be the final straw to sink an event which has been wallowing remains to be seen. — G. P.