A 250-kilometre drive across the barren, rocky deserts of Southern Morocco on the edge of the Sahara, where the track is defined only vaguely and sometimes disappears altogether in a sea of boulders along the dry bed of a forgotten river, is an arduous journey even for those with time on their hands. For people who are driving against the clock, with vital special stage seconds ticking by at every drift, rock bed and gully, it’s an achievement to get to destination without smashing the car into pieces.
In such country, and in unbelievable conditions, is the Morocco Rally held. An event which out-roughs the roughest Safari, it takes in the rocky escarpment roads through the Atlas Mountains, where the twists and turns make the use of pace notes necessary, and the long, interminable drags across the desert where notes read something like “Fork right and head for gap between two peaks on horizon” or “Stop and turn left along boulder bed for 1.3 kilometres”.
The fifth qualifier of the 1973 World Rally Championship for Makes, the Morocco Rally, organised by the RAC Marocaine, was without doubt the roughest event ever to be included in the series and probably the toughest test yet of how far a car can be driven at destructive speeds before it begins to fall apart. But it’s not all a matter of foot-down, charge-through and hope-for-the-best. Driving skill is still at a premium; so is mechanical sympathy and very smart reactions as holes, rocks and all manner of other hazards come into view at high speed.
It is quite useless to make the best time on the first nine special stages if, on the tenth, the car is going to succumb to all the pounding. It is just as useless to take things so gingerly to prevent breakage that even camel-borne Bedouins lope by.
There are several instances of driving to combat one condition and falling foul of another. For instance, in the heat of the desert crews naturally want to have their windows open, even though the current of air thus created is a warm one. But all it needs is a sudden application of the brakes to slow the car down quickly and before anything can be done about it the dust cloud which has been billowing behind the car has engulfed it completely and has filled the car itself—and that’s the quickest way to sore eyes in any rally.
Morocco is to France what the Safari is to Britain, and it was understandable that the French manufacturers should put a big effort into the event, sending teams of cars, fleets of service vehicles, vast stocks of spares and even aircraft to patrol the stages and to maintain communication between competitors and mechanics.
Peugeot took six of the 504s with which they have experience of both Safari and Morocco Rallies, and hired such people as Mikkola, Mäkinen, Consten, Guichet, Fall and Claudine Trautmann to drive them. Alas they succumbed to suspension or clutch failures, Fall having had the odd experience of watching spare parts flutter down by parachute into the desert from the Peugeot service aircraft. Only one of them finished, that of Claudine Trautmann, but the Coupe des Dames was small recompense for five retirements.
Citroën left their big SMs at home this year and put their faith in four DS23s and two GSs. Neyret, Ponnelle, Deschazeaux, Romãozinho, Bochnicek and Laurent were the drivers. They proved to be as strong and reliable as ever, three of the DSs finishing in 2nd, 3rd and 4th positions, behind the winning Alpine-Renault of Bernard Darniche. Deschazeaux, a local man who knows the desert tracks intimately, finished eighth, but he caused considerable discontent among other competitors by taking short cuts. He wasn’t blamed for making use of loopholes, but the organisers certainly were for allowing them to exist.
The Alpine team consisted of three cars, all of which finished. No longer considered fragile, these plastic-bodied cars from Dieppe were driven very well indeed, but the team certainly made use of the considerable servicing periods allowed each night and, more often than not, after each special stage. Indeed, the cars were completely stripped and rebuilt each night, and one wonders whether the organisers will take heed of advice from many quarters that a reduction of the time allowed for fettling would produce a far more realistic result.
A car which really didn’t need much attention (except to a broken throttle cable) was the Datsun 240Z provided on loan for Safari winner Shekhar Mehta to drive privately. The broken cable dropped the car to 25th position during the first day, but in the two days which followed it moved up to the first half-dozen only to be completely wrecked when it nose-dived into a dry boulder bed, rolled over and over and over and finally came to rest upside down with roof and sides caved in. Fortunately for the occupants, one side window aperture remained big enough for a fairly speedy exit from the petrol-soaked wreckage. It was quite the most dramatic roll I have experienced; it continued for some 80 yards and we had time to talk to each other as it was gyrating.
Also in Morocco at the time of the rally was Datsun team manager Takashi Wakabayashi and two mechanics. They were looking after Mehta’s car, but the prime reason for their presence was to evaluate the event for possible factory participation next year. They went away convinced that Morocco was Datsun country and we feel sure that the full team will be present in 1974.
Two works Fiat 124 Abarths took part, driven by Aaltonen and Waldegård. The former retired (only some 20 miles across the desert from the spot where Mehta and I spent some six or seven hours) when a steering arm sheared, and the other limped home to sixth place with sagging suspension. Of the 66 starters, only twelve finished, British privateers Paul Hadley and Dave Rabson arriving at Casablanca but not being classified since they had overstepped their maximum lateness time by just two minutes.
A superb rally with a unique character, and one which certainly should remain a World Championship qualifier.
General Classification – Morocco Rally
1st: Darniche/Mahé (Alpine-Renault 1.8) ….. 15 hr. 01 min. 22 sec.
2nd: Neyret/Terramorsi (Citroën DS23) ….. 15 hr. 20 min. 04 sec.
3rd: Rochnicek/Kernmayer (Citroën DS23) ….. 15 hr. 34 min. 37 sec.
4th: Ponelle/de Serpos (Citroën DS23) ….. 15 hr. 39 min. 56 sec.
5th: Nicolas/Vial (Alpine-Renault 1.8) ….. 15 hr. 52 min. 00 sec.
6th: Waldegård/Sagar (Fiat 124 Abarth) ….. 15 hr. 59 min. 43 sec.
7th: Thérier/Delferrier (Alpine-Renault 1.6) …. 16 hr. 18 min. 16 sec.
8th: Deschazeaux/Plassard (Citroën DS23) ….. 16 hr. 48 min. 26 sec.
9th: Merlone/Leonetti (Volvo 142) ….. 17 hr. 53. min. 47 sec.
10th: Trautmann/Palayer (Peugeot 504) ….. 18 hr. 03 min. 33 sec.
11th: Geranton/Geranton (Datsun 1600 SSS) ….. 20 hr. 18 min. 38 sec.
12th: Pagani/Refuveille (VW K70) ….. 22 hr. 47 min. 41 sec.
66 starters – 12 finishers