Rally review - Acropolis Rally, July 1976

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The might of such powerful or competent rally teams as Lancia and Toyota is not easily defeated, so when Harry Kallstrom drove a Datsun Violet to victory in May’s Acropolis Rally there was a temptation among some to refer to his success as the work of a “Giant-Killer’. But this implies a certain weakness—was not Jack puny alongside his giant?—and one can hardly refer to a man who has won the RAC Rally of Great Britain twice in succession as a weakling. However, those RAC successes were in 1969 and 1970 and the fact is that Kallstrom has not had a major win since that time, although he has come very, very close to it several times.

It was this absence of recent successes which rendered Kallstrom’s triumph in Greece something of a surprise, and the man’s amiable, unassuming character which made it a popular win.

Lancia sent three Stratos, hoping once again that their superior power would reap the required harvest of World Championship points, but it didn’t work out that way at all. Pinto and Waldegard were instructed to go out to win, whilst Pregliasco had to be the man holding back for just a good finishing position, the defence rather than the attack. Unhappily, not one of them finished.

Even from the start the Lancias didn’t have things their own way, for the Toyota Celica of Andersson and the Corolla of Mikkola were right up with them, giving a superb performance of high speed handling on both loose and tarmac surfaced roads. The great disappointment of the rally was that this battle of the Italian and Japanese giants came to nothing when all five cars retired during the first evening, taking much of the interest away.

Waldegard lost oil pressure, Pinto broke a driveshaft and, after he had inherited the lead when the two Toyotas retired, Pregliasco had his clutch break. Andersson had stronger driveshafts than usual on his CeIica, but they had only been previously tried on a less powerful car. One of them broke cleanly at the point where the shaft itself meets the wheel stud plate. Team-mate Mikkola went out when his fuel injection pump seized and defied all attempts to free it.

With the Lancias and the Toyotas out of the way, the little French driver, Jean Ragnotti, who earns a living between rallies as a stunt driver for film and television companies, took over the lead and kept it until the rest halt at something like two-thirds distance. His car was an Alpine-Renault A310 “rented” from the factory along with two mechanics and a service van by Ecurie Gitanes, the French team sponsored by the cigarette company of the same name. The factory stopped full-time rallying last year, but continues to prepare cars for private drivers and teams and to develop the V6-engined A310 for future use. Hubert Melot, the engineer in charge of this development, was in Greece to see how the A3I0 fared, and to lend a very able hand with servicing, and we gathered that if such non-factory drivers as Ragnotti produced good results with the car, the works team itself could be back in the sport before very long.

With spirits high, the Frenchmen started the second leg with something like a four-minute lead, but it all came to nothing when a rear wishbone pin sheared and the wheel folded beneath the car. A victory by Ragnotti would have been a tremendous boost for Alpine, but the performance was not to be sneezed at as it was, although there was never much of a significant conflict with the Lancias and Toyotas which retired far too soon.

The remaining cars in contention were the Datsun of Kallstrom and the privately-owned Alpine A100 of Greek driver Tasos Livieratos who always uses the pseudonym “Siroco”. These two were far enough ahead of everyone else to be sure of the first two places, but it was never sure who would win.

Kallstrom’s car, although works-prepared, Japanese-registered and sent over from Japan for this and subsequent rallies, was entered and serviced by the Greek importers. They were enthusiastic and keen but lacking the polish, of experienced works mechanics and sometimes more hasty than speedy. “Siroco” had a service network led by his wife, Maria, an amazing lady who undertakes personally all the preparation and rebuilding of the car between each event.

Kallstrom, with co-driver Claes-Goran Andersson borrowed from Swedish Opel driver Anders Kullang, finished some 5 1/2 minutes ahead of “Siroco” who was in turn just over 21 minutes ahead of Shekhar Mehta in another works-prepared Datsun Violet. For Mehta the early stages of the Acropolis must have bordered the nostalgic, for they took place in torrential rain which turned otherwise hard roads into ribbons of mud, produced flash floods and brought rivers up to impassable levels. It was Safari-style going as many competitors had to resort to pushing, whilst the organisers themselves were obliged to cancel some sections and re-route the event to be sure that everyone would not come to a dead stop in some wet or sticky patch. The second leg was different; hot Greek sunshine brought back the conditions which everyone expects in the Acropolis, though the wetting had made sure that there would not be any of the usual lingering dust.

Noticeable absentees from the rally were the Opels from Russelsheim. Two Kadetts had been entered for Rohrl and Aaltonen, and the latter driver with his Swedish co-driver Billstam sent to Greece to begin reconnaissance in a rented car. Whilst they were engaged in this, internal difficulties arose at the factory when very senior staff queried the wisdom of sending out cars which were not developed to optimum level and incurring expense when there was little chance of getting a return. The Safari failures were at the root of this, though it was another series of failures in a more recent German rally which actually sparked it off.

The result was a recall to Aaltonen and the withdrawal of entries, although Billstam was snapped up to be Andersson’s co-driver in the Toyota team when Arne Hertz found himself doubled up with what seemed like a slipped disc. There were some private Opels in the rally and one of them did so well that the make was presented with eight championship points on a plate without actually trying. Klaus Russling, the Austrian who has more often been seen in a Porsche than anything else, brought an old factory Ascona and finished in a very creditable fifth place. He and other Austrian privateers tackled the event as a combined, low-budget effort and went away very pleased indeed with the result.

Rather than being unchallenged leaders of the World Championship, the Lancia people now find themselves only eight points ahead of Opel, which means that they must now consider such events as the Morocco and Thousand Lakes rallies not on their previous list of priorities. By the same token, Opel has emerged as a serious contender and it must be high among Russelsheim’s priorities to get their cars into top shape for the championship rounds to come.