This Time last year, if you’d asked a rally enthusiast in France, or Italy, or Sweden, or even Africa and further field, what he thought of Ford Escorts, his reply would very likely have been on the lines that they were big fish in a somewhat small pond. The stirring victories of the past would have been forgotten, and the first thing to come to that enthusiast’s mind would have been the stay-at-home policy adopted by Ford in the past few years. International events took a back seat, and Ford concentrated on winning the British Rally Championship, firstly with Roger Clark and then with the young Finnish newcomer to the team, Ari Vatanen. It was a suecesstul period, but it did result in the feeling overseas that Ford didn’t really want to venture anywhere beyond Dover.
But 1977 has changed all that. Against formidable opposition in Kenya, Ford won the Safari Rally, and now at the beginning of June they pulled off a stirring 1-2 victory against equally strong, if not stronger, opposition in the Acropolis Rally. The fish has moved to wider water and has shown itself to he just as big.
Starters in the Acropolis numbered 167, including works cars from Datsun, Ford, Toyota, Opel, Fiat, Lada, Wartburg and Trabant, but those considered to be in with a winning chance were two Datsun Violets, three Ford Escort RS 1800s, two Toyota Celicas, one Opel Kadett and no less than five Fiat 131 Abarths, though there were several more of the Italian ears running, loaned to private entrants.
It has been Fiat’s goal from the beginning of the year to win the World Rally Championship, no other team having declared an intention to contest the series as a whole. Lancia, now part of the Fiat empire, were champions last year, but this year they stepped back to contest only the major prestige events, leaving the world series as the plum which Fiat wanted so badly to pick.
Ford, on the other hand, had no such intention. True they have tackled several championship qualifiers this year, but their aim was to score as many outright wins on individually important events as possible. Now, with second places in Portugal and New Zealand, a third in Sweden and outright wins in both Safari and Acropolis, they have moved to the top of the championship table, four points ahead of Fiat, and must obviously consider their programme for the remainder of the year. They may not have set out to win the championship, but since their successes have been such that the series is certainly within their grasp they would be less than wise to do nothing about it.
Speak of rough rallies and many people will assume that you are talking about the Safari or the Morocco Rally. These events are indeed rough, but there are degrees of roughness and it isn’t always appreciated that rallies North of the Mediterranean qualify for the same adjective. The Portuguese Rally, for instance, uses some pretty bumpy tracks, whilst even in Scotland the rock surfaces of forest roads can shatter suspensions and claw tyres to pieces.
But the roughest of all the major European events is undoubtedly the Acropolis Rally. Some of the mountain tracks in Greece are so formidably steep and rock-strewn that motorists are deterred, and they see more traffic during the rally than during the whole ot the rest of the year.
p>At Acropolis time Greece is hot and its rocky roads dry and dusty. Cars therefore take a terrible pounding in the hands of anyone whose aim is to win. Furthermore, tolerant authorities turn blind eyes to average speeds so that road schedules between specials stages are so fast that there is little time indeed for servicing. What may therefore be a good car for, say, the RAC Rally, during which there is ample time tor repairs between most special stages, may not be as good tor the Acropolis, during which it will get only the most cursory attention and must therelore be as strong and reliable as it is fast.
The constant pressure, fast schedules, rough roads, dust and heat also have another effect: they bring on fatigue very quickly indeed, and to do well in the Acropolis drivers must have plenty of physical stamina as well as the usual skills. For a professional the only worthwhile satisfaction is to win, but for others it is an achievement in itself merely to finish. The route traverses the most tortuous of mountain tracks, from which quite fantastic views over bays, inlets and islands are possible, and sometimes descends to the very beaches themselves, where the simplest way to cool the rear brakes would be to let the tail slide out an extra foot or so.
Ford began with three cars, but one was eliminated virtually before the rally began. The start was on a Monday morning, but on the Sunday there was a preliminary special stage, partly on tarmac and partly on gravel, the results of which were used to determine the start order for the Monday.
Hannu Mikkola’s Toyota broke an oil pipe on this stage and left a large quantity of engine oil on a tarmac section of the surface. When Ari Vatanen came along in his Escort, he hit the oil and shot uncontrollably off the road into a very stout tree. Marshals had been giving warning of danger by waving flags, but these began some 200 metres before the oil and Vatanen had slowed and speeded up again, thinking that he had passed the danger when he really hadn’t. He later likened the incident to stepping on a banana skin! His car was wrecked, and co-driver Atso Aho broke sternum and ribs, but is recovering nicels at home in Finland.
Mikkola’s engine was put right on the Sunday evening and was fit enough tct start on the Monday and to forge ahead into the lead. This was short-lived, for both his car and the sister car of fellow-driver and team manager Ow Andersson went out when teeth stripped front their crownwheels and pinions.
The lone Opel, too, failed to make the distance. Last year was disastrous for the lactory team, the cars being mechanically unreliable and retiring from rally after rally. This year, under its new competitions manager Tony Fall, who has moved to Rüsselsheim from Britain’s Dealer Opel Team, things have started modestly, and only one car was taken to Greece for German driver Walter Röhrl. That was not one of the usual 16-valve cars, but a Group Two version with just eight valves and a mpdest 150 b.h.p. or so. Alas it gave much trouble and, after considerable overheating, eventually retired in a cloud ot steam when the cylinder head gasket blew.
Meanwhile the two Ford Escorts of Bjorn Waldegard and Roger Clark forged ahead, followed by Kallstrom’s Datsun, Lampinen’s Fiat and the second works Datsun of Greek driver Tasos Livieratos who rallies under the pseudonym “Siroco”.
Both Waldegard and Clark drove quickly, reliably and, what is more important. with freedom. An Italian journalist rather angered us by asking whether Waldegard had been instructed to slow down to second place because he was not British, but we merely suggested that he should direct his question to the Swedish driver himself. We gather he did not. Waldegard and Clark are the best of friends and there is no question of one being told to take a back seat to the other, nor of any tactical ploy which would give one of them an advantage. Of course, there is always rivalry between drivers whether they are team-mates or not, but in this case it is nothing but the most friendly kind.
Helped by a team atmosphere which was the most efficient and good humoured we have seen it in years, Waldegard and Clark stayed out in front to take a 1-2 victory, their cars requiring very little attention save for a steering change on the winning car after the joints stiffened due to dust and the replaceinent of a slipping clutch on Clark’s car just for the final run-in from the last special stage to the finish. Waldegard’s clutch was also slipping by then, but there was no need to change it.
Waldegard’s performance was impeccable, as was Clark’s. Both picked up the odd puncture which was inevitable on such terribly rocky roads even with tyres made just for the job, but Clark’s time loss for this reason was rather greater than his team-mate’s. When you get a puncture, everything depends on how far you have to go to the end of the stage and drivers have to make snap decisions on whether to lose time by stopping to change the wheel or to continue on the flat tyre, somewhat slower, with peculiar handling, risking suspension and transmission damage, and also losing time of course, but at a rate per mile and not in one lump.
After a short break the World Championship will resume at the end of August with the Rally of the Thousand Lakes, in Finland, where Fiat will have at least three cars driven by Finns, and Ford probably two. Then comes the Critérium du Quebec in September, the Sanremo Rally in October and both the Tour of Corsica and the Lombard-RAC Rally in November. Fiat plans to tackle all of them with as many works cars and professional drivers as they can muster for the RAC Rally, but Ford hasn’t yet decided about Canada, whilst a decision about Corsica will probably have to wait until the championship situation at the time is known.
Whilst maintaining impartiality, we nevertheless find the prospect of the World Rally Championship going to a British manufacturer (and works Escorts could be nothing but British) quite exciting and we offer the Boreham team our good wishes.—G.P.
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