Rally review - Acropolis Rally

Before the lure of the Safari began to attract the more adventurous competitors from Europe, several rallies laid claim to that old and worn-out cliche, the roughest and toughest. One of these events was the Acropolis Rally, and whilst the advance of civilisation has spread spoil-sport tarmacadam over many of Europe’s fine mountain roads, the Greek event can still boast a high degree of unspoilt natural going. One can hardly call it virgin, for in its twenty-five years (one year less than the Safari) it has seen much coming and going ; it is more a rally which has stayed rough as others all around it have become smoother.

As unmetalled roads become fewer, save in forests and on other private land, the mountains of Greece continue to provide the country’s rally organisers with a fine selection of tortuous tracks which are the envy of many other rally people who are without the advantage of wild, craggy countryside right on their doorsteps. The Automobile and Touring Club of Greece makes full use of their seemingly perpetual Utopia, and the Acropolis Rally continues to enjoy a reputation for toughness which few, if any, other events in Europe can match. We are not saying that no other event is better, for one can hardly make a direct comparison of the Acropolis with a Scandinavian snow rally, or even the smooth- gravel forest racing of the RAC Rally. What we are saying is that one would be hard pressed to find an event which uses rougher, more punishing roads.

The route twists and climbs from sea level to lofty mountains, along steep, rocky tracks flanked by sheer, unguarded drops which would bring gasps from the ranks of the GPDA and which must have made even Zeus falter in his stride. Not only skill but physical stamina is needed for a good result on the Acropolis Rally, for the heat and the dust bring on fatigue very quickly. We recall a year when co-drivers were faltering in the reading of their notes as they struggled to fight off tiredness, and even drivers were stopping to douse their heads under cooling village pumps.

But the Acropolis is not all a mechanised rock climb. Some of its special stages are on tarmac roads, but these present difficulties which are not encountered elsewhere. Greek asphalt seems to have a special property; even when dry it is as slippery as most other tarmac is when it is wet, but when it becomes wet it is almost like ice. Tyre screeching is as common in Athens as horn-blowing, and much of it is due to this strange consistency of the tarmac and not entirely to Mediterranean exuberance.

Racing tyres are obviously used on these smooth tarmac stages, but they have to be treated with great respect for it is very easy indeed to spin off. What is more, cars are set up for rough roads, and racing tyres are not really complementary to high suspension settings.

By tradition, the rally starts and finishes at the foot of the hill upon which perches the ancient pillars of the Acropolis in Athens. But Athens is a hot, sticky, noisy, traffic- ridden city, and over the years competitors
have preferred to base themselves at the village of Glyfada, some 15 miles along the coast, where the proximity of the cooling sea more than compensates for the noise of air traffic passing directly overhead at little over tree-top height on its way to and from nearby Athens airport. Rally headquarters has always been at the organisers’ clubhouse in Athens centre, but even the journey to and from the city has not persuaded visiting competitors that they should move away from what has become their traditional base camp.

Recognising this, the organisers now route the rally back to Glyfada, not Athens, for its 20-hour half-way stop, where accommodation is provided at the expensive (but free for that one night) bungalow complex around Astir Beach. During the week of the rally, that wooded complex becomes its own open-air, multi-make workshop. Trailers, tyre trucks and service cars are dotted around, along with worn and dirty practice cars and the shiny ones to be used in the event, and mechanics work in the open, taking full advantage of the weather. It is a hive of activity in an admirable setting, and superbly convenient since everyone seems to be gathered in that one area.

The rally itself is based on some 50-odd special stages which are strung out all over the country, the first leg on the Greek mainland to the north of Athens and the second to the west, across the Corinth Canal in the Peloponnissos. But the competition is not confined entirely to stages which are closed to other traffic for the duration of the event. The inter-stage routes, on open public roads, are pretty tightly timed as well, and he who stops for even the quickest of servicing jobs will find himself hard pressed not to lose a few minutes or so at the next time control.

In other parts of Europe, particularly in Britain, special stage events are what they say they are. Road sections between stages have very easy averages, by law , in order that there will be no reason to dice among ordinary traffic, but in Greece the official attitude seems to be based on as much enthusiasm as that of the thousands who go out to watch. Journeys are given time allowances which are only just adequate, and there are places where even refuelling stops must be made only if absolutely necessary, and even then in the knowledge that precious minutes might be lost. Tyre change points are arranged in advance, after reconnaissance runs, in sections where there will be least chance of losing time, and even then drivers must be prepared to drive very quickly on open public roads. Some even prepare for this very likely eventuality by making full pace notes not only on the special stages but on the tightest road sections as well.

It is indeed quite a sight to see a car scrabbling for grip as it is driven at high speed along the narrow, twisty, dirt road of a mountain village, raising clouds of choking dust, watched and even encouraged by policemen as it passes within inches of the village populace sitting on rows of chairs outside their homes. They are quite unmoved by the proximity of the cars, and their only outward expressions of concern are slow hand movements to shield the tops of their glasses so that dust particles will not settle in their ouzo. Some villagers see hardly any traffic at all through- out the year, so woe betide any official who tries to deny them the right to watch the amazing annual spectacle of strange-tongued foreigners apparently bent on destroying their cars as quickly as possible. There is no official relaxation of traffic laws, of course, and the rally regulations are emphatic that they should be observed, but there is an unwritten understanding, almost as well grounded as the laws themselves, that tolerance should aid the passage of the Acropolis Rally.

In the early part of the year there have been close and very exciting tussles between Ford and Fiat, unquestionably the two most closely matched rivals presently contesting World Championship events. But although Fiat is going all out to win the series again this year, Ford has declared no such intention and the Acropolis Rally was not included in the Boreham team’s budget allocation for 1978. The result was a comfortable win for the Italian team, even though there were plenty of other works teams with cars in the event.

Manufacturers represented by official teams were Fiat, Toyota, Datsun, Opel, Citroen, Skoda, Lada, Polski-Fiat, Wartburg and Trabant, and there were even two very oriental-looking Daihatsu A20KDs, entered and driven by Greeks but watched over very closely by quite a group of Japanese. Perhaps it was an exploratory exercise, but the cars’ inscrutable guardians were saying nothing.

Toyota was represented by the company’s Brussels-based European team with two 2-litre Celicas for Andersson and Therier. Last year, when the cars could run in group four, they had sixteen-valve engines and plenty of winning potential, but they are now in group two and their eight-valve engines, when prepared to produce something like the required power, seem to lose reliability. Both cars went far better than most people expected, Therier getting up to third place and Andersson picking up very quickly after losing time early in the rally when a fuel filter became blocked, but they both succumbed to engine failure which had not been diagnosed at the time of writing.

Datsun sent two of their new-shape 160Js which are much squarer than the previous models but seem to handle better. They look much heavier, but we are told that they are not. With a few Japanese engineers to look after things, and a vast army of mechanics provided by the Greek importers, the cars were driven by Mehta and Kallstrom, both excellent performers in endurance rallies and both with good records in Greece. These two were well matched, and although they each encountered small problems there was nothing serious to produce huge chunks of time loss. The result was a consistency which brought third and fourth places. For a long time there was some doubt as to who would take which, and official times didn’t help much here because there seemed to be quite a number of little errors creeping into the results, but brake failure a handful of stages from the end cost Kallstrom some time and he had to give best to Mehta who had his wife Yvonne as his very capable co-driver.

On the subject of times and results, we may say that although the Acropolis Rally is often held up as an example of organisational efficiency by the CSI (its chief organiser is himself a CSI official) there are some areas in which it falls down. No-one will dispute the toughness of the rally, nor its technical slickness in the field, nor the way in which the Athens-based helmsman is always in control, but the stage times were really rather slow getting back to Rally Headquarters, and consequently slow being conveyed back to competitors and their teams. As always, it was far better and more up-to-date to rely on the times being recorded on their comparison charts by works teams than to wait for those which were processed at Rally Headquarters. It is the accepted practice, and has been for many years, for co-drivers to note the times of their rivals at every stage, as well as their own, so that they and their team managers will have a constant picture of progress without having to check constantly at the rally office, which might be many hundreds of miles away. Radio is always an advantage in this respect, and if a team manager cannot get to the end of a certain stage he will ask his crews to give him their times (and those of rivals if they know them) over the air.

The Opel team consisted of three Kadetts for Kullang, Warmbold and veteran Greek driver Pesmazoglou who won the event twice in its early days, including the ELPA Rally which was the forerunner of the Acropolis. But Pesmazoglou was not long before going out of the rally, and Kullang went out later with axle failure no doubt caused by distortion in an earlier roll.

The saving grace for the team was Warmbold’s fifth place, behind the two Fiats and the two Datsuns, the German driver’s partner on this occasion being none other than Hans-Erik Sylwan, the Swede who is Blomqvist’s regular co-driver in the Saab team.

The successful Fiat team brought two of their cars to first and second places, only losing a 1-2-3 victory when Munari’s car suffered suspension collapse. Earlier he had been troubled when a driveshaft coupling lost its lubrication and began overheating so much that mechanics were obligated to change the shaft lest it should fail altogether in some inaccesible place on a special stage. This took time and it delayed Munari somewhat on the road. When he later arrived at one of the short rest stops he found the two other 131 Abarths already being serviced and the mechanics had no time to carry out the routine preventitive jobs which are invariably done whenever there is time. Particularily on rough events such as this one, such work includes the replacement of shock-absorbers even if they look and feel quite normal, and whilst the two other Fiats re-started the rally with new shock-absorbers, Munari was still on his old ones. Unfortunately for him, one of them failed, on the rear side, and it was not long before the suspension collapsed completely and he was out.

Fiat's two other drivers, Walter Rohrl and Markku Alen, seemed to play cat and mouse for a while, but Rohrl had the edge on Alen and only slowed down when he felt it was neccesary to avoid breaking the car, and when his lead could stand a possible small reduction. With no Italian driver left in the running (Rohrl is German and Alen a Finn) national pride didnt come into things at all, as it has in the past, and the only really specific instruction given to the two drivers was that one of them should win. They were not to have a full-scale personal duel which might result in the breakage of both their cars. Their problems were minor ones, although Alen several times needed driveshaft replacement after the failure of coupling gaiters such as Munari had experienced.

The result of the Acropolis Rally brings Fiat's points total in the World Rally Championship to 64 but Coleman's seventh place brought Ford up to 50, which means that the Italians are still not a full first place score (18 points) ahead of Ford. The remaining rounds are the Thousand Lakes Rally, the Criterium du Quebec, the Sanremo Rally, Tour of Corsica, RAC Rally and, if it ever does find a firm calendar date, the Bandama Rally in the Ivory Coast.

But more significant than Fiat's increased lead was the exceptional young German driver has suffered many a disappointment due to car failure, and this Acropolis win was just what he needed to prevent his pessimism becoming too deep-rooted. He forst came to notice when he drove a 2.3-litre Capri amazingly well in the Olympia Rally in Germany in 1972, getting right up among the leaders even without notes. Since then he has driven much for Opel but those were the team's unreliable days and mechanical failures put him out of rally after rally. He has since joined Fiat, and from the beginning he made a big impression, This win is something which he has richly deserved for a long time. - G.P.