Whether a football match is good or bad depends entirely on the playing performance of the teams, and not at all on the promoters of the game who do no more than bring the teams together.
The same cannot be said of rallying, for although a prerequisite of an interest-holding event is a line-up of top flight, evenly matched competitors, it is vital that the rally itself should have been intelligently laid out and given a character sufficiently demanding to ensure that competitors will have to use all their skills.
For instance, in a rally which has target times for its special stages (they do in Britain, whereas many others are run on a scratch basis) it would be quite pointless to set targets which can be beaten, even if only by a few seconds. Nothing is more soul destroying than to drive hard throughout a special stage, beating all other competitors, then to discover that you have also beaten the target time by 20 seconds and have gained no advantage over the others who have only beaten it by 10 seconds.
The manner in which a rally is laid out, the choice of its route, the positioning of its controls, the determination of time allowances, the presentation of its roadbook and the efficiency of officials are just some of the factors which have a great bearing on whether the best will be drawn from competitors, and a good rally is invariably one which not only attracts a healthy entry list but presents a tough challenge and is run smoothly.
The Acropolis Rally, Greece’s contribution to the World Rally Championship, is by no means an example of how a rally should not be run. On the contrary, it presented what might be considered the toughest route which can be employed in Europe, using very rough tracks both at sea level and high in the inland mountains. What is more, the road sections, those parts of the route which link the special stages, were given very high average speeds and not one of the 21 finishers completed the route without incurring penalties on road sections.
The whole idea of tight road sections is to prevent any comprehensive repair of a car which might be damaged on the rough roads, making it necessary for drivers to consider car preservation as well as competitive times. The whole thing then becomes a fine balance, with speed on one side of the scale and the possibility of breakage on the other.
In populated countries with high traffic density it is unwise to set high road averages, for it encourages, even demands, high speeds on roads which can produce accident situations around any bend. Indeed, many countries fix a maximum average speed by law on the sections which link the special stages, and the entire competition is then confined to those stages, which are closed to all other traffic of course.
No organiser wishes to provide competitors with the opportunity to rebuild their cars after every special stage, so there is always the problem of finding the precise average for road sections – not as slow as to provide too much service time and not as fast as to create dangerous situations in traffic. Of course, you will always get competitors who spend so much time servicing during easy road sections that the time they have left is then inadequate and they have to drive as though the section were tight in the first place.
In Greece high-average road sections are allowed, and they turned out to be very tight indeed. One might say that even in a car which was totally reliable a driver would be very hard pressed to complete the route without road penalties. Even the routine need to stop for fuel or new tyres was enough to bring road penalties, and lateness was inevitable for anyone who had the slightest problem which demanded the attention of mechanics.
Some Acropolis competitors complained before the event that the speeds were dangerously high, quite unnecessarily so in an event which had sufficient competitive distance in its 58 special stages. But one wonders whether these complaints were from those genuinely concerned with safety, or from those who knew that their cars would need service and who wanted a little more time for roadside fettling. There is always an element of danger when competitors are required to drive fast on roads which are not closed to other traffic, but on the other hand they are required to drive other than dangerously even when doing so against a relentlessly ticking clock. The entire route of Kenya’s Safari Rally is driven on open public roads and no-one complains there even though it can hardly be said that Kenyan trucks are softer than Greek ones!
Having explained the very fast nature of the Acropolis, let us now consider other features of its character. In late May temperatures are quite high in Greece and a combination of heat and dust, added to the need for constant concentration, produced physical fatigue very quickly indeed. Most European rallies are no more than series of sprints nowadays, but the Acropolis remains an endurance event even though it has reasonable rest stops here and there.
Starting and finishing at Athens, at the foot of the hill on which stands the ancient pillars from which it takes its name, the event runs from Monday morning to Tuesday evening through the Greek mainland, then after a 16-hour stop at Lagonissi, on the coast some 25 miles south-east of Athens, from Wednesday evening to Thursday evening in the Peloponnissos land mass in the south-west, reached via a bridge over the amazingly deep, gorge-like Corinth Canal.
Before the start there were few who would risk a bet on any but one of the works Ford Escorts, because these powerful Gp 4 cars were far quicker than the Gp 2 cars entered by Datsun and Toyota. The only car which the Ford people feared might present them with a challenge was the Lancia Stratos driven by Bernard Darniche, the very able Monte-Carlo winner who drives for Andre Chardonnet, the French Lancia importer who insists on continuing to rally the Stratos even though the Italians have stopped doing so.
An amazing string of factory teams was present at the Acropolis in addition to those already mentioned. Audi came with two cars, Renault with one R5 Alpine, Opel Holland with two Kadetts and no less than six factories in Eastern Europe – Polski-Fiat, Lada, Skoda, Wartburg, Trabant and Dacia, the latter being a licence-built Renault from Romania.
Very quickly retirements whittled down the field, and even after only ten special stages half the 153 starters had gone. The Fords went into the lead from the start, but it wasn’t long before Clark went out with a blown head gasket and Mikkola with complete loss of oil pressure. Waldegard seemed set to win, for Darniche wasn’t going anything as fast as he was expected to and was down at ninth place mid-way through the first leg.
Waldegard had all manner of problems, losing his alternator twice, his clutch, his rear brakes and his entire exhaust system. That lot produced a strain which the Swedish driver had never before encountered. Without rear brakes he had to steer with one hand in order to have the other always ready to activate the rear brakes through the handbrake lever, and without the exhaust pipe he was quite unable to hear Thorszelius shouting the pace notes even though their intercom was still working. Ford mechanics worked like Trojans, and it is to their credit as well as that of the competing crew that the Escort finally made the winner’s rostrum.
After half-distance Darniche picked up quickly and there was no doubt that he was able to make a bid for the lead after all. A long tarmac stage, one of the very few of the rally, provided him with the chance to use the Stratos’ handling and this moved him just ahead of Waldegard. However, the situation didn’t last long, for on the next stage the Stratus stopped with broken rear suspension which led to drive-shaft failure.
Most disappointed was Toyota Europe team manager Ove Andersson, for whom the Acropolis is one of two European events in which he also drives. With just a few stages to go, and in a comfortable second place ahead of two Datsuns, he came to a sudden stop with a blown piston. Team-mate Therier had gone out much earlier when oil seal failure led to a broken differential – the same problem which stopped him in Portugal.
Both Audis and both Opels had gone out, as well as Warmbold’s private Porsche when all its shock-absorbers seized up, but Ragnotti’s little R5 Alpine was going extremely well and made a fine fourth place. The Datsuns were amazingly reliable, and what they lacked in actual urge they made up by keeping on the move whilst others were stopping for repairs. However, they were by no means immune from punctures (no-one is, on the Acropolis) and although Kallstrom’s stage times were good enough to put him second, no less than six punctures dropped him a place, behind team-mate Salonen.
Tough, but entirely in character, the Acropolis served to give Bjorn Waldegard a clear 20-point lead in the World Championship over his team-mate Hannu Mikkola with whom he shared the lead after the Safari. Among the manufacturers, Ford stays in front, but Datsun has moved ahead of Fiat into second place, whilst Renault has moved to fourth. — G.P.
1st: B. Waldegard/H. Thorszelius (Ford Escort RS(4)) . . . . . . . 13h. 36m. 06s.
2nd: T. Salonen/S. Harjanne (Datsun (60J(2)) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14h. 07m. 34s.
3rd: H. Kallstrom/C. Billstam (Datsun 160J(2)). . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14h. 12m. 39s.
4th: J. Ragnotti/J-M. Andrie (Renault 5 Alpine (2)). . . . . . . . . . 14h. 20m. 16s.
5th: “Iaveris”/C. Stefanis (Ford Escort RS (4)). . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14h. 37m. 01s.
6th: G. Moschous/A. Constandakatos (Datsun 160J(2)). . . . . 14h. 55m. 27s.
7th: E. Gallo/D. Petropoulos (Datsun 160J(2)). . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15h. 05m. 08s.
8th: N. Elizarov/V. Moskoviskih (Lada 1600(2)). . . . . . . . . . . . . 16h. 13m. 15s.
9th: V. Blahna/J. Motal (Skoda 130 RS (2)). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16h. 13m. 22s.
10th: S. Vukovich/A. Brum (Lada 1600 (2)). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16h. 34m. 11s.
153 starters, 21 finishers