Animals of rare species are generally, and quite properly, preserved from extinction by protection orders which make it illegal to kill them. All rarities should be so protected, among them some of the world’s classic rallies which have become unique inasmuch as they have retained their characters whilst others all around them have either succumbed to standardisation or become diluted to comply with ever hardening regulations.
One classic which steadfastly refuses to be stereotyped is the Acropolis Rally, and we would be the last to go along with any needless tampering with the make-up of this unique event without which the sport of rallying would be much less rich in variety and colour.
In Africa and other parts of the world where large areas are relatively unpopulated and so far little affected by the spoilsport advance of tarmac it is still possible to have endurance rallies of the most gruelling kind, but in Europe that type of event is fast approaching extinction. Indeed, the Acropolis Rally stands out alone in populated Europe as the event which demands the greatest endurance, reliability, stamina and tenacity from cars, crews, mechanics and all concerned.
In one way the rally follows established patterns by having special stages on roads closed to all other traffic, but it also has very fast sections on open roads, so tightly timed that quick stops for tyre changes, or even just for refuelling, can produce a very real danger of running late and picking up penalties. Other European events, with the exception of certains parts of the Portuguese Rally, have completely noncompetitive road sections and confine all their high speed action to special stages clinically sealed off from other traffic. The Acropolis is a kind of mixture, taking ingredients from both Europe and Africa to produce a near-continuously fast event with special stages on scratch timing and road sections with targets as near impossible as the organisers can manage without overstepping the bounds of possibility. Elsewhere in Europe it is possible to limp off a Special stage knowing that there will be time before the next stage to have a broken motor car restored in minutes at the roadside to a degree of mechanical efficiency which most commercial garages would be unable to equal in as many days. In Greece such feats of instant engineering are regularly achieved, but whereas competitors’ service plans elsewhere may show anything between ten minutes and an hour available for service, Acropolis service plans are more likely to show one or two minutes only. Indeed, some sections this year were so tight that competitors reckoned service time in minus quantities. Such, then, is the kind of going which faces those who strive for success in an event which has changed little in the past twenty years. The pace is fast, but the roads are by no means easy on cars and it is often more prudent to ease off and preserve the car than to make best time on a stage only to pay for it tenfold by a long stop afterwards to repair damage. A reliable car can often be driven to a better result than one which is much faster but more prone to breakages.
Witness the performance this year of the Datsuns; these 8-valve Group Two cars are by no means as fast as their 16-valve Group Four rivals, but they are strong and reliable and Timo Salonen took one to an excellent second place this year, behind Ari Vatanen’s Escort but ahead of cars capable of a much greater turn of speed.
Entries for the 1980 Acropolis Rally, held during the last week of May, were of an exceptionally high order, no less than a dozen factories represented either directly or through professionally run private teams. These were Fiat, Lancia. Ford, Opel, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Datsun, Peugeot, Lada, Polonez, Wartburg and Trabant.
The Ford representation was through the two Escorts of the Rothmans team and several other privateers, including Andrew Cowan with a car running on Yokohama tyres. The Rothmans runners were Hannu Mikkola and Ari Vatanen and neither wasted any time moving to the head of the field. Alas Mikkola stopped to have a faulty starter replaced and then spent a frustrating time as mechanics strove to find the fault which thereafter prevented the engine firing. It was simply a disconnected line plug buried out of sight behind the heater assembly.
Vatanen held his lead to the end, despite losing time with punctures as most people did. Greek roads are so abrasive that any amount of sideways motion tends to put sidewalls at risk, and it often turns out to be quicker in the long run to spend the odd second longer on each tight corner to avoid having to spend minutes stopping for a wheel change. Vatanen never really looked like losing his lead, but immediately behind him the situation was completely different. Fiat, Toyota, Datsun and Opel all had expectations of second place and with it the chance of moving into the lead should something stop or delay Vatanen. All four teams had a variety of troubles, and there was never one driver who seemed destined for second place. Indeed, the position changed hands several times. Toyota lost two of its three Celicas early in the event, Asterhag’s when its gearbox failed on the first stage and Therier’s when a broken anti-roll bar followed repeated breakage of shock-absorber mountings. Fiat had to change gearboxes on two of their three 131 Abarths, whilst Opel lost one Ascona and very nearly another when contact with stones folded the rims of their apparently rather soft wheels, causing them to foul backplates and brake assemblies. Mehta retired when this happened, but Kullang indulged in ruthless work with reverse gear and clutch pedal to free his jammed wheel with a mighty jerk, allowing him to change it.
Problems such as these meant extra penalties on special stages, but they invariably also brought penalties on road sections, not to mention lost advantages when slower cars got ahead and made progress difficult, and overtaking sometimes impossible, in the thick dust.
One of the colourful teams rallying today is that of Mercedes. Well-heeled and always backed by plenty of mechanics and the best possible equipment, including helicopters, the outfit has always given the impression that it has nothing to learn about rallying from sources outside the company. Indeed, there was a time when it was thought that the 450SLCs could survive and even win tough rallies with very little modification beyond showroom state. They have since learned otherwise, the hard way. This year they had already suffered failures in Portugal and Kenya, and now in Greece they discovered that on rough roads the vibration causes 450SLC brake discs to part company from the wheels. The discs are not securely bolted to wheels but are held in place by locating lugs, as on many Grand Prix cars. These began to wear and the free play then caused the wear rate to increase so that under heavy braking they snapped, allowing wheels to revolve freely even though the brake pads had stopped the discs.
This was the cause of Waldegard’s retirement on the last day. After a long fast straight he braked and immediately had disc locating lugs break. To slow the car he aimed it obliquely at a wall but the contact rolled it on to its roof. He did get away, but lost so much time that there was no point in continuing.
Another tremendous difficulty which the Mercedes people found themselves facing was the alarmingly rapid rate of tyre wear on the 450s. With 340 bhp to propel 1,350 kilos, the big cars were often spinning their rear wheels leaving corners or climbing hills, and on stone-surfaced tracks this very quickly reduced rear tyres to shreds. On average, the tyres were lasting no more than 20 km, and on long stages the drivers often had to stock up with spares so that they could change wheels themselves in mid-stage.
This problem did not affect the one 280CE which the factory had entered in the event, but that car, driven by Ingvar Carlsson, stopped on the last day when heat from a broken exhaust manifold set fire to electrical wiring. The only Mercedes to finish was the 450SLC of Kenyans Preston and Doughty.
German driver Walter Rohr! showed his quick, decisive reactions on one stage when, having misheard a pace-note read by co-driver Geistdorfer, he found himself entering a corner too fast. His Fiat 131 started to slide bodily outwards towards a very steep downward slope and rather than face the real possibility of rolling down that hillside after going off sideways, he straightened the car at the last minute and shot over the edge nose first. Down it went, bouncing and bucking over the uneven ground, but Rohrl managed to keep it on its wheels and later, when a crowd of spectators had heaved the car back to the road, it was mechanically sound and able to continue to fifth place.
Another incident, not actually of the rally but incidental to it deserves mention. An Alouette helicopter of Olympic aviation was being used by Peugeot to carry a mechanic and a film cameraman and on the second stage it was hovering near the stage itself as the cameraman filmed. It was about to bank out of the hover when the driveshaft to the tail rotor snapped and, without any anti-torque facility, the aircraft went out of control and crashed, although the pilot managed to check its descent until about 20 feet from the ground by using cyclic and collective controls.
The crash and the rally were only indirectly related, and the same would have happened had the aircraft been engaged in filming a golf tournament, but it did serve to bring out another danger concerning the use of helicopters, superb flying machines that they are, in connection with a rally.
All too often spectators will be attracted by helicopters flying too close to a stage and will be looking skywards when competing cars are approaching. Furthermore, the noise of the cars will be drowned by the helicopter noise and drivers have to face spectators whose attentions are entirely elsewhere. The risks of this situation are so obvious that they need no enlargement.
Returning to the rally itself, we must add that several competitors felt that some of the road sections, particularly those which go through villages, were just a little too tight and bordered the dangerous. But on the whole spectator behaviour is excellent and there are always plenty of extremely helpful policemen to ensure that no-one gets into harm’s way.
In any case, the whole of Greece is familiar with the character of the Acropolis Rally, and there cannot be one single villager who does not realise that if the rally will be passing his home, then it will do so at very high speed. An extra minute or two here and there might serve to reduce the criticism, but any more will change the style of the event and could well play into the hands of those who are simply seeking more service time. Walter Rohr! keeps his lead in the World Rally Championship with 48 points, but Anders Kullang now moves up to second place with 40.
Behind are Waldegard with 35, Alen 27 and Mehta and Vatanen each with 20. In the manufacturers category, Fiat leads with 66, followed by Opel with 57, Ford 51, Datsun 45 and Mercedes 29. Next round is the Codasur Rally in Argentina on July 21-27. – GP.
1st : A, Vatanen/D, Richards (Ford Escort RS)(4) 12h 55m 44s
2nd: T. Salonen/S. Harjanne (Datsun 160J)(2) 12h 58m 26s
3rd : M, Alen/I, Kivimakl (Fiat 131 Abarth)(4) 13h 02m 48s
4th: A. Kullang/8, Berglund (Opel Ascona 400)(4) 13h 06m 47s
5th: W, R6hrl/C. GeistdOrfer (Fiat 131 Abarth)(4) 13h 18m 54s
6th : 0. Andersson/H. Llddon (Toyota Celica)(4) 13h 18m 54s
7th: H, KtillstrOm/8. Thorszelius (Datsun 160J)(2) 13h 18m 56s
8th: A. Bettega/A. Bernacchini (Fiat 131 Abarth)(4) 13h 20m 37s
9th : T. Livleratos/M. Makrinos (Lancia Stratos)(4) 13h 37m 07s
10th : T. MAkinen/J. Todt (Peugeot 504 Coupe)(4) 13h 39m 49s