Rally Review

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Gerry Phillips

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Acropolis Rally

Simple societies of centuries past had simple rules; if you did wrong, you got the club. Civilisation has brought less rigid punishments since those early times, and has graded them according to laws which have been expanded to accommodate the complexities of human behaviour and all its outcome.

That expansion has been gigantic, and there is hardly a country in the modern world which does not have such a huge tangle of legal string that vast armies of unravellers are needed to make laws, administer them, control them and enforce them.

So voluminous has legalisation become that the clear-cut definition of just one rule is hardly possible any more, and when one group of people sets down a statute, multitudes of others seem necessary to debate upon how it should be interpreted.

Parliamentary legislation, however, is one thing; the administration of a straightforward sport is quite another, and whilst governments may be knotted by their own tangles there is absolutely no reason why rally regulations should be anything but clearly defined and totally without ambiguity.

Unfortunately, that is not the case, and all too often straightforward competitions on the road degenerate into tussles of committee room words as interpretations are weighed against each other by people attempting to resolve ambiguities.

Such situations create bad feelings and jeopardise the friendliness which exists between rival competitors. What is more, they expose to the world that the house of rallying is not in order, and the last thing the sport needs is a crumbling public image.

Last month’s Acropolis Rally in Greece, sixth round of the World Championship, was itself a tough competition which everyone enjoyed, but its process of rule enforcement hardly matched that calibre. Indeed, it serves to illustrate what can happen when ambiguous rules are debated by people who may not always have a clear understanding of the principles behind those rules, and who seem to forget that they are supposed to be sporting stewards, not the experts on legal niceties which they sometimes purport to be.

Three Quattros from the Audi factory were passed by the scrutineers two days before the start of the rally, but after they were put into the closed compound at the end of the first leg, one of them then leading the rally, the scrutineers again got to work and reported adversely to the clerk of the course. Each Audi was carrying an extra battery on the floor in front of the co-driver’s seat, these having been put there just for the duration of the overnight stop as insurance against starting difficulties the next day. They were to be removed as the cars left the closed compound for the final leg.

Furthermore, each Audi had its inner headlamps removed, and the apertures fitted with hinged, plastic flaps which would open easily under wind pressure to allow extra cooling air to enter the engine compartment. The idea of the hinge was not to disguise the absence of the headlamp, which was clear for all to see anyway, but to serve a functional purpose on the move whilst covering a disfiguring hole when stationary.

The scrutineers considered that both the absence of headlamps and the presence of extra batteries contravened FISA’s vehicle regulations and consequently reported to the clerk of the course who in turn referred the matter to the panel of stewards.

Then began the debate, and it was worth noting that at no time during the deliberations was any Audi representative called in to offer an explanation. Indeed, they were not even made aware of the result, not even that there had been any problem at all, until near to the start time, giving the team no chance to state its case in reasonable time. In fact, the drivers themselves had no idea of what was going on until they reported to the restart and found their way barred.

The stewards were not unanimous in their opinions, but their majority verdict was to fine the team 25,000 drachmae for the alleged battery infringement, and to exclude all three cars from the rally for the alleged lighting infringement.

The Audi people were completely taken aback by this decision, and by its late announcement, and they immediately gave notice of appeal and deposited the appeal fee which was accepted. The astounding next step was the complete refusal by the organisers, probably on the instructions of the stewards, to allow the Quattros to restart the rally even though the appeal had been lodged. This was totally against the basic principle that guilt cannot be assumed until finally proven, and that cannot happen until Audi’s appeal is heard.

Having been denied the right to continue, Audi cannot possibly be given a position in the whole of the Acropolis Rally even if they win the appeal, but we imagine that they would ask for the halfway results to be taken as the final ones.

All of this put the eventual winners, Ari Vatanen and David Richards in a Ford Escort, in a situation which they did not particularly like, for they would have preferred the Audis to have continued so that they would have had the chance to fight them on the special stages.

Vatanen’s performance was of unquestionable winning standard, but one cannot blame him for feeling irked that perhaps people would wonder what the result would have been had the Audis been allowed to carry on.

Very rough special stages, intense heat, rocky roads so abrasive that they wear tyre treads amazingly quickly, thick dust and time schedules so tight that one risked lateness even by stopping to change tyres, all add up to the retirements being at a high rate. This indeed was the case, and 133 starters were whittled down to just 24 finishers.

Two Toyota Celicas failed to make it. Eklund stopping when broken engine mountings caused vibration failure into other parts and Waldegard when his differential gave up. RAC winner Toivonen lost a rear wheel when the studs sheared on his Sunbeam Lotus, whilst the differential on Salonen’s Datsun failed after he had been obliged to replace a punctured racing tyre with a chunky one, causing excessively uneven strain in the final drive.

Kleint’s Opel Ascona 400 blew its cylinder head gasket, whilst the two brand-new Mitsubishi Turbo Lancers, their 2-1itre engines completely computer controlled, suffered from the effects of heat, Cowan’s alternator almost melting its innards and Kullang’s fuel system losing all its pressure when pipework began wilting and working loose.

The Audi’s of Mikkola and French girl Michele Mouton were superior until Mouton’s rear suspension broke and she limped off a stage with a rear wheel flapping. Even then, she dropped only to fifth.

Mikkola had a drama which was considerably more worrying, but less costly in terms of time penalty. At a service point on the second day, team manager Walter Treser was under the car checking its rear differential, whilst a mechanic was refuelling the car from a jerrycan. The front of the car was jacked up, and when this was lowered, the jolt spilled petrol over the rear of the car and on the ground beneath it.

The engine was still running, as it is bad practice to switch off a hot turbocharged engine immediately after it has been subjected to hard use, and when petrol vapour got near the hot exhaust pipe the whole lot burst into a mass of flame.

Treser was immediately engulfed and although he managed to roll clear he sustained nasty burns on his right hand, forearm and the side of his face and head. The mechanic, too, was burnt, and when he dropped the can the additional fuel spread into a flaming lake beneath the rear of the car.

Co-driver Arne Hertz acted quickly. He jumped into the driver’s seat and drove the car forward, clear of the spillage fire. The rear of the car itself was still burning, but this was soon put out and extraordinarily little work was necessary to get it ready for the road.

Later, Mikkola’s rear differential failed (the Quattro has three) and since there was no opportunity to change the rear axle until the end of that leg he was stuck with front-wheel-drive only for several stages. The front differential has no limited slip device and the consequent poor traction and handling reflected in Mikkola’s stage times.

The final leg was in the Peloponnisos Peninsula, reached via a bridge high above that great cleft in the land known as the Corinth Canal, almost an insultingly simple name for such a fine piece of engineering.

Very little change took place on the last night, and when cars reached the little port of Poros, to be transported by ferry boat to Athens, a voyage of some two and a half hours, Vatanen still led from the Fiats of Alen and Bettega, the Talbot of Frequelin and the Datsuns of Mehta and Moschous.

There can be no doubt that this was a splendid rally of the toughest calibre, and it’s a great shame that bureaucracy took a hand in diminishing its competitive spectacle.

Destruction is generally easier than construction, but rule-makers seem to take the opposite view and it is inordinately more difficult to remove a statute from the book than it is to have one inscribed. FISA’s regulations do not even approach statutory magnitude and it should not be too laborious to take them apart and streamline them by removing every sharp edge of ambiguity. — G.P.

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