Rally review: Acropolis Rally

Lancia put Audi in the shade

WHEN Lancia first appeared with the competition car given the model name "Rally", there were all manner of doubts as to its suitability for anything but the smoothest of tarmac. Its tubular structure seemed far too frail to withstand any determined pounding, and there were also questions concerning crew survivability in an accident, questions which became more pointed when Bettega's legs were so badly injured in his 1982 crash in Corsica.

There was even talk that Lancia's drivers and co-drivers were a little nervous of competing in a car which gave them so little protection, but that has certainly gone by the board, for Alen, Rohrl and Bettega now demonstrate supreme confidence in the car and drive it with all the effort they can muster.

"All those aluminium tubes have been replaced by angle iron left over from Stratos days" was one wag's explanation of how the Lancia Rally acquired strength and reliability. The beefing-up process has been nothing like as crude as that, of course, but the fact remains that this supercharged, rear-engined car is now capable of surviving — and winning — the most arduous and punishing European event of the World Rally Championship, the Acropolis Rally. Years ago the Acropolis was furiously fast from start to finish, all in oppressive heat and choking dust, on roads little more than mule tracks, and with time schedules so tight that even a refuelling stop meant a risk of losing road time. Physical stamina was as important as driving skill, and on one particular event when co-drivers were dozing off over their notes and drivers were having to stop to douse their heads under village water taps, the outcome was the formation of an exclusive club, "The Sleeping Co-Drivers' Association". Nowadays, road sections are far less tight, but the heat, dust and rocky roads all remain to give the rally its unique character among its European counterparts.

The start and finish are at Athens, the former at the foot of the city-centre hill on which stands the Acropolis itself, and the latter at the impressive, modern Olympic Stadium. Rally headquarters, however, are at the resort of Lagonissi, a collection of beach-side bungalows some 25 miles south-east of Athens. The first leg runs northwards to the town of Kalambaka, near the mountain monastery of Meteora, the second back to Lagonissi, and the third looping through the Peloponnesus, that land mass to the south-west of Athens reached by crossing that amazing cleft in the land called the Corinth Canal. The night stop at Kalambaka was of 10 hours duration, but that in Lagonissi was all of 19 hours, giving competitors time not only to sleep but to enjoy the sunshine with friends and families. It also enabled team managers to redeploy their service resources with none of the rush and panic usually associated with shorter stops.

Service is not particularly easy during the Acropolis, for the first two legs travel in near-straight lines, and it is virtually impossible for a service car to catch up with competitors once they have passed it. There is no short cut for a short journey, after all. Service requirements can therefore be met only by sheer numbers, and some team managers felt that the rally organisers could do much to reduce the costs of competitors, both professional and private, by introducing more loops into the first and second leg routes.

Scrutiny for the Acropolis takes place on a Saturday, and there is then a gap of one day before the Monday start. This is a legacy from the time when there was a preliminary stage, either on the airfield at Tatoi or on a mountain road, on the Sunday upon which the Monday start order depended, but these pre-start tests have long since been forbidden by FISA.

Opel, Audi, Lancia, Renault, Nissan, Lada and Wartburg all sent cars to Greece, not to mention the fleet of Citroen Visas competing in their own one-make championship. Three Opel Manta 400s were driven by Vatanen, Toivonen and McRae, three Audi Quattros by Mikkola, Mouton and Blomqvist, three Lancias by Alen, Rohrl and Bettega, and three Nissan 240 RSs by Salonen, Mehta and Moschous. One Renault 5 Turbo came from the factory for Ragnotti, three Ladas from the Russian Avtoexport organisation for Okhu, Vukovich and Soots, and three Wartburgs from East Germany for Heimburger and the Krugel brothers.

Power approximations for the four main contenders were 360 b.h.p. for the Quattros, 330 for the Lancias, 280 for the Mantas and 265 for the Nissans. Renault said that the appearance was merely an extension of the development programme, although one wonders whether it is also a means of keeping a foot in the door, and its mechanics battle-trained, whilst the main company sports activity remains Grand Prix racing.

Considering the power of the cars involved, there was no doubt that Audi and Lancia were going to be the two rivals for victory, with Opel and Datsun forming a second line ready to step in should any problem slow or stop the faster cars.

Lower down in the entry list were a brace of Mazda RX7s, now operating from Brussels, driven by Warmbold and Harri Toivonen (brother of Henri), a Renault 5 Turbo driven by Greek importer Maniatopoulos, an Ascona driven by veteran driver Pesmazoglou, winner of the first Acropolis in 1952, Austrian adventurer Rudi Stohl in a Lada, Criticos and Doughty from Kenya in an Escort, Paul Hadley and his son Trevor from the UK each in a Talbot Sunbeam, Austrian Franz Wittmann in a Quattro which he has bought from the factory, Belgians Mignot and Lejeune in a Manta and a string of Visas driven by people such as Verini, the former Fiat factory driver, Coppier, Chomat and Dorche.

Monday was dry and sunny as crews made their way from coastal hotels to the city centre for the start. Some service cars were also moving out, but many of these had left the day before to avoid the frustrating traffic tangle which besets Athens during the morning rush hours. Everyone stays to the south of Athens, to the city has to be negotiated in order to get out on the route, and that is a pretty demoralising exercise by any standards.

The first stage was at Mount Parnis, some 16 miles to the north of Athens. Because it was to close to the city the organisers had restricted practice on this one stage to as few limited periods in order to reduce the chances of accidents involving spectators. Nevertheless, competitors had the mixed-surface test well noted.

It was here that the first casualty among the front runners took place. Running at number one in deference to her win last year, Michele Mouton got her Quattro into first gear for the exit from a hairpin when the car executed a slow roll and went off the road. The two ladies managed to get the car going again, with help from spectators, but the time loss was something like 50 minutes and they were beyond their maximum. The roll had been one thing, but its effect quite another, for a pipe to the rear oil cooler had broken. What is more, although the Germans believe that women can drive cars as fast as men, they do not consider them capable of fettling them, and there were no tools or spares in the car with which to repair the damage. Losing oil with every revolution, Mouton drove to the finish of the stage, where even if she had not been out of time the engine damage would without doubt have prevented her continuing.

On the equally rough Aliki stage, descending the rocky road to the sleepy fishing village of that name and climbing back up the mountain again, Warmbold's Mazda suddenly went completely out of control and he very nearly sailed straight over the edge. His steering idler had snapped, causing a front wheel to flap uselessly. He could turn one way, but not the other, and on more than one occasion had to be bumped around a corner by a following car.

The failure was not isolated, for it happened again, also affecting the car of team-mate Harri Toivonen, but constant attention to the possibility of sudden steering failure got both cars to the finish.

As the Monday progressed, so the blue skies darkened, and before long a huge thunderstorm covered the entire country — probably the same one which burst over England the next day. The torrential rain caused floods in many places, whilst several car roofs were destroyed by huge hailstones. In the middle of all this, Alen's windscreen wipers packed up, slowing him considerably and even bringing him to a dead stop occasionally when he was obliged to get out to wipe off the mud thrown up by passing cars.

Verini's Citroen stopped with a blown head gasket, whilst Ragnotti had to stop several times on the ninth stage in order to tighten front wheel nuts as best he could. Friction had begun to wear away the stud threads, and the tightening process wasn't really having any effect. Eventually the studs sheared and off came the wheel, caused in the first place by either over or under-tightening, it was not clear which.

One effect of the rainstorm had been to lower the temperature, and competitors welcomed the relief, albeit a slight one, from the intense heat they were enduring inside their cars, a condition which brings on exhaustion very quickly indeed. It was some consolation, of course, that the longest stages took place at night.

A silly and unnecessary mistake, not at all typical of Opel thoroughness, cost McRae considerable time following failure of his fuel pump. He immediately switched on his reserve pump, and was surprised when nothing happened. It was a struggle to keep going, and when they eventually got off the stage they were annoyed to find that the switch which they had been using was not for the reserve fuel pump at all, but for the rear screen heater, disconnected in this case since a plastic rear window was fitted!

Opel has standard wiring systems for all its cars, and switches are always in the same position. But McRae's car has right-hand steering, and the mechanic wiring the car had confused the positions, compounding the error by neglecting to label the switches. Later, the Scots driver had more problems when his clutch began to seize. There was no time to change the unit, and he had to endure this all the way to Kalambaka and back, managing most of the time with clutchless changes but sometimes having to stop, even on stages, for in-gear push starts.

After 15 stages the rally arrived at Kalambaka with Mikkola in the lead by 26 sec. from Rohrl. Blomqvist was another 81 sec. behind, Alen another three, after which came much bigger gaps separating Bettega, Vatanen, McRae, Toivonen and Mehta, the latter driving in his customary reliable style, using just as much speed as he considers prudent.

Bettega had been delayed when his jack broke as he was changing a wheel following a puncture on a stage. The Lancia helicopter came to his aid, but he did lose some time. Unfortunately, mechanics at the next service point neglected to re-equip his car with a spare wheel, and when he collected another puncture the helicopter was obliged to help out once again.

On Tuesday morning the storms had moved away to the north, and the trek southwards began. Not long after the start Blomqvist's rally all but came to an end when a mechanic omitted to lock the fuel cap after refilling and spillage dropped on the hot exhaust pipe and ignited. Cederberg just happened to be outside the car, and when Blomqvist tossed him the extinguisher he was able to put out the flames. The incident reminded us of that sudden conflagration two years ago when spillage ignited during refuelling and burnt Audi team manager Walter Terser who happened to be beneath Mikkola's car checking the rear axle. On that occasion the car was saved when Arne Hertz jumped in and drove it smartly away from the burning fuel on the ground.

Blomqvist also had to put up with metal to metal braking at the rear, and he could surely not have been impressed with the efficiency of Audi's service tactics. Audi engineering may be one thing, but in the field they have never displayed the efficiency of Opel, for instance, and they could certainly do with a few lessons from Russelsheim, Turin or Boreham, or even Abingdon or Trollhattan for that matter.

Salonen had already had a gearbox changed after it jammed in first gear and he spent a few hair-raising miles coasting downhill as the only means of getting up any reasonable speed. That operation took long enough, but when the replacement box jammed in fifth it took even longer to change and this time the Finn was beyond his maximum lateness and he was off back to Helsinki on the next available flight. Kenyan visitors Basil Criticos and Mike Doughty saw Greece from an unexpected angle when they rolled their Escort off the road, whilst on the way back to Lagonissi the Mazda team very nearly suffered a major disaster when five of their service cars were involved in one multiple accident.

The vehicles were going along in convoy when a taxi drove out from a side road without warning. The leading service car hit the taxi and all the others piled up, bumper to bumper. Had it not been so potentially serious it would have been a most amusing incident indeed. Fortunately they all managed to get going again.

Another road section incident almost stopped McRae for good when a propshaft bearing failed on his Manta and the car was almost polevaulted off the road. McRae managed to bring the car to a safe stop, but not before bits and pieces had flown off in all directions. Fortunately there was a service car not far behind and a roadside repair was effected in record time.

The persons most surprised at this apparent explosion beneath McRae's car were Shekhar and Yvonne Mehta who were following closely behind. Fortunately the solid debris missed their Nissan, but they were unable to avoid the oil which sprayed out when the shaft pulled right out of the rear axle, and much detergent was put to use to get rid of it.

Late that night there was not the usual huge crowd awaiting the cars as they arrived at the gates of the Lagonissi bungalow complex. Most people had used whatever time they had available to indulge in service long before Lagonissi — this time there was an opportunity to change almost everything as a precaution — but for some strange reason Audi had set up shop right opposite the gates, where the crowds would be at their greatest.

Mikkola had extended his lead over Rohrl to nearly three minutes, whilst Alen was more than three more minutes behind. Even further back were Toivonen, Blomqvist, Bettega, McRae and Mehta, in that order.

That night the prime requirements were eating and sleeping, for there was ample time the next day to change or modify service plans, restock with tyres and replenish spare parts in service cars.

The final leg ran from Wednesday evening to Thursday morning, looping through the Peloponissos with road sections rather tighter than they had been in the first two legs. Roads also tended to be rougher, but service was correspondingly easier since mechanics were able to short-cut from one stage to another.

At this stage of most rallies people are usually content to hold station — with some exceptions, of course — but on the Acropolis Rally this year there was none of that premature acceptance that positions would remain unchanged to the finish. Mikkola's three minute lead was not enough for the Finn to relax, especially as the relentless Rohrl was behind him, whilst the German was by no means ready to settle for second place without giving Mikkola a run for his money.

Right from the first stage, one of two on the mainland before crossing the Corinth Canal, things began to happen. Toivonen lost his fourth place when he sailed over a crest headlong into a tree, destroying the front of his Manta, leaving only Vatanen and McRae to attempt to stay in touch with the leaders.

The most amazing mishap happened a few stages later, when Mikkola's boot lid began to vibrate, either because a retainer had broken or because it hadn't been fastened properly. The oil cooler on a Quattro sits right beneath the back of the boot lid, and the vibration caused a joint to loosen, allowing oil to escape. It must have been the return pipe, because oil continued to be pumped to the engine, and the pressure gauge continued to display a normal reading, until that is, the tank was empty and there was nothing left to be pumped forward.

Almost as soon as the gauge began to flicker, so the engine sounded its death rattle, and Mikkola coasted to a stop, despondent that his first Acropolis victory had been snatched from him through no fault of his own. He and Hertz began to walk the five or so miles to the finish of the stage, accepting a lift (in the boot and on the bonnet respectively) on Warmbold's Mazda for a while but opting out when the speed got a bit too high for comfort!

The incident highlighted the lack of proper direction and supervision in the Audi service network, commodities the shortage of which might well have led to Lancia ousting the 1983 World Rally Championship from Audi, and Rohrl beating Mikkola to the personal laurels. With only Blomqvist left, all Audi could hope for was a place somewhere among the points scorers, but even this chance was almost thrown away. Trouble developed in the pump feeding both power steering and the electrically controlled hydraulic clutch, making the car very difficult to drive indeed. When the pump was eventually changed, the distributor (which had to be removed to gain access to the pump) was not replaced properly and the timing inaccuracy gave rise to popping, banging and overheating. Audi thus became relegated to also-cans, for even Wittman's privately entered car was giving all sorts of trouble. The geometry was not quite right, and five times during the event the Austrian had to replace a rear shaft. However, he managed to finish, a feat which pleased him immensely.

Moschous, Nissan's, Greek driver, went out with steering failure, but not the "broken rack" which an official bulletin proclaimed. The works Datsuns have had recirculating ball steering mechanisms since the first time they came to Europe back in 1969. But Mehta was still there, well into the points scores and firmly established as those about him became fewer and fewer.

Alen's car was running far rougher than Rohrl's, and much, much hotter, and towards the end of the final leg there was doubt whether it would make the finish. But it did, albeit with a head gasket so perforated that it was a miracle it had any cylinders firing at all.

Even the Opels owed something to Lady Luck, if such a being exists, for Vatanen had a front strut break away and lost all of six minutes on a stage. But he did get to the end, enabling mechanics to carry out a rapid replacement at a cost of only two road minutes.

Team-mate McRae came even closer to disaster. Like the others he'd had his share of problems, including a most disconcerting crop of wheel failures — the rims were splitting — which fortunately occurred where there were no enormous drops to fall over. Just a couple of stages from the end, rear suspension breakage caused McRae's rear axle almost to fall out of the car, but he, too, made it to a service point where mechanics again put their fettling skills to good use.

There was no time for anything like a proper repair, so out came the wire hawsers and the rear axle and suspension were tightly bound in place, reminiscent of past Safaris when winch cables served the same purpose. Much time was lost, naturally, including a crop of road penalties, but at least he and Grindrod made it to the finish, a couple of places down from where they had been.

For all practical purposes the rally ended at the little Peloponissos port opposite the island of Poros. Cars were held in a closed park on the quayside whilst competitors were ferried across to an island hotel for a few hours' rest. Later, a car ferry arrived and at mid-afternoon the whole entourage boarded for the final voyage to a port near Athens and the short trip through the city to the stadium. Thirty-six cars made it, from 119 starters.

That voyage was an innovation started a few years ago, and it is certainly welcomed by competitors who are thus spared the tedious journey around by road. It was also more convenient and comfortable than the cable-pull raft ferries of Africa, or even the crane-on Dover-Calais ferries of past Monte-Carlo Rallies! A pity, though, that the boat was not big enough to accommodate service cars. Perhaps teams should get together next year to charter a ferry for their mechanics.

Mikkola's retirement gave Rohrl just the advantage he needed to edge ahead of his Finnish rival in the World Championship. Rohrl's total is now 67, Mikkola's 65, whilst not far behind them is Alen with 60. A second league seems to have sprung up, in which Vatanen has 44 points, Blomqvist 39 and Mouton 37.

Among the makes, Lancia now leads with 68 points to Audi's 62, followed by Opel with 61. This series, too, seems to have a group below the breakaway runners, where Nissan has 32 points and Renault 16. GP.