Events of the present are rarely without their counterparts from the past, and quite often one can recall from years gone by an incident almost identical with one of very recent origin. One might even go further and say that things which are sometimes claimed to be unprecedented can quite often be shown not to be so. This is certainly true of rallying and we have often wondered at the smiles which must have been brought to the faces of former staff from Abingdon, Boreham, Trollhättan and the like by talk of "innovations" which they used to regard as quite commonplace.
No-one would suggest that today's level of technological achievement is no higher than it was 20 years ago, nor that the complex amalgam of electronic and mechanical components in a modern competition car is less sophisticated than the innards of a Big Healey. Advancement in these respects has been remarkable, and we applaud it, but there are more basic features of today's sport which are most certainly reflections of the past. These are largely in the fields of tactics and rallymanship rather than pure engineering, but they are highly pertinent nevertheless.
In the Acropolis Rally at the end of May the remarkably high rate of tyre wear and the profusion of punctures on the rough, abrasive dirt roads seemed to have taken Lancia and Pirelli completely by surprise, but this has always been a feature of this particular event. As much as Greek tarmac is marble smooth and not at all conducive to good adhesion, so the country's rocky tracks have erosion properties of which a grindstone manufacturer would be proud. One would have expected every competing team and every tyre manufacturer to be aware of this and to have taken steps accordingly to minimise tyre wear and maximise heat dispersal.
Greek authorities must be more lenient than those elsewhere in Europe, for the road sections between special stages are much tighter than on other rallies, and that after considerable easing of the schedules in recent years. This leaves precious little time for servicing, and not one finisher this year was without penalty for lateness on the road. This, combined with the heat, the dust and the very rough roads produces a rally which can lay just claim to being the nearest thing to an endurance rally that Europe can provide.
There were even times when fatigue, loss of voice and blurring of the vision were serious considerations, but rest stops nowadays are enough to keep co-drivers from falling asleep over their notes and drivers from wanting to stop at the odd village tap to sluice their heads in the water. This year the main competition in Greece was between Audi, Lancia and Peugeot, the latter team starting as an unknown quantity on rough roads, but nevertheless held in great respect by rivals after the inspiring performance of the 205 Turbo 16 on the twisty tarmac of Corsica. In addition, Datsun, Mazda, Polski Fiat and Volkswagen were all represented.
Blomqvist and Mikkola were in the customary Quattros, whilst Mouton and Rohrl each had one of the shorter and more powerful Quattro Sports. Buffum, from America, drove his British prepared car with considerable backing from the US tyre company BF Goodrich which was supplying standard tyres rather than very specialised and expensive ones as other companies provide for their contracted teams. Goodrich claims that they began competition involvement in 1970, but we recall the Saab team using their narrow winter tyres long before that.
Just as there were five Audis, so there were five Lancias, Alén, Toivonen and Bettega backed by Martini and Biasion by the Jolly Club. Capone was privately backed. The two 4-w-d Peugeots were driven by Vatanen and Nicolas.
Three Nissan 240 RSs were driven by Salonen, Mehta and Greek driver Moschous, whilst a "second string" team was made up of Kenyans Shah / Doughty, Greek pair Stratissino / Fertakis and Japanese regulars in Europe, Iwashita / Nakahara.
The Belgian-based European Mazda team brought two rotary engined RX7s for Warmbold (also the team manager) and Ingvar Carlsson from Sweden, Volkswagen a single Gp A Golf GTI for Grundel and the Rothmans Team from Silverstone a Porsche 911 SC RS for Qatari driver Saeed al Hajri. British privateers were just two in number, Felding / Millington in an Escort and Hadley / Waters in a Gp A Opel Manta.
Although the roadbook for the Acropolis is held up by FISA as the example which other World Championship qualifiers must follow, it really isn't very good at all. It looks artistic (which perhaps is all some FISA inspectors are able to judge) but its content is inconsistent and often inaccurate, Indeed, many competitors complained bitterly of this, especially as the book appeared to have been made too much in advance of the event. Another complaint concerned the absence of up-to-date information concerning roadworks. Modern rally cars are so fast that accurate pace notes and the maintenence of precise lines through bends are vital. It would have taken little for stage officials to tell drivers of changes at the start of each stage, but they did not and at least one retirement that we know of was caused by a driver committed to a line encountering a pile of gravel which changed a bend completely.
The route was very similar to that of recent years, with a few new stages here and there among the total of 47. The start was on a Monday and the finish on a Thursday, both at Athens, and there were two rest stops, one of ten hours at Kalambaka, near the northern extremity of the route, and one of twenty hours at Lagonissi, the coastal resort to the south-east of Athens which also served as rally headquarters.
Many of the stages were used twice, in opposite directions, and as has happened often in the past, there were moments of head-on confrontation during practice. At least one competitor had his practice car damaged so badly that he had to continue with one hardly suitable for the job. The day of rest between Saturday scrutiny and the Monday start may have been appreciated by competitors, mechanics and all the others who, many with their families, relaxed at beachside bungalows, but it did give an extra opportunity for nocturnal thieves to get to work. Service vehicles were broken into and all manner of parts and accessories stolen, whilst the unfortunate KaIle Grundel had an entire vehicle stolen, leaving him with just two for the rally, and only one spare gearbox which, as it turned out, led to his retirement.
Long before the start, vast convoys of support vehicles, tyre trucks and even fuel bowsers made their way out of Glyfada and Lagonissi, where most teams were based, whilst aircrews got ready for their roles. Audi, as always, was using an aircraft as an airborne radio relay station, a practice which other teams only employ on the Safari, whilst Lancia, Peugeot and Audi were using helicopters carrying mechanics and spares to follow the daytime route. Many are critical of such expensive service tactics, but teams are perfectly entitled to spend their budgets as they wish and, after all, helicopters can save lives, and often do.
The few tarmac stages of the Acropolis, three all-tarmac and four mixed, were not kept apart in a group to minimise suspension setting changes, as they are in Portugal, but dirt surfaces were so much in the majority that changes were not really all that important.
Right from the start the importance of puncture-resistant tyres became obvious. Even on the first stage three of the Lancias collected punctures, and this was only the start of a continuing problem. It was fortunate that their rims were designed not to shed tyres after they had lost pressure. Slowed by tyre wear, overheating and deflation, the Lancias were not really challenging the Audis and after four stages the Quattros of Mikkola. Blomqvist and Mouton held the first three places. Nicolas' Peugeot was fourth, but it seemed that he and his team-mate Vatanen were starting cautiously, having decided to speed up slowly.
Mouton lost four minutes changing a wheel after a puncture, and was also slowed by bad clutch slip after oil leaked into the housing. Both her engine and Röhrl's were running hot, and in the heat of the Greek day neither driver took the risk of using all their available rpm. But eventually Mouton's engine had taken enough and after 14 stages it stopped after depositing its oil on the road.
Capone retired after breaking a half-shaft, but when Salonen had a rear axle bracket break on his Nissan mechanics were able to repair the damage, albeit with delays on both stage and road. Unlike Mouton, Röhrl managed to keep his oil temperature under control and eventually he started making a succession of best times. This, coupled with alternator failures which slowed both Blomqvist and Mikkola when current drop seriously affected their fuel injection electronics, moved Röhrl back up to the lead. He had started at number one, which meant he had no dust cloud ahead of him to slow his progress on stages, and his move into first place, albeit by two seconds, meant that he could keep this prime position for the next leg.
Vatanen had been steadily getting quicker, all the time becoming more confident with the little Peugeot, and was right up to second place, ahead of Blomqvist, Mikkola and Toivonen. The Mazda of Carlsson had retired with a broken differential, whilst Grundel had broken first a half-shaft, then his limited slip differential, and when it became necessary to change the complete diff / gearbox unit the only spare one was too far away to be of any use. What he said about the thieves who stole one of his service vans cannot be repeated!
On the first stage of the second day Röhrl had a lead jump off his distributor and was stopped until mechanics came to his aid by helicopter. The delay put Vatanen into the lead, but the Finn was disappointed when the Audi roared into the next time control with just a few seconds to spare. Had Röhrl lost road time, Vatanen would have been ahead on the road as well, away from any dust and better placed to keep his lead.
But his advantage didn't last long. His oil pump drive belt broke and he switched off immediately. In so doing he saved his engine but the sudden cooling did not do the turbocharger much good. After the belt was replaced and he moved off, it was not long before he returned to have his turbocharger changed, a job which was accomplished in some twenty minutes! All this dropped him to third place, and since by this time Blomqvist and Mikkola had both been given new alternators, those two had taken over first and second places.
Toivonen, having lost third place by two punctures, stopped completely when he slid into a ditch, his cornering line having to be abandoned suddenly when he found the verges redesigned by roadworks. Lancia's management wasn't at all pleased, and the two Finns were left to fettle the car themselves and limp back to Athens. They even had to borrow money to buy petrol! Mikkola lost half a minute being needlessly refuelled in a tight section and Vatanen when his engine would not start and he had to be pushed, but these two were nevertheless duelling for second place and the Peugeot's presence gave concern to the German team. The duel came to an end just two stages from the end of the leg when Vatanen's oil pump drive belt came off again and, after replacement, the engine refused to restart. Both Vatanen and Harryman were given a helicopter lift back to their base at Lagonissi.
On the final road section that evening, team-mate Nicolas also had his oil pump pack up and it was by dint of rapid work at the roadside that mechanics were able to send him on his way to arrive without loss of time, his sixth place intact.
During the long stop between Tuesday night and Wednesday evening there was a little speculation whether the three leading Audi drivers, Blomqvist, Mikkola and Röhrl, would stick to their positions, but the answer to this was obvious. They did keep in that order, of course, and it must have been a rather novel change for Blomqvist to be on the favourite side of the team's tactical table.
The final night of the rally, on the rough tracks of the Peloponissos beyond the Corinth Canal, has been, and still can be, utterly car wrecking, but this time the tension had gone from up front and the only thing concerning Audi was the proximity of Alén, some two and a half minutes behind Röhr'. Nevertheless, the slight reduction in pace was reflected in the stage times, and even Blomqvist was not too concerned when a puncture on a road section cost him a half minute's penalty.
However, Audi was not too happy when Röhrl came to a stop after his electronic injection system suffered some kind of computer crash and the 1-2-3 result was lost; it meant two more championship point for Alén when he moved up a place, and two more for Lancia.
Buffum, his Quattro having been remarkably low on punctures and high on reliability, broke a strut and had it replaced, whilst Biasion stopped altogether when his Lancia broke a half shaft.
Meanwhile, Nicolas had a brake caliper tear off, somehow causing suspension damage — or was it really the other way around? — and the car stopped. but the team went away without a trace of despondency at having lost both cars. In two World Championship rallies, one on tarmac and one on rough tracks, they had learned many lessons and demonstrated, into the bargain, a degree of performance which made other teams sit up and take notice. Lancia, not forgetting Pirelli, smarted heavily under the blow of losing performance due to tyres which could not stand the effects of high temperature, Datsun were encouraged again by winning the team prize for the fourth time, Buffum very pleased with his fifth place. Warmbold equally so by his ninth and Jayant Shah absolutely delighted with his twelfth, for this was his first taste of a special stage event and he was quite amazed by its pace.
1st : S. Blomqvist / B. Cederberg (Audi Quattro)............... 10 hr 41 min 51 sec
2nd : H. MIkkola / A. Hertz (Audi Quattro)......................... 10 hr 44 min 58 sec
3rd : M. Alén / I. Kivimaki (Lancia Rally)........................... 10 hr 56 min 01 sec
4th : A Bettega / S. Cresta (lancia rally)............................. 11 hr 03 min 49 sec
5th : J. Buffum / F. Gallagher (Audi Quattro)..................... 11 hr 22 min 10 sec
6th : T. salonen / S. Harjanne (Nissan 240RS).................. 11 hr 26 min 29 sec
7th : S. Mehta / Y. Mehta (Nissan 240RS).......................... 11 hr 33 min 57 sec
8th : G. Moschous / A. Constantakatos (Nissan 240RS)....11 hr 47 min 45 sec
9th : A. Warmbold / "Biche" (Mazda RS7)............................12 hr 06 min 38 sec
10th : Y. Iwashita / Y. Nakahara (Nissan 240RS)................ 12 hr 36 min 38 sec
105 starters, 36 finishers