Two consecutive wins in the opening rounds of the World Rally Championship are enough to make anyone favourite for the title. When they come hard on the heels of three victories in three events at the end of the previous year, there is no question of who gets the shortest odds.
Ari Vatanen’s wins in Monte-Carlo and Sweden this year followed a run of three consecutive victories last year, beginning with August’s Rally of the Thousand Lakes, and he was unquestionably firm favourite to regain the title which he last held after the 1981 season, when he drove Ford Escorts.
But four retirements in a row are enough, not only to lose one’s championship lead, but to relinquish one’s position as favourite. On May’s Acropolis Rally, his tally of consecutive retirements reached four, and his fellow-countryman and Peugeot team-mate Timo Salonen won the event and substantially increased his lead in the World Championship.
Vatanen has dropped to third place in the series after six rounds whilst Salonen now has an 18-point lead over Audi driver and reigning Champion Stig Blomqvist. Outwardly at least, the situation in the drivers’ series is of little concern to Peugeot. They say they have no preference for one driver or the other, and as long as the diminutive but powerful and sophisticated 205 Turbo 16 keeps on winning and settles the Championship for Makes for the factory, they will be satisfied. They certainly look like achieving that satisfaction, for in their first full championship year, they have, in six events, scored four wins, one second and a seventh, and are comfortably leading the series.
Easter’s Safari Rally was so well supported by factory teams, reflecting the eagerness to win the Kenyan event and reap the prestige which follows, that the Tour of Corsica a month later was poorly attended by comparison. The same was said of the Acropolis, in which only Audi and Peugeot could possibly have a winning chance. But Nissan, Lancia, Porsche, Mazda, Volkswagen, Skoda, Wartburg and Dacia were also represented, and the rally is so rough and hard on cars that the most unlikely of contenders could have stepped into the leader’s shoes had the Audis and Peugeots been seriously delayed.
Driving the works Peugeot 205 Turbo 16s were Vatanen/Harryman and Salone/Harjanne, whilst Audi’s crews in their 400 bhp Sport Quattros were Rohrl/Geistdorfer and Blomqvist/Cederberg. The Nissans entered by importer Theoharakis who runs his own competitions department, were driven by two Kenyan pairs and one Greek. Shekhar and Yvonne Mehta, Kirkland/Levitan and Moschous/Vazakas, whilst other 240 RSs were driven by Hajipanagiotou/Sassalos (those visitors unable to get their tongues around Greek names happy to use the driver’s pseudonym, Stratissimo) and Shah/ Doughty, the latter taking a break from his position as full-time manager of the Safari Rally.
There were no works Lancias, but the West cigarette company, complete with their huge, US-style articulated truck from which goodies and clothing were being dispensed — at a price — brought two Lancias for Zanussi/Cresto and Pregliasco/Cianci. West’s presence on a Rothmans-backed event did not pass without problems, but at least there was no serious conflict.
The British-based Rothmans Porsche team brought just one 911 for Al Hajri/ Spiller, whilst Mazda Europe had two RX7s for Carlsson/Melander and Warmbold/ Biche. Volkswagen brought two Group A Golf GTis for Wittmann/Ogricek and Kleint/Hohenadel, and Skoda two 130LRs for Krecek/Motl and Kalnay/Tazreiter. Among the privateers were “Tchine” in an Opel Manta, Grissmann in a Quattro, Stohl in a 80 Quattro rather than his usual Lada, and Britishers Wadman and Hillier in a Peugeot 505TI.
Geographically, Greece has the nearest World Championship Rally to Africa without actually crossing the Mediterranean, whilst in terms of conditions there are points of distinct similarity between the Acropolis and the Safari.
The former has special stages, the latter has none, but both are rough, hot, dusty and so tight that service time is almost a luxury. Indeed, road schedules were so tight on the Acropolis that only the winner managed to complete the whole distance without a single road penalty, an achievement which, on the old Alpine Rally, would have earned him a Coupe des Alpes.
Road sections are timed from the start of one stage to the start of the next, which means that if you are delayed on a special stage, your allowance for the journey to the next stage is also being eaten away. It was this system which caught out several crews who were more accustomed to road sections timed from the end of one stage to the start of the next, effectively divorcing them from the special stages.
The heat caused its usual headaches for tyre companies, although Michelin, suppliers to the leading makes, managed to produce tyres which combined optimum OP with good wear properties, and even remained surprisingly puncture-proof on the rocky, abrasive, flint-strewn tracks. Not so well off were those, like Datsun, using Japanese Dunlops, which were as prone as ever to “sideways” punctures through the sidewalls.
Dust, on the other hand, was not as much of a problem as it has been in the past, due to the strong winds blowing over the country during the first two days of the rally. Indeed, the wind was so strong that at least one waterspout formed just offshore near rally headquarters at Lagonissi.
Competitors welcomed the wind, but helicopter crews didn’t like it at all, for pilots had trouble getting into confined spaces between trees and other tight spots to which they are often directed by non-aviating service managers. As it happened, two helicopters were damaged in attempts to land near their rally cars, Audi’s damaging its main rotor blade tips against branches, and that of the West-backed Lancia team making a heavy landing which flexed its main blades into its fuselage.
The style of the rally was as before. Rally headquarters were at the coastal resort and bungalow complex of Lagonissi, about 25 miles south-east of Athens, where scrutiny took place on the Saturday. There was a “day off’ on the Sunday, and the rally started at the foot of the Acropolis hill in Athens on the Monday morning.
The first leg went via 17 special stages to a night stop at Kalambaka, from midnight to 10 am. The second leg returned southwards via 16 stages to a stop at Lagonissi from just after midnight on the Tuesday to 9 pm on the Wednesday. After that long rest, the final leg crossed the Corinth Canal into the Peloponissos and, after 14 stages at night, ended on the little quayside of Galatas, opposite the island of Poros.
The final journey was by a ferry just big enough to accept the surviving cars, taking them, their crews and anyone else who wanted to go along for the ride (without their cars) to the port of Palm Faliron near Glyfada. The finish had been transferred to Glyfada from the Athens Olympic Stadium as the latter had been taken over for a political rally — the Greek elections took place three days after the finish!
Soon after dawn on the Monday, service vehicles, tyre trucks and fuel bowsers began leaving their seaside bases for time journeys northwards, whilst at the airport aeroplane and helicopter crews began their final checks. Alas, for some the journey was cut short, because retirements on that first morning reduced by half the teams of both Audi and Peugeot.
On the first stage, in the mountains just East of Athens, Rohrl felt that his Audi’s steering was not all it should be, whilst Blomqvist finished the stage with his front wheels splayed, having hit a rock which bent a strut. Blomqvist’s strut was changed, but nothing could be found wrong with Raft’s car.
One stage later, Rohrl’s problem ceased being a mystery when a steering arm parted company fr om the backplate and the car became uncontrollable. It had obviously started to crack earlier on, but now it had completely broken away from its mounting. The Audi helicopter was not able to land due to high winds and roadside trees, so Rohrl had to sit there until mechanics ran about a mile in from the stage start. The broken part was replaced, but the operation took so long that Mrl exceeded his maximum lateness of 30 minutes and he was out of the rally.
Thus wiser, Audi immediately checked Blomqvist’s car and found that his steering arm mounts were also cracking. Like Rohrls, they were aluminium alloy parts, quite new, so at the first opportunity they replaced them with steel ones; older, replaced them but strong and well proven.
At the same time, Peugeot experienced a not dissimilar problem when a link broke, separating Vatanen’s steering column from its rack. Fortunately, it happened on a straight, and there was no repeat of that dramatic downhill Corsican roll, but the car nevertheless slid off the road and would take some recovery.
Once again the attendant helicopter was unable to Iand close by, and Vatanen had to wait for mechanics to arrive. When they did, the steering was quickly fixed, and after a bunch of spectators were persuaded to heave on a rope dropped from the helicopter, the Peugeot eventually regained the road. Much time had been lost, but there was a long (some 50 miles) run to the next stage so they figured they could regain some of it and get in within their maximum lateness.
Alas, more damage had been caused than had been thought, and, even before they got to the end of that second stage, a rear shock absorber top mount eventually broke up and caused movement which very quickly wore through an oil pipe. The escaping oil caught fire, and even though this was put out by the combined efforts of the automatic extinguishing system and the hand extinguisher deployed by Harryman, the heat and the loss of lubricant were enough to seize the engine.
After this flurry of drama, the rally was left with just two sprinters at the head of a field of distance runners, and it was not long before Salonen and Blomqvist moved substantially ahead of all the others, almost in a separate rally of their own. Salonen in a car which gave relatively little trouble, gradually increased his lead over Blomqvist, who was slowed periodically by minor irritations which nevertheless cost time.
“Tchine” went no further than the start line of stage two, where his Manta’s engine stopped and refused to start. The problem was later— too late, of course — found to be a cam follower which had broken off the rotor arm. Al Hajri, who found himself in third place after Zanussi collected three punctures, later had difficulty changing gear and lost several minutes on the last stage of the first leg. He set his mechanics searching for a clutch or gearbox fault, only to be told that the trouble was no more than a broken window winder jammed beneath the clutch pedal! This had put him back three places, the position of best-placed two-wheel-drive car having been taken over by Caisson’s Mazda, ahead of Mehta’s Nissan and Warmbold’s Mazda.
Nissan’s Japanese Dunlops were wearing out their treads very quickly, and puncturing. Mehta, Moschous, Shah and Kirkland all suffered, the latter losing a chunk of time by deciding to keep running on a flat tyre rather than stop to change the wheel.
The second leg continued much as the first, Salonen needing to drive at something less than full pace to stay ahead of Blomqvist. The latter driver was having a succession of small problems, all of which meant that he then had to drive flat out on the rough roads to make up time, thereby creating a vicious circle for himself, for at such speeds there was every chance that the pounding would cause something on the car to break.
The Audi’s injection control computer failed at one stage, and the spare, mounted alongside, also gave trouble. During a suspension change, a rear strut proved so stubborn that time became seriously short. Rather than risk a delay, the car was sent on its way with the job unfinished, and Blomqvist was obliged to tackle no less than three special stages with just front brakes, which promptly heated and faded due to overwork.
A puncture, too, cost some minutes, although to drive on the flat would have cost even more time, not to mention the risk of damaging suspension and transmission parts.
Zanussi, having been troubled by broken suspension and a series of punctures, stopped when his Lancia’s throttle cable broke. By the time he completed the stage with a makeshift hand-rig, then had a new cable fitted, he had overstepped his maximum lateness. Volkeswagen had also lost Kleint, although Wittman was keeping his Golf GTi in the first 10, and leading the Group A category.
Greeks tend to come alive at night, and a substantial crowd interrupted their after. midnight eating to gather at Lagonissi to watch the arrival late on the Tuesday. Salonen’s lead over Blomqvist was nearly seven minutes, and he was well over half an hour clear of third man Carlsson in his Mazda. So, on the final night in the Peloponissos he could afford to preserve his car without putting his position at risk.
The long rest stop before the final leg was enough not only for a good night’s sleep, but a leisurely lunch, a swim, an afternoon siesta and the opportunity for tactical discussions and even casual discourse. The coast to the East of Athens is very pleasant, and the two bungalow establishments at Glyfada and Lagonissi, where teams invariably stay, provide every possible facility, even ample space for open-air or tented workshops.
That night, Blomqvist set up a succession of best times, but when tactics are being employed, and not all the runners driving flat out, these are no more than academic. Peugeot staff were at the end of every stage to radio Blomqvist’s times to their aircraft, so that Saloncn could be kept constantly informed of how his advantage over Blomqvist was progressing. Steadily, the seven minutes decreased, but it was of no consequence, for the Finn knew that his lead was more than enough to cover the time that Blomqvist would make up.
His hands sore with blisters, Salonen found that stiffening shock absorbers were making the Peugeot increasingly difficult to drive, and he was having them changed, or at least cooled, as often as time would allow. Brake line bleeding was another job which occupied the French mechanics after hydraulic fluid heated to boiling point.
The Acropolis has a long history of final morning dramas, and many a driver has seen a good place snatched from him by some unexpected problem a stage or two before the end. This one was no different. Pregliasco, then in fifth place and anxious to clock in before Al Hajri who happened to be on the same road minute (though behind the Italian in actual penalties), arrived too quickly at a control, slid under braking and wrecked a front suspension against a rock. A good place was thus thrown away, which must have caused great dismay in the West camp, for they looked all set to beat the car backed by Rothmans.
Carlsson very nearly came to grief in the closing hours of the rally. When stud threads were damaged during a wheel change, the nuts could only be replaced by dint of hefty wallops against the wheelbrace. With one nut missing and the others so firmly in place that they might as well have been welded, off they went, and imagine their feelings when they collected another puncture! There was no hope of changing the wheel, so they drove on the fiat and were very relieved indeed to arrive at Poros and the welcoming sight of the control, closed park, shops, houses, little corner cafe, and the ferry AIAS tied up at the quay just a few yards beyond.
It has often been said of Salonen in recent months (and he has even said it himself) that his experience driving strong but slow Datsuns helps him to preserve his much faster Peugeot. To get anywhere, he had to drive his Datsuns flat out, and we cannot see how this experience can help him hold some of the Peugeot’s performance in reserve. Perhaps some commentators hang too tightly to the words of drivers who are indulging in a little straight-faced rhetoric.
Six events remain in the Drivers’ Championship, and five in the series for makes, so the respective leads of Salonen and Peugeot are by no means conclusive. Audi is sure to field strong sides in the coming events, though it’s rather a shame that no other team is in contention to enliven the proceedings. Reminds us of those Ford-Fiat duels of a few years ago. — G.P.