World Rally Championship: Acropolis Rally

The chosen one

"Walk purposely not aimlessly" is the counsel of the natioal airline's magzine to those who wish to escape the tourist tag in Athens. "Avoid the sun", it goes on, "if shade is available: keep your stares for pretty girls, not monuments: and never ask for ice in your drinking water."

Such precision of advice is typical of Greek character, though the rigid exactitude of behaviour which it suggests apears to be contradicted by a delightfully vague and casual attitude, which might be misinterpreted by some as laziness. But the carefree, unconcerned manner is a mere camouflage. Underneath, Greeks are industrious and hard working, only relaxing when the job is done, and when you see them at their leisure, they have usually earned it.

So it is with the Acropolis Rally. As the organisers sip iced coffees unhurriedly with their visitors (the ouzo is for afterwards) and nobody seems to be doing very much, one wonders whether the event will happen at all. But happen it does, and everything falls into place nicely. Before the pressures of FISA squeezed the endurance quality out of the World Rally Championship, the Acropolis stood out as the harshest, most relentlessly punishing but perhaps the most satisfying rally in Europe. Starnina and tenacity were as essential as skill, and if you were not prepared to sweat and slog, you had little hope of finishing. There was very little rest save for one half-way stop, and if the car and crew survived the heat, the dust and the cruelly rough roads, they might nevertheless succumb to remorselessly tight time schedules which sometimes reduced finishers to fewer than ten.

Those days have gone, and although the rally remains rough and unforgiving, its punch has been softened by shortening, and by the introduction of longer and more frequent rest stops. The road timing is still relatively tight, however, and only three cars in the first ten this year were without road penalties at the finish. There was a time when even a quick fuel stop in the wrong place would result in a road penalty, whilst a puncture would be calamitous. Today, service opportunities are greater, but one must nevertheless keep a very close eye on the clock. Another effect of the shortening of special stage distances is a decrease in the differences between competitors' times. On the face of it, drivers appear to be more closely matched, but this is an illusion. The real reason is simply that sprinters win by inches; marathon runners by much wider margins.

Tension has increased accordingly, for with such short intervals separating them, leading drivers are much more aware that the slightest of mistakes can cost them victory, and are consequently more edgy and keyed-up. Under such pressures, they are more likely to exceed their limits and take risks, and we feel that stage distance reduction has unquestionably increased dangers rather than diminished them.

It has also played into the hands of manipulating team managers. If a team proves to have the advantage, as Lancia did in Greece, and its cars are clustered at the head of the queue, the closer the interval between them, the easier it is for the team manager to decide which of his drivers should win. A spread of a minute or two facilitates rearrangement, but wider gaps are far more risky to play with, especially if rivals are lurking behind.

In the Acropolis Rally, its rough, twisty, mountainous tracks made treacherously slippy by heavy rain, four-wheel drive was a distinct advantage. Of such cars, the Lancia Deltas were far more agile than either the Audi 200 "limousines" (entered by the factory) or Coupes (entered privately) and it didn't take long for the three Deltas to establish themselves in the first three places. Among the three, Markku Alen found himself at a disadvantage after a heavy landing on stage three which damaged the left rear of his car. The wheel had been pushed back a little, and as the Group A cars are not as easy to fettle as their Group B forerunners, Alen had to endure indifferent handling for the rest of the rally. It was by no means the first time that Alen has said, "It's like driving a banana".

Meanwhile, Juha Kankkunen had collected no less thee four punctures, and the delays experienced by Lancia's two Finnish drivers allowed their Italian team-mate Massimo Biasion to move into the lead. When the rally got to the night stop at two-thirds distance, the order was Biasion, Alen, Kankkunen, and team manager Cesare Florio instructed that they should keep those positions to the end. But the plan went astray, for soon afterwards Biasion's turbocharger packed up, and as there was neither the time nor the opportunity to change it he had to carry on with power severely restricted, dropping from first place to seventh. Meanwhile, Kankkunen, with a healthy car, was recovering from the delay due to punctures and, believing Biasion's misfortune meant that the order to hold positions no longer applied, he soon gained on Alen.

However, his advance did not go unnoticed and, after he had moved ahead of his team-mate by two seconds, Cesare Fiorio intervened. He made it clear that his order was for all three to hold position, not merely that Biasion should win, so Kankkunen had no choice but to slow down and allow Alen to move ahead again.

This is not the first time that Kankkunen has been denied victory by managerial order in his first year with Lancia, and it must be pretty daunting for the reigning World Champion to have to bite his tongue and accept second places when firsts were rightfully his. He is an amiable fellow, never given to displays of anger, and his acceptance of the situation illustrates his calm temperament, but one nevertheless wonders whether he has meanwhile taken steps to seek a place in a team which will give credit where credit is due.

In the Audi team there was little rejoicing, for Walter Rohrl had stopped in the late stages with engine failure, and Hannu Mikkola's third place, even after his Safari win, did nothing to compensate. Five-and-a-half minutes behind a mishandling winner was far too much, and the team's executives are far too circumspect to be unduly optimistic about the potential of their cars. To persevere with the 200 or the Coupe in the vague hope that they will beat Lancia sufficiently often to justify its rally programme is not an Ingolstadt characteristic. Indeed, it is more likely that the Acropolis will have been Rohrl's last rally this year, whilst Mikkola seems only to have the Thousand Lakes in his programme.

Two Audi Coupes prepared by Viennese tuner Rolf Schmid were driven privately by Jorge Recalde and Rudolf Stohl, and Mikkola, impressed by their performance (Recalde finished only a minute and a half behind him, even though he went off), is pressing Audi to allow him to test one of these cars, as well as a factory 200, during his preparations for the Thousand Lakes, and then to decide which type to use in the rally.

The outcome of that testing, plus the performance of the chosen car in the Thousand Lakes, will determine Audi's future in the sport. A possibility which cannot be ignored is withdrawal for an indefinite period until a smaller, more agile car can be developed. Should that happen, Rohrl will have to decide whether to stay with the company to undertake the testing or to leave and seek a drive elsewhere, whilst a similar decision will have to be taken by Mikkola.

The works Nissan 200ZXs, hitherto seen only on the Safari, were troubled by rear axles and gearbox failures, Shekhar Mehta going out after an axle change took him beyond his maximum lateness and Andrea Zanussi when his gearbox failed. However, Mike Kirkland finished tenth and Stratis Hadjipanagiotis, the highest placed Greek driver, eleventh.

Mikael Ericsson, in a Lancia Delta entered by the Jolly Club, retired with a broken half shaft, whilst Kenneth Eriksson, the man who drives a Volkswagen Golf GTi so well, stopped for the same reason. Erwin Weber, his VW team-mate, needed a replacement front suspension and went on to finish sixth. In his Renault 11 Turbo, Jean Ragnotti was as determined as ever and finished fifth, but team-mate Francois Chatriot rolled.

Not only rocks, but mud and watersplashes were badly affecting the going, and sometimes poor visibility which slowed the early runners only to improve quickly so that later cars were able to better their times. Spectators were as numerous as ever but, unlike their counterparts in certain other Southern European countries, very well behaved as usual. Times have changed since the rally roared through villages, past bemused residents sitting outside sipping ouzo, but although enthusiasm has increased among the young, people of all ages remain tolerant and welcome the passage of the rally. One of the sad stories of the rally was that of the theft which prevented Finnish driver Jari Nierni starting. Not only was his rally car stolen, but his practice car too, both of them BMW M3s. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, his service van was taken during the same night from a hotel five miles away. That was recovered, having run out of petrol.

Regrettably, the rally has a long history of larceny (it is by no means alone in that respect) and wheels, tyres, jerricans and various spares have often disappeared from inside the bungalow complex at Glyfada's Astir Beach. We ourselves have had a works Escort stolen from a car park at Athens airport, to be used later as a getaway car!

The theft of the BMWs took place in the middle of the night at another bungalow complex, rally headquarters at Lagonissi, where they were driven out through the only entrance, past a security lodge! A few days after the rally started, one of the M3s was found parked in a side street not far from the port of Piraeus, and you may draw from that whatever conclusion you wish.

A surprising performance was that of Pascal Neyret, daughter of veteran driver Bob Neyret of Aseptogyl toothpaste fame. She was leading Group N in her Lancia Delta, even beating Alessandro Fiorio in his Jolly Club car, when on the very last stage she stopped with a broken wheel and the category went to the Greek driver Gallo in a Toyota.

Another surprise, for a country which bans commercial civil flying and guards the monopoly of its own Olympic Aviation, was the preponderance of team helicopters. Most, however, had been brought in from outside and were even being used to air-taxi those drivers (Lancia's, for instance) who were not staying at Lagonissi between their bungalows at Astir Beach and rally headquarters.

The first phase of the World Championship is now over, and three Lancia drivers head the list. The next three qualifiers are in the USA, New Zealand and Argentina respectively, whilst the next European qualifier is Finland's Rally of the Thousand Lakes in late August. Since other teams have limited programmes, a Lancia victory seems certain, although which of their drivers will be "allowed" to become champion remains to be seen. GP