Rally review: Acropolis Rally, July 1989

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Lancia eases the strain

If someone had asked us whether the Acropolis Rally had ever been won by a crew in a Lancia Fulvia or a Stratos, and demanded an immediate, off-the-cuff answer, we would probably have answered that both these eminently successful cars of the past had the Greek event included in their list of victories.

We would have been wrong, of course. An Aurelia won in 1958, but it was not until after the era of the Fulvia and the Stratos that the Italian team was next successful in the Acropolis Rally.

The somewhat crude Lancia “Rally” was the winning car in 1983, but when the four-wheel-drive Delta won four years later it began a run of successes which has now been increased to three.

Ford Escorts, Audi Quattros and Peugeot 205 T16s were the successful cars of the Eighties until FISA’s regulation changes led to an abrupt withdrawal by teams whose only suitable cars were those of the suddenly banned Group B. Only Lancia was able to make an immediate transition to Group A with its Delta, after which World Championship rallying became a succession of one-horse races.

Others are now challenging the Deltas, but the Italian team had such a head-start in the race for development of competitive Group A cars that they are finding it very difficult indeed to topple the Delta from its perch. Throughout last year only once was a World Championship for Makes qualifier won by a car other than a Lancia, and since last year’s Acropolis Rally, every single event has been won in a Delta.

Although that unique string of successes indicates a combination of good engineering, good driving and good tactical planning, the fact remains that it has become rather boring.

Lancia spends an enormous amount of money on its rally programme, possibly justified by Delta sales statistics, but anyone who begrudges a team its victories simply because of its ample budget is probably motivated by more than a little envy. However, it would certainly give the sport a boost if another make could give Lancia a regular run for its money.

Toyota emerged as a challenger, as did Mazda for a while, and it seems that Mitsubishi is about to follow suit. The Ford Sierra is the one car which has managed to beat the Deltas since the beginning of 1988 (on Corsica’s dry tarmac roads), whilst Nissan (in Kenya) and the BMWs of a private team (also in Corsica) have come very close to it. However, whilst its rivals have succumbed to problems after early promise, the Delta, backed by very considerable support, has always emerged in the forefront.

One contributory factor must be Lancia’s belief that lessening a driver’s workload will make him more efficient and able to knock split-seconds off his times. Various innovations have eased the strain not only of driving a Delta but of repairing it and replacing parts out in the field.

One major development, announced prior to last year’s Sanremo Rally, was the introduction of electronic clutch control. Automatic gearboxes have been used in the past, usually with full manual override so that it was always the driver who decided which gear he wanted, not the gearbox, but these have always been heavy and extremely Power-consuming. The gearchange system used on the Deltas is quite different, and now that it has become reliable it deserves some explanation.

The gearbox, gear selectors, gear lever and clutch are just the same as they are on a car fitted with a conventional clutch pedal. The only thing that is different is the means by which the clutch is engaged and disengaged. The Valeo company had already designed and produced an electronic clutch operating system, although it was not really suitable for use in competition. However, Lancia saw its potential and began working with Valeo to adapt the system for use in rally cars. What has since emerged gives the Lancia driver an enormous advantage, lessening his required effort, clipping seconds from his times, and reducing stress on transmission components.

Instead of being operated mechanically or hydraulically, the dry, twin-plate clutch is engaged and disengaged by an electromechanical device. There is nothing remarkable in that, but it is the means by which that device is controlled which renders the system invaluable.

As you might expect, it is all controlled by a microprocessor which receives signals from certain drivers’ controls and from various sensors, then transmits other pulses to the clutch operating device.

The microprocessor is not a mere signal box. It has logic, and interprets the exact significance of varying signals from the different sensors and controls, then transmitting precisely the correct signal to the clutch. Many things can affect the manner in which a clutch should be engaged or disengaged — the road speed at the time, engine revs, whether you are changing up or down, whether you need to make a quick start or a sedate one, the condition of the road surface — and the microprocessor weighs up all these things instantly and lets the clutch have exactly the right instructions for the conditions.

For a normal start from rest, the initial movement of the gear lever is detected and the clutch disengaged. The moment the gears are in mesh, the unit is ready to tell the clutch to re-engage, but it will not do so until the engine rpm reaches 1200. The speed of clutch engagement is directly proportional to the opening angle of the fuel inlet valve, so that if you plan to take off slowly, you will not be embarrassed by a stall induced by rapid clutch engagement. Therefore, from rest, the car can move off as though it were fitted with an automatic gearbox, subsequent gearchanges being made by the driver — without a pedal, of course.

At the start of a special stage the requirement is quite different, and it would be a hindrance if the rpm had to be kept down to 1200 until the flag dropped. To obviate this, there is a red button on the steering wheel, and if this is pressed the clutch will not engage. During the countdown to zero, the driver therefore engages first gear, presses the red button, brings his rpm up to the required level to start the stage, then at the moment the flag drops he releases the button. The microprocessor detects that a quick start is needed and engages the clutch at the correct speed.

An additional driver’s control is one that is set in advance according to surface conditions. Correct use of this simple adjustment knob will prevent wheelspin being induced by over-rapid engagement on snow or ice, and will provide maximum start traction on dry tarmac.

Since the accompanying drawing was made an additional sensor has been fitted to the handbrake, so that if the driver needs to make a quick handbrake-turn the clutch disengages momentarily to allow the rear wheels to lock.

To a computer expert, the system must represent no more than a simple matter of data input, its logical interpretation, followed by data output, but its application to a rally car has certainly been an enormous bonus to Lancia’s drivers.

Lancia had two Martini-backed works Deltas on the Acropolis Rally, driven by Biasion and Auriol, whilst two others were entered by the Jolly Club and Totip, a Group A version for Fiorio and a Group N version for Andreucci. A fifth car was driven by Recalde from Argentina, the man who led much of the Safari this year until he was stopped by a herd of goats.

Toyota Team Europe brought three 4WD Celica Turbos for Kankkunen, Eriksson and Sainz, and a fourth was entered by Bastos for Snijers. Mazda had entered two 4WD 323s for Mikkola and Salonen, but during practice they suffered such severe engine problems — at least three complete failures, we understand — that the Belgium-based team decided to pack up and go home before the rally started, leaving some mechanics behind to help look after the Group N car of De Mevius.

Mitsubishi was present, with three Galant VR-4s (with front and rear-wheel steering) for Vatanen, McRae and Shinozuka. It was McRae’s first competitive outing in the car, although he has been involved a great deal in development testing.

Vatanen’s role was that of attacker, McRae’s that of defender, and to this end the Scot used a slighdy higher final-drive ratio. Shinozuka’s car was less powerful than the other two, and it was explained that it was being used to test competition parts which will be supplied to private drivers.

Each did precisely what was asked of him but, unfortunately, Vatanen retired when his turbocharger impeller became detached. McRae went on to finish a splendid fourth, behind three Lancias, becoming the first British driver to score World Championship points since Malcolm Wilson finished eighth in Sweden in February last year. Shinozuka also scored points by finishing seventh, an experience as rare for the Japanese as it is nowadays for the British.

The two other works teams present were those of Lada (Autoexport) and Wartburg, the former bringing no less than five 21083 models for Raissar, Beresniavichus, Mets, Aliasov and Artemenko. The two Wartburg 353 W460s were driven by the Krfgel brothers, and entered by them, not by the Eisenach factory.

Eklund drove his Clarion-backed Nissan March Turbo, Stohl his Audi 90 Quattro, Schwarz an Audi 200 Quattro and Baumschlager a 16-valve Volkswagen Golf GTi. Among the Greeks were Hadgipanagiotis (who understandably uses the pseudonym “Stratissino”) in a Nissan March Turbo, and Vardinogianis (otherwise “Jigger”) in an up-to-date Lancia Delta complete with electronic clutch control. Further down, in a Peugeot 205 GTi, was Markouisos, the man who, under the pseudonym “Iaveris”, used to drive early Escorts with remarkable aplomb.

With 42 special stages making up 378 miles of the total 1166-mile distance, the Acropolis was rather longer this year than last, but it remained relatively close to Athens by making two main loops, some special stages common to both. The first leg, confined to the Sunday morning, consisted of the short trip from Athens to the Lagonissi Rally headquarters via a three-mile stage on an artificially constructed track which, on the day, had to be sprayed with water to keep down dust. The next leg was a loop starting and finishing at Lagonissi, and the third and fourth a run up to Kamena Vourla and back.

A night stop separated each leg, so the whole thing spanned four days, producing an average distance of 291 miles per day, a far cry from Acropolis Rallies of old, when heat, dust, distance, fatigue and the need for constant fettling rendered the rally arguably the most stamina-demanding endurance event outside Africa.

The very rough night stages of the Peloponnisos, ending in a welcome boat trip back to Athens for cars and crews, were discontinued some years ago, but the event is still rough in places, and extremely puncture-provoking. Michelin guarded against this by supplying contracted teams with its foam-filled ATS tyres which allowed drivers who experienced punctures to continue to the ends of stages with only a slightly increased risk of suspension or transmission damage — unless a driver were imprudently brutal with his car, of course.

Toughened sidewalls used to be the way of coping with rocky roads, but on today’s sophisticated cars such tyres can be too rigid, and likely to transmit so many shocks as to be uncomfortable and tiring for the driver, and potentially damaging for cars.

The weather, although mostly sunny, was not as hot as it can be in Greece during May, and there was often a brisk breeze. There was also a little rain at times, but on the whole the weather remained good, although dust was consequently a problem, especially on stages sheltered from the wind by mountains.

Helicopter activity was again considerable, and when they were not being used to transport mechanics and spares, they were in regular use shuttling their teams’ competitors between Lagonissi and their various hotels along the coast.

The first stage was of little significance, included only as a result of FISA’s obsession with, and insistence upon, crowd-pilling “super-specials”. The second, the first real stage of the rally, was on the rough side and produced a crop of punctures. Auriol was among those who suffered, but he nevertheless made best time on his foam-filled tyres.

The lead changed hands several times during the early stages, and it did seem that the Lancias were being harassed by both Toyota and Mitsubishi. Alas, Eriksson, who had twice been leading the rally on that first day, retired on the day’s last special stage after his car caught fire and he had to stand helplessly watching it burn.

Vatanen, on the other hand, driving his Mitsubishi in great style, finished the day in second place, a minute and a half behind Auriol, but just eleven seconds ahead of Biasion. Keeping the variety, Sainz’ Toyota was fourth, McRae’s Mitsubishi fifth, Fiorio’s Lancia sixth and Kankkunen’s Toyota seventh.

At one point Vatanen failed to find a service van and had to use the same tyres for two stages, which no doubt cost him some time. Having new tyres for each stage is more important for works drivers on the Acropolis Rally than on most others, for the rocky tracks are highly abrasive and treads wear out at an alarming rate. We recall that, some years ago, standard Michelin tyres marketed in the USA under the brand name of the Sears Roebuck supermarket company were lasting just 8km on an Acropolis stage before their treads were worn to shreds.

On the second day, Kankkunen, who had been slightly hurt before the start in a fall from a motorcycle, was delayed whilst his prop-shaft received attention, whilst McRae broke a suspension arm and dropped from fifth to seventh. Alas, it was shortly after that his team-mate Vatanen went out when his turbocharger failed. The Scotsman thought he had a similar problem when his engine began losing power, but this was later found to be due to no more than a crushed and partially-blocked exhaust pipe.

Stratissino rolled his Nissan March and got going again, but must have damaged his gearbox in some way, for it failed soon afterwards, putting him out of the rally. De Mevius hit a rock and lost his front right wheel completely, but this was only 200 yards before the end of the stage, which he managed to complete on three wheels.

Another to hit a rock was rally leader Auriol, this time sustaining both a puncture and a badly damaged wheel. He had to drive fairly slowly for five miles, and in so doing lost the lead to team-mate Biasion.

At the end of the third leg, Biasion led by 15 seconds from Auriol, with Sainz just over three more minutes behind, and it was at this stage that the two leaders received instructions to hold their positions to the end, always keeping their eyes on Sainz’ progress, of course. However, not far into the fourth and final leg Sainz stopped when his left front suspension collapsed, and Lancia found itself with a 1-2-3.

Toyota was still there, in the form of Kankkunen, 49 seconds behind Fiorio, but he was not there for long. He, too, stopped with suspension failure, an organisers’ bulletin describing his car as having its “chassis cut open in the front right”.

Auriol had to stop to have his right rear driveshaft replaced, but this was not a problem at all and the three Lancias finished in the order required — Biasion, Auriol and Fiorio. It was the second time in succession that Biasion had won the Acropolis, but even more spectacular has been his success rate this year. He has won every rally he has entered, all four of them (he missed Sweden and Corsica) and now he has all the opportunity to become World Champion for the second time running. For the makes, Lancia is again virtually unassailable, with 100 points to Toyota’s 36.

Toyota will eventually reach the stage of being a Lancia-challenger, even a beater, but in the meantime other makes are making determined preparations. Vatanen, McRae and Shinozuka have already shown that the Mitsubishi Galant is something to be reckoned with. GP

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