As a general rule, smooth and relatively short rallies produce low penalty differences, whilst those of rougher, longer ones are usually much higher. Seconds, certainly no more than minutes, normally separate the first ten on the Tour of Corsica, for instance, whilst on the Safari Rally this year the gap between the first and tenth (last) finishers was not far short of a complete day!
The Acropolis Rally comes somewhere between. It has a tradition of being rough, long, hot and arduous and is one of the last remaining events in Europe which can claim to be anything approaching an endurance rally. Nightly rest stops have removed the need for stamina and the time allowances for road sections are rather more generous than they have been in the past, but the rally is still based on rough, dusty special stages joined by road sections which are as tight as any you will find in Europe. Indeed, service time this year was very short in places and mechanics had to work at top speed, joined as often as possible by colleagues being flown around by helicopter.
One would not therefore expect to find the competition being so closely matched that a mere handful of seconds separated the leaders even up to the last of forty-six special stages. Yet that is what happened on the Acropolis Rally in early June. Throughout the event no probable winner emerged, and even until the last special stage the outcome remained in the balance, two crews having fought hard at 100% all the way to the end.
Since he emerged as the best driver Spain has ever produced, Carlos Sainz has made a remarkable impression in World Championship circles. He cannot be called a tarmac specialist, nor an expert only on dirt roads, for he is masterly on both. He became noticed from the moment he began entering World Championship events and has notched up such a succession of near misses that it could not be long before he scored the victory which he has richly deserved for so long.
That victory came on the Acropolis Rally, and not by default, as many other victories have been gained. Driving a Toyota Celica GT4 with his regular partner Luis Moya, he kept the Lancias at bay and won the rally by the margin of 46 seconds from his former team-mates Juha Kankkunen and Juha Piironen, now driving for Lancia again.
He has been second on numerous occasions, twice this year, and certainly he richly deserved this victory. He has driven well enough to win on several occasions, although the publicity writer who described him as the moral victor of the 1989 RAC Rally, after his retirement whilst in the lead due to prop shaft failure two stages from the end, showed a lamentable lack of appreciation of the sport. Mechanical reliability is as important as driving skill, and component failure as much part of the game as throwing a car off the road.
In Greece there was neither a mistake by Sainz or Moya, nor a serious component failure in their Toyota, and they were able to demonstrate that Lancia Delta Integrales are no longer invincible. Indeed, Juha Kankkunen said afterwards that he tried his absolute best to shorten the gap and get ahead of his Spanish rival but found it quite impossible. He did get very close at times, but Sainz then simply pushed a bit harder and made sure that his narrow lead remained.
Although the actual start and finish were in Athens itself, the rally was based at Lagonissi, a bungalow complex some 25 miles along the coast south-east of Athens, and ran for four days, divided by three night stops, two at Lagonissi and one at Delphi.
Even when the rally was based in Athens, many years ago, competitors generally avoided staying in the smoky, traffic-ridden city, preferring the coastal outer suburb of Glyfada. Eventually, the organisers moved their headquarters out to Glyfada, but in recent years it has gone further afield to Lagonissi. However, competitors and teams all have their own preferences and this year they used hotels strung out along almost 30 miles of coastline and, during the recesses of the rally, teams helicopters were active making shuttle trips between various hotels along the coast.
The whole lot was contained within a relatively small part of Southern Greece, unlike the Acropolis of years past when it used to go as far northwards as Thessaloniki and crossed the great cleft of the Corinth Canal for a final night in the south-westerly land mass of the Peloponnisos. This shrinkage of distance and area covered is by no means peculiar to the Acropolis Rally, for several others have been obliged to do likewise. Rally characters have thus changed somewhat, but communications and service planning have been made less difficult.
We can recall various political actions causing problems for the organisers and competitors of this particular rally, and this year was no different. First of all a strike at the airport disrupted flights for one day just before the finish, but more important was a strike of fuel station staff lasting several days during the rally. Some garages remained open, but these were rare, and several people (not competitors) found themselves back in Lagonissi without enough fuel to go out again. For works teams this was not really a problem, for each one now includes a fuel tanker in its service fleet, largely because present day engines demand fuel of aviation quality and would quickly object to the much lower octanes available at most pumps.
Lancia’s official Martini-backed line-up consisted of Massimo Biasion, Juha Kankkunen and Didier Auriol, but there was another entered by the Jolly Club for Alessandro Fiorio, another by Top Run for Jorge Recalde and another by ART of Modena for Michele Rayneri. Other Lancias were driven by Gustavo Trelles (Uruguay) and Ernesto Soto (Argentina). One of Greece’s leading drivers, Giannis Vardinogianis who uses the pseudonym “Jigger”, also drove a Lancia.
Toyota brought just two Celica GT4s for Carlos Sainz and Mikael Ericsson, but their service back-up was just as extensive as that of Lancia, with considerable use of helicopters for service. A similar car was in the hands of Mohammed Bin Sulayem from the Middle East.
Although Subaru Legacies have appeared in the Safari, these were from Japan and were not the 6-speed models prepared at the Banbury workshop of Prodrive. The Acropolis Rally marked the first appearance of a Prodrive Subaru, just one being entered for Markku Alén, but with support on the same level as that of the other major teams. A 5-speed Subaru Legacy was driven by Ian Duncan of Kenya, partnered by Yvonne Mehta.
Another new arrival in the World Rally Championship was the 4wd Volkswagen Rallye Golf G60, with supercharged engine. Driven by Erwin Weber, the car is undertaking a series of “test” rallies this year, prior to a full commitment to the World Championship in 1991.
There were two Mitsubishi Galant VR4s from Ralliart in Essex for Ari Vatanen and Kenneth Eriksson, whilst representing Renault was Alan Oreille at the wheel of a Gp N R5 GT Turbo prepared by Simon Racing.
There were no official Audis, of course, but as usual on such demanding events as the Acropolis Rudi Stohl, the rallying adventurer from Austria, put in an appearance, along with Pascal Gaban from Belgium and Paola de Martini from Italy.
No less than five cars called Lada Samara Vaz 21083 models came from the Soviet Union factory for drivers Altasov, Shtikov, Shkolny, Nikityuk and Artemenko, whilst there were two works Skoda Favorit 136s driven by Krecek and Sibera. Two works Wartburgs with 1.3 litre engines were entered for Krfgel and Voigt, but they did not show up. Two Romanian Dacias were driven by Ludovic and Stefan.
The weather in the few days before the rally had not been particularly good, rain and high winds having caused headaches for tyre men whose main stocks had been for dry, rocky roads. However, it cleared up before the start, after which dust became the customary problem. The first day consisted of seven short stages contained within a 175 mile route. One of those stages, the only one of the whole event on tarmac, was cancelled because it had attracted not only too many spectators but a group of protesting environmentalists. It’s a pity that this trouble was not spotted soon enough for the stage to be by-passed (which would have been simple) because when the cars went through the stage as a road section their low speeds angered the crowd who had turned up to watch exciting driving. They filled the road, waving their fists, often causing cars to stop. Ari Vatanen was one who had to come to a halt, whereupon a spectator jumped on to his bonnet and promptly smashed his windscreen by kicking it.
On the dirt roads, rocky outcrops were abundant and punctures prevalent, although again Michelin showed that their foam-filled ATS tyres (it means Temporary Flexible Support) were well worth their extra weight on surfaces which were puncture-provoking. The works Lancias, Mitsubishis and Subaru had such tyres available, and it really cannot be much longer before Pirelli has a similar system. Eriksson, for instance, had two punctures on the first day but was able to continue because the expanding foam prevented complete deflation. Team-mate Vatanen was not so lucky, because he hit something solid and broke a wheel.
Sainz, whose bonnet loosened on the third stage, needed a replacement front differential and finished the day in second place, four seconds behind his fellow Toyota driver Ericsson. Alén damaged his front suspension on the rough second stage, whilst Kankkunen needed new power steering parts.
Two stages into the second day, after a generous night stop, Sainz moved ahead of Ericsson who had trouble with his power steering and, apart from losing the lead briefly to Kankkunen by just one second in the third leg, he held it all the way to the end.
The Volkswagen team were unlucky to lose their one car in the second leg when Weber, who earlier found his front wheel alignment out of true, stopped with a broken suspension. Like Mitsubishi, the team had no helicopter, and Weber was unable to struggle onwards to reach his next service point. Another to drop out was Recalde who rolled his Lancia, fortunately without injury to himself or his co-driver. In past years there have been fearful excursions in the Acropolis Rally when cars have rolled all the way down steep mountainsides.
Vatanen continued to knock his Mitsubishi about, coming off one stage with three wheels damaged, whilst Alén needed both his gearbox and his turbocharger intercooler changed.
At the end of the second day, early leader Ericsson had dropped to seventh place, but Sainz remained doggedly in front, albeit just two seconds ahead of Kankkunen. A very close fight between these two was emerging, and again it was brought home to everyone that the sport has become far more exciting and entertaining since cars have appeared which can challenge the Lancias. Early in the third leg the rot began to set in for Mitsubishi. After running with a high oil temperature and low turbocharger pressure, Eriksson’s engine finally cried enough and he stopped on the fourth stage of the day. Later, Vatanen also had trouble with his turbocharger, which had to be changed, and broke yet another wheel! But it was a rather more violent crash which finally stopped the car later, frontal damage being so severe that there was no hope of continuing. However, neither he nor co-driver Berglund was hurt In the incident.
Alén collected two punctures, one of which also caused a wheel and damper to be destroyed. Later, his intercooler pump was also found to be damaged, and it was thought that this was caused by pieces being thrown up from the tyre and other broken parts. The pump was changed, and later the rear differential.
Among the Lancia drivers only Kankkunen was challenging the leader. Auriol had lost time when he found himself with only one gear and had to resort to pushing the car to get it to a service point. Helicopters are not allowed to provide service actually on special stages, whilst another point to consider is the rocky, undulating terrain of the countryside, not exactly rich in suitable landing sites. A couple of years ago, one service helicopter landed (lightly!) on the flat roof of a house after a mechanic on the ground had responded to a radio request and obtained the owners permission. There was simply nowhere else to go, and we gather that the owner of the house is very proud of the photograph which now adorns his wall!
Alas, Auriol’s action was to no avail. His Lancia’s crankcase cracked and this could not be replaced in the time available. Team-mate Fiorio needed a new gearbox, whilst Italian girl Paola de Martini stopped when her Audi’s oil pump failed. Leader Sainz needed a new steering unit, which was fitted for him by mechanics brought by one of the teams helicopters. During that third leg, Kankkunen had actually got ahead of Sainz by one second after the twentieth special stage, but Sainz immediately recovered, and finished the third day, after SS.35, 43 seconds in the lead.
The final day, consisting of the return journey from Delfi to Athens via thirteen special stages, began with considerable tension in both Toyota and Lancia camps. Would Sainz be able to hold his lead? Would the mechanical gremlin strike again to prevent his victory? Would Kankkunen achieve a sudden burst of performance, as Auriol did under strange circumstances during the final half-night of the Monte Carlo Rally?
The answer to the first question was very much in the affirmative; to the others, negative. The extent of Sainz’s lead did vary to some extent, but the Spaniard never allowed it to drop to a threatening level. Of course, a puncture would have devoured it in one go and given Kankkunen victory, but it says much for Sainz’s polished style that even at his high pace he always drove with car sympathy in mind, not once collecting a puncture during the entire event and his Pirelli tyres were not reassuringly fitted with an expanding foam system.
The final leg saw the departure of Subaru’s lone Legacy when Alén’s engine spluttered noisily and died. We were told that a rocker had broken, which we found rather strange for a flat-four, 16-valve engine fitted with four “overhead” camshafts. But it seems that the engine does have parts which are called rockers, a kind of cross between a conventional rocker (as in push-rod engines) and a cam follower.
It was a shame the car did not finish, but it was it’s first appearance after all, and no amount of testing can authentically reproduce the hurly-burly of actual competition. It was always an old saying in workshops that when compeition numbers were put on a car, its wheels were in danger of falling off!
By way of compensation, Ian Duncan and Yvonne Mehta from Kenya took their 5-speed Subaru Legacy to eighth place, winning the Group N category by some six and a half minutes from Gustavo Trelles and Daniel Muzio in their Lancia. Highest placed Greek driver was Giannis Vardinogianis in a Lancia. Indeed, although Lancia did not win, the make did fill six of the leading ten places, thereby keeping other makes out of the points-scoring positions. It helps nowadays not only to win, but to increase the population of ones make of car.
Carlos Sainz now leads the World Rally Championship, having scored 60 points to Auriol’s 55, but there’s still a long way to go and the series is still wide open. Among the makes, Lancia leads Toyota by 20 points, the former having scored three firsts and two seconds, and the latter two firsts and two seconds. Again, anything can happen in the months to come, but it does not seem that anyone will emerge as a challenger to the two leading makes. Next round of the series is the New Zealand Rally, which will take place at the beginning of July.