Auriol: Greece Lightning

Not so long ago, Frenchman Didier Auriol was known as the man whom Lady Luck has passed by. Time after time, disaster struck just when it seemed that he would get a good result. His performances were excellent, but something always seemed to go wrong and he notched up retirement after retirement.

However, 1992 has seen an about turn for Auriol and his co-driver Bernard Occelli. After winning both the Monte Carlo Rally and the Tour of Corsica, they have now scored their first ever victory on a major rally which is run entirely on dirt road special stages and a particularly rough one at that. At Greece’s Acropolis Rally they took the lead on the first special stage and never even looked like losing it all the way to the end. It was a magnificent performance, helped by the fact that Auriol’s car seemed to be more reliable – or should we say less unreliable? – than the others.

Gone are the days when the Acropolis Rally was both rough and timed so tightly that even a stop for fuel or a tyre change would bring the risk of a road penalty. It remains rough, but service opportunities are so much greater nowadays that those in teams running the more reliable cars were often heard to express a wish for the return to the old days when even the slightest need for attention resulted in lateness.

It has been said that relaxation of time schedules has encouraged private drivers and helped more of them to finish. The latter may be the case, but the gap between privateers and factory crews remains as wide as ever. Having more time, works teams can make even better use of their fleets of service vehicles and airborne support and privateers are still at a big disadvantage. It’s all down to cost, of course. If a team has a big budget, it is entirely up to that team how it may spend it, and one can only blame the rule makers for opening the door to such cost escalation.

It should not be assumed from this that the Acropolis has been turned into a dawdle. Far from it! The rally remains as difficult as ever and this year, of the 39 finishers (there were 84 starters) only eight were without penalties in addition to those accumulated on special stages. Indeed, even in the top 10, just three were eventually clean on the road.

Traditionally based at Athens, the Acropolis has taken many forms over the years. Some decades ago, by popular demand, HQ was moved out of the traffic-ridden city to resorts along the coast to the south-east, first to Glyfada and then to Lagonissi. It was at Lagonissi this year but, save for scrutineering, the rally hardly went near there. After leaving Athens on the Sunday and firstly tackling a short spectator stage to the south-east, the rally headed north-west towards Delphi and was based there for the remainder of the time, only returning to Athens for the finish on the Wednesday.

There was no ferry crossing this year, mainly because the route did not venture into the Peloponissos peninsula, and we cannot help feeling that it is a great pity that the innovation introduced by the organisers some years ago to bring the rally to an effective end at Poros and to take the entourage back to Athens by car ferry has been ended. It was a novel way to end the event, and the relaxation of a sea crossing in place of a boring motorway drive followed by a fight through Athens traffic was greatly appreciated by competitors. However, roads in the Peloponissos are generally rougher than those elsewhere, and it is perhaps for this reason that the organisers have avoided that land mass beyond the Corinth Canal, to the south-west of Athens.

Roughness is no more than comparative, of course, and even without the Peloponissos the event stands as the hardest on cars of the entire World Championship series, save perhaps for the Safari. Roads are often strewn with stones and rocks, bringing a high risk of punctures, and dust is a considerable problem when there is no rain.

There was much rain during the practice period this year, but this passed off before the event itself which took place in customary heat and sunshine and dust, of course!

The 1,150-mile event spanned four days, each divided by a night stop, whilst the special stage distance was about 350 miles. The stages numbered 40, which meant that teams requiring their usual full service cover had to use more support vehicles than they take to others events in the world series, again with the exception of the Safari.

Martini Racing took two Lancia Delta Integrales for Juha Kankkunen/Juha Piironen and Didier Auriol/Bernard Occelli, whilst another works car was entered privately by Jorge Recalde/Martin Christie from Argentina. Others entered privately were those of Massimo Ercolani/Mario Vimercati from the Republic of San Marino and Greek crew Costas Apostolou/Mihalis Kriadis, whilst Italy’s Astra team had a Delta for Alessandro Fiorio/Nittorio Brambilla.

It is usually Lancia which attacks in strength, but this time it was Toyota which had the biggest side, three Celica Turbos being entered for Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya, Armin Schwarz/Arne Hertz and Markku Alen/lIkka Kivimaki. A privately entered Celica, prepared in Germany by Hainbach, was driven by Greek crew Giannis Vardinogiannis/Costas Stefanis, the driver using the pseudonym ‘Jigger’.

Ford took two Sierra Cosworth 4x4s for Francois Delecour/Daniel Grataloup and Massimo Biasioni/Tiziano Siviero, whilst a Group N version, in its familiar green, was entered privately and driven by Fernando Capdevila/Alfredo Rodriguez from the Canary Isles. Another Group N Sierra Cosworth was that of Mohammed Bin Sulayem from the United Arab Emirates and his Irish co-driver Ronan Morgan.

Mitsubishi was playing a single-handed game with just one Galant VR4 for Kenneth Eriksson/Staffan Parmander, whilst another UK-based Japanese team, that of Subaru, took two Legacies for Ari Vatanen/Bruno Berglund and Colin McRae/Derek Ringer. For the first time, the Subarus were fitted with programmable centre differentials operating through a combined electronic/hydraulic control system.

The Nissan team, another based in England, has recently and very abruptly been virtually disbanded, which meant that Finnish driver Tommi Makinen was not there, but some of the people at Milton Keynes remain and two of the NME mechanics were in Greece, along with British suspension consultant Gordon Birtwhistle, to look after the Group N Sunny GTI-R entered by Nissan Belgium. A similar car was entered by the Greek importer for popular and capable local crew Stratis Panayagiotis/Tonia Pavli.

Despite the recent upheaval in what used to be the Soviet Union, there were three VAZ-Lada 2 I 08-07s driven by Russian crews Sergei Alyasov/Alexander Levitan, Viktor Shkolny/Sergei Gogunov and Vladislav Shtykov/Youri Baikov. There was even a private crew from Russia, Konstantin Sumacoev/Boris Kravtsov in a Lancia Delta IntegraIe.

Czechoslovakia was also represented by two Skoda Favorits driven by Pavel Sibera/Petr Gross and Vladimir Berger/Jiri Janecek.

From Austria, the indefatigable Rudolf Stohl was there, driving a 10 year-old Audi 90 Quattro with German co-driver Peter Diekmann, whilst Alessandro Fassima/Massimo Chiapponi were in a Mazda 323 entered by Rally Team Italia.

The fact that headquarters were at Lagonissi, south-east of Athens, and the rally itself concentrated in an area on the opposite side of the city meant that the organisers were faced with a considerable communications problem. There is no mobile radiophone system in Greece, and even ordinary telephone lines are not always reliable. They therefore followed the example of competitors and deployed a high-altitude aircraft with carried a radio repeater. It would have been easier, of course, had headquarters been at Delphi, but we must admit that Lagonissi is a very pleasant place.

During practice, Auriol had a mishap when, whilst it was stationary, his recce car was hit from behind by a car driven by someone not connected with the rally. This seemed to have little significance at the time, but during the event Auriol experienced some back pains and attributed them to that incident.

Wherever headquarters have been located, the rally traditionally starts in the road at the foot of the hill on which the Acropolis itself is perched. This year was no exception, and to facilitate exit from the city through Sunday traffic the police laid on a squad of motor cyclists so that each competitor would have a police escort to the outskirts of the city. Some of those policemen provided extra entertainment for the crowd by accelerating hard from the start ramp and performing ‘wheelies’ in front of the huge gathering.

Like many opening spectator stages, or ‘superspecials’ as they are quaintly called by FISA, the first test was an artificial affair, and in order to keep down the dust the organisers sent a water truck through to spray the track. This was fine, but it did make the stage muddy in parts and there were even standing pools of water in places. It was the only wet stage in the entire event, for the clouds, rain and wind of the previous weeks had all vanished and the rally took place in bright sunshine.

This 2.75-mile opener, as most are, was merely academic, but on such stages it is possible to throw everything away, as has happened in the past on the Acropolis Rally. “You can’t gain much, but you can lose a lot,” is a frequently quoted expression. There were no dramatic moments this year, although De Mevius felt that his Nissan was low on power and ‘Jigger’ collected a puncture. Auriol made best time, one second less than Schwarz, and took a lead which he kept all the way through the rally.

On the first ‘proper’ stage, Ford’s French driver, who says he is a tarmac specialist rather than a dirt road man, broke both his front shock absorbers and spent much of the time floating like a ship at sea. When replacements were fitted, they were set softer than the original hard ones, but Delecour nevertheless had front damper failure on the next stage.

McRae also had to change his front left suspension after the stage, whilst De Mevius was slowed by a rear wheel puncture. Eriksson landed very heavily indeed after a jump, so heavily that his gearbox casing cracked. The only remedy which could be applied in the time available was to pack in some powerful adhesive, replace the protection plate and top up with oil, which seemed to work. Tyres wear down at a very high rate during the Acropolis, though perhaps not as fast as the ‘five miles to destruction’ of the Sears Roebuck tyres used by some cars during the days of sponsorship by that American company many years ago. After the 16 miles of the third stage, the front tyres of both Sainz’s and Schwarz’s Toyotas were worn right down to their bracing belts. McRae, who finished the stage with his left rear wheel toeing out although he was not aware of it, needed a new turbocharger intercooler pump, whilst Fiorio punctured his front right tyre and Vatanen had to have his front suspension changed.

On the next one, Biasion lost the fluid from his front dampers, whilst De Mevius lost about 20 seconds after bending his steering.

Stage Five was the last one of the day, and it was after this that Kankkunen picked up a one minute road penalty for being two minutes late at a time control. After service, his engine refused to start. When this was traced to failure of the engine management computer, the part was replaced and he was on his way. He said that he went slowly in that stage because he did not want to end the day in too high a place. For the second day, he wanted Biasion and Alen in front of him so that he would benefit from their clearing of rocks and stones from the roads.

Further back, Recalde commented that the roads were relatively free from loose stones when he went through, although later runners complained that corner-cutting by the front runners was sending an amazing amount of rubble into the road. De Mevius said later in the event that he considered the use of puncture-proof, foam-filled tyres by works drivers was to blame for this. “They just drive across all the corners and leave boulders for other drivers to hit.”

After leaving Delphi on the second day, McRae was a minute late at the start of the first stage due to failure of the electrical master switch. Eriksson broke a brake caliper on this first stage, but it was nothing compared with the problem he suffered on the next one. Gear selection became virtually impossible and the whole car seemed to be shaking itself to piece. The gearbox mounting bolts had sheared and he could go no further, putting Mitsubishi’s one-car entry out of the rally.

It was also here that the rear section of Vatanen’s propshaft loosened and fell off, leaving him with just front-wheel drive, a damaged gear linkage and the loss of about three minutes.

On stage eight, the third of the day, Schwarz experienced what he thought was turbocharger failure, but it was actually no more than jamming of the wastegate, which has the same effect. It is a problem which Toyota has experienced in the past, but it nevertheless takes time to rectify, and Schwarz had to tackle a few more stages before an opportunity came for a turbocharger change. Even so, he lost a minute and a half on the road and this, coupled with lost stage time, dropped him from third to seventh.

A bizarre incident on the next stage cost Delecour dearly, although it was neither his fault nor that of the team. When the marshal gave the start signal by dropping his flag (not raising it, as the regulations say) he accidentally hit the external switch which activates the fire extinguisher. The device promptly went off and Delecour was unable to start the stage for some time. To add to his misfortune, a two minute penalty was applied to him for failing to start the stage within the 20 second limit imposed by the regulations.

This seemed to be unfair, considering the reason for the delay, and the Ford team later protested against that penalty. However, the stewards rejected the protest, saying that Delecour had the opportunity to request a second stage start time but did not do so.

The turbo wastegate problem also slowed Alen, but in his case the unit was replaced without incurring any road penalty. Capdevila broke his left rear half shaft, whilst McRae collected a half minute road penalty after he had a broken front half shaft replaced.

On stage 12, Vatanen stopped when his Subaru’s engine stopped rather noisily after its oil pressure dropped to zero, and the works team retirement rate continued on the next stage when Sainz went out. He simply drove a little too fast into a corner on a rutted road, rolled off the road and continued rolling for some 30 yards down a fairly steep bank. Neither he nor Moya was hurt, but there was no chance of continuing.

Schwarz, having complained that his transmission was not working properly, had his gearbox and clutch changed, only to find that the problem had been due to a broken halfshaft. Fiorio, too, had transmission trouble, and when he was left with only front-wheel drive his front differential was changed. It made no difference, and even when the rear differential was changed there was still no improvement. Later, a broken front hub was discovered.

On the final stage of the second day, Alen’s engine mysteriously cut out twice, whilst Panayagiotis, who rallies under the pseudonym ‘Stratissino’, had a front damper break just before the start of the stage when there was no opportunity to change it. He was slowed considerably in the stage, but sportingly pulled over immediately when caught by Group N rival De Mevius who later referred to the Greek driver as a ‘real gentleman’.

During the day, Kankkunen moved up from ninth place to third, whilst Schwarz dropped from second to sixth. Auriol still held the lead, 12m 45s ahead of Biasion. Normally, that would not be considered a healthy advantage, but with Michelin foam-filled ATS tyres the French driver considered it ample as he did not have to take too many precautions against punctures. Alen was third, just two seconds ahead of McRae who was driving extremely well on his first visit to the Acropolis so well that Prodrive boss David Richards at one time had to take him one side and tell him to slow down!

Of the 84 starters, 58 remained to start the third leg, on the first stage of which the corners came up so often that Alen arrived at the finish with his front brake discs white hot and smoking. Fiorio still only had front-wheel drive, but the problem was put right one stage later, where he suffered a broken rear shock absorber.

McRae buckled a wheel rim but continued at undiminished speed as the tyre did not deflate, whilst Alen lost about half a minute when his left front tyre punctured about three miles before the end of the second stage. He also had his front differential changed in an attempt to rectify a handling problem, and collected a one minute road penalty as a result. De Mevius also had a left front puncture.

Among the Fords, Delecour was coping well on the rocky tracks to which he was not accustomed, but Biasion had to take it easy for a while after his radiator fan failed and the water temperature rose alarmingly. A replacement fan also failed, and the matter was not put right until the rally reached Delphi again, when the whole radiator was replaced.

Bin Sulayem went off the road on stage 25, limped to the finish but lost something approaching 40 minutes in all. Later, on the final day, the Dubai driver stopped when his engine mysteriously cut out. Mechanics ran into the stage and were able to strap up a cracked distributor. But it was to no avail. They were beyond maximum lateness.

On stage 26 came the biggest disaster of the rally. Toyota, having already lost Carlos Sainz, saw their remaining two cars join the retirement list when first Alen, then Schwarz, went off the road on the very same corner. Like Sainz, they each went down a bank for about 30 yards, the second coming to rest almost alongside the first. Both crews were unhurt, although Kivimaki needed stitches in a gashed leg sustained when he had to make a sudden scramble over some rocks to avoid the fast-approaching car of his team-mates.

De Mevius, still battling with Capdevila for the Group N lead, also had a nasty moment on this stage. After a service stop before the stage, his Nissan’s bonnet pins had not been replaced and the bonnet suddenly flew up on the stage, totally obscuring his vision. He had to stop to secure it, losing valuable time.

By this time, Delecour was content to take it easy, gain experience and drive to keep his position and to finish. But he didn’t contend with overheating and power steering failure, just at a time when his radio refused to work. “We meant to go slowly, but not that slowly,” he said afterwards. Even on the last stage but one, he had a front strut break, but he nevertheless finished fifth overall, two behind his team-mate.

Towards the end of the day, several breakages of rear suspension arms cost Capdevila a great deal of time, and it was then, and only then, that the Group N contest seemed to have been resolved in labour of the lanky, likeable Belgian, De Mevius. ‘Jigger’ lost five and a half minutes of road time having his power steering system changed, whilst Kankkunen got ahead of Biasion into second place.

No-one expected any heroics on the last day, but McRae had other ideas. With the blessing of his team, he went flat out from the start and his times took his rivals by surprise. They wondered what he expected to achieve, but were nevertheless impressed by the Scot’s performance. He was less than two minutes behind Biasion and figured that if he got the Italian rattled he (Biasion) may be more inclined to make a mistake. The ploy didn’t work, partly because he hit a rock on stage 37 and broke a rear half shaft, but McRae certainly made an impression and earned the respect of seasoned drivers who have much more World Championship experience.

Auriol was comfortably in the lead and didn’t need to push hard, but he nevertheless went all out on the first stage of the day and made best time. “That was only to tune up my concentration,” he explained later. “Now I will go just as fast as I have to, and no faster.”

Fiorio had a tough time nursing his car to the finish. He lost all his gears except third and fourth, and remarked at the finish, where he was seventh overall, that he was expecting the gearbox to explode at any moment. Recalde was another who was in constant fear of gearbox failure on the final day, and it seems that these ‘private’ Lancia drivers were not as well off for spare parts as their factory counterparts. Like Fiorio, Recalde made it and was rewarded by sixth place and an elevation to 10th position in the World Championship standings.

Local man Apostolou had a very trying final day. Having been 10th overall for some time, the Greek privateer lost time just five stages from the end when he had to stop to refix a loose sumpguard. But this was not all. On the road section from the final stage to the finish at Athens he was involved in a collision with a non-competing car and for a while it looked as though all his efforts had been for nothing. But he fettled the car and managed to get to Athens in 12th place, a lucky but very happy man.

Whilst Martini, Lancia, the French and even the Finns were celebrating, all was quiet in the Toyota and Mitsubishi camps. Relatively speaking, of course! Total team retirement is a disaster in any language, but for Mitsubishi some mechanical lessons were learned. The retirements of the three Toyotas were for different reasons, although we did hear some rather misguided remarks that perhaps some mechanical failure was to blame. Sainz was quite open about the fact that his crash was entirely his own fault and, although we did not speak to them afterwards, we imagine that the same can be said of Alen’s and Schwarz’s departures.

Although not run in a country which is equipped with all the facilities of modern communications, the Acropolis is nevertheless an eminently tough competition which is enjoyed by all. Even with the dilution of long rest stops enforced by regulations, it remains the nearest thing to an endurance rally that Europe can provide. Indeed, we feel that even members of the ‘Sleeping Co-Drivers’ Association’, formed many years ago when heat, dust and fatigue combined to cause co-drivers to nod off over their notes, would approve. Incidentally, of those original SCDA members, only Arne Hertz remains competing today.

Carlos Sainz’s retirement means that he had been knocked off his perch at the head of the World Championship table, but he is nevertheless only five points behind the new series leader, Juha Kankkunen. Separating them in second place is Didier Auriol whose win takes him up one place, just two points behind the leader.

Among the manufacturers, Toyota has dropped even further behind Lancia, even though Greek driver ‘Jigger’ managed to add four points to the Cologne team’s score. Toyota Team Europe, having already got Sainz the champion’s laurels, wanted to collect the makes title this year, but the Acropolis result has placed this rather far from reach. Next round for drivers, the New Zealand Rally, will have taken place at the end of June, whilst the next round for both drivers and makes will be the Argentina Rally at the end of July.

Acropolis Rally (Greece) – 31 May – 3 June, 1992

1st: Dider Auriol/Bernard Occelli – Lancia Delta HF Integrale, Gp A
2nd: Juha Kankkunen/Juha Piironen – Lancia Delta HF Integrale, Gp A
3rd: Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero – Ford Sierra Cosworth 4×4, Gp A
4th: Colin McRae/Derek Ringer – Subaru Legacy RS, Gp A
5th: Francois Delecour/Daniel Grataloup – Ford Sierra Cosworth 4×4, Gp A