Toyota was expected to win, Subaru should have won, but the Acropolis tore the heart out of the entry and victory went to Ford, thanks largely to a superbly judged drive from Miki Biasion
Had the 1993 Acropolis Rally taken place under the regulations prevailing 20 or so years ago, the SCDA would have been delighted. It was hotter this year than it has been for 10 years at least, a reminder of the days when fatigue, heat and dust took such toll that drivers were stopping in villages to douse their heads under communal pumps and co-drivers were nodding off over their notes, even on special stages.
What is the SCDA? It was a club formed lightheartedly in the early '70s by co-drivers who found that, under the strenuous conditions of the Acropolis of the time, note-reading was decidedly more doze-provoking than twirling a steering wheel. Hence the name; Sleeping Co-Drivers Association, a spoof society originated as a jest but which has since engendered pride, satisfaction, even honour, at having taken part in a rally which was then the only real endurance event in Europe.
The days of the old Acropolis are gone. No longer do competitors make pace notes of the entire route, road sections as well as special stages, and no longer do they carry pillows as part of the in-car equipment. Sharing the workload was important then, as it was even on the RAC Rally of the time, and those who did not snatch sleep whenever they could rarely made it to the finish. That was the time of reclining seats, wonderful pieces of kit which vanished a long time ago from lists of essentials.
The modern Acropolis has bowed to FISA demands as much as any other event and, nowadays, its three-day, sleep-at-night format matches its forerunner about as much as a school ramble resembles a trek across the inhospitable Richtersveld. But, whilst man may change many things, he can not interfere with geography and climate, at least not in the short term, and those two features still set the Acropolis apart from other European events. It is still hot, dry, rough and dusty, and those points, combined with the amiable, unpredictable, sometimes erratic nature of the Greek people (they often dine after midnight) place the rally in a class of its own.
Entries were at an uncommonly high level for such a rough event. Each of the five works teams which have scored 1993 World Championship points was there, plus a few other factory teams and several privateers. Indeed, in terms of hard, top-of-the-list competition, it was the best turn-out of the year so far.
Toyota sent two Celicas, for Didier Auriol/ Bernard Occelli and Juha Kankkunen/Juha Piironen, whilst Ford had the same number of Escort Cosworths, for François Delecour/Daniel Grataloup and Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero.
Both Mitsubishi Ralliart and the 555 Subaru Team also sent two cars apiece, two Lancers for Kenneth Eriksson/Staffan Parmander and Armin Schwarz/Nicky Grist, and two Legacys for Colin McRae/Derek Ringer and Ari Vatanen/Bruno Berglund, the latter having their first World Championship outing since Vatanen was sidelined by a back injury on the Paris-Dakar in January.
The Jolly Club, having taken over with Totip backing where Martini Racing left off, had no less than four Lancia Delta Integrales. There were three Group A cars for Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya, Andrea Aghini/ Sauro Farnocchia and Gustavo Trelles/Jorge del Buono, plus a Group N car for Jorge Recalde/Martin Christie.
Prominent among the private outfits was Italy's very active Astra team, headed by former driver Mauro Pregliasco and assisted in the background by former co-driver Piero Sodano who also runs the golf tournaments associated with four of the WRC events, Acropolis included. There were two Lancia Deltas from Astra for Alessandro Fiorio/ Vittorio Brambilla and Tommi Mäkinen/Seppo Harjanne. We understand that the team has a whole warehouse full of Lancia spares for sale as it is planning, after buying into a Belgian concern, to concentrate on Fords in the future.
The Skoda team had two Favorits for Pavel Sibera/Petr Gross and Emil Triner/Jiri Klimer, whilst the Greek Lada importers entered three Samaras for Russian crews Sergei Aliasov/Alexandr Levitan, Vladislav Shtikov/Juri Baikov and Alexandr Nikonenko/Sergei Talantsev. Two private drivers from Russia were Vladimir Tourov in a Lancia Delta and Konstatin Soukatchev in a Ford Sierra Cosworth 4x4.
Although overshadowed by the four-wheel-drive, electronically activated brigade, two-wheel-drive cars still have their place, and one of the foremost exponents of such cars is Belgium's Bruno Thiry. He was there, with Stephane Prevot in a fwd Opel Astra GSi.
From Austria came the irrepressible Rudi Stohl, partnered by Berliner Peter Diekmann, in an Audi Coupé S2, whilst Dubai's Mohammed Bin Sulayem, partnered by his regular navigator, Dubliner Ronan Morgan, was there in his Group N Ford Escort Cosworth.
Another Group N car was the Mazda 323 GT-R of Italians Alessandro Fassina/Luigi Pirollo (the Brussels-based Mazda Rally Team Europe, headed by Achim Warmbold, became defunct a long time ago), whilst another was the Nissan Sunny of Stratis Hadgipanagiotis/Tonia Pavli. Not surprisingly, the driver uses the pseudonym 'Stratissino'.
Greeks have a liking for nicknames, and 'Leonidas' was actually Alexandros Maniatopoulos, head of Greece's Renault importer company, driving a new Clio Williams. 'Iaveris', driving an Audi Quattro 90, was none other than Tasos Markouizos who once drove a Ford Escort very spiritedly indeed and, had he ventured outside his shores, could have achieved international renown.
Another Nissan was the Group N Pulsar (Sunny) of Japanese pair Hiroshi Nishiyama/Rocky Sugiura who laboured under an acute shortage of spares for much of the rally after their equipment container went to Russia rather than Greece!
In years past, the Acropolis traversed the length and breadth of the country, across the Corinth Canal down into the depths of the Peloponnisos, northwards as far as Thessaloniki and beyond and eastwards to what was once famous as the 'Volos Loop'. Alas, time and distance restrictions have changed everything, and that part of southern Greece above the Gulf of Corinth is nowadays the only part of the country where villagers, as they relax outside their local tavernas, can have their ouzo enriched by the sight and sound of passing rally cars. Start and finish, according to tradition, are in Athens. The 1,027 mile route was divided into three legs by two night stops at Delphi. The 36 special stages accounted for 339 miles, just under a third of the total.
In the weeks before the rally much rain fell in the mountainous area of the route and this softened and eroded many of the road surfaces. When it stopped, before the rally started, the ground was soon baked hard again, leaving the stages as rough and as bumpy as they have ever been. During the event, the heat was intense, an air temperature reading near one special stage being 95degF whilst the tarmac sent the mercury up to 131!
After practice, Peter Diekmann had an amusing tale to tell, having found an Escort front spoiler (twice) on a special stage. In the roomy Audi estate car which he and Rudi Stohl were using for note-making, they had ample space to take the spoiler to the next Ford service car they met, but when they were chatting to Biasion at the start of the rally the Italian remarked, "I'd better not lose my spoiler again, because this time you are not in a transporter!"
According to FISA rules reconnaissance cars must be standard, but whether this rule is being flaunted is another matter. Some of the leading drivers now have two practice cars for each event and, although this is said to be to avoid time wastage through breakdowns, we wonder whether both of a crew's recce vehicles are really standard? Worthwhile rules should be enforced, but this one seems to be ignored by the watchdogs.
With such a strong field of fierce rivals, the outcome seemed to be a foregone conclusion. But when Vatanen set best time on the first stage people were understandably surprised. The Finn could not possibly be on form after such a long lay-off? But he certainly was, and he demonstrated throughout the day that his opening time was no flash in the pan. Indeed, both he and Colin McRae showed everyone clean pairs of heels and the day ended with the two Subarus leading the two Fords of Biasion and Delecour. The Toyotas, Lancias and Mitsubishis were almost also-rans.
The unfortunate Stohl went no further than the first stage, where his oil pressure warning light suddenly came on. Unlike works drivers, privateers have to count their pennies and Stohl wasted no time reaching for the switch to turn the engine off. Sportingly, Stohl continued to follow the rally, lending his Audi expertise (he used to be an Audi works mechanic) to help local man 'laveris'.
Trelles collected a puncture, Thiry hurt a wrist as a result of a steering wheel kickback and McRae said that his front differential was not to his liking, although, under 1993 rules, the unit could not be changed until the end of the leg.
The second stage saw the end of Eriksson's Mitsubishi when the front suspension collapsed, pulling a halfshaft out of the gearbox and holing the sump.
Kankkunen broke a rear shock absorber and the bouncing dislodged the spare wheel which promptly hit the rear window and cracked it. Trelles had his throttle jam open and Biasion and Fiorio collected a puncture apiece. Both Biasion and Delecour had their turbochargers replaced.
Auriol must have had a very hard landing on the third stage, for he stopped soon afterwards with a cracked sump. Mechanics got him going with adhesive until they could later replace it, but three stages later he broke his fans when he went over an unexpected dip which resulted in another hard landing. It seems that the stage continued for a little longer than the roadbook suggested and the French crew had not played safe during their recce by making notes beyond the finish line, an omission which they must now be regretting.
The fans were changed, but other damage soon manifested itself when the camshaft drive belt slipped a cog or two, causing mayhem among the valves and pistons and stopping the engine completely.
Another to retire in this first leg was Thiry. He put his Opel Astra off the road and lost his position as leader of the 2wd brigade. Kankkunen, struggling with a defunct limited slip function in his rear differential after a broken oil seal had been repaired, nearly did the same, but the tree which he hit did not cause any serious damage. However, his engine seemed to be affected and there was much changing of electronics later at Delphi, where he arrived in a cloud of smoke.
At the end of the leg Vatanen held a 1m 12s lead over team-mate McRae, whilst Biasion followed closely. Delecour and Kankkunen came next, and Bin Sulayem led Group N from Recalde.
On the second stage of day two, McRae's fine run came to an end when he hit a rock with his left front wheel. The strut broke, the wheel came off and that was that. There was not even any point in trying to struggle off the stage, for service was forbidden between that one and the next.
Team-mate Vatanen lost his brakes for one stage when a bleed nipple loosened and fluid escaped. However, he was still holding a slight lead over Delecour who had moved up after Biasion collected a puncture, broke a rim and experienced engine overheating.
The Finn lost some 10s on the sixth stage through no fault of his own. The FISA technical man had decided to take fuel samples before the start of the day's fifth stage and when, in Vatanen's case, this took rather longer than time allowed, the officials refused to make any allowance. The result was a delayed start and a needless loss of time. It's about time these procedures were made clear so that FISA officials work in conjunction with event organisers, not as though they have a divine right to do as they please.
Vatanen still held the lead for Subaru, but it was not to last. Having lost one car through driving error, the team soon lost their second when Vatanen hit a bank and slid over the edge, missing a building but rolling down through the trees for some 40 ft. There was absolutely no hope of continuing and, after a stirring opening demonstration of superiority, the team was out of the rally.
When Vatanen stopped, the lead was taken over by Delecour, his team-mate Biasion still experiencing overheating. But even this was not to last. Towards the end of the day's last stage but one, Delecour's engine suddenly lost all power and Ford's Italian driver took over the lead from the Frenchman. Lots of things were tried, even replacement of the fuel tank after it was suspected that break-up of the foam filling could have caused particles to block the filter. Power was so low that, on the last stage, he spent much of the time in first gear and dropped to eighth place.
Meanwhile, Bin Sulayem's Escort, after having jammed gear selectors freed, succumbed to gearbox failure, the Group N lead then being inherited by Fassina in his Mazda. Mäkinen was a minute late getting to the last stage of the day after, whilst changing wheels front to back in a 'no service' area, he and Harjanne discovered that their jack was decidedly stubborn.
At the end of the day Biasion still led by a healthy 2m 34s from Schwarz who had been driving steadily. Nevertheless, much attention was given to the fuel systems of the two Fords when they returned to Delphi in the evening, Biasion's tank being replaced, as was Delecour's.
The Jolly Club Lancias of Sainz and Aghini had got up to third and fourth places, the former only 28s behind Schwarz, whilst fifth was held by Mäkinen.
On the final day, Biasion set out with a car that was neither overheating nor having fuel starvation and he was brim full of confidence. Delecour was in an equally good frame of mind, although one wonders what he was trying to prove by posting a succession of fastest times. He was eighth after all, and moving up a place or two would not set the world on fire. The effort must have overtaxed his engine because, on the eighth of the day's 12 stages, it suddenly stopped for good.
His departure was no more than academic for Ford, although some very searching probes were inserted into that engine when it got back to Boreham. Far more serious at the time was a radio call from Biasion to say that the back of his car was on fire in the day's fifth stage and the car was filling with smoke. With a lead to hang on to, the Italian opted to drive on and it was not until after he had got to the stop line that he got his extinguisher into play – a very brave move considering the fuel tank replacement which had been carried out the previous day.
The fire caused no more than superficial damage and, after it had been extinguished and some charred wiring replaced, all was well again.
Meanwhile, Sainz had overtaken Schwarz and was whittling away at Biasion's lead. But the Ford driver was unconcerned. He didn't mind his advantage being eroded. It was enough to last to the finish and he was not about to indulge in heroics to increase it. Better to win by a second than to try to make it three minutes and not win at all.
A flying stone had broken a brake pipe on Aghini's car and, as it happened before a 'no service' section, he had to tackle the next stage without brakes. One wonders why he could not have managed a makeshift repair himself, which would have been allowed.
That was about the size of it. Biasion scored a good win for Ford, though not before the Prodrive Subarus showed that they are a match for anything nowadays. The Lancias displayed no more than average performance, even though Sainz snatched second place, indicating perhaps that Abarth has ceased development of the Jolly Club's cars and lending weight to the rumour that the make will be pulled out at the end of the year.
Despite his retirement, Delecour keeps his lead of the drivers' section of the World Championship, whilst Biasion has jumped ahead of Auriol and Kankkunen into second place, just four points behind his teammate. In the makes' section Ford has moved up to equal Toyota at the head of the list, way ahead of the other three. Strangely enough, Subaru trails at the end, but the Legacy has more than proved itself and the marque could be making a greater impression soon. G P