The return of Miki Biasion to Lancia was expected to be marked by a victory. But…
There is little doubt that this year's relegation by the FIA of certain rallies of the World Rally Championship to count only for the Two-Wheel Drive Cup was carried out, partly at least, at the instigation of the world's leading four-wheel drive teams. They have very large budgets, but the costs of tackling 13 events in a year is enormous. Five less would lighten the burden considerably in terms of manpower, deployment and finance. But the effect was somewhat confusing. Some events count for both series, some for just the World Rally Championship and some for just the said cup. The total remains at 13, but there are now just eight qualifiers for WRC and 10 for the two-wheel drive series.
The first event not to count for the WRC this year was the Safari which, remarkably enough, saw a huge upsurge in entries. In the absence of the world's major teams, various other outfits tried their hands, whilst the number of privateers increased so considerably that the total number of starters was well over a 100.
The second such relegation this year was suffered by the Acropolis Rally and, although it was not officially declared, one could see that the organisers had not succeeded in raising as much sponsorship as they have in the past, when the big-spending teams had been present.
Starters this year numbered 75, 13 less than last year. None of the major four-wheel drive teams was among them, although there were several well-driven cars in the event: Miki Biasion was driving in his first rally for seven months, at the wheel of a Delta HF Integrale of the Astra team, a reacquaintance with the Lancia after a few years in Fords; Patrick Snijers was in a Ford Escort Cosworth backed by Bastos and Fina, the Belgian remarking before the start that his last time in the Acropolis Rally was six years ago.
Rudi Stohl brought his well-rallied Audi Coupe S2 from Austria, the very same car in which he has tackled both the Acropolis and the Safari no less than three times each! Talented Greek driver Leonidas Kirkos was at the wheel of a Ford Escort Cosworth prepared at Malcolm Wilson's workshops in Cumbria, whilst eventual winner, Aris Vovos, was in a Lancia HF Integrale.
Among the two-wheel driver runners were two cars each from Seat and Skoda, The Spanish team had an Ibiza GTi apiece for Antonio Rius from Spain and German driver Erwin Weber. Skoda, a team which had indulged in considerable pre-event testing, had two Felicia 1500s for Czech drivers Emil Inner and Pavel Sibera.
The local Nissan importer, Theoharakis, entered a Sunny GTi for Stratis Hadjipanagiotis who, not surprisingly, rallies under the pseudonym "Stratissino". A similar car came from Germany for Nikolai Burkart. Another Nissan, a Gp N Pulsar, was driven by local man Emanouil (Manolis) Panagiotopoulos.
From Belgium came an Opel Astra GSi for Freddy Loix, their team being managed by former co-driver Alain Lopes. The Greek Renault importer, Alex Maniatopoulos, drove a Clio Maxi under the pseudonym he has used for many years, "Leonidas".
Even though rally headquarters had moved from their previous bases near the sea outside town, the start location remained where it has traditionally been, at the foot of the Acropolis hill. From here, the route went north-westwards to the north of the Gulf of Corinth, through 10 special stages before stopping for the Sunday night at Kamena Vourla on the southern shore of the Gulf of Evvoia.
The second day began at 08.30 and went through eight special stages, mostly to the west and north-west of Lamia, before returning to Kamena Vourla for another night stop. The third and final day also began at 08.30 and cars this time passed through seven special stages on their way back to Athens where the event finished at the city's Olympic Stadium.
Very soon after the start, in customary (though not invariable) Greek May-time sunshine, Snijers suffered a setback when his rear suspension broke, also allowing some brake fluid to escape. He lost some three minutes, plus three more minutes on the road having the damage repaired. Stohl also lost a little time after a stone damaged his steering, but he was able to fix it later with no further loss of time.
Sibera spent some 10 minutes off the road in the second stage, whilst Rius stopped to change a wheel after a puncture and lost four minutes. Loix added another paragraph to the chapter of Belgian misfortunes when he collected two punctures on the same stage. At least he was carrying two spare wheels! Another to have a puncture was Vovos. The rough Greek special stages were living up to their long standing reputation as puncture provokers.
After the early stages, it was not Biasion who was leading, as expected, but Greek driver Kirkos in his Escort RS Cosworth, but as the day progressed the Italian gradually moved up, first to be equal with Kirkos and then to be ahead of him. Stohl meanwhile, had got up to third place. "Leonidas" (not to be confused with Leonidas Kirkos) had two bolts fall out of his front suspension.
Biasion had trouble with his front suspension on the 16-mile, rough Askrea stage (SS5), but he had this fixed without loss of time and without losing his lead. Stohl had a broken front shock absorber replaced.
Adding to Belgian misfortunes, Loix went off the road in the sixth stage and, even though there were many spectators around, no one would help him. Apparently, they had heard about service restrictions and were loath to help for fear of the Belgian being excluded. Eventually, the crew managed to convince the crowd that they would not be disqualified and the relatively undamaged car was heaved back to the road, but it cost a great deal of time and any hope of a 2wd victory.
Triner went out when his front right suspension broke and there was no service crew on-hand to help him. Team-mate Sibera drove for four or five miles on a flat tyre.
Kirkos bent his steering against a rock and Biasion stuck to his lead, and at the end of the leg he led from Vovos, followed by Stohl. Meanwhile, Snijers hit a concrete culvert and holed his radiator. He limped on, but a few miles down the road his engine seized and he was out. Biasion needed a change of half shaft whilst Rius was penalised 30 seconds for pushing his car to a stage start line. His battery was flat.
The 2wd category at Kamena Vourla was led by the two Seats, followed by the Nissan of "Stratissino" who had his car fitted with a complete set of new shock absorbers before it entered the closed park.
Overnight, "Leonidas" decided that his Clio Maxi had given so much trouble that there was no course but to pull out. He later announced, in a forthright manner, that there was no point in carrying on in a car which was not really set up for rough dirt roads and was giving trouble in various departments, including suspension, gear linkages, handling and steering.
After the morning restart, Vovos had to slow for every hairpin after his handbrake failed.
The sixteenth stage was the notorious Tarzan, all 13 rough miles of it. It was here that things changed dramatically up front. Biasion, holding a comfortable lead, saw his water temperature suddenly shoot up. A core plug had blown out and the loss of water eventually led to an inoperative engine. Thus the fight was left to two Greeks, Kirkos and Vovos in his Delta. The former led by four minutes from the latter. By this time, the spectators, who had not been expecting much ferocity in the contest anyway, had very little spectacle left to watch. What little steam had been in the event had been taken away when Biasion retired.
The last stage before the return to Kamena Vourla was wet and slippery; Vovos found himself with a flat tyre and drove on it for a few miles, and Kirkos had his throttle stick open and he drove on the key for a while. Loix passed three cars on this stage and then had them repass him as he changed a puncture. Quite remarkably, he then went on to repass those very same cars, all in some 14 miles.
At the final restart, Kirkos led Vovos by just over five minutes, but it all changed when the former's cambelt jumped a tooth or two, damaging the valves. It had apparently been caused by dust and fine gravel getting between it and the pulleys. There was no service around so, for the second time, a rally reader retired.
Meanwhile, Vovos rolled! However, he managed to continue, although he did hold up Stohl in his dust. The Austrian managed to stay in second place, but Weber was able to close the gap to become dangerously close behind him, just a few seconds behind, in fact. Alas, the German could not really push for a while, for he became hampered by faulty gear selectors. However, the Seat team was still hoping to collect first and second places in the two-wheel drive category.
Sibera managed to get ahead of Loix, even though the Belgian did make several best times in succession, a fact which disturbed his team manager who felt that he was taking too many risks.
And that was about the size of it. Four-wheel drive cars took first and second places but no World Championship points, leaving Seat's Weber and Rius to celebrate a 1-2 in third and fourth places, if that makes any sense. "Stratissino" finished next in his front-wheel drive Nissan Sunny.
Acropalis Rally – May 27-31 1995
1: Aris Vovos / Kostas Stefanis – Lancia Delta HF Integrale
2: Rudi Stohl / Peter Muller – Audi S2
3: Erwin Weber / Manfred Hierner – Seat Ibiza GTi
4: Antonio Rius / Manuel Casanova – Seat Ibiza GTi
5: “Stratissino” / Tonia Pavli – Nissan Sunny GTi