Taming the Acropolis
David Williams witnessed a dazzling drive from Colin McRae on an Acropolis that was as tame as it seemed
A minute oversight had become apparent in Prodrive's normally meticulous planning the mechanics had a tennis ball and the stumps but someone had left the cricket bat in Athens.
Cricket bat" Stumps'? What sort of an Acropolis Rally was this? The old days of a 50 mph average on road sections may have gone for good but isn't the Greek round of the World Championship meant to have retained some of its old. unrelenting character? What has become of the heat the dust the rocks and the helter-skelter charge over the dreadful mountain roads of central Greece that worked mechanics into a lather and on which the conscientious reporter might set fire to the hire car's brakes the trail of a story?
The answer is that many of those elements remain low for the people who really matter the competitors but Colin McRae and Derek Ringer won an Acropolis Rally like no other This year's event illustrated the continuing changes by commercial reality.
Two or three years ago, Prodrive would have brought two helicopters and airborne mechanics might attend over 20 service points per day. The bigger works teams might have as many as 14 fully equipped vans each carrying a spare gearbox worth £25,000 Service time was short albeit a good deal more abundant than it was a decade previously and the pressure was constant.
This year, British-style service areas were introduced timed in and out. There were no more than four a day giving the service crews ample time to improve their sun tans and for other things, like cricket and football most of the -service camps were football pitches after all. The size of the service umbrella has been reduced to around two or three vans and depending on the number of rally cars, yet the road race ,for the supporting cast has gone - rather like the trip north past the monastery at Meteora or the mad dash through Athens traffic to the finish egged on police motorcyclists, in which even works rally drivers struggled to keep up. Depending on one's point of view, it was all part of the process of evolution or gnawing away at the rally's unique character.
Colin McRae spent about half as long on stages as Tim Salonen did on the last of the unlimited Acropolis Rallies. in 1985 but the improved-value, television-friendly Acropolis, remained an exceptionally difficult challenge McRae's sixth victory at World Championship level, the first for a British driver on this event since 1968, demanded every scrap of speed and judgement that he could muster.
In the old days, the Acropolis was very much a rally for the waiting game. Boulder-strewn Greek tracks can smash any car into submission and competitors might be required to drive for 60 hours without respite. It has been a much less exhausting, all-daylight event since Henn Totvonen's death on the 1986 Tour of Corsica, but that has confronted drivers with a new dilemma, theoretically, it is short enough to be driven flat out from start to finish, especially with Michelin's and Pirelli's run-flat tyres, but that carries a high risk of damaging the car and even a small delay can be enough to knock a crew out of contention on contemporary rallies with less than 300 stage miles.
This year, even the hard chargers like McRae and Tommi Makinen felt that it was so rough that the event couldn't be driven flat out from start to finish, heavy rain towards the end of the recce leaving the stages worse still. It isn't possible for the gravel note crews who check the stages in advance to mention every rock and it is simplicity itself to clip one and smash the suspension. Even the latest tyres will only withstand so much punishment before the puncture-plugging sealants give up the ghost.
Tyre wear was another consideration. Less service meant fewer tyre changes, even though two extra service points were added at the last minute, and that meant that preserving tyres on long, hot, abrasive stages would be vital.
McRae hasn't fully conquered the erratic side of his character, as his last-day accident when leading in Indonesia proved, but in most respects the World Champion is the perfect driver for the modern age. He has never needed to practise much and has no problem with shorter recces, he possesses blistering speed, but also an uncanny ability to look after tyres which, in the end, proved decisive.
By the last day of the rally, Makinen had more than made up for a slow, cautious start. The Mitsubishi is reckoned to be the most powerful of the works cars and winding Greek roads give ample scope for turbocharged punch out of low-speed corners: the 20th stage, for instance, was reckoned to include 58 hairpins.
The Finn was exploiting that power to the full and the rally had become a duel between the World Champion and the man most likely to succeed him. With 65 competitive miles and four stages left, McRae's lead had plunged to 30 seconds and, as he later admitted, the event could have gone either way.
It was settled on the roughest stage of the rally, Zemeno, at which point 24 seconds divided the two. Makinen had started Ihe previous stage, Gravia, carrying two spare Michelins, which he fitted to the front for Zemeno. By the finish, the fronts were badly worn, but the rears were utterly destroyed. The tread had been torn off and slivers of the carcass sprouted through what little rubber was left, like shrivelled plants that had been deprived of light.
McRae's Pirellis were fit for scrap, but they retained some tread. More remarkable still, the same four tyres had done both stages. The Scot doesn't like the extra weight of a second spare, which unbalances the car, and doesn't like swapping tyres around as it upsets the handling.
For raw speed, there is little to tell between McRae and Makinen. For finesse, the World Champion has the edge. The Subaru driver had added 14 seconds to his lead just enough to keep Makinen at arm's length with two stages left.
McRae's feat was all the more impressive for being achieved under considerable pressure. Victory in Indonesia would have given him the World Championship lead and permitted him to throttle back a little, thus ensuring a good, points scoring finish in Greece, which is no rally for taking chances. Retirement left him 18 points behind Makinen and badly in need of his first World Championship win of the season to get back on terms with the Finn and the Indonesian victor, Carlos Sainz. Put bluntly, he would have to take chances, whether he liked it or not. After two relatively serene days, there was no longer scope for the level-headed approach. By the last morning, he was tipping the lmpreza on two wheels and chopping corners, and confessed that he thrashed it as fast as it would go over Zemeno.
It was necessary, but not particularly enjoyable, McRae has always gone well in Greece, but he has had his share of bad luck, notably his exclusion after scrutineers left the bonnet pins loose and thereby smashed the windscreen two years ago. To his mind, the Acropolis is needlessly rough and consequently places far too much emphasis on luck at the expense of skill. It is not one of his favourite rallies.
This was the kind of performance he will have to produce with growing frequency. As Mitsubishi concentrates on a single Group A car and Sainz knocks Ford into shape, McRae is clearly emerging as the only Subaru driver fast enough to win.