From illicit rendezvous in forests to today’s floodlit portable undercover workshops, John Davenport charts the changing lot of the rally mechanic
Since Bernie Ecclestone re-introduced the pit stop to Formula One, there is little doubt that this has increased the entertainment value of the racing. In rallying, the equivalent of the pit stop is the service point where often greater miracles are performed than the exchange of four wheels and the addition of fuel.
It would be very difficult to say exactly when rally servicing started, but it is recorded that on Thanksgiving Day 1895, Frank and Charles Duryea used a fully equipped horse-drawn sleigh to support their entry in the Chicago limes-Herald event. This was run over a 54-mile course between Chicago and Evanston in very snowy conditions. Frank drove a prototype built by himself that was basically a horse buggy with a two-cylinder engine. He took 8hrs 23mins to cover the course during which time brother Charles kept nipping ahead of him with the sleigh in a manner familiar to any modem rally mechanic.
Back in the Old World, outside assistance in rallies was frowned upon and, as rallying grew up, this was formalised in all kinds of regulations, some of which survive today. In a modem rally, if you leave the road accidentally, you may receive any assistance to regain the road provided that you regain it at the same point where you left it. But this means help of a serendipitous nature and not organised service. If one knows in advance where one is going to leave the road, then it can hardly be called accidental.
Rally servicing during the 1930s was thus a hide-and-seek exercise, with factory supported teams having off-route service that no organiser could possibly police. In the post-war era, with the resurgence of interest in rallies, the gloves came off and rally organisers removed the blanket ban. Servicing was allowed everywhere, and the only restriction was on the ability and the budget of the teams to provide it. As late as 1961, Erik Carlsson finished fourth overall on the Monte Carlo Rally in a Saab 95 estate car it was the only model fitted with a four-speed gearbox doing his own service. He even changed his own brake linings using spares carried in the car.
To start with, teams used ordinary cars to provide mobile service since they were the only things quick enough for the job. It rather limited the amount that could be carried but the demands made on them were quite modest a few tyres, some petrol, oil, water and a tool box. Mercedes used their 220 SE while BMC used Austin A90 Westminsters, known affectionately as ‘barges’. As a -final resort, either of these could be cannibalised for parts to keep either another 220 SF or an Austin Healey 3000 running. And then the Citroen team under Rene Cotton came with two new departures: the first was the estate versions of their ID and DS saloons, equally quick but much more room for bits, and then they used their ubiquitous crinkle-sided vans. Within a very short time, estate cars and vans were the vehicles to have for servicing.
My first view of professional rally servicing was the Monte Carlo Rally of 1963, the occasion of Erik Carlsson’s second outright victory and a nasty, cold, icy event. I was following the event for Motoring News with photographer Laurie Morton. We saw at first hand the dangers of this new breed of service cars when we were first on the scene of an accident involving Piero Frescobaldils Lancia Flavia service car and a tree on the Col de la Croix Haute. The spares and tools from the rear had shot forward and crushed the three mechanics, two of whom succumbed to their injuries. It was as a result of incidents like this that much more thought was put into the preparation of service cars and their use.
It was this latter aspect that benefited quickly from a more scientific approach. The careful planning of service car routes and schedules meant that they could move around more sedately and there was consequently a much better chance of finding them where you needed them. Bill Barnett of Ford Motor Company was at the leading edge of such refinements. His calculations and instructions when gathered together formed a book that was known as ‘Bill’s Bible’. No member of the Ford team could afford to be without it. Other teams did similar exercises but there was nothing on the scale of the Ford product.
Bill was not a man to easily lose his temper but I did see him go ballistic once with the enigmatic Jean-Francois Plot. The event was the 1969 Coupe des Alpes and Piot had recently joined Ford from Citroën. During the event, it became evident that Jean-Francois was not stopping at the Ford service point locations but was looking for them elsewhere. It transpired that before the event, he had told his co-driver to get a copy of the Citroën service list and enter them in their road book, as “René Cotton always picks the best service points”. Bill did not have to translate his comments into French as they would have been understood in any language.
In those days, rally cars were usually driven to the start of events on the road. For the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally, I took our works Lotus Cortina to a dock adjacent to Tower Bridge where I had it craned onto a Polish freighter. I then spent four days reading books as the boat swept through the Kid Canal into the Baltic Sea before driving the car from Gdansk to the start in Warsaw.
Getting the rally cars back from the end of rallies was OK if they were still driveable, otherwise the only solution was a tow-rope. After the Coupe des Alpes that year, I volunteered to steer a dead Lotus Cortina back up the N7 to Paris behind one of Ford’s Zephyr Estate service cars. Visibility out of the back of the Zephyr was not great so that, after a while, the mechanics tended to forget about their little follower. This meant that, as they swung out to try and leapfrog the poids lourds, I was often left in the wrong lane facing an oncoming tanker with no gap to pull into. I must have broken the towrope at least a dozen times in last-minute efforts to save my life.
Pre-planning along the lines of Bill’s Bible meant that, as the 1960s progressed, the logistics of servicing became more organ ised. But there was still plenty of scope for drama in the service points themselves. In 1969, the Porsche team under Rico Steinemann arrived in Monte Carlo at the end of the Common Run in first, second and fourth places. But at the first major service point on the Mountain Section, Bjorn Waldegaard’s 911 needed new brake pads. The mechanics had the car in the air with the front wheels off and the old pads out when someone thought to remind the driver not to brake at this critical point and shouted ‘nicht bremse’. Bjom only heard the last bit and promptly hit the pedal. All the pistons popped out and there were enough Swabian oaths to melt all the snow on the Turini. They got it all back together eventually, but Waldegaard lost four minutes on the road and the lead. It took him the rest of the night to pull back into the lead – and for Rico’s blood pressure to revert to normal.
As servicing techniques improved, so more and more complicated jobs were attempted. It was not unusual to change a gearbox or differential especially in a front-engined, rear-wheel-drive car like a Ford Cortina. The original differential on the Cortina was only just adequate for the power of the Twin Cam engine and was prone to fail. It had to be taken out from the front of the axle casing by first removing the propeller shaft. The normal modus operandi was to hold a plastic bucket underneath to catch the oil and the outgoing differential. On the Gulf London Rally of 1967 – an event held in the proud tradition of the Milk Miglia, ie a bit of a road race – I was sharing a Lotus Cortina Mk11 with Ove Andersson. Coming out of Wales to the half-way halt in Manchester it needed a new differential as the old one was singing Ol’ Man River half an octave below Paul Robeson. The Ford mechanics were on the job like a flash but, when it was dropped out, the differential was so hot that it melted the bucket and it looked as if there were two Robesons under the car.
On front-wheel drive cars where the gearbox/differential unit was tucked away under or behind the engine, any such operation was a bit more tricky. On the 1968 RAC Rally, the works Saab 96 V4 that I was co-driving for Simo Lampinen needed a new gearbox coming out of Wales. I don’t think I have ever been so impressed by a piece of servicing. The first thing was to take out the radiator. Then drop the sump guard, undo the two wishbones and pop the drive shafts. Next the engine and gearbox were released and came forward, the old box was detached, the new one put in and the whole process reversed. It took 35 minutes, and at one point I counted seven mechanics actually working on the car.
The Saab boys were good. They used to practise changing the front coil springs on the 96. It was not sufficient to have the car wheel-free to get the old springs out so they used to cut them out with a welding torch. The new spring, ready compressed and held by two clamps, was offered up and the two clamps cut simultaneously by the welding torch. If it was done wrong, the released spring would miss its platforms and probably take the mechanic’s car off. If it was done right with one mechanic each side, you had new front springs in less than a minute.
A Lancia Fulvia had the gearbox in the same place as a Saab but it was by no means an easy job to change thanks to being enclosed by the sub-frame and transverse leaf spring. Thus Lancia were not in the habit of changing them on rallies. But on the Spanish Rally in 1967 we needed a long final drive for the last test at jarama. This was the first rally where Lancia had used a full-size car transporter to move the rally cars and it occurred to Cesare Florio that the rear part of the upper ramp could be used like a garage lift. Hence, in a lay-by on the main road into Madrid, the complete gearboxes and final drives on the two works Lancias were changed using the truck’s hydraulics to lift the cars.
By the end of the 1970s, rally servicing had become a massive operation for the works teams. When Mercedes joined the fray with their 450 SLCs and extensive budget, the back-up they provided even on a European rally comprised chase cars, estate cars, vans, trucks, helicopters and aeroplanes and well over 120 personnel. It was almost beyond the ability of the rally organiser, to cope with the enormous demands that these entourages made on the areas in which the rallies were run.
By the mid-1980s, those works teams still in the fray were already beginning to talk of self-imposed limitations on the amount of servicing allowed. The FIA took up the idea and, not without some small hiccoughs along the way such as drivers having to service their own cars while the mechanics stood and watched, a system is now in operation on the major rallies where tyre changing and servicing has been reduced. The method is to provide official service areas every three or so stages and not to allow any organised service in between. With the compact nature of modern rallies, this is relatively easy to police.
It also provides an opportunity for the whole business of servicing to become a spectacle in itself, accessible to spectators who will be able to appreciate for themselves the skills needed to change both front springs in less than a minute.