Simply the ‘Acropolis Rally’. It is a name that will bring a wince to the faces of most rallymen but in itself is quite innocuous, conjuring up as it does travel poster images of sun drenched sands overlooked by ancient marble monuments. Renaming our own top event the ‘Stonehenge Rally’ would not have had at all the same effect.
In fact, the Acropolis Rally started out in 1952 as the ELPA Rally. ELPA is the acronym for the Automobile and Touring Club of Greece which still has the responsibility of organising the modern rally. That first event in 1952 was won by a Chevrolet driven by an amazing character called Johnny Pesmazoglou, whose age is not known precisely but who must have been born before World War One. His company was the Greek importer for GM cars, and throughout his long rally career, Johnny appeared in all kinds of Chevrolets and Opels. He won the Acropolis Rally at the wheel of an Opel Kapitan in 1955 and did not miss an event until he retired in the early 1970s.
His Athens garage was for many years the venue for pre-event scrutineering, and his latest rally car was always receiving last-minute preparation in the workshop. I can recall looking in his Opel in 1965 and being impressed with the stereo system which had loudspeakers behind the seat, that he had contrived for the enjoyment of the crew. It was years later that I learned he used to go out on the route and make pace notes into a tape recorder and then play them back to himself on the rally.
The Acropolis Rally was held for the first time in 1953 when it was won by a Jaguar XK120. The state of Greek roads at that time was not brilliant. There was quite a bit of tarmac but the effects of war had not yet been rectified and the major road building schemes of the 1970s were not even down on paper. What was there had been tarmaced in the ’30s and thus was narrow, dirt lined and worn to almost a mirror finish — tricky in the dry but absolutely lethal in the wet. In 1956, Walter Schock won the event with a works Mercedes 300SL, and the following year it was won by JeanPierre Estager in a Ferrari 250 GT. The men of ELPA realised it was necessary to give more mundane cars a chance, so they started to add to the format some gravel roads of which Greece had thousands.
Within a short time, the Acropolis Rally had become known as one of the best but most feared events in the annual rally calendar. On the plus side, there was the fabulous country itself. The rally started and finished in the shadow of the Acropolis, only a stone’s throw from the Ancient Agora where Socrates and Plato had walked. The foreign competitors benefited from a very generous travel package funded by the Greek Tourist Board and supported by the national airline and the ferry companies. They stayed at what was then a brand new and extremely desirable beach resort at Glyphada, the prizes were handed out by the Royal Family at a daytime ceremony on Areopolis Hill facing the Acropolis, and then there was a night-long alfresco party on the beach.
On the tough side, the rally had it all. By the early 1960s, it would comprise a concentration run up to Thessalonika, Greece’s northern metropolis, from where Athens starters would meet others coming from Austria. The first stages were on the very fast tarmac roads north-east to Serrai and then more of the same, much twistier, back through Polydromos. The problem with these roads was that they had little grip when they were dry and none at all when they were wet. The consequence was that the brave and foolhardy often finished their rally quite early. The set times on the special stages were quite high for their day and average speeds in excess of 50mph were common. When you also consider that these quite major public roads were not entirely closed to normal traffic, the difficulties of the classic Acropolis Rally can be appreciated. To negate — as much as was possible — the need for the rally to be sorted out on these roads, ELPA gradually stepped up the quantity and importance of the gravel roads. In the mid-1960s, even the main routes between Sparta and Kalambaka, and Trilckala and Ioannina, were gravel roads twisting and turning through the mountains. The trend was to keep the average speed high even away from the stages so that, in effect, what was being run was a ‘European Safari’ Rally. In such conditions, the Scandinavians — Erik Carlsson, Tom Trana, Gunnar Andersson and Carl-Magnus Skogh — and the imperturbable Eugen Bohringer with his Mercedes reigned supreme. As the 1970s progressed, the Acropolis turned more and more to special stages, but its endurance nature remained. It was a full four day event that went north of Mount Olympus and right down to Sparta in the south of the Peloponnese. The 1980 event ran 55 special stages totalling 9441cm in a route of some 2800Icm. This was a simply fantastic effort of organisation for a country that had just a small, ultra-keen band of rally cognoscenti
The Acropolis Rally of 1972 was something of a classic in this respect. As it was the event’s 20th anniversary, the organisers had laid on something special. The route was 3600km and the first part of the rally was run over two nights and two days, non-stop in hot conditions. The rally crews suffered all kinds of problems with hallucinations and fatigue: Mike Wood dreamt of a brown parcel addressed to him and kept telling Tony Fall not to open it, while Paul Easter thought that wasps were attacking and swatted Shekhar Mehta with the pace note book. And Solve Andreasson fell asleep while drinking a bottle of Coke and nearly drowned himself.
The result of all that was deep chaos over the results at the night halt before the last fling round the Peloponnese, as tired officials came in late with check sheets. Going into the last tight road section of the entire rally, Simo Lampinen felt sure that he had a sufficient lead over Hakan Lindberg’s Fiat Abarth 124 that he could take it easy. Some hours later when the results came out, the Lancia driver learnt that he was only second. The Acropolis has never been a stranger to controversy. In 1966 — the year the Mini Coopers were disqualified in Monte Carlo — Paddy Hopkirk was penalised for entering a time control area and servicing within it. His Cooper S was kicked down to third place behind two Lotus Cortinas. Technically, the organisers were correct since Hopkirk did pass the board, but two things can be said in his defence: one, the board was obscured by spectators, and two, a 100 metre tape measure would never have covered the distance between it and the actual control location. still, Paddy came back and set the record straight in ’67, winning the Acropolis outright A similar glow of satisfaction must have enveloped Colin McRae in 1996 when he won the event. Two years previously, the young Scot had been excluded for “unsportsmanlike behaviour”. Apparently, rally officials had checked his Subaru’s turbocharger seals and then, having closed the bonnet, omitted to insert the pit-pins.
On the next road section, the bonnet rose up and smashed the windscreen, while McRae was leading. When officials — not the same lot — told him that, on safety grounds, he would have to change the windscreen, the Scot told them it was not his fault and that he did not want to lose his position on the road. So they delayed the rally for half an hour while the new windscreen was fitted. At a subsequent hearing by the Stewards, it was decided that McRae had himself forced the 30 minute hold up and that he should be excluded. 71?4
Another less serious but much more emotional thing happened in 1992 when a marshal at the start of a special stage, while giving the ‘go’ signal, hit the button that triggered the automatic fire extinguisher on Francois Delecour’s Ford Sierra Cosworth. The engine, on full song prior to a brisk departure, promptly choked and stopped. It took the frantic Delecour several minutes to clear its inlet and fire it up again. Daniel Grataloup then asked for a new start time, which was refused. Indeed the pair also learnt they would be penalised an extra two minutes for not having left the control within 30 seconds of being given the start signal.
I saw Delecour at the next time control and he was possessed of a rage that would have outshone Mount Etna at full blast. When Ford team manager, Colin Dobbinson, told him to not get upset about ‘such a small thing’, this served only to pour petrol on an established fire…
And one cannot leave the Acropolis Rally without talking about Audi’s arrival in 1981, when the Quattro was still very much in its infancy having led the Monte and won the Swedish. The team, led by the charismatic Walter Treser, knew there would be trouble with overheating in the Greek summer and had taken extensive precautions to alleviate the problem. They had removed the inner of each of the twin-headlamp units, covered the aperture with a hinged flap and channelled the air thus provided to the radiator and oil cooler. The cars were presented in this form at pre-event scrutineering and were passed, though it has to be said that the missing lamps were partially concealed behind the auxiliary lamps fitted to the bumper for night driving. At the half-way point, with Hannu Mikkola leading the rally, the scrutineers — at whose behest we shall probably never know — re-inspected the cars in the parcferme and reported that the Audis were illegal in regard to their headlamps and the cooling thus provided. They also took exception to auxiliary batteries fitted in front of the co-driver’s seat to boost the starting capability of the standard battery.
The Stewards decided that the cars were illegal and threw them out Audi naturally went to register an appeal, which would normally have meant their cars would have continued and the matter would have been sorted out at the end of the event — or in Paris months later. However, the ELPA Stewards were correct in that the current regulations did not allow the cars to continue in what was an incontestably illegal state and Audi had to pack up and go home. The Acropolis Rally is not quite the big adventure that it once was. In fact it has the distinction of running the shortest WRC event ever when, in 1998, the total route measured just over 1000km, of which 370Icm were special stages. But it pays not to underestimate it, even in its compact modem form. Last year, Ford, Peugeot and Subaru thought the rally had lost its bite and they could use the same kind of cars that they would use on other European events. Between them, they entered seven cars not specially modified for Greek rocks. Six failed to finish, but the one that did, the Subaru of Richard Bums, won the rally outright. The Acropolis is always full of surprises.