Rally Review - Radio New Zealand Rally, June 1977

Progress is inevitable, and although nostalgia often renders the past preferable to the present a comparison between the two rarely has any significance, whilst it is even more futile to dream that in some way the clock may be turned back. The sport of rallying began, and progressed, as an amateur activity, but it was quite inevitable that it should attract the attentions of those who saw it as an opportunity for publicity to boost the sales of motor cars and their accessories. Thus began professionalism in rallying, and in Europe nowadays there are precious few rallies which do not attract professionals of one league or another. Of course, no rally can survive without private entrants, and the two categories (plus all the grades between) have learned to live with one another, and organisers learned to cater for all in the technical and administrative running of their events.

But in the case of rallying centres which are separated by vast distances and which have very little exchange of competitors, progress in one may be at a rate greatly different from that in another, so when it happens that a competitor or a team does travel to compete in an event on the other side of the world it is very likely that he will be at first confused by local peculiarities and conditions. If that competitor or team is professional and the local people are largely amateur, then the confusion is likely to be reciprocal.

So it was when the Fiat team, determined to win the World Rally Championship this year and already with the attitude that the series is rightfully theirs, went to New Zealand at the end of April to run three cars in the Radio New Zealand Rally, an event taken into the World Championship for the first time this year. Professionalism exists in New Zealand rallying only at a very low level, and it was Fiat’s confident and open expectation that they would win comfortably against mere amateur opposition. But however small they considered the nut which they were about to crack, they nevertheless took a steamroller to it and their hard-hitting, hair-splitting dissection of the regulations did not go down at all well in a country where rallying is still very much a sport governed by rules which are interpreted more by their spirit than by their letters. Theirs (the New Zealanders’) is a gentlemanly situation, but transgressors who make things difficult for others are nevertheless dealt with, and it is significant that there are virtually no protests.

The rally organisers, working from a permanent office in a fine, old wooden house on the edge of one of Wellington’s residential areas, produced a booklet of regulations which was in every way comprehensive, describing local conditions and methods for the visitors and delving into certain of the CSI’s World Championship rules for the benefit of New Zealanders. But they reckoned without the loophole-seeking professionals and left certain gaps through which the Italians blatantly drove coaches and horses. For instance, there was a rule forbidding the use of two-way radio in competing cars, but no specific penalty listed for breaking it. Fiat did not install their customary radios, with roof antennae, in their cars, but supplied each of them with a powerful but easily concealed walkie-talkie, thus breaking the explicit rule but at the same time indicating that they were sufficiently concerned about it to take steps to avoid detection. A spot check revealed the presence of the radio in one of the three Fiats, but because there was no fixed penalty they got away with just a fine imposed by the stewards. Rather schoolboyishly, and revealing how gullible they expected the New Zealanders to be, they declared that the set was a plastic toy, which it most certainly was not. Service cars were openly fitted with ordinary two-way radios, and the team had rented an aircraft to fly throughout the rally as an airborne radio relay station.

A superbly scenic country, with lush green pastures, rolling hills, craggy mountains, a magnificent coastline, an abundance of lakes, hot springs and even the odd active volcano or two, New Zealand is a paradise in many respects. For the motor sportsman it has a lot to offer, including a network of fine, competitive roads and a police and local authority administration who are in every way co-operative with those who seek to organise rallies. A drawback is the 50-m.p.h. (but they already use kilometres) overall speed limit, even on the few motorways, but in compensation it is quite easy to leave traffic behind and to get out on challenging roads where motoring is immensely enjoyable.

Running from Sunday to Saturday, the rally went from Wellington to Auckland, gradually moving northwards day by day with the five legs divided by stops at Palmerston, Napier, Gisborne and Rotorua. The first three stops were by day, the fourth by night, and between them they provided ample rest for the total distance of 3,800 kilometres. Special stages, 75 in all, accounted for 2,200 kilometres, a very high percentage indeed which indicates the wealth of fine rally roads which exists in New Zealand and the readiness of local authorities, government departments and private landowners to make them available to the rally organisers.

However, whilst people were readily willing to allow the use of their roads for special stages, they were not prepared to have them open for recceing and all the risks that practice entails. The situation is similar to that in Britain, except that in New Zealand logging operations are far more intense, and we would go as far as to say that more risk would be attached to practice in New Zealand forests than would in Britain. For this very reason, rallying in New Zealand is entirely secret, although when public roads are used for special stages they have to be announced publicly in advance, usually in newspapers. That the stages of the Radio New Zealand Rally would be kept secret was known in advance by the CSI who seemed to accept the fact even though the world championship regulations include the stupid, dictatorial rule that secret routes are not allowed and that roadbooks must be available at least a month in advance. But at a March meeting of the CSI’s Rally Working Group, some seven weeks before the rally, the matter was raised by an Italian delegate and brought to the notice of the CSI itself. The result was a cable to New Zealand pointing this out and demanding that recconnaissance be made possible, even if only by a convoy guided through the route by the organisers.

The latter was quite impracticable, but since the organisers’ arms were twisted by the CSI, they had no alternative than to produce the roadbook in advance and allow crews to practice. This gave Fiat precisely the chance they wanted, for with accurate pace notes made in advance they would have a distinct advantage over local crews. True that all had the chance to recce, but notes are only really useful for those with experience of them, and the New Zealanders did not have that experience.

Fortunately, landowners appreciated the reasons for all this and were pretty tolerant, but in future we feel that stands must be made against the CSI by all those organisers whose rallies do not allow practice, and in Europe they are becoming more numerous all the time. Even the Rally of the Thousand Lakes has chopped its practice period and is considering a complete ban in the future.

It was understandable that during the rally the three Fiat drivers, Bacchelli, Alèn and Lampinen, and Vatanen in his locally entered Ford Escort RS (originally a Boreham car) were faster than anyone else, for they represented the total professional participation. Vatanen had a disadvantage inasmuch as Jim Scott, his New Zealander co-driver, was using pace notes for the first time, whereas the Fiat drivers all had experienced professionals alongside them.

Vatanen began by forging into the lead, but later he dropped right back when he left the road at high speed, shot backwards down a steep slope into a field and lost some 22 minutes winching the car back to the road. Later he had a spin which resulted in the car dropping momentarily on to its side, rendering the bodywork extremely tatty indeed and wrecking a front suspension, another which damaged the rear of the car and another when he hit some fallen rocks and damaged his steering. In all, the time lost in all these amounted to well over half an hour, and his progress throughout the event as he whittled that down to just one and a half minutes was quite amazing to watch.

The Fiats suffered various problems, including severe overheating and, in the case of Bacchelli in particular, loss of oil and oil pressure. Lampinen’s engine sucked in a wire mesh which had been put over the air intakes when the filter elements were removed during the extremely stages in the early part of the rally, but apart from gulps, coughs and a ft engine didn’t seem to suffer. Alèn had a water hose split and was later caught speeding by the police, for whose signal he didn’t stop. This caused quite a rumpus, but simply because the regulations did not specify an exact penalty an appeal court later allowed Fiat’s protest against his disqualification.

Leader throughout most of the event was Bacchelli, but it was Vatanen’s amazing ability in shortening the lead which caught the imagination of the crowd, and in New Zealand the will no doubt talk for months about the blond Finn who drove on their logging tracks as no-one has ever driven before.

At the finish, attended by the Prime Minister who also presented the awards the next day, the tension was indescribable when Bacchelli failed to appear. There were no latenes penalties outside special stages, but maximum lateness before exclusion was one hour and the Italian was getting dangerously close to it. Whilst team manager Audetto was wiping away his sweat and attempting to convince people that delay was caused by nothing more serious than a car wash, Vatanen also became edgy as the prospect of a win drew closer to a reality, but finallt the missing Fiat entered the Auckland showground with a roar and clocked in with just one minute to spare. The trouble had been oil pump failure, and though vast quantities of oil and molybdenum additive had been poured in, there really had been no course other than to change the malfunctioning oil pump.

It was as close a finish as we have ever seen, and one which reduced the Fiat people almost to jellies. The whole event had been a difficult one for them, as it had also bee for the organizers, but we imagine that lessons have been learned all round, and whilst the organizers will make quite sure that their regulations will have no loopholes next year, we are equally certain that no visiting professional team will underestimate the ability of those who ran the event ans attempt to take advantage of a situation created by nothing more than integrity and true sportmnaship. – G.F. Result* liacchelliff. Rossetti (Mut Abarth A. Vatiineuq. Scott (Iscart RSikoo) M. Alertil.Kivintaki (Fiat Abarth 131) S. Lempinen/S. Andression (Fiat Abattli I 31 It Mitten/M. Frunehi {Ma da RS3) ‘ I. VcooIl7G. Whittaker (n. :Ws R.S3) I. Sergel/M. Fletcher (Eseor KS, Soo) R. 1 inlet CA. liereock (Escort U. RS.,000 Chandlcr/D. (Mitsubtsh I rael.:cr A. litotighiM, I ialvin (Toyota rructto 1st : 4nd : 3rd : 4th : 5th : 6th : 7th 5th 9th : oth : 1,469-91 0.11, 1471.49 urn’ 1,491.90 mildi 1,495.79 11)1111 1.547.99 nu.n. 1,629.65 min, 1,692.80 Male 1.701.75 min’

t,706.68 10111 1,725.22 Mill.