Rallying and racing can be compared in many respects, but the circuit does have a big advantage over the special stage in that the race onlooker is favoured with an instant picture of what is happening, right before his eyes, whereas the action in any rally is usually spread over a pretty large expanse of countryside. For that reason, close racing appears to be tar more common than close rallying. Well-matched racing drivers can be seen by everyone to be well-matched, but when rally drivers have close tussles the situation is by no means apparent save to those with access to the timing equipment.
That there are close contests in rallying catnot be dented, but events are generally so long, and conditions so tar removed from those of the nearclinical circuits, that performance ditterences tend to be much greater than they are in racing.
Generally, the longer and rougher a rally, the less chance there is of two or more drivers being closely matched. Gaps between finishers tend to be much longer on the Safari, for instance, than they are on the Tour of Corsica. Within Europe, the two events which are regarded as the roughest are the Portuguese Rally and the Acropolis Rally, and rarely do either of these produce sustained close tussles from start to finish.
In late April there was an exception when the Portuguese Rally produced the closest wellmatched contest which we have seen for years. The lead changed many times between Ford and Fiat, teams which became arch-rivals early last year, and it was not until the last of the 46 special stages that a long, tense struggle between Hannu Mikkola (Ford Escort) and Markku Alen (Fiat 131 Abarth) was resolved.
Most of the rally was on rough dirt roads, but the last night was a looping and re-looping tour on tarmac roads, three special stages each being used tour times. At the start of this, Alen led Mikkola by a mere eleven seconds, and that final night was one of the most exciting we have ever witnessed as the gap went down to ten seconds, up to fourteen and then down to four. Two stages from the end, Mikkola had reduced his fellowcountryman’s lead lead (they are both Finns) to a single second, and on the next he moved into a tour-second lead.
Such a close finish is indeed rare, and both teams were feeling the tension, Fiat perhaps more than Ford, for Alen’s was the only Fiat left in the event, whereas Ford had a car in third place, ready to take a sure second place it Mikkola’s allout effort to win should tempt him to overstep the mark. Right through the night each team had a service point at the start and finish ot each stage, and there was pretty extensive radio traffic as each outfit kept all their members informed of progress by relaying messages along the route. One service crew would perform a little job, then radio ahead so that the next crew would check that the intervening stage had not made it necessary for the same job to be re-done.
Before the last stage, everything depending on this final effort, cars were drained of all but the minimum of fuel, and even spare wheels, jacks and braces were discarded. It either collected a puncture he would lose victory whether he stopped to change the wheel or not. Ford even changed the fan on Mikkola’s car, replacing it with one with shorter blades in order to save two or three b.h.p. This meant moving the radiator out ot the way, and that was considered not too much trouble to gain that small increase in power at the wheels.
Alas, the balance of the well-matched tussle was upset on that last stage when Mikkola just clipped a roadside stone which punctured a tyre. Knowing that he had lost his chance of winning, he slowed a little lust to make sure that no further damage would be caused and put up a time all of 41 minutes greater than Alen’s seven minutes over the 10.5 kilometres. The whole night had been a strain on Alen, for he knew that his team wanted not only a win, but points in the World Championship, and they could well have gained neither it he made a small mistake which would have sent his car off the road. Just as Fiat were delighted, so Ford were disappointed, but it had been a straight, clean tight which must have given everyone, both teams included, a great deal of satisfaction.
Most obvious in Portugal was the way in which the Escorts and the Fiat 131s have become very closely matched in performance and handling. Previously, the Escort bettered the Fiat on loose-surtaced roads, whereas on tarmac it was the other way around. Obviously both teams have been concentrating on getting rid of their weaknesses and the result is a rather striking balance. Although the main protagonists in Portugal were Ford and Fiat, no less than live other works teams were there, providing an entry list of such quality as we have rarely seen outside an RAC Rally. Alas, one of those teams was denied the right to start the event; two weeks betore, a CSI inspection revealed that insufficient quantities of the cylinder heads and clutches used on Dealer Team Vauxhall’s Chevette rally cars had been made to warrant homologation. DTV said that