Rally review: Tour of Corsica

Four years have passed since Jean Ragnotti won the Monte-Carlo Rally in a Renault 5 Turbo, generating all manner of speculation on whether there would be a return of the small car era. Were the days of the sixties about to be repeated, with a French car taking the place of the eminently successful Abingdon Mini?

They were not, of course; four-wheeldrive soon took over, coupled with higher and higher reserves of turbocharged power, and instead of small car successes there came the big, powerful, tractable, complicated Audi Quattros to score win after win.

Then, halfway through 1984, along came Peugeot's answer; a powerful, turbocharged, four-wheel-drive car which was also small, and which had its engine behind its two seats. In the space of six months it won each of the six rallies in which it was entered, demoralising the Audi team which was not accustomed to such a string of defeats and prompting renewed design and testing efforts in just about every factory with a rallying involvement. It was no longer important to produce a Quattro-beater; the vital task was to make a car capable of beating the Peugeot 205 Turbo 16.

At Eastertime, the half-year supremacy of the Peugeots came to an end when a front-engined, rear-wheel-drive Toyota won the Safari, beating Audi as well, indicating that on long, arduous rallies, in which cars have to be away from their attentive mechanics for lengthy periods, reliability comes from simplicity rather than sophistication.

In Corsica one month later, the fourwheel-drive cars have now been beaten again, this time by another of those small Renaults, an R5 Maxi Turbo driven by Jean Ragnotti and Pierre Thimonier. The car has a turbocharged rear engine of 2,136 cc. producing 350 bhp. Against it were teams, from factories, importers or private sponsors, representing Audi, Lancia, Opel, Porsche, Peugeot, Volkswagen, Alfa Romeo and Skoda.

The narrow, tortuous roads of Corsica, sometimes lined by trees and sometimes bordered by solid rock faces on one side and sheer drops on the other, are not to be trifled with. The roads are all tarmac, on which racing tyres provide good grip, so that just one wheel put on to grass or gravel can result in loss of adhesion far more serious than by putting a treaded tyre off a dirt road. There is very little margin indeed for misjudgment, and even the smallest of errors can lead to sudden and violent retirement.

This year, one such small error produced tragic results. On the fourth special stage, the young Italian driver Attilio Bettega put two wheels of his Lancia into a ditch when cornering. Alas, half-way around was a tree, and the collision was so violent that Bettega was killed instantly. The dreadful irony of this accident was that it might not have resulted in any injury at all had the car been perhaps an inch nearer the centre of the road. Such theorising may seem pointless, but it's worth reflecting gratefully that accidents such as this are rare in rallying, even though cars are constantly driven flat out, on their limits of adhesion, between solid obstacles or alongside sheer drops.

Bettega's death had an understandably demoralising effect on his colleagues and friends of the Lancia team, and the sister car of Markku Alen was immediately withdrawn from the rally. One stage later, Massimo Biasion, in a Lancia of the Jolly Club, also pulled out because he didn't have the heart to go on.

Professional talent was not quite as plentiful in Corsica as it was in Kenya, even though the works teams of Lancia, Opel, Renault, Peugeot, Audi, Volkswagen and Skoda were all there, not to mention the private teams of Rothmans Porsche, a few well-backed Citroen Visas and two GTV6s from Alfa Romeo France.

Unlike the road races of past years, when even a fuel stop meant a road penalty and it was common practice to make pace notes for the whole route, not just the special stages, the road timing was reasonable, and the works teams reckoned on getting at least some minutes at each of their service points. What is more, the process of "civilising" the rally had progressed even to having the whole thing spread over three days, with each of the two nights spent at rest stops.

Tyre availability was a vital factor. It was the first event of the championship entirely on tarmac, and the varieties of compound, both of slicks and hand-cut tyres, were numerous. As huge crowds gathered to watch Wednesday's scrutineering sessions at Ajaccio's port, overshadowed by the towering hull of a cruise liner, so the tyre companies assembled their fleets of enormous trucks on open ground outside the town. There, with the Mediterranean lapping the beach just a few feet from them, tyre technicians and fitters of Michelin and Pirelli built huge piles of their wares ready for distribution to teams' service cars. Further along, a Texaco petrol bowser shipped from Germany dispensed high octane fuel to Audi's service cars, whilst nearly at the airport the communications equipment in radio relay aircraft and service helicopters were given final checks.

Ragnotti made best time on the first special stage, beating Bettega by ten seconds over the 38 km and moving into a lead which he never lost. Behind him, however, all manner of things began to happen. Frequelin's Opel Manta stopped very noisily with a blown engine, whilst Darniche's Gauloise-backed Peugeot 205 T16 spluttered to a standstill when an electrical failure cut out its ignition.

Timo Salonen's works 205 stopped for the same reason, and there was frantic searching by airlifted mechanics to trace the break in the feed to the plugs. Finally it was traced to a broken distributor wire, but not until the car was well over its maximum lateness of 20 minutes. Salonen said later, "It takes only some minutes to repair, but much longer to find".

Walter Rohrl's Audi, the only works car in the event, arrived late at the stage finish with a broken brake disc. The whole team was disgruntled at such an early setback and, after a talk between Rohrl and technical director Piech, it was decided that the car should go no further. They didn't want to risk a second disc failure on roads where survival depends on efficient brakes.

 After this initial toll, and Bettega's terrible accident, there was a fine duel between Ragnotti and Vatanen as the Finnish driver strove to get his four-wheel-drive Peugeot ahead of the Renault. On the seventh stage, some 50 km long, he managed to whittle down Ragnotti's lead to just one second, only to lose it all again on the next stage.

Carrying just one spare wheel, Vatanen saw his chances vanishing when he collected first one puncture, then another. Team-mate Saby was behind him, so rather than risk suspension and other damage by driving on a flat, he waited to collect Saby's spare wheel. Imagine his dismay when Saby arrived to announce that he, too, had picked up a puncture and was already using his spare wheel.

Vatanen had to drive on slowly on a flat tyre, losing 24 minutes on that stage, and three minutes on the road later when the car was fettled. Saby lost just four minutes on the stage, and when that lot was over, Ragnotti found himself with a healthy lead of six minutes over Saby, and another over Bernard Beguin in his UK-prepared Porsche.

The other Porsche driver, Billy Coleman, was troubled by gear selectors which jammed in second, whilst Franz Wittman, having had his VW Golf overheat badly on the first stage, had gone not on the second when he left the road and lost a wheel. The Citroen Visas of Vergnaud and Tabatoni had both gone out with clutch failures, and the R5 Maxi Turbos of Chatriot, Franceschi and Auriol with broken valve, blown head gasket, and burnt wiring loom respectively.

There was something of a mix-up in the classifications for the first leg, due partly to a mistakenly copied telephone message, and agravated by the new FISA rule which provides that on stages which are stopped before all cars can get through, those who do not complete the stage shall be given the Penalty of the slowest car to complete it.

Unfortunately, the car thought to be the slowest on the interrupted fourth stage had been given the wrong time, and when this was corrected, all those who did not complete the stage needed their times changing too. It seemed complicated at the time, but it was quickly sorted out, although one can but doubt the wisdom of a rule which provides an artificial penalty if, for no fault of his own, a driver is unable to complete a special stage.

After a night stop at Bastia, the town in the north-east of the island which used to alternate with Ajaccio as start and finish location, the second leg headed westward, and again Ari Vatanen made a bid to make up his huge time loss. Steadily he regained time, but on the 16th stage he slid off the road and out of the rally.

Going "off the road" is actually a gross understatement, for the car toppled over the edge and rolled for hundreds of feet down a 45 degree slope before coming to a stop almost completely hidden in dense undergrowth. Fortunately, the entire slope was covered in bushes and small trees, so the car didn't really have a chance to accelerate during its downward progress. Co-driver Harryman suffered some bad bruising, whilst Vatanen had a gashed thigh which was later stitched at Bastia hospital. The car was a write-off.

Ragnotti lost two minutes changing a wheel after a puncture but was aided by spectators who lifted the car bodily so that he didn't have to waste time with the jack. Saby, occasionally experiencing brake fade, was content to stay with his second place, whilst Beguin was still third, albeit with painfully scorched feet after oil cooler heat was somehow transferred to the pedals. Of the 139 starters, 79 had got to Bastia, and now only 57 arrived at Calvi.

The third and final leg was comparatively incident free even though it was the longest, for most of the professionals were no longer running, and those at the head were content to keep their positions. Beguin's Porsche was misfiring for some time but was eventually repaired, whilst Kleint was another who had a dramatic accident, fortunately without injury. As he braked for a corner his brake pedal went to the floor and, unable to slow the car, he went straight off the road and stayed there. Fortunately they were unhurt, but it was pretty galling to go so far and then to retire.

Bartoli was penalised five minutes, dropping from seventh to eighth for no greater reason than spending too much time drinking coffee during one of the two short stops at Ajaccio during the third leg, and turning up late for his restart, whilst Beguin feared the worst when he lost all his oil pressure on the last stage. he topped it up and got to the finish, keeping his third place.

Listed as ninth overall at the finish was Jean-Pierre Deriu in a Group N R5 Turbo, but the scrutineers later found that he had fitted a non-homologated final drive ratio. He was excluded and the highest placed Group N driver was then Patrick Bernardini who finished 10th in a BMW 323i.

The Renault team was cock-a-hoop with Ragnotti's victory, but although they will continue with development of the R5 Maxi Turbo, it is unlikely that they will make increased appearances in World Championship events, at least, not for a while. Peugeot and its drivers still have substantial leads in their categories whilst Audi is somewhat in the doldrums after the failure of their ultimate car in the hands of their national hero. What will transpire remains to be seen. — G.P.