Matters of moment, June 1986

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The Future of Rallying

There was a time when rallying not only sold motor cars but also helped develop new ones. Alas, today the sport can hardly be said with any legitimacy to fulfill either function. Popular identification with the cars of rally drivers is a phenomenon of the past and what possible production purpose can there be in perfecting a specialised Metro, Delta, Peugeot 205 or Ford RS200 which has little hope of ever finding its way into a suburban driveway?

Rallying successes were usually followed by advertisements declaring that cars of similar strength, power and reliability were available to anyone who cared to step into a showroom, but such tactics today would border the immoral and perhaps even breach the code of practice for advertising standards. An attempt to sell a family saloon on the strength of victory by a two-seat, space-frame projectile with four-wheel-drive, feather-weight body and an immensely powerful hand-built engine costing more than several complete production cars is about as ludicrous as giving a customer a Concorde flight to convince him he should buy a Cessna 182.

By its wooing of car manufacturers, FISA paved the way for cars to evolve into purpose-built monsters related to their very distant mass-produced cousins merely by dint of a bonnet badge. The advent of Group B and it’s “evolution” gave manufacturers licence to abandon all pretence at production conformity, and when Peugeot revealed its all-winning “205” other makers joined the bandwagon. The importance of reliability diminished as rest halts were made longer and service opportunities more frequent and the most urgent quests became those to increase power speed and traction to optimise handling and to reduce weight even at the expense of introducing fragility.

That fragility, like the ugly, venomous, but lewd-headed toad, may have provided the means to reverse the process by which rallying was fast approaching the artificiality of Grand Prix racing, a counterfeit sport compared with rallying, whose wins or losses are determined not as much on the actual circuits as in the workshops and on the test-beds. More than a contest between drivers, it is a battle of technical wit and innovation between engineers and designers, a science rather than a sport, and it is a castigation on our administrators that it took the deaths of two fine young men to hall the process by which rallying was following the same course.

The tragic accident in Corsica which claimed the lives of Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto produced an immediate reaction from FISA, and a meeting in Ajaccio of executive committee members declared that steps would be taken to cease all further homologations of “evolution” cars, to limit the duration and length of special stages, to ban certain body materials and “skirts” to make automatic fire extinguishers mandatory, to cancel the proposed GpS and from January 1st, to prohibit GpB cars except those named in a low-power list and to create a new World Championship exclusively for GpA cars of which 5,000 manufactured examples are necessary for homologation.

The announcement drew murmurs of horses and stable doors, but we nevertheless found ourselves in the unfamiliar situation of agreeing, in principle, with a FISA decision, at least insofar as the vehicle proposals are concerned the question of limiting distance and duration is quite another matter. It seems that purpose-built rally cars are to be phased out, Plastic to move over in favour of metal, engines kept where buyers want them; and cars left largely as designers intended them to be offered for sale to the public.

The abandonment of Group S, scheduled to come into operation next year, the curtailment of Group B and the restriction of the World Rally Championship to Group A, will mean heavy financial wastage for manufacturers who have for some time been developing Group S cars, and for those currently using Group B cars in the expectation of continuing to do so next year. However, it may be that they only have themselves to blame, for no doubt the BPICA was itself involved with FISA in the making of regulations which allowed rally cars to undergo such a dramatic metamorphosis.

Private entrants may also suffer if they have Group B cars which will be obsolete from next January, although FISA is considering a means of their continued use in one way or another.

It would have been better for all concerned had these new rules been introduced gradually: better still had they not been necessary. Nevertheless, we welcome a move which will go at least part of the way towards ending the current race for power and traction and restoring rallying to as former sensible level. To those who may wail that spectacle and excitement will diminish we offer a reminder that the Mini, the Lotus Cortina, the Saab 96 and many others were all highly exciting to be in and to watch. Furthermore, the Safari, toughest rally of them all, began as a competition for absolutely standard cars, with classes based not on engine capacity but on showroom prices.

Rallying is not an engineering science, it is a sport, and it’s high time its make-up were revitalised with an ingredient which has been hidden by technicalities for too long, that special mixture of talents and skills called rallyrnanship!

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