Rally Review - Corsica, June 1986

Tragedy repeated in Corsica

For the second year in succession tragedy has struck the Lancia team whilst competing in the Tour of Corsica. Last year Italian driver Attilio Bettega was killed when his Lancia Rally ditched and hit a tree. This year popular Finnish driver Henri Toivonen and his American-born Italian co-driver Sergio Cresto both died in a terrible accident when their Lancia Delta S4 went off the road during the second day of the rally, crashed into a tree and, minutes later, exploded into flarnes and was destroyed. Mercifully, it is unlikely that they were conscious after the severe impact, for they appeared not to have made any attempt to get out of the car.

Gloom immediately descended on the rally, especially among those who knew Toivonen and Cresto. Ebullient, friendly and always ready to chat no matter how hard pressed, Toivonen, when just 24 years old in 1980, was the youngest ever winner of the RAC Rally, and repeated the performance in 1985. This year he won the Monte Carlo Rally with Cresto, an American-born Italian, and in Corsica they were well in the lead when the accident happened and looked set to make a strong challenge for the World title.

The remainder of the second leg stages were cancelled, and with the exception of the other Lancias of Alen and Biasion, and the one surviving Fiat Uno of Fiorio (son of the Fiat Lancia competitions manager) which were withdrawn, the rally made its subdued way to Calvi for the second night stop. It restarted the next Morning for the final leg, but the leaders were in no mood to fight. Indeed, there was a kind of non-aggression pact, and Peugeot crew Bruno Saby and Jean-Francois Fauchille kept their inherited lead to the end, ahead of the Renault 5 Maxi Turbo of Francois Chatriot and Michel Perin.

Midst the depression caused by the deaths of Toivonen and Cresto, harsh words were being spoken, some because of the failure of the organisers to cancel parts of certain stages — though the section on which the accident happened was not one of them — and some because of the delay in getting medical help to the scene, one of the “four helicopters on permanent alert” in particular. When a hastily produced bulletin claimed that officials radioed news of the accident to Rally HQ two minutes after it happened, and an ambulance was on the scene 14 min later, some competitors became rather angry, for they had been at the scene and knew this to be an exaggeration. As it happened, nothing could have been done to save the two drivers, but that, of course, was no excuse.

Lancia’s withdrawal meant that it scored no points in the manufacturers’ section of the World Rally Championship, and Peugeot, as a result of Saby’s win, moves into the lead. Juha Kankkunen, who was not driving in Corsica, keeps his lead among the drivers.

Not so long ago the Tour of Corsica was almost a mixture of the Mille Miglia and the Targa Florio: a virtual road race run under rallying rules in order to preserve legality. Corsica was ideal for such an event, for tourists were fewer and authorities rather more inclined to co-operate than they were on the French mainland, where opposition had ultimately led to the end of the famous Alpine Rally.

Not only were there special stages, but selectives too, and even road sections so tight that competitors practised them and made pace notes. Stopping, even for a tyre change or just refuelling, carried the risk of losing road time, and service points invariably had the urgency of race pit stops. The police were inclined to play safe and close just about every road used by the rally, whether it be special stage or road section, and service planners always had to take this into account, or risk a vital support vehicle failing to reach its rendezvous due to road closures.

All that has changed. There are no selectives, the road sections are far less tight; and the competition is confined to special stages. Even the alternating start,finish has been abandoned, and nowadays the base is always at Ajaccio, and the north-eastern town of Basile only visited for one of two night stops, the other being at Calvi on the north-west coast. Night-time running has fallen out of favour, which has delighted photographers and cameramen, although we rather think this was not specifically for their benefit but the result of approaches from works teams anxious to have as much coverage as possible by their daytime-only helicopters. Service from helicopters is now forbidden on special stages, but teams nevertheless like to have them for emergency service on remote road sections and, more important, for the unbeatable cas-evac facility which they provide. There are several drivers who owe their continued mobility, even their lives, to prompt rescue by helicopter.

This year’s rally was a three day affair, starting on the last Thursday morning of April and finishing early on the Saturday evening. Each of the three legs occupied one of the days, containing 11, nine and 10 special stages respectively. The route was hardly changed at all from last year, except insofar as the timetable was concerned. Long before the rally, one stage was scrubbed from the second leg because it ran through a village and the organisers feared a repetition of that dreadful accident in Portugal, although it must be said that Corsican spectators, especially mountain villagers, are far more sensible and orderly than their Portuguese counterparts. Three more stages were subsequently cancelled due to the accident. Much nearer the start time, just a few days in fact, a group of factory drivers asked the organisers to shorten other stages by cutting out parts which were too fast or were affected by mud or gravel brought down by rain. Their request was turned down, causing murmurs of disgruntlement, the organisers’ response being that they had not been given sufficient warning to relocate controls and reorganise the stages There had been considerable rain during the weeks of practising, but it cleared up for the rally itself, and the only rain during the three days were occasional showers and drizzles.

Apart from the works teams of Lancia, Peugeot, Renault. Austin-Rover and Volkswagen, and three Fiats from the Jolly Club, the 122 strong starters’ list was predominantly French, broken only by one German crew and another from Italy and Monaco, which must make the French contribution to the World Championship one of the least popular outside its own country. Even French mainlanders were scarce, most of the names being those Franco-Italian ones peculiar to Corsica, and the Citroen works team was prominent by its absence, having decided to concentrate on the Acropolis and put in a long period of testing and practice in Greece rather than split the time between the two events, Corsica on tarmac and the Acropolis mostly on dirt.

After forsaking the Delta S4 for the Safari in favour of the older rear-engine, rear-drive car, the Martini Lancia team brought three of the smaller, more powerful, four-wheel-drive cars to Corsica, driven by Markku Alen and Ilkka Kivimaki, Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto and Massimo Biasion and Tiziano Siviero. As usual they used Pirelli tyres, whilst Peugeot, Renault, Austin-Rover, the Jolly Club Fiats and about 80, of the privateers were on Michelins. To carry their 8,000 tyres and fitting equipment, the French company brought a huge fleet of trucks which, parked in orderly formation, occupied an area as big as a football field at the edge of the sea near rally headquarters. It was indeed an immense operation.

Austin-Rover, after missing the Safari, sent two Computervision-backed MG Metro 6R4s for Tony Pond/Rob Arthur and Malcolm Wilson/Nigel Harris, the team being made up to three by the inclusion of the privately entered Metro 6R4 of French crew Didier Auriol and Bernard Occelli, backed by 33 Export beer. The two Cowley cars were lighter than before, fitted with 16 In wheels which permitted the use of bigger brakes, and their engines improved to give a wider band of useful torque. Work had also been done on Auriol’s car so that spare parts would be common to all three, but although the wheels and brakes matched those of the other cars, there had been no time to complete the engine changes.

Peugeot also had a three-car team, with 205 Turbo 16s for Timo Salonen and Seppo Harjanne, Bruno Saby and Jean-Francois Fauchille, and, making a return to the World Championship during a break from a successful run in the German Championship, Michele Mouton, this time with her old partner Fabrizia Pons.

The Renault team is still not back with a full programme, but it was interesting to see a group of senior company executives, including former Alpine and Renault competition manager Jacques Cheinisse, in Corsica to watch the progress — for the first day at least — of a Group A Renault 11 Turbo entered by the factory for 1985 winners Jean Ragnotti and Pierre Thimonier. A Renault 5 Maxi Turbo similar to that which was driven last year by Ragnotti was entered privately, and driven extremely well, by Francois Chatriot and Michel Penn.

Continuing their Group A campaign, for which they may be in a position of advantage following the creation of new championship rules for 1987, Volkswagen brought two Golf GTI 1800s for Franz Wittmann/Matthias Feltz and Kenneth Eriksson/Peter Diekmann. The Italian Jolly Club, with more than a little help from the factory, had three Group A Fiat Uno Turbos for Gianni Del Zoppo, who finished third in Portugal, Michele Rayneri and Alessandro Florio.

Practice in Corsica invariably takes considerable time, for although the roads are all tarmac, they are very often potholed and sometimes covered by a scattering of loose chippings or even mud brought down by rain. They are all narrow, very twisty indeed, and constantly climb up and down mountains. There is so much detail to be made into pace notes that many books are filled, and even when a driver has covered each one 10 times he still makes the odd change and is unlikely to be completely satisfied that he has everything recorded to perfection. Salonen commented upon this, saying that even on the Safari or the Thousand Lakes one always reaches the point of satisfaction with one’s pace notes, whereas in Corsica that seems to be unattainable, always one jump ahead. For that reason he never feels entirely confident in Corsica. and was honest enough to admit it

The others were optimistic, or perhaps non-committal would be a better word. No-one really wanted to give anything away, least of all a morale booster to their rivals, and if they had any misgivings about their cars or themselves, they were keeping them to themselves. Markku Alen expressed total satisfaction with his Lancia, which he said was set up just as he liked it, whilst Tony Pond was equally enthusiastic about his Metro.

Saby was also confident, saying that the Peugeot was considerably improved since the Monte-Carlo Rally. Michele Mouton was delighted to be back in a car more powerful and agile than that which she uses in Germany, but Francois Chatriot was rather subdued and said that a ride in a Peugeot 205 T16 during practice had made him realise the shortcomings of his own car, a Renault 5 Maxi Turbo. Yves Loubet, Group A winner in Corsica for the past two years, had intended to drive a newly homologated Alfa Romeo 75, but suspension breakages during testing persuaded him to postpone the car’s first appearance and take his GT V6 instead.

Henri Toivonen had been obliged to call a halt to his practice due to what appeared to be a bronchial infection accompanied by a high temperature. He took both rest and medication, and the team doctor eventually agreed that he was fit to drive in the rally. It was cruelly and tragically ironic that a slower recovery might have saved two lives.

The rain during the weeks before the rally had produced so many rapid changes of road surface that the works teams armed themselves with recce crews to drive ahead of the rally, report on conditions and make appropriate additions to competitors’ pace notes, just as ice-note crews do during the MonteCarlo Rally.

The Thursday morning dawned a little on the dull side, but nevertheless dry, and so many spectators decided to go out and watch the first stage, some 18 miles south of Ajaccio, that exit roads became jammed and both competitors and service crews had difficulties. However, a certain amount of driving on the left, with police co-operation, prevented any delays.

Saby went into a marginal lead on the first stage, but on the next Salonen drew level with him and on the third moved ahead. One stage later the lead changed hands again, this time Toivonen moving up and staying there until the end of the leg that evening in Bastia where he led by 1 min 42 sec from Saby. Biasion, Chatriot, Alen and Pond came next, the latter being the only Metro driver to survive the first leg, and Saby the only Peugeot driver.

Auriol had a very short rally indeed, having come noisily to a stop on the first stage, his Metro suffering from oil loss. At first, pump failure was suspected, and this is what was put out as an official reason, but the stoppage was in fact due to a loose union between a pipe and a gallery eventually becoming disconnected, allowing the oil to be pumped out quickly. Before the start there had been a rush to get Auriol’s car as near as possible to the same specification as the others. A slight oil leak was evident then, but it could not be traced and it was still there when the rally started, hidden from sight.

Timo Salonen put his Peugeot rather heavily off the road on stage eight, and he and Harjanne, bruised and shaken, were still endeavouring to clamber out of the car when Alen and Kivirnaki came along in their Lancia. They immediately stopped, helped their fellow-Finns out of the damaged Peugeot, and it was not until they were sure that they were all right that the two Lancia men continued, having lost nearly two minutes in the rescue process, time which Alen found very difficult indeed to make up, especially as he was also troubled by a faulty compressor and fading brakes.

On the 10th stage, both Peugeot and Austin-Rover were whittled down to one car each, both Michele Mouton and Malcolm Wilson suffering mechanical retirements. Mouton had her gear selectors jam, and although she made a bid to fix them, under radioed instructions via Peugeot’s aircraft, time was against her and she was eventually out.

Wilson’s problem was overheating caused by a water leak, but although the radiator was changed, it made no difference and water continued to pour out. A blown core plug was then discovered and, in time-honoured fashion, a piece of wood was cut to size and hammered into the hole (oh, for the days of old pennies!). Off he went again, but in the middle of stage 10 there was a minor fire in the engine which they were able to put out, but unable to start again. The fire, we should mention, was nothing to do with the piece of wood; more likely to have been due to the overheating, or even an electrical fault. After the night stop, the restart came at 9 am on the Friday, and Toivonen continued to make a succession of best times, obviously not troubled any more by the bronchitis which afflicted him before the start. Pond had finished the second leg by a dint of liberal applications of Coca-Cola and Ajax scouring powder to a badly slipping clutch, but had the unit changed at Basta and was able to restart in a healthy sixth place. Leading the Group A category was Yves Loubet in his Alfa Romeo GT V6, ahead of Ragnotti’s Renault 11 T. Neither the Fiat Unos nor the Volkswagen Golfs seemed to be any threat to the two group leaders.

Two stages into the second leg Pond’s Metro came to an even noisier stop than Auriol’s. The left camshaft drive bell (the engine is a V6) had broken and the immediate damage was such that the car could go no further. The reason was put down to a stone being thrown up from the road and fouling the belt, but it is protected by a cowling and there was no stone to be found when this was removed. Indeed, the belt had been completely shredded, and Austin-Rover were conscious of the fact that something other than a stone might have been to blame. To our knowledge. it remains a mystery.

After five stages of the second leg, the Iast of which ended at a military camp outside Corte, there was a 20 min regrouping stop where Toivonen’s lead over Saby was up to two and three-quarter minutes. Alas, this was as far as the competition really went, for it was on the next stage that afternoon that the horrific accident occurred, claiming the lives of Toivonen and Cresto.

What really happened will probably never be known, for the car was totally destroyed in the blaze, reduced to no more than a bare, twisted, tubular frame. Although it was dry at the stage start it did begin to drizzle a few miles in, just before the stage started, so perhaps a sudden encounter with wet roads might have been to blame. However, that is no more than supposition, and all we really know is that the car left the road on a left bend, crashed into trees some four yards below road level, burst into flames a minute or so later and was vary quickly gutted, the crew still inside.

Saby. it seems, passed the spot before the fire started, didn’t see the stricken Lancia and carried on, but around the next corner or two he saw the smoke and flames and promptly returned to the spot but was quite unable to do anything. Other crews arrived, and they all suffered the anguish of being quite powerless to help their fellow competitors.

Eventually medical help arrived, but of course it was too late. The later criticism that the four helicopters claimed by the organisers to be standing by were not near the scene at all but waiting at their bases was indeed valid, but in this particular case it is doubtful whether any rescue crew, no matter how quick, could have freed the two drivers before their car caught fire. Indeed, it is equally doubtful whether they were conscious and aware of their predicament.

The Fiat/Lancia crews immediately withdrew from the rally, and the remainder made their way directly to Calvi, stages 18, 19 and 20 having been cancelled. There was an air of depression among those at Calvi that night and among those at Rally HQ in Ajaccio, but the rally nevertheless restarted the next morning for the final leg which made several loops through Ajaccio before finishing there on the Saturday evening.

No-one was in the mood to give 100% effort that day, and stage times reflected the probability that the leaders had talked things over and agreed to maintain their positions. Saby made best time on all but one of the 10 stages, but this was merely academic and no records were broken.

All three Volkswagen Golfs suffered head gasket failure during that last day, overheating badly, but those of Kenneth Eriksson and the Corsican privateer Laurent Poggi managed to struggle to the finish. Alas, that of Franz Wittman expired on the last stage and he suffered the disappointment of retirement when the finish was almost in sight.

Francois Chatriot, who dominated the French Championship this year, finished a fine second in his Renault 5 Maxi Turbo, and now joins the list of A-seeded drivers, as does Yves Loubet who was third in his Group A Alfa Romeo. Jean Ragnotti brought his Renault 11 Turbo into fourth place despite a badly slipping clutch and the need for very cautious use of the throttle, whilst the Group N category went to the Bernardini brothers, Patrick and Jose, who started at number 85 and finished 11th despite losing a wheel and exhaust pipe from their BMW 325i.

The loss to the sport of Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto overshadowed the entire rally, and we can but add our sincere sympathies to their families and countless friends.

On the final day, Jean-Marie Balestre called a special meeting of the FISA executive, several of whom were present in Corsica, and drew up various new regulations which were circulated immediately to other members who were asked to vote by telex. The rules, aimed at ending the current trend of turning rally cars into thinly disguised racing cars, included the immediate cessation of all new homologations of evolution versions of both GpB and GpA cars: the prohibition of “skirts” and perhaps certain bodywork material; placing a limit on the length and duration of special stages, and the compulsory fitting of automatic fire extinguishers to augment those already mandatory.

To begin from January next was the cancellation of the future Group S, for which several manufacturers have already been preparing for some time, the placing of a power limit on all cars in Group B, the prohibition of certain bodywork materials; and the creation of a new World Rally Championship exclusively for Group A cars.

The latter Introduction will spell the end for purpose-built rally cars, even though FISA plans to find a way of keeping Group B cars active in certain conditions. It will indeed be a sudden change, and an expensive one for both professionals and amateurs who have cars and plans made for the future, but at least rally cars will return to reality; to a situation in which the man in the street will once again be able to identify himself with a competition driver who uses a car not dissimilar to the one he drives himself. Strangely, we find ourselves agreeing in principle with one of Balestre’s proposals. It’s just a great tragedy that it took the deaths of two fine young sportsmen to start the ball rolling. — G.P.