World Rally Championship: Tour of Corsica

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Factories defeated

Outside France, the Tour of Corsica has never achieved the popularity enjoyed by other rallies in the World Championship. Its all-tarmac route, and the way it used to mix and even overlap special stages with impossibly-timed (in seconds) sections called selectives, appealed rather less to overseas privateers than rallies which used dirt roads. Even though Corsica is not a difficult island to reach, its entry lists have never included many foreign privateers, with the exception of small groups of Italians from time to time.

The same could even be said for works teams, several of whom have tackled the Corsican event only because they were seeking vital points in the World Championship. Some professional drivers have openly expressed dislike for the rally, admitting quite freely that their presence was due entirely to that of teams to which they were contracted.

Although they have tarmac surfaces, the narrow, tortuous roads of the Corsican mountains are often abrasive and gravel-covered, and it is by no means easy to judge one’s proximity to that point where adhesion is lost. At very high speeds, past unguarded drops over steep edges, the rally provides little or no margin for error and demands a very fine edge of skill and concentration.

The rally has a sad history of accidents; it was here last year that Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto lost their lives, and Attilio Bettega the year before. This year that tragic succession was continued, when Corsican pair Jean Marchini and Jean-Michel Argenti went off the road in their Peugeot 205 GTi. The co-driver was killed instantly, and the driver seriously injured.

Corsica is unforgiving to rally drivers, all of whom know the risks. But we must say that this year’s accident, involving a private crew, brought none of the furore of the last two years when works drivers were killed, although the FIA president did issue a rather pointless statement which served as little more than a reminder that all possible security and medical arrangements had been made.

On the medical side we must agree, for there were doctors and ambulances everywhere, and constant helicopter patrols, but there were some safety shortcomings on at least one stage, where spectators were injured in two separate accidents.

Factory entries this year came only from Lancia, Ford, Renault and Volkswagen, some supporting just their own cars and some with service arrangements with privately backed drivers.

However, a newcomer to the World Championship was a BMW M3 from the UK-based Rothmans BMW team, and there must have been an enormous celebration at the end after Bernard Beguin and Jean Jacques Lenne had driven the car to its first outright victory against such powerful opposition.

The BMW factory had its own rally team several years ago, with drivers such as Makinen, Waldegard, Warmbold and others, but its successes were few and the team eventually ceased to operate. Rothmans BMW operates as an independent team from its workshops at Silverstone, financed mainly by the Aylesbury-based cigarette company and partly by Motul.

Lancia’s drivers were Saby/Fauchille, Biasion/Siviero and Loubet/Vieu, whilst Renault had increased its normal participation to three R11 Turbos for Ragnotti/Thimonier, Chatriot/Perin and the husband and wife crew Alain and Sylvie Oreille. Volkswagen brought just one Golf GTi for Eriksson/Diekmann. The Ford factory team had Texaco sponsored Sierra Cosworths for Blomqvist/Berglund and Grundell/Harryman, but two others from Britain also appeared, one prepared by RED of Widnes for French crew Auriol/Occelli, who are backed by 33-Export beer, and the other, in Marlboro colours, by Mike Little of Carlisle for Spanish crew Sainz/Boto.

The rally was based at Ajaccio in the south-west of the island, and ran from Thursday to Saturday with night stops at Bastia and Calvi. Heavy rain before the event suggested difficulties, especially with tyre choice, but the day of the start dawned cloudy but dry.

Initially, the lead was taken by Beguin from Auriol and Ragnotti, three Frenchmen in three different cars. But whatever feelings Ford may have had from Auriol’s second place were dampened by Grundel’s retirement when he went off the road on the first stage, and Blomqvist’s loss of 21 minutes having his prop shaft replaced. Orielle lost several minutes through twice losing his alternator drive belt.

On the fifth stage a sudden, violent storm, which sent down hailstones as well as heavy rain, caused a commotion when many drivers found themselves on unsuitable tyres. The Lancias of Loubet and Biasion came of best, having chosen rain tyres, and after this stage Loubet found himself leading. He kept this lead until the end of the leg, followed by Beguin.

On a sunny Friday morning, Beguin got ahead of Loubet, and by that evening in Calvi had extended his lead to almost a minute. Meanwhile, Saby went off when his Lancia’s central differential broke, whilst both Sainz and Auriol had rear suspension mounts break on their Sierras.

Ragnotti, on the other hand, made a tremendous push in his Renault. For four stages the car had been fitted with prototype Michelin tyres called “Type N”, and he promptly made best time on all four stages.

Unfortunately for him, only a limited stock of the new rubber was available, and he soon had to return to the more plentiful supply of other Michelins. Chatriot, too, had been close behind his team-mate, and the two were hoping to get ahead of Biasion’s Lancia before the finish. Alas, an unexpected wet patch of road prevented that, when Ragnotti went into a lamp-post and lost a minute, being further slowed afterwards until damage could be repaired. Blomqvist’s lateness in the first leg had been so great that the car was withdrawn at Bastia, whilst Eriksson stopped when his Golf’s engine blew.

The third leg returned to Ajaccio, near which the final stage ended alongside a beach where unclad sunbathers seemed not at all perturbed by the arrival of noisy visitors. Beguin had stuck to his lead, while Loubet and Biasion held off the challenge of the pair of Renaults behind. Marc Duez from Belgium was sixth in his BMW M3, and the two private Ford teams from Britain had their Sierras in seventh and eighth places, ahead of the third Renault of Orielle.

It was a time of great celebration for Rothmans BMW, although equally jubilant were the Renault crews, knowing that they have the material to make a serious championship bid if they so wish. On the other hand Renault, and Alpine before them, have never been bad losers and, whatever the result, we have not once seen them shedding tears into their cups. GP

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