For the first time since the rail, began in 1956, a British car has won the Tour of Corsica. Frenchmen Didier Auriol and Bernard Occelli, who normally drive a British-prepared (RED) Ford Sierra Gil worth for Ford France and other sponsors this time took a works car with full Boreham support and beat the Lancias and BMWs.
Not only was it the first time that Lancia has been beaten in a World Championship round this year, but the first time that Ford has won a round since 1981, and the Anglo-French celebrations afterwards were boisterous to say the least.
French and Italian cars have dominated the Tour of Corsica since its inception. Sixteen victories have gone to Renaults, Alpines. Citroens and a Peugeot; eleven to Lancias, Fiats and an Alfa Romeo. The remaining four have been won by Porsches and a BMW.
Never until this year has there been a win by any of the makes, among them Saab, BMC, Ford, Nissan and Toyota, which have been active and successful in other rallies prominent in the world calendar.
The very nature of the event has much to do with this, for its origins were very much those of a mountain road race, with hardly enough time anywhere to change wheels or even to top up with fuel. It was modelled as a combination of the Targa Florio and the Alpine Rally, the continuous racing pressure of the former punctuated by the occasional time controls of the latter.
Its Mediterranean flavour, appealing to the temperament of southern Europeans, has always been apparent, and its location in Corsica enabled the French to escape the restrictive traffic regulations of mainland authorities and to run what was virtually a road race thinly disguised as a rally. When the Coupe des Alpes itself finally succumbed to the advance of summer tourism and the increasing disenchantment of police and other authorities, the Tour of Corsica became France’s premier international rally, and it continued for some years to be run like a tarmac road race. Special stages were not the only means of finding a winner, for they were invariably contained within impossibly tight “selective” sections on which penalties were unavoidable.
Its atmosphere of furious urgency created an excitement in which Mediterranean people revelled, though since the Seventies the selective sections have been withdrawn and the average speed of road sections reduced, albeit only to bring them just within the bounds of possibility.
Some say that the steam has thus been taken out of the Tour of Corsica, but time allowances for road sections remain tighter than those of other European rallies, and the maximum permitted lateness varying between ten and twenty minutes is by no means to be trifled with.
It is therefore easy to appreciate the event’s appeal to the French and the Italians, a popularity which may be enhanced by the fact that Corsica, although now French, has a strong Italian heritage of which the islanders are fiercely proud. Indeed, the names on shops and garage fronts could well be from a street in Palermo, although if one asks a villager what he considers himself he will very likely say Corsican. To some of these people, the addition of the words Ralley de France to the title of the rally is an imposition they would prefer to be without.
Like most mountainous islands surrounded by a large expanse of sea, Corsica seems to attract cloud. Consequently, the weather can be pretty varied, and whilst the coast is enjoying hot sunshine the inland mountains can be lashed by rainstorms. The roads are narrow, tortuously twisty and invariably steep. Furthermore, their tarmac surfaces can vary from glass-smooth to something as abrasive as sharp, lumpy lava, and they can often be covered by loose gravel, pine needles or chestnut leaves, even in springtime if a good wind gets up. A wide selection of tyres is therefore essential for someone whose eye is on the winners’ rostrum.
This year’s route was mainly in three daytime legs divided by two night stops, but there was a one-stage prelude the day before the main start, in the form of a 1.8-mile crowd-puller just to the west of Ajaccio, the coastal town which hosted the event. It was really of no significance, attracted only a modest crowd, and presumably served only to satisfy FISA’s requirement for television type “super-specials.”
Entries this year numbered 93, but professional teams with cars capable of winning were indeed few. Lancia left its Italian and Finnish drivers at home and brought just two Delta Integrales for French crews Loubet/Vieu and Saby/Fauchille. However, there were Group N versions of the car driven by Frenchmen Chauche/Barjou, Italians Delloppo/Scalvini and Argentinians Recalde/De Buono. Ford’s main concern of late has been co-operating with importers and private preparation shops to run cars in several national championships, including those of France and Spain, but for the Tour of Corsica the Boreham team was present in strength to support factory entries for Auriol/Occelli and Spanish pair Sainz/Moya, and these were expected to be Lancia’s main challengers. Four-wheel-drive cars do not really give of their best on tarmac, so it was something of a brave move by Toyota Europe to bring to Corsica two newly homologated 4WD Celica GT-Fours for the car’s first competitive outing. The team realised before coming, of course, that its chances of a win were slim, but it nevertheless wanted to put the car to a stiff test and learn lessons, which it certainly did. The drivers were Finns Kankkuneni/Piironen and the Swedish-German pair Eriksson/Diekmann.
Neither Toyota driver professes to be a tarmac specialist, but both were keen to put the car to the test in the deep end, prior to their remaining 1988 programme which includes Acropolis, 1000 Lakes, San Remo and RAC rallies.
Britain’s Prodrive organisation brought three BMW M3s for Chatriot/Perin, Duez/Thimonier and Béguin/Lenne, all three backed by Bastos and Motul. As last year’s winner, Béguin started at number one. There were no cars actually entered by Renault, but it was very much a team effort and company staff were there to look after the R5 GT Turbo of Alain and Sylvie Oreille and the R21 Turbo of Bugalski/Andrie, both cars in the Gp N category.
Skoda brought two 130Ls for Krecek/Motl and Kvaizar/Janecek, and there were four Citroen AX Sports for Montagne/Burgoin, Jacques/Muller, ChometiThimoniier and Poggi/Chiaroni. The two latter crews put up an amazingly consistent performance, with almost equal times on stage after stage. Although cloudy, the weather was good for the short stage on the day before the proper start. The Lancias of Saby and Loubet made best times, just one second apart, but penalty differences were so small as to be of no significance. Recalde was unfortunate; he collected a puncture.
The following day the weather was still fine, but the abrasive roads warmed up tyres far too quickly and many began losing their adhesion, wearing out too fast and even puncturing. Duez was unfortunate on the first stage to have a puncture; after stopping to change the wheel he could not start his BMW’s engine and it took a good ten minutes of pushing to get it going.
Loubet took the early lead, with Auriol very close. Saby’s brake balance was not to his liking and he later went off the road, punctured and lost well over three minutes. Del Zoppo’s Lancia stopped with broken transmission, whilst Béguin complained bitterly of the poor handling of his BMW M3. Sainz had his Sierra’s rear axle changed after it became noisy, whilst Chatriot lost three minutes as a faulty alternator was traced to a broken wire. Chauche retired after putting his Delta off the road, whilst Sainz had to cope with a faulty turbocharger for two stages, the Ford team’s helicopter only being able to take a replacement to him after he had descended from a cloud-covered mountain.
Although forbidden to take mechanics or spares into special stages, helicopters were much in evidence as usual, transporting mechanics, film crews, medical staff, police, etc. Dense forests and steep mountains provide precious few suitable landing sites in inland Corsica, and we heard that one pilot, having failed to find anything else, radioed down to ask permission of a householder, then landed, very gently, on his flat roof! Duez, whose intercom had earlier been giving trouble, hit a bridge parapet and damaged his BMW too badly to continue, whilst Recalde also went out after putting his Lancia off the road.
Loubet and Auriol were emerging as the two main rivals, the Lancia leading the Ford, and it is interesting to observe that only two years ago they were both in France’s Junior Category.
On the first stage of the next day, Auriol almost put paid to his chances by going off and bending his rear axle and a wishbone. He did not lose much time, but his car was badly twisted and mechanics really had to work hard to get it in shape to carry on. In fact, the repairs were spread over several service points, so Auriol was beset by bad handling for some time.
But Auriol’s misfortune was matched by Loubet’s. On the same stage that the Ford went off, a gear selector link broke on the Lancia, leaving Loubet stuck in neutral! However, he crawled under the car and used the jack to force the selector into a gear in which he was able to get off the stage, almost holding his breath lest it should jump out again! He lost eight minutes in all and dropped from the lead to seventh.
For the remainder of the rally, Loubet drove like a demon, several times going off the road slightly – and bringing half a bush to the stage finish on one occasion – but nevertheless making best time on stage after stage.
However, there was little chance of his catching Auriol, who was now concentrating on staying ahead of Béguin.
The two Toyota drivers had been gradually, stage by stage, having their suspensions improved, but the car was not really a tarmac racer in the first place and all they could do was stay in the first ten. Eriksson lost much time when a prop-shaft broke and he was unable to leave the stop line of a stage. Mechanics eventually got to him with a replacement, but he lost three road minutes and finished sixth. Team-mate Kankkunen got up to third place at one stage, but on the final day a mystery electrical failure stopped his engine and he was out, which was a great pity since a high place would have been immensely satisfying for Toyota on its first outing with the car.
Bugalski’s Renault was badly damaged in a collision with a non-competing car which crossed his path near Calvi, and although he managed to struggle on he eventually called it a day when his fan belt came off and the engine overheated.
At the start of the final day Béguin was only two minutes behind Auriol, and was determined to keep up his pressure on the leader, hoping that he would make a mistake. But Auriol refused to be ruffled and drove without t taking any risks. Béguin himself, on the other hand, was so angry at losing time with a jammed gear selector that on the very next stage he went off the road so heavily that the s whole car was twisted, its left rear tyre rubbing the body.
Béguin’s challenge was over, although he I did manage to get the distorted car to the finish, in seventh place. Another to be disappointed was Patrick Bernardini who had been leading the private entrants’ class. A broken hub sent his BMW 3251 off the road, breaking two wheels, and he had to wait for a team-mate to come along to take his spare. He might just have kept his class lead, but two stages later his head-gasket blew and he was out.
French privateer Guy Fiori should then have inherited the class lead, but the stewards threw him out of that class on the grounds that it was not his name, but his father’s, on his car’s registration papers.
Didier Auriol drove an intelligent rally indeed, never putting his carat risk more than necessary, coaxing it along throughout the time it was being gradually put right after his one mishap, and refusing to be pushed by the pressing Béguin into overstepping his limit. His first ever World Championship win puts him right up to seventh place in that series, and moves Ford up to second among the makes. Pierre-Cesar Baroni joined the celebrations afterwards; he won the Group N category, the so-called “showroom-standard” class. GP