Rally review: Tour of Corsica

Trading places

Last month we spoke of the massive budgets of professional teams, the comparatively meagre resources of private competitors and the extremely remote possibility that any moderately heeled amateur pair, no matter how highly skilled, could ever match the results of a fully-backed works crew. This was said in relation to the Safari, where reliability is prime importance, but the same can also be said of European events in which the special stage system provides the opportunity for more frequent service stops. After all, if a car stops in a ten-mile special stage, it might be just as inaccessible to service crews as it would in the middle of the African bush.

Disregarding the Monte Carlo Rally, which has snow and ice surfaces, the Tour of Corsica is the one all-tarmac event of the World Championship, and some may think that performance and handling are the only key attributes required of a car for such an event, especially as the average length of its 33 special stages in 1989 was just 11.85 miles. It must be easy, we've heard said, to make a car reliable for such short distances. But however short — or long — a special stage, and whatever its surface, a driver always wants to be able to drive at the limit of his car's endurance, adhesion and performance. Cars get harsh treatment in relatively short bursts, but there is often precious little time between those bursts for any necessary fettling, so reliability counts for a great deal, no matter what the character of the rally.

For the same reasons, service support is also vital, and the professional approach nowadays is to deploy enough manpower and equipment to position service points at every place where they might possibly be required. That sort of coverage is not cheap, and the amateur would be hard pressed indeed to gather enough sponsorship re pay for such massive operations.

An option open to the driver who is good enough to be successful, yet has neither a place in a works team nor a car of his own, is to seek enough financial backing to enable him to rent a car, complete with full service support. This is nothing new, for it has been done for many years at various levels, starting with amateurs who want no more than a car, two mechanics and a service vehicle. At a higher level is the professionally run preparation organisation which will build, run, service and maintain a car on behalf of a driver — at a price, of course, which is where adequate sponsorship comes in. Such an organisation is Prodrive, based at Banbury, which prepares BMW M3s and takes them rallying for any driver with the necessary finance. Of course, it helps if the driver is someone capable of a good performance, and we hardly think they would relish doing business with a wealthy, inexperienced beginner who wanted to jump into the deep end of rallying but whose only assets were in his cheque book.

In 1987, Prodrive, which is not a factory operation, took a BMW M3 to the Tour of Corsica for Bernard Beguin to drive, and he won outright, ahead of the factory teams of Lancia, Ford and Renault. It was a success which contributed greatly to the company's credibility, and no doubt to the entries in its order book.

In 1989 there were three Prodrive BMW M3s in Corsica, two sponsored by Bastos and Motul for Beguin and Chatriot and one backed by Fina for Duez. For a very long time during the event it seemed that the 1987 success would be repeated, for Chatriot led for much of the way, but he eventually finished second to Auriol's Lancia. However, the other two finished fifth and sixth, and together theirs was the only three-car team to finish intact.

Corsica is a mountainous chunk of land projecting so high through the sea that it acts as a magnet to every stray waft of cloud over the Mediterranean. The weather is therefore unlike that at coastal resorts, and even in summer, when the beaches enjoy bright sunshine, the mountains can be lashed by heavy rain and covered in dense cloud which brings visibility down to a few yards. Wherever you go, you have to climb or descend, invariably along roads so tortuous that the early name of the event, Rally of the 10,000 Bends, was no exaggeration. The tarmac roads, save for the few main routes, are narrow, abrasive, often littered with gravel, earth, twigs, leaves or even rocks, and can be bordered by little more than steep drops. The rally is by no means what the common English translation of its title suggests — a tour!

Due to these variations in road surface condition, which can change as quickly as the weather, gravel-note crews are just as common in Corsica as ice-note crews are in Monte Carlo, or mud crews in Kenya, and any team with an eye on a good result finds itself obliged to engage a second string of experienced competitors to man gravel cars. Quite often, these ice, mud or gravel-note makers could very well form themselves into secondary rallies to challenge the main events — names such as Waldegard, Blomqvist and Harjanne are among those which spring to mind from Corsica! As in the other events mentioned, the gravel-note crews drive over each competitive section ahead of the rally, as late as they can manage before the road is closed in order to be as up-to-date as possible, and make detailed notes of every single surface and other hazard. These are then handed to the competitors before they enter that section. Competitors always carry their own pace notes made during practice, of course, but the gravel crews carry photocopies which they modify, usually by coloured underlining, so that speeds, gears, cornering lines and braking points can be adjusted. The notes, combined with the personal advice of the note-makers, also serve as an important guide to which tyres should be chosen for that section — and that can be just as critical on Corsican tarmac as it is in the wintry alps of Monte Carlo.

The Tour of Corsica, which has been held in spring, summer and autumn, was modelled originally on the Alpine Rally, with special stages embedded in long "selective sections" so tightly timed that even a stop for fuel would result in a penalty. Even as recently as the Seventies it was pretty much a road race from start to finish, and it seemed that the French were keen to continue in Corsica what they had finally been forbidden by the authorities to do on the mainland. The Alpine Rally had been discontinued because it was considered too dangerous to be mixed with the holiday traffic of the summer months.

The Tour of Corsica remained a thinly disguised road race long after the cessation of the Alpine Rally, but gradually it has been diluted and it now conforms to standard rules, all the action being confined to special stages. However, that is not to say that the road sections are dawdles. On the contrary, competitors still have to watch the clock carefully during service stops, and on each of the event's three complete days the maximum permitted lateness before exclusion was just a quarter of an hour; on the first half-day, only ten minutes. Urgency has therefore not been lost altogether, and adequate manpower and equipment for rapid servicing , still of prime importance for any team in with a chance of winning.

In the weeks before the rally there was considerable doubt whether the event would be held at all, for Corsica almost ground to a halt in the grip of strikes and it was more than possible that competitors and their teams would be unable to get to the island, whether by sea or by air. Cancellation was not out of the question, but happily the unrest abated and, at the time, we heard of no-one unable to get in or out as planned, nor of any disruption of public utilities.

Most rallies end at weekends, either Saturday or Sunday, but this year the Tour of Corsica departed from that tradition by starting on a Sunday and finishing the following Wednesday. What's more, it went to bed every night, a feature which has changed the face of rallying in the past decade due to FISA's expansion of rest stops. Four special stages were held during four hours on the Sunday, eleven on the Monday, ten on the Tuesday and eight on the Wednesday. Start and finish were at Ajaccio on the west coast, where the first night was also spent, and the other rest stops were at Alba Serena on the north-east coast and Calvi on the north-west coast.

Lancia again confined its team to French drivers, Loubet being joined by last year's winner Auriol who had been signed up from Ford. A third Delta Integrale was driven by Saby for Lancia France, said to be a completely new team. Naturally, there was to have been co-operation for servicing, but this became impracticable as Saby was delayed considerably on the first day, putting him far too late in the running order for factory mechanics to remain in position to help their French colleagues.

The problem with Saby's car was a fault in the complex wiring loom from the electronic "engine management" computer which caused total loss of spark in one cylinder. He had experienced the same problem on another rally three weeks before, when he used a different engine in the same car, so it was realised that the problem lay in one of the car's fixtures, not the engine itself. Nevertheless, it took a long time to trace and rectify.

Toyota brought two of its 4WD Celica GT-Fours for Kankkunen (Finland) and Sainz (Spain), and there was a third such car (older, but some 200 lb lighter) for the Belgian driver Snijers, backed by Bastos. This was Snijers' first attempt at the Tour of Corsica.

The Ford team was also multinational, the three Sierra Cosworths being driven by Frenchman Baroni, Cunico from Italy and Englishman Lovell. In 1988 Baroni won the Group N category in Corsica, having finished ninth overall in a Sierra Cosworth, so it was not at all a bad move to put him in a Group A car for 1989. Cunico's works drive was sponsored by Q8 Petroleum, as it will be in Sanremo and the RAC Rally this year, and it could be that this heralds a greater future interest in rallying by this company.

Two Group N Sierra Cosworths were driven privately by Manzagol and DeRiu, and these two and the two Renault 5 GT Turbos of Oreille and Balesi generated considerable interest by indulging in a very close struggle indeed for the category victory. Renault itself had entered no cars, but the factory was nevertheless represented in Corsica, actively supporting the two private Group N crews.

Two teams of four-wheel-drive cars (Lancia and Toyota) and two of rear-wheeldrive (Ford and BMW) were the main contenders for outright victory, and much therefore depended on the weather. On dry tarmac, the Fords and BMWs would be competitive, but if it rained, the others would have the advantage. Which of the stages would be wet, and which dry, would also make a difference, for the BMWs were the only ones not turbocharged and would thus be at a disadvantage on the twistier stages which demand rapid successions of hard braking followed by hard acceleration. As it happened, there was rain at times in the mountains, occasionally heavy, and surface conditions were so varied that one moment one team had the advantage, the next another. Tyre choice also became critical, and much reliance had to be placed on the information supplied by the gravel-note crews. Sometimes drivers chose correctly, sometimes they did not, and their decisions showed in their stage times.

The effect was to render the competition much closer that it would otherwise have been, and although the only two leaders throughout most of the rally were Auriol (Lancia) and Chatriot (BMW), they did change places several times, whilst Toyota was also in the reckoning for a while. Ford, on the other hand, experienced various problems and none of its drivers emerged as a likely challenger, but the Sierra Cosworths certainly cannot be ruled out as potential winners on this type of rally. One of them did win last year after all.

After the four dry stages of the first day it was Auriol who emerged leader, but only by a single second from Chatriot. This promptly changed on the first stage of the second day when Chatriot beat his rival by nine seconds and took over the lead which he held throughout the day, in spite of having his radiator changed due to overheating. Duez, his BMW team-mate, had lost time on the first day after bending both a rim and a wishbone. Lovell, after having what was thought to be a turbocharger problem on the first day, retired after just one stage of the second due to failure of the car's electronic engine control system. His Italian team-mate Cunico was also unlucky, but at least he did not stop altogether. Having made an inadvertent wrong turn at a T-junction whilst his co-driver's attention was diverted from navigation by another essential job in the car, he turned around after realising the mistake and promptly collided with a non-competing car, causing damage which prevented his continuing.

The normal procedure then would have been to make a radio call for help, but the radio would not work, so the Italian pair just sat there disconsolately, hoping that it would not be long before a service crew would come looking for them. It was a pity they did not check their radio properly, for its only problem turned out to be a blown fuse which could have been changed in seconds. Mechanics eventually arrived and repaired the car sufficiently to continue, but Cunico was all of thirteen minutes late at the next time control, just two minutes short of of the maximum. For him, all hope of a good result had gone, and indeed it seemed that he didn't really have the heart to carry on at all, but he owed it to his team and his sponsor, and it is to his credit that he finished in seventh place.

Another to be delayed badly was Saby, following replacement of part of his wiring loom on the first day which cost nine road minutes. He ended the first day in fiftieth place, but by the time he got to the end of the second he had climbed to twelfth. It was quite an achievement for just one day, but it sounds far more dramatic than it really was, for the first day was relatively short and penalties were low. However, Saby had a tough time among the back markers on the stages and said afterwards that he had overtaken other cars no less than 23 times in the course of Monday's special stages. Alas, the performance came to nothing, for on the first stage of the Tuesday he coasted over the finish line and retired soon after with a broken clutch.

Whilst Auriol and Chatriot were having a close duel for the lead, the latter staying just ahead, Beguin, Kankkunen and Sainz were just as closely locked in a fight for third place. The Toyota drivers did not seem perfectly happy with their suspensions when the rally started, but by dint of fettling and adjustment at each service stop an improvement gradually became noticeable. Beguin had a nasty moment at the end of one stage when, as he braked hard after crossing the flying finish line, a brake pipe burst and the pedal went to the floor. He stopped by spinning, and the pipe was replaced shortly afterwards. But the biggest problem with the BMWs seemed to be in their gearboxes, both Chatriot and Beguin losing third gears, thought to be due to faulty selectors. Both cars had their gearboxes changed at the end of the second leg, and it was with some relief in the Prodrive camp that Chatriot still kept a 32-second lead over Auriol.

Manzagol lost his chances of a Group N win when a right rear wishbone mount broke on the last stage of the Monday. The wheel folded under the car but he nevertheless struggled off the stage and indeed drove into the closed park on three wheels, There was no time then for repair, but this was done in the morning and Manzagol went on to make excellent stage times.

It was on the second day that Baroni, Ford's French driver, injured his right wrist. He was in considerable pain, and the only thing a doctor could do was strap it up. Alas, on the third day Baroni went to change gear for a corner and a sudden stab of pain caused him to miss the gear. The car went off the road and his rally was over. Another to go out was Snijers, due to transmission failure.

Early the following day, Toyota lost the second of its cars when the engine of Sainz car spluttered noisily to a stop having ingested some small part of the inlet system. This was thought to be a butterfly valve, since it was discovered that such a part was missing, and the result was terminal damage to valves and perhaps a piston.

Meanwhile, BMW's gearbox problems were not over, for Beguin complained of being unable to select second gear. Later, he said that changing gear was like a game of chance, for he was never sure which gear he would get. The weather also worked against BMW and for Lancia, for the roads were wet after the rain and Auriol used his four-wheel-drive to good advantage and got ahead of Chatriot into the lead. This time he stayed there, for the remainder of the third day and the whole of the fourth, finishing with a margin of just under two minutes over his rival.

On the final day there was some concern about Auriol's gearbox, but Lancia's engineers considered that there was no time to carry out a replacement without risking a road penalty, so the car continued, being checked at every possible opportunity on the way. The pleasure was mixed with more than a little relief when it arrived at Ajaccio in first place. Kankkunen won the battle for third place, so Toyota came away from Corsica with at least some consolation for two retirements, not to mention with second place in the World Championship.

Among the Group N contenders the main battle after Manzagol's mishap was between DeRiu (Ford) and Oreille (Renault), who had to stop on the last day to have a broken driveshaft changed, although without losing any road time.

These two changed places several times, and even after his engine mounts broke, causing the engine itself to foul the rack and seriously affect the steering, DeRiu remained competitive. Indeed, he managed to beat Oreille when the engine was propped up by wooden blocks and held in place by straps and wire. Unfortunately, he went off the road three stages from the end, collected two punctures and went no further, leaving Oreille to relax and go on to his second Group N win of the year (the first was at Monte Carlo).

Although Massimo Biasion was not in Corsica, he remains firmly in the lead of the World Championship, now followed by Auriol, another Lancia driver. In the series for makes, Lancia's position is almost unassailable, having won all four qualifying events so far this year. The nearest rival to the Italian team is Toyota, but with 36 points to Lancia's 80 the Cologne team's chances of ousting Lancia are slim. Next round, qualifying for both series, is the Acropolis Rally, starting on May 27. GP