Grand Prix notebook: Azerbaijan, Austria and Britain
Taking us to the halfway point of the championship, this three-race sequence had an interesting…
Prior to Corsica, Didier Auriol hadn’t won a WRC event since Monte-Carlo last year. Despite intense pressure, he finally put that to rights . . .
The Tour of Corsica used to be regarded as a kind of hybrid of the Targa Florio and the Alpine Rally, perhaps even leaning a little towards the Mille Miglia. It was pretty much a road race, with time controls placed here and there only so that it would fall within the definition of a rally rather than that of a race. It even attracted one-off prototypes, such as the purpose-bulk, open-topped Fulvia called the Lancia F & M Special. The initials, dubbed ‘Foot and Mouth’ by some wags, stood for Fiorio and Munari since it was the joint brainchild of Lancia’s team manager and leading driver of the time.
When the Alpine Rally succumbed to pressure against road closures in the height of the tourist season, and against the perils of full-blown practice on open public roads for weeks in advance, the island of Corsica became the only piece of French territory on which it was possible to organise such an event.
Corsica’s main tourist areas are around the coast, whereas the meat of the rally is found in the mountainous areas inland: through these mountains, over some of the most tortuous tarmac roads which can be found anywhere, usually lined with trees and often covered by fallen leaves, mud and even tree branches, the rally used to run at breakneck speed even on open road sections, and it was quite often the case that a routine stop for fuel or a quick tyre change led to the loss of a minute or two.
Only the special stages were officially closed, though it was generally the case that the police prevented traffic movement over most of the roads used by the rally. There were even those fiendish ploys called select/Is, copied from the Alpine Rally and sometimes even used by British road events, over which timing was to the nearest second and targets were near impossible. When special stages were embodied in those selectives, ensuring that competitors had to stop twice, at start and at finish, for timing, the targets became quite impossible to achieve.
Over the years, speeds necessary on open public roads have been reduced and the rally has been made to conform with the standard pattern that competition is only required on closed-road special stages. However, this year the road timing was somewhat tighter than it was last year, although nothing like It was, say, 20 years ago.
Only 14 of the 43 finishers incurred road penalties, whereas in its heyday the Tour of Corsica would have penalised everyone at most time controls. Tarmac surfaces seem to have a different quality wherever you go. In Corsica, the roads through the mountains are extremely abrasive, and when you consider the stresses of braking, cornering and accelerating. one after the other constantly, the demands made of tyres and brake components are considerable.
For that reason, tyre tread compounds are harder than they are for other tarmac events so that they last the distance of a special stage without approaching the point of total efficiency loss, and brakes are made as beefy as possible so that they can cope with heavy use without overheating. The days when tyres were made to last have long gone.
Nowadays, those used by works teams need survive for just one special stage, unless servicing restrictions require that they last for two. This year, ‘no service’ areas were fewer on the Tour of Corsica, probably because in 1993 there were cases of dry stages followed by wet, with such areas between, and many competitors complained that this situation gave rise to needless danger on the second of the two. Is this a case of pandering to the prima donnas? We have always felt, and still do, that crews should drive according to conditions and to the equipment they have available.
If they exceed either of those limits, for whatever reason, they can blame neither the rules nor the conditions, only themselves. It can be very wet and blustery in Corsica at the beginning of May. Indeed, there has been snow and ice on the mountain tops, even at that time of the year, not just in November when the event used to be held. But this year it lived up to its reputation as the Island of Beauty and the weather was warm and sunny. That was great for many people. but for those who dealt with tyre selection and logistics it was a headache due to the high temperatures (and consequent high wear rates) attained by the tyres on special stages.
Nevertheless, there were very few people indeed who complained about the conditions. Competitors either love the Tour of Corsica or they hate it. There are not many in-betweens. Generally, southern Europeans, particularly the French, enjoy it, and many of them excel on it, whilst those from Nordic countries, preferring dirt roads, are far less enthusiastic.
Indeed, Markku Alen has the distinction of being the only Nordic driver ever to have won the rally, which he did both in 1983 and 1984. This year’s event developed into a fierce personal tussle between two southern Europeans: Frenchman Didier Auriol in a Toyota and Spaniard Carlos Sainz in a Subaru. It was very close indeed, although Auriol seemed to have the edge during the first two days. It was not until the last day, when Auriol had a transmission problem, that Sainz began gaining time at such a rate that he seemed to be about to snatch victory from the Frenchman’s grasp.
But not all rally results are based on human endeavour in the field, and when Sainz was delayed by a breakage, his advance was halted and Auriol clung to his lead, even extended it, and eventually won by 61 seconds.
Having forsaken several years ago the practice of alternating, year by year, between Ajaccio in the south-west and Bastia in the north-east as a choice of rally headquarters, this year’s base was, as customary, in Ajaccio. The event spanned three days, divided by two full night stops, the first at Bastia and the second at CaIvi on the west coast.
Total distance was 754 miles, of which the 23 special stages made up 358. The works teams of Toyota, Ford and Subaru all went, as did Renault’s team of four two-wheel-drive Clio Williamses, three of which were entered by Team Diac.
When Francois Delecour broke a leg and an ankle in a road accident some weeks ago, it left Ford without its main tarmac exponent for the Tour of Corsica. This must have upset the Boreham people considerably, although they do not admit it, for Delecour gave them victory in Corsica in 1993 and his absence put the team at a distinct disadvantage. Delecour is recovering rapidly, but he is expected to be out of action for a further four months.
The Ford side in Corsica was nevertheless made up to three cars, with two Escort Cosworths from the works team for Italians Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero and Franco Cunico/Stefano Evangelisti, and a third entered by RAS for Belgians Bruno Thiry/Stephane Prevot.
Thiry’s car, backed by Giesse, was fitted with Ford’s new sequential gearchange system which each of the team drivers had tried during testing. Biasion and Cunico had opted out of using it during the rally itself on the grounds that they were not sufficiently accustomed to it and would very likely, in the heat of the moment, try to move the gear lever in gate fashion rather than just forwards or backwards.
Thiry. on the other hand, chose to use the sequential method and, when the rally was over, was most enthusiastic about its advantages. It is very likely that Malcolm Wilson, who will drive a works Escort in the Acropolis Rally, will use the sequential system. but Biasion may still choose the conventional option. The sequential system relates to the selection method, not the gearbox itself, and provides for just two movements of the gear lever — forwards to change down and rearwards to change up — no matter which gears are being changed. The system rules out changing directly, for instance, from fourth to second or from fifth to third, because one can only go up or down in single gear steps, but it does eliminate the chances of missing a gear.
Toyota Team Europe took two Celicas to Corsica for luha Kankkunen/Nicky Grist and Didier Auriol/Bernard Occelli, the pair being joined to make up a three-car team by Andrea Aghini/Sauro Farnocchia in their Grifone car from Italy. Like the Fords, the Toyotas were using Michelin tyres. Subaru, like Ford, had plenty of time to prepare for Corsica, for neither team had been to the Safari.
The cars in Kenya had been entered from japan. not Prodrive. Two lmpreza 555s were sent to Corsica. each with improved brakes and centre differential. They were driven by Carlos Sainz/Luis Maya and Colin McRae/Derek Ringer, both using Pirelli tyres, The only other works team of note in Corsica was Renault, still fiercely campaigning the Clio Williams on selected events, and doing so very successfully.
There were four on this occasion, driven by Jean Ragnotti/Gilles Thimonier, Alain Oreille/lean-Marc Andrie, Philippe Bugalski; Thierry Renaud and Serge Jordan/Jack Boyere. Claude Balesi and jean-Paul Cirindini drove a similar car, entered privately.
Team Ralliart was not there from the UK, but the German Mitsubishi team sent two of the latest Lancers for Isolde Holderied/Tina Thorner and Jorge Recalde/Martin Christie. There was also a gaggle of Group N Ford Escort Cosworths driven by Mohammed bin Sulayem/Ronan Morgan, Carlos Menem Inn/ Victor Zucchini, lesus Puras/Carlos del Barrio and lean-Marie Santoni/Marcel Cesarini. Giovanni Manfrinato/Claudio Cordotta non-started their Escort.
In fine weather, the first car left the ramp in Ajaccio’s city centre at 9.00 on the Thursday morning, heading first southwards in a loop through Porte Vecchio before turning northwards through the mountains to Bastia. Fastest on the first stage was Auriol and it so happened that he held this lead to the end, although it was a very close thing on the last of the three days.
By the time the rally reached the short stop at Porto Vecchio, Auriol held a seven-second lead over Sainz. McRae was another four seconds behind, Thiry another three, whilst Aghini and Kankkunen followed closely afterwards. The two works Fords of Cunico and Biasion were seventh and eighth, both having experienced braking problems.
On the first stage after Porto Vecchio, Subaru suffered a huge setback when McRae clipped a roadside rock with his Impreza and punctured a tyre. Instead of stopping to change the wheel, or even slowing down to minimise the risk of further damage. the Scots pair continued at unabated speed and it was not long before the inevitable happened.
The car went off the road and broke its steering. McRae managed to get it to the end of the stage and on to his service point, but there was no time for the necessary repairs and half of the Subaru team was out. Cunico was slowed later in the day by a fault in the braking system, whilst Thiry was slowed by his ATS tyres, although he readily admitted that this was entirely his fault. Unused to the puncture-resistance of these foam-filled Michelins, he instinctively slowed whenever he saw rubble in the road thrown up by cars ahead. Later, he overcame this natural trait and forced himself into keeping his foot down. He expressed his liking of the sequential gear change and said that he had got used to it very quickly indeed.
At Bastia, Auriol’s lead over Sainz was up to 35s, whilst Aghini was another 26s behind, closely followed by Kankkunen. Cunico, Thiry and Biasion came next, followed by the private Escort of Patrick Bernardini/Rocky Demedardi and the two Renault CIios of Ragnotti and Jordan.
The next day, after the night stop at Bastia, Sainz made best time on the first stage, whilst Bernardini was late starting SS9 and lost seventh place to Ragnotti. On the next stage, Auriol had an off which allowed Sainz to make best time again, and it seemed that the Spaniard was pushing very hard indeed, hoping to ruffle Auriol into making another time-consuming mistake. The Frenchman was lucky not to hole his radiator on this occasion.
On this same stage Cunico’s good run came to an end when he hit a low wall when approaching a downhill hairpin and was unable to continue. Alas, there had been spectators foolishly standing on this wall and three of them had to be taken to hospital. During the day, the rally looped first to the south and then returned to Bastia for a three-minute stop before heading westwards towards Calvi. Throughout the day, Sainz kept up the pressure on Auriol, but when the rally got to the second overnight stop at Calvi, a town of much military presence, he had only managed to whittle the Frenchman’s lead down by two seconds to 33. Aghini was another 6Is behind and Kankkunen another 36. Biasion and Thiry followed, ahead of Ragnotti who had managed to get ahead of Bernardini’s Escort Cosworth.
On the final day, Sainz kept up the pressure, even though his was the only Subaru left in the event. He was certainly not driving just to finish; he was making an all-out attack, either to beat Auriol on merit or to rattle him sufficiently to cause him to make a mistake. There were no team orders, it seems, to hold him back to make sure of that second place. It was a go-for-a-win situation, just the sort of thing which brightens rallying. After best times on the first three stages of that last day, Sainz had narrowed the gap by no less than 23 seconds, and one wondered whether Auriol had lost his form, whether his car was giving trouble or whether it was just a case of Sainz having taken the bit well between his teeth. We learned afterwards that Auriol was having trouble with his transmission, although its exact nature never became clear.
There was a suggestion that the problem was oil penetrating the clutch housing, although this is really the effect of a problem, not the cause. Our feeling, which was never confirmed by Toyota, was that the gearbox casing had sprung a leak, either from a crack or from a faulty joint, this allowing oil to enter the clutch housing.
The consequent slip was contained as much as possible, but there was no opportunity to change the gearbox (forbidden by regulations anyway) and the Frenchmen had to make do with constant fettling. We saw no evidence of Vim canisters or Coca-Cola bottles which would have been put to immediate and effective use had this situation arisen in Safaris of old, but no doubt the Toyota mechanics used both abrasives and detergents to keep the clutch slip to a minimum.
After the short stop at Cargese, Sainz was again fastest, this time beating Auriol by a single second and narrowing the gap to just nine, but that was as far as his advance went. On the very next stage, the surviving Subaru had its front anti-roll bar break just five miles into the 27-mile test and Sainz had to fight against severe understeer all the way to the end.
The condition worsened as he progressed and eventually one of the front tyres succumbed to the increased friction and heat. It blew suddenly, but fortunately there was only a mile or two of the stage left and Sainz managed to get to his service point without losing too much time. It transpired that a small titanium blade had broken, possibly due to a faulty weld or possibly due to impact damage. In any case, Sainz lost a chunk of time to Auriol, whose lead then jumped to 53s. The broken part was replaced, after which Sainz again made best time on the next stage.
But the charge had by then become futile. It was too late in the day to expect to gain nearly a minute on the rally leader in just the two stages remaining, and both Auriol and Sainz visibly eased off. It had been a very close fight indeed, the tension towards the end becoming so evident that you could almost cut it with a knife.
Whether the same situation would have arisen had both Auriol’s Toyota and Sainz’ Subaru been trouble-free is a matter for speculation, but mechanical reliability is or was) as much a part of rallying as driving skill and crew rallymanship, a fact which will become more evident next year when greater servicing restrictions will be introduced, and not before time. Auriol finished the relly a minute and one second ahead of Sainz, getting ahead of Kankkunen by two points in the World Championship.
Toyota stays ahead in the makes’ series, followed by Subaru and Ford. Jesus Puras (Escort Cosworth) from Spain headed the Group N contingent in 12th place overall. Mohammed bin Sulayem’s similar car, which had been second in class, slipped back to eighth (21st overall) after a lastminute suspension failure.
German girl lsolde Holderied took the ladies’ prize by finishing 16th in her Mitsubishi Lancer, just I 2s ahead of her teammate Recalde. Next round of the World Championship is Greece’s Acropolis Rally at the beginning of June, an event as different from the Tour of Corsica as the Safari is from the Arctic Rally. — G.P.
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