On the verge of his first outright World Rally Championship success, Bruno Thiry’s Escort came to a halt. Didier Auriol was handily placed to profit.
The Ford team suffered the tantalising and bitterly disappointing loss of a maximum points score in the all-tarmac Tour of Corsica when, just as it seemed likely that Belgian crew Bruno Thiry and Stephane Prevot would romp home to a win, ahead of team-mates Francois Delecour and Catherine Francois, Thiry was stopped by a faulty wheel hub on his Escort RS Cosworth and Delecour was slowed by a suspension strut bent as a result of a brush with a bridge parapet. A surprised but delighted Didier Auriol emerged outright winner, with partner Denis Giraudet, in their Toyota Celica, whilst Ford at least salvaged some championship points from Delecour’s eventual second place.
The two incidents, both in the closing sections of the rally, caused a furore among competitors and team officials about the servicing restrictions which give rise to situations when, in many places, cars in need of attention can only be fettled by their crews, using parts and tools carried in those cars, whilst engineers look on helplessly, prevented by the rules from laying hands on the car and even from providing spare parts or tools.
There were repetitions of comments made during the Monte-Carlo Rally this year, when one prominent driver remarked, “One minute we are drivers; the next we are mechanics; and then we are drivers again… How can we concentrate on driving right up to the limit of going off the road when we have just been sweating over the car, changing things, whilst our mechanics stand near, giving us advice but not allowed to touch anything?”
The servicing restrictions recently introduced by the FIA were said to have been brought in to reduce the number of service vehicles and mechanics required by a team, therefore cutting costs. But it has not worked out that way at all. The service vehicles are still there; the mechanics are still there. The only change is that, in all but certain places, such facilities may not be used. So the argument about cost-cutting seems not to hold water. Why should these vehicles and personnel be there if they cannot be used? The opportunities to cut costs exist, but it seems that teams are, not making use of them and are taking along their customary complement of staff and equipment, even to set them up at places where their expertise and facilities cannot be used.
I sympathise a great deal with those who protest against rules which make the sport more difficult for everyone, but in this case those rules were made with the best possible intentions; to cut costs for competitors. That the costs have not been cut, inasmuch as service vehicles and mechanics are still on hand, even at places where they are not allowed to work, is not the result of the rules but the choice of competing teams. So any argument against the new rules on the basis of cost cutting not being effective are invalid.
The other argument relates to safety. Drivers and team engineers have said, and stressed the point in Corsica, that it is highly risky and certainly unsafe to create a situation in which there is a great deal of temptation for a crew to continue in a car which is less than mechanically able to survive the punishment of hard driving and which is likely to succumb to a failure and put its crew at risk of injury.
This argument is just as invalid as the previous one. It has always been the case that success in a rally stems from the skill of a competing crew and the unfailing reliability of the car they drive. Both factors are required. If a driver makes a mistake and goes off the road, that’s part of the game. If a co-driver makes a mistake in his timekeeping, that is equally so. If a part of the car breaks and there is no opportunity to fix it, that is as much part of the game as the previous instances, a point which professional teams, and their drivers, are conveniently overlooking nowadays.
I am all for increasing every possible improvement to safety standards, but to invoke the cause of security in order to ensure constant fettling for cars which are not as reliable as they might be is carrying the banner of reasonable prudence too far.
Reliability has gone by the board, and rally cars have caught up with race cars inasmuch as they are designed to give maximum performance for short periods; in the case of a racing car, for the duration of that race; in the case of a rally car, some components for the duration of the rally and others from one opportune and allowed service point to the next. The longer the intervals between those service points, the stronger, more reliable, but heavier the cars have to be, and those features do not figure in the terms of reference given to today’s design engineers to produce fast, rally-winning machines.
Reliability used to be one of the essential features of a rally car. It had to be capable of enduring all manner of privations and still perform as its crew demanded. Works teams are now accustomed to having highly skilled engineers ready to work on cars after every special stage, and when this facility is suddenly denied them one cannot really blame them for complaining and thinking of every possible reason to justify their complaints. These words are not just meant to indicate that works teams, perhaps with tongues in their cheeks, conjure any reason to be able to fettle their precious wares at every possible opportunity. They signify that the rule makers are just as much to blame as those who have to follow those rules and, understandably, try to find ways of driving coaches and horses through them.
Teams criticise the FIA on the grounds that the service restrictions are dangerous. The HA counters that the teams wanted such rules in the first place, to reduce their on-event costs. Which is right will probably never be made clear, but there can be no doubt that the scenario would not have developed had both sides taken a more realistic view of the outcomes.
The basic way of looking at it is simple. If you don’t like the rules, don’t play the game; something for teams to consider. Something for the FIA to consider is this: make the rules simple. Either restrict everything to just showroom standard, or go the other way and lift the lid on everything. Either one thing or the other. The practice of attempting to follow the middle of the road has proved to be far too complicated. Personally, I’d like to see a return of what used to be called Group 1 — everything in standard form, and classes based on showroom prices, as they used to be on the Safaris of old. Then there would be no arguments and no vague interpretations of ambiguous rules.
Somewhat camouflaged by all the talk of danger was the fact that the Tour of Corsica attracted 89 starters, whilst the Safari Rally two weeks before, drew well over a hundred even without a full World Championship prop on which to lean. We have always said that a rally of quality, character, toughness and popularity has no need of a championship pedestal.
Three superb rallies have lost their full World Championship status this year, only being qualifying events for the two-wheel-drive series, not for either of the full-blooded groups of rounds for drivers and nominated makes. Those are the Safari, Acropolis and 1000 Lakes and, if the first is anything to go by, we trust that the two which follow will be as well supported as the Safari was.
All four of the teams currently nominated for points in the World Rally Championship were in Corsica. They could do nothing else. With one very strong eye on television royalties, the FIA has fixed a penalty of USS250,000 for a team’s non-appearance at a World Championship rally after having nominated for points. It’s no great amount compared with the cost of shipping an entire entourage from one side of the world to the other, but it is a hefty sum nevertheless.
Ford, Toyota, Mitsubishi and Subaru were all in Corsica, in one representative way or another, not to mention the two-wheel-drive outfits of Renault, Skoda and Peugeot. The Ford team, represented on paper by RAS, consisted of the cars of Thiry and Delecour, plus a third driven by Patrick Bernardini, accompanied by the experienced land sometimes comically eccentric) Jean-Marc Andrie. The Mitsubishi outfit was made up of three cars for Isolde Holderied/Christina Thorner, Tommi Makinen/Seppo Harjanne, the driver having his first taste of Corsica, and, from Italy, Andrea Aghini/Sauro Farnocchia. The two girls were in a Group N car, the others in Group A versions. Two other Group N cars were entered by Mitsubishi Germany for Argentinians Jorge Recalde/Martin Christie and Portuguese crew Rui Madeira/Nuno Silva.
The Subaru Impreza 555s, brought in from Prodrive’s Banbury base, were driven by regulars Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya and Colin McRae/Derek Ringer, joined for this event, at least, by Italy’s Piero Liatti/Alessandro Alessandrini. The Toyota crews, entered in Celica GT-Fours, were the regular pairs from Cologne, Julia Kankkunen/Nicky Grist, Didier Auriol/Bernard Occelli and Armin Schwarz/Klaus Wicha. Kankkunen is well-known for his lack of liking for tarmac whilst Schwarz was having his first experience of the tortuous, often rubble-covered roads of the island. Before the start Occelli and his family had to make a sudden departure from Corsica for personal reasons and Denis Giraudet was brought in at the last moment as a substitute, the success of his pairing with Auriol being reflected in the fact that they emerged winners.
The weights of the Toyotas were marginally close to the 1200 kg minimum, but the addition of the FIA tracking device, based on the American military GPS system, placed them well within the limit.
Renault sent several of their seven-speed Clio Maxis, driven by Jean Ragnotti/Gilles Thimonier, Philippe Bugalski/Jean-Paul Chiaroni. Claude Balesi/Jean-Paul Cirindini and Angelo Medeghini/Claudio Quarantani. Skoda brought two Felicias from Czechoslovakia, for Pavel Sibera/Petr Gross and Emil Triner/Pavel Stanc, whilst the two 2wd Peugeot 306s were driven by Gilles and Nerve Panizzi and Fabien Doenien/Herve Sauvage. Italy’s Grifone team was looking after the Group N Toyota Celica GT-Four of Mohammed Bin Sulayem/Ronan Morgan.
During the practice period, just a week for nominated works drivers, Thiry’s car broke down and he had to resort to a diesel-powered Peugeot, whilst during a last minute test session in his rally car Aghini damaged his rally car beyond repair and a recce car had to be quickly fettled overnight, on the eve of the day of vehicle scrutiny, for him to use on the rally.
Corsica has a long history of political intrigue, and many of its native islanders are desperately keen to have independence from France. In the past, bridges on the rally route have been blown up in protest, although the local population are always enthusiastic about the event, though not so much for its secondary title, Rallye de France! There seemed to be no such incendiarism this year, although fierce ideology was as much in evidence as it has always been.
On the first day, from the 9 am start in the centre of Ajaccio, all manner of things happened on the first stage: Makinen spun; Holderied had her gear linkage loosen; Sainz complained that his engine was down on power; Triner stopped instantly with a wrecked suspension.
After this first stage, Thiry and Delecour were jointly leading. On the next, Thiry got ahead, and from then on Delecour had nothing but praise for his Belgian teammate, saying that, although he was new to the car, he had taken to it like a duck to water. The wry Frenchman is not known for his repertoire of profound statements, but later in the rally he became quite lucid in his praise of Thiry’s driving.
Sainz had to put up with loss of hydraulic pressure in his centre differential until the end of the leg, whilst Kankkunen was suffering with stiff steering, which was not remedied until the second day because there was simply no time to change the possibly affected parts. Delecour said that a front shock absorber had gone soft, making his Escort handle very peculiarly, whilst Holderied had gear linkage trouble, although she still managed to get ahead of Bin Sulayem in the Group N category. The latter driver’s engine had been overheating and he was having to nurse it along. Bernardini, in the meantime, had gone off the road backwards due, so he said, to loss of brakes, and was then having to endure bad handling as a result of bent rear suspension.
Having held a joint third place, McRae lost it through a spin after his steering hydraulics sprung a leak, whilst at the mid-day service area Sainz had stiffer front springs fitted and Liatti much more beefy anti-roll bars. Makinen had his rear differential changed after spinning and hitting a rock, whilst Schwarz complained that his steering power assistance was unpredictable in that it was sometimes working and sometimes not, making precise car control very difficult indeed. Ragnotti suffered clutch difficulties, whilst Bugalski spun after his throttle jammed open.
Kankkunen had his power steering hydraulic pump changed just before the end of the leg at Bastia, but there was no time to change the rack itself and the next day the same lack of power assistance persisted.
Thiry led the rally at this stage, with a lead of just six seconds over team-mate Delecour. Auriol was another 24s behind, Aghini another 24 and Sainz another seven.
The second day began with a trip to Cap Corse, the long finger which projects northwards from the north-eastern corner of the island. On the first stage up here Thiry was fastest, even though he had not practised it properly, this being one of the stages on which he had used the Peugeot diesel after his recce car had broken down. It was up here that Schwarz came to a final stop when his alternator pulley detached in a place where no service was allowed. Had the mechanics been able to work, he would have been away again within minutes.
Delecour spun when he attempted to engage seventh gear in a car which was fitted with a six-speed gearbox, whilst Kankkunen, determined to put an end to his steering stiffness, decided to stop to have his rack changed. He lost a whole road minute as a result, but considered the stop worthwhile. Road lateness penalties were at full rate, a minute penalty for every minute late.
Liatti was surprising not only his more Subaru-familiar team-mates but everyone else into the bargain, and everyone was wondering why this newcomer to the car should be driving so well.
On the last two stages of the leg, the Toyota team took a calculated risk and sent their cars through without spare wheels. The weight saving paid off, at least on SS13, where Auriol was fastest by 5s from Thiry, but on the next the Belgian was 3s up, finishing the leg in a firm first place, 36s ahead of Delecour. Auriol was still snarling at his countryman’s heels, now only 2s back, followed by Sainz after 44s and Liatti after another one.
During the day, Delecour lost a few gear ratios and, at the end of the leg, had the box changed, but he didn’t take too kindly to the seven-speed unit which was fitted. Makinen lost some time when he broke a rim against a rock in swerving to avoid cows on the road.
It seemed that very little could dislodge Thiry’s total command of the rally on the final day. He had been driving impeccably and his Escort sounded and looked in perfect condition. That is how the final Friday began, and that is how it progressed – until the afternoon, that is.
Auriol had a loose steering joint fixed during the morning, but he was nevertheless keeping very close behind Delecour who was still having trouble adjusting to the seven-speed gearbox. Indeed, with just four stages to go. Auriol moved up to equal Delecour’s total time and they began the 18th stage on equal penalties. Soon after a 20-minute regrouping stop at Sagone during the morning, Kankkunen lost a massive seven minutes when he left the road on an unexpected patch of loose chippings and had to be manhandled back to the road by spectator power, whilst among the two-wheel-drive diehards, Peugeot’s Doenien was held back by team orders in order that Panizzi, who had led after Leg 1, could move up and win the category.
Many things happened on this final day. Ragnotti dropped to 11th place after a wishbone persisted in moving under acceleration or braking, whilst Liatti, ahead of team-mate McRae, accepted team orders and dropped a deliberate minute to let the Scot finish in fifth place, 44s ahead of him.
Meanwhile, everything had happened up front. Thiry came into the refuelling area two stages from the end with a front wheel which was vibrating badly. The bearing had all but collapsed. Service was not allowed in this area so, after struggling with limited tools and no spares to fix the problem, watched and encouraged by spares-laden mechanics, Thiry eventually gave up when the chief engineer decreed, and very correctly, that it would be highly dangerous for the Belgian to continue and risk having a wheel come off.
Thus Ford’s command of this rally came to an end. But that was not the only of the team’s misfortunes that day. Delecour had hit a stone bridge and bent a front strut, again in a non-service area. The handling had become dreadful, so he had to do something about it and resorted to a hefty jack handle to try to straighten it. The effort was great, and the effect almost nothing, with the result that Delecour lost enough time to allow Auriol into a 15s lead.
Thus, after leading the rally almost throughout, the two front-running Fords dropped back, one out of the rally altogether, allowing Auriol’s Toyota, which had been a close third most of the way, to snatch the lead. But that’s rallying; unpredictable and uncompromising.
Auriol’s unexpected win brings him up to third place in the Drivers’ series of the World Rally Championship, two points behind Kankkunen and 14 behind series leader Sainz. Among the makes, Mitsubishi leads by just five points from Toyota, followed by Subaru, only two points ahead of Ford. Due to the silly rule which requires team to nominate land pay for) their championship intentions at the start of the year, only these four makes have scored points. A far cry from the days when if your make of car got into the first ten, you got the points no matter who was driving it.
The next major event is the Acropolis in early June, but this is one of those rallies which, this year, will not count for the two major divisions, only the two-wheel-drive cup, and the entry list has suffered accordingly. Next year, it seems, the same events will qualify for all categories, which will be a great return to sanity. All we then want is for the nomination system to be scrapped and the FIA to relinquish its demands for advance payment for the chance to score points and the threat of a hefty fine for failing to compete on all rounds. But, as they say in Africa, no vulture turns its head away from a choice piece of meat!
Tour of Corsica – May 3-5 1995
1: Dider Auriol / Denis Giraduet – Toyota Celica GT-Four, GpA
2: Francois Delecour / Catherine Francois – Ford Escort RS Cosworth, GpA
3: Andrea Aghini / Sauro Farnocchia – Mitsubishi Lancer RS, Ev3, GpA
4: Carlos Sainz / Luis Moya – Subaru Impreza 555, GpA
5: Colin McRae / Derek Ringer – Subaru Impreza 555, GpA
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