Tropical Paradise

David Williams witnessed the first World Championship rally in Asia and predicts a runaway success

The disaster stories are always the best. There ought to be one about Asia. In the World Rally Championship’s somewhat chequered 23-year history, there have been some remarkably ill-judged attempts to break new ground, ranging from the long-running farce known as the Ivory Coast Rally, to the ill-starred Rally of Brazil or the damp squibs that passed for world-class rallies in the United States. In retrospect, it’s puzzling that there are no stories of missing time controls, lorries finding their way onto stages, or trigger-happy policemen from Asia; it is after all the world’s largest continent and at least one silver-tongued adventurer should have lured the FIA into approving a World Championship rally there before 1996.

It didn’t happen. There are hair-raising tales from rallies in the Asia-Pacific Championship certainly, but none of them concern the Rally of Indonesia since it has been under the control of lndradjit Sardjono, the clued-up clerk of the course. There was never any danger of this becoming a Pacific version of the Ivory Coast. There were echoes of the Ivory Coast on the World Championship’s first visit to Sumatra this May, but they were confined to some of the hotels in Parapat or the hazards westerners face in sampling local food.

Indonesia was always likely to be a success. With guidance from Garry Connelly, the man behind the Rally Australia, it has cultivated an Australian attention to detail, along with a readiness to please that comes naturally to Indonesians. There are areas to improve, such as the results service, but every reason to think that standards will be raised next year. Only in the last year have some of the older European rallies come round to treating competitors as allies and customers rather than the enemy.

The word “customer” bulks large in the Rally of Indonesia’s success. The rally provides access to a domestic market of 190 million of them and economic growth is accelerating with a speed to bring a gleam to the eye of any sales director. There are no discernible restrictions on tobacco advertising (in fact, cigarette consumption is allegedly growing even faster than in China) and Ford personnel believe that the south-east Asian market is already too big and has too much potential for the European car makers to ignore; if they do, the economies of scale will overwhelm them sooner rather than later.

You will notice that we haven’t yet mentioned any of the boring things that used to be considered important to making a successful rally, like the quality of the stages but then Australia proved that entertaining driver’s roads no longer count for much in World Championship terms. As a matter of fact, Indonesia was an exceptionally demanding rally, thanks in part to a seemingly innocuous date change and World Championship tyre restrictions.

Shifting it from July to May turned heavy rain from a possibility to a strong probability. Comparing European rain to a tropical storm is like comparing a dripping tap to a fire hydrant and the effect it has on Indonesian driving conditions has to be seen to be believed. It can be hard to keep one’s footing and it is so slippery that the Michelin runners had access to unstudded, reinforced snow tyres. the improvement can be between 10 and 15 seconds per mile.

Michelin and Pirelli have tyres for every surface and weather condition imaginable – Goodyear has an easy life in Formula One by comparison but nothing to cope with the sort of challenge that Indonesia posed this year. Rain can be just as localised as it is in Britain and it was quite possible to find bone-dry and sopping wet stages in the same batch between service points. Picking tyres for one stage was easy; choosing tyres for both near impossible. Strange as it seems, the need for a different choice of tyres for consecutive stages is as great as it is on the Monte Carlo Rally Crew after crew likened coping with Sumatran mud to driving on ice on slicks. At times, five miles per hour can be too fast.

It usually rains in late afternoon or at night and competitors are more likely to face sweltering temperatures that, combined with intense humidity, make the event one of the toughest physical challenges a rally driver can face. Ambient temperatures neared 40 degrees Celsius on the last day of the rally and cockpit temperatures can be almost double that. Carlos Sainz was in no doubt that it was one of the toughest rallies he had ever done and Yoshio Fujimoto a former Safari winner collapsed from exhaustion at the finish.

It ought to have been a rally that favoured those with Asia-Pacific experience, notably Mitsubishi and Subaru, and their drivers. Colin McRae knows all about skating off the road forwards in a Malaysian storm, with reverse gear engaged and all four wheels spinning.

Sure enough, Indonesia did favour experience, but of the kind that seasoned campaigners and former world champions possess. McRae, Kenneth Eriksson, Tommi Makinen or Richard Burns could all have won this rally. McRae and Makinen at a canter. The Fords and the Toyotas were not so much off the pace as outclassed. Piero Liatti proved that with a stirring drive during which, as Subaru’s last hope, he was quickest on the last 10 stages, while Sainz arid Juha Kankkunen were locked in combat for victory. Liatti was European Champion when the title meant at least something, in 1991, but he isn’t normally a driver one would expect to outperform men with six world titles between them and he had never been to Indonesia before either.

Yet the experts, to a man, retired after accidents or accident-induced mechanical problems. No wonder Andrew Cowan, Ralliart Europe Director. commented: “It’s a bit of a lottery with the rain maybe more than the Safari. The Safari is easy compared to this.” All the works four’ wheel drive men finished the Safari except Sainz. In Sumatra, only three survived.

It was one of Sainz’s finest victories. The Celica has had virtually no development this year and suffered badly from its wide track on roads that are often narrow, but Sainz battled against a catalogue of problems with his Escort that drove him close to despair. Victory defied the odds, but it also took a slice of luck. Sainz clobbered the fateful, mud-caked bridge that claimed Eriksson and twisted Makinen’s Mitsubishi, while his second-leg excursion shoved the radiator back without piercing it.

This was no rally for the headstrong, yet it was a surprise that McRae was one of the drivers to succumb to the conditions. It’s been a good while since he had a substantial crash and he had driven quite brilliantly for the first half of the event, using hard-compound Pirellis to devastating effect on the dry stages, without chancing his arm on the same rubber when it turned muddy. While others complained that their gravel note crews should have warned them about the bridge, Colin had backed off and coolly avoided the problem.

It certainly wasn’t tyre choice that accounted for his spectacular roll on the 19th of the 27 stages, for he had cut extra blocks out of his Pirelli mud tyres before the stage himself, as service wasn’t permitted. Instead, he couldn’t quite bring himself to slow down enough when the intercom failed. If he’d wanted, he could have lost two minutes, kept a 90s cushion and increased it to 3m 30s again by the finish. Instead, a brand-new lmpreza ended its rally as a pile of scrap and, far from depriving Tommi Makinen of the World Championship lead, he remains 17 points in arrears. It took the Prodrive team completely by surprise. They had almost forgotten that McRae has a unique talent to deliver the impossible and the inexcusable.

It was a rotten rally for British drivers, Burns crashing and Gwyndaf Evans being excluded for accepting extra petrol when his works Escort ran out: by then, almost everything else had gone wrong with it. Burns was a victim of impetuosity and the service restrictions. Three or four years ago, a chase car crew would have pounced on his Lancer after the first stage and fixed the oil cooler. There weren’t enough tools in the car to make a full repair and he therefore retired on the third stage with no oil pressure.

It was a disappointing rally for British drivers, but British tuners, teams and mechanics were much in evidence in Medan. They knew that a World Championship rally in Asia wasn’t a nine-day Wonder, but further evidence of the shifting balance of economic power.