Rally review, March 1976



A dry Monte; a snowy Arctic

Left to mere mortals, tradition dies hard, but when Mother Nature takes a hand it can so easily be killed off without as much as a bowed head. In the beginning, and for many years afterwards, the Monte Carlo Rally was an adventurous and often perilous winter journey to Mediterranean sunshine. Much of the adventure and peril resulted from snow along the way, and it was indeed a feat to maintain progress and to get to the Monagasque quayside. Then the journey became easier as cars and drivers improved, and the emphasis was switched to a second phase, out from Monte and back again, through the snowy Alps. The concentration runs became no more than tiresome preludes and the varied surfaces of the alpine roads (some snowy, some icy, some dry and some mixed) an enormous exercise in development, deployment and transportation for tyre companies.

The biggest headache for tyre companies is a rally which runs over mixed surfaces, particularly when the weather can change those surfaces in minutes. The big business of getting a factory car to the winners’ rostrum in Monte Carlo has caused manufacturers’ teams with tyre company contracts to insist that they should always have available the right sort of tyres for whatever surfaces they encounter, and this had led to an enormous escalation of costs. For instance, if five tyre/ stud combinations are available for a three-car team—and that is a modest figure—at least 60 tyres would have to be available at the start of every special stage in order that each driver should have his choice.

Having a full choice at every special stage is not merely a simple matter of moving the same 60 around from place to place, for whatever tyres are chosen at one point will also have to be available at the next, and in any case it is quite impossible for one tyre truck to meet every rendezvous; leap-frog schedules have to be drawn up so that there is no possible chance of a supply of vital tyres not getting to their destination.

All this is costly. Consider also that it can cost over £100 to punch a full complement of metal studs into the tread blocks of just one tyre and you will have some understanding of the kind of investment that some teams make, just for tyres.

It was in an attempt to bring down these costs that the Monte Carlo Rally organisers adopted a rule for 1976 which declared that each competing car could use only one type of tyre throughout the competitive legs of the rally. There was no limit on numbers, only the type. This was, in fact, proposed in principle after the 1975 rally by a group of British rally people who were concerned about the rally’s reputation and felt that a tarnished public image of the Monte would reflect badly on the entire sport. The rule specified size and tread pattern, but said nothing about tread compounds, nor of studs. Suddenly, we were back almost to square one, for tyre companies prepared tyres of various tread rubber compounds for various surfaces, and had them studded in a number of ways, with the number of studs per tyre varying from none to 600 on the Dunlops which were used by the Ford team and up to more than 1,000 on the wider Pirellis being used by the Stratos of the Lancia team. Even with a rule that tread patterns and sizes could not be varied, here we were with the usual vast stocks of tyres again being carted around the Alps so that after the advance ice-note crews had reported conditions, drivers could have their choice. In fairness to the organisers, they tried to do something to cut the cost, but it didn’t work simply because works teams were still prepared to face the outlay of providing each driver with that vital choice.

Alas, much of the outlay turned out to be superfluous; the snow and ice for which those important stud had been laboriously punched into tyres simply didn’t appear and there could not have been more than a few miles of really slippery stuff on the entire event. This undoubtedly resulted in unused tyres being brought back from Monte Carlo to serve no greater purpose than to fill racks with expensive, highly efficient but obsolete stock.

That such costly and sophisticated tyres, developed over years of trial and error, should be obsolete may seem rather strange. The reason is not that next year there will be something better, but that rules limiting the number of studs which can be used per tyre are cropping up in many countries whose authorities reckon that they damage tarmac roads. We don’t altogether agree with that theory, but that is another story. In Sweden and Finland there are already limits, whilst France is expected to have a similar rule before next winter. When that rule comes, the Monte Carlo organisers will have to phrase their regulations to suit, for the French authorities will certainly not give dispensation to cars taking part in the rally. So with all those unused tyres available, Pirelli and Dunlop, who were the main tyre companies involved in the Monte Carlo Rally, may be looking for other markets. Tyres can be destudded of course, but it is a difficult job and perhaps economically bad. Studs which are inserted right through the tyre from the inside cannot be removed, for they leave a tyre with holes which render them useless.

The premier team taking part in the Monte was Lancia, with three powerful Stratos from the factory and a slightly less powerful private one from France. Ford was also there with two 16-valve Escorts, Opel with three of the Kadett GTEs but with the old eight-valve engines, Fiat having yet another last fling with three 124 Abarths before going over to the 131, Autobianchi with what seemed like an entire fleet of Abarth-tuned Cars, Po!ski Fiat with three 125p (the survivors of which were later excluded because their 1.8-litre engines were not homologated), Seat with two 1430 Specials with 1.8-litre engines and a string of private and partly-supported crews making a total of 148 starters. That figure is still short of the total of past Montes, and short of many present-day rallies of lesser status, but it was nevertheless a great improvement on last year when only 96 cars started.

The Alpine-Renault team was not officially taking part due to its rallying programme being chopped almost to nothing by company budgetary restrictions. But mechanics were there to look after the team’s formerly contracted drivers who had secured their own finance and “rented” works cars from Dieppe. Alas it was a sad rally for them, for all the cars went out, leaving French girl Michele Mouton to uphold Alpine honours in a creditable 11th place.

Of the 23 special stages, only two had any degree of snow at all, so it was a safe bet for anyone to put his money on Lancia. However, the Italians didn’t always make the right choice of tyres and both Ford and Opel (with Roger Clark and Walter Rithrl, respectively) were always right behind ready to take over the lead should something delay the three Stratos. One Stratos retired, but the other three were sufficiently powerful to stay in front, although for one brief period after the first stage with snow Sandro Munari lost his lead by just one second to the French driver Guy Frequelin in a Porsche.

Extra-rallying incidents have a habit of cropping up on the Monte, but this year there seemed to none worthy of the newshounds who seem to be permanent fixtures at rally HQ. Even 5,000 students running-amok and damaging cars at the Rome start rated very little coverage, whilst a bomb scare at rally HQ during the last night got practically nothing at all.

Lancia’s 1-2-3 victory was not at all remarkable, particularly as the dry tarmac roads suited the cars admirably, and there must have been many who predicted the result with reasonable accuracy. Walter Rohrl drove exceptionally well to take third place in his Opel, whilst Roger Clark completely shook his continental critics (Who quite unfairly claim that he is a big fish in a small pond) by showing all but four of the finishers a clean Escort tail pipe.

Although still as competitive as ever, the Monte this year was not a stirring, exciting drama as many other events are. There was no reason to draw a breath at the end and say “whew, that was close”. Perhaps it’s because ears like the Stratos, designed specifically for fast competition, have the edge over converted road ears like the Escort and the Kadett, but perhaps to a smaller extent because other events have become more adventurous and the Monte rather ordinary. In a community whose economy is based on the spin of a wheel and the throw of a dice, it is sad indeed that a once-great rally should become like this.

As the Monte Carlo Rally showed, January snow is by no means certain in the French Alps, but in Lapland it is never scarce. On the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland, the city of Rovaniemi hosts what has become an annual winter classic, the Marlboro Arctic Rally, or Tunturiralli as it was formerly called. With special stages on snowploughed forest tracks and on frozen lakes and rivers, an abundance of snow to provide protective banks around six feet high and temperatures approaching 40’C below zero, the event provides tremendous adventure and more than a little danger. Arctic winters have to be treated with tremendous respect, for one can pay very dearly indeed for even quite small mistakes.

Although the competitors included visitors from Britain, Belgium, France, Austria, Norway, Poland and Germany, some of the top local drivers were missing due to commitments elsewhere. Outright winners were Tapio Rainio and Erkki Nyman of the Saab Finland team, driving a 96V4. Of their teammates, Lampinen had a crown-wheel break up whilst Vilkas put his car so far off into the trees that mechanics reckoned they would have to wait until the spring thaw before they could retrieve it!

Despite the low temperatures there was water on some of the river and lake stages. due to warmer water from the depths coming up through contraction cracks. This spells disaster for the unwary, and many retired within very short distance of those water-splashes when transmissions, brakes, steering gear and various other parts froze into solid lumps. All manner of precautions have to be taken against the cold, both bodily and mechanically. Without a special additive, the petrol will freeze in the carburetters, for instance, whilst anything made of rubber tends to assume the consistency of brittle plastic.

A superb place for a winter rally, Finnish Lapland has all the ingredients to host the finest Snow event imaginable, even a World Championship qualifier, but there is a certain slackness in the organisation, probably due to inexperience, which will have to be reined in before it can hope for elevation. That done—and we see no reason why it cannot —Rovaniemi should rank among the rallying capitals of the world.—G.P.

Monte Carlo rally general classification

1st: S. Manari/ S. Maiga (Lancia Stratos (4)) 6hr. 25min. 10sec,

2nd: B. Waldegard/ H. Thorzelius (Lancia Stratos (4)) 6hr. 26min. 37sec,

3rd: B.Darniche/ A.Mahe (Lancia Stratos (4)) 6hr. 31min. 23sec,

Arctic rally general classification

1st: T. Rainio/ E. Nyman (Saab 96V4) 29,178 sec,

2nd: H. Valtahariu/ R. Anttila (Opel Ascona) 30, 346sec,

3rd: K. Saari/ J. Markula (Alfa Romeo 2000) 30, 624sec,