One of the most attractive and interest-holding features of International rallying is its variety, or, to be more exact, its extremes. One month competitors and their mechanics and various other helpers and followers can be sweating it out in tropical heat, either choking in dense dust or wallowing in the stickiest of mud, and the next month they could be risking frostbite by tackling some job or other out in the open in the middle of a blizzard in Scandinavia. Always the weather plays an immensely important part in rallies, creating for each one an individual character and producing the conditions which gives the event its unique brand of toughness.
Although there is always some snow on the Monte-Carlo Rally, it is far removed from what we have come to know as a snow rally, for it takes, a Scandinavian winter, not just an Alpine one, to produce the kind of conditions associated nowadays with a real winter rally.
In the World Championship there is only one such event, the Swedish Rally. That doesn’t have its snow confined to the mountains, leaving sun-warmed tarmac for a run to the sea, for firstly it has no real mountains, secondly hardly any uncovered tarmac at all and most certainly no sea, although there are plenty of frozen lakes and rivers around.
But even in Scandinavia there can be degrees of snowiness, though to the inexperienced observer who sees all white before him, there either is snow, or there isn’t. In the Central Sweden province of Varmland, the Swedish Rally takes place over forest roads from which the fresh top-snow has been ploughed away, leaving a coating of hard snow covering the ice which binds the gravel surface beneath. The depth of snow which has fallen determines the height and solidity of the snowbanks which are left by the plough along the verges of the roads. Hefty banks oiler protection by cushioning a car as it leaves the road, preventing it from getting through to the trees where damage may be caused, and offering a cornering aid by facilitating bank-bouncing.
Aniaher important thing which depends on the amount of snow which has fallen is the time which it takes for the passage of stud-tyred cars to wear through the snow and ice to the hard gravel beneath. Sometimes Varmland has enough snow to prevent this happening, but this year it did not.
The exposure of the gravel was speeded up by practice sessions beforehand, and the fact that most stages were used twice. Some tyre/stud combinations are first class on ice or snow but quite useless after being driven so hard over gravel that the studs are thrown out or dislodged. Other combinations withstand the rough treatment over the gravel, but offer pretty poor traction on the snow.
It was this distinction which led to considerable problems during this year’s Swedish Rally. Fiat and Lancia use Pirelli tyres, whilst Ford and Saab use Dunlop, but all four found that a studded Finish tyre called Kumi-Helenius was better than anything else on snow, but not at all durable on rutted, bumpy tracks along which the gravel had been exposed. Knowing which one to choose meant that a team would have the best chance of making the best time, but all too often people chose wrongly.
Teams taking part in the event were Ford, Saab, Fiat, Lancia. Toyota, Opel and the Russian Vaz team, by far the best quality line up of competitors that the event has ever seen, and certainly the one which provided the closest fought competition.
In the early stages, the Ford Escorts forged ahead whilst the Fiats and the Lancia slithered. Then a tyre switch was made and the Fiats closed up, not to mention the lone Lancia Stratos which was being driven by Saab man Stig Blomqvist (the Saab people sell Landas in Sweden). It was his first rally in a rear-wheel-drive car, and he learned very quickly indeed and was every bit a potential winner. But a puncture and a broken throttle link caused delays which took away his chance of success.
Ford’s early lead was too much for the Fiats to shorten, and when Ford switched back to their Dunlops for the rutted second and third legs of the rally the Fiats stopped getting closer.
Kullang’s Group 4 Opel Kadett went out with a bent valve, as did Salonen’s Fiat. Therier’s Toyota Celica boiled to a stop after a broken alternator bolt caused the fanbelt to fly off, whilst Asterhag’s similar car had three inlet valve seats loosen. Eklund’s heavy and low-powered Saab 99 went extremely well until it broke a connecting rod.
The three Ford Escorts proved to be remarkably reliable, even though cars for winter rallies have to be specially prepared for very low temperatures, and needed almost no attention during the event. Winners were Bjorn Waldegard and Hans Thorszelius, scoring their Worth World Championship win since they joined the Ford team at the end of 1976. Mikkola and Hertz held second place, but Vatanen and Alto went off the road several times and lost precious time which dropped them to fifth place. It was an uncommonly tense rally from start to finish, for although Waidegard kept his lead from the moment he took it halfway through the first leg, he could never relax for a moment for there were others ready to step instantly into his place at his slightest error. Tactics hardly came into it; one simply drove as fast as one possibly could all the time, staying only just Inside the limit of adhesion,
There is no doubt that this was the best Swedish Rally to date. A greater depth of snow would have given it a winter consistency, but the exposure of the gravel created extra hazards which undoubtedly added to the interest and made things for inure difficult for competitors. But it also made it tar more expensive, and even some professional teams were wearing through tyres at such an alarming rate that they were in danger of exhausting their stocks. For that reason alone, it was an expensive event indeed for the amateur. – G.P.