Rally review, March 1982

Monte Carlo Rally

Much has been said of the technical achievement of Audi in producing a four-wheel-drive car which has not only the power to win rallies but handling properties to match it, rendering it manageable at speeds which bring it close to the limit of adhesion.

Other manufacturers have tried 4-w-d in the past and rejected it because it created handling difficulties which their drivers did not like, but Audi’s success with the Quattro has sent rivals scurrying to their drawing boards, bent on producing a similarly driven model of equal or even improved ability. Indeed, expensive research programmes have been initiated in efforts to match Audi’s apparent mastery of the complexities of 4-w-d.

Alas, just as the grass in the other field often only appears to be greener so the successful machinery of rivals is not necessarily superior in every respect, and when a “conventional” car won January’s Monte Carlo Rally, beating the sophisticated Quattros, designers began wondering whether their labours were really justified. The Monte Carlo Rally, once the ultimate competition which the sport could offer, is no longer on its lofty pedestal and it is largely the ties of tradition which perpetuate the aura which competitors, mainly privateers, find attractive.

Professional teams, including those of manufacturers, are not in the habit of choosing their rallies for old time’s sake, and since the Monte is the most expensive of European events many of them kept away this year to conserve their budgets for other rallies.

This year only two factory teams tackled the rally, Audi and Opel, and they were joined by a trio of professional crews who, with private backing, hired Porsche 911SCs. These, plus a brace of Renault 5 Turbos and a lone Ferrari 308, formed the lean nucleus at the head of the field from which the winner would undoubtedly emerge.

It was expected by most people that an Audi Quattro, with its superior traction, would be the winning car, but when the rally turned out to be more like the old Coupe des Alpes thins winter event, with no snow on any of the special stages, the advantage of the Quattros became insignificant.

The winning car was a front-engined, rear-wheel-driven, non-turbocharged Opel Ascona 400 of the Rothmans Opel Rally Team and its drivers were Walter Rörhl and Christian Geistdörfer who won the World Rally Championship in 1980 driving a Fiat 131 Abarth.

One of the hazards of reaching the top of any ladder is that directs then only one way to go, and in terms of achievement there is no doubt that Rörhl slipped a long way downwards in 1981. His contract with Mercedes came to nothing when that team suddenly stopped rallying, and he spent a year in the doldrums, trying this car and that, occasionally competing and always pondering on the possibility of a worthwhile contract to drive a car of winning potential.

It was not a year which he will with to remember, but though he did not get much opportunity to score wins he lost none of his skill and launched himself back to the top by this convincing victory in Monte Carlo. The frustration of 1981 may also have matte its mark on his personality, for the former Rörhl pessimism had given way to confidence and self-assurance.

On the subject of the car once again, it is true that the absence of snow diminished Audi’s advantage, but the Quattros nevertheless had some 50 b.h.p. more than the Asconas, so where did Rail score over Mikkola and Mouton? The answer lies in ease of handling. Although the Quattro handles better than other 4-w-d cars before it, it is nevertheless not an easy car to drive. Mikkola took a long, long time getting used to stand even now he has to work very hard indeed to put up a competitive performance. Iris hymn means forgiving, and if its driver pushes it beyond its centering limit the chances of recovery are very small.

Not so the Ancona. Knowing that Audi had traction and power advantages, the Opel people concentrated hard on developing such things as suspensions so that the Ascona’s handling would be superior to that of the Quattro. What is more, they wanted it to be a forgiving car so that its drivers would not always be on a knife edge.

Aiding them in this respect for some time has been Rauno Aaltonen, former BMC works driver in Mini-Cooper days and still an occasional competitor. His expertise at testing and setting-up a car is well known, and Opel manager Tony Fall, another former Mini driver, drew up a contract with Aaltonen to undertake a development programme involving not only factory cars but those of dealers outside Germany.

Before the Monte Carlo Rally Aaltonen spent much time putting various components, settings and tyres to the test in the Alps and the result was a car so manageable that Rörhl at first felt that it was down on power. But he soon realised that this was an illusion created by its case of handling and he commented afterwards that it was as easy to control as a child’s toy.

Mikkola, then, could not afford for a moment to risk going beyond the limit of cornering adhesion, whilst Rörhl had a greater margin of error and knew that if he did overstep the mark he would probably be able to recover. One of the vital tactics for any serious team in the Monte Carlo Rally is to arrange for drivers to have advance information of the state of the special stage road surfaces, and it is important that this information should be as up-to-date as possible. On this they base their choice of tyres, and when a stage is half dry and half snow-covered they must decide whether to lose time on the tarmac and gain it on the snow by using studded tyres, or vice versa by using slicks or other unstudded tyres.

Accurate information on the proportions of each surface condition is essential for the correct tyre choice, which in turn is essential for a winning time on that stage.

Another importance of advance knowledge is to be warned of precisely which bends are icy and which are not in order that no unexpected ice patch on an otherwise dry road will send a one sliding off the road.

All this information is provided by experienced men — the best are those who have been competitors in the rally — driving ahead of the field following a leapfrog schedule and returning to stage starts to furnish their competing drivers with the vital detail.

This year it seemed on the face of it that ice-note crews, as they are called, would have a comparatively easy time. But dry roads are more difficult to log than those entirely covered by snow, for a solitary patch of black ice on one corner can be far more dangerous to a competitor than twenty visible miles of solid snow.

Another hazard the ice-note crews had to face was that created by the over-zealous police. Anxious to have as few spectators’ cars as possible parked in special stages, where they would become the worst of hazards if their occupants chose to leave before the stages ended, the police closed many of the roads long before the times listed in rally information bulletins.

When this happened, ice-note crews found it impossible to enter the stages and their drivers were left to tackle them with only their own pace notes and with no information on ice patches.

This is precisely the trap into which Michele Mouton fell. Early in the second leg, after staying right up with the leaders in the first, she went into the famous “chute” stage from Pont des Miolans to the gorge at St. Auban without any reliable ice notes and on an unexpected patch of ice in the village of Briançonnet her Quattro slid bodily and crashed head-on into the side of a house.

The deceleration was so violent that co-driver Fabrizia Pons was rendered immediately unconscious, whilst Mouton herself injured a knee and was very dazed.

By the time this happened Mikkola had already lost touch with the lead by collecting a puncture and a broken wheel which led to the failure of a rear driveshaft, leaving him with front-wheeldrive only for the remainder of that stage.

The young Italian driver Cinotto, driving the third works Quattro, went out when he chose to continue on a flat front left tyre which lost its grip entirely when given most of the weight of the car on a right hairpin. The car went off the road and the damage to the steering was such that it could not continue.

Andruet, too, had a very short event in his Ferrari which slid on another isolated ice patch and crashed into the end of a low, stone bridge parapet.

Meanwhile the Porsches, set up more for snow and ice than for dry tarmac, were wearing out their rear tyres alarmingly quickly, whilst the Audis were wearing their front tyres rather fast. The former were experiencing oversteer, often violently, whilst the latter had their safe cornering speed reduced due to understeer.

At one stage, high above the village of Burzet in the Ardeche region, at the most westerly extremity of the route, Rörhl made the mistake of choosing lightly studded tyres when his rivals opted for no studs at all. The small ice patches were confined to the summit and the German driver lost nearly a minute and a half to rival Mikkola.

His lead was thus whittled down 94 seconds, but he wasted no time increasing it as Mikkola strove to stay with him. In an effort to improve the handling of the Quattro he had its suspension moved up and down but he could still not achieve what he wanted, and finally on the last night of the rally he reluctantly accepted that he could make no impression on the Opel driver and settled for second place.

That position had been occupied by BMWs Opel team-mate Jochi Kleint, but he hit an unexpected patch of snow on the Col du Turini, probably kicked or shovelled on to the road by spectators, slid into a wall and sustained damage to wheel, suspension and steering which delayed him considerably. They struggled to the end of the stage with co-driver Wanger helping Kleint to wrench the steering wheel around, later losing to much more time in repair that they dropped to seventh place.

Another late incident was that which stopped Björn Waldegård, another former World Champion, who was driving one of the private Porsches. He had endless trouble during the rally, collected more than seven punctures (he lost count after that) and evens loose steering column. On the final stage of the event he lost all his forward gears and completed the stage only by reversing up the hills and coasting on the downgrades. Alas, the gearbox could not be replaced in the time they had available and they did not make the finish.

That the event had been out of character was a comment made by nearly everyone, but the Monte Carlo ceased being a snow rally many years ago and has for a long time been an event of mixed surfaces. It just so happened this year that the mixture leaned almost entirely towards the dry. The Asconas performed reliably and sure-footedly, but there would have been a better comparison had not Mikkola experienced such delays. When both cars run properly throughout the whole of an event a more reliable means of comparing them will be possible. — G.P

Monte Carlo Rally

1st W. Rörhl / C. Geistdörfer (Opel Ascona 400) (4) 8 hr. 20 min. 33 sec
2nd: H. Mikkola / A. Hertz (Audi Quattro) (4) 8 hr. 24 min. 22 sec.
3rd: J-L. Thérier / M. Vial (Porsche 911 SC) (4) 8 hr. 32 min. 38 sec.

Figures in brackets indicate road penalties which are included in the last column totals.