The quality of a restaurant may often be judged by the number of its patrons, or the popularity of an airline by its occupied seats, but to use patronisation level alone as a yardstick for the measurement of quality is by no means reliable, and certainly cannot be applied to rallying.
Every event organiser strives to attract a full entry list containing as many leading names at the top of the scale. He needs both quantity and quality, and the success of an event is often judged on whether he has achieved this. Unfortunately, the quality of an event itself is often measured by its success, although one really has little bearing on the other. A poor event can sometimes be said to have been successful, whilst a much better one need not have been so.
In the latter category in February was the Swedish Rally, an excellent rally in every respect but rendered somewhat boring by the rather processional progress at the head of the fields, led by drivers of four-wheel-drive cars.
Whenever this happens there is always the risk that the rally itself will gather up some of this feeling, albeit undeservedly, so that writers will write less enthusiastically and spectators will go home feeling cheated of the excitement they had gone to watch. This attitude among spectators was certainly noticeable during the Swedish Rally, for attendances at special stages fell off during the course of the event and crowds during the second and third legs were by no means as numerous as they were in the first.
The two leading makes in Sweden were Opel and Audi, although the one Ascona of the Rothmans-backed works team and the other from Opel Sweden were hardly up to an even match with the more numerous Audi team. Audi’s effort was at its customary level, with two Quattros for Mikkola / Hertz and Mouton / Pons, and a much less powerful 4-w-d Audi 80 for Blomqvist / Cederberg. There was a privately backed Quattro, prepared in the UK, for Finns Lampi and Kuukkala, and a 2-w-d Audi 80 for Ericsson and Thorszelius, not Waldegård’s co-driver Hans Thorszelius, but his twin brother Bo.
Opel’s resources are somewhat meagre at the moment, for all available manpower and equipment has been earmarked for maximum effort on the Safari Rally at the end of the month. One car for Vatanen / Harryman was all that could be managed, and even that was looked after largely by Swedish mechanics who were also taking care of their own crew, Johansson / Andersson. Indeed, the Safari is so important to Opel that they are not even going to the Portuguese Rally three weeks before the Kenyan event.
There was a three-car team of Ladas from the Soviet Union, but more significant were privateers and partly sponsored crews such as Strömberg / Berglund and Eklund / Spjuth in Saab 99 Turbos, Nilsson / Olsson in a Datsun Bluebird Turbo, Danielsson / Eklund in a British-built Mazda RX7 and, turning in a magnificent performance to finish fifth behind four Audis, Kalle Grundel and Rolf Melleroth in a VW Golf GTI.
Reciprocating the visit of a Swedish Junior Team to last November’s RAC Rally was a team of British juniors. Wood / Hood, Mann / Parsons, Johnston / Willis and Sutherland / Atkinson in Escorts, Cox / Harris in a Chevette and the two girls Louise Aitken and Ellen Morgan in another Escort. Other Britishers were Maslen (son David, not father Tony) and Balfour, and O’Brien / McCullagh in Escorts and Donaldson / Woodward in a Mini.
Although the Swedish Rally is the only real snow rally in the World Championship, even Scandinavian winters can nowadays be mild enough to produce far less snow than everyone would have liked. There have been years when roads were feet deep in ice and packed, frozen snow, and lined by cushioning snowbanks several yards high and deep, but this year the covering was meagre indeed. Daytime temperatures were usually above zero, and at night not much below it, although a little wind did make it seem rather colder.
The problem with such mild conditions is the rapid deterioration of road surfaces, and it only takes a few days of the practice period to take the ruts through the snow covering and into the gravel beneath. Studs do not last very long in their tyres when used on dirt and gravel surfaces. and it became necessary for teams to spend much of their preparation on tyre problems. On short stages of up to 10 kilometres enough of the studs would survive to provide at least some additional grip on whatever ice or snow patches there were, but on anything longer then the studs would become dislodged in such quantities that grip would diminish rapidly. By Swedish law, the number of studs in each tyre must be no more than 12 per 10 centimetres of tread circumference.
Twenty-five special stages were laid out in the province of Värmland, divided into three legs each starting and finishing at Karlstad. In the weeks before, some changes were made to reduce the distance in the South and increase it in the North, so that the chances of snow would be greater.
The Audis started as firm favourites due to their power and traction, but Opel hopes were raised a little by the mild weather. However, the roads remained sufficiently slippery for the Quattros to keep their advantage and when Mikkola moved into the lead he stayed there to the end.
Them was an interesting prospect that Blomqvist might find his less powerful four-wheel-drive 80 more manageable on the slippery roads, and indeed he was only seconds behind his team-mate for much of the time, actually beating him here and there. But Mikkola stayed ahead, and they finished first and second.
Early in the first leg Opel hopes were diminished when Vatanen’s Ascona went off the road and a little snow shovelling was necessary to get it back on again. This cost something like five minutes, and Vatanen spent the rest of the rally climbing back through the field to sixth place, often being hindered by slower cars which he caught on stages.
Another to be delayed on that same stage, actually the fifth, was Michèle Mouton, and the first rumours were that she and Vatanen had been involved in a joint “incident”. But this wasn’t the case. The throttle cable had broken on the Quattro, and without the knowledge necessary to fettle a makeshift hand throttle, with string or wire through the window, the French girl ticked-over to the finish line and lost some five minutes. She, too, spent the rest of the event moving up, finishing fourth.
Throughout the second and third legs the situation remained unchanged, and only the progress of Vatanen and Mouton served to attract attention. Kalle Grundel’s performance was excellent, and he had the distinction of bringing home the first two-wheel-drive car. Bearing in mind the tie between Volkswagen and Audi, this may have done Grundel more good than all his previous successes — and he has been around for a number of years, of course.
The Swedish Rally was a round only of the World Championship for Drivers which is now led by Hannu Mikkola with 30 points from Stig Blomqvist 27, Walter Röhrl 20, Markku Alén 15, Ari Vatanen 14, Lasse Lampi 12 and Michèle Mouton 10. Next round is the Portuguese Rally which finishes at Estoril on March 6th. — G.P.