Monte Carlo Rally

Winning margins of the order of 13 minutes are normally associated only with endurance rallies such as the Safari, or, in Europe, only with something as rough and demanding as the Acropolis. Those based on comparatively short and smooth special stages — as the majority in Europe are — usually produce results in which the leaders are separated by mere seconds. It is all the more praiseworthy, therefore, when the winners of the usually close-fought Monte Carlo Rally accumulate a penalty advantage which would by no means be out of place on a cricket scoreboard.

Ari Vatanen and Terry Harryman have, in the space of six months, won no less than four World Championship rallies — three last year and now one in 1985— but none of their previous victories has generated so much jubilation within Peugeot-Talbot as January's outstanding win close to home in the Monte Carlo Rally, when they trounced stiff opposition from Audi and Lancia.

Driving one of Peugeot's formidable little 205 T16s, with rear engine and four-wheel drive, their actual winning margin over German crew Walter Rörhl and Christian Geistdorfer in an Audi Sport Quattro was five minutes and 17 sec, but they had earlier been penalised eight minutes for clocking in early at a time control. On stage times alone, therefore, a more realistic, if theoretical, measure of their supremacy would be 13¼ minutes.

With plenty of snow, ice and slush mixed with the dry or wet tarmac, the rally provided all its traditional climatic ingredients, and produced the customary roadside councils of war as drivers consulted their ice-note crews, got into huddles with tyre technicians and sent spies to spot the choice of the opposition, all to help them decide which was the best tyre and stud combination for the reported conditions on the stage ahead.

One feature, however, did stand out prominently as a break with tradition; numbering just 117, the starters were fewer than in past years, due entirely to uncertainty, until about a month before the start, whether the rally would be held at all.

For some time, the AC of Monaco has been engaged in a dispute with FISA concerning the latter's interference in non-sporting matters connected with the Monaco Grand Prix. This rubbed off on the rally, and the result was a financial demand which the organisers found difficult to meet. We find it equally difficult to comprehend why a so-called international sporting federation, charged with fostering the sport which it represents, and encouraging participation in it, is allowed to continue when it has lost sight of its objects and seem to have no more thought for its participants than a bird has for the material which hoes its nest.

Autocratic ruler of FISA is Jean-Marie Balestre, whose insatiable thirst for power and glory is well known in motor sporting circles, and it was his interference which brought the Monte Carlo Rally very close indeed to cancellation. No matter what the bones of the dispute, no-one can justly claim to have the well-being of the sport at heart if he poses the threat of downfall to one of the oldest and best known rallies in the world. Perhaps Balestre threw a tantrum because someone had the audacity to challenge his supreme authority as motor sporting Emperor of the World!

We would have written more of tins highly unsatisfactory and dictatorial situation had not our lawyers forced caution upon us, so we will go on to say that, after months in limbo, the rally organisers, with great regret and reluctance, announced just after Christmas that they had no alternative but to cancel the rally. The bitter disappointment was matched only by fierce antagonism towards the man who by his by his very position, should have personified support and nourishment for the rally.

What happened during the twenty-four hours following the cancellation announcement will probably never become completely known, but there was certainly a change of situation which prompted the organisers to rescind the cancellation and declare that the rally would take place after all.

Eager competitors and supporters, not to mention hoteliers, restaurateurs, news-men and many thousands of enthusiasts all over the South of France, were jubilant, but the long Period of uncertainty did adversely affect the number of starters, and there were Precious few this year from outside France, most having been reluctant to commence expensive preparations without knowing that they would be utilised.

Car manufacturers, however, were in a different situation. Firmly on the organisers' side, they had made all their usual preparations, had already sent their drivers off to practise, made service plans, engaged ice-note crews, reserved hotel accommodation, laid in stocks of tyres and spares, were well advanced with building their cars and, in the case of Audi at least, had comprehensive air support standing by. If the rally took place, they would be ready for it no matter how late the decision.

For Peugeot-Talbot, the rally was enormously important. They did not consider their three wins of last year enough to prove to the world that their new car was no mere flash in the pan, and were about to embark on a determined World Championship crusade in 1985. Since much of the Monte is in France, it was doubly important, so they took three of the (declared) 350 bhp cars for Vatanen / Harryman, Saby / Fauchille and, newly attracted from Nissan, Salonen / Harjanne.

Audi had two Quattros, both short-wheelbase Sport versions improved for the snow by the sacrifice of a little power in the cause of better torque at lower rpm, but nevertheless with considerably more power than the Peugeots. Drivers were Rörhl / Geistdörfder and Blomqvist / Cederberg.

Lancia is more concerned with getting its four-wheel-drive car into a state of readiness than anything else, but no matter how time and manpower consuming those preparations, their sporting traditions would not allow them to ignore the Monte. Just one works car was sent for Toivonen / Piironen, joined in a combined service operation by another from the Jolly Club for Biasion / Siviero. Alén had, among other things, been testing in Kenya in readiness for the Safari.

They were hoping for dry tarmac stages, of course, but it was not tube, and, with only rear-wheel drive, the best Toivonen could do was to finish sixth behind a quintet of powerful 4-w-d cars.

Another factory team, though not regarded as one of the Big Guns, was Citroen, and they brought three of their little Visa "Mille Pistes" (named after the French rally of the same name, and a far cry from the huge, Maserati-engined SMs with which they used logo rallying) for Chomat, Wambergue and Andruet.

That was about the size of it, save for the privateers, among whom were "Tchine" in an Opel Manta, Snobeck in a Renault 5 Turbo, Beauchef in an Escort and Chasseuil in a VW Golf GTI. Other than winning co-driver Harryman, there were no British crews at all.

Despite the organisers' difficulties, the route was over familiar terrain, though not entirely in familiar style. There were Saturday start points at Paris, Monte-Carlo, Bad Homburg, Barcelona, Lausanne and Sestrieres, each route converging at St Etienne in the Loire Region prior to a five-stage leg to Grospierres in the Ardeche. After a 12 hour rest, seven more stages led to another of ten hours at Grenoble, after which 10 more led via a five hour stop at Gap to the Wednesday afternoon arrival at Monaco.

What followed on the Thursday night used to be called the Complementary Test, forming an addition to the main event rather than an integral part of it. It replaced the old "Round the Houses" race, and was run at night over a "circuit" of stages in the alpine region closest to Monaco, each stage usually tackled twice.

This year the Thursday start was brought forward to 10 am so that the first loop would be in daylight for the benefit of TV crews, photographers and even spectators. The second loop, over the same five stages plus one extra, brought the rally to its finish at Monaco at 8 am on the Friday.

The heavy January snowfalls across Europe, bringing skiers and snowballers even to the beaches of Monte Carlo itself, drew predictions that competitors would be faced with the worst conditions ever. But the snow went as quickly as it came, and Lancia's hopes for dry roads began to rise, only to be dashed again when the snow returned, fogs appeared, temperatures fluctuated, and the stages presented just about every surface condition imaginable. There have been completely dry years, of course, but 1985 was not one of them and the rapidity of surface changes, often from bend to bend, meant that ice-note crews had to be extremely meticulous, tyre choice became very critical indeed, and four-wheel drive was an immense asset.

Audi and Peugeot were delighted, of course, although parts of that first group of five stages did allow the Lancia drivers to demonstrate a little of their superiority on tarmac. Later in the rally, surface changes within a stage were sometimes less scattered and more pronounced, and Lancia decided that it would be folly to use studded tyres where an initial climb on dry tarmac would destroy the studs before they could come into their own on a later snowy descent. On a few occasions they set up rapid tyre change points in mid-stage, a ploy which they used to good effect with Fulvias back in the 'sixties, and several times since. Alas, this time the stages were not long enough to give them a significant advantage.

Vatanen had a distinctly unpleasant moment near the end of the stage which starts and finishes in the village of St Bonnet le Froid, a place as cold and desolate in winter as its name implies. The influx of spectators had been enormous, not only' causing delays by jamming approach roads, but packing the stage with solid walls of people. The Finn's Peugeot slid wide on a bend, and the watchers were packed so tightly and so close that he was quite unable to avoid rat-tat-tatting along the front rank. Two were taken to hospital, but the most serious injury was a broken leg, although the Peugeot needed a new windscreen and some body straightening.

Later, Blomqvist's engine began the spluttering and popping which heralds turbocharger failure, and he wasted no time having the unit changed. But his lost time meant that he was down in fifth place at the end of that group of stages, behind the two Lancias. Rörhl led by 35 seconds, Vatanen having been unnerved for a while by his spectator incident.

After the stop at Grospierres the tally moved up to Burzet, scene of so many fracas in the past, one when a huge army of excluded and disgruntled competitors decided to move south to block the rally route, and another when local objectors spread four-spike nails on the stage, disabling an entire convoy of police vans and disrupting the work of ice-note crews.

Moving eastwards, the rally went via such familiar stages as Sr Nazaire le Desert, St Jean en Royans, Sr Barthelemy and Col du Grolier before reaching Grenoble in the early hours of Tuesday morning for a ten hour stop. By this rinse, Vatanen had well and truly moved into a substantial lead of more than two minutes over Rörhl. Salonen, demonstrating clearly that he is not just a man who gets reasonable results from slow cars, was in third place on his first event for Peugeot, ahead of Blomqvist, Toivonen and Saby, the latter having spent some five minutes in a snowbank.

The way down to Gap after daybreak was through equally well-known stages, the last of them, from Les Savoyons through Barcillonnette to Sigoyer, probably becoming one of the most notorious in the diaries of Vatanen and Harryman.

There was a four-minute delay at the start of that stage, and new stage start times were written into competitors' time cards by officials, those times also being their start times for the following road section. Alas, in the heat of their subsequent hasty arrival in Gap, after having been delayed by refuelling and repairing a broken tripmeter, Harryman used his old start time, not his corrected one, to calculate his Gap arrival time, and consequently booked in four minutes early, a mistake which cost them eight minutes' penalty.

It was a mistake which anyone could have made — and a few others did — but Harryman was nevertheless furious with himself even if he didn't show it. Vatanen was quite nonchalant and made no attempt to deride his partner. No doubt they both knew well that huge mistakes by drivers are frequently easier to conceal (and often are) than much smaller ones by co-drivers.

The loss of that time put Vatanen down to second place, all of 4 min 41 sec behind Rohr' who began to think that perhaps he had a chance against Vatanen and his incredible Peugeot after all. Bathe reckoned without the resolute determination of the Finn and his British partner, for when the rally arrived in Monaco, that gap had been reduced to less than two minutes.

Some of that reduction was due to Rörhl having broken a suspension arm, but both he and Vatanen knew full well that an all-out duel would be the inevitable outcome during the final leg. Peugeot manager Todt made no attempt to curb Vatanen, but he did remind Salonen that if the two leaders drove themselves out of the rally, he should be well placed to inherit the lead and uphold Peugeot honour.

On the Thursday, after tyre vans had been restocked from the huge "tender" trucks, and mechanics and ice-note crews had gone off to their tasks, away went the rally again. The first stage was the narrow, twisty crossing of the Col de In Madone from Peille, just up the road from La Turbie, and as usual it was dry, so it was no surprise to find Biasion and Toivonen making best times, only a second apart. Rolul also beat Vatanen by three seconds, but that was as far as the Finn would allow the German to extend his lead.

Relentlessly, Vatanen whittled it down, and by the time the rally had crossed the Turini, the Couillole and that tortuous road leading up the hill from Puget-Theniers to Toudon, he was in the lead again. The third of those stages is always nasty, and this was no exception, causing all manner of difficulties in tyre choice. Rohrl unwisely chose racing tyres and he paid for it with a time more than two and a third minutes greater than Vatanen's. With a car still performing excellently, the Peugeot driver became confident of a win, bathe took no risks, and only drove at an exact 100%.

Blomqvist all but lost his fourth place when he hit a wall on the Toudon stage and broke a driveshaft, and indeed did lose it for a while on the second lap, after the short stop at Monaco, when Toivonen again used his Lancia to advantage on the dry tarmac of the Madone. But this was short-lived, for Blomqvist got ahead again on the Turini. On the subsequent Couillole, mechanics muffed a wheel change and Toivonen slipped to sixth, behind Saby's Peugeot. There may have been few incidents, few works teams and a smaller field than usual, but it was a decidedly interesting and well-organised rally, a great fillip for France's major factory team, a highly deserved Triumph for Vatanen and Harryman and a shot in the arm for the organisers in their struggle against those who attempted to stifle the rally. That fight is not yet over, and we trust that everyone .concerned with the sport will, if required, offer the AC of Monaco all the support they need.

It's too early to predict championship possibilities, but it certainly looks rosy for Peugeot. The most interesting event in the offing seems to be Easter's Marlboro Safari Rally which is likely to have a better professional line-up than ever before, including a string of champions. Even Rörhl has been lured to Africa to help his team-mates keep Peugeot out of the high places. — G.P.

Results

1st: A. Vatanen / T. Harryman (Peugeot 205/T16) (8m) 10h 20m 49s
2nd: W. Rohrl / C. Geistdörfder (Audi Sport Quattro) 10h 26m 06s
3rd T. Salonen / S. Harjanne (Peugeot 205/T16) 10h 30m 54s
4th: S. Blomqvist / B. Cederberg (Audi Sport Quattro) (7m) 10h 40m 11s
5th: B. Saby / J-F. Fauchille (Peugeot 205/T16) 10h 40m 5s
6th: H. Toivonen / J. Piironene (Lancia Rally) 10h 43m 16s
(Figures in brackets indicate road penalties)

World Championship Points

Drivers
Ari Vatanen (SF) 20 pts
Walter Rörhl (D) 15 pts
Timo Salonen (SF) 12 pts
Stig Blomqvist (S) 10 pts

Makes
Peugeot 18 pts
Audi 16 pts
Lancia 8 pts
Renault 6 pts
Citroen 4 pts