Rally Review - Monte-Carlo Rally, March 1986

Explorers often endured all manner of hardship and disappointment before the reward of some startling and momentous discovery. Climbers sometimes come very close indeed to giving up an attempt before forcing themselves to carry on. Success frequently demands a great deal of tenacity and determination to overcome initial despair, and this is as true of rallying as it is of any other activity leading to achievement.

Indeed, unless he is tenacious, there is a limit to what a rally driver can accomplish, and this has been demonstrated time and lime again, especially in such events as the Safari, where Mother Nature continues to rule the roost in defiance of Paris attempts at standardisation. Natural obstacles still play their part in Europe, of course, and anyone who has driven on the Monte-Carlo Rally will tell you that it’s as unnerving to encounter thick ice on a bend in an otherwise dry stage as it is to hit a sudden manhole whilst crossing the Great Rift Valley.

Stamina, although helpful, is no longer essential for success, as it was when rest was something you managed to snatch on the move, but tenacity remains absolutely vital, and unless you have that driving urge to soldier on when all manner of troubles are cropping up one after the other, or even in threes and fours, then you may as well direct your ambitions elsewhere.

January’s Monte-Carlo Rally provided a demonstration of such tenacity when Henri Toivonen, winner for the second time in 1985 of the RAC Rally, saw his winning chances dashed when an oncoming spectator’s car slid sideways and crashed head-on into his Lancia. The damage was considerable, but mechanics worked feverishly, but skilfully, to repair it at the roadside as best they could, and Toivonen continued in a distorted, misshapen and badly handling car and promptly won the rally against the most determined of undamaged opposition.

That the Lancia was in bad shape could not be doubted. In fact, its wheelbase was shorter on one side than on the other, and Toivonen kept referring to it as a banana! After their inititial work to get the car going after the accident, mechanics continued to work on it at every opportunity afterwards, straightening here, patching there, but there was a limit to what they could do and its distorted frame was something that Toivonen just had to get used to.

Another feature of the rally was one that has been a feature since studs were no more than muddied nuts and bolts inserted not with air guns but with spanners — tyres. Every year it has been the same story; on constantly varying and changing road conditions the driver who chose the tyres which were best suited to the greater part of a stage distance had the best chance of making a good time. Of course, skill and a good car played their part, but unless you had the right tyres to provide optimum grip and traction, you were at a big disadvantage.

This year was no exception. In general, the quickly warming Michelins were better on dry tarmac than the Pirellis, and the reverse was the case when surface conditions worsened, but both makes had plenty of types available with differing rubber compounds, tread patterns, sizes and degrees of studding, so it was very easy indeed to throw away the advantage of having the best possible tyre in your available stock simply by choosing another type

Much depends on up-to-date information concerning surface conditions on a stage, and although you may have practised for months, when you are waiting in a valley about to drive over a cloud-covered mountain pass, who knows what the weather is likely to be on top? This is where the ice-note crews come in.

The works teams and some privateers, engage the services of former competitors, preferably those who know the rally well, to drive along the stages just before the police close the roads, and make detailed notes covering every yard of every stage; where the snow is; fresh or packed; where the ice is; patchy or solid; rutted or smooth; left, right or centre; braking, apex or exit; where the wet patches are; temperature rising or falling. These and other items of data are overwritten on copies of competitors’ pace notes and handed to them at pre-stage service points. From this information, and after a personal chat with the ice-note crew if possible, a driver will decide which tyres to take, The choice is entirely his, but a great deal depends on the skill of the ice-noters, their powers of persuasion, and the degree to which they are trusted by the drivers.

Much can happen even after the ice-note crews have passed, and some teams station men at strategic points in a stage to report immediately any changes in conditions, either by radio or by telephone from some convenient bar. Those with experience of such Monte-Carlo strategy even keep their own personal directories of bars, restaurants, hotels and even private telephones on mountain passes from the Maritime Alps to the Swiss border and across to the Ardeche.

Toivonen’s ice-note crews must have surpassed themselves, or he claims to have made only two wrong choices of tyres in the whole event, whereas among other teams the all too familiar “I chose the wrong tyres” was as frequent an explanation as it has always been.

There was a time when the whole point of the rally was just getting to Monte-Carlo, but this became rather dull and the initial concentration runs, which are still held, were supplemented by two other legs of special stages, each starting and finishing at Monte Carlo so that there was a constant coming and going in the Principality for the best part of a week. That stopped some years ago, and the concentration runs now end at some point in the Alps and the rally doesn’t actually get to Monaco until the Wednesday, which doesn’t please hoteliers very much!

This year the concentration runs converged at Aix-les-Bains, just north of Chambery, early on the Sunday morning and, after a stop of some six hours, left on the first competitive leg soon after 1 pm. That afternoon and evening there were six stages in the Aix area, ending with the long run from Chambery over the Granier the Cucheron and the Porte to Le Sappey-en.Chartreuse.

Following a night stop at Aix, the rally restarted at 10 am on the Monday and went south-westwards via five more stages, including such well known ones as St. Bonnet-le.Froid and the Col de la Fayolle, to another night stop at Grospierres in the Ardeche

At 8 30 am on the Tuesday came the 14-stage run to Monaco, with a four hour stop at Gap on the way, arriving at the quayside at 4.30 pm on the Wednesday. The final leg began at 10.15 am on the Thursday, not in the early evening as in the past, and this was made up of a series of loops amounting to 11 stages — twice each over the Madonne, Turini, Couillole and Porte, two different ones out of Puget-Theniers, and Le 4 Chemins to Roquesteron, all traditional Monte-Carlo stuff which hasn’t changed much in decades save for the unbelievable growth in the number of spectators who throng the stages and leave access roads blocked by miles of parked cars.

Peugeot’s domination of World Championship rallying in 1985 was flattened somewhat at the end when Lancia won the RAC Rally and the new MG Metro showed excellent fettle, so when this opening round of 1986 was attended by Peugeot, Lancia, Audi and Austin-Rover, not to mention Citroen, Mazda and Volkswagen, the prospects of an interesting fight were very good indeed. There were actually 156 starters, and we figured that just about all those were in it for the sport and pleasure it gave them, no TV stars or wealthy, glamour-seeking playboys who often cluttered the entry list in the past, although we must admit that they were harmless enough and did cause some amusement.

Peugeot fielded four 205 T16s, although one of them was actually entered by Peugeot Talbot Germany, that of Michele Mouton and Terry Harryrnan. The French girl, after near obscurity in her final year with Audi, was delighted lobe back in motor events, and the switch from French to English seemed to bother neither her nor Harryrnan, now excellently recovered alter his crash in Argentina last year with Ari Vatanen. Actually they compromised by using the shortest and most easily understood words for their pace notes, which turned out, more or less, to be English for words and French for figures.

The leading Peugeot (at number one) was driven by World Champions Timo Salonen/Seppo Harjanne, and the two others by Juha Kankkunen/Juha Piironen (having moved respectively from Toyota and Lancia) and Bruno Saby/Jean-Francois Fauchille.

Audi, strangely subdued now that they are no longer dominant, and “breaking in” yet another sports manager with an engineering rather than a tactical competition background, brought just two Ouattros for Walter Rohrl/Christian Geistdorfer, who make no secret of Rohrs liking of the rally above all others, and Hannu Mikkola/Arne Hertz.

Three 4-w-d Lancia Delta S4s came from the factory for Henri Toivonen and his new Italian-American co-driver Sergio Cresto. Markku Alen/Ilkka Kivimaki, and Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero, Ingvar Carlsson/ Jan-Olof Bohlin and Achim Warmbold “Biche” drove the two 4-w-d Mazdas and Jean-Claude/ Andruet Annick Peuvergne and Philippe Wambergue, Jean-Bernard Vieu the two new Citroen BX4TCs

Austin Rover, having just announced the intention to tackle most World Championship events this year, except perhaps the most distant ones, sent two MG Metro 6R4s to the Paris start (alas, there is no longer sufficient demand to justify a British start), but after a cautious but promising beginning, the correct tactics for Monte newcomers as they were, neither Tony Pond/ Rob Arthur nor Malcolm Wilson/ Nigel Harris got to Monaco.

Volkswagen, aiming for the new Group A Championship within the main world series, brought two Golf GTI 18s for Franz Wittmann/Matthias Feltz and Kenneth Eriksson/ Peter Diekmann, two German co-drivers with an Austrian and a Swede as respective partners. Aiming for the same category were Alain and Sylvie Oreille in a Renault 11 T, entered privately but certainly with factory support

Among the privateers were Salvador Servia from Spain in a red Lancia Rally. Paul-Marc Meylan from Switzerland in a Mazda RX7 and, down in the 60s where he certainly didn’t belong a dozen years ago.

Maurizio Verini in an Alfa Romeo GT V6. Marianne Hoepfner was there in a Lancia. Jean-Paul Rouget in a Renault 5 Turbo, Klaus Fritzinger in a Toyota Corolla, Pierre Pagani in a Lancia, but not a single GB plate save for the two Metros and half a German Peugeot!

Practice for the Monte can begin well in advance, and many started early in December, taking just one break for Christmas and New Year. It is a tedious, boring business, driving time after time over the same roads in order to make tiny adjustments and bring pace notes to perfection. But It is without doubt a necessity, even though the lines through corners can be changed drastically before the rally itself merely by the paths taken by snow plough drivers.

It can also be a time for making friends, and many competitors have got to know alpine dwellers and hoteliers really well as a result of their recces. Another interesting, though unofficial, indulgence is the car changing that goes on. Crews of different teams will often meet in the same mountain hotels, and “You try mine and I’II try yours” is a frequent dining room remark, although practice cars often bear little resemblance to the real things. Toivonen had little chance to engage in this, for he had nothing to offer most of the time, his practice cars kept breaking down and much of his time was wasted.

The first special stage of the rally was in the hills overlooking Aix itself, and for the benefit of television crews the interval here between cars was increased to two minutes, a delay being necessary afterwards to close everyone up again. It was just a short stage, so time differences were of little consequence, but the distinction of being the rally’s first leader went to Biasion, who was one second ahead of Saby, although the French driver was well down the classification list due to a 30-second penalty for push-starting his car in the closed park at Aix an allegation which he hotly denied.

Alen was rather unhappy, to say the least, for a misfire which had plagued him throughout the concentration run had not been traced and persisted into the competitive leg. Toivonen went off momentarily, whilst Rohrl was slowed by a bad tyre choice for the snow and slush.

The long Chartreuse stage was really the first significant one for its several large altitude changes meant that tyre choice would be vital. Toivonen chose wisely and promptly beat everyone else by half a minute. Kankkunen lost a good nine minutes when his injection inlet manifold broke and left him with only a fraction of normal power, whilst it was here that Pond felt the stiffening steering which indirectly led to his retirement.

Due to a traffic blockage at the stage exit, service time on the way back to Aix was cut by half, so Pond’s steering change, on the outskirts of the town, was done rather hastily and not as expertly as it might have been. When he pulled away he overtook a car only to find that the steering would not straighten again. The Metro went off the road and hit a road sign, barely a few hundred yards after leaving his service crew. They descended on him to repair the damage, but when he eventually got to the control he was 25 minutes late and down in 123rd place.

Wilson, on the other hand, was in ninth place, and the near-two-hour gap between them was beyond the stretching limit of the service schedule. Cover would be reduced for both cars, tyre logistics would become impossible and one disaster could easily be turned into two. It must have been an agonising decision that evening, but when the time came for the restart Pond’s car remained in the closed park.

Many have been critical of the decision to withdraw Pond, saying that it he’d finished the rally 25 minutes behind the winner he would have been in fifth place, but that is just statistical theorising with a little “I told you so” to back it up when Wilson later retired. Had Wilson finished, and finished well, the critics may well have been supporters instead. True that Pond would have gained Monte experience by continuing but we doubt whether he would have wished to do so at the expense of taking backing away from his much better placed team-mate. Leaving Aix, Toivonen was in the lead by 65 seconds from Alen, who was just 12 seconds ahead of Biasion. Three Lancias were up front, followed by Saby, Rohrl and Salonen. Alen’s engine was still misfiring, no doubt due to some electronic quirk, but it didn’t seem to have slowed him any.

After the restart, Wilson began to get used to the rally and was fifth fastest on the first stage. Andruet put his Citroen off on this one, which was disastrous for the team because Wambergue had already gone out with a seized engine after a water pipe had burst.

The nasty little woodland loop starting and finishing at St Bonnet-le-Froid, a little town which is always crammed to blockage proportions by service crews and spectators, was snowy as usual, with stretches of slush here and there, but the next one rust down the road was nearly all dry. The Audis began to pick up on the drier roads, and on the way to Grospierres Rohrl steadily moved up the list. Toivonen had his brakes catch fire at St Bonnet, and had precious little distance in which to bed in his new discs and pads before the next stage.

Saby lost six minutes on the road having his clutch and gearbox replaced, whilst a misfire and loss of power in Wilson’s engine was traced to an overfeeding injector which was promptly changed. Fuel traces were found in the engine oil, and that was changed too since the dilution may have been beyond the safety limit.

On the last stage before Grospierres, Rohrl beat everyone by 21 seconds, although by then he had already moved into second place. Toivonen’s lead at Grospierres was just 1m 41s, certainly not enough to relax. Alen was 40 seconds behind Rohrl, followed after 13 seconds by Salonen.

After the break came a run to Burzet, where the nail scattering, blockages not and confusion of the past have dwindled into no more than grey memories, to be talked of in bars and nowhere else. But already Salonen had picked up a 30 second penalty for pushing out of the closed park, and Alen stopped for some minutes to have a broken oil pump drive belt replaced.

The test itself, starting and finishing in the little town of Burzet this year, was mostly dry for its first two-thirds and wet tor the remainder. It was not a stage for studs but when Rohrl stopped to change a wheel after a tyre began to deflate, he found that his spare was studded, which made for peculiar handling and a poor time. He lost about six minutes in all, and with them most of his determination to get ahead of Toivonen into the lead.

Burzet was as far as the Austin Rover team went, for on the way up the mountain Wilson lost all drive to his rear wheels. This didn’t stop him, of course, but when his front drive packed up soon afterwards, that was the end of the Cowley effort. It was also the start of the criticism, but those who claimed that people had dropped as low as Pond and managed to recover missed the point that early in the event a relatively small delay will drop you a pageful of places, whereas Pond’s penalty had been much more substantial. There were also criticisms of Austin Rover s handling of a daily newspaper group, but that is a domestic clatter which has no place in these pages.

It was shortly after Burzet that Toivonen was all but rammed out of the rally by an oncoming car. A wheel was knocked off, the oil cooler ruptured and a mess made of the bodywork, but the mechanics did sterling work to get him going, and he only lost a minute on the following road section even though he’d so little time left that it called for an average that is best left unmentioned. Both he and Cresto were bruised, and were given pain killers from then on.

Moutons rally came to an end when the toothed drive belt to the oil pump jumped off. They fitted a new one, but those few pressureless moments had been enough to cause damage, and when a terrible bearing noise developed they stopped rather than destroy the engine completely.

After St Nazaire-le-Desert, which is just as desolate an area as it sounds, came 20 miles of mixed surfaces at St Jean-en-Royans, nearly all of it uphill. The first half was dry, the second snowy, and Lancia set up one of the mid-stage tyre change stations for which they have been renowned since rocks and snow were often mixed on the Rally of the Flowers.

It paid off, for Toivonen again put up one of those fine performances which made him 28 seconds quicker than anyone else. Biasion was fourth fastest. Alen’s engine stopped, and Salonen, despite a faulty brake balancer which left him with all his braking at the rear and nothing at the front, got into second place close enough to challenge his fellow countryman for the lead.

Gap seems to get more than its share of snow during the Monte-Carlo Rally, but this year there was no more than cold, miserable rain. Here, on the Wednesday morning, Tolvonen’s lead over Salonen was 1m 47s, whilst Biasion was another minute behind. Three stages later Salonen’s gap was down to 25 seconds, and it became something of a nail-biting time for the home team whose second car, Saby’s, was in fifth place, more than seven minutes behind the leader. Should Salonen attack, or should he preserve his position?

Over the 23 mile Col de Font-Belle, overlooking Sisteron, conditions were again mixed and Lancia decided on another mid-stage tyre change. But this time it didn’t come off, partly because the Pirelli racers on which they started the dry portion of the stage would not get warm enough to be efficient. Salonen made short work of the Lancias, and when he emerged he had taken over the lead by 22 seconds.

Down past Digne, on through Barreme and over the Col des Leques to Castellane, the next stage was that narrow, twisty, nasty little overgrown road that leads from Trigance through Comps and Jabron back to Castellane. Damp and shaded either by the gorge or by trees, this often has ice patches, and Saby was unfortunate to hit one badly. He went straight off and ripped out the left rear corner of his Peugeot. He managed to struggle out with the loss of no more than ten minutes, and the Peugeot was eventually repaired sufficiently to continue.

Near Jabron Kankkunen’s engine spluttered to a stop with fuel starvation, and he could only get going after being lucky enough to get petrol from a spectator. It seems that blowing fuses stopped the feed from the larger of his two tanks, and from then on he always made sure that the smaller one was full.

At Monte-Carlo that afternoon, Salonen was quite amazed that he was leading, but he is cool of manner, dry of wit, and not given to demonstrations of over-confidence, so his surprise was not entirely unexpected.

When Thursdays used to be free, many Monte competitors used to spend the time making a last minute check of the Turini, but time is much shorter nowadays. However that didn’t stop Lancia providing Toivonen with a helicopter that Wednesday afternoon so that he could be whisked up to check some of the roads to be used the following day.

The final leg of the Monte, although renowned for its carnival atmosphere, its snow-shovelling, its jammed access roads and the famous Turini Franco-Italian war has only occasionally been a real cliff hanger, but this year it certainly was, for both Salonen and Toivonen were in a position to win, the latter having mastered his twisted Lancia so well that wags suggested that perhaps Lancia should make them that shape in future!

Long and serious discussions were held over tyres, spies wandered down the road to see what the opposition was using, and despite the frenzied activity on the surface, cloak and dagger lurked beneath.

Neither the Madonne nor the Turini made much difference, but on the crossing of the dry Couillole Toivonen was on precisely the right tyres whereas Salonen, expecting wet roads, decided against slicks. Immediately the lead changed hands, and Toivonen went ahead by all of 48 seconds. That night it snowed up there, and Salonen again chose the wrong tyres!

By this time it was about over, at least between the leading duellists, but for Biasion it was over in a different sense. Having had fuel pump failure and a misfire earlier, his car refused to start when he was ready to leave the service point before the Madonne. It took what seemed like an eternity, but it eventually fired, when it was already more than five minutes after his due time at the control just up the road. He shot off, only to hit sheet ice on a left-over-bridge and the Lancia simply ricocheted between the rock face on one side and the stone wall on the other, causing so much damage that there was no hope of carrying on.

Toivonen kept Salonen at bay all the way around the night’s second loop, and when he got back to Monte-Carlo a somewhat disbelieving winner, he was obviously delighted that his first Monte win had come 20 years after his father’s. His talent has been displayed sporadically, for his first RAC win was in 1980, when he drove a Sunbeam but he has now won two in a row and is obviously on peak form.

In the Group A Championship, based on a combination of group and class positions, Alain Oreille and his wife Sylvie did extremely well to finish eighth in their Renault, beating the two Volkswagens of Eriksson and Wittman and delighting the factory people even though they could not score points in the World Championship for Makes — manufacturers have to nominate drivers in advance for that.

It’s far too early to make championship predictions, but already two cars have emerged well matched and capable of beating the Audis, and by the time this issue of MOTOR SPORT appears Ford will have made its first appearance, in Sweden, with its new 4-w-d car and perhaps demonstrated yet more potential. Furthermore. the MG Metros may have far better luck next time, so the season isn’t going to be short of contenders — G.P.