Last year’s World Rally Championship can only be described as a confused, tragic muddle. There were the dreadful deaths of both competitors and spectators, drastic new vehicle rules with new ambiguities, unjust disqualifications, unwarranted violation of the rights of organisers to run their events as they wish, and such culpable procrastination by the sport’s administrators that even when the final round of the series had ended, no-one knew who had become the new World Champion.
The year 1987 has now got off on a similar, confused foot.
The Monte Carlo Rally, first round of the championship, was marred by a dispute provoked by that old chestnut, homologation, and although a protest against the eligibility of the factory Lancias was rejected, there were quite a few people, other professional teams included, who felt that the smoke was not without its fire.
The Lancias were so much quicker than all the other cars in the early stages that the question was asked whether they conformed to their homologated Group A specification: more specifically, whether their power output was around the maximum of 300 bhp, or significantly higher. Audi, Ford and Mazda were each conscious of the possibility of an irregularity, but no protest was lodged at that stage. However, Mazda team manager Achim Warmbold, the principal agitator, did initiate a letter expressing concern, but no official action was taken.
Had there been some illegality on the Deltas, the furore could not have failed to put the Lancia people on their guard, and given them the opportunity to put things right, for a protest was not submitted until later, and the cars not examined until they got back to Monte-Carlo on the Wednesday afternoon, four days after the start. Only Mazda did actually protest; Audi, Ford and Renault were perhaps a little more cautious.
As we have said, it was the Lancias’ performance which led to concern that that their power was substantially greater than 300 bhp. When the cars were inspected by FISA for homologation, some of the required 5,000 were fitted with Garrett turbochargers, and some with KKK units. FISA refused to accept the KKK turbochargers since they can be more easily made to increase power output than the Garretts. But dispensation was given to Lancia to compete in the Monte Carlo Rally, provided that 5,000 cars, all fitted with Garrett turbochargers, could be shown to FISA on February 15.
The most significant of the seven points listed in Warmbold’s protest was the presence of a pair of large holes in the bumper/body panel immediately beneath the radiator grille. He construed these as indications that KKK turbochargers may have been used rather than Garrett, as the former require greater air intake, but also claimed that the holes should not have been there even if they served no useful purpose. He went further by suggesting that if the holes were found to be lawful then the privately-entered Lancia Deltas were not, for they had no such holes.
Later, there was also reference to Lancia’s sensitivity about the presence of cameras at service points, and the great pains taken to conceal whatever an open bonnet might otherwise have revealed. During the journey from the more westerly reaches of the route, in the Ardeche, there was certainly much activity at Lancia service points, and there were dark rumours that turbochargers were being switched. One prominent member of the Audi team happened to produce a camera whilst standing near a Lancia service point, whereupon came shouts of protest and even some man-handling. “If they had nothing to hide why were they so nervous?” he asked.
The protest was subsequently rejected, it being said that the Lancias corresponded with their homologation forms. But there will certainly have been a careful check when FISA’s audit took place on February 15.
Now to the other matter; consider a boxer who deliberately throws away a fight by “taking a dive”. Without doubt he would be punished heavily, as would a football league club which instructs its team to throw away a match. And imagine the outcry if it were revealed that a manager with two tennis players on his books had directed one to lose to the other at Wimbledon!
Yet if the manager of a professional rally team issues precisely such instructions to one of his drivers so that the result of a World Championship event is manipulated, he is not even given a reprimand. Of course, his claim will be that the men are on his payroll to carry out his orders. All we can say is that the orders in this case, and on previous occasions, were totally unsporting.
Having instructed Massimo Biasion to slow down in Sanremo to allow Markku Alen to win, Cesare Florio no doubt felt that the obedient Italian driver should be compensated. Juha Kankkunen, having his first drive for the Italian team after a highly successful stay with Peugeot, had driven brilliantly, not so fast as to take risks, but enough to stay ahead and he was clearly going to win the rally. Imagine his feelings when, at the start of the very last stage of the event, he was told to lose at least two minutes so that team-mate would win.
Reluctantly, he gave up his certain victory, but not by slowing down, which would have made it difficult to judge how much time he was losing over the 18 mile stage. He kept up his pace all the way until he was a hundred yards or so from the finish, when he stopped in sight of spectators, making no effort to get out of the car.
Naturally questions were asked. But Lancia had prepared for them. The third works Lancia, driven by Bruno Saby, had been lost on the Col de la Fayolle on Tuesday morning with a broken gearbox, but the remaining two were established at the head of the field, Kankkunen in front. It was already in Fiorio’s mind that the two might have indulged in a duel, so he dampened their ardour and told them to go no faster than was necessary to stay ahead of the opposition.
The other Fiorio plan was to prepare a story, knowing that it was very likely that questions would be asked at the end. The story was that all parties had agreed to effectively reducing the rally to one stage by Monte stages, the Col du Turini. In Fiorio’s words, “We agreed that whoever won the Turini would win the rally”. Most people seemed to believe this, but we were not among them.
No-one outside Lancia knew of the Turini plan in advance, and we imagine that precious few people even within the team knew it, certainly not Kankkunen, and there’s quite strong evidence of that. The final leg of thc rally, now held by day rather than at night, was on the Thursday, and on the Wednesday evening both Biasion and Kankkunen were instructed to go into the mountains to practise one stage each. Kankkunen was quite surprised, especially as his instructions were specifically to practise the Col de la Madone, a narrow, twisty affair only just over 20 miles into the mountains from Monte Carlo.
What a coincidence that Biasion was told to practise, as thoroughly as time would permit, the Col du Turini!
In our opinion the Turini story was a red herring, prepared in advance, to be served in the event of the place switch being spotted and questions asked by the news-hungry. A sporting ingredient could then be introduced to flavour an otherwise tasteless dish. No matter what the motives, such obvious manipulation of rally results merely for convenience holds the entire sport up to ridicule and can only be deplored.
The dissatisfaction felt last year with the series which should be the pinnacle of the sport seemed to be rekindled in Monte Carlo, and even among manufacturers the disenchantment was obvious, though not with the rally itself, which was fine except for the enforced dilution due to the distance limitations imposed by FISA.
Our view is unchanged that it had been the aim of FISA’s president to create a rallying circus similar to that of Formula One racing, but the chances of that seem fortunately to have become slimmer, unless it was the idea that works teams should be “persuaded” to pack up, leaving the way open for heavily sponsored private teams who, without production car sales to think of, would dance to FISA’s tune.
On the day that the Monte-Carlo Rally finished, the Paris-Dakar Rally was ending in Senegal, and the publicity which Peugeot reaped from Ari Vatanen’s victory on that marathon was, according to the factory, more than they had ever gained from World Championship success. Other manufacturers took note of this, and one wonders whether they will continue to support the series in the future, or select events on their own merit, including long distance marathons such as Paris-Dakar.
Prior to the first round of the 1987 championship many people wondered how the effects of the change to Group A and the 300 bhp power limit would manifest themselves. Afterwards, the general opinion was that the rally had been boring, with no fight to speak of, but other factors such as the unusually heavy snowfall and the shortening of stages contributed to this. At Grenoble, the converging point of the five concentration routes, the traffic situation was difficult to say the least, and congestion in and around three of the five stages of the first leg, a complete loop to the south of the city, led to their abandonment, leaving only La Mure to La Motte and the Chartreuse to count properly. The first two had been tackled by the leading runners, so that highly unsatisfactory rule was invoked whereby competitors unable to start a stage are credited with the time of the slowest car to have completed it.
Disruption caused by sheer weight of spectator traffic is nothing new to the Monte, but some of its younger observers seemed not to appreciate this. More congestion occurred later in the event, aggravated by the shortening of some stages which meant that spectators had to walk greater distances from parking places to the stages themselves. Many were unwilling to do this and went in search of other ways in, causing blockages on narrow roads and sometimes delaying competitors who were faced with tight road sections and less time available for service. The days rallying both by night and by day seem to have gone, and after a night stop the route headed westwards via the familiar stages of St Jean-en-Royans, St Bonnet-le-Froid and Le Moulinon to cross the Rhone into th Ardeche. After the Burzet stage came a rest stop at Aubenas.
The next day, Tuesday, the rally returned: eastwards via six stages to another night stop at Gap, and finally on Wednesday came the eventual arrival at Monte Carlo.
Finally, the old “Mountain Circuit” was reduced to one trip around the Peille loop, the Turini, the Couillole, Annot to Pont de Villaron and that tricky road in the mountains overlooking the River Var, from Puget-Theniers to Toudon, and by Thursday evening the rally was over. No more, alas, the all-night gatherings of mechanics and other, in the restaurants of St Sauveur and Moulinet.
The three closely matched Lancias were much quicker than anything else, and very early in the event it became a near certainty that one of them would win. The opposition included Ford, Renault, Audi, Volkswagen, Skoda, Mazda and Subaru.
Ford brought two Sierras, a Cosworth-engined RWD car for Grundel and a 4WD car for Blomqvist. Alas, in the very snowy conditions Grundel could not use his power to advantage and the car was only able to display its mettle on dry roads, notably the Col des Aires near the old Mont Ventoux hill climb. The car was sideways much of the time, but was still a bitter disappointment when it clipped a rock and stopped on the last stage, a half shaft broken.
The Mazda 323s became progressively more reliable last year, but it proved to be a mistake to fit them with turbocharger pipes of a new material prior to Monte Carlo. They appeared not to be sufficiently heat-resistant and distorted, causing trouble which delayed both Salonen and Carlsson. A supply of the old stock of pipes was despatched from team’s Brussels base, but not before Salonen had lost so much time that it was pointless for him to continue. Carlsson then drove to finish rather than to improve his position, and finish he did, in fifth place.
Two Subarus entered by the German importers were probably the least modified cars in the event. Certainly very little had done to lighten them or to improve their brakes, and the degree of fade was considerable. Demuth retired with a broken gearbox on the first stage, but Eklund, as tenacious as ever, struggled on to finish 13th.
The Renault 11s of Ragnotti and Chatriot were being beaten by the Citroen Visas of Ballet and Dorche even though the latter, as Group B cars of limited engine capacity power, were seeded at the bottom of the field. But the margin was small, at least until the final leg. Ragnotti went off the road on the first of the day’s stages and it wasn’t until his team-mate Chatriot stopped to pull him out that he could get going again. Both lost much time which could not be regained. Neither the Renaults nor the Citroens were able to get ahead of Kenneth Eriksson who finished a fine sixth in his Volkswagen Golf GTI, the highest placed two-wheel-drive car.
Audi’s return to rallying was somewhat subdued, and there was no massive presence to support the single entry for Rohrl. His car was an Audi 200, a big, heavy family saloon which could not have been easy to drive, and a far cry from the Sport Quattro. For much of the time Rohrl felt that his engine was not producing the power it should, but there was really nothing wrong with it and the German driver’s impression could only have been gained from too close a comparison with the old Group B cars. He nevertheless finished third, nearly six minutes ahead of Blomqvist’s Sierra which, although good on traction, was lacking in power especially on upgrades; it is unturbocharged after all.
No Monte Carlo Rally would be complete without its vanguard of ice-note crews, the motley collection of otherwise “unemployed” competitors who form almost a rally of their own, travelling just ahead of the event itself to record conditions on the special stages and advise on tyre selection.
There was a time when an entire team might have a maximum of three such ice-note crews, but budgets and backing must have increased considerably, for it’s not uncommon nowadays for a tearn to have three ice note crews for each competing car, simply because pace notes differ from driver to driver, especially if they are of different nationalities. The skill of swift roadside translation from “OT+VTp/*” into “Daf+ GLaf sur P” (flat right and long flat left over bridge) seems to have vanished.
There have been Monte Carlo Rallies completely without snow from beginning to end, making life easy for ice-note crews. This year it was more than abundant, the first two days’ stages having 100% coverage, but again the work was straightforward for ice-note crews; they simply red-underlined every page of their notes!
But on the third day, as the rally moved southwards, the snow retreated to high ground exposing tarmac which was icy in the shadow and merely wet where warmed by the sun. On such mixed surfaces, the ice-note crews began to earn their fees by carefully recording every surface change, noting temperature fluctuations, meticulously amending the pace notes of their competing crews and advising drivers on tyre choice.
The final decision concerning choice of tyres always rests with drivers themselves and mistakes are often made despite the wealth of information provided for them. On such occasions narrow differences in performance can become wide ones, and the variety of excuses almost laughable. Of course, some drivers are completely honest and accept whatever blame is theirs, but others recount all manner of tall tales in order to escape censure.
The rally has always been something of a theatrical performance, with more activity backstage than in the public gaze, but at least it can be a clean competition if FISA’s regulations are made watertight, distance limits are dropped, and competing teams made to realise that rule bending and result manipulation do them no good in the long run. Hopefully, such tactics will not be repeated on other World Championship rounds. GP