Rally review: Monte Carlo Rally, March 1988

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Mediocrity

Although we have used the example before, January’s Monte Carlo Rally now makes it even more appropriate to compare a poorly supported world-class rally to a rugby match between mediocre teams at Twickenham or Arms Park — an excellent venue, but not a very inspiring game.

The reverse can happen, of course, and just as Triple Crown matches would enthrall crowds even if they were played at Pontyscrum, Ballybarre or HafoduwchbenceubwIlymarchogcoch, so a contest between half-a-dozen works rally teams would be worth watching anywhere, be it in a Rift Valley weekender, a Jamaican 1000 or one of the Welsh half-nighters of old.

That many people considered the 1988 Monte Carlo Rally to be boring is no reflection on the rally itself, which was impeccably organised, ran without a hitch and departed from tradition only in as much as snow was decidedly scarce (unless you would also consider in this category the unbelievable disfigurement of Casino Square by massive excavations to construct an underground car park. Monte Carlo can only expand up or down; the only direction for horizontal extension is seawards!).

Having mentioned tradition, we are compelled, before discussing the presence of only two works teams between which there was never really any contest, to digress and dwell a little on the misuse of this word by some of our younger contemporaries.

One would describe as a tradition an ancestral custom handed down to posterity or, in the case of a motor competition, a practice which has persisted since the origins of that event. To consider traditional something which has been going on for just a few years is about as absurd as applying “veteran” to a Vickers VC10 or, for that matter, “vintage” to anything but a grape harvest.

The culprits are those who seem to assume that nothing could possibly have happened beyond their own memories; who cannot, for instance, recall that an Audi quattro was not the first 4WD vehicle to win a World Championship rally, that the Portuguese Rally used to have a London start, or that the Alpine Rally had its origins in Austria, not in France. One journal even expressed the view recently that the Monte Carlo Rally should “break with tradition” by running a race around the Principality’s street circuit as its final stage. Perhaps no-one told them that, until 1965, the rally did precisely that.

The actual final leg this year was more like the original “Mountain Circuit”, introduced in 1965 and incorporated into the rally’s modern structure the following year. It ran from 3.40pm on the Wednesday to 11.30am on the Thursday, split only by a two-hour rest stop back at Monaco, and visited the Madonne, the Turbo and the Couillole twice each, and three other stages once each.

It was nice to have some of the old last-night atmosphere restored, although unwelcome but perhaps inevitable features were snow-shovelling by spectators and the use of stones and bottles as vicious cores in harmless-looking snowballs. It was also good to see special stages (there were 26 in all) becoming longer again; several exceeded 30km and the mountain stage above Burzet was more than 45km.

The sad thing, however, was the absence of any reasonable competition for the Lancias, and it was the consequent lack of any close fighting which led to the event being described as boring. There was only the Mazda team, a solitary Citroen, and private Renault, BMW, Peugeot and Audi entries to provide any contrast, and the subsequent penalty differences were more in keeping with an endurance rally than a European special-stage event. What is more, there was not a single British competitor.

The Martini Lancia team fielded three Deltas for Biasion/Siviero, Saby/Fauchille and Loubet/Vieu; a fourth was entered by the Jolly Club for Fiorio/Pirollo, and there was a respectable number of privateers.

Likely January weather conditions in the Alps were certainly in favour of the four-wheel-drive Lancias, and this may well have persuaded teams with just two-wheel-drive cars (Ford, for instance) that there was no real point in going to Monte Carlo when, at best, all they could hope for was a place behind a gaggle of Deltas. But it turned out to be a predominantly dry rally, with occasional rain and a little snow only on high ground during the final night, so there may be the odd post-rally regret here and there.

Mazda brought three 4WD 323s for Salonen/Harjanne, Carlsson/Carlsson and, new to the team and to each other, Mikkola/Geistdorfer. The Mazdas weighed about the same as the Lancias (1150kg or so), and produced about the same level of power (about 250bhp), but were still somewhat lacking in reliability and at no time did they look like being a real threat to the Lancia team.

Citroen actually entered three AX SPs, but two were for the winners of a competition and the only one of competitive significance was that for Chomat/Thimonier. BMW/Motul entered two 4WD Group N BMW 325-iXs for Chauche/Barjou and Coppier/Lejeune, while among the privateers (some of whom enjoyed a degree of factory backing) were Ballet/Lallement in a Peugeot 205 GTi and Oreille/Andrie in a Renault 11 Turbo.

Studded tyres were very rarely in evidence around the route, and both Pirelli and Michelin (the latter now supplying the works Lancias but not those of the Jolly Club) later faced the daunting task of de-studding, then re-studding the tyres to meet the slightly different Swedish regulations.

After the concentration leg from Barcelona, Bad Homburg, Lausanne and Sestriere, the five cavalcades, totaling 169 cars, converged on the Sunday morning at St Etienne in the Loire region. After some eight hours’ rest, they set out on a night-time run through five stages, ending at Aubenas at 1.30am. The Common Leg started at noon on the Monday, and covered 12 stages plus a night stop at Gap before arriving at Monaco soon after 10prn on the Tuesday.

A mystery fuel problem delayed all three Mazdas early in the rally, and an odd announcement by the team declared that diesel fuel had either been mixed with petrol or used in place of it. That this should have affected all three cars is highly unlikely, and a more feasible explanation is some other form of contamination, for white deposits were later found in the fuel pumps and filters of all three cars.

Mikkola’s engine actually siezed, putting him out, but this may well have been due to an oil leak, for he did suffer suspension breakage in the stage centred at St Bonnet le Froid and later noticed oil stains inside the wheel-arch when the damage was being repaired. Salonen lost considerable road time, while Carlsson went off the road.

Meanwhile all was not well in the Lancia camp, for Biasion had gone out after oil-pump failure, but there were nevertheless three Deltas at the head of the field at Aubenas, those of Saby, Loubet and Fiorio. Saby blew his rear differential on the second of Monday’s dry stages but nevertheless kept his lead. Behind the Lancias, the most persistant trier was Oreille, but he ruined his chances on the St Nazaire stage when he overdid a bend, corrected too much and put his Renault straight over the edge on the inside, coming to rest against some trees.

The crew was unhurt, but there seemed no chance whatsoever of carrying on — until spectators organised themselves and lifted the car bodily up the steep drop and on to the road. Absolutely amazed by this feat, Oreille forged through the field to finish fourth.

Oreille’s misfortune elevated Ballet to fourth place, and at this juncture mechanics from Jean-Pierre Nicolas’ garage at Marseille were despatched to augment Ballet’s own support crews, which was just as well since his Peugeot later lost oil pressure and suffered bouts of misfiring. Nicolas, incidentally, also works for the Peugeot factory team.

Loubet threw away his chances of at least a good second place when, on the short stage to Puimichel, he indulged in a manouevre similar to Oreille’s and put his Lancia over a bank. But this time the car was not recoverable, and Loubet was vociferous in his self-criticism afterwards, making no attempt to blame anything other than his own mistake.

At Monte Carlo, after 17 stages, Saby’s lead over Fiorio was more than ten minutes, while Ballet was another ten minutes behind. These were quite surprising differences, but one must remember that there were very few works cars up front, and even fewer highly experienced professionals between whom those minutes might have been seconds.

Although the final night did produce a little snow, the situation changed little. Salonen, who had moved up to fifth place, drove very well but could make no impression on those ahead of him. Balas lost a chunk of road time, and his dominant Group N lead, when his Delta’s fuel-pump stopped on a road section, and later went out altogether when it stopped again in a special stage. The category was then won by Chauche in his BMW.

Unlike past years, when the Monte Carlo Rally could always be relied upon to generate some amazing story or piece of scandal, such as the excluded Minis or the Digne riot and its police baton charges, this year’s rally is unlikely to be remembered for anything in particular. A great shame, but the way to encourage more teams is to provide rallies and regulations which competitors want, not to give authority to one man to wave a stick and declare that what he wants is what will be. GP

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