Unpeturbed by his narrow defeat in last year’s WRC, Carlos Sainz got the new campaign off to a flying start
“One minute we are drivers; the next we are mechanics; and then we are drivers again.” So said one well-known works driver during this year’s MonteCarlo Rally, when new FIA rules for World Championship qualifiers, particularly regarding servicing, came into effect for the first time. He made the remark very bitterly, complaining that the rules were being made by people who had little or no recent practical experience of the sport. “They really don’t know what they are doing,” he went on to say. “How can we concentrate on driving right up to the limit of going off the road when we have just been sweating over the car, changing things whilst our mechanics stand near, giving us advice but not allowed to touch anything?”
In one way, I had sympathy for that driver, and his colleagues who were of the same mind, but in another way I had none whatsoever. The rules were made by the FIA, but not overnight. They were changed, re changed and expanded over a number of years, during which manufacturers’ teams were consulted at intervals, resulting in a set of vehicle regulations about which the FIA primly says, “But this is what the teams wanted.”
The design and sophistication of rally cars has advanced: with the advancement in speed, traction and roadholding has come fragility.
Reliability used to be one of the essential elements of a rally car. It had to be capable of enduring all manner of privations and still fire up and perform when required. It had to be a tough machine, able to survive rough treatment in conditions varying from African mud to Arctic snow; from Mediterranean tarmac to the logging tracks of pine forests. It still has to contend with such situations, but for much shorter periods and always with the crews’ knowledge that there are mechanics not far away to put right any fault.
Works teams are renowned for finding every possible loophole in regulations and driving coaches and horses through them. The rules seem to have been made hastily, changed hastily and rechanged just as hastily, apparently without much knowledge on the part of the rule makers of what the effects would be, and the FIA and its relevant committees must, having opened the door to the creation of such cars, take the blame for the situation.
For 1995, new rules were implemented, said to have been made to lessen costs for works teams by cutting down service opportunities, thereby reducing necessary manpower. Alas, it did not work out that way. Approved service areas were established, roughly between every other stage, and outside assistance was forbidden everywhere else. However, competitors were allowed to fettle their cars themselves elsewhere, using only equipment (tools, spares, etc) carried in their cars. Refuelling points were also established, where cars could have their various fluids replenished by outside help, but nothing else. These were located generally every two stages, in zones where no other service was allowed. Invariably, works mechanics were present at these places, not to work on the cars but to stand over their competing crews and give them precise instructions for any job required, step by step. Manpower was therefore not cut down by the introduction of the new rules although, to be fair, the number of fully equipped service vans was reduced.
Tyre rules were also made more severe, for in a non-service zone competitors were not allowed to change their tyres, unless it were to mount two replacements which they were carrying in their cars. This particular rule came in for heavy criticism when a snowy stage followed a dry one and competitors had to tackle both on the same set of tyres. Had they chosen unstudded tyres for the first, they would have been at a disadvantage on the second. Had they chosen studded tyres for the first, the chances were that the studs would have been destroyed before they got to the snow.
In the reverse case, where the first of a pair of stages was snowy and the second not, there were several instances of cars stopping between the two and their crews laboriously de-studding their tyres, pulling them out one-by-one with pliers, an operation which the Subaru people claimed was quite impossible with Pirelli tyres.
Some observers said that this was a freak activity quite new to rallying, but this is nonsense. Like many other things claimed to be hitherto unknown, it has been done many times before.
In-car spare tyres were marked in advance, and once again this was said to be an innovation, even though it was not. In 1967, penalties were reduced by a certain coefficient provided competitors agreed not to use more than six tyres per leg. The in-car tyres were marked in advance, firstly by being daubed by radio-active paint and then by being “branded” with the car’s competition number through the paint daub. It was this which led to the works Minis carrying spare wheels on roof racks that year.
During the rally, the tyre rules were changed by a bulletin allowing greater licence for changes, and we wonder at the wisdom of a regulation which is not imposed with conviction in the first place and which has to be changed after the event has started.
Complaints by competitors that they were having to take over the roles of mechanics suggested that, in recent years, they have been mollycoddled. Until this year, although a driver had to understand suspension settings, drive ratios, brake balance and so on in order to be able to tell his engineers how best he would like his car set up, he had no need to be capable of changing struts, replacing alternators or, with good, old-fashioned bushmanship, chaining up a rear axle which had begun to float around.
Many years ago, it was not at all uncommon for works competitors to spend day after day in their workshops being instructed in various replacement procedures so that they would not be immobilised If a service car could not get to them. By way of contrast, just two years ago one works crew radioed its attendant helicopter to land just so that mechanics could perform the simple task of changing a wheel after a puncture.
On the other hand, there have been, and still are, exceptions, and several drivers have become reputed as expert fettlers. Per Eklund, prior to a Monte-Carlo Rally some years ago, doubted the reliability of his halfshafts so much that he spent some days in the workshop changing one after another. The practice paid off, for he experienced failures in more than one special stage and was able to replace them himself on the spot. Kenneth Eriksson is another who is as much at home under the bonnet as he is in the driving seat, but, in these days of electronic sophistication, when all manner of alterations can be done by simple replacement of a chip, things are different, and bush mechanics have become rarer. But there are still lessons which present-day drivers can learn from those of a few years back; for instance, using grass to remedy a flat tyre, finding a chicken coop in order to fix a radiator leak, or never leaving a start ramp without a bar of soap in the car!
Among the other new regulations was one limiting the size of the air intake restrictors on turbochargers to 32 mm for Group N cars and 34 mm for Group A. Many said afterwards that their engines were being “suffocated” by the restrictors.
Other rule changes included one which forbade slicks, or even hand-cut slicks, for works cars (they had to use moulded, treaded tyres) and another which limited practice to just seven days for crews who were nominated in advance to score points for their makes in the World Rally Championship. At the last moment, a bulletin was issued allowing works crews to carry out their recces at any time of day or night, but still not earlier than nine days before the start and no later than two days before. More licence was given to non-professional crews.
The reason for the time-of-day relaxation was quoted as the “weather conditions,” although we have yet to encounter a MonteCarlo Rally or any other rally for that matter during which the weather conditions have not been unusual in one way or another. “Seasonal” weather is a thing of the past and should never be anticipated, even by the moguls of Place de la Concorde.
The service restrictions introduced this year bring to mind those imposed by the RAC Rally years ago, when the organisers endeavoured to prevent roadside fettling in places likely to cause disturbance or obstruction. It was no bad thing, in theory, but the rule makers reckoned without the ingenuity of works teams, who employed local residents (“but I’m going to my house, officer”), used unmarked cars to prowl no-go areas and even had folding bicycles so that mechanics could get right up to the ends of stages. Similar (but not the same) tactics were employed on this year’s Monte-Carlo Rally.
I am in favour of reducing service opportunities to a minimum, thereby placing greater importance on car reliability, but I am aware of the dangers of works teams’ determination to get through at all costs. A car screaming along public roads on three wheels might have drawn no more than gawps of admiration and delight 15 years ago – Blomqvist was faster on three than his adversaries were on four in the old Austrian Alpine Rally – or even being pushed along a motorway by a service car, bumper-to-bumper at high speed, but nowadays such tactics can do untold harm.
Limit servicing by all means, but police it well, show no mercy to transgressors and force the works teams to place greater importance on reliability. If they break the rules, throw them out. What is more, the same rules should apply to all competitors, whether professional or amateur.
In keeping with tradition, Monte-Carlo retained its multi-start system, starting from six different major European cities, none of which was British.
The concentration run is a mere token nowadays, unlike the time when just getting there was achievement itself. But it can still cause trouble, as Jean Ragnotti discovered when he ran full tilt into a car which jumped red traffic lights, breaking his Renault Clio’s radiator and damaging its bumper and bonnet. “It’s the first time I have been hit by a woman,” said the amiable Ragnotti afterwards, with his usual grin. Juha Kankkunen also had a mishap and dented a rear wing on his Toyota.
Starters numbered 198, far more than other World Championship qualifiers manage to amass nowadays. Among them were the works teams of Ford (represented by RAS) with Escort Cosworths for Delecour/Francois and Thiry/Prevot, Toyota, with Celicas for Auriol/Occelli, Kankkunen/Grist and Schwarz/ Wicha, and Subaru, with Imprezas for McRae/ Ringer, Sainz/Moya and Italians Liatti/ Alessandrini. Mitsubishi Ralliart had two Lancers for Makinen/Harjanne and Aghini/ Famocchia, whilst the German offshoot of the team had a similar (but Group N) car for ladies’ crew Isolde Holderied/Kristina Thorner.
Although not nominated for World Championship points (it costs US$25,000 to nominate nowadays, plus the chance of forfeiting US$250,000 for failure to participate in all eight rounds) Renault sent two of its Clio Williams for stalwarts Ragnotti/Thimonier and Bugalski/Renaud.
The servicing/tyre changing/refuelling rules could be summed up briefly by the general statement that service was allowed after every other stage and just refuelling after each stage between. The rules did not read like that, but that is what they amounted to, more or less.
The first stage after the Valence departure was over the Col de la Fayolle, a familiar alpine pass but using an changed route between St Pierreville to Antraigues. It was here that the stewards first made it known that the new rules were not entirely acceptable, for they authorised supplementary tyre changes between this stage and the next, using tyres marked in advance. What an unnecessary complication!
Spins, misfires, cold tyres, stalls, even punctures; all came to worry drivers in this first special stage, when nerves were at their most tense. But over this test, largely dry or damp, with just the odd ice patch, it was Scotsman McRae who made best time, from Sainz.
The next was from La Souche to the Col de Chavade, also in the Ardeche, which was largely damp but with slush and snow on the higher parts. By this time, both Auriol and Kankkunen were complaining about their engines. It seems that they were fine on twisty sections, but not so good on straighter parts where higher speeds and rpm were needed. McRae had a mishap here when he lost his initial lead by going off into the snow and losing about two minutes. Ragnotti lost his front bumper when he went over a snow bank, whilst Jean-Claud Andruet, the former Alpine driver, discovered what it was like to see the world from an unusual Mini angle. He put his Rover Mini upside-down, but nevertheless continued.
The third stage was up to the plateau from Burzet, one of the most infamous of the event’s stages. It did not return to the town, as it has done in the past, but turned left at Lachamp Raphael and finished at St Martial. Initially dry, it soon gave way to patchy snow, ruts, frozen slush and snowbanks. Delecour took a chance by using intermediate (unstudded) tyres and found he was losing traction, especially uphill. Undoubtedly, he had been thinking of what was best for the following stage, for no service was allowed between. Others played safe and used studded tyres, whilst many were seen destudding their tyres after the stage, in preparation for the comparatively dry run from Freydaparet to Louveton.
It was after these two stages that drivers first began to complain about having to work themselves on their cars. Destudding of tyres was a major source of complaint, although some people took it in their strides. Others, with less experience, winced and bickered.
This was also the first place, on the well known stage which starts and finished in the little hamlet of St Bonnet-le-Froid, that crews encountered snow thrown on to the road by spectators, a common occurrence on this event which every competitor should expect. Auriol very nearly went off, whilst Delecour got such a fright that he slowed appreciably afterwards. Ragnotti lost about five minutes when his engine cut. He promptly changed his car’s black box and continued.
Delecour had trouble starting his engine, and it was quite ludicrous that the car had to be pushed only by his lady co-driver while many others, including mechanics, looked on. Had it been in a stage, anyone could have dived in to help without any problem at all.
After his mishap on the second stage, McRae had been told to keep a reasonable pace, but he nevertheless made best time, even though he had made no notes at all. When he arrived there during his recce, a blizzard prevented any access.
After the stage looping around from Lalouvesc, Sainz led by 44 seconds from Delecour when they got back to Valence. “But I am not the winner yet; anything can still happen,” was the Spaniard’s comment. Makinen had been troubled by misted windows whilst Aghini went straight on at a junction, and hit a spectator who then had to be taken to hospital with a broken leg.
At Valence that evening, the leading pair were followed by Makinen, Auriol, Kankkunen and Thiry, in that order, with just one second separating the last two.
Before the restart, the stewards issued a bulletin proclaiming that, at refuel points, refuelling crews were authorised to carry out the de-studding of tyres, if required. No doubt some complaining competitor had shown them his blisters! The question we ask is a simple one; why make a rule if it has to be rescinded almost immediately? Surely it is better to take more care and time to impose sensible rules in the first place.
The next day, Auriol was still troubled by a lack of power on the stage from St lean-en-Royans, whilst Thiry proclaimed that he was not happy on snow. “You may not know it, but this is the first time I have competed on the stuff.” Schwarz hit a bank, damaged his right rear suspension but continued after fettling it himself. A former mechanic, he was not among those who complained about getting their hands dirty!
Ragnotti and others lost time when their studs were degraded on the early dry part before they got to the snow where those bits of metal were really needed.
Later, when Auriol and Kankkunen continued to complain that their engines were down on power, Toyota senior man Maurice Guaslard suggested that “The small restrictor might be suffocating the turbo.” He could well have been quite right, of course, and it is rather unfair that the smaller restrictor should have been imposed upon teams after they had developed their engines.
Over the Col de l’Arzelier, close to St Barthelemy, Auriol’s front tyres wore out very quickly and he discovered later that his front tracking had been out of line. Kankkunen bent a strut, whilst Thiry lost a couple of minutes after diving into a snowbank. Schwarz lost a huge chunk of time, some seven to eight minutes, after a mishap which left him with his right rear wheel flapping, whilst Sainz chose the wrong tyres and promptly lost 39 seconds to Delecour.
Next came a new stage over the Col de Menee. This was largely snow-covered but crews had to choose tyres which would serve them for both this stage and the next, which was relatively dry, and again destudding was much in evidence between the two. Liatti’s comment was, “It’s useful to have done a mechanic’s course.” Delecour said that his engine was fine on snow, but not so good on fast, dry sections, perhaps another result of the turbocharger intake restrictor. Andruet went no further than this one, going off after a steering ball joint broke. Ragnotti also lost some time off the road, whilst Delecour, now in a 2s lead, delighted the crowds when he had to change his front brake discs himself, instructed by mechanics as he proceeded.
Destudding was also much in evidence after this stage, but the Subarus were in trouble here because the studs simply refused to be prised from their Pirellis. They are kept in by a very efficient adhesive. Among the Michelin men, the most important tool was a pair of pliers!
There were some ice patches over the Col de Perty and the Col St lean, but not so much as to warrant the warnings given to Delecour by his ice note crew. He consequently slowed, but said afterwards that he could easily have gone faster. The result was that he lost the lead to Sainz, by five seconds.
Makinen had to fumble to reconnect his intercom after it became unplugged, whilst Auriol said that he was so down on power on the straights that he had time to chat to his co-driver.
The next stage was the familiar one high over the mountain overlooking Sisteron, across the Col de Fontbelle and finishing at Thoard. Again the surface was mixed, and ice note crews had their work cut out to be precise about conditions. Liatti lost nearly half an hour, and his windscreen, by going off on an ice patch whilst, Ironically, his team-mate McRae soon joined him off the road. Liatti managed to get going again, but McRae’s car, though not badly damaged, was well and truly stuck and was going nowhere for the time being. Ragnotti lost more than a minute off the road.
Thiry made the best time on this stage, having used studded racing tyres. Delecour used studded racers on the front and unstudded racers on the rear. He took 56s longer than Thiry to complete the stage! But Sainz extended his advantage even further, and when the rally arrived at Digne his lead over Delecour was 26s. Makinen was another 42s behind, whilst Kankkunen was all of another 2m 23s back, just 2s ahead of his team-mate Auriol.
Three stages remained, on the Wednesday morning, before cars got to Monaco. Various mishaps happened, but positions remained unchanged. Bugalski had his throttle cable jam and had to stop several times to release it.
Various servicing jobs were done just before the Monaco arrival. The happiest man at the arrival seemed to be Makinen who said that, apart from hitting a rock on one stage, he had not made a single mistake, not even with tyre choice. It was rather a pity that when his team removed his clutch and gearbox, they changed the former but refitted the same gearbox. It seemed to be fine at the time, but later they had cause to regret this.
Although rallies nowadays seem to be confined to daytime, the Monte still keeps its tradition of running the final leg at night, the “Mountain Circuit”, as it used to be called when it tackled three stages twice each. Nowadays, it’s once each, and the “Night of the Turini” is over quite quickly since cars pass that way but once.
Nevertheless, the Turini is a tremendous attraction and the crowds still assemble there several days in advance. Gone are the days when pitched battles broke out between the Italians on one side of the road and the French on the other, but spectators are still seen carrying shovels and there is invariably much more snow on the roads when competitors arrive than when their ice-note crews went through.
Several cars went off the road as a result, and even Kankkunen spun, hit something hard and put his left rear wheel out of line. After the stage, he had to work hard himself to fettle the damage, since service was not allowed between that test and the next one to the top of the Col de la Couillole. With limited tools, he managed the job, instructed and encouraged all the way by watching mechanics, but nevertheless had to start the next stage with his car in less than perfect condition.
Schwarz had his rally come to a sad end when he stopped with a blown engine after his cam belt came off, whilst Auriol damaged his front left wheel after sliding on ice and hitting a rock face. Thiry also hit something but continued. Certainly the Turini was living up to its reputation as a great provider of incidents and a great spectacle.
The next test used to run from St Sauveur over the Col de la Couillole all the way to Beuil, but this time it stopped at the top, presumably because competitors had complained in advance that they were not too keen on the downhill bit.
Bugalski did not get as far as St Sauveur. He put his Clio off on a tricky part of the road section, broke a wishbone and promptly retired.
By this time, Sainz seemed to have an unassailable lead, barring accidents, although Delecour caused something of a murmur when he accused the Spaniard of using illegal, hand-cut tyres. We must say that we saw no evidence of this whatsoever. The Frenchman went on to say that he was absolutely on the limit everywhere, hitting snowbanks, nudging walls and even finishing stages with his wheel rims covered in nicks, dents and scratches.
Delecour took 3s from Sainz on the Couillole, but it made no difference. The Escort man broke a shock absorber on the next stage up the mountain from Entreveaux and had to tackle the next stage with the car in the same condition. Sainz experienced the horror of having his lights suddenly go out and his engine stop but Moya gave the battery master switch a hefty bang and everything burst into life again. He kept his hand on that switch for the remainder of the stage.
The next one was that nasty road high above the N202 from the Col St Raphael, through Ascros and Toudon to Tourette du Chateau. So nasty can it be, at times, that we recall an occasion years ago when Rauno Aaltonen asked one of his hard pressed ice-note crews, who had no time to note it properly, to drive it in the reverse direction, the tripmaster running backwards! It worked, and Aaltonen was satisfied. I recall it well, for that ice note crew was Brian Culcheth and myself.
As the rally progressed, Makinen found himself with only rear-wheel-drive in his Lancer, and there were immediate regrets in the Mitsubishi camp that his gearbox had not been replaced the previous day. But he survived to finished fourth. Lady Mitsubishi driver Holderied lost the Group N trophy to the Swiss Camandona in his Escort, but she nevertheless got tenth place overall and won the ladies’ prize, a creditable achievement.
Subaru start the year well with an outright win, but the questions being mostly asked do not concern team performances and chances. They concern the new regulations. Will they remain? Will they be changed? Will they be modified from event to event like corks on a rough sea? Time will tell.