Winning is its own reward

Kenneth Eriksson scored his first WRC success since 1991, but his victory was tainted…

Staffan Parmander sat in the car, ashamed to get out, leaving his driver to face the music. Kenneth Eriksson was pinned against the Swedish Rallywinning Mitsubishi by a scrum of television crews and reporters, and the questioning wasn’t entirely friendly; even a non-Swedish speaker could see that. Mitsubishi’s first and second places, the cream to round off a triumphant week, had started to curdle.

Team orders had seen to that.

The Swedish revealed Ralliart in all its facets, good and bad, it displayed the worth of a fine team, a good car and talented drivers, but it also laid bare the absence of any sense of direction that has contributed largely to the four-year gap since the team last won a rally in Europe.

In recent years, Mitsubishi’s reputation within the sport has dwindled. Even when the Galant VR-4 was at its height, in 1989-91, the car was no more than intermittently competitive and strangely, the arrival of a smaller, nimbler car — the Lancer — has hitherto brought no improvement. While its rivals acknowledge that Mitsubishi is always a potential threat, the fits-and-starts nature of the test programme and Japan’s inability to decide whether rally-raids, the Asia-Pacific, or the World Rally Championship are its priority, had gradually reduced the team to the status of also-ran. After a miserable 1994 season, when engineers and drivers between them failed to resolve a complicated and unreliable transmission system, there were rumours that the team might not even try to pursue the World Championship.

Extraordinary as it may seem, the same doubts continue to apply. The Lancer’s competitiveness has been transformed since the arrival of a new, hungry driver in Tommi Makinen and a new approach to testing, under which Lasse Lampi, the team’s test driver, has assumed a much larger degree of responsibility, yet the chances are that the works GpA cars will not appear in Portugal.

Even the Swedish victory may go largely unexploited. Not all World Championship rallies are created equal and, in Japanese eyes, the Swedish is one of the less prestigious rounds. Accordingly, there was no Japanese presence beyond the odd electronics engineer and no PR presence whatsoever. To say that a crushing display of superiority by the drivers and the nuts-and-bolts men caught management napping would be a gross understatement.

Aside from the Ivory Coast, Mitsubishi hasn’t taken first and second places on a World Championship rally since many of its current mechanics were in nappies and the team could perhaps be forgiven for being a shade rusty on the thorny question of handling team orders. No one likes them of course, but they are a necessary evil. The best comparison might be a tactical declaration by a cricket team when one of its batsmen is on 95 not out: should it let him complete his century, or give itself more time to bowl out the opposition? The good of the team dictates the former, just as it requires that two rally drivers shouldn’t risk their machinery by fighting each other when the opposition is well and truly beaten.

Applying team orders was the right decision, then. One can argue as to whether Makinen should have been given the nod at the expense of Eriksson, but the real mistake was to keep the matter secret until the rally was virtually over. By doing so, Ralliart allowed Makinen to take the lead and “beat” Eriksson by what seemed like a convincing margin until the final stage, thereby turning relations between the drivers, rather than Mitsubishi’s superiority, into the headline issue.

Things have got to change, and they will. The arrival of Phil Short, until recently the team manager at Toyota Team Europe, ought to stiffen the Ralliart management team, but Short is unlikely to find a great deal that needs changing in Rugby. At a time when the World Rally Championship is trying, slowly and painfully, to transform itself into a slick, media-friendly package at least comparable to Grand Prix racing, he needs to convince Japan that the sport merits whole-hearted commitment – or none at all.