Through the Looking Glass

The international rally season traditionally opens in Monte Carlo. David Williams explains how, this year, it both did and didn't . . .

There is a school of thought that Patrick Bernardini is on to a good thing. In years to come, the theory goes, people will remember only that he won the 1996 Monte Carlo Rally. His name will be on the list of winners for as long as anyone cares that there is such a thing as a Monte Carlo Rally and the fact that he won a poorly supported, low-key event that didn't count for the Manufacturers or Drivers' Championships will be forgotten.

Bernadini, the French Rally Champion for the past two years and the first Corsican to win the Monte, naturally protested that it had been a great achievement, one of the happiest days of his life and so on - all the things that winners are expected to say, in fact. He claimed, with some justification , that he had beaten drivers of the calibre of Francois Delecour and Armin Schwarz. As it happens, he has also beaten the man who won the Swedish Rally, the first "full" World Championship rally of 1996, Tommi Makinen. On his first attempt at the tour of Corsica, last May. Makinen finished behind Bernardini, who drove the third works Escort, but no one would expect the Bastia BMW dealer to vanquish Makinen anywhere else - or even in Corsica again come to that.

No, the World Rally Championship commenced in earnest in Sweden The top teams were present in force and Makinen had to beat the cream of the world's drivers to score his second full victory at World Championship level. Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone very properly deemed it as the better venue for their press conference; even Peter Gillitzer, Ford's Director of Motorsport, made one of his rare appearances on a rally.

Mitsubishi's triumph will have come as a surprise only to those who assumed that the Colin McRae/Subaru steamroller would automatically flatten everything in its path. Lancers finished first and second on last year's Swedish, Makinen dogging Kenneth Eriksson every inch of the way and injecting a sour note into proceedings by flouting team orders for as long as he could. The E3 version of Mitsubishi's four-door saloon is marginally superior to the car that won 12 months ago (it has a more flexible electronic engine management system and a larger rear aerofoil) and it is ideally suited to the Swedish. It has the power, the handling and the reliability to succeed and the only doubt in Sweden rested over Makinen, not the machinery. He crashed on three of his six "full" World Championship events in 1995 and team management was on tenterhooks throughout that he might suffer another panel bending rush of blood,to the head on this year's Swedish.

Makinen couldn't be sure of victory until he knew that he had been quicker than Carlos Sainz on the last stage. Winning in Sweden may be further evidence that this quiet, single-minded farmer's son is coming to terms with rallying at the highest level after a frustrating apprenticeship that has stretched over six years. Some Ralliart team members reckoned that this merely confirmed the improvement seen on the Rally of Thailand, the final round of the 1995 Asia-Pacific Championship, when the Finn drove as fast as he needed without over-stepping the mark to hold off Eriksson and Richard Burns (still driving for Subaru at that stage) to win an extraordinary rally in which the top three were covered by four seconds.

Makinen led for most of the way in Sweden, but he was under constant, relentless pressure from Carlos Sainz and he had the additional worry of knowing that the rear differential was fading fast for much of the second leg, the Ralliart mechanics draining oil and gear teeth at every opportunity. On one stage, the car snapped sideways in sixth gear when the crown wheel jammed for a split second. He also had to cope with opening the road for two days when fresh snow generally hampered his chances.

While the Swedish success added to Makinen's reputation, it didn't tell the rally world anything it didn't know. As Seppo Harianne commented before the start, the Swedish is almost a "home" event, held on snow and ice-covered roads that are meat and drink to Finnish drivers. The Safari will be something of a lottery and the critical test for Makinen will come later. Rallies such as Argentina and Sanrerno will be much less familiar to him.

The big surprise in Sweden was to find Carlos Sainz taking second place in a Ford. Things couldn't have got much worse for Ford after its rotten 1995 season, but few expected such a dramatic improvement to come so soon. Sainz himself predicted that it would take months to turn the Escort Cosworth back into a truly competitive machine.

Halfway through the longest stage of the final leg, at around the 12-mile mark, Sainz was unofficially five seconds quicker than Makinen. At that rate, the Finn's lead would have dwindled to just five seconds by the end of the stage and a sensational Ford victory would have been a real possibility. Instead, Sainz lost a couple of seconds when a hydraulic valve in the centre differential malfunctioned and a broken shock absorber on the very last stage ensured that Makinen scored a relatively comfortable victory.

Sainz was responsible for some of the improvement, bringing priceless information about electronically controlled active transmissions from Subaru (both cars use software written by the British company, GEMS), but the Escort was always likely to perform better on the Swedish than it had for months. The failure to develop a system linking the front and centre differentials had turned the car into an also-ran in the latter months of 1995. Extending active control to the front differential, long planned, had therefore become vital.

Ford sources acknowledge that there is some way to go, in spite of this wonderful result. Philip Dunabin, the Chief Engineer, promises that there is plenty of extra performance to be unlocked and accepted that using the system at this stage was a calculated gamble. Sainz's ran near-perfectly, whereas Stig Blomqvist and Francois Delecour experienced nothing but trouble. The Swede's centre differential was apt to lock-up at random, causing a vicious stab of understeer in midcorner, while the latter's never ran properly after the first 500 yards of the first stage. In the course of the rally, the turbo blew, the power steering failed three times and, as a final flourish, the car burst into flames on the run-in. Sainz now looks like a fair bet for his third world title, but Ford's effort is far too lop-sided to make it a serious contender for the makes' crown at the moment. If Sainz can drive like this on the Swedish - a rally he had attempted only once before and then only for nine stages - what can possibly stop him on rallies he knows well?

The answer is Subaru and more specifically, Colin McRae. Some Prodrive men believe that its Swedish setback is no bad thing after the euphoric end to 1995. That was putting a brave face on a disappointing rally, in which Colin McRae was ultimately grateful to finish third and neither Kenneth Eriksson nor Didier Auriol got the hang of the car that won the World Championship.

Michelin and Pirelli are in another league to any other firm making rally tyres and it is rare for one to outperform the other by a dramatic margin. The Swedish was one of those occasions: Pirelli came badly unstuck for just two stages during the first leg when the thin covering of snow gave way to frozen gravel. Mitsubishi's, Ford's and Toyota's Michelins coped reasonably well, whereas the Subaru men's Pirellis shed studs like confetti. McRae left the road for a minute, his team-mates dropped at least 40s apiece and, in a desperate effort to turn the tide, all three were dispatched to the longest stage of the rally on different types of Pirelli. This time, McRae got the best choice, as Eriksson dropped from contention. Add in a faulty centre differential that prevented the World Champion from getting on terms with his rivals even when there was snow and it is fair to say that Prodrive had its back to the wall at one-third distance.

Armed with a new gearbox, McRae reeled off a string of fastest stage times and overhauled Juha Kankkunen, who parked his Toyota on a snowbank during the final leg. But for the tyre fiasco, the Scot reckoned he could have won. On his best stages, he was dramatically quicker than his opponents and, in the long haul, both he and Prodrive are the favourites for the World Championships. His team-mates clearly need further testing to adapt the car to their driving styles.

To all intents and purposes, a works Toyota team was present in Sweden The drivers - Kankkunen, Thomas Radstrom and Tomas Jansson - would have been part of a Toyota effort in any circumstances and your correspondent didn't see a mechanic he didn't recognise as a Toyota Team Europe employee. Kankkunen was delighted with a revised engine and Radstram had carried out plenty of tyre testing.

Kankkunen led for a while and, if it wasn't for fresh snow in the latter part of the rally, he could have stayed in the running for victory. As it was the Celica's boulevard cruiser styling undermined it once again. Its wide track is all very well on asphalt, but it was too wide for the ruts left in the snow by narrower cars and all three drivers fell back as their cars' handling deteriorated.

Like Kankkunen, Radstrom set fastest time. Like Kankkunen, he isn't sure when he will take part in a World Championship. The four-times World Champion is optimistic about Toyota's prospects when he is allowed to drive one. At this stage, Toyota's participation remain a matter for considerable speculation, although the betting is that "dealer teams" will appear on if most if not all rounds of the World Championship.

Rallying certainly needs Toyota and there is a universal agreement that the sport publicise itself. There is much less agreement as to how this should be achieved. The Mosley-Ecclestone approach is to treat it like an unwieldy, backward variant of Grand Prix racing. There will be 14 World Championship rallies in 1997, rising to 16 in years to come. More events are essential to keep the sport in the public eye. Television and radio rights will be sold exclusively, at a price, and broadcasters will be encouraged to tackle the entire championship, on the basis that it won't function properly if either teams or the media can pick and choose. Rallies will have to be shorter, to avoid raising costs and overloading the top crews. When all this is achieved the sport will fit neatly into a global motorsport package, along with F1 and touring car racing. It is a long way from a driver and co-driver going out for a bit of fun at the weekend, but then that applies to most professional sports in the television age.

Many teams - starting with the current championship leader, Mitsubishi - feel that 14 rallies, never mind 16, will be an impossible burden and want to hear some detail about the FIA's plans for promoting the sport. Detail was conspicuous by its absence at the press conference, Ecclestone in particular failing to come up with a full answer to straight questioning. As he is the FIA Vice President in charge of Promotion, this was by no means reassuring.

Only Cesar Torres, another FIA Vice-President and the man in charge of the Rally of Portugal, betrayed any hint that the FIA has other ideas, when he let slip that World Championship rallies should "finish on a Wednesday". That was or/may have been a reference to "Rally 2000," the teams' preferred view of the future. The idea is that packaging is tighter, and that re-organising the calendar, shortening routes slightly and slashing recces yet further could cram a World Championship rally into eight days, from the moment the star driver steps off the aeroplane to the end of prizegiving.

At least the new regime will bring an end to the idiotic rotation system, which turned the Monte into a second-division rally and which even Mosley admits has produced a "strange" World Championship. This pernicious system, by which each major rally either has or will drop' to two wheel-drive, Formula Two status for a year, has caused nothing but confusion. Only the dyed-inthe-wool enthusiast understands why the Monte, the most famous rally in the world, attracted few of the main drivers and none of the main works teams.

It would be better if four-wheel-drive cars had been banned altogether on such events. Instead, the rules encourage drivers to use one type of car to win the rally and another to score points. If Delecour had won the Monte in a Peugeot 306 Maxi, it would have made at least some sense. In the event, his front-wheel-drive Peugeot couldn't be expected to match Bernardini's four-wheeldrive Escort on an event run in something close to a monsoon. By mixing both types of car, the FIA undermines the efforts of those factories taking the Two Litre World Championship seriously (Skoda and Seat) and even of the drivers who win these rallies outright Bernardini, Jorge Recalde and Aris Vovos.

The Monte killed the idea of "equivalence'' stone dead. Delecour reckoned that the 950-kilo, 270 bhp Peugeot was quicker in a straight line than a 1200-kilo, 300 bhp Escort Cosworth. It was more difficult to drive than an Escort, but staggeringly effective round corners. In completely dry conditions, it might even have been faster. As soon as it rained, let alone snowed, Bernardini's traction advantage allowed him to pull away without taking chances. If a driver as good as Delecour couldn't beat him, no wonder that Erwin Weber, Jesus Puras and other works F2 drivers can't do so.

It was a triumph for Ford engineering. Under the circumstances, however, it is no surprise that Ford has scarcely bothered to advertise its success.