The Rally of Portugal was once a cutting-edge event indicative of a new Era. Former winner John Davenport explains why it’s been dumped by the latest evolution of the sport
When the 2002 World Rally Championship schedule was announced by the FIA last year, it came as a shock to the rally world: the Portuguese Rally had been dropped. Not, you note, a surprise — very definitely a shock. For that event had grown over a 35-year period from an inflated club rally to epitomise all that was exciting, modern and well-organised in world rallying. But the death of its creator and mentor, Cesar Torres, at the end of 1997, was a blow from which it failed to recover. At a time when the face of the World Rally Championship was changing fast, for once, the Portuguese Rally failed to keep pace.
The rallying circus first heard of this new international event in 1967. The TAP Rally acquired its acronym from Transportes Aereos Portugueses, the national airline. Their support, plus that of the Ministry of Tourism and other bodies, meant non-residents of Portugal were offered free entry, free accommodation and free airline tickets. Little wonder the first event drew serious interest: Jean-Pierre Nicolas and Claude Roure led until breaking their Alpine A110’s gearbox just before the finish.
The man chosen to devise and run the event was a young motorsport enthusiast called Torres. His background was in news agencies and publishing, but he was also an experienced competitor, as was his wife, Teresa. When they announced the 1968 rally, it was an event modelled on the Monte Carlo, with starting points in 12 European capitals, all of which had an office of TAR The ’68 version would prove a bigger event in every way.
It attracted 194 entries, with large contingents from Italy, France and Britain, including factory cars and drivers. It was clear this was a rally going places, at a time when blue-riband events were falling out of the calendar: the Marathon de la Route, Coupe des Alpes and Austrian Alpine had only a few years left. Everyone also knew a proper World Rally Championship was in the offing, and Torres realised his new event could be in the frame. He did not keep this ambition secret, which is why team managers were keen to get their cars and crews on his rally to gain experience.
And the event was to pose several new challenges. The road surfaces varied from excellent to rough. And the loose surfaces were not rock or gravel as in most of the other European events; when dry, they were extremely dusty. It was compared to driving through talcum powder and, for the following cars, through a London fog. When wet, the dust formed a slimy slush on which it was hard to get any grip. On several occasions, teams brought studded tyres with them to ensure they had something that would work in the worst conditions.
During the 1970s, the rally evolved from a navigational and tactical exercise into a pure special stage event Even then, mad sections in the night were just that bit tighter to ensure no-one got complacent. Before the adoption of proper road books, the rally made use of the fact that all Portugal’s roads are equipped with hectometre stones, bearing the road number and mileage. Using these, it was possible to specify control locations almost as accurately as with GPS.
By the time the WRC was created in 1973, the reputation of the Portuguese Rally was such as to ensure its inclusion. This was the last year it had scattered European starting points, and its date had shifted from October to March. The hope was that the dust would be less in the spring, but Iberian weather is just too good. Dust was plentiful, and competitors found roads were in worse condition as maintenance was done largely in summer. Nonetheless, it was hailed as the best-organised European rally.
Italian cars won the TAP Rally seven times in the next eight years, while the event itself went from strength to strength, fine-tuning its organisation and route every year. It survived the fuel crisis of 1974 which stopped all other events in the first quarter of the year, and thrived despite the political turmoil that embroiled the country throughout 1975-76. The event was not without its problems, though.
In 1975, the first all-special stage event, the Polish delegates at the CSI insisted the Portuguese Rally start at 12.01am on the Thursday to maintain the statutory five-day gap between it and their own event Through all this, Torres kept his cool and maintained his own political advancement. In ’72, he was made a member of the Sporting Committee of the AC de Portugal; by ’75, he was its president and representing Portugal at the CSI. This was a key step. As the organiser of the most acclaimed rally in Europe, he was in a position to have an input to the common rules for the WRC.
When Jean-Marie Balestre became president of the CSI in ’78, he received support from Torres to create a new organisation, FISA, which would go on to impose its Weltanschauung on the whole of motorsport. Torres by now had a seat on the FIA Committee. By ’82, he was a vice-president of FIA and had a seat on the FISA Executive. Later he became a vice-president of FISA.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, his rally evolved into a standard format: it would start from, or near, Lisbon; there would be several daylight stages on Tarmac at Sintra, near Estoril; then it would head north through the night to one of the seaside resorts near Porto; after a rest, the next day and night would bring the bulk of the gravel stages before the rally returned to Lisbon; then there would be a final night with three laps round the Sintra stages.
With as yet no major motor racing in Portugal, the arrival of cars like the Lancia 037, Opel Manta 400, Fiat Abarth 131 and Audi Quattro made the rally a must-see for thousands of fans. Special stages benefited from huge crowds. In 1980, spectators thronged in such numbers that two sections had to be scrubbed where roads were blocked by traffic. On the stages themselves, there was not too much of a problem to start with but, as cars got quicker, the drivers began to have qualms about driving through crowds that only parted to let them through at the last moment.
Torres listened to the drivers’ comments and decided the last-night thrash had to go. In ’82, he moved the threelap circus to the Wednesday afternoon, and ran many more of the other stages in daylight This pleased almost everyone, as did the introduction of long, repeated stages in the Arganil area on the last day. It was here in 1984 that Lancia first used ‘pit signalling’ to give intermediate times to the 037 of MarIcku Alen in his fruitless chase of Hannu Mikkola’s Audi Quattro A2.
The rally was still receiving plaudits from all quarters. Even the old problem of running in other people’s dust was largely settled when Torres introduced, through FISA, the possibility to run cars at two-minute intervals instead of the traditional one. This innovation came to Portugal for the 1985 event. And so did the first of the new breed of rally cars: Timo Salonen won in Peugeot’s 205 T16 Group Bear after a major tussle with Walter Röhrl’s Audi Sport Quattro and the Lancia 037 of Miki Biasion.
The following year, everyone’s hopes of a glorious future for the WRC seemed to be coming true. The introduction of GpB had brought fantastic machines and a peak of interest from manufacturers. For Tones, it was an ambition realised to see 12 full factory cars and five teams starting his event. But it all turned to ashes. Salonen hit a cameraman on the opening Sintra stage, losing his Peugeot’s bodywork and breaking the man’s leg. Then Joaquim Santos, confronted by a wall of spectators, lost control of his Ford RS200 and crashed into the crowd, killing six on the spot. In the aftermath of rallying’s worst accident, the legendary organisation wavered for the first time.
The stage was not stopped straight away, and spectators stoned later participants for being callous. The second and third loops through Sintra were cancelled, though, and teams met with organisers in the Estoril Sol hotel to discuss the next move. Independently of their managers, the works drivers, under the unofficial chairmanship of Röhrl, opined it was unsafe to continue. Torres felt he did not have to give any assurances about additional crowd control and that the drivers were contracted to drive his rally. The team managers might have liked their drivers to continue, but were in no position to insist
It was a bad-tempered and black afternoon, made no better by news of further deaths from the hospital. The rally continued — but the factory cars stayed in the parc ferme. Those who continued found few spectators and the rally passed off without further incident Joaquirn Moutinho, a local competitor, won in a Renault 5 Turbo.
One of the side-effects of the driver’s strike was to polarise FISA opinion against, first the drivers, and ultimately the manufacturers, who had ‘ruined’ the Portuguese Rally. Balestre was soon rumbling about how he would bring the drivers into line with fiscal sanctions. Not long afterwards, when Henri Toivonen was killed, in order that no blame should fall on the organisers of the rallies, it was the manufacturers — and their Group B cars — that got both barrels from J-MB.
The terrible accident in 1986 did not have any negative effects on the Portuguese Rally. Torres had already got a Grand Prix at Estoril, in ’84, and was now president of the Estoril Tourist Office. Despite refusing to admit any negatives about the ’86 event, he and his team worked like fury behind the scenes to ensure noone could criticise the following year’s event. On most of the stages, there were policemen within sight of each other throughout, and these were in addition to the normal complement of marshals. The crowds had never been better behaved.
But as FISA — and then the FIA — introduced compact routes, service areas and limited numbers of tyres, with the aim of making the WRC less expensive and more attractive to factory teams, it was Portugal that hung on longest to its more traditional format In 1994, they were still running one whole leg on Tarmac, with the rest of the rally on gravel. This incurred double the development and testing for a single event. In ’95, it fell into line, the great innovator forced to follow the trend. Torres had not been able to step up to the presidency of FISA when Balestre stepped down in ’91, though he was still a vice-president and deputy to Max Mosley. However, in 1997 he was diagnosed with cancer and, after a short illness, died in December.
In theory, the Portuguese Rally should have carried on much as before. Its new, modem format was centered on the northern resort of Matosinhos, and the organisation was in place to run it. However, there was a degree of jostling for the vacancy left by Torres, and his successors were not as astute or well-connected as he. The rally showed signs of being underfunded and, when the 2001 event attracted atrocious weather, the organisation, like its two-wheel drive rescue vehicles, struggled to cope.
With several events with proven organisational skills clamouring to come in, Portugal was dropped from the WRC. For those who remember with affection and respect — Fafe, Arganil and Sintra, this was a sad but probably necessary decision.