The TAP Rally

Rally review

Fiat’s sweeping success

There was a time when Italian sporting people appeared on rallies in a variety of hotly-tuned Fiat 500s, the occasional Alfa Romeo or one or another of the Lancia range, the Fulvia being the most popular in recent years. Then came Fiat’s 124 Spider, and suddenly it became the car for every well-appointed Italian amateur driver to possess. There was no Fiat factory team then, and experienced foreign drivers going to Italy for the Sanremo Rally used to gaze in horror at the number of scantily prepared Spiders lined up at the start, nearly all of them with canvas hoods and no roll bars.

There was a recognised circus of works teams in those days, and Fiat was certainly not among them. Like General Motors, Fiat had a staid, unsporting reputation and anyone using one of the Turin cars for rallying was obviously doing it for fun, with no illusions whatsoever about winning anything.

Times have changed. Slowly, Fiats began appearing which were rather better prepared than most, and certain drivers began appear ing regularly in them. The Fiat works team was beginning to evolve. A department was set up for the supply of competition parts to private customers and this department also prepared cars which were entered in rallies by a few regular crews and were later returned to the Turin workshops for repreparation for the next event. The same faces appeared regularly among the service crews and their vehicles were all registered in Turin.

Almost without being noticed, the Fiat works team had emerged on the scene. Today, the team is based not in one of the Fiat factories but at one of the two Abarth plants in Turin, for the 124 Spider has since been modified by Abarth as a result of knowledge gained from those early days of rallying with the 124 Spider. At the end of 1973 even further development was nearing completion and in March this year the team took four latest specification Fiat Abarth 124s to Portugal for the TAP Rally. It was the first World Championship qualifier of the year and the first appearance of what the team refers to as “the new car”. It was a resoundingly successful debut, for three of the cars finished in first, second and third places,the fourth retiring when the driver had to leave the road to avoid another car stuck in the middle of a special stage.

For a long time there was doubt as to whether the TAP Rally would be run at all, for Portugal has felt the petrol scarcity rather more keenly than most countries. But the government finally agreed to allow the rally to take place, the National Tourist Office backing the event to compensate for the reduction of TAP’s own budget, a reduction made necessary by the increased cost of aviation fuel—and the sponsor is an airline after all.

During the rally itself there was no shortage of petrol for competitors; adequate provision had been made to ensure that certain filling stations were open at the times the rally passed through and that they had enough fuel for all. But such arrangements did not apply during the weeks before the rally and many crews had to cut their training short simply because they were getting low on fuel and were not able to get any more.

Foreign registered cars and local ones being used by foreign tourists were allowed to get petrol at times when the Portuguese were not—Sundays, for instance—but if the filling stations had none to provide, the concession didn’t amount to much. Nevertheless, it was a situation which gave no rise for complaints, for all the competitors knew exactly what the country was facing and appreciated that in these circumstances they had to fend for themselves as rallying people usually do anyway.

Three of the four Fiats were crewed by regular Italian drivers, Raffaele Pinto/ Arnaldo Bernacchini, Alcide Paganelli/Ninni Russo and Sergio Barbasio/Piero Sodano. Pinto and Paganelli finished first and second whereas it was Barbasio who had the misfortune to ditch when driving off the road to go around an Opel stuck in the middle of the road. The fourth Fiat was driven by Finnish pair Markku Alen and Ilkka Kivimaki. They used to drive for Volvo Finland; but since last year’s RAC Rally they have been in works Escorts. The days of exclusive contracts for everyone are long over, though some teams stick to them, so when Fiat realised that Alen was tied to neither Volvo nor Ford and was without a car for the TAP Rally, they snapped him up and he rewarded them with third place.

The incredible thing about Alen’s performance was the fact that the Rally was his first ever with pace notes to aid him. All experienced professionals are highly expert in the science of describing roads accurately with words and making those words almost entirely monosyllabic in order that they may be read at a speed which corresponds with the speed of the car. The whole process demands such precision that it takes considerable practice before anything like perfection is achieved. Alen has always been a natural driver who has preferred, even on the Rally of a Thousand Lakes, to drive “on sight” from what he can deduce from the road ahead, so the sudden switch to notes must have upset his normal style a great deal

The biggest rivals to the Fiats were the Opels, two from the Russelsheim-based European Dealer Team and one prepared in Sweden for the British Dealer Opel Team, as it is called. The cars from Germane, driven by Walter Rohrl/Jochen Berger and Achim Warmbold/Jean Todt, were powered by the usual cross-flow engines which have proved to be far from reliable in the past In February’s Arctic Rally they had Kugel-fischer fuel injection but on this occasion they had carburetters, the power output said to have been reduced from more than 200 b.h.p. to 180 b.h.p. Even so they did not achieve the required reliability; Rohrl’s engine holed a piston and Wambold had a prop-shaft bearing shake itself to pieces after the rear shock absorbers had broken.

The car built in Sweden by the GM Dealer Team had a conventional cylinder head and was far more reliable, though less powerful. It was driven by Tony Fall and Robin Turvey, the latter co-driver making one of the two or three outings a year which he has made since leaving the Rootes Works Team many years ago. During the last morning of the rally they were forced into when a pin fell out of the front suspension links leaving Fall without steering.

British Leyland was represented by one car from Abingdon, a Triumph Dolomite Sprint driven by Brian Culcheth and Johnstone Syer, and a collection of Marinas) Maxis and a Mini from BL Portugal. Culcheth’s activities as BL’s only works driver comes under the direction of BL International and each visit to a foreign rally is made as a publicity exercise on behalf of the local importing or assembling company. The car is prepared at the Abingdon Special Tuning ! Department, and it does seem that there ts a great lack of co-ordination between the two divisions. Culcheth would be considerable more successful with his activities if he were backed by a greater determination by the Abingdon management to provide the best possible car with the best possible preparation. The Sprint has been around in prototype form for some years and by now one would have thought that the bugs would have been ironed out. Alas they have not, even though their nests have been located.

In the TAP Rally Culcheth retired on the very first special stage when a far from adequate suspension allowed enough travel for the sumpguard to hit a rock so hard that it moved up and bent the steering rack. It was exactly the sort of misfortune that proper, rally-bred dampers might have prevented.

Of the Japanese manufacturers both Datsun and Toyota were represented, the former by three new 260Zs sent from Japan and the latter by a Celica and a Corolla Levin (both with 1.6-litre twin-cam engines) borrowed from the company’s European headquarters at Brussels to be entered privately. Having suspended its competition activities due to the economic situation in Japan, Toyota froze the budget allocated to Ove Andersson for the semi-works rallying activities which he undertakes from his home in Sweden. Nevertheless he was able to borrow the Levin for himself and an unriallied Celica for Bjorn Waldegard, the latter being one of the ears originally sent to Europe for this year’s ill-fated Monte Carlo Rally.

The Celica succumbed early in the event to a mysterious electrical failure which completely stopped the transistorised ignition system, but the Levitt went on to finish fourth overall despite various suspension troubles and, towards the end, a gearbox without second gear.

The Datsuns were again suffering from badly fading brakes, a fault which ought to have been rectified by now considering the frequency of complaints from drivers about bad brakes. However, that was not the major problem; there was a fault in the lubrication system which affected all three cars, for when the engine revolutions reached 6,500 r.p.m. the oil pressure faded to nothing. Harry Kiillstrom spotted this in time and took great care not to exceed that number of revolutions from then on, but it took the other drivers by surprise and both Ingvar Carlsson, a Swede who formerly drove BMWs for the Swedish dealers, and Mario Figueiredo, a Portuguese Datsun driver, retired with engines affected by the lack of lubrication.

Of the British private drivers, Chris Sclater and Neil Wilson were the best placed in ninth position overall. They would have been higher had not the clutch of their Ford Escort RS (with 2-litre aluminium 16-valve engine) stopped working as they were leaving a service point. The rod somehow managed to pull itself out of the slave cylinder, and by the time that was fixed, a hanging exhaust pipe wired up and a faulty alternator replaced, they had lost some 23 minutes of road time—as opposed to special stage time.

In its shortened form (due to the petrol situation) the TAP Rally was a better designed event than it has ever been. Gone were the tedious concentration runs from various major airport cities in Europe (TAP is Portugal’s airline) and instead the rally was divided cleanly into two legs with 16 special stages in each. The start was at Lisbon, the overnight stop at Ofir in the North and the finish at Estoril racing circuit, some 15 miles from Lisbon, where a slalom up and down the pits straight served to attract thousands of spectators despite the pouring rain.

It was a tough, demanding event, with rough roads, plenty of rain, a great deal of fog and such a punisher that only 40 cars finished from the 119 starters. The TAP Rally would do well to keep the same style in future years and not revert to the practice of using concentration runs.

For Fiat it was the most significant and most sweeping success ever, for Raffaele Pinto went into the lead right at the start and never lost it, spurring his team-mates on to stay with him. No doubt the presence of Alen in the team had something to do with it, for the Italians were probably not going to allow themselves to be beaten by someone who was driving their kind of car for the first time. – G.P.