Rally review, May 1976

The Portuguese Rally

Politics are to sport as water is to oil, and we have no time for any situation in which race, colour, creed or political leaning can exert influence on any sporting occasion, whether it be an angling contest, a major international rally or even a simple marbles match. Last year, the brave organisers of the Portuguese Rally went ahead and ran the event in the face of strong criticism from many who felt that the country’s political unrest presented a danger to the rally and all concerned with it. There were all manner of incidents, numerous roadblocks and even a shooting, but the rally nevertheless ran through to the finish with no more than a few small route cuts and a fair measure of prudence.

This year there were obviously fears that the political situation had not improved, although news reports did not give that impression. Entries were nothing like as numerous as they were in the past and eventually only 62 cars started, just seven of them driven by professional crews. As it happened, the fears proved to be quite needless, and it was a great shame that what was possibly the best organised Portuguese Rally to date, with enthusiastic crowds of Spectators everywhere, attracted far fewer cars than it deserved.

One local competitor summed up the feelings of his fellows by asking where were the British, the Swedes, the French, the Germans and all the other privateers who seemed to go back to Portugal year after year? “All is now quiet here: There is no danger.” He was right, everything was quiet and the only boisterous gatherings of people were at special stages to shout encouragement to the drivers as they went by.

In the past, the rally used to have numerous starting points around Europe, at cities with major airports served by Portuguese Airways, the event’s former sponsors. That gave way to a Lisbon start, with all’ the traffic and parking problems which one expects in city centres. Then the start was moved to Estoril, the resort some half an hour drive westward along the coast from Lisbon. It was here and at nearby Cascais that most visitots chose to stay anyway, so it was doubly inconvenient that the organisers kept their headquarters in Lisbon throughout the event.

This year all that was changed and the entire headquarters set-up was housed in the towering Estoril Sol Hotel overlooking the sea between Estoril and Cascais. Scrutiny was carried out in the hotel basement, whilst both start and finish were at Estoril Autodrome, just ten minutes drive inland. The hotel was once a dollar-catching stopping point for well-heeled tourists, mainly Americans in labelled groups, but nowadays the package-dealers have vanished and nearly every hotel is partially occupied by unfortunate refugees from Angola and Mozambique. It meant that for the week of the rally, competitors, mechanics, organisers and other visitors were virtually the only guests at the hotel. It was most convenient for all, except for those on the higher floors who had interminable waits for lifts which were being ambushed at every floor by the small children of the refugees.

As usual, the rally ran from Estoril in the South right up to Porto and beyond in the North. There are fine roads for special stages all over Portugal, and it would have been a more compact, workable route had it not used almost the entire length of the country. But the present backers of the rally are the producers of Vinho do Porto and it was natural that they should expect the rally to visit their home in the northern city.

There was a time when one could fit a rally car with “compromise” equipment which would enable it to perform adequately in all manner of varied conditions. Nowadays to be just adequate is not enough; one must have optimum performance at all times to have a chance of beating the other teams. The most difficult rallies are therefore those which run over varying surfaces in varying conditions, and great thought has to be given to such things as tyres, suspension ratings, differential ratios, etc. The Portuguese Rally presented conditions which were as varied as any, but there was no evidence of the standard Monte-Carlo practice of making last minute recce trips over the special stages to note all the ice and to determine which tyre/tread/ compound/stud combination will be best.

Stages were on both tarmac and dirt, with gravel and even mud turning up to catch the unwary. The weather produced sunshine, rain, mist, low cloud and even snow, so no one could say that the rally pandered to fair weather men.

Two works Stratos, two Toyotas, two Opels and a lone Alpine A310 “rented” from the Dieppe factory represented the entire professional contingent, who were more or less in a rally of their own, with the others following at a not so respectable distance. There were some well-driven locally entered cars, of course, notably the Opel Kadett GTE of Manuel Pereira who competes under the pseudonym “Meqepe”. He finished third.

Almost before the rally had got into its stride two of the leading runners were out, Walter Rohrl when his Opel Kadett GTE broke its central propshaft coupling less than half a kilometre into the first special stage, and Jean Ragnotti when his Alpine-Renault A310 lost adhesion on the “lift” of a slight crest on the second stage, left the road and pretty well destroyed the front left corner of the car. Not long after, Anders Kullang’s Kadett succumbed to head gasket failure and Hannu Mikkola’s Toyota Corolla, a newly-built car on its first rally, struck the footpath kerbstone during a sideways negotiation of a narrow bridge, sending the car into a wedged posirion between the stone parapets. The road was cleared pretty smartly with the help of spectators, but there was no hope that the badly damaged car could continue.

All this left just three runners, both the works Stratos of Sandro Munari and Raffaele Pinto and the Toyota Celica of Ove Andersson. The Brussels-based manager/ driver/developer drove magnificently and managed to get into second place, ahead of Pinto’s much more powerful Stratos, but in the second half the Italian began eating away at Andersson’s lead. Just as it looked as though he would move ahead, coil failure dropped him back again and eventually he finished fourth, behind both Andersson and “Meqepe”.

Both Stratos suffered gear selector failure at different times, Munari finding himself stuck in second and Pinto in third. This is by no means a new problem, for it stopped Munari on January’s Monte-Carlo Rally for a while. But at least it is well-known, so its remedy is straightforward if a little time-consuming. Indeed, it is necessary to remove protection devices and work on the unit from beneath in order to free the mechanism.

Munari was virtually untouchable. Right from the start he went into the lead and kept it to the end, despite having the use of just one gear on the whole of one stage and most of another. His victory gave Lancia another twenty World Championship points, bringing the make’s total to 50. Toyota picked up its first 15 points of the year, hut the most significant was Opel’s 12, bringing the German team to a striking position just 16 points behind Lancia. When this issue of Motor Sport appears, the Safari will be over and those totals will have changed, but that is the position after the first three events of the 1976 series.

Established rallies in the World Championship, such as the RAC, Thousand Lakes, Sanremo, Safari, etc., are pretty well assured of being chosen for the series year after year, but events which fall into slackness or less than customary popularity have to look very closely at their organisation for there are always new rallies coming up whose organisers are eager to join the major series of the world.

One such event is South Africa’s Total Rally which is held annually at the end of July, based on Pretoria. It has a secret route and uses special stages on forest roads, just like the ever-popular RAC Rally. There have been minor shortcomings in the past, but the organisers have been quick to put them right and we feel that the rally is most certainly of a standard worthy of the series; better, in fact, than some rallies already in the championship. However, there is a major problem concerning eligibility of cars. South Africa’s motor industry builds cars which are often quite unlike those of major manufacturers elsewhere, combining imported parts with home-produced ones to make cars which Europeans would consider to he hybrids—the Avenger with a Peugeot engine, for instance, the Marina V8 or the Firenza-Chevrolet.

A number of works rally teams operate in South Africa, some with cars which will comply with the FIA’s homologation requirements and some with cars which do not. It will be quite unfair on the latter teams if the CSI insists that if (or should we say when) the Total Rally gets World Championship status all cars taking part should be homologated. It will be just as unfair on private entrants, most of whose cars are made or assembled in the country with considerable local content and stand very little chance of meeting homologation requirements.

At present this is a big stumbling block in the path of World Championship status for the Total Rally. The organisers have discussed the matter at length with the CSI, and that body has brought up the matter at its meetings. At one recent meeting no solution was found and the problem was left until a future discussion. It seems quite certain, therefore, that the Total Rally will not be a counter in the championship even in 1977, but there are hopes that it will be selected for 1978. It deserves that status and we trust that the homologation problem will be sorted out sometime soon.

One event almost certain to be dropped from the series in 1977 is the Morocco Rally. This year it takes place towards the end of June, but as April came in there was precious little information available about the event, not even to confirm that the recent border troubles in Southern Morocco would not have any limiting effect on the rally. The real meat of the event is down in the south, with long special stages stretching across the rocky, arid scrublands on the edge of the Sahara, and the rally would lose a tremendous amount of its appealing character if these could not be used.

Once before, the Morocco Rally was taken out of the championship because its organisers simply neglected to apply formally for that status. Seemingly they have done that again, and we would not be surprised to see the event dropped from the series next year. It will be a great pity, for it is an event of tremendous significance in which much depends on tenacity, physical endurance and honest-to-goodness rallymanship as well as power and performance.—G.P.