Rally review: Portuguese Rally, May 1987

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Group A shows its fragility

The Monte Carlo and Swedish rallies, first two rounds of the 1987 World Rally Championship, gave a clear demonstration of at least one effect of the prohibition of Group B cars and the switch to Group A by teams making serious bids for the championship. The drastic reduction in power and the increase in weight made cars visibly slower, Which was only to be expected, although some people expressed disappointment that the change had detracted from the excitement and spectacle of the sport, a view we do not entirely share. A less obvious but equally pertinent effect was the reduced strength of the cars. Bodywork and crew protection are substanflatly stronger on the Group A cars, but items such as suspensions and transmissions can no longer be rnade as beefy as they were in Group B.

This effect did not manifest itself in the first two rounds of the year as they were both on smooth roads, but the Portuguese Rally was an altogether different proposition and the comparatively fragile Group A cars did not take too readily to the rough roads. Ease of servicing was also affected, for it takes longer to change certain components on a Group A car than on a much-modified Group B car. The development of Group B was not confined to increasing power, strength and reliability — equally important was the facility to replace parts such as gearbox, axles and suspensions without undue delay. The components of Group B cars were therefore engineered so that they could be replaced quickly, but this is not yet the case with Group A cars.

The Portuguese Rally provided the first opportunity for Group A cars to be put to the test on rough roads in the heat of competition, and the outcome for some teams was both unexpected and disappointing. Mazda, for instance, the team which was victorious in Sweden, lost both its cars with transmission failure, whilst even the winners in Portugal, Markku Alen and Ilkka Kivimaki in a Lancia Delta HF, used up shock absorbers at such an alarming rate that the team’s entire stock was used up and a further supply had to be flown in from Italy.

For some years, the opening stages of the Portuguese Rally were on tarmac roads in the region of Sintra, not far west of Lisbon. These attracted such vast crowds that competing cars were faced with running the gauntlet between massed ranks of spectators eager to get so close to the passing cars that they could touch them as they went by. It was almost inevitable that a serious accident would happen, and it did last year when a car ran into the crowd, killing several people and injuring many others.

Until then, the organisers had not been too concerned about the spectator problem. Crowd control was virtually non-existent, and in any case they understood only too well that merely watching is not enough for Portuguese crowds; they want to join in! But the outcry after this serious accident was so vociferous, and the unprecedented withdrawal from the rally of the leading professional crews so immediate, that for 1987 they were forced to take steps to lessen the risks to both competitors and spectators.

The notorious loop of stages near Sintra was taken out of the rally, a guide to safe spectating published widely, and plastic ribbon put up along special stages to indicate the lines beyond which spectators were not allowed to pass. Alas, those ribbons were not always in the correct places, whilst some spectators ignored them and others regarded them as solid barriers behind which they would be beyond the reach of cars going off the road.

In place of the Sierra stages was one which used the racing circuit at Estoril, where cars left the start in “heats” of eight cars, at ten second intervals. Later a similar stage was held on a specially constructed road at Braga, using mixed surfaces rather than all tarmac. FISA has referred to such tests as “Super Special Stages”, and even laid down standards such as complete spectator isolation and the provision of facilities for live television coverage. The implication was that this was something new, but of course such stages have been held in Britain for many years, the RAC Rally having visited Silverstone, Ingliston, Castle Combe and Brands Hatch, to name but a few. The feed-on-feed-off system of running a circuit stage has even been used on the old motorcycle racing circuit at Mynydd Epynt. Even in Portugal the use of a circuit stage is not new. The replacement of Sintra by Estoril was like turning the clock back to the event’s early days, when the opening stage consisted of several laps of the banked oval at Jose Alvalade cycle stadium in Lisbon itself.

Despite efforts to persuade spectators that their own lives, those of competitors and even that of the rally itself would be in jeopardy if they stood in dangerous positions, this year there was again a fatal accident. On one of the northern stages a car went into a crowd of spectators standing on the outside of a bend, killing one and injuring several others. There was a delay while ambulances went in, but the rally was not halted and there were no withdrawals.

However, some searching questions are being asked concerning the future of the Portuguese Rally and its status as a World Championship qualifier. FISA professes to be constantly in pursuit of improved safety standards, but much of its action in this respect is totally misdirected.

The shortening of overall distances, for instance, and those of individual stages, does nothing to improve safety. Whatever argument there was in favour of such reductions can no longer apply, for cars are now much slower and the need to lessen driver fatigue has gone. Furthermore, increasing distances would reduce spectator concentration, and that can only be for the good of the sport.

Neither Audi nor Ford sent their teams to Portugal, whilst both Peugeot and Austin Rover are still without suitable cars since their 205 T16 and Metro 6R4, respectively, were effectively banned.

It is interesting to note that Peugeot’s legal action against FISA for prematurely ending Group B has succeeded. The action was based on the fact that Peugeot’s enormous financial investment in their Group B cars was, at one stroke, reduced to total loss, and we gather that the damages awarded were of equally huge proportions, far higher than FlSA could be expected to afford. Whether there will be negotiations between Peugeot and FISA for concessions, in return for a reduction vlthe amount of damages, remains to be seen. Until the regulations governing eligibility are changed again, further legal action from other manufacturers may result.

The main protagonists in Portugal were Lancia, Mazda, Renault and Volkswagen, rather a lean field of professionals compared with past years. Lancia and Mazda were expected to fight for the lead, for the VW Golfs were far less powerful and Renault operates on a slim budget and with a relatively small support organisation.

But it didn’t turn out that way. Both Mazdas retired with transmission failures, whilst Lancia had so much trouble with shock absorbers that Renault came very close indeed to winning.

The route was divided into four legs, two of them further divided so there were six effective parts to the rally. As usual, that part of Portugal which is to the north of Lisbon was used, most of the action being concentrated in the central and northern part of that area. In all, there were 37 special stages.

Although the Ford team was not taking part, there were two privately prepared Sierra Cosworths from Britain for Spanish driver Carlos Sainz and Portuguese driver Joaquim Santos. On the circuit stage at Estoril it was Sainz who took a marginal lead, but when the leaders emerged from the first dirt road stage over the mountain at Montejunto, Alen (Lancia) and Jean Ragnotti (Renault 11) had moved ahead to share first place. After one more stage, the Lancia driver was in front.

On the next stage the lead switched again to Ragnotti, and there were some very surprised faces indeed when the French team showed itself to be a match for the might of Lancia. But the situation did not remain for long; when the first leg ended after six more stages Alen was back in the lead — by just 17 sec— and all three Lancias had been given new gearboxes.

Ragnotti had experienced failing brakes, Alen indifferent handling, whilst Salonen’s Mazda needed both its centre differential and gearbox replaced. Ingvar Carlsson’s second Mazda had its sumpguard removed in order to alleviate overheating — a risky remedy indeed, although there were no mishaps on this occasion. Francois Chatriot’s works Renault 11 lost its alternator and its lights until the fault was traced to a broken wire, whilst Kenneth Eriksson had a substantial scare when his Volkswagen Golf completely lost its brakes on a fast, downhill section; he managed to keep the car on the road, but it was a very close thing. Later, the fault was traced to a loose bleed nipple. Sainz’s opening heroics came to nothing when first his Sierra’s shock absorbers overheated, then it shed a wheel, then stopped altogether with a defunct turbocharger.

Rain before the second leg made the going very slippery indeed. The Mazda suspensions left much to be desired, and both cars needed new gearboxes. Biasion’s Lancia came to a stop when its engine unaccountably went dead, and no amount of pushing by spectators would get it going. Eventually, the suggestion came by radio that they should try switching to the spare fuel pump, and when this was done the engine burst into life. The need to have the broken pump replaced at the next service point meant that there was no time to have new suspension parts fitted, and urgency turned to near chaos when Kankkunen arrived with a broken front strut.

Ragnotti’s brakes were still poor, whilst Eriksson had a strut sieze completely, which resulted in the car leaning at an alarming angle from then on. Salonen’s transmission replacements did nothing to quell an ominous noise, which persisted even after a suspect half shaft was changed. Eventually, all drive vanished, and the car went no further.

Another to retire was Erwin Weber. Having put his VW Golf off the road and down a bank, he was being pushed back by spectators when another car promptly knocked it back down again, with no chance of getting away. At the end of the second leg Alen’s lead over Ragnotti was nearly two minutes, but Lancia’s shock absorber breakages had reached alarming proportions and already there were doubts as to whether there would be enough to complete the rally. And all the time Ragnotti was uncomfortably close behind.

Biasion, in the meantime, was plagued by an enormous problem when his gearbox jammed in second and there was no opportunity to have it changed. He had to complete no fewer than six stages in second gear before there was time for replacement, and by that time the inevitable overheating had affected the engine.

Lancia likes to have its support helicopter land immediately adjacent to service areas, so that its crew have no need to walk or be provided with ground transport. This was its undoing at the short stop in Regua. The pilot made an approach into a confined area between buildings, came to the hover, then manoeuvred backwards in order to leave enough space for servicing when the cars arrived. The aircraft got a bit too close to a parked pick-up truck and as it descended its tail rotor ripped through the vehicle’s tailgate like a circular saw. The fairly new Squirrel helicopter was unable to fly again and it took another complete day before Lancia was able to organise a replacement.

In the meantime, Lancia’s shock absorber problem had become serious, and Alen was obliged to slow down and make sure he avoided holes and rocks. Even when the fourth leg started, the new consignment of shock absorbers had not arrived from Italy, and Alen’s dampers broke even on the short tarmac stretch at the start of the rough Arganil stage. His lead over Ragnotti dropped to four seconds, and concern gave way to alarm. Finally the new shock absorbers arrived. Thus rejuvenated, Alen pulled out the stops, and wasted no time halting Ragnotti’s advance and increasing his precarious lead to more comfortable proportions.

Carlsson had already gone out when his Mazda’s gearbox broke, just as Salonen’s had, whilst Eriksson lost his Volkswagen’s clutch and had to make stage starts with the gnition key. Later, he went off the road and put a rear wheel badly askew, but nevertheless went on to finish an excellent third.

Biasion’s troubles were by no means ended by new shock absorbers. A petrol pipe came off, then he collected a puncture, and then broke a driveshaft. As if that were not enough his steering broke, and the whole lot cost him 29 min in road penalties. However, when his car was healthy his times were excellent, and he was fastest on more stages than anyone.

Lancia’s lead in the championship was now extended to 27 points over Mazda, whilst all three leading drivers in the category are Lancia men – Kannkunen, Alen, Biasion, in that order. The next round is the Safari, but Mazda is not going to Kenya, and Lancia is only sending one car, to be driven by local man, Vic Preston jnr.   GP