In the good old days, the Safari Rally was restricted to Gp 1 cars. It was a genuine test of a road car’s ability and manufacturers such as Peugeot and Volkswagen sold a good many cars in East Africa on the strength of it. Highly tuned Gp 2 machines didn’t make their first appearance until 1970.
There is still some mileage in this approach. Daewoo is the latest oriental predator to move into the Kenyan market and its aggressive selling of its Opel-based models has done something to throw the Japanese onto the defensive, just as the Japanese long since overpowered the European makers. Azar Anwar’s remarkable Safari success will be trumpeted long and loud by Kingsway Motors, and Daewoo sales will no doubt mushroom profitably. The fact that he crawled round within minutes of his maximum lateness, safe in the knowledge that he had the only surviving F2 car will be lost to sight: reliability had triumphed.
All car manufacturers like to maintain that motorsport success, particularly in rallying, demonstrates the worth of the showroom shoppingmobile, but the majority of them are united in campaigning for rally cars that bear no more than a passing resemblance to the showroom product.
Like most agreements of this sort, the unanimous acceptance of kit cars is a compromise. The Japanese were perfectly happy with Gp A regulations, but uneasy that Ford was the only “European” firm prepared to follow suit. The European factories have come to realise that performance cars are extremely hard to sell, now that every bored teenager and petty crook has realised how easy it is to steal them. The collapse in sales of such models has as much to do with the rise of the kit car concept as the awareness that new type approval regulations will soon clamp down on even the most minor changes to road cars; in short order, the fitting of a roll cage or a tripmeter will infringe type approval requirements, unless the manufacturer approves the modification.
For the Japanese, agreeing to kit cars is the price of retaining four-wheel drive; for the Europeans, a means of getting four-wheel drive, or at least escaping the onerous need to make a road version that will sell in minute quantities.
Recognising the inevitable, the FIA has belatedly declared that four-wheel drive and even turbocharging aren’t dirty words, and that World Championship rally cars may have both without replicating a similar road car. It is no longer a question of whether we have kit cars, but how many and what form they take.
The current situation may be described as a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, which is to say that it is welcome, while not providing an instant, long-term solution. There has been no indication as to whether four-wheel drive kit cars will be allowed on national rallies God knows, there are already quite enough highly expensive four-wheel drive cars being squirted around airfield rallies at well below their potential nor how their performance will be controlled.
The FIA believes that turbo restrictors are the answer. It is palpably obvious that the 34-millimetre inlet has finally tamed Gp A power outputs this year and controlling power is perhaps the key to preventing a return to the lethal excesses of Gp B. However, there are already hints that controlling the rest of the car may prove difficult. Converting two-to four-wheel drive will inevitably permit a large degree of freedom in cutting the floorpan about to accept a propshaft and modified rear suspension. Some are already talking of carbon fibre panels and bulkheads. They won’t be cheap. Will they be safe?
There is also the small matter of F2. Permitting F2 kit cars to take on non-kit versions of four-wheel drive was the first step in the now-discredited “equivalence” process, by which the FIA hoped to produce equal performance from the two types of car. Even the most radical four-wheel drive fans believe there is a place for F2, but many of them hold that they should conform to conventional Gp A rules, with none of the exotic, costly engine changes that Renault has already exploited on the Clio Maxi. The trouble is, most F2 manufacturers have already started work on kit cars, even if they preferred the cheaper, pure F2 option. Two-wheel drive kit cars may be too far advanced to be stopped. Hold the clean sheet of paper up to the light and the difficulty of making a tidy break where production-based competition cars are concerned becomes all too apparent.