Autumn in Portugal Rally
Despite its proximity to the RAC Rally, October has always been a popular month for British private entrants to go rallying overseas. Perhaps the lure of sunshine when Britain is about to say goodbye to hers has something to do with it, but a more likely reason is the abundance of attractive non-championship rallies on the Continent during that month.
Among those events, the one which has generated most publicity is the Autumn in Portugal Rally which has as its main sponsor Portugal’s national airline, TAP. Since the airline has its own public relations network throughout its area of operation, it was natural that the rally organisers should make use of it, and in the three years which the rally has been running it has attracted competitors from most European countries.
This year 11 nationalities were represented, and the event began with a multi-start run-in to a converging point at San Sebastian, in much the same way as the Monte Carlo Rally does it. Among seasoned competitors such boring preludes are unpopular, but sponsors do need a return for their investments and this spread of publicity is just what an airline wants. In any case, it is a small price to pay for free entries and contributions towards hotel expenses, items which are of considerable import to private entrants without factory resources.
British entrants numbered 19, 11 of them choosing to start from London. Apart from two who started from Paris (presumably because they didn’t like sea crossings) the remainder started from Portugal in order that they could carry out a reconnaissance before the start.
The British offshoot of Milan’s Jolly Club, run from Wolverhampton by Oliver Speight Racing, had entered three cars. One was a 1,600-c.c. Lancia Fulvia for Cohn Malkin/John Davenport and the others were Ford Escort TCs for John Bloxham/Richard Harper and Chris Sclater/Mike Wood. The Lancia didn’t start the rally proper because of recurring gasket-blowing after overheating, and the two Escorts failed to finish the whole route within the time allowance, but were nevertheless classed as finishers. To be so classified, all one had to do was to reach the half-way point, which is rather a strange way to define a finisher.
Since Britain’s Tony Fall won the rally last year in a Lancia, it was natural that the Italian factory should give him another for this year’s event. The car was a somewhat used 1,300-c.c. Fulvia, co-driven by Henry Liddon. Together, they put up the best performance, leading the incredibly meagre handful of four cars which completed the whole route within the time allowance.
Unfortunately, there was an incident at the last control of the rally which resulted in Fall and Liddon being disqualified. This had nothing whatsoever to do with the car or the performance of its crew, but arose from the merest of technicalities. Fall arrived at the control a few minutes early and stopped short of the actual control zone. His car was immediately mobbed by the crowd, who threatened to crush his wife against its side. Rather than allow this, he let her into the car and she was still in it when Liddon had his time card stamped. The rule of “unauthorised passenger” was immediately invoked and disqualification resulted, a decision which was confirmed at a sitting of the “international jury” the following day.
Strict observance of the rules is something which has been instilled into rallyists—witness Monte Carlo strictness—over many years, and to be exactly to the book Fall should not have allowed anyone into his car until his rally was completely over. But no-one can blame him for taking steps to prevent his wife being jostled against the side of the car by the excited crowd. The letter of the regulation was followed by the organisers, but whether it was the right sporting decision is a question we will leave you to ponder.
In their eagerness to attract entries, the organisers and sponsors made the rally very attractive to private entrants. But there is no question of its being any less difficult than a European Championship qualifier. Although there were only to special stages, the road sections themselves were often far more difficult, and with opposing traffic to think about, to boot. The result was a tremendously high retirement rate which chopped the 126 starters to a mere four cars which completed the whole route within the time allowance. Some got lost, some just didn’t go quickly enough, and others suffered mechanical breakages. But the proportion of crashes was high compared with most rallies and it was indeed a good thing that Portugal’s populace, and its authorities, were in favour of the event. A less tolerant administration might well have rebelled against future rallies. Certainly no event this nature could ever be held in Britain.
For instance, there were many cases of fast sections being routed through village squares and their wet cobblestones. With thousands of people allowing but a narrow passageway for the cars they took the risk of having a dozen of their number mown down each time a car hung out its tail a few feet. But there was no such slaughter and every competitor and spectator to whom I spoke afterwards said that they’d enjoyed every moment of it.
Officially, these were open public roads, but spectators took it upon themselves to seal them off from everything else, particularly in townships, and woe betide the local driver who dared to attempt driving down a road against rally traffic.
When it was over, I heard opinions expressed that the event was so demanding, both physically and mechanically, that it had gone far beyond the scope of private entrants and that it could now only be tackled properly by works teams with full factory support. Indeed, it is so severe that privateers would have little chance of winning, but to suggest that they should keep away is nonsense. If they enjoy rallying of the tough kind then they will enjoy the Autumn in Portugal Rally whether they have an eye on the winners’ rostrum or not. I might add that the aforementioned opinions were expressed by professionals!
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Last year the Marathon to Sydney probably took away some of its entries, and the previous year there was no rally at all due to foot and mouth disease, but this year the RAC Rally of Great Britain promises to be the most hotly contested yet. Works teams have been entered by Ford of Britain, British Leyland, Saab, Lancia and, making their first real appearance on a European event, Datsun. Added to these are some extremely good British and overseas private entrants and a considerable number of those with partial factory support.
The whole adds up to an entry list numbering almost 200, and if you add the service crews, both private and professional, officials and the usual vast crowds of spectators you will appreciate the magnitude of this countrywide sporting event.
Once again the roads through Britain’s State Forests are to be used as special stages, and we can say that the start will be at London’s Centre Airport Hotel at 11.01 on November 15th, the night stop will be at Blackpool on the Monday night, and the finish will be in London on the Wednesday evening.—G. P.