When it was first held five years ago, some people thought that it had a connection with plumbing; others imagined that perhaps it was associated with the old RAF Tap Club, that Air Force group composed of male members who could prove that they had taken a bath in WRAF quarters. It turned out that the TAP Rally was, in fact, connected with flying, but not anything quite as ribald as the Tap Club; it was an international event in Portugal, sponsored by that country’s national airline Transportes Aéreos Portugueses—hence the initials.
The International TAP Rally began in 1967, although it had been held six times before that as a national event. In that comparatively short time it has earned for itself a reputation for toughness which most events could never hope to achieve in twice that time. In terms of popularity compared with other events in Europe, it is presently second only to the RAC Rally.
Of course, toughness alone does not guarantee a full entry list. Both professionals and amateurs are struggling to cope with the rising costs of international rallying, and all too often the question of whether to enter a particular rally is decided by the dictates of a budget. Financially, the TAP Rally is no great drain by any means, for the sponsors give generous help to both organisers and competitors, and go further by spreading their publicity throughout the whole of Europe, taking advantage of the local connections of TAP’s regional staff.
For private owners, the suitability of the TAP Rally is a matter for debate. Ignoring the cost of building a fast, strong car and the possibility of having to repair and rebuild it afterwards, the event is not anywhere near as expensive as most others of a similar grade. On the other hand, it takes a really competent crew in a sturdy car to be among the handful of finishers, and it can he a bit demoralising to return to Portugal year after year and never be listed among those who complete the route.
Although it has twenty special stages, it could be said that the TAP Rally is won or lost on public roads open to other traffic, for the road sections between special stages are incredibly tightly timed and often rough. This year, only four cars got through the first of the three competitive legs without losing any time on the road, and even they lost their clean sheets very quickly when the second leg started.
On events which have relaxed road sections, such as the RAC Rally, it is possible to make navigational mistakes and even to make hefty repairs to one’s car without losing time on the road. Consequently one can utilise the official roadbook without worrying too much about stopping occasionally to check one’s bearings. On the TAP Rally every second counts, and since the official roadbook is nothing like as clear and easy to follow as it might be, a reconnaissance is important for those who want to do well, so that all the little ambiguities are cleared up beforehand. There is certainly no time to investigate wrong roads during the rally itself.
A reconnaissance is a costly business, and if a private owner decides to invest in a pre-rally note-making session he is hardly likely to want to return to London (or Milan or Amsterdam or wherever) before starting the rally. This cuts right across TAP’s wish to have as many cars as possible starting from each of the thirteen starting points. The answer is to provide a roadbook which is completely accurate and simple to follow. It wouldn’t stop the professionals making pace notes on the stages, but it would tend to lessen the number of Lisbon starters to the benefit of the other twelve start points.
The major contenders in this year’s event included two cars from Lancia, two from Saab, three from Fiat, two from Alpine, two from Citroën, two from Daf and a selection of strongly supported dealer teams and private owners in Datsuns, Opels, Porsches, Citroëns and Fords.
Any rally difficult enough to reduce 137 starters to just nine finishers is sure to be surrounded by enough anecdotes and tales of woe to fill a volume. The TAP was just like that. Even on the first special stage there was more carnage than I have ever witnessed on a single stage in any other rally. On one particularly tight bend there was a sudden change of surface from tarmac to loose gravel and this caught out at least twenty drivers, most of them obviously running without the advantage of pace notes. Most of them managed to struggle away again, but some came into violent contact with trees or rolled into the undergrowth. Britisher Colin Malkin rolled his Imp when he missed a gear change whilst driving with a locked clutch.
Later, both Chris Sclater from London and Jan Henriksson from Stockholm failed to stop at a control when their brakes (Ford Escort and Opel Kadett respectively) faded and they crashed through a wall. Tony Fall (Datsun) ripped off a wheel against a rock, Carl Orrenius (Saab) suffered a broken limited slip differential, Sandro Munari (Lancia) lost his sump oil, Björn Waldegård (Porsche) had transmission failure, Stig Blomqvist (Saab) lost a wheel—twice, Robin Hillyar (Ford) had his clutch disintegrate and all three works Fiats had rear suspension failures.
A car which has always been fast but was once regarded as being far too fragile for the rougher rallies is the Alpine-Renault. Its strength is now unquestionable, and when one is driven by someone whose driving skill is matched by his physical stamina, you have a winning combination. Such a man is Jean-Pierre Nicolas; he and Jean Todt set up a commanding lead in their Alpine and were comfortable winners ahead of the Lancia Fulvia of Simo Lampinen and John Davenport.
As long as the Portuguese authorities continue to allow the TAP Rally organisers to set such difficult (perhaps impossible would be a better word) averages on open public roads, it will remain an event which is not for the faint-hearted. It is always received with wild enthusiasm by the Portuguese public, which suggests that it will continue for many years in its present style. If and when a change becomes necessary, it could very easily adopt a style similar to that of the RAC Rally, with the special stages being on closed public roads instead of the private ones used in Britain. Whatever happens, its future is guaranteed for as long as TAP continues to finance it so handsomely.