Hard on the heels of South Africa’s Total Rally, and leaving only about a week available for reconnaissance by those few drivers who did both events, was the Austrian Alpine Rally, ninth qualifier for the World Rally Championship. Alas, it ended in confusion when protests, appeals and even courts of enquiry caused the results to be unconfirmed, the prizegiving to be delayed and championship points to be withheld. But before you start thinking that such happenings are common, let us explain the circumstances which gave rise to them.
The Alpenfahrt has a mixed history dating back to early in the century, and in its time it has been occasionally combined with sorties into other countries. Indeed, it is really the event which gave rise to France’s Coupe des Alpes, although the latter event became better known in recent years. But despite the considerable experience of the Austrians in organising rallies in the past, the present organising team has very little idea of the technical complexities of running a modern rally and how to overcome them.
In administration matters the OAMTC is first class, but it seems that the technical matters of route selection, control location, section timing etc. were completely outside the club’s sphere of knowledge. Consequently an Austrian competitor was retained to handle these matters, and they took so long that the whole organisation job fell behind. What is more, when queries arose the club officials were not in a position to answer them, and the whole thing became very disjointed indeed. Even on the day of the start there were bulletins which gave details of route changes, location of passage controls and various other matters which really should have been finalised long before. It was not a situation which inspired confidence, and competitors were not exactly in a happy frame of mind when they started.
Entries for the Austrian Alpine Rally were very good; Alpine wanted to extend even further its championship lead, whilst Fiat, the only other manufacturer in a position to oust the French team, was equally keen to score points. Volkswagen was represented by a team of 1303Ss entered by VW-Porsche-Salzburg, Toyota by a single Celica entered from Sweden, Citroen by the Austrian Z-Team, Saab and BMW by their own factory teams and Opel by various tuning concerns backed by factory mechanics.
There seemed every chance that the competition throughout the three legs, from Wednesday evening to Friday afternoon, would be exciting, for the head of the field was well studded with good motor cars in the hands of good drivers. But it didn’t turn out that way. The Fiats never figured prominently at all, only one of the three 124 Abarth Spiders finishing, and the two Alpines gave the impression that their drivers had been instructed merely to stay ahead of the Fiats, not to go all out for a win.
Throughout the event it was Achim Warmbold, with French co-driver Jean Todt in a works BMW 2002, who was the man of the rally for his times were such that he remained firmly implanted in the lead. In the first part of the event the young German driver Walter Rohrl in an Opel Ascona was sticking to Warmbold’s tail, but a broken differential resulted in retirement when, at a major service point, it transpired that the Opel service vehicles there were not carrying any replacements. Later in the rally Stig Blomqvist was the man who looked as though he might begin to worry Warmbold, but he made a premature return to Baden, where the event was centred, when a drive shaft fractured at its spline deep inside the unit which combines gearbox and differential on a Saab.
Without Rohrl and Blomqvist to worry him, Warmbold seemed to ease up fractionally but he nevertheless remained comfortably in the lead until the series of incidents which led to the rumpus at the end. Firstly he became in urgent need of service after damaging a rear wishbone on his BMW and took steps to seek his support crew without delay. To do this he left the official route, but it so happened that he passed through a control which wasn’t exactly in the right place. Had it been at the correct spot there would have been no problem for he would not have passed through it. His action was seen by officials and when the rally was over the organisers decided to disqualify him for passing through a control in the wrong direction. One can sympathise with Warmbold a great deal, for his co-driver Todt made quite sure before suggesting the detour to his partner that they would not pass through any control. Had the marshals set up their point in the correct place there would have been no problem at all. Warmbold protested, and when the protest was disallowed he gave notice of appeal which meant that no results could be finally declared and no championship points awarded.
The other incident concerned a section of very rough route which could be by-passed by a smoother one. There were many short-cuts possible during the event, and most had been blocked, but in the case of this one the organisers took the remarkable step of issuing a written bulletin before the start (in German and in English) declaring that competitors could go either way. It so happened that the two Alpines chose the rough road and most other people the smooth one. Behold, the smooth one was blocked by an unattended Citroen parked across a narrow part of the road and locked. A whole string of cars was held up, Warrnhold’s BMW among them. It was this incident which cost the German driver his first place and dropped him to fifth, where he would have finished but for his disqualification. This was the subject of another protest, for it was felt that all penalties on the section on which the road was deliberately blocked should be cancelled, particularly as the organisers themselves had decreed that competitors could choose either route.
What made matters worse was the allegation by some drivers that they had seen the Alpine team manager in the trees near the scene of the road blockage, and the discovery later that the Citroen had been used by a French journalist. There were all manner of accusations and denials, it being later suggested that perhaps the Alpine people had not realised, despite the official bulletin, that either road could be used and had simply taken steps to block a road which they felt should not have been used.
There were no unruly scenes at the end of the rally, but there were some pretty heated discussions. particularly when the panel of stewards turned itself into a court of enquiry to take evidence on the road blockage incident.
To get back to the rally itself, towards the end it seemed that the two Alpine drivers, neither affected by road penalties incurred by the others, were at last pulling out the stops. Perhaps they had been told that since there was only one Fiat left they need no longer hold back a little. In any event, what transpired was an incredible tussle between Bernard Darniche (Alpine) and Per Eklund (Saab). Darniche finally beat the Swedish driver by just eleven tenths of a second, a margin explained by the fact that the timing on special stages was to the nearest tenth of a second. When hand-held watches are used, the nearest second is far more appropriate, and when all the tenths were taken away from all the stage time (just as a mental exercise by the Saab people) it resulted in Darniche and Eklund dead-heating.
Initially, Darniche was declared the provisional winner, with Eklund second, but the appeal put a stop to anything being made final and we must wait for the machinery of the sporting judiciary to turn before knowing the outcome. Meanwhile, the championship positions must stay as they were after the Rally of the Thousand Lakes, with Alpine having 92 points and Fiat 69.
It was indeed a great shame that an old classic such as the Alpenfahrt should end in confusion and frustration, but the organisers must shoulder much of the responsibility themselves. Had they been aided by the undivided services of a man with recent competition experience the whole event would very likely have progressed without a hitch. Whether it will be accepted for the 1974 World Championship after the FIA inspector makes his report on this year’s event remains to be seen. — G.P.