The Sanremo Rally
If you drive eastwards through the mountains from the Alpine stamping ground of the Monte-Carlo Rally, keeping as near parallel to the northern Mediterranean coastline as possible, when you cross the border into Italy you will be in the equally mountainous area used annually by the Sanremo Rally, Italy’s premier event of the year and qualifier in the World Rally Championship. The terrain is the same and the tortuous climbs and descents have just as many twists and hairpins as the French roads you will have just left. The big difference is that most of the French roads have tarmac surfaces whereas the Italian ones, apart from main routes, are largely unmetalled, varying from impacted dirt to loose gravel or even chunks of sharp rock the size of billiard balls.
At least, that’s how it used to be. In the past year Italian road improvers must have been working at a fast rate for when competitors began their recces for this year’s Sanremo Rally they discovered that the greater proportion of the route was on tarmac, the first time this had ever happened to this event. It once had a reputation for taxing the resources of tyremen to the extreme, for one mountain pass climbed on loose, sharp rocks which were puncture-provoking to say the least, and then descended (on the shady side of the mountain) on ice and snow. Studded tyres fitted for the descent invariably had their little spikes of hard metal distorted, blunted or even knocked out altogether by the rough, hard surface of the ascent, and it was no easy problem to determine what to do for the best.
This year’s Sanremo Rally, which finished at the Riviera dei Fiori town of that name on October 5th, presented problems of a like nature, except that the surfaces were further along the scale. There was no snow and there was no ice, but the dirt and gravel were often mixed up with stretches of tarmac. Racing tyres, the best for the tarmac, would be highly vulnerable on the dirt and stones, whereas chunky tyres would hardly produce the best times on the asphalt. Some people chose compromise tyres for the whole lot whilst others decided to chop and change from racers to other tyres whenever necessary.
This year the Fiat works team is contesting every round of the World Championship with its 124 Abarth, now with 16-valve cylinder head homologated. Naturally they put a big effort into the Sanremo Rally, entering three cars with the 16-valve engine and four with the normal unit. Lancia has not been taking any interest in the Championship, but could not ignore the premier event of the home country. They entered two of the wedge-shaped Stratos models and two Beta coupes, one with 16-valve engine and one without. The Stratos is an ideal car for tarmac special stages but is somewhat out of place on the rough to say the least. It was a highly advantageous coincidence for Lancia that the first appearance of the Straws in a World Championship qualifier was in an event which switched from predominantly rough to predominantly tarmac for the first time. Of the 39 special stages, only four were entirely on dirt and gravel. Sixteen were entirely on tax-mac, whereas the nineteen others were mainly on tarmac with short stretches of rough here and there.
Apart from Fiat and Lancia, the only other factory directly represented was Alfa Romeo, no non-Italian manufacturer taking an interest in this splendid rally which once drew teams from all over Europe, including Scandinavia. Autodelta has switched interests completely and the team has been engaged for some time in the development of a 16-valve version of the 2-litre Alfetta for rallying. One such car was put into the Sanremo Rally (plus a standard Alfasud as a test exercise) but its engine gave trouble and it did not finish. Autodelta plans to increase its rallying activities with a view to taking part in major events outside Italy next year.
Lancia began the rally with the idea that if they did well (that is, if they won) they would put cars into the remaining rounds of the Championship. Without a substantial points score in Sanremo they would hardly figure at all in the series, but a win would elevate them to second place, within striking distance of Fiat, Championship leaders, in the four rounds which remained. As it happened, Lancia did win, and the result was a trip across the Atlantic for the US and Canadian qualifiers of the series. Fiat also visited these two qualifiers, and Alpine-Renault the United States one, but both took place too late in October to be featured in this issue.
The Fiat/Lancia contest nearly burnt itself out in the very early stages of the Sanremo Rally. In the first place the 16-valve Beta coupe driven by Lampinen and Davenport did not even start, its crew tutning up late after a misunderstanding over the actual starting time. It was to have been 20.00 but was changed a long time before the start to 19.00 and published accordingly. Unfortunately this particular crew were working on the old time and arrived at the packed start area near Sanremo’s harbour to find that they were not allowed to start after their proper time. It was a bitter disappointment not to have the Group 4 Beta Coupe, of which Lampinen spoke highly, in the rally, but it at least meant that the team had one less car to get ready quickly for shipment across the Atlantic. The same misfortune befell Scotsman Jimmy Rae who, with Henry Liddon as co-driver, had taken the Escort which he is using this year (with support from Frews of Perth) under the Kleber-Wheelbase Rally Scholarship.
The very first special stage saw the retirement of no less than four works Fiats, one when it demolished a low bridge parapet and see-sawed over the edge, another when a rock shattered a rear suspension and, incredibly enough, two others when they collided with each other on a hairpin after one spun in front of the other. One Stratos also went out when a backwards collision with a wall destroyed a rear suspension unit and removed the large, hinged bodywork section.
In contention were then the Stratos of Sandro Munari and the Fiat Abarths of Markku Alen from Finland and Italian drivers Sergio Barbasio and Giulio Bisulli. Barbasio later went out when a connecting rod emerged from the side of his cylinder block and Alan on the last night of the event when a rear wishbone cracked cleanly in two on a special stage just when it seemed that he was certain to take second place, a position then inherited by Bisulli.
All the way through the event Munari kept the lead except for a brief period when a penalty for booking in early at a time control dropped him a couple of places. He soon made up the deficit and more or less dominated the event from start to finish, indicating that on tarmac rallies of the future the Stratos could well be a force to be reckoned with. In North America, Lancia will use the Beta, not the Stratos, in both events. They have not yet decided whether to contest the RAC Rally, but the appearance of the Straws on the all-tarmac Tour of Corsica, last Championship qualifier of the year in early December, is quite certain.—G.P.