Rally review - Sanremo Rally, November 1976

Latin temperament, and all the voluble, excitable outbursts which are associated with it, hardly go hand in hand with strict discipline, yet on the Sanremo Rally which took place in early October there was a display of tightly reined control such as we have never before witnessed. After showing in the early stages that they were very closely matched in identical Lancia Stratos, Sandro Munari and Bjorn Waldegard were told to ease off by their team manager who probably feared that a needle match between them would result in both either damaging their cars or leaving the road. At the time, the third Stratos of Pinto was lagging in fourth place after a delay due to a brake caliper which jammed during a stop for a change of pads, and the worry in the Lancia camp was that if the leading pair drove each other into the ground, first place would be inherited by the Fiat 131 Abarth of Maurizio Verini who was then third.

Easing off to preserve one’s car is a common enough tactic when one’s lead is sufficient to stand shortening but what happened in Sanremo was not merely easing off. The rally was divided into two parts separated by a substantial rest of over 24 hours, the first leg containing 26 special stages and the second eleven. Three stages before the end of the first leg the order went out to Munari and Waldegard, “Remain as close together as you can.” What followed was an amazing game of leap-frog, first with Munari moving slightly ahead and then Waldegard, both obeying instructions against all their natural instincts to go all out to win.

Behind Verini’s Fiat there were two other Stratos, Pinto’s works car and the private one of Fassima, and it was expected that if Verini did not stay in that third place the rein on the two leaders would be slackened and they would be allowed to go at whatever pace they wished. What mattered most to the team (or at least, what should have mattered most) was that a Stratos, any Stratos, should win to earn the maximum World Championship points. If four such cars got comfortably into the first four places then it wouldn’t really matter if a fight for first place resulted in the retirement of one, or even both, of the leaders for there would be two others to take their places.

Not long after the start of the second leg the third placed Fiat crashed and retired, but still the two leaders were kept together, sometimes being separated by no more than a few seconds. It seemed quite illogical and certainly a little unfair that a team manager its the comfortable position of having his cars in the first four places should not allow a straight, clean fight for outright victory.

Two things may have had a bearing on this. In the first place, the more Lancias there were at the head of the field, the lower would be the leading Opel and the fewer championship points would be scored by the German make who are, after all, currently second to Lancia in the series. But Linda’s present lead (after Sanremo) over Opel is by 82 points to 50, and even if the difference had been lessened by Ballestrieri’s Kadett getting to third place instead of fifth and scoring four more points, Lancia’s position would hardly have been threatened with juSt two more rallies to go, the Tour of Corsica and the Lombard-RAC Rally.

The second possibility is that nationalistic pride may have come into it for Munari is an Italian after all, whilst Waldegard is Swedish and it wouldn’t be the first time for the latter driver to be told to take a back .seat to his team-mate.

In this case, Waldegard was not told to let Munari get ahead. Had that, been so, he would very likely have refused, for he is a straight, clean fighter without much liking for anything but a fair .contest with no puppet strings.. But he knew that, if he tried, he could get ahead of Munari, and he also knew that there was no tactical reason for keeping him back, and this made him less than happy. He felt that the public would not understand such tactics and that a second place under such circumstances would be dis-advantageous to his reputation. He didn’t underrate Munari at all, for the Italian is a fine driver and Waldegard has every respect for his talent, but he knew that, given the chance, he could win.

The chance came on the last special stage, before which Waldegard was leading by four seconds. It was a twenty kilometre stage over narrow, tortuous, tarmac roads, rising and falling in the mountains. At the start, Munari left when the count-down got to zero but Lancia officials were present to see that Wattlegard obeyed an instruction to delay his start by four seconds. At that juncture, such an order seemed quite pointless and could only have been directed towards removing any disadvantage which Munari may have had. At best, it could have been part of an attempt to engineer a dead heat.

Both drivers put everything they knew into those 20 kilometres, and both co-drivers said afterwards that they had never seen their partners display such intense concentration. Every corner, with gravel on the verges separating the tarmac from a solid bank on one side and a drop own the mountainside on the other, was taken on the absolute limit of adhesion, within a hairsbreadth of leaving the road. It was a performance Which no-one who saw it will forget. After all the tension of being held bad:, at last came the straight fight, and Waldegard won.

Their times at the end of the stage were exactly equal at 14 minutes 32 seconds, which meant that Waldegard kept his four second lead and won the rally by that artiount. It also meant that he was faster on the stage by four seconds, owing to his delayed start. His average speed on the stage was just over 84.6 k.p.h. which may not sound much but which was nevertheless amazingly last for such twisty, mountain roads.

We have dwelt for some time on the Munari/Waldegard situation, but it was so unusual and certainly the main feature of the event, so we could not do otherwise. Four of the well-prepared Fiat 131 Abarths were also taking part hut none of them finished. Three left the road and one broke its differential. Two works Opel Kadetts were also in the rally hut both retired in the very early stages with engine failures, one with a holed piston and the other when its cam lobes gradually wore away.

Opel’s points total in the World Championship is by no means due to the efforts of the works team, for in many cases private driver’s have earned places for themselves in the first ten of general classifications, thus scoring points for the make. It was so in this case, for the Italian tuning concern Conrero entered five Kadetts, of which four finished in the first ten. Highest placed was Amilcare Balles trieri, the former Lancia and Alfa Romeo driver, who was fifth and thus added eight points to Opel’s total.

Of the rally itself we can say little but words of praise, for it was excellently organised and well timed. But we always feel a tinge of regret when climbing those mountain passes that the surfaces are not still of loose gravel as they were suing five or six years ago.

Cyprus Rally

Back in 1970, the Cyprus Automobile Association, with help from British enthusiasts stationed there with the Army and the RAF, ran the Cyprus Rally. For such a young event it was extremely well organised and those who went to see it, ourselves included, were indeed impressed. The island has a fantastic network of dirt roads which lend themselves admirably to the organisation of a first-class rally, and they were utilised to the full.

This year, after a gap of two years caused by hostilities on the island, the rally was revived, and although its route could not pass through the Turkish-held sectors of Cyprus, which include the magnificent mountains overlooking the north coast, it was nevertheless successful.

Backed by the Cyprus Tourism Organisation (Rothmans, the former sponsors had pulled out) it attracted just a handful of overseas crews, for many Must have felt that it would not be particularly good. But they were wrong. If they are allowed to progress unhindered in the future, the organisers will without doubt develop the rally into a superb event in really fine terrain.

This year it was far too tight on road sections between special stages, and only three cars survived to the finish, but that is something which can very easily be put right in the future. Outright winners this year were Shekhar Mehta and Yvonne Pratt in a Datsun Violet, a pair who are far more at home on long, endurance events than they are on the sprint stages of endurance events.

Manx Trophy Rally

In Britain, very few events indeed allow Stages to be practised by competitors beforehand. One event which does allow recceing is the Manx Trophy Rally whose route uses public roads which are closed for the occasion—again something which is not done on the mainland, although not because there is a law preventing it.

Known as one of the fastest events in the country, the Manx regularly attracts a good field of competitors anxious to tackle the fierce competition which contrasts in no small way to the peaceful, almost Victorian atmosphere of the island.

This year’s event provided a superb display of driving by the young Finn Ari Vatanen who has spent all year in Britain tackling national championship events and who, by Some strange quirk of RAC administration, looks like becoming British Rally Champion. He is a fine driver with immense ability, and he won in the Isle of Man in his .Ford Escort RS1800 by more than three minutes from a Porsche Carrera which is inherently more suited to tarmac roads.

Another feature of the event was the glow on the face of every British Leyland Man present, for at last the TR7s made an impact. Tony Pond took one of the wedge-shaped cars to third place, whilst team-mate Brian Culcheth only missed fourth place by a second, being just beaten by another Carrera.

Whilst dirt-road rallying on forest tracks booms in Britain, many European countries favour tarmac roads. But with an event of the calibre of the Manx Trophy Rally, we in Britain can still offer the best of both surfaces.—G.P.