Rally review, November 1977

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Reflections on Canada and Italy

Putting aside for a moment the World Championship duel between Ford and Fiat, there is a more personal feature common to both the Criterium du Quebec and the Sanremo Rally with which we would like to begin this month, and that is the staggering performance put up by the German driver Walter Rohrl. He finished neither event, his Fiat’s engine stopping after On oil leak in Canada and brake fade sending his similar car off the road in Italy after arriving at a corner to fast. But in the first event, only his second in that car, he showed amazing superiority over Fiat’s established Finnish drivers on loose-surfaced forest roads, and in the one stage which he completed in Italy he was streets ahead of his Italian team-mates and only three seconds slower than the Stratos of Sandro Munari over a tarmac distance of 33 kilometres. Even with the possibility that people may have been “playing themselves in” on the first stage, that was nevertheless quite an amazing achievement.

Rohrl, formerly an ecclesiastical clerk at Regensburg, first came to our notice when he drove a Capri in the Olympia Rally of five years ago and got it up to second place before its engine expired. Since then he has mainly appeared in Opels, but has recently driven for both the Fiat works team and, on a few events for development purposes, the Porsche factory. No doubt all three will be vying for his future services.

Although a Canadian rally has once before featured in the World Championship, the Criterium du Quebec, run mainly in the dense forest regions to the North of Montreal, was this year a qualifier for the first time. Understandably, the organisers were without experience of diehard professionalism but they nevertheless coped exceedingly well and ran a fine rally well worthy of inclusion in the series. To run a World Championship event for the first time is one thing; to be landed with the tense struggle between the Fiat and Ford teams is another, and there were people at the ready to drive coaches and horses through whatever loopholes they could fled. As an example, the regulations forbade the use of racing tyres but did not specify a Penalty for using them. Fiat latched on to this right away and used completely slick tyres, although they did remove sidewall lettering proclaiming their purpose as soon as they realised that the organisers had discovered their use.

After a day of comparatively short stages, some on gravel, some on tarmac and one on the Mont Tremblant racing circuit, the rally moved into two eminently competitive legs on wet slimy and often rutted logging tracks in the, forests around and to the West of Mont Tremblant. It was here that the Fiat/Ford struggle became tense. The Fiat 131 Abarths had the edge on the tarmac but the Escorts were quickest on the dirt.

Ford driver Ari Vatanen was generally fastest in the forests but on the last night, when he seemed all set for a win, a trifling failure in the car’s electronic ignition system stopped it in the middle of a stage and he was out of the rally.

Of the Fiat drivers, Walter Rohrl was unquestionably quickest, but both he and team-mate Markku Alen stopped with oil-starved engines after fractures of the aluminium brackets which serve to support and separate the pumps and filters of their dry-sump lubrication systems. Earlier, the Fiat of Timo Makinen had blown its engine on the circuit test. Vatanen’s departure left Ford’s hopes pinned on Roger Clark, but he managed just third place behind Fiat drivers Timo Salonen and Simo Lampinen who were first and second respectively.

Mention must be made of American driver John Buffum who began rallying in Europe several years ago when stationed with the US Forces in Germany. He now drives for Leyland USA and in his Triumph TR7, initially prepared at Abingdon but now looked after in the USA, he put up some pretty remarkable times, often beating some of the visiting professionals.

Troubles with the car were numerous and both he and co-driver Vicki became used to various things falling off. Long before the final leg, the co-driver’s seat broke away from its mountings and a violent jolt sent Vicki to hard into its side support that she broke two ribs. Despite the pain, she carried on, reading the notes, trying to avoid banging her side and for a long time changing gear whilst her driver had one hand out of the window keeping a broken and flapping bonnet from obscuring the windscreen.

The World Championship points tally after the Canadian event was Ford 114, Fiat 112, the Italian team having shortened Boreham’s lead. But of the three events to come, two were on tarmac, where the Fiats would probably out-handle the Fords. What is more, the first of those rallies was at Sanremo, on home ground for Fiat.

Again Ford sent just two cars, but they were not at all like the “forest racers” used on loose-surfaced events. They were lighter, lower, wider (with 8 in. wheels) and more powerful, the output said to be something like 260 b.h.p. But they still proved to be no match for the tarmac handling of the Fiats. Waldegard reluctantly agreed to have a brake servo on his car (he prefers the extra sensitivity of direct pressure braking) but disconnected it at the start of the second leg of the rally after realising that he was slowing down too much and too soon for almost every corner.

Fiat had no less than seven cars in the rally, three entered by the factory, one by Fiat France and three by Italy’s Jolly Club— but all had factory support, of course. As a buffer, Lancia entered four Stratos, partly to keep Ford as much as possible out of the points-scoring positions and partly so that Munari could try for points in that ridiculously complicated series for the FIA Drivers’ Cup, a trophy which seems to attract a little interest in Italy, but nowhere else.

Rohrl went out on the second stage, as we have explained, though “official” words from Fiat blamed gravel on the road rather than brake fade. Later, Bacchelli’s Fiat toppled on to its side when it left the road after the driver attempted to avoid stones presumably put there by uncharacteristically hostile villagers indeed, this caused something of a delay and the organisers wisely cancelled a second loop in that area, partly to avoid any more incidents of the kind and partly to get the rally back on time.

Lancia’s rally was most unhappy, for Munari retired from a leading position when his gearbox mainshaft broke, and both Pinto and Carello crashed. Vatanen also hit a low wall in his works Escort and retired very soon after when a front suspension collapsed.

The final night began with the near certainty of a Fiat win, but with leader Verini very closely pursued by Frenchman Andruet in the Fiat France Fiat 131. The Italian seemed to have the edge, although there was very little to choose between them, but towards the end he had to stop to have a differential unit changed and this took so long that he collected two minutes’ road penalty at the next time control. Those were decisive minutes, for Andruet’s final winning margin over Verini was just 1 min. 57 sec.

There were rumours that pressure had been put on Verini to allow Andruet to win, but these occasions are always attended by a certain amount of intrigue and we found no proof that this was the case.

Lower down, Waldegard tried vainly to improve his position, cursing the ill-luck which earlier had brought him to a ten-minute stop on a special stage when the main feed pipe from the fuel tank folded and was pinched closed as a result of a spin backwards into to rock face. The back of the car was pushed well in, and the pipe folded when the fuel tank itself was moved forward and upward.

The final order listed three Fiats, a Lancia and a Ford at the head, the championship points tally now being Fiat 130 and Ford 124. Two rounds of the series are left, both in November. The first is the all-tarmac Tour of Corsica in which Fiat will undoubtedly have the advantage again, and the second the predominantly-forest RAC Rally in which Ford on be expected to have the edge. Never before has the World Championship been really contested, and we trust that the scores attained in Corsica will he such that the RAC Rally will emerge as the deciding round.

G.P.