Rally Review, November 1978

Fiat Invincible

Since last month’s Rally Review was written, two events in the World Rally Championship have taken place, and before this issue of Motor Sport is published yet another will have gone by before the RAC Rally of Great Britain in November. By that time the World Rally Championship will have been Italian clinched by Fiat, for after the Sanremo Rally the Italian team’s points total was 118 compared with the 84 of Opel and the 82 of Ford.

The series is made up of 11 events, only the eight best scores to count at the end of the year. After Sanremo, Fiat, Opel and Ford had each scored seven times, so, remembering that scores in excess of eight will be dropped, Fiat only needs one more point to make sure of beating Opel and six more points to beat Ford, and since they have one car in Bandama and full teams for both Corsica and the RAC, there is hardly any doubt at all that they will attain these scores. If they have already laid in the champagne and printed their publicity material, they will not have wasted any money.

No doubt due to the cost of trans-Atlantic transportation, Canada’s Criterium du Quebec attracted few Europeans, only the Fiat team, three Opel Kadetts in a joint Dutch/Swedish venture, a well-driven Group 1 Escort RS2000 in the hands of Portuguese driver Carlos Torres, an Abingdon-built Triumph TR7 VS for US driver John Buffum, the person of Stig Blomqvist to drive a locally prepared Saab 99 and a couple of intrepid private crews from Belgium and France in Mitsubishi and Peugeot 104 respectively.

Although drivers resident in the USA and Canada made valiant efforts to stay with the Fiats – people like Buffum, Taisto Heinonen, Jean-Paul Perusse, Walter Boyce and Hendrik Blok – the Italian team stayed ahead with comparatively little effort, and they themselves said afterwards that such an unopposed win fired no imaginations at all. A fight was better for all concerned, and perhaps the lack of any decent contest made the rally itself seem rather more ordinary than it really was.

North of Montreal, where the Canadian event was based, there are vast forest parks and it was along the dirt roads of those parks that the meat of the special stages were laid out. It is fine country, and the rallying which it provided satisfied everyone. Unfortunately the organisers were obliged to have stages in the vicinity of Montreal, and no less than four along a track bulldozed on the surface of the city’s municipal rubbish dump did nothing to enhance the event’s reputation. Those stages, plus two on a five-mile tarmac road around a lake, accounted for the whole of the first two days’ proceedings, leaving just 24 hours for what was regarded as the real rallying.

Walter Rohrl and Markku Alen finished well clear of the rest of the field, followed by the Opel of Anders Kullang. Intervals then widened, for Timo Salonen’s Fiat had stopped on a stage with a broken driveshaft, Bror Danielsson’s Opel had blown its head gasket and stopped with steam and water pouring everywhere, whilst John Buffum’s TR7 had lost a wheel. The latter driver managed to limp off the stage with two wheel nuts each clinging to just a turn or two of thread and, after fettling, pull himself back to sixth place at the end. Alas, his slow progress off that stage had been with crash helmets removed and the stewards reluctantly disqualified him.

Another judicial decision concerned the Fiat team. Stationed on the stage which claimed Salonen was a Fiat 131 saloon registered as a Fiat team service car. Apparently it had been allowed into the stage for use as a relay station for radio messages, on the condition that it did not move. But when Salonen radioed that he had stopped, off went the car to his aid and the stricken rally car was promptly pushed all the way to the end of the stage, bumper to bumper, to be pushed by its own crew along the last straight in view of the control officials. But the operation had been seen by spectators, officials and photographers, not to mention other competitors who had baulked. Salonen lost so much time that he didn’t go on with the rally, so the stewards could not apply the penalty of exclusion. Instead they imposed a fine of 2,000 dollars which was by no means undeserved but which rather took the Fiat team by surprise.

The Ford team contested neither the Criterium du Quebec nor the Sanremo Rally, which gave them time to prepare two Group 4 Escorts and ship them in a container to Limassol to be used in an incredibly tough weekend event called the Cyprus Rally. The despatch was not a moment too soon, for not long after they left the Ford strike began and all the sporting enthusiasm in the world could not remove the pickets from the gates of Boreham.

A fine rally, every bit as demanding of reliability, tenacity and stamina as many of twice the distance, this event began in 1970 and has progressed to a listing in coefficient three of the European Championship. However, with but few improvements it could easily rank among World Championship events. The special stages are rough, rocky and tortuously twisty, whilst many of the road sections have the same character – and the same steep edges over which it’s all too easy to fall! Coupled with this, road sections were very tight indeed and there was often hardly enough time to stop for fuel or tyre replacements without losing the odd minute. Even the winners lost six minutes on the road, whilst the twelfth-placed finishers lost all of three hours!

Britain’s Roger Clark and Jim Porter were runaway victors of the event in one of the Escorts, whilst Chris Kirmitsis and Dave Adams were runners-up in the second Boreham car. There was a moment when Clark became the target of violent tantrums by a crew of the Spanish Seat team, and it is to his credit that he stayed cool and simply drove on. Having started at number two, Clark had got ahead, fairly and squarely, of Zanini and Petisco in a Fiat 131 entered by Seat. But the Spaniards didn’t like this at all and when they arrived at the start of a stage they attempted to get ahead of the Escort, failed and demanded that Clark should move over to let them by to start the stage first. But Clark had already booked in and had received his start time, so he was absolutely right to stand his ground. Then Petisco lost his temper, picked up a rock and hurled it at the windscreen of the Escort, smashing it right in front of Clark’s face.

Completely taken aback by this stupid conduct, Clark merely shook away as many glass particles as be could and moved forward to start the stage, enduring distorted vision and flying splinters for several stages until the screen could be changed.

Conduct such as this is fortunately rare, and whilst Zanini and Petisco may not have enjoyed the event (they eventually retired when a wrongly replaced battery caused a fire) there is no doubt that the 43 other starters, even the 32 who failed to finish, did so immensely.

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As in Canada, so it was in Italy. The Sanremo Rally was another event in which the odds on anything but a Fiat or a Lancia winning were almost non-existent. After Ford plans to enter two cars were dropped, and not because of the strike, what remained was meagre competition for the Italian team, and it was only a succession of retirements among the leaders which maintained interest.

There was a Chevette from DTV which broke its engine, a Ferrari 308 GTB which stopped with a broken distributor, and a single Opel Kadett GT/E from the factory which was loaded up and sent home on the day of the start. The late arrival of tyres caused frayed tempers and the driver, Achim Warmbold, packed his bags and left following an exchange of heated words with team manager Tony Fall.

A complex network of twisty, tarmac, mountain roads made up the special stages, the route looping, re-looping and criss-crossing to use most of them several times over. Road schedules vere tight, but not impossible, and the whole event was typical of the fast, tarmac rallies which the French and the Italians enjoy so much. But it was stretched unnecessarily from Tuesday to Saturday by long rest stops which added up to more time than that taken up by the rally itself. Indeed, 46 hours of rallying was divided by stops totalling 49 hours, and that is far too much by any standards, although it must have been appreciated by the hoteliers and restaurateurs of Sanremo.

The rally began with what seemed like a duel between Munari and Rohrl in, their Fiats, Alen not being among the leaders as he was taking some time to get used to his new Stratos. He said that he could not get the correct front/rear brake balance setting, but it could also have been something to do with the wet, slippery, leafy roads! The Italian and the German were well matched, but first the former then the latter crashed and retired. Munari’s brakes were very touchy, and he put his excursion down to locking rear wheels which caused the car to spin, whilst Rohrl’s attention was partly taken up by an alien noise from somewhere in the car and this caused him to miss hearing “hairpin right” in the pace notes. The car went over the edge and landed alongside a house, to the amazement of its occupants.

The lead then passed to the young leader of the Italian Rally Championship, Adartico Vudafieri, but he crashed his Stratos early on the third leg, putting Alen into the lead which he never lost.

Lack of competition for Fiat/Lancia, non­-starters among the high seeds and rest stops which were far too long detracted greatly from the event’s interest. But of the remaining three rounds the RAC Rally of Great Britain promises yet again to have the most competitive entry list of any event in the World Championship. It starts at Birmingham, on Sunday, November 19th and finishes there on Thursday, November 23rd. A complete guide to the rally will be published on Thursday, November 16th in our companion weekly publication Motoring News. – G.P.