Criterium du Quebec
Continents of such vast size as North and South America would appear to offer enormous potential to rally organisers, but the truth is that the sport is little progressed beyond infancy in the Americas and certainly attracts nothing like the public enthusiasm and support which it does in Europe and elsewhere.
In North America in particular spectators are very few indeed and it must be extremely difficult for a rally organiser to convince a backer that his event is worth an investment, particularly as a baseball game or ice hockey match on the same weekend is likely to attract a much, much larger following. Nevertheless, there are worthwhile events in North America, although not matching those in other parts of the world in size, frequency or calibre.
In the USA there is the additional problem of two rival sanctioning groups, each more concerned with beating the other than with using their combined resources to improve the standing of the sport. In Canada, the one national series seems to be much healthier, but the organisers of the country’s contribution to the World Championship appear to be a little too insular, and reluctant to go out to see how other organisers operate, to pick their brains and to seek their help.
Even before the 1979 Criterium du Quebec took place in mid-September the FISA had already decided to drop the event from the 1980 World Championship for Makes, though it will remain a qualifier for the World Championship for Drivers, in our opinion the more important and significant of the two. The forest areas of Quebec offer excellent possibilities for special stages, but the rally merely scratched the surface of this vast potential. Mediocre roads and unnecessarily long halts rendered the first days of the rally rather dull, but it bucked up enormously on the last day when at last it got into some decent forests.
This is not all of the organisers’ doing, however. As we have explained, there is little public interest in rallying, and when the area of a decent forest is required by the hunting and fishing fraternities the rally people stand little chance of securing the use of a road in that forest, even for just a day or even a night.
Two works Fords went to Canada from Boreham, and they scored first and third places, separated by the Datsun of Timo Salonen. Both Escorts were delayed when water engulfed their engines and stopped the ignition systems. Bjorn Waldegard employed the old trick of removing plugs, turning the engine over and blowing away the water, and he managed to get away in less than seven minutes. Ari Vatanen decided to rely on mopping up, but this took longer and he was stopped for some 12 minutes before he could coax the engine into life.
More trouble came when Waldegard cracked his gearbox casing on a rock embedded in the road surface. There was time after the stage to have the box changed, but when the rally returned to the same stage some time later and Waldegard had the amazing misfortune to crack his box again on the very same protruding rock, there was no time to change it again. But this was the last stage and, with a plentiful supply of oil on board and a service car in very close attendance, Waldegard drove the car to the finish.
Driving with the Datsun team in Canada was a New Zealander now resident in California who has been making a great impression on rallying in the USA and Canada. Rod Millen showed great potential and it was unfortunate that he first lost time when his co-driver missed a control and then stopped altogether with a broken half-shaft.
Although it is not in the World Championship, many consider that the Cyprus Rally ought to be. A snappy weekend event starting and finishing at Nicosia, it uses roads which are rough, tortuous and dusty, and which run from coast to high mountains. Road timing is by no means easy, there are precious few opportunities for anything but routine servicing, and, in the heat of the day particularly, the onset of physical exhaustion does not take very long.
It has a disadvantage in that it is far too close to the Sanremo Rally, finishing less than a day before the Italian event starts, but it nevertheless attracted those who are seriously tackling the European Championship this year. Among those were the two main contenders, German driver Jochi Kleint in an Opel Ascona and Spaniard Antonio Zanini in a Fiat 131 Abarth of the Spanish Seat team.
Both have been spending all their energies tackling the most advantageous of the 40-odd qualifying rounds, choosing on the basis of geographic location and highest coefficient, and overlapping their practice sessions so much that occasionally they have had trouble remembering which phase of their complex programmes they were engaged in.
Kleint always seemed to have the edge on Zanini, whose retirement due to transmission failure in Cyprus puts any hope of his getting ahead of Kleint in the championship almost beyond the bounds of possibility. Although it may be only just possible, it is not at all probable, and Kleint can well relax in the expectancy of well-earned championship laurels.
Kleint only scored second place in Cyprus because the event sponsors, Rothmans, put a cat among the pigeons by sending Ari Vatanen, a driver whom they personally sponsor, to drive an Escort. Both suffered delays for various reasons, but Kleint rather more than Vatanen. The latter was also quicker and he eventually won by more than 40 minutes, a massive margin by European standards, but nevertheless in keeping with what can be expected on Cypriot terrain.
After Canada Ford had only one rally in its programme, the RAC Rally, and it was no surprise that they were not at Sanremo in October. Indeed, the RAC will be their last rally for some time, for in 1980 they intend to suspend actual competition in order to concentrate on developing the car which will be the rallying replacement of the Escort. In Sanremo, then, there were three works Fiats, two Talbot Sunbeams, two Triumph TR7 V8s, one Datsun 160, two Opels from the Conrero team and a Group One Escort RS 2000 from Ford Italia. One would have expected one of the Fiats to emerge an easy winner, but this wasn’t the case at all and the man who won the Fiamm Trophy was in fact a sponsored privateer.
Driving a Lancia Stratos backed by the Jolly Club, Tony Fassina was in charge of the situation from very soon after the start. Fiat drivers Walter Rohrl, Markku Alen and Attilio Bettega made sterling efforts to overhaul him but all ran into trouble of one kind or another and just couldn’t make it. On the last night it seemed, on paper, that Rohrl was at last able to better the Italian, but this was more because Fassina had sensibly eased off than because Rohrl had speeded up.
The TR7s of Lampinen and Eklund went out due to suspension and lubrication failures respectively, Nicolas’ Sunbeam Lotus when its exhaust manifold cracked and Verini’s Opel when its differential casing cracked. Tony Pond drove his works Sunbeam Lotus in a most polished manner to take fourth place, whilst Angelo Presotto took his Group One Escort RS 2000 to seventh place, scoring 12 useful championship points for Ford.
The rally itself had been changed enormously from previous years. The old Rally of the Flowers used to run over rough, twisty tracks in the mountains immediately behind Sanremo, but the steady advance of tarmacadam eventually changed all that and in recent years the rally had become an all-tarmac affair. It was in search of dirt roads that the organisers went further afield and, probably attracted by some financial backing from the government of the Republic of San Marino, they set the route to span almost the entire width of northern Italy. Starting on Monday and finishing on Saturday, the rally was stretched in terms of time as well as distance, and the amount of main road running produced extreme fatigue which affected everyone. After all, it is easier to stay alert on competitive sections than on those which allow concentration and effort to diminish.
The dirt road stages were magnificent, smooth, well-founded, hard, loose-surfaced and nearly always twisty as they climbed and descended steep mountains. Perhaps it would have been better if the route had gone directly along motorways from Sanremo to the area of these stages, and returned the same way, and not made occasional loops to visit other small groups of stages on the way.
As we write, three rounds remain of the World Rally Championship, but we will stick our necks out and give an advance slap on the back to Bjorn Waldegard who will doubtless become Champion Driver, and to Ford, his team this year, who, with equal lack of doubt, will become Champion Manufacturer. — G.P.