Rally review - The Sanremo Rally, November 1981

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Most lady drivers are content to compete for trophies only against others of their own sex and we would not be doing them any injustice by saying that against men they have very little chance of scoring top places in a general classification.

There have been exceptions, of course. Jennifer Birrell, then Jennifer Nadin, used to win rallies in Britain even against the tough opposition of the Motorillg News Rally Championship. Overseas as well as at home, Pat Carlsson, formerly Pat Moss, was as skilled and determined at the wheel as any of her male rivals, whilst Sylvia Osterberg used to give all her opposition, male and female, a real run for their money.

There have been others, but here we arc concerned more with the present, and with a 30-year-old French girl from Grasse, Michele Mouton.

Since she began rallying in 1973 Miss Mouton has never been satisfied by winning Ladies’ Prizes, although she has amassed a huge collection of them in those eight years. Her object in competing is to take on all others, not just the women drivers, and the only result which matters to her is her overall position.

She is most certainly not Jacking in femininity, as we can vouch, but she is never shown quarter by her male rivals, nor does she ask any, for she is a rally driver among rally drivers, not just a woman in a predominantly male sport, and her skill puts her right up among the world’s best.

Singling her out in this way because she is a · woman may seem like the very thing she hates people to do, but we have no choice, for she has just become the first lady driver to win a World Championship event since that series began in 1970 as the International Championship.

In Italy last month she and her Italian co-driver Fabrizia Pons took their Audi Quattro – they are both contracted to the factory team – to a convincing win on the Sanremo Rally, beating Henri Toivonen and Fred Gallagher in a Talbot Sunbeam Lotus by nearly three and a half minutes.

Before the event the biggest point of interest was the prospect of a close fight between Finland’s Ari Vatanen and France’s Guy Frequelin for the World Championship, bu( Frequelin was most certainly off form and did not finish. Vatanen got to within about half a minute of Mouton but on the last night. of the event, perhaps in a final effort to get the’ 20 points of a win rather than the 15 of a second, he dipped a rock, damaged the front of his Escort and was relegated to seventh place by the consequent time loss.

For most of the rally things had by no means been as close, but towards the end of the fourth leg (there were five) Mouton had a front brake caliper jam and when she arrived at her next service point, with the wheel Jocked, the driveshaft broken and in clouds of rubber smoke and sparks, mechanics took more time to repair the damage than she· had available. Her two minutes Jost on the road, plus her delay on stage time, reduced her advantage to 36 sec., and it was precisely this which Vatanen was attempting to make l!P during that last night on seven tarmac stages.

In the ‘sixties, when the event was known as the Rally of the Flowers, it ran exclusively in the mountains immediately behind the Riviera city of Sanremo, but all those wonderful, unmade, dirt roads have since been despoiled by the advance of tarmac and the organisers were compelled for some years to run the rally almost entirely on tarmac roads.

In 1979 they had seen enough of tarmac and, in search of dirt roads, they took the event right across the entire width of Northern Italy to the Republic of San Marino. They didn’t go quite as far this time, but the bulk of the dirt road stages were nevertheless a long way from Sanremo, to the south of Florence in fact, just below Pisa and Siena.

The opening leg ran through the tarmac stages in what we like to call the Sanremo Hills, after which came a boring motorway drive of well over 200 miles to get the field into the area of dirt road stages.

Whilst there, two overnight stops divided the second, third and fourth legs, the first one at Pisa where the Leaning Tower provided a magnificent setting for the arrival control, and the second at Siena. This city has a huge dished square called the Piazza de) Campo, made famous by the furious and quite dangerous horse races which are held on its outer pavements twice a year, and it was here that cars came for the arrival and departure controls.

After this, the return drive along the coastal motorway, with its well engineered tunnels and viaducts, and expensive tolls, took everyone back to Sanremo for another rest before the tarmac stages of the final night.

It was a stretched event by any standards, and although the special stages were good the ratio of 800 km. of stages to 2,900 km. of total distance was not to everyone’s liking. Indeed, the organisers may have found it difficult to control the rally so far from base, even though they obviously had men on the spot, for there were several rather dangerous shortcomings.

There was very little spectator control on stages, and at one place in particular the competitors were unnerved by people who stood actually in the road in front of them to take photographs, only jumping for safety at the last moment. They even did this after jumps, so that the first view drivers had of the road ahead of them when their cars arced from backward tilt to forward tilt was of a crowd of spectators dead ahead and very close.

Fortunately there were no accidents, although there were several nasty ones on public roads involving spectators’ cars.

The accident situation could easily have been much worse. A group of film makers who were making their way by car along an access road towards a special stage suddenly found themselves at the stage start control, having driven along the stage itself against rally traffic for some two miles.

It was amazingly fortunate that they arrived at a time when officials had held up competing cars to go in search of a competitor who was thought to have gone missing (but hadn’t) on the stage. Had that not happened those film makers would have encountered high speed rally traffic coming towards them, using the whole width of the twisty road, and who knows what sort of major accident that could have caused?

Special stages should be totally sealed from all other traffic and every access road should be blocked and the barriers manned. This is what competitors expect and this is what they should get. Failing to ensure that this is done is nothing short of criminal neglect, which one certainly does not expect to find on a World Championship qualifier.

Vatanen’s total score in the World Championship stands now at 79, just two behind Frequelin. Before this will be published, they will also have competed in the Ivory Coast Rally, Frequclin in a Peugeot and Vatanen in a Ford Escort, so unless Frequclin will have scored a first place in the Ivory Coast and Vatanen no higher than tenth, the championship will not be resolved until the RAC Rally which starts at Chester on Sunday, November 21st, a guide to which will be published in the November 19th edition of Motoring News.

Among the manufacturers the gap is wider, for Talbot has 112 points and Datsun 88. However, the Peugeot I Talbot concern has decided to send a Peugeot to the Ivory Coast, not a Talbot, so by the time the RAC Rally comes along the gap may be much smaller.

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