All too often we hear that the best cars in the world are made in Germany, and we wonder what right has any commentator to disguise his opinion as a fact. The latter is sacred, but the former is completely free and what might suit one purpose may be quite useless for another. Nevertheless, it is a popular opinion that German mechanical engineering is solid, reliable and meticulously thorough.
This sort of reputation outside an industry breeds confidence within, and when manufacturers began to realise that post-war rallying was becoming an excellent, sales-boosting shop window and set up their own teams, German factories were not slow to do likewise, although for them prestige was as important as sales promotion.
When Mercedes, Porsche and Opel entered the lists in turn, each was successful, but when Mercedes returned to rallying in the late 'seventies the shock of defeat was too much to bear and they disbanded the team almost overnight. Their cars were in great demand all over the world, but a fine road car does not necessarily become a rally winner, and it seemed that Mercedes were painfully slow to realise this.
More recently, Audi joined the fray with what has been called a "supercar", the four-wheel-drive Quattro. Other manufacturers, especially those who had tried such transmission and discarded it, were sceptical, but Audi began to win rallies, and suddenly the race was on among other rallying factories to produce four-wheel-drive systems for their competition cars.
Superlatives began falling from the tongues and pens of those who spoke and wrote of the Quattros, and we feel that this might have caused some complacency within the team. They were told so often that they were the best that they believed it, with the same effect as on young drivers who are praised too much, too soon, and become over confident.
The Quattro may be fast and possessed of good handling and traction, but it has yet to demonstrate the reliability without which there can be no really outstanding success. Until it does, it needs regular and thorough service of a very high standard, and that, strangely enough for a German team, is what Audi Sport fails to provide.
Service stops, whether they be in well equipped garages or at the roadside, need to be fast, decisive and comprehensive. They should also be under the control of someone who understands bush fettling as well as workshop practice, and is completely familiar with practical rallymanship as well as its basic theory. Audi seems to be lacking in these essential attributes and results have reflected that situation. Improvisation is the stock-in-trade of the mechanic in the field, but he must also be meticulous, and Audi's shortcomings in both respects have become talking points. The efficiency gap between Opel and Audi is enormous, and Ingolstadt could well take lessons from Rüsselsheim or Cologne, or even Boreham, Trollhättan or Abingdon for that matter.
The Sanremo Rally in early October was a vital event for Audi, but it turned out to be disastrous. Their highest place was seventh, which meant they lost all chances for the manufacturers' section of the World Championship, whilst Hannu Mikkola didn't finish at all and scored no points to help his bid for the drivers' title.
Driving the works Lancias were Rörhl, Alén and Bettega, whilst the others were in the Hands of Vudafieri, Biasion, Tognana, Zanussi and Tabaton.
Audi's battalion strength was only half that number, the four cars being driven by Mikkola, Mouton, Blomqvist and Darniche. The latter driver was to have driven a Quattro in Corsica earlier in the year, but a practice accident hospitalised him and perhaps this appearance was by way of making up for his failure to make the start line in Corsica.
There were two Opel Mantas there too, for Vatanan and Toivonen, plus two such cars run by the Italian tuning concern Conrero for Cerrato and Batistolli, whilst there was a whiff of factory involvement about the three privately entered Ferrari 308 GTBs which were entered, one driven by Bjorn Waldegård.
The Sanremo Rally stretches from the French border all the way across to Tuscany, a foray which the organisers are obliged to do if they are to include dirt roads as special stages. There are tarmac stages too, of course, some of these being in the mountains immediately behind Sanremo where the fine dirt roads of the former Rally of the Flowers have for some years been covered by spoilsport tarmac.
When the club first went eastwards in search of dirt a few years ago the number of tarmac stages were relatively few, but the proportion has since increased gradually and this year dirt roads made up only about 57%. The two surfaces are kept apart in groups, and there are neutralisation stops to allow teams to change from one suspension set-up to another. But the event is stretched considerably, and the total distance of some 1,680 miles takes from Sunday to Friday.
In the first group of tarmac stages the Lancias were expected to be faster than the Audis, but the German team was hoping that the Italian advantage would not be as high as to be beyond reach once the rally got to the dirt roads. Audi's expectations were then to pull out such a lead over the Lancias that they would be able to keep it even after the rally got back to the tarmac again.
Alas, it didn't turn out that way. The Lancias were significantly faster than last year but there was hardly any improvement at all in Audi performance. That early lead of the Lancias was simply too much for the Audis to whittle away, and quite early in the event the outcome became apparent for all to see.
Added to this, both Mikkola and Blomqvist were slowed by power steering hydraulic pump failures in the initial stages, making it necessary to take hefty tugs at the wheel rather than precise twitches, whilst Darniche lost his brakes when someone forgot to replace the hydraulic reservoir cap and a significant amount of fluid escaped.
After those first six stages, seven of those eight Lancias held the first seven places, whilst the highest placed Quattro was Mouton's, in 12th place. Rohrl was leading a half minute ahead of team-mate Bettega.
Further East, after a long, boring motorway drive, suspensions were changed for the dirt roads, and, very soon afterwards, positions up front changed too. Rad lost the belt from his supercharger which, added to the time consumed by a puncture, cost him dearly. Indeed, at the end of the second leg (after 25 stages in all) he was down at tenth place, the lead having been taken by his team-mate Alén.
The Audis had managed to catch up some time, and Mouton, Blomqvist and Mikkola were second, third and fourth respectively. Alen had his gearbox replaced as a precaution, as Tognana's car had stopped because its box had failed. Toivonen, too, had a new box in his Opel, whilst both Bettega and Biasion had lost time with punctures.
Dust was proving to be troublesome, especially at night, but Alén was out in front and, in the words of a Safari comrnentator of some years ago, "All the dust was behind his car"! When a delay was caused on one stage by spectators crowding the actual road, the organisers felt that the two groups 01 competitors separated by this delay wad best be brought together gradually by increasing the interval between cars of the leading group from one to two minutes. But this would diminish Alen's dust advantage, and it was said that the change was not carried out because Lancia pointed out politely that the regulations could not be thus changed in mid-rally.
Mikkola had vanished altogether, and most dramatically too. Disturbed by the smell of burning, they stopped to find that the boot of the car was in flames. Application of the fire extinguisher, and even a radioed SOS to the team's helicopter were of no use and Mikkola and Hertz could do nothing but watch as the entire car was completely gutted.
Fires have been common in the camp, but most have been underbonnet affairs. This one seemed to have no logical explanation, unless fuel spillage (was the filler cap in place properly?) was ignited by the hot exhaust pipe, as happened in Greece a couple of years ago.
This was incredibly bad luck for Mikkola, for he had got up to fourth place and stood to gain a reasonable points tally to add to his championship total.
Blomqvist was up in second place, apparently separating the Lancias of Alén and Rörhl by intervals of 1 min 42 sec and 1 min 27 sec respectively, but in fact Rohr' I was two more minutes behind. At Pisa, this additional time was added to his total for delaying his start at an earlier stage. He'd been trying to escape the dust of the cars ahead by waiting for two minutes rather than one, but the organisers applied their rules stringently and penalised him for it.
However, those two minutes, and more, were soon consumed when the rally got to tarmac again, and Rörhl put himself well 11 into second place, but still 4 min 22 sec behind Alén. That interval seemed to suit the Italians, for it was about enough to ensure a win for Alén, and it's the Finn, after all, who is staying on with Lancia for 1984; Rörhl is moving on to join Audi.
The final leg, a series of mountain loops near Sanremo again, changed nothing up front, although Vatanen vanished after demolishing a stout barrier. Worse, and most uncharacteristically, Blomqvist rammed a rock just before the end of a stage and only got it over the finish line after some heavy pushing. Perhaps he had got a bit fed UP and allowed his concentration to lapse, for Audi service was pretty chaotic and on occasions the mechanics were unable to complete the necessary work in the time available. In any case, Blomqvist was out, for there was no hope of getting the car repaired in time.
Mouton, too, very nearly packed up, and it Was only by dint of tackling various little Jobs themselves were she and Fabrizia Pons able to finish. Toivonen, who had driven magnificently to stay up with the Lancias, also looked like dropping out with a blown head gasket. But, with his Manta laden with as much spare oil and water as it could carry, and its engine rpm so low that he could hardly get out of first gear, he coaxed it back to the finish and a thoroughly deserved fourth place.
1st: M. Alén / I. Kivimäki (Lancia Rally GpB) 8 hr 50 min 17 sec
2nd W. Rörhl / C. Geistdörfer (Lancia Rally GpB) 8 hr 52 min 26 sec
3rd: A. Bettega / M. Perissinot (Lancia Rally GpB) 8 hr 55 min 27 sec
4th H. Toivonen / F. Gallagher (Opel Manta 400 GpB) 8 hr 59 min 49 sec
5th: M. Biasion / T. Siviero (Lancia Rally GpB) 9 hr 00 min 42 sec
6th: D. Cerrato / G. Cerri (Opel Manta 400 GpB) 9 hr 08 min 04 sec
Although Lancia has a chance of getting Alén to the top of the drivers championship, they will not be going to the Ivory Coast, which takes place just days before this issue of Motor Sport is published. If Mikkola wins there, he will clinch the title.