Rally Review, November 1986

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Ivory Coast Rally  —  Toyota walkaway

It is fashionable among publicists, some writers, and those who find pleasure in statistics, especially those with little or no competitive experience, to link the Ivory Coast Rally and the Marlboro Safari Rally as “the two African qualifiers of the World Rally Championship”. The unfortunate inference is that both events are of the same calibre, each demanding a unique brand of endurance peculiar to Africa.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Both events shun special stages and both take place in Africa, but there the similarity ends. The Kenyan event enjoys immense popularity and certainly provides a tough contest, whereas the Ivory Coast Rally attracts very little competitor support and in terms of toughness is a mere shadow of that giant among rallies on the Eastern side of the continent. Each year it is hard pressed to attract even a handful of professionals, whilst the barrel always seems to be scraped to gather just fifty starters, the minimum required for continued consideration for World Championship status. The high retirement rate reflects a poor quality entry rather than a top quality rally, and it’s not just by coincidence that the first day produces the most drop outs, as those who are there just to swell the ranks pack up and head for home.

Although it contrasts with Kenya as much as Kielder does with East Anglia, the Ivory Coast is nevertheless a splendid country for rallying. If only its major event were pieced together a little differently, and better publicised in advance to potential competitors, it might gain a new and more acceptable character and a far more urgent but pleasant atmosphere — points which the event’s sponsors might care to note.

Toyota Team Europe has never had its sights on the World Rally Championship as a whole, preferring to choose only the events for which the rear-wheel-drive Celica Turbo is best suited, and where support is pledged by local importers of the make. Significantly, Africa has never been an ideal arena for the sophisticated but fragile electronic marvels which are today’s championship leaders. Such complex machinery needs constant attention during the rough and tumble of a rally, and African events are not only rougher, dustier and perhaps muddier than most, but they take their competitors away from the care and attention of mechanics for too long.

By contrast, the Toyota Celica is more robust. less complicated and better able to survive unaided in the bush, and it is hardly surprising that this is the environment in which it thrives — “in its garden” as the French would say.

To say that Toyotas thrive in Africa is no exaggeration for the make has an enviable success record in both World Championship events in that continent, against very stiff opposition indeed in Kenya but against little more than Mother Nature herself in the Ivory Coast. This year, the team’s sortie to the Ivory Coast Rally could not have been more successful. They took three cars, entered a fourth to act as a competing chase car, and walked away with the first four places.

Outright winners were Björn Waldegård and Fred Gallagher, ahead of Lars-Erik Torph and Bo Thorszelius, two crews who had completed their practice very quickly and well in advance of the event in order to drive in the Hong Kong to Peking Rally a week earlier. Their visit to China ended in disaster, for both cars retired with blown engines (leaving Stig Blomqvist to win in an Audi Quattro) but at least the Ivory Coast Rally provided some recompense.

Third place went to Germans Erwin Weber and Gunter Wanger, whilst fourth was taken by a Kenyan pair, farmer Robin Ulyate and aircraft engineer Ian Street. The latter are experienced competitors at home, but in recent years have been engaged by Toyota to drive a chase car during the Safari. They did the job so well that they were asked to do the same in the Ivory Coast, this time competing themselves in a refettled practice car, partly to cover the route as closely as possible behind the three “real” Toyota competitors and partly to swell the entry list for the organisers. However, they entered privately, having been “given” the car prior to the rally.

Waldegård has now joined the exclusive group of drivers who have won both the Safari and the Ivory Coast Rally in the same year . There are only two others, Jean-Pierre Nicolas and Juha Kankkunen. But among the co drivers, Ulsterman Fred Gallagher has achieved an even greater distinction by winning two consecutive Safaris and two consecutive Ivory Coast Rallies in the space of two years. As for the car, since 1983 the Celica has been entered three times in the Safari and three times in the Ivory Coast and has won all six events. These are remarkable feats indeed, and reflect the combined efficiency, skill and well-planned strategy of the team as a whole.

This year’s route was shortened somewhat and used roads which had been “improved’ by widening and tree felling. But no matter how hard one tries to find all-weather roads in Africa, its unpredictable climate can usually confound even the best laid plans. A section through dense forest in the South-West near San Pedro became blocked by several fallen trees after a night of storms, but the organisers can claim no credit for opening that road. The trees were cleared by the crews of Toyota mud cars travelling ahead of the rally in search of tricky spots where their competitors might need assistance, helped by chase car crew Steve Millen (brother of Rod) and Hans Thorszelius (twin brother of Bo).  Millen, a New Zealander resident in California, is to drive a Toyota in Washington’s Olympus Rally in December, and his presence in the Ivory Coast was to get him used to both the car and the team.

The situation in the World Rally Championship for Makes was more or less resolved in Peugeot’s favour in Finland, but the drivers’ series remains undecided between Juha Kankkunen (Peugeot) and Markku Alén (Lancia). Both teams are naturally keen to see their drivers take the laurels, but this did not run to sending cars to the Ivory Coast for a rally they don’t particularly like. Three other events remain in the drivers’ series, and each team plans to send cars to Sanremo (October) and the Lombard RAC Rally Rally (November), keeping options open for the Olympus Rally (December) until after the post-RAC championship situation is known.

Professional interest in the Ivory Coast rally was therefore meagre, and the event gained precious little publicity outside West Africa, even in the French press, except perhaps in Sweden, where the first and second drivers live. Indeed, had Toyota not been there the rally would have passed almost unnoticed causing no greater stir (probably less) than the Night Navigation Trials of Hants & Berks, or Herts Auto & Aero, highly entertaining events, we recall.

Among the visiting privateers were Austrians Wilfried Wiedner and Rudi Stohl, the former driving an Audi Quattro A2 in only his second World Championship event, and the latter in his Audi 80 Quattro, anxious to consolidate his second place in the World Championship for Drivers of Group A Cars, behind Kenneth Eriksson and ahead of Franz Wittmann, the two Volkswagen drivers.

Belgium and France provided most of the visiting crews, the bulk being made by local residents, some of whose cars would have looked more at home at a used car mart than at the start of a qualifier in what is supposed to be the world’s leading rally series. There were exceptions, of course, such as the Opel Manta 400 of Samir Assef, the similar car of Eugène Salim, and the Nissan 240 RS of Alain Ambrosino who is sponsored by both JVC and Marlboro. Another was the Group A Mitsubishi Starion Turbo brought over by Essex-based Team Ralliart for local man Patrick Tauziac, nicknamed the “Green Chinaman” due to his Vietnamese ancestry.

Following last year’s move from Abidjan, the country’s commercial capital, the event was again based at Yamoussoukro, a few hundred miles to the North, where an enormous hotel, a presidential palace, a couple of miles of dual carriageway, an airport runway capable of accepting Concorde, and very little else, establish it as the political capital. However, with plenty of open space, ample parking and hardly any traffic, it is a better choice of base than among the bustle and congestion of Abidjan.

The route ran in two legs, the first to the East of Yamoussoukro (both North and South) with stops at Abidjan and Dimbokro, and the second to the South-West, with stops at Abidjan, San Pedro and Gagnoa. It passed very close to the Liberian frontier, but kept well away from the borders with Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana.

Although it had rained during the weeks before the start, the rally began on a somewhat cloudy but warm and humid day, the dry, powdery surfaces of the tracks foretelling overtaking difficulties due to dense dust clouds. Somehow, 50 cars left the start ramp outside the President Hotel, but late the previous evening the scrutineers were quite adamant that they had only examined 49!

Assef decided very early in the event that it was worth incurring a heavy penalty for early arrival in order to escape dust later on. After the first non-competitive tarmac section he clocked in six minutes early and was thereby penalised 12 minutes. It was a considerable price to pay, but one which didn’t really pay off, for he was later repassed by the leaders.

Dust plagued the joumey southwards and Torph, running at number one, led the rally when it arrived at Abidjan, one minute ahead of Waldegård. Weber lost eight minutes having a turbocharger wastegate changed but was nevertheless third, ahead of Wiedner. Ambrosino was fifth despite having stopped to fix a broken steering. Ulyate and Stohl were next, having been held up by dust, the Austrian having had an alternator changed.

Antonio Farina rolled his Ascona after hitting a level crossing too hard, reminding everyone of that very close shave last year when the Audi practice car of Michèle Mouton and Arne Hertz was demolished when it was struck by a train. It also reminded Messrs. Weber, Wanger, Ulyate and Street of their practice incident this year when, in the Tai Forest, their way was barred by a bulldozer which had fallen partly through a bridge. They spent hours levering and manhandling the machine into the river so that it could be driven away, an operation which was highly tricky to say the least, then more hours repairing the bridge so that they could cross.

In the second part of the first leg Waldegård made up a minute on Torph so that they shared the lead, whilst later Weber lost a little time, allowing Wiedner to move up to share third place with him. It must be said, however, that Wiedner’s progress was helped considerably by the number of sections which could easily be cleaned. Ambrosino lost time when his brakes failed after a fluid leak.

Later, Torph regained a minute so that he and Waldegård shared the lead when the rally got back to Yamoussoukro, and there was speculation as to whether Toyota were planning a repeat of last year’s dead heat. Weber, however, hit a hole, damaged his steering and dropped to fourth place behind Wiedner, whilst Ulyate, having started at number 18, was constantly held back by the dust of slower cars in front.

Assef had a broken wheel stud replaced, whilst Tauziac retired his Mitsubishi when a heavy landing after a jump ripped out its front suspension. Mechanics went to his aid and the car was repaired, but the delay was such that maximum lateness was exceeded.

During the night stop, gales and torrential rain lashed the Ivory Coast and, as competitors slept, tracks were turned into ribbons of mud and trees brought down to cause blockages. What is more, nasty-looking black snakes were drawn from their lairs to slither across the swimming pool patio at rally headquarters, and it was just as well that there were few people about to see them.

In the mud, Waldegård was perfectly at home, and he gradually moved ahead of Torph. Wiedner also began to make use of his four-wheel-drive, although a serious misfire due to a mysterious electrical problem delayed him considerably, and he also lost time when his engine refused to start after a service stop.

Later, Wiedner’s problem worsened, and mechanics seemed unable to trace the cause, and this allowed Weber to move ahead, later regaining third place. Similarly, Ulyate, now without any dust to shut off his vision and revelling in the mud, began to close the gap between himself and Ambrosino. The unfortunate Belgian driver Pelsmaekers stopped at a village store to buy water, pulled off the road and promptly wrecked his suspension when his Ford Sierra 4×4 fell into a drainage ditch which he didn’t see.

On the final section near the coast into San Pedro there were fallen trees, flattened undergrowth, countless water-splashes and long stretches of mud, but, thanks to the Toyota mud crews, there was no need to cancel the section. By this time, Weber had got back to third place, whilst Wiedner had lost something approaching an hour struggling with faulty electrics throughout a wet, dark night which made heavy demands on battery and alternator.

Assef got ahead of Ulyate, but then collected two punctures and quite a fright when his lights went out as he landed after a jump. The jolt had knocked off his battery master switch. Ambrosino dropped back when he had to stop to have his gearbox replaced, whilst mechanics finally traced Wiedner’s problem to a faulty fuel pump.

The outcome was a concentration of Toyotas at the head of the field, and the whole team arrived at the finish ramp together, although there was no attempt to get them all on the ramp together.

Finally, a word of explanation concerning the World Rally Championship for Manufacturers. When the year began, a FISA rule made it necessary for teams to declare their intentions and list their drivers, they being the only ones allowed to score points for their teams. In Corsica, however, Jean-Marie Balestre announced that this rule would be scrapped, beginning with the Acropolis Rally, so that there would be a return to the situation in which any driver can score points for the maker of his car.

However, as the year progressed, that change was not implemented, and the silly rule that only nominated drivers could score points was retained. When asked about this a FISA man told us that although the change had been announced verbally, FISA had had no time to put it in writing, so it was therefore not introduced.

The silliness of this rule is illustrated by Per Eklund’s seventh place in the Rally of the Thousand Lakes. Because his Metro was not actually entered by Austin-Rover itself, the factory could not claim points for the result. To further illustrate the difference this makes, we have shown below the points situation both with the nominated driver rule, and without it.  The leaders are the same in both, but there is certainly more variety in the second, unofficial, table, not to mention encouragement, which is sadly lacking among our so-called administrators. — G.P.

***

Results  (top five)  —  Ivory Coast Rally — September 23-27

1. B. Waldegård (S)/F. Gallagher (GB) — Toyota Celica Turbo, Gp.B — 1hr 29min

2. E.Torph (S)/B.Thorszelius (S) — Toyota Celica Turbo, Gp.B — 1hr 37min

3. E.Weber (D)/G.Wanger (D) –Toyota Celica Turbo, Gp.B — 2h 27min

4. R.Ulyate (EAK)/I.Street (EAK) — Toyota Celica Turbo, Gp.B — 3hr 05min

5.  S.Assef (RL)/C.Boy (F) — Opel Manta 400, Gp.B

***

World Rally Championship Points

Drivers (top five after 10 rounds):

Juha Kankkunen (SF) — 91;  Markku Alén (SF) — 69;  Massimo Biasion (I) — 47;  Timo Salonen (SF) — 43;  Björn Waldegård (S) — 40

Manufacturers (after 9 rounds):

Peugeot — 131*; Lancia — 119;  Volkswagen — 65; Audi — 29; Toyota  — 20; Ford — 14; Renault — 14; Subaru — 13; Citroën — 10

Manufacturers (after 9 rounds) —  Alternative table — see text:

Peugeot — 131*; Lancia — 119;  Volkswagen — 65; Audi — 64; Subaru — 21; Toyota  — 20;  Renault — 20; Nissan — 15; Ford — 14; Porsche — 12; Citroën — 10; Mazda — 8;  Fiat — 6;  Austin-Rover — 6; Opel — 5

*denotes total of 7 highest scores