African Gloom

In a nutshell, the Ivory Coast Rally was a pretty rotten event. As an attempt at copying the Safari it has never, in all its 19-year history, even looked like making the grade, and the small improvement which it managed to achieve in recent editions was blotted out this year, when the already weak organisation wilted under the strain of trying unsuccessfully to meet FISA's impossible demands that the rules of Europe should apply to Africa.

Those rules are bad enough in Europe, where they have dulled the sport and increased, not reduced, its dangers. Applying them to Africa is idiotic, and the very idea of doing so is itself conclusive evidence that those responsible have no worthwhile practical knowledge of rallying, and should be removed from office.

But the scrappy nature of the rally was nothing compared with the gloom and sadness which overtook everyone when they heard of the terrible crash of Toyota Team Europe's radio relay aircraft during the first night, killing all four people on board: the two pilots, team manager Henry Liddon and co-driver Nigel Harris. Henry had been in his customary role during the progress of a rally, controlling the team's operation from the air, whilst Nigel, engaged by Toyota to navigate a daytime spotter plane, had joined the other aircraft for the night in order to see at first hand how the airborne management job was done.

The accident happened only about a minute after the aircraft, a pressurised Cessna 340 twin, became airborne from Yamoussoukro Airport, where it had been refuelled during the five-hour rest stop in the middle of the first leg. It came down about 1.15 am in dense tropical forest and exploded immediately. The cause of the crash has not been, and probably never will be, established.

Throughout the night the rally continued, the Toyota team unaware of the tragic accident, and putting the absence of communications down to radio failure. When they arrived at Abidjan in the morning at the end of the first leg, they were stunned by the news which had gradually filtered through as cars and service vehicles met on the road. Soon afterwards, when the full consequences were confirmed, the team withdrew from the rally, leaving only Volkswagen and Nissan to fight for the lead.

Since 1976 the rally has always just managed to scrap fifty starters - fifty exactly for the past three years - the figure required by FISA in order that an event should qualify for championship status the following year. This has only been achieved by artificially swelling the ranks of competitors with management cars, chase cars and those of people having no intention of going any further than just a few miles from the start before pulling out and heading for home. This year the figure just couldn't be attained, and only 43 cars left the ramp at Abidjan.

Toyota has been outstandingly successful in the Ivory Coast, and indeed in Kenya, and came this year with two turbocharged Supras for Björn Waldegärd/Fred Gallagher and Lars-Erik Torph/Benny Mellander, and a non-turbocharged car for Kenyans Robin Ulyat/Ian Street.

The idea was that the main attack should come from the two Swedish drivers, whilst Ulyat's job was to stay as close as possible behind them so that he would be on hand to render speedy assistance should one of them have a problem. In other words, his role was that of competing chase car driver, one which he has carried out most efficiently several times in the past, even making up the fourth of a Toyota 1-2-3-4 in the Ivory Coast last year.

Nissan brought two Silvias for Kenyan crews Shekhar Mehta/Rob Combes and Mike Kirkland/Robin Nixon, whilst a third car driven by local crew Alain Ambrosino/Daniel Le Saux was considered part of the team. The combined service network was predominantly Kenyan, led by such stalwarts as Jim Heather-Hayes and Surinder Thatthi, whilst airborne radio relay was undertaken by Chris Fryer, now resident in Malvern.

The factory involvement was completed by two Volkswagen Golfs driven by Kenneth Eriksson/Peter Diekmann and Erwin Weber/Matthias Feltz. Both drivers have excellent African records, each having come very close indeed to winning the Safari, and this year in the Ivory Coast they drove superbly well.

Prominent local privateers were Patrick Tauziac in a Mitsubishi Starion and Patrick Copetti in a Toyota Corolla, whilst among the visitors were Austrians Rudy Stohl/Ernst Rohringer in an Audi Coupé Quattro and Finns Jari Niemi/Pekka Nurminen and Frederic Donner/Cedric Wrede in Subaru Turbos. Donner, partly backed by his Style group of companies, may be remembered for his exploits in Rovers some years ago, whilst Niemi is the man whose BMW M3s were stolen in Greece this year.

The rally has always been a road event, with no special stages and timing in minutes, not seconds. This year, at FISA's insistence, competitive sections were timed in seconds, and that change alone reduced mediocre control-site efficiency to confusion. It was rare to find clocks being read correctly, and at one place, at least, the seconds were forgotten altogether.

Consider also that there were no flying finish controls, that cars were (or should have been) allowed to enter control areas up to a minute early, and that many so-called competitive sections were frustratingly cleanable and therefore attracted small queues, and you will no doubt appreciate the confusion which existed. Occasionally, two or more competitors arrived close together, even on the same minute, a situation which produced nothing short of utter chaos.

Some controls were in the wrong place, even on the wrong road leaving a junction, others missing altogether, whilst marshals very often had to be told how to use the clocks and where to mark the time cards. An obligation upon co-drivers to get out of their cars at controls, a highly dangerous practice which the Safari abandoned years ago, was brought up by competitors at the pre-rally briefing, but their plea to have the rule changed fell on deaf ears.

One can but assume the West African cigarette market to be important to Marlboro that they should continue to sponsor such an inferior event, but FISA's justification for keeping it in the World Championship must surely be unable to stand scrutiny.

Initially, the Volkswagens and the Toyotas opened the tussle, followed by the Nissans. Over roads slippery, muddy or even waterlogged after months of heavy rain, Eriksson took the initial lead despite a blown windscreen wiper motor which meant that in rain and through muddy water splashes he had to reach through the window and clean the screen by hand, and a misfire which persisted for some 20-odd miles after hitting a deep waterhole.

Torph lost time firstly when a brake pipe fractured ad he went off the road, and secondly when an oil pipe split, whilst Weber experienced clutch slip after oil penetrated the housing.

It looked as though Waldegärd would be Eriksson's challenger, but when all three Toyotas were withdrawn after the first leg, only the Nissans were in a position to offer a fight. But, even that didn't last long. A flooded river in the middle of the second leg stopped both Kirkland and Ambrosino, and although they were manhandled through the river by spectators - after parting with push money, of course - they stopped very soon afterwards when their engines succumbed to the effects of having ingested water via the air intakes.

Mehta managed to avoid this fate, as did Eriksson and Weber, and when the rally arrived at the seaport of San Pedro at the end of the second leg, after traversing the very rough roads of the Tai Forest, Eriksson held a ten minute lead over Mehta, who was 40 minutes ahead of Weber, the latter having twice needed gearbox/clutch replacement.

This situation, one Nissan dividing the two Volkswagens, remained throughout the third and final leg, although there was great drama in the Volkswagen camp when Weber broke engine mountings and Eriksson began to lose gears. Weber was given new mounts and was easily able to keep his third place, but Eriksson's situation was more precarious, for parts of a broken speedometer cable had fallen into the gear selectors and there just wasn't time to change the unit.

First, second and reverse became impossible to select at times, and the tension in the Volkswagen team could be sensed as the leaders struggled to the finish at Abidjan. Even after they won, the problem continued, for the selectors jammed again as the car was driven into a garage for scrutineering!

Nissan lost a chase car in a collision with a bus which seriously injured one of its occupants, Marzio Kravos from Kenya. He was resuscitated by his partner Jim Heather-Hayes, chief pilot of the Flying Doctor Service in Nairobi, taken to a local hospital by a crew from Brunswick Films of London, and then to hospital at Abidjan by a casevac helicopter. At the time of writing, Kravos was comfortable and recovering from his internal injuries.

Eriksson's first World Championship win comes not a moment too soon. He has deserved such a result all year, and his elevation to fourth place in the Championship is a credit to his skill, tenacity and determination always to get his car to the finish.

He is now only 12 points behind the leaders, and it is interesting to note that had his engine not failed in the final leg of the Safari when he was holding a good second place, he would now be leading the series. It is doubtful whether he will get the chance to score more points, and pretty certain, on the other hand, that the two leaders will increase their scores during the final two rounds, Sanremo and the RAC.

Mehta and Combes, as tenacious and wily as ever, salvaged Nissan honour by taking a good second place, whilst mention must be made of the Finns, Donner and Wrede, who did very well indeed to get their Group N Subaru to the finish, in ninth place.

The 1987 Ivory Coast Rally will be remembered not only for its mediocrity, but as the event which gave Eriksson his first World Championship win, and that which claimed the lives of two fine men, Henry Liddon and Nigel Harris. GP

1987 World Championship
Drivers (after 11 of 13 rounds)

Juha Kankkunen (SF)............................................80
Markku Alén (SF)..................................................80
Massimo Biasion (I)..............................................74
Kenneth Eriksson (S)............................................68
Erwin Weber (D)...................................................44
Jean Ragnotti (F)..................................................39
Hannu Mikkola (SF)..............................................32
Jorge Recalde (RA)...............................................30
Walter Röhrl (D)...................................................27
Per Eklund (S)......................................................25
François Chatriot (F)............................................22
Bernard Bëguin (F)..............................................20
Franz Wittmann (A).............................................20
Timo Salonen (SF)...............................................20
Ingvar Carlsson (S)..............................................20
64 drivers have scored points

Makes (after 9 of 11 rounds)

Lancia................................................................154
Audi.....................................................................74
Wolkswagen........................................................63
Renault................................................................57
Mazda..................................................................52
Ford.....................................................................33
Toyota..................................................................22
BMW.....................................................................20
Subaru.................................................................11
Nissan....................................................................9
Fiat.........................................................................5
Opel.......................................................................2
Alfa Romeo...........................................................1

Results

Ivory Coast Rally, September 22-26
1st: Kenneth Eriksson (S)/Peter Diekmann (D)............Volkswagen Golf GTi, GpA.......0h 48m 57s
2nd: Shekhar Mehta (EAK)/Rob Combes (EAK)............Nissan Silvia, GpA...................1h 09m 18s
3rd: Erwin Weber (D)/Matthias Feltz (D).......................Volkswagen Golf GTi, GpA......2h 05m 56s
4th: Patrick Tauziac (CI) Claude Papin (CI)....................Mitsubishi Starion, GpA..........5h 38m 53s
5th Patrick Copetti (CI)/Jean-Michel Dionneau (CI)........Toyota Corolla, GpA ..............6h 53m 38s
6th Adolphe Choteau (F)/Jean-Paul Van de Wauwer (B).Toyota Corolla, GpA...............7h 57m 16s
7th Martial Yace (CI)/Jean-Paul Yace (CI)........................Mitsubishi Starion, GpA........11h 01m 43s
8th Alessandro Molino (I)/Nicola Albanese (I)................Lancia Delta HF, GpA...........15h 10m 19s
9th Frederic Donner (SF)/Cedric Wrede (SF)..................Subaru Turbo, GpN...............15h 35m 39s
10th Lambert Kouamé (CI)Koffy Kouamé (CI).................Toyota Celica, GpA...............21h 43m 04s
43 starters (38 GpA, 4GpN.1 GpB). 11 finishers.