Rally review: Ivory Coast Rally, November 1988

End of the road?

There can be no doubt that when the Bandama Rally of the Ivory Coast was first held in 1969 its organisers were stimulated by the success of the East African Safari Rally. The fame achieved by that splendid contest set up by Britons and Kenyans in English-speaking East Africa was the envy of the French-speaking West Africans, and their object was to create a rally not only to match the Safari but subsequently to better it.

As events have proved, this has neither happened nor even looked like happening, although in its early days the Bandama Rally did display considerable potential. It has actually become less and less popular, which is a great shame, for the world certainly needs endurance rallies to contrast the stunting conformity which has beset Europe and other areas where bowing to FISA’s president has assumed greater importance than running honest-to-goodness competitions.

All international rallies organised by FISA affiliated bodies are expected to follow the sweeping dictates of Place de la Concorde, but in areas of low population-density, where the advance of sterile tarmac has been slow across countryside largely unspoilt by the refinements of civilisation, such inflexible dogma has no place. Peremptory rule-making has already changed the character of some of the world’s finest rallies, but no-one, not even Jean-Marie Balestre, can transform the Chyulu Hills or the Tai Forest into clinically insulated autocross tracks where professional teams would perform under the terms of lucrative world television contracts.

The Bandama Rally had become an annual event before FISA’s unwarranted interference in the affairs of rally organisers became significant, but despite various changes of style — all within the African counterpane — it never came up to match the Safari. One ploy, which did save on both manpower and results administration, was the scrapping of time-controls, except those at the start and finish of each leg, in favour of passage controls; another was to set impossible time-schedules, although this may have been through inexperience rather than by design.

Neither was successful. Indeed, when the timing was so tight in 1972 that no-one was able to complete the distance, the uproar approached battle proportions when the organisers refused to declare the event over at the last point where there were any runners (just two) and promptly announced that all prize-money would be withheld! Eventually the creator of the event, the eccentric, gold-bedecked, plausible, hard-bargaining but nevertheless likeable Frenchman Jean-Claude Bertrand (who did strange things such as buying the huge, 12-door — or was it 16? — Checker limousine which served as an airport taxi at Marquette, Michigan, using it as a service vehicle on the Press-on-Regardless Rally and then shipping it to Europe for the same purpose) handed over the reins to the Automobile Sport Federation of the Ivory Coast and promptly left the country to seek fortune elsewhere.

What he left was a country in which rally organising expertise was a rare commodity, so the Paris-based publicity company Promocourse was brought in not only to promote the event but to run the whole thing. It did a reasonable job, but two inadequacies showed up clearly — firstly it had no competitive rallying experience, and secondly it was not resident in the Ivory Coast.

These points become even more prominent when you consider that among the Safari, the Ivory Coast Rally, the Morocco Rally, Paris-Dakar, Egypt’s Pharaohs Rally and a few others, only the Safari is organised by people who have rallying experience and who are resident in the country. The others are all organised primarily from Paris, and not one of them can match the Safari for efficiency and skillful planning.

This year organisational control passed back to local hands, to a reshuffled committee on which sat several competitors. A number of changes were at once evident, including revision of the running timetable and avoidance as much as possible of really rough roads which stood a high chance of becoming impassable if heavy rains produced the inevitable mud and flooding. Of course, no road in Africa can be guaranteed passable in all weathers — we have known main tarmac highways to be blocked — but at least an effort was made to avoid notorious tracks.

There were ten finishers this year, and a number of sections were still timed slackly so that the leading runners got through without penalty. But most of the going was dry. Had it rained, the situation would have been quite different, as Austrian privateers Rudolf Stohl and Reinhard Kaufmann discovered during practice when flooded rivers completely stopped their progress tluough the Tai Forest and forced diem to spend a night in their car. Entries for the Ivory Coast Rally have never been plentiful, and numbers have often been made up by the inclusion of cars intended to cover no more than a section or two before being pulled out and headed for home. This year there were 38 starters, but not a single works team among them.

Most prominent were Stohl and Kaufmann, a pair of real adventurers to whom the clear-cut formality of European rallying holds little attraction. Give them the challenge of Africa, a generous measure of the unknown and a battle with Mother Nature as well as their fellow-competitors, and they are delighted. Stohl drove an Audi Coupe Quattro prepared by Rolf Shmid, whilst Shmid himself was there to drive the practice car in the rally as a competing chase-car, a common enough strategy which the organisers encourage since it helps make up numbers. Another pair, Pascal Gaban and Willy Lux from Belgium, brought their Mazda 323 simply because they stood a chance of gaining valuable points in the Group N section of the World Rally Championship. The main championship has been stitched up by Lancia and its drivers, but Group N is still open between Gaban and Jorge Recalde of Argentina.

As it happened, Gaban finished in second place, thereby gaining enough points to equal Recalde’s score. The two of them then stood as joint leaders, but the Sanremo Rally could change that, and there could be no doubt that on home ground Lancia would give Recalde’s Delta all the support possible.

Very soon after the Abidjan start it became obvious that the leading contenders for victory were Stohl and local champions Alain Ambrosino and Daniel Le Saws in their Nissan 200SX from the Marlboro Africa Team. They were very closely matched, but in the evening of the third day Stohl went very heavily off the road in the Forest of Tai.

The incident could have been very nasty indeed, for Stohl broke an arm and hit his head so hard that he was unconscious for some time and lost considerable blood. Fortunately, it happened just a few miles before the spot where they had been stuck in practice, and Kaufmann remembered a nearby medical post and arranged for his partner to be taken there for attention by a doctor. The next morning Stohl was taken by air to hospital where he was later seen by a specialist flown in from Austria. As we went to press we heard that he was recovering comfortably. Stohl’s retirement took the pressure off Ambrosino who went on to a comfortable win, his first victory on this event even though he has been Ivory Coast Champion several times.

Gaban, on the other hand, was extremely fortunate to finish at all. A section in the final leg had earlier been drenched by a thunderstorm and, although the roads were largely passable, there were floods here and there and at one point there was a 100-yard stretch of water some three feet deep. Some crews stopped to enlist pushing power to cross with their engines off, but Gaban decided to drive through. Almost inevitably, his engine took in water through the air-intake and immediately made the noises associated with serious internal damage. Gaban stopped, got himself pushed across, then set about removing spark-plugs, cleaning and drying out. After about an hour he tried the starter and, amazingly, the engine burst into life. Last year the engines of several cars were destroyed by water ingestion in exactly similar circumstances, so Gaban was indeed lucky to keep his second place ahead of Patrick Tauziac’s Mitsubishi.

As a World Championship qualifier, the future of the Ivory Coast Rally (it is part only of the drivers’ series, not of that for makes) is in the balance. Although the selection of qualifiers for next year has not finally been approved or announced, FISA’s intention is to reduce the number of rounds to twelve, and we had heard on good authority that the Ivory Coast Rally has little chance of keeping its status.

The same was said of the USA’s Olympus Rally, whilst even the Swedish Rally apparently stood at risk — it will be a great shame if the championship’s only real snow rally is taken out. The Swedish Rally provides the series with some of its essential variety, but FISA hierarchy appears to be quite unconcerned about that. The exertion of authority and the demand for total conformity seem to be the major priorities in Paris. GP