Whilst a World Championship qualifier was struggling to generate interest in the Ivory Coast, an European Championship round in the Eastern Mediterranean was enjoying a healthy start-list and first-class competition between both professionals and amateurs.
The Rothmans Cyprus Rally began in 1970 when the RAF MSA convinced the Cyprus AA that a major international event could be staged on the island. Several RAF men were senior officials in those days, and there were three advisors from the United Kingdom, but the AA subsequently took over and permanently established what emerged as a splendid rally, as tough and competitive as can be found anywhere.
It was a kind of amalgam of Acropolis and RAC— the heat, dust and rocky tracks of the former, the running system and timing of the latter. The rally was run, and still is, by as friendly and helpful a bunch of organisers as you would find anywhere, whilst the spontaneous hospitality of the island people gives the rally such a warmth that anyone who goes there invariably wants to go back.
The artificial “green line” dividing northeast and south-west still exists, unhappily, so the event is unable to travel to such places as Kyrenia and Famagusta, as it did in its early years. But there is plenty of variety, nevertheless, in the three-leg clover-leaf route which takes in narrow, twisty tracks in the mountains and rather faster ones near the coast. The base, of course, is at Nicosia.
In order to give prominence to what were regarded as the most important rounds of the European Championship, a select number had their coefficients raised from four to 20, the remainder keeping their, co-efficients one, two or three merely as a token. If there is any kind of battle for the series, the rounds with the highest co-efficient are guaranteed entries by the main protagonists in search of championship points.
This year, Italian Fabrizio Tabaton has been campaigning the series in a Lancia Delta, but when Belgian Patrick Snijers won the Manx Rally just one week before the Cyprus Rally and found himself in a position to snatch the title from Tabaton, he and the Prodrive team wasted no time getting a BMW M3 to Nicosia. Having won in 1986, Snijers was no stranger to Cypriot roads.
The duel between these two was just one facet of the event. Another was the presence of Bjorn Waldegard and Kenneth Eriksson in two Celica Turbos from Toyota Team Europe. It was the team’s first visit to the island, and it made it clear that, after Kankkunen’s brilliant drive on the Thousand Lakes Rally in Finland, it wanted to test its car in the really difficult Cypriot conditions — heat, dust, rocks and altitude changes — prior to a more comprehensive programme in 1989.
The two Toyotas were not the only cars capable of reducing the points scores of Tabaton and Snijers, for there were two Rothmans-backed Audi Coupe Quattros for last year’s winner David Llewellin and 1981 winner Vahan Terzian from Nicosia.
Neither Snijers nor his team had any illusions about the suitability of the BMW M3 for the rough Cypriot roads, but nevertheless felt that it was worth a try. Alas, after a promising start, a front strut broke, sending both suspension and wheel flying off the car. There was no chance to have the damage repaired in time, and the Belgian’s hopes for the European title were dashed.
Meanwhile the two Toyotas took to the rough stuff perfectly and set the pace, well clear of those behind, whilst Tabaton on could only concentrate on staying ahead of Llewellin. The going was very dusty indeed, but in such windless conditions the organisers and stewards were correct to turn down a request that the gap between the leaders be increased from two minutes to three.
It would not have made the slightest difference. Dust is as much a natural adversary as snow, rain or mud, and since nothing can be done about it there seems little point in complaining. However, it was a very real setback, and we heard that some found visibility getting right down to zero, the only remedy then being to stop until it extended for a few yards at least.
It seemed that the Toyotas were going to finish first and second, but in the third leg, from Limassol back to Nicosia, a simple puncture put paid to that. Noticing the flat tyre only five kilometres from the end of what he considered one of the event’s smoother stages, Eriksson decided to continue driving on the rim. But even smooth stages can transform punctures into more serious problems, and this is exactly what happened. In fact, the wheel fell off!
He managed to get to the end of the stage without losing all that much time, but he then had to wait for the arrival of mechanics to repair the damage, and the result was a massive 17-minute road penalty at the next time control.
The outcome for Toyota was first and fourth places, and the satisfaction of knowing that its suspensions and transmissions were capable of surviving the punishment of really rough roads. Tabaton finished second, establishing himself as the 1988 European Champion, whilst Llewellin drove very well to finish third.
Dimi Mavropoulos, the fruit grower and shipper from Covent Garden, finished sixth in his Ford Sierra XR4 x 4, just half a minute behind the Nissan of highest-placed Cypriot Antonis Jeropoulos.
There are many, ourselves included, who consider the Cyprus Rally to be eminently worthy of World Championship status. But such an elevation might do more harm than good. It is a splendid event, and who knows how it would suffer if faced with tighter conformity to FISA’s rules and the rat-race of its politics and wrangles. Perhaps it’s better staying exactly where it is. GP