Rally review: Cyprus Rally, November 1989

Shadow Play

Some twenty years ago a group of enthusiasts in Cyprus, some of them Cypriot and some members of the British military (BAMA and RAFMSA) got together and convinced the Cyprus AA that an international rally should be held on the island. They also convinced a tobacco company that the project was highly deserving of financial backing. The result, in 1970, was the first Rothmans Cyprus Rally, a splendid event which we described at the time as a kind of hybrid of the Acropolis and RAC Rallies, garnished with the unique flavour of Cyprus.

In those days Cyprus was undivided by the artificial barrier which now splits the island in two, but even after that division was made following the Turkish occupation of the mid-Seventies, and the rally was denied the opportunity to visit such parts of the country as Kyrenia and Famagusta, the organisers returned after a two-year gap with a route which was every bit as testing as before. The rally very quickly progressed to the European Championship, within which it climbed to the top coefficient, but we have always felt, and still feel, that its toughness is such that it would not be at all out of place in the World Championship.

It has been eased considerably since the days when road sections were so tight that tyre changes or even fuel stops would invariably be accompanied by edgy clockwatching, but even now it is by no means a dawdle and anyone experiencing trouble can expect a road penalty to be the result. Indeed, this year no less than 13 of the 25 Group A finishers were so penalised. Based at Nicosia, where the perfectly good international airport is unfortunately still not operational due to its position straddling the country’s dividing line, the rally runs in the area to the South and West of the capital, using roads high in the Troodos

Mountains and a somewhat less twisty one near the South and West coasts. Some of these stages are relatively smooth, but some are very much on the rough side, with sharp rocks ready to inflict punctures and broken suspensions on anyone who does not treat them with respect. When there is no rain, the stages are usually very dusty indeed, and in no-wind conditions this can cause the usual overtaking difficulty or even impossibility.

Occasionally this has led to complaints, as it has in many other rallies, although what the organisers can do about such a basic, environmental phenomenon we cannot imagine. Dust is one of rallying’s natural hazards, and anyone who complains about it might care to suggest the kind of miracle which would eliminate it. Mike Hillyar, a British competitor who lives in Cyprus, summed up the situation this year by the remark, “When God made the world, He made two mistakes: He put salt in the sea and dust on the roads of Cyprus!”

Before the International Rally Championship began in 1970, renamed World Championship in 1973, the most prominent series of the world was the European Championship, but this series became relegated by the advancement of the other. More and more qualifying events were added to the list as FISA tossed crumbs of compensation to those events which were not given World Championship status. Eventually, the series became so big as to be top heavy, and anyone tackling it as a whole was presented with an enormous logistical problem for planning entries, practice and movements of cars, spares and personnel, not to mention tricky decisions on which events to enter and which to ignore. It was certainly quite impossible to enter the whole lot. The coefficient system was set up, giving each event a degree of importance ascending from one to four. Not only did this affect the number of points scored (always multiplied by the coefficient) but it further “graded” the rallies within the series. The degree of difference between the four coefficients was later considered too small, so the highest was raised from four to twenty, effectively making it essential that anyone with an eye on becoming European Champion should compete in all coefficient 20 events.

The Cyprus Rally is one of those top coefficient events of the series, but its calendar situation as the last such qualifier of the year can mean that the Champion has already claimed his laurels before the event takes place, as happened this year.

When the duel between Robert Droogmans (Belgium) and Yves Loubet (France) ended in the Frenchman’s favour in the Isle of Man, Loubet had made certain of the title, but the Cyprus Rally followed the Manx so closely that both drivers had been obliged to make plans to tackle the Mediterranean event, plans which neither driver changed. Both of them went to Cyprus, but both had already decided how the event would turn out for them.

Droogmans, having agreed to let his fellow-countryman and Ford-Finn teammate Jean-Pierre Van De Wauwer drive his Ford Sierra XR4x4, and taken over the latter’s Sierra Cosworth in exchange, decided that he would start the rally but would not go beyond the first special stage. Neither he nor his team seemed to be interested in the event itself, which was rather a shame. To them, the title was all that mattered, and with all chances of that gone, Droogmans completed just one special stage, then turned back to head for Nicosia and a short holiday. The Ford-Fina team from Belgium, managed by former driver Gilbert Staepelaere, made no attempt to hide the fact that they had thrown in Droogmans’ towel, but bulletins nevertheless declared on paper firstly that the reason for his retirement was not known, and later that it was due to an electrical failure.

Whilst Droogmans could have gained no championship advantage from the Cyprus Rally, so Loubet stood to lose nothing, but he and his team, HF Grifone from Italy, made the opposite decision to that of the Belgians. They figured that it would be good for the European Champion to emerge from the series having rounded it off with a victory on the final high coefficient event of the year, and arguably its toughest.

As the rally progressed, it was Loubet’s team-mate (and team manager) Fabrizio Tabaton who emerged leader, several minutes ahead of the Frenchman, but on the final day a road penalty added two minutes to Tabaton’s total, whilst later he slowed sufficiently to allow Loubet to remove the remainder of his deficit and win by the slender margin of just thirteen seconds.

Again there was no attempt at a coverup. Indeed, even the previous day Tabaton had said that perhaps he would not be in first place at the finish, but official bulletins nevertheless avoided the subject.

Cyprus has high hinterland mountains rising to some 6,400 feet above sea level, and radio communications are not facilitated by such solid obstructions. However, the country’s amateur radio enthusiasts, several of whom are on the organisational side of the rally, long ago constructed and set up a VHF repeater system so that pretty well the entire route of the rally can be covered. In some countries “hams” refuse to allow their frequencies to be used for such purposes as rallying, but in others, Cyprus included, they welcome the opportunity to put their expertise to good use. The result is a direct link from Rally HQ to all controls. The system is almost identical to that which was subsequently established, using private frequencies, by the Safari Rally in Kenya, and which is now the envy of other organisers of World Championship events.

The whole event was tightly concentrated. It was divided into four legs, but not in the pattern which has afflicted World Championship rallies, namely that all the driving should be done by day, leaving nights for sleep. The first leg ran via five special stages from Nicosia to Paphos on the south-west coast from 2.30 pm to 8 pm on the Friday. After a five and a half hour stop, the second leg, containing another five stages, ran through the night to Limassol, arriving at 7.40 am. The third returned to Nicosia via six stages, leaving at 2.30 pm and arriving at 7.30 pm. The final leg on the Sunday was a loop through six stages, leaving Nicosia at 10 am and returning at 3.30 pm.

Among the overseas visitors this year only one was marked with “GB” in the entry list, which is a far cry from years past when Britishers, both resident and visiting, were numerous. The only one was Dimi Mavropoulos (Audi Coupe quattro), and only because he lives in London and has a British competition licence. Mike Hillyar drove a Suzuki SA310, but he lives in Cyprus and has a Cypriot licence.

Another surprising fact was that there was just one competitor from Greece, Gemenis in a Subaru, although the rally has never seemed to attract Greek crews in any numbers. Among the other foreign visitors were Christian Hacker from Austria in a VW Golf GTi 16v, Ferrecchi and Arletti from Italy in Lancia Delta Integrales (what else?) and, we are pleased to record, a team of three Lada Samaras from the Soviet Union, one of which, driven by Viktor Shkoljni, finished ninth. Ferrecchi, incidentally, finished second in Group N, thereby taking the European Group N Challenge.

Punctures began taking their toll very early in the event, particularly as dust reduced visibility so much that driving “on the notes” meant that drivers were often unable to see puncture-provoking surface changes until it was too late to slow down. Some were even getting them two at a time! Tyre wear was also very high and, especially among the privateers, as some were retiring, so others were approaching them to take over their stocks of spares. One unfortunate local driver, Manolis Christodoulou (Peugeot 205 GTI), said dejectedly at the end of the second leg that he has collected a puncture on every stage of the rally so far!

Car sympathy was of prime importance, of course, and anyone who did not bear in mind the high degree of breakage risk on the rough roads certainly did not make it to the finish. Shock absorber breakage was common; so was engine overheating, brake calipers jammed by stones and fuel vaporisation. Past winner Vahan Terzian broke a run of finishing ten times in succession when a stub axle broke on his Honda Civic. “It snapped like a cucumber,” he said! Mavropoulos even had the front main cross member of his Audi break, and needed considerable welding in order to continue.

This rally is certainly not one for the faint-hearted. It includes as many hazards as we have seen anywhere, but therein lies one of its many attractions. It is one that should certainly be considered by anyone wishing to compete in an overseas event. GP