Duel in the Sun
In the days when first Peugeot, then Lancia, dominated World Championship rallies, events late in the year were hard pressed to attract a good spread of worldwide entries. The championship had probably been settled earlier in the year; the leaders no doubt felt that budget conservation was more important than adding to an already unbeatable score; the others considered that competing just for academic points would be a futile exercise.
The exceptions were events which generated their own publicity regardless of the championship; the Lombard RAC Rally, for instance, last round of the series, although Lancia has been known to pull out of that one. The RAC always attracts a healthy entry because, just like the Safari, it needs no championship prop to attract worldwide attention. On the other hand, Lancia has never ducked out of the Sanremo Rally. The home market is far too important even to consider that.
When an event late in the year has also been on the opposite side of the world to the greatest concentration of professional rally teams, in Europe, cost has combined with a settled championship to produce a twofold reason for staying away, but this has sometimes led to closer and more interesting competition. Without the top professionals in their superior cars, the "middle men" have been left alone to a more even match, and close, exciting contests have often been the result.
It is therefore much better for an event to be without any factory teams at all than to have just one whose cars would be so dominant that the only real fight would be for the places behind them, although you'd probably never get an organiser to base his entry-attracting strategy on that principle.
All this is what can, and has, happened when one team stands out ahead of all others. The moment that well matched rivals for championship victory emerge, the situation changes. And that is just what happened this year in Australia.
Had Lancia still been cock-of-the-walk, who knows what kind of entry list Western Australia's Commonwealth Bank Rally would have amassed? But the Italian team is no longer in that position, and what did turn up in Western Australia was as impressive an array of professionals as has been seen anywhere, although the overall number was just 62, less than one third of the total gathered by Finlands's 1000 Lakes Rally in August.
Such a direct comparison would be unfair unless we went further by emphasising the obvious; that Australia's rallying population is scattered over a huge area, whilst Finland's and its neighbouring countries' are not; that Australia is more than 22 times bigger than Finland, its population only some 2.75 times greater. On the practical side, consider a Brisbane driver who wants to tackle his own country's World Championship qualifier. He would be faced with a round-trip journey which is the equivalent of driving from London to Monte Carlo and back no less than three times, and then nipping across to, say, Prague or Berlin for good measure!
As it happened, the organisers and everyone else concerned with the Australian Rally could have been nothing short of delighted with the turn-out, of both visitors and Australian drivers. Toyota, Lancia, Mitsubishi, Mazda, Subaru, Volkswagen and GM were all there, as were the various Group N contenders from around the world, including Renault, and both lady crews in contention for the Ladies Trophy of the World Championship.
Having Carlos Sainz in such a commanding World Championship position, and being in a good position to oust Lancia from the lead of the makes' series, Toyota naturally took the Australian event very seriously. The team sent two Celica GT4s from Cologne for Sainz/Moya and Ericsson/Billstam. Lancia, in a determined bid to keep the makes' lead, was even more serious. Not only had the Turin team embarked on a lengthy test programme in Australia, they shipped three cars for Kankkunen/Piironen, Auriol/Occelli and Fiorio/Pirollo. Using their Lancias in the search for Group N points were Recalde/ Christie (Argentina) and Trelles/Muzio (Uruguay).
There were also three Mazdas, but from different sources. Two 323s with Japanese-built engines were sent from MRT Europe in Belgium for Ingvar and Per Carlsson and De Mevius/Hertz, whilst New Zealanders Millen/Sircombe had a car prepared in their own California workshop, with an engine from Europe. All three cars had 1.6-litre engines, but the suspension and transmission details of the Belgian and Californian cars were different.
Mitsubishi sent only one car from Ralliart Europe, for Eriksson/Parmander, but another was entered locally for Australians Dunkerton/McKimmie. In addition, there were three Group N VR-4s entered privately and driven by Ordynski/Brown (Australia), Inoue/Hayashi (Japan) and Mäkinen/Harjanne (Finland).
Volkswagen decided to send one Golf Rallye to Australia, for Weber/Feltz, whilst another solitary entry was that of a Subaru Legacy for New Zealanders Bourne/Freeth. It was not from Prodrive in England, but a car rebuilt in New Zealand from the one which Kirkland had driven there two months before.
The GM entry was that of a Vauxhall Astra for Louise Aitken-Walker and Christina Thorner, the pair who have been indulging in an on-off but very close fight with Paola de Martini and Umberta GibeIIini for the WRC Ladies Trophy this year. Both crews were there in Australia, the Italian crew driving their usual Audi 90 quattro.
Before the days of the World Championship, Australia used to have a widely acclaimed event in the form of the Southern Cross Rally, right across in the East of the continent, in the forests and hills inland from Port Macquarrie, North of Sydney. But that event and this are widely different in character, the special stages in the East being similar in a way to those of Britain, but those around Perth being much looser and said to be just as slippery in the dry as in the wet.
The roads have firm foundations, but the surface layers are loose, with pebbles of various sizes mixed with the shingle. Indeed, the tyre and surface experts considered it unique, and Michelin even circulated a close-up photograph of the surface itself with the company's pre-event publicity material. It reminded us of the days when Japanese teams visiting Europe for the first time invariably took photographs of road surfaces, believing that this would be sufficient data to enable their tyre suppliers to provide them with the finest possible equipment. We will never forget the look on the face of one Japanese tyre engineer during the RAC Rally nearly twenty years ago when, on a fine, crisp, sunny, but occasionally muddy November morning, he was asked for snow tyres when there could have been no snow nearer than Mont Blanc!
Based at Perth, the 35-stage, four-day event returned to base each night, the first leg running in a loop and the others almost in herringbone pattern, with special stages going off from central main road spines which were used on both outward and return journeys.
On some rallies, opening legs tend to be incident free, but it was not like that at all in Australia. All manner of things happened on the first day, even in just four stages totalling 40 miles, not the least of which was the elimination of one of the Lancias on the second special stage. Auriol rolled, being unfortunate enough to hole his radiator which caused his engine to cook by the time he had limped to the end of the stage. During practice, Auriol had succumbed to some kind of bug and, despite medication, had been feeling pretty awful when the rally started, which might have accounted for this lapse.
Ericsson also went out after the second stage, following its completion on a front tyre which had slowly deflated completely. Mechanics changed a halfshaft when a joint was seen to be leaking, but when it became necessary to change the differential as well there simply wasn't enough time and maximum lateness was overstepped.
Another to go no further than stage two was Oreille who, somewhat uncharacteristically, hit a hidden tree stump and wrecked his Renault's front right suspension and broke the halfshaft. There was no going on, and suddenly three prominent drivers were out on the same stage.
Millen's prop shaft broke on this same stage and ripped open both the floor pan and the exhaust, which meant a stop for a makeshift repair. This, plus the time lost later on the road, dropped him right to the bottom of the field, and as he did not relish going on in that position, he did not restart the next day.
Meanwhile, Kenneth Eriksson had been surprising everyone in his Mitsubishi, and finished the first leg six seconds ahead of Kankkunen and 24 ahead of Sainz who, as usual, had begun rather cautiously. However, Eriksson's sojourn as leader was short-lived. After a close fight with Kankkunen, his Mitsubishi's clutch failed suddenly and noisily and, here again, the available service time was not enough to have the clutch changed.
Fiorio made something of a mess of his car by going off the road, but he did manage to keep going, even to finish third, which was quite remarkable since the car ended up crabbing almost as much as a Kenyan bus and it must have been very difficult indeed to control at speed.
Up front, the fight developed, as it did in Finland, into a duel between Kankkunen and Sainz, except that on this occasion it was the Finn who kept the advantage, albeit a very small one at times. Each suffered little setbacks, Sainz a puncture and a spin which caused the engine to stall and Kankkunen a clout with a projecting branch whilst using the handbrake after overshooting a turn.
Weber was troubled by his Golf's reluctance to take hairpins cleanly and lost precious seconds several times due to this, whilst De Mevius, who was getting used to having his pace notes read in English for the first time, suffered a serious power loss. A turbocharger change failed to restore it, and it was later found that the quick replacement of a sensor cured the trouble. In such cases of doubt, a good maxim is to go for the simplest things first! Team-mate Carlsson also lost time due to nothing more complicated than a turbocharger pipe coming off.
Both the South American Lancia drivers had experienced trouble, Trelles a puncture and Recalde a bent wishbone, and Mäkinen had taken the lead in the Group N category. Among the Antipodeans, Bourne (Subaru) and Dunkerton (Mitsubishi) were closely matched, although the former lost a small advantage when a differential blew.
The ladies were also battling away, but the Scots girl moved ahead when De Martini broke a halfshaft against a log and lost much time. However, she begen reducing the deficit until a serious misfire set in and her Audi's engine finally gave up. This allowed Aitken-Walker to score more championship points by finishing in the first twenty overall.
Weber, after having bent a steering arm, had his engine die on him right at the start line of a special stage. A push was required, but the engine would not start until mechanics had run in complete with new battery and alternator. The efforts were in vain, for the German was later disqualified for failing to start a stage under the car's own power.
In the final leg, after stirring battles between Kankkunen and Sainz, the Toyota management finally decided that continued attempts to pass Kankkunen posed too many risks. It was better to make sure of second place than risk everything on the slim chance that Kankkunen could be overtaken. Thus the two held station during the final day, although Kankkunen's rally all but came to an end due to a brush with a kangaroo. The animal dashed into the road right into the side of the Toyota. Had it been a split second sooner, the Lancia would have hit it head on and would doubtless have been put out of the rally. However much one indulges in sophisticated development and preparation, the unexpected can always happen. "The best laid plans . . . ."
The duel between Bourne and Dunkerton seemed to have been resolved in favour of Dunkerton, and Bourne resigned himself to fifth place. However, just five stages from the end Dunkerton hit a tree stump and rolled out of the rally. Dunkerton himself was unhurt, but co-driver McKimmie was thought to have damaged a few lower vertebrae and was taken to hospital for a check.
Mäkinen took the Group N category comfortably, seventh overall, but by finishing one place behind him Trelles scored enough points to take over the championship category lead from Oreille.
Sainz still holds a comfortable lead in the World Championship, and, although theoretically just possible, it will be very surprising indeed if Kankkunen manages to wrest it from him. Among the makes, Lancia's position is now stronger, but again it is not yet finally settled. Two events remain for the makes series, the Sanremo Rally and the RAC, whilst for the drivers there are those two plus the Ivory Coast Rally, although who will be going there in late October is still not clear. GP