Much of what we said about entries in Australia’s Commonwealth Bank Rally also applies to the Rothmans Cyprus Rally. This late September round of the European Rally Championship, even at the highest coefficient of 20, rarely attracts more than a handful of contenders for the title simply because the series is usually settled before the event takes place. This is a great shame in a way, although due to its complex make-up the series has never attracted many serious title-chasers since the coefficient system began and the number of qualifying events increased to its present massive total of 47.
Before the days of the International Championship, leading to the World Championship, the European series was the only one at which a determined competitor could aim his sights, and there were some really close finishes. But those days are gone, and what is now the ERC is such a complex affair that it needs a clever strategist to determine which events to tackle and which to miss. There have been times when drivers who had no real intention of going for the title have found themselves, some months into the year, in a position to take it, almost by chance, and it is invariably settled long before all the rounds have taken place.
In reality, the lower coefficients of the series are conferred upon events merely as a token, crumbs tossed by FISA to those who do not merit loaves, and only the eleven coefficient 20 events have any real bearing on the series as a whole.
This year, after Robert Droogmans settled the title, he decided not to contest the Cyprus Rally, and of course none of his rivals were there either, at least not with championship points in mind.
When it began some twenty years ago, the Cyprus Rally was modelled as a kind of hybrid of the RAC Rally and the Acropolis; using the special stage, penalty and marshalling systems of the former, along a route which was as rough, dusty and as tightly timed as the latter.
The event is run now largely as it was then, although road timing has been slackened to some extent. This should make it more attractive to privateers, and we often wonder where that yearning for adventure-tinged rallying, that led private crews, especially the British, to the most unlikely events, has gone.
The rough roads do put some people off, of course, although that is all part of the character of the rally, and it’s the same for everyone. The thing to remember is that you don’t really want a highly sophisticated, costly but temperamental car for an event such as this. Speeds are much lower in Cyprus than they are elsewhere, and sheer performance is not as important as strength and reliability. As an example, the winner’s average speed over all the special stages this year was just 35.6 mph, whereas at the other end of the scale in Finland it was over 70 mph!
Based at Nicosia, the rally has four legs but they are not related to days because the whole thing is packed in from 2.30 pm on Friday to 3.30 pm on Sunday. The first stop, at Paphos, is for 5h 37m at night, the second, at Nicosia, for 6h 46m by day, and the fourth, also at Nicosia, for 13h 14m at night.
The route runs firstly westward through the high central mountains to Paphos on the south-west coast, then returns, again through the mountains but with some coastal stages thrown in. The third and fourth legs are in the region formed by a triangle drawn to connect Nicosia, Larnaca and Limassol.
Among the visitors this year was to have been Saeed al Hajri from Qatar, but the Gulf situation left his parts and equipment stranded in several places and his Sierra Cosworth had to be withdrawn.
However, the RAC of Jordan did enter two of the six Fiesta XR2s bought from Ford for use by promising Jordanian drivers. They were driven by Bustami and Abu Samra. Alas, neither finished.
Harald Demuth came from Germany with a Mitsubishi VR-4 entered by the German importers with support from Sachs, whilst from Sweden came former Saab works driver Ola Strömberg with a Group N Sierra Cosworth. Strömberg has a car preparation company in Sweden, and he looks after the similar car of Lebanese driver “Bagheera” whom we were delighted to discover was none other than Maurice Sehnaoui who became friendly with many of the British and other privateers who used to tackle Lebanon’s Rally of the Cedars years ago.
From Greece came the very promising Group N driver Manolis Panagiotopoulos in a Toyota Celica GT, whilst the only privateers from Britain were former Cyprus-based servicemen Mark Burnage and Colin Hubbard in a Subaru. Another British pair, Andy Bolton and Mark Thake serving with the army in Cyprus, drove a Lada Samara and, by dint of backing from the local importers, found themselves in the same team as two similar cars from the Soviet Union driven by Artemenko and Alyasov. They remarked that it was very strange indeed to find themselves being serviced by Russian mechanics!
Among the Cypriot drivers, the two who were certain to have the closest fight were Dimi Mavropoulos from London in his Audi Coupé quattro and Vahan Terzian from Nicosia in a Honda Civic. Terzian is a former winner of the rally, but Mavropoulos, although he has several times been Cyprus Champion, has never won the Cyprus Rally. This year he won all previous rounds of the series and was determined to round off the season with the victory which had so far eluded him.
In the early sections some problems were caused when novice marshals misinterpreted the timing system, but it all seemed to be resolved later. Demuth and Strömberg each led briefly, but these two visitors each had a very short rally indeed.
Demuth first broke a shock absorber which led to total suspension failure and a time loss which dropped him to 28th place. He slowly recovered, but on the way back to Nicosia he broke a halfshaft and holed his gearbox. There was no question of there being enough time to have it changed, and the German crew was out.
Demuth’s first problem gave the lead to Strömberg, but he lost time having a change of halfshafts and dropped several places. On the return journey, he became very concerned when his gearbox temperature went up beyond the gauge end stop, but he needn’t have worried, at least not on that point. He hit a tree with a front corner, causing considerable damage, and whilst going slowly to the end of the stage the wheel came off completely. There was no time for repair, and he too was out.
Meanwhile, Mavropoulos had inherited the lead, and kept it despite a badly cracked rear sub-frame which had to receive much welding attention, even back at Nicosia, before it was pronounced fully fit again.
Terzian was by no means letting Mavropoulos run away with things, and the way in which he drove that amazingly sturdy and agile car, with just a 1590cc engine, was quite incredible. Something for Honda UK to have a look at, perhaps!
Another surprising performance came from the Russian driver Alexander Artemenko who got his Lada up to third place. An incident at the start of one stage, when Artemenko failed to leave the line as the signal was given, led to a protest from Lancia driver Tsouloftas, who was fourth, that the car had been serviced in a control area. But, after hearing what officials on the spot had to say, the stewards rejected the protest but endorsed a penalty of two minutes for failing to start the stage within 20 seconds of being given the start signal. A further penalty of one minute for making a false start was removed.
On the last day, which he began with a two minute lead over Terzian, Mavropoulos appeared confident. No less so was Terzian, but the latter had already decided that it was going to be impossible to catch the Audi. However, it all became very tense just before the Limassol service stop when the Audi’s alternator stopped charging. It was a very close thing indeed, and work was continued at the roadside even after the car had left the service area for the 10.5 mile drive to the next stage. Twenty minutes were allowed, and seven of those were taken up in restoring the car after the alternator change, but they made it just in time.
That’s how it finished, but the ensuing discussions went on until the early hours of Monday morning, partly over Tsouloftas’ protest and partly over a report from the FISA technical delegate that an engine support bar on Mavropoulos’ car was a Group B part not ratified for Group A cars. Eventually it was resolved, after papers were produced, that the part was not illegal. In any event, the stewards took the view that its presence did nothing to enhance the performance of the car, nor indeed to strengthen it, and Mavropoulos finally went to bed happy.
Our opinion of this event has remained unchanged throughout its 20 years. It is a splendid rally which has as tough a route as you will find anywhere, and it takes place in a friendly island where the hospitality really has to be experienced to be believed. The mountain villagers are as helpful as the organisers, and he would be a rare man indeed who would leave Cyprus without a determination to return. But remember; you do need a strong car! GP