Not so long ago, Didier Auriol was known as the unluckiest driver in the World Rally Championship. During his days driving a Fina-backed Jolly Club Lancia he suffered setback after setback, mostly due to some mechanical failure of one kind or another. He showed excellent form and his potential was always evident, but the jinx struck time and time again. Last year he finished third in the World Championship but he won only one event and scored the bulk of his points from three second places, two thirds and a ninth.
After spending months struggling to get his Lancia set up as he wanted it, towards the end of last year he finally said that he felt at home in the car. This was just before the Sanremo Rally, which he promptly won.
This year has brought a remarkable change of fortune for the French driver. With the exception of the Portuguese Rally, from which he retired due to engine failure, he has won every event he has entered. In late September he raised his 1992 tally of victories to six when he won the Australia Rally, breaking Juha Kankkunen’s run of three wins on that event in the previous three years.
Six World Championship victories in one year is a remarkable feat, certainly a record, and enough, one would have expected, to clinch the title of World Champion. However, Kankkunen and Carlos Sainz each has a chance of snatching the laurels even though the latter has only two wins to his credit this year and the former only one.
The Telecom-backed Australia Rally is a round of both categories of the series, for drivers and for makes, and, the makes’ championship having already been settled in Lancia’s favour, it would not have been surprising if Martini Racing had decided not to embark on the costly foray to Australia.
The series-conscious Italians have always placed greater emphasis on the car than the driver. In 1990, the fact that Toyota driver Sainz became world champion did not dampen one bit the enthusiasm of Lancia’s celebrations after winning the makes’ series, but there can be no doubt that it had secretly yearned for the grand slam. Lancia’s presence in Australia this year clearly demonstrates that this is the team’s 1992 objective, although there was a certain disquiet within the team as the Martini/ Lancia contract had not at the time been renewed for 1993.
Initially, there were four A-seeded drivers entered, in four different makes of car: Carlos Sainz in a Toyota, An Vatanen in a Subaru, Ross Dunkerton in a Mitsubishi and Alessandro Fiono in a Lancia entered by the Astra team.But this changed after the 1000 Lakes Rally. Martini Racing decided to send two Lancias for Auriol and Kankkunen, whilst Fiorio chose to take his Astra Lancia to the Rothmans Cyprus Rally instead.
Toyota Team Europe sent just one car for Sainz, the object being to gain championship points, whilst Subaru also had a single car from Prodrive for Vatanen, who was making his first visit to this event. Additionally, the Australian Subaru team had a similar car for New Zealander Peter ‘Possum’ Bourne and a Group N version for Australian champion Rob Herridge.
The Brussels-based Mazda team was not there, but there was a 323 GTX entered by the Mazda Rally Team Asia/Pacific for Rod Millen, the New Zealander who lives and works in California.
Similarly, not entered from Milton Keynes, there was a Mitsubishi Galant VR-4 driven by Ross Dunkerton and a Group N version by Ed Ordynski, both Australian drivers of considerable experience and ability.
Argentinians Jorge Recalde and Carlos Menem Jnr were each in a Lancia Delta Integrale, the former a Group A car and the latter a Group N car entered by Top Run Racing of Italy.
A Group N Mitsubishi Galant VR-4 was in the hands of Japanese driver Kyoshi Inoue, whilst Mohammed Bin Sulayem had his usual Group N Ford Sierra Cosworth, prepared in Cumbria by Mike Little Preparations.
Two Finnish drivers who merely crossed the start ramp then withdrew were Jarmo Kytölehto and Eija Jurvanen, each doing so in order to have started a championship qualifier outside Europe, the former being in with a chance for the Group N trophy and the latter for the ladies’ cup.
One of the main features of this event is the nature of its special stage road surfaces. They are anything but consistent, and can change from corner to corner. One moment the surface is firm and abrasive, providing plenty of grip: the next can see a driver struggling for adhesion on fine, loose gravel which can be likened to marbles. When rain comes, as it often does in the tail end of the Western Australian winter, the variations can be even greater and, even with the most refined of pace-notes, drivers have to be prepared for sudden and unexpected changes.
The rally was divided into four legs, each starting and finishing at Perth where Rally HQ and the three night stops were located. The first and fourth legs went eastwards of the city, whilst the second and third went to the south. The four days contained nine, nine, 13 and four special stages respectively, making 333 miles within the overall distance of 1,217 miles.
The first, second and third legs each culminated in a special stage in Perth itself, at Langley Park, a city-centre area of greenery in which a one-and-a-quarter-mile track had been constructed, crossing itself by bridge thereby enabling two cars to run simultaneously. The stage was overlooked by Perth’s tall buildings, and additional crowd-pullers were laid on each evening in the form of food, wine, music and amusements.
The first day was cold, wet and blusteringly windy, and it came as no surprise that the two Lancias of Auriol and Kankkunen recorded the best times on the first special stage. The surface was slippery, to say the least, and it seemed that the Michelin tyres of the Lancias were providing rather better grip than the Pirellis used by Toyota. However, Sainz got between the two Lancias after the second stage and ahead of them after the third. But this was short-lived. Auriol moved up to take the lead after the fourth stage and spent the remainder of the rally gradually extending that lead.
The only other drivers in real contention were Sainz, Kankkunen and Vatanen, the latter showing a remarkable return to form and demonstrating a Subaru prowess which surprised the other drivers.
Whilst the early stages were relatively fast, those of the afternoon were twistier and by the end of the day Auriol had opened up a considerable advantage. Vatanen, who also used Michelin tyres, was up in second place, ahead of Sainz, whilst Kankkunen had dropped to fourth after hitting a tree stump with his right rear wheel and requiring a suspension change.
Among those behind, Bourne had been experiencing trouble with his centre differential, caused by some electronic quirk, whilst Dunkerton’s Mitsubishi also needed attention. Quickest among the antipodean drivers on the first day was Millen, whilst Ordynski led the Group N contingent.
The second day was dry. Indeed, the sun actually shone most of the time. But it didn’t seem to shine on Vatanen who stalled his engine on the first stage and lost time trying to restart it. He said afterwards that he had at first mistaken the horn button for the starter! That indiscretion dropped him to fourth place.
Millen’s rally came to an abrupt end when he rolled heavily and co-driver Sircombe had to be taken to hospital with suspected rib fractures. Menem, who had prospects of getting ahead of de Mevius (who was not in Australia) in the Group N section of the World Championship, also retired due to a crash, leaving Finn Kytölehto rather glad that he had made the trip to Australia without putting his car to any risk.
Sainz was continually trying various suspension and differential settings in an effort to improve the handling on twisty roads, but it seemed that he was not having much success. After one heavy landing the team doctor was called to look at co-driver Moya’s neck, but they nevertheless carried on, Moya wearing a surgical collar for the rest of the day.
The day’s final stage at Langley Park was held in a real carnival atmosphere, as it had been the previous day, and the huge crowd loved it. As ‘super-special’ stages go, it was not really in the Mickey Mouse bracket and even the competitors voiced approval.
Auriol was an unruffled leader, enjoying handling which was just as he liked it. The diminutive Frenchman was coping well with the constantly variable surfaces and likened them to those of the Monte Carlo Rally which can also have sudden surface changes.
On the third day Vatanen’s excellent run came to an untimely end when his gearbox seized on the second stage. It was later said that second and fourth gears had somehow managed to become engaged at the same time. Bin Sulayem lost a little time here when he stopped to see whether Vatanen needed assistance.
It was during the third day that Sainz found that his car’s handling improved after suspension of the 1991 type was fitted, but by then it was too late and he could only hope that Auriol would lose time due to some problem — which he didn’t.
Bourne’s Subaru emerged from one stage considerably late and with its front right wheel missing. He had hit a rock carried on, only to go off the road the moment he applied his brakes due to the wheel folding up under the car. Getting back to the road was not easy on three wheels. Going backwards was not possible, and he eventually struggled out by going ahead through the trees, dropping from fourth to ninth in the process.
That afternoon, Sainz was concerned more with fending off Kankkunen than he was with catching Auriol, but when the rain came again the Finn gradually narrowed the gap. On the final stage of the day, again at Langley Park, Sainz lost time when he slid wide on the wet surface and stopped momentarily, this letting Kankkunen through to second place, the best part of three minutes behind Auriol. Bourne had moved up from ninth to seventh, whilst Group N man Ordynski was in sixth place.
The final day, a Tuesday, dawned bright and sunny, but there were to be no heroics in the four stages which remained. Auriol slowed noticeably to reduce risks, and Kankkunen recorded best time on each of the four, making quite sure that Sainz would not get ahead into second place, thereby to score 15 championship points rather than 12.
Recalde gained from the problems encountered by the leading Australians and New Zealanders and finished fourth, ahead of Dunkerton.
Auriol has a solid advantage in the chase for the world title, especially as he can enter three of the four remaining rounds if he wishes. The maximum number of appearances allowed title contenders during the year is 10 (of 14 rounds) and Sainz is only allowed two more, which is the reason that Toyota is not appearing at the Sanremo Rally, which will have finished by the time this edition of Motor Sport appears.
Telecom Australia Rally – 19-22 September, 1992
1. Didier Auriol / Bernard Occelli – Lancia Delta HF Integrale, Gp A
2. Juha Kankkunen / Juha Pironen – Lancia Delta HF Integrale, Gp A
3. Carlos Sainz / Luis Moya – Toyota Celica Turbo 4wd, Gp A
4. Jorge Recalde / Martin Christie – Lancia Delta HF Integrale, Gp A
5. Ross Dunkerton / Fred Gocentas – Mitsubishi Galant VR-4, Gp A