Bitter sweet

Juha Kankkunen’s victory delighted Toyota, which became the first Japanese manufacturer to take the World Championship, but celebrations were overshadowed by the death of popular Kiwi Rodger Freeth

Sadness and delight came together during September’s Rally Australia, backed primarily by Telecom Australia. With an outstanding win, virtually unchallenged, Juha Kankkunen and Nicky Grist scored enough World Championship points for Toyota to put the make out of reach of any other in the three remaining qualifiers, and the Cologne team was delighted that Toyota will now be the first Japanese manufacturer to take the title.

The sadness came only three special stages into the rally, when the Subaru Legacy of ‘Possum’ Bourne and Rodger Freeth went off the road and crashed into trees. Bourne was unhurt, but a seriously injured Freeth was taken by helicopter to hospital where he died shortly after admission. The tragedy cast gloom over the rally, for New Zealander Freeth was a popular competitor, and it was only after a talk with Freeth’s widow, not to mention considerable heart-searching, that the 555 Subaru team decided to continue. A Legacy entered by Subaru Australia for Robert Herridge/ Roderick Horsley was withdrawn.

Toyota had the advantage of experience in Australia, Juha Kankkunen having won three times in a row (once in a Toyota and twice in a Lancia) and Didier Auriol once, last year in a Lancia. The Castrol-backed team sent two cars for these drivers, Kankkunen again partnered by Nicky Grist who now looks likely to keep that position into next year. Auriol had his regular partner Bernard Occelli. Neither Celica was fitted with the electronic traction control system which was tried experimentally on Hannu Mikkola’s car during the 1000 Lakes Rally.

Ford was making its first foray to the event and had two Escort RS Cosworths for Francois Delecour/Daniel Grataloup and Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero. The cars seemed not to be ideally set up for the peculiar conditions in Western Australia, with narrow, slippery tracks and trees right up to the track edges to make corner-clipping a very risky practice indeed, and neither crew was able to display top mettle.

Lancia’s presence, again only by virtue of the Jolly Club’s continued participation, consisted on just one Delta integrate for Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya, backed by the Spanish oil company Repsol.

Subaru had the full strength of Prodrive in attendance, with three 555-liveried Legacy Turbos for Colin McRae/Derek Ringer, Ari Vatanen/Bruno Berglund and New Zealanders Peter ‘Possum’ Boume/Rodger Freeth. The model is called a Liberty in Australia, and the cars had been rebadged accordingly. Like other teams which have also tackled the New Zealand Rally, Prodrive had left vehicles, spares and other equipment in the Antipodes to be ready for the Australia Rally, whilst staff flew back to Europe for the 1000 Lakes. No doubt this was one of the main reasons why the Impreza was not used in Australia.

Mitsubishi Ralliart did not make the trip from the UK, but its Australian offshoot was there with a Lancer which had been built using works team parts. It was driven by Ross Dunkerton/Fred Gocentas and entered by Team Mitsubishi Ralliart so that it could be nominated as eligible for points in the World Championship for Makes.

Among the non-works cars was a Lancia Delta integrale from Italy’s Top Run team for Argentinians Jorge Recalde/Martin Christie, whilst Josef ‘Sepp’ Haider/Klaus Wendel took an Audi S2 Ouattro.

Several Japanese privateers made the trip, including Yoshio Fujimoto/Hakaru Ichino and Kiyoshi Inoue/Satoshi Hayashi, each in a Group N Mitsubishi Lancer. Australians Ed Ordynski/Mark Stacey drove a similar car, as did David and Kathryn Officer, also from Australia.

Neal Bates and Coral Taylor were in a Toyota Celica, whilst Daihatsu Australia had entered two Group N Charades for Brett and Ross Middleton and Robert Nicoli/Dale Hynes. Nobuhiro Tajima brought a Suzuki Swift from Japan to be partnered by Australian Ross Runnalls, and it was quite amazing to see the the bulky frame of the driver emerge from his diminutive car.

This was the fifth time that the event has figured in the World Championship. The organisers have done an excellent job of promoting it and gathering the necessary backing. They also do a good job of running the event, having travelled around other rallies for some years to collect ideas. Unfortunately, the Western Australian public is not quite in tune with what goes on, although enthusiasm is certainly not lacking.

The rally was based at Perth, the whole width of the continent away from the area where the Southern Cross Rally, the other Australian event to attain international prominence, was held in the forests inland from Port Macquarie.

It spanned four days, returning each night to Perth where the overnight parc ferme was at the city’s Langley Park which also served as a venue for a short spectator stage used twice on the first day and once on the second. Rally headquarters were at the nearby Sheraton Hotel. Total distance was about 1200 miles, of which some 350 miles were devoted to the 35 special stages.

The layout of the route was somewhat complicated, for one stage was tackled three times, two twice and parts of four more driven several times. The nine-stage first day went eastwards from Perth, the second and third (eight and 13 stages) to the south and the four-stage final day to the east again.

The first stage, a two-at-a-time, figure-of-eight affair in Langley Park itself, preceded by a publicity competition for team managers in Daihatsu Charades, was just under 1.5 miles but even in this short distance Kankkunen managed to be fastest by two seconds from Sainz and Auriol. He continued as he started, setting best time on every one of the first day’s stages, being equalled three times by Auriol and once by McRae.

On the first real stage, Recalde went out when the suspension of his Group N Lancia collapsed. One stage later, after a heavy storm, the spirit was knocked out of the event when Bourne and Freeth had the accident which, tragically, claimed Freeth’s life.

The same stage also saw the end of Sainz’s effort. Whilst cutting a corner he went straight off the road and into the trees.

Later in the day, Auriol hit an unexpected rock in the road so hard that his sump broke, the oil pressure falling to zero almost immediately. This left Kankkunen as the only Toyota team survivor, but he was very much in command, ahead of McRae and Delecour at the end of the day. The Fords had not been performing as well as was expected and one reason put forward was that the engine management computers were not programmed ideally for the quality of Australian aviation fuel

Dunkerton had some trouble at the 6 am restart on the Sunday, his engine first starting then spluttering to a stop and refusing to restart. However, it was got going eventually. Haider had been experiencing a power drop on the first day. but when a leaking pipe joint in the turbocharger was put right the engine performed well again.

On the second stage of the day McRae was fastest, but Kankkunen lost a little time when he went off the road and had to use reverse gear to regain it. In any case, the Finn’s lead was well over a minute.

In the big forest complex around the town of Bunnings, some roads had considerable standing water. and McRae and Ringer were doused when they suddenly and uncomfortably discovered that a loosened gaiter at the base of the gear lever was not capable of keeping it out!

Biasion needed to have two broken shock absorbers replaced and complained yet again that his engine was down on power. However, team-mate Delecour reckoned that what he was short of was low rpm torque rather than power. From here on, Biasion’s car was used as an in-event test bed, whilst Delecour was given free rein to keep his World Championship position.

Vatanen got ahead of Delecour for a while but was later slowed by a fault which caused the turbocharger wastegate to malfunction. This was later cured, by changing the whole turbocharger.

At the end of the day, Kankkunen held a lead of 1m 19s over McRae, whilst Vatanen was another 2m 12s behind. The two Fords followed, Delecour after 1m 03s and Biasion after another 1m 17s. Dunkerton was sixth, a further 6m 20s behind.

On the third day, Kankkunen continued to inch further ahead, but Delecour, after starting well, lost a huge chunk of time when he experienced fuel starvation and a misfire under full throttle. Various things were changed, including the pumps and the engine’s black box, but it was not until a sensor at the end of the crankshaft was swapped that there was any improvement. He was one minute late at the next time control, despite having a police escort which he promptly overtook!

Delecour was angry with his team-mate for not stopping to help when he was stranded in the stage with a dead engine, claiming that he would have lost far less time had the Italian pushed him bumper-to-bumper. Biasion merely shrugged his shoulders. It does seem that there is still very little love lost between these two Ford drivers.

Despite the loss of time, something like 12 minutes, Delecour only dropped two places, and had regained one of those by the time two more stages were run. A change of prop shaft cured a vibration in Vatanen’s car, but Bates lost seven minutes after his propshaft broke. At the end of the day, Delecour’s front differential was replaced when the Frenchman reported that it had become noisy.

Back at Perth for the second night stop, Kankkunen had increased his lead over McRae to 2m 09s. Vatanen was another 4m 07s behind, followed 6m 32s later by Biasion. Delecour was 8m 49s behind his team-mate and just 53s ahead of Dunkerton.

Very little drama was expected on the last day, for Kankkunen had enough of a lead to slow a little and McRae did not really have a chance of ousting the Finn. However, McRae reckoned without a steep bank down which his car dropped after he left the road. There were no spectators and the two Scots had to use tree branches to dig out their own escape route back to the track. All this cost them well over half an hour and let team-mate Vatanen into second place. On a European event that sort of loss would have cost at least 20 places, but McRae dropped only from second to sixth, so great were the penalty differences between the leading drivers in Australia.

Almost within sight of the finish, Biasion went out of the rally for a bizarre reason when he lost a good hour on the last stage but one and was beyond maximum lateness at the next control. A bump jolted his front spoiler so much out of position that it obstructed the airflow to the cooling intakes. The result was a seriously overheating engine, and when the same crankshaft sensor that failed on Delecour’s car also stopped working properly on Biasion’s, the rally was over for the Italian.

For Toyota, becoming the first Japanese manufacturer to clinch the world title for makes led to some emotional scenes at the finish. For Kankkunen, it was another big step towards taking the drivers’ title for the fourth time. He has by no means clinched it yet, but we doubt whether anyone would put much money on his losing it.

No matter how gleeful the celebrations, the tragic death of Rodger Freeth was still fresh in everybody’s minds and this cast a shadow over everyone associated with the event.