Before rallying presented a means of financial gain to the FIA, there was no world series of these cold, dirty and nocturnal contests, and the only championship in the world considered worthwhile was that of Europe. Then came international, followed by world, status for a representative group of rallies from around the world. Almost immediately, the European Championship, which hithert had been the pinnacle of rallying endeavour, faded into insignificance. It became a kind of second division, much as the world 2wd series now.
Those events which failed to get into the world series were tossed the crumbs of European status. But that resulted in a top-heavy series of some fifty rallies, and a coefficient system was introduced whereby points scored was multiplied by a figure which varied from event to event. Ten events now have the highest coefficient of 20 and it is on these ten that the championship is won or lost.
However, the series remains poorly contested as a whole, even though many of its qualifying events are excellent. Competitors who have the championship itself as a target number no more than a small handful, and it is usually the case that the winner has been determined before the last qualifier takes place.
This brings us to the Cyprus Rally, sponsored by Rothmans, which is the final coefficient 20 qualifier of the year. Since it began twenty-five years ago it has regularly attracted some of the world’s leading competitors. Alas, the number of works teams has fallen and those that remain have their hands full with the world and other series. The result is an event which, although it amassed 80 starters this year, drew very few from outside the country.
The rally has come a long way since the RAF MSA and the Cyprus AA got together to organise an event which was hailed as a great test of tenacity and stamina as well as of crew skill and car reliability. Since the reins were taken over completely by the Cyprus AA, many innovations have been introduced. It was the first event, to my knowledge, to use mountain-top VHF radio repeaters to send information directly from the field to rally headquarters, a system which the Safari Rally copied and soon found that it could not do without. “Swipecard” timing is also employed: when the card is introduced into the machine a modem sends it directly to the HQ results computer, via radio or telephone line, and the time is automatically fed into the database with no need for additional keying.
As always, the rally was this year based at Nicosia, in the centre of the small island, and the route spanned three days. The first leg began on a Friday at the odd hour of 8pm, to ensure darkness for a fireworks display, and overnight stops were Nicosia, Limassol, and on Sunday back to Nicosia for 7.45pm, a late hour again contrived to facilitate fireworks.
Three British crews were among those making the trip, but two of them were delayed by disaster when the ship ferrying their cars from Felixtowe to Limassol broke down and had to put into Antwerp. Martin Stockdale and Mike Sendall cancelled their trip, retrieved their Opel and went home, but Simon Chapman, planning to tackle the rally in his Vauxhall Nova with Rowland Prentice, jumped in a van and took a trailer to Antwerp. Alas, he found that his car had been plundered and many expensive parts stolen. Undeterred, he arranged for replacements and continued alone by road, sleeping in the van when necessary and taking ferries from Brindisi to Patras and from Piraeus to Limassol. That he made it, and completed most of the rally, is a credit to his tenacity.
The other British crew was in an Opel Corsa of Atkinson Motorsports, Nigel Arnfield and Miles Whitelock. Arnfield is an engineer with Atkinson and makes regular visits to Cyprus to look after locally-based cars. This was his first attempt at the Cyprus Rally as a driver.
Among other visitors were three cars from Italy’s Astra Team, whose head is former works Lancia and Alfa driver Mauro Pregliasco. All three were Lancia Delta Integrales. From France came Pierre-Cesar Baroni to start at number one, whilst the other two were from Lebanon. Maurice Sehnaoui, who uses the pseudonym “Bagheera”, is a regular competitor in Cyprus who used to tackle the old Lebanese Mountain Rally in which and several other British competitors used to take part. He was partnered by his regular co-driver Naji Stephan.
The third Astra car was driven by Jean-Pierre Nasrallah and Annick Peuvergne, the French girl from Marseille who used to co-drive people such as Jean-Claude Andruet and Francois Chatriot. Alas, thrice winners Alessandro Fiorio and Vittorio Brambilla, highly popular with the Cypriot public, were not there this year.
The leading Cypriot contenders were out in force, Dimi Mavropoulos, winner in 1990, again making the trip from London to drive an Audi S2. Vahan Terzian, another past winner, drove an Opel Astra, Tsouloftas a Mitsubishi Galant, Cleanthous a Mitsubishi Lancer and Melissas a Galant.
Soon after the start it became apparent that tyre wear was going to be high, so rough and abrasive were the roads. Indeed, before the rally finished some privateers were saying that they had used up their entire stock and were down to using the least worn of their old ones.
The first evening, Chapman collected a puncture in stage one and, on the start line of stage two, a lady marshal stopped her count-down and pointed out another flat to the crew, allowing them to change the wheel before continuing. Later, he was troubled when his intercom stopped working. Mayropoulos’ fuel pump stopped on the very first stage, in a place to which it was impossible get assistance.
There was much dust, making things difficult, and on the second stage, Arnfield’s bid came to an end when he hit a small river crossing; his engine ingested water and stopped immediately, some of its con-rods bent. Rather than retire to the Ledra Hotel Pool for the remainder of the rally, the Atkinson man decided to lend Vahan Terzian a hand and joined his support crew.
Baroni was suffering a serious misfire and loss of power. The car was fitted with what the Astra team called a “Bang-Bang” system, whereby the turbocharger operates at constant pressure and does not suffer from lag time when the accelerator is pressed. But his exhaust manifold had cracked, dropping the boost. Various attempts were made to weld it up, but always it leaked again and the car never ran with peak power.
At the end of the first day, Andreas Tsouloftas (Galant) led by 25 seconds from “Bagheera”, with Baroni third, another 25 seconds behind. Terzian came next, with the Russian Vassine fifth.
Baroni’s exhaust manifold was still leaking at the start of the second day, whilst “Bagheera’s” aching shoulder became worse on the third day when his power steering pump failed. Soon into the second day, Terzian also had temporary power steering failure when the pump drive belt came off.
Komodromos needed a new clutch plate in his Kadett at the Pafos stop, but the car nevertheless had to be push-started when it left the service point. He had also lost first gear.
On the first stage after Pafos Tsouloftas came to a halt when his engine stopped. He was out, and this left “Bagheera” with a comfortable lead.
Chapman lost a few seconds at a stage start because his co-driver’s intercom cable became tangled and he could not get his helmet on in time. So far, they had collected five punctures. Later, however, they suffered a far more penalising misfortune when, suddenly encountering a competing car stopped on the outside of a corner, Chapman moved to the inside to squeeze past, whereupon the soft verge collapsed and the Nova went over the edge and down a steep drop, to be held back after about fifty feet by a tree. The pair had got themselves up to 19th place when this happened.
Meanwhile, “Bagheera” remained in the lead even though he needed all four halfshafts changed early in the day. He had driven on a flat left-rear tyre in the first stage of the day which may have accounted for at least one shaft failure.
The final day was another long one, but there was little anyone could do to oust “Bagheera”. Even when his power steering pump stopped working and the replacement cost him a minute on the road, he stayed easily in front.
Fredriksson had his steering idler break after the first stage whilst local man “Dino” lost all the braking from his Subaru Legacy. Spectators at the downhill finish of the third stage of the day rushed forward to help and, with a combination of spectator and engine braking, the car was brought to a stop.
As the fireworks over Nicosia centre heralded the end of the event, “Bagheera” beamed at being the first Lebanese driver to win a European Championship rally. As tough as ever, it had not attracted a wide range of overseas entries this year, but that is not to detract from the high quality of the rally. Nasrallah summed it up by echoing what many have said in the past, “This is more of a world class rally than a European one”.
Rothmans Cyprus Rally – 22 – 24 September, 1995
1: Maurice Sehnaoui / Naji Stephan – Lancia Delta HF Integrale, GpA
2: Lenas Cleanthous / D Cacoyiannis – Mistubish Lancer E2, GpN
3: Evgeny Vassine / A Tchoukine – Opel Astra GSi, GpA
4: Menelaos Melissas / G Alexandrou – Mitsubishi Galant VR4, GpA
5: J-P Nasrallah / Annik Peuvergne – Lancia Delta HF Integrale, GpA