Rally Review, October 1968

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Rally of the Thousand Lakes

Last month this column was initiated in the cabin of a Finnair Caravelle on its way from London to Helsinki. It was in a similar place some months before that the idea came to Bill Barnett, Ford of Britain Rally Manager, to ask the young Finn, Hannu Mikkola, to join their team for the Rally of the Thousand Lakes. The idea—I will not call it a hunch because it was based on sound judgment—brought dividends, for Mikkola, with co-driver, Anssi Järvi, won the rally outright and added to the rapidly growing list of Escort successes.

The Thousand Lakes, or Jyväskylän Suurajot, to give it its unpronounceable local title, is one of those events which has never been won by a non-Scandinavian driver. For this reason Ford chose Bengt Söderström/Gunnar Palm, Ove Andersson/Agne Nordlund and Mikkola/Järvi for its team of three Escorts. All three went through the 31 hours well placed and would have collected a certain team prize had not Andersson’s car shed its crown-wheel nut, which punched a hole in the differential casing, causing oil loss and seizure.

B.M.C., although they have had two Finns in their rally team for several years, at first thought not to enter the Thousand Lakes, the result of a reduction of their competition programme after the Leyland merger. But, perhaps because they considered that Minis should not be left out of the films being made both by the B.B.C. and by Castrol, they decided to send two cars after all, for Mäkinen/Keskitalo and Swedes Ytterbring/Persson. Their three-car team was made up by the privately-entered Mini Cooper S of Atso Aho and Antti Kytölä. Aho, a Finn who once lived in Zambia, took part in this year’s East African Safari Rally driving a Daihatsu, and is a polished performer whose name would be far better known had he the time to rally more often. Kytölä is the mechanic who looks after Makinen’s cars in Finland.

Aho’s Abingdon-built (and British-registered) car was the only Mini of the team to finish, Mäkinen retiring with a broken gearbox and Ytterbring when he left the road.

The Finns have a most appropriate title for their rally, for their country consists mainly of dense forests and probably the most complex network of interconnected lakes in the world. Because water transport is so easy, even for long distances, the country’s road system is somewhat underdeveloped and most of the roads are of compacted sand sprayed with a sealing agent. But therein lies the charm of driving in Finland which, like East Africa, provides proof that the more modern the road system, the less pleasant it is to drive upon. Blind brows appear everywhere, and Finns develop sharp reactions at an early age to cope with the inevitable curves and bends which appear suddenly beyond them.

Although there were no British drivers in the rally, there was a strong contingent from Britain made up of mechanics from Ford and B.M.C., fitters from Dunlop and Goodyear, representatives of Castrol’s Competitions Department and the various film makers. I don’t count myself, for I was just watching from the touchlines, lending a hand here and there.

Anyone who had previously wondered where all the lakes came from was left in no doubt by the time the rally was over—they all seemed to fall from the sky during the time we were there. The incessant rain made the going extremely difficult and slippery and sent many cars slithering off towards the trees after landing from an airborne “yump”, a misfortune which ended the rally for Pauli Toivonen, the factory Porsche driver.

A remarkable performance, which certainly ought not to remain unmentioned, was that of the unknown Finnish pair, Pentti Airikkala and Erkki Rautanen. They were driving an Isuzu Bellet entered by the local dealers and were so consistently good along the special stages that they got up to second place. But over-enthusiasm overtook them before the end and, with only two stages to go, rolled the car off into the trees, fortunately without personal injury.

Although the Thousand Lakes is a rally known throughout Europe and beyond, there was not much International atmosphere about it this year. There were Saabs from Sweden (which, I have neglected to mention, collected the team prize and second place overall), Trabants and Wartburgs from East Germany, and even Moskvitches from the Soviet Union, but there was still something lacking and one couldn’t help feeling that the organisers were not making the best of what they had available. A little more encouragement from the Finnish Tourist Board and there could well be a more representative entry list next year.—G. P.

Coupe Des Alpes

Just as Britishers were convinced that they saw the making of Finland’s lakes in August, in September it seemed as though competitors on the Alpine Rally were witnessing the replenishment of the Mediterranean, for it rained and rained and rained, only clearing up into the familiar early autumn sunshine on the last day.

The French Alpine Rally, or Coupe des Alpes as they now call it, really has its origins in Austria, but the two national clubs combined their efforts between the wars and, after a break of a few years, it was the French club alone which revived the event. Although Austria soon began to run its own Alpine Rally once again, and still does, it is the French event, organised by the Automobile Club of Marseille Provence which is now the better known.

The Alps must have a fascination for British drivers, for just as GB plates by the score have been carried down to the Riviera in wintertime they have always been fairly plentiful during the Alpine Rally which uses roughly the same area as the Monte Carlo Rally.

But this year was different; so different that it was sometimes difficult to imagine the rally as a Coupe des Alpes at all. B.M.C., for whom Hopkirk and Crellin won the event last year in a Mini Cooper S, entered no cars at all—the result of a curtailment of its competitions programme (temporarily, we hope) after the Leyland merger. In fact, not a single B.M.C. car appeared in the starter’s list, a far cry from the gaggles of Minis once to be seen everywhere. The only factory cars from Britain were three twin-cam Escorts from Boreham driven by Roger Clark/Jim Porter, Bengt Söderström/Gunnar Palm and Ove Andersson/John Davenport.

Lancia had sent three Fulvias, Porsche one rather old 911, Daf a 44 and two 55s, Alfa Romeo four GTAs, which had actually been entered by the French distributors, and Citroën four DS21s, one a rather utility-looking contraption with special bodywork.

By far the strongest side was that of Renault, which has virtually centred its rally programme on the activities of Automobiles Alpine. They had five Alpine-Renaults, one in group three and the others in group six, with no less than eight privately entered cars backing them up.

You may wonder what a group six car was doing in an event which qualifies for the European Championship, since the rules of that competition permit only groups one, two and three. Well, the organisers, obviously in an effort to boost their entry list, permitted cars of groups one to six to take part and voluntarily opted out of the championship in order to do this. The move took some courage, and showed that the club was confident of the event’s ability to stand on its own feet and not rely upon the magnetism of a handful of points for a championship in which many people have lost interest. But it did keep some manufacturers away—Saab, for instance, who didn’t send any cars at all, and Porsche, who only sent one.

Before going any further, I must mention that private entrants from Britain and Ireland together numbered only four, and it was perhaps this absence of familiar faces on the quayside at Marseille that robbed the event, for me at least, of much of its atmosphere. Since there were so few carrying the privateers’ banner from these islands, I will mention them by name—Leo Bertorelli/Peter Hilliard and Alan Allard/Tom Fisk in twin-cam Escorts, Stanley Palmer/Paul Steiner in a Vauxhall Ventura and, from Dublin, Noel Smith/Paddy McGuire in a Renault Gordini. None of them finished.

The reason for the drop in entries (they totalled 64) was not really the absence of European Championship status, but the increase in cost. The entry fee had gone up to £105, a charge of 50 francs was being made for each “Service” plate and another 50 francs for each admission pass to the special serving parks set up at the end of each of the three parts of the route. The reason for this was the withdrawal by Esso of its sponsorship and a general increase in fees charged by the police, the F.I.A. and the F.F.S.A. Faced with the prospect of having their rally costed out of existence, the sporting commissioners of the club had no alternative but to increase charges, and indeed helped by each chipping in a thousand francs from his own pocket.

The route of the Alpine is divided into three parts in much the same way as the Circuit of Ireland Rally. The first (1,400 kilometres) always starts at Marseille and this year ended at Aix-les-Bains, a rather conservative spa town just north of Chambery. The second (850 kilometres) was a daytime section starting and finishing at Aix and the third was a 1,540-kilometre run to the coastal resort of Juan-Les-Pins, between Nice and Cannes, where the feminine scenery more than equalled the grandeur of the mountains.

The whole route was divided, in traditional Alpine fashion, into selectifs (high speed sections with fixed target times which are theoretically possible), slightly slower liaison sections, and special tests based on scratch, where the fastest man gets least penalty.

As I have said, rain punctuated the first night and day, and when fog came down as well, an already difficult route was rendered only barely possible. At the end of the first section only 25 cars were classified from the original 64. All the Citroëns had retired, two after crashes with non-competitors and two with mechanical breakages. Punctures and collisions with walls were pretty frequent, for the summer rain had made the mountain roads very slippery and had brought showers of stones down on to the surfaces.

The second section was equally difficult, for again it rained. By the time this was over only 16 cars remained in the rally. All three Escorts had retired, two having crashed (one probably due to a loose steering column) and one when the engine inexplicably seized. The oil pick-up in the sump had probably never before had to cope with high r.p.m. on such steep downgrades and it is likely that oil starvation was the cause.

One of the Escorts, that of Clark and Porter, had originally been fitted with a 210 b.h.p. F.V.A. engine—a group six car with lightened bodywork and enormously fat tyres. But after tests with the car it was found that not only was the effective r.p.m. band too narrow for the hairpin-ridden Alps, but it was proving difficult to get the engine to cope with constantly changing altitudes between sea level and nearly 10,000 feet.

Although the brothers Garnet had been leading earlier in their Alfa Romeo GTA, the Renault offensive was too strong, and, although four of the five factory Alpines retired, that of Jean Vinatier and Jean-François Jacob finished in first place, nearly 15 minutes ahead of the next car.

Until 1967, the coveted Coupes des Alpes were only awarded to those competitors who had lost no time “on the road”, that is, on the liaison and selectif sections. This system was changed last year to allow the winner and all those within 2 per cent of his times to collect Coupes. Had the old system been used this year not one driver would have gained an Alpine Cup. As it was, three crews so qualified—the winners, Barailler and Fayel in an Alfa, and the indefatigable Trautmanns, René and Claudine, in a Lancia Fulvia.

That it had been one of the toughest Alpine Rallies yet is shown by the number of finishers—just 12. For Alpine-Renault it had been a great triumph to win their country’s premier event in the face of opposition from Ford, Porsche and Alfa. But they failed to get one of the newly devised Coupes des Constructeurs. Three cars from a team of up to five had to finish in order to qualify (with the same 2 per cent. rule as for the drivers’ Coupes) and Vinatier’s was the only factory car to finish. The Constructors’ Cup went to Alfa Romeo, who had two GTAs and a Giulia in the finishers’ list.—G. P.

* * *

After the Alpine should come the postponed Geneva Rally, but it will probably be cancelled altogether for not a single piece of confirmatory information has been received from the Swiss Club.

Then we have the R.A.C. Rally, which will probably suffer greatly from entries lost to the London-Sydney Marathon which starts only two days after. But there will be a strong team from Lancia and probably from Saab, with perhaps the odd few cars from other factories.

But it is a non-championship event in early November which is pulling in the entries, The Tour de Corse, a race disguised as a rally, or vice versa depending on where your interests lie, will have entries from nearly all the competing manufacturers in Europe, except B.M.C. It will be a rally worth watching.—G. P.