Rally review: Rally of the Thousand Lakes, October 1983

A year ago Hannu Mikkola won the Rally of the Thousand Lakes after his team-mate Stig Blomqvist, obviously more than capable of winning, was told by Audi’s team manager to slow down and finish second. We said then that such an order detracts from an event, producing an artificial result, and we now find ourselves expressing the very same sentiments, for at the end of August the 1983 Rally of the Thousand Lakes ended in pretty much the same manner. 

Mikkola has a good chance of becoming World Champion this year, but it’s less likely that Audi will be the champion among manufacturers, so it was important to the team that not only should one of their Quattros win, but it should be driven by Mikkola. Towards the end, when Blomqvist looked like winning, discussions took place and what followed were somewhat in­consistent stage times and a victory by Mikkola by 21 seconds from Blomqvist. 

It said much for Blomqvist’s self-control last year that he obeyed the instructions. He must have been bitter, although he didn’t show it, but this time there seemed to be no bitterness, merely acceptance that if one is employed as a professional driver one must carry out the orders of one’s employer. Nevertheless such a contrived result, although tactically the best for the team under the circumstances, can hardly be really satisfying for either driver. One must feel that he has been cheated by a trick of fate and the other that his glory is somewhat diluted. 

The situation was made complicated by the presence right up among the leaders of Markku Alen in his Lancia. He was third, but so close behind that it was highly dangerous to order one of the Quattro drivers to slow down. Had something happened to the other, even just a puncture, Alen could well have been able to snatch a win, and that would have left Audi feeling thoroughly dejected. 

At Sanremo last year circumstances were more clearly defined. Walter Rohr! was in second place, separating Blomqvist and Mikkola. On that occasion Rohrl’s presence precluded any instruction to hold back and Blomqvist scored a highly deserved win. 

In Finland the situation was much more difficult, even delicate, and it must have caused an immense mental struggle for Roland Gumpert, Audi’s team manager, particularly. as he has risen from the engineering ranks, not those of strategic rallymanship, and has no real tactical experience to speak of. 

Rallying is essentially an individual sport, each driver/co-driver partnership being a separate competing crew pitting itself against all the other crews. It is not a team contest as rugby is, but the advance of manufacturer interest and the creation of championships have brought about the need for tactical play among groups of competitors. Factory teams cannot be blamed for using whatever means possible to achieve the results they require, even if they do depart from the original concept of  rallying. Whether this is a good thing depends on your point of view, but it is a natural advance from professionalism after all.

All this should not be taken as a criticism of either of the drivers involved. Both Mikkola and Blomqvist are supremely skilled and no amount of team orders will change that.

The result puts Mikkola at the head of the World Championship table with a total of 105 points from six scores, 18 points ahead of Walter Rohrl whose total of 87 comes from six scores. Lancia still has the lead in the series for makes, with 110 points from seven scores, ahead of Audi whose 98 points come from six scores.

Leading competitors in the rally this year, those with the best winning chances, were the teams of Audi, Lancia and Opel, whilst other professional entries came from Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Mazda, Lada and Wartburg.

Quattros were driven by Mikkola, Blomqvist, Mouton, Eklund and Lampi, and an 80 Quattro by Ericsson from Sweden. Three Lancias were driven by Alen, Airikkala and Valtaharju, and two Opel Manta 400s by Vatanen and Toivonen, with respective Ulster co-drivers Harryman and Gallagher. Nissan 240RSs were driven by Salonen and Pitkanen, whilst an older Violet was in the hands of Geitel.

Toyota appeared with two turbocharged Celicas for Waldegaard and young Finnish driver Juha Kankkunen who, a few years ago, was being nurtured by former Teboil Team manager Mikko Helander, the man who steered Ari Vatanen towards the road to success some time before. Perhaps Ove Andersson has the same talent-spotting ability as Helander. Vatanen, incidentally, got his Finnish PPL(H) just before the start of the Thousand Lakes practice period on a Robinson R22.

Mitsubishi, recently having moved its European base from Austria to England, brought a Lancer 2000 Turbo for Harri Toivonen, whilst two similar cars were driven by Markula from Finland and Fischer from Austria. There were three factory Ladas from Russia’s Avtoexport organisation, three Wartburgs from East Germany and a Mazda RX7 from that company’s new base in Brussels for Finnish girl Minna Sillankorva. Ola Stromberg, former Saab works driver, brought a 99 Turbo privately from Sweden, whilst the only British privateers were Trevor and Hilary Hadley in a GpA Opel Manta which they got to the finish.

A wag once remarked, many years ago, that he had discovered how Finland got all her lakes; they all fell from the sky during the country’s premier international rally. It’s true that there have been years when rain has fallen incessantly during the event, but the weather prior to the rally this year suggested that it was going to be dry and dusty.

Certainly during the two and a half week practice period it seemed that way, and some niche new stages in the most southerly part of the route, softer, more twisty and undulating than those in the northern sections, were cutting up and throwing up far more dust than one usually associates with this rally.

Special stages around Jyvaskyla, major city of Central Finland where the rally is based, are invariably on dirt surfaced roads, but their foundations are firm and there are very few ruts or potholes. Indeed, they can be treated in dry weather almost like tarmac, at least by everyday drivers. When they are wet, however, they can become very slippery and when the rain came down during the rally there was a distinct advantage created for the Audis.

Those roads in the South caused something of a headache for the organisers during the practice period, for although residents had been approached long in advance, and their consent obtained for road closures, farmers and occupiers of lakeside log cabins were not really prepared for the volume of traffic, both night and day, produced by competitors intent on committing as much stage information to memory as possible. There was comment on the subject in the local press and, although there were no protesting incidents, it’s unlikely that the organisers will use the same area next year. Summer residents in Central Finland are far more accustomed to the rally and all it entails, and raise no objection. Mechanically, cars have to be as tough for the Thousand Lakes as for the Safari, for although the roads are not rough their sharp undulations create jumping ramp after jumping ramp, and high speed landings can take a terrible toll of suspensions. Handling, too, needs careful attention, for it’s all too easy for an awkward landing to result in instant loss of control. That, on roads lined with stout trees, can be a very demoralising experience indeed.

Driving skill is at an acute premium, for suspensions are constantly travelling to their top and bottom limits, producing negative G which diminishes the contact pressure between tyres and the road surface. With adhesion thus reduced it’s all too easy to slide off the road. It takes great skill to drive at competitive speeds in such circumstances, and there is so little margin of ability between drivers these days, not forgetting the cars they drive, that risks are high among those who are determined to do well. Indeed, it is a common belief that winners are only winners if they overstep their personal limits now and again, trusting that the gambles will pay off.

Divided into three distinct parts, each starting and finishing at Jyvaskyla, the 50-stage route was crammed between Friday evening and Sunday morning, all linked by Finland’s efficient radiotelephone system. Enormous crowds flock to the stages no matter what the weather, but they are all well marshalled and there is seldom any trouble.

The first stage, starting just a hundred yards or so from rally headquarters, very nearly put Mikkola out of the running altogether. His Audi’s front differential failed, but he was able to continue with rear wheel drive only, achieving a time only two seconds greater than Blomqvist’s. But the biggest problem came afterwards when the combined gearbox/diff unit had to be changed, this resulting in a late arrival at the start of the second stage and an additional road penalty of 110 seconds.

At that stage of the event such a penalty was enormous, and Mikkola dropped to 143rd position, but it was all relative and as the event progressed he moved upwards in leaps and bounds. Even with no sumpguard or proper exhaust system (these were not replaced until after the second stage following the gearbox change) he made best time on the second, jointly with Alen. After that, he continued to progress, and by the end of that leg, after eleven stages, he was seventh. The leader at that juncture was Alen, just 17 seconds ahead of Blomqvist, followed by the Opels of Toivonen and Vatanen and the Quattros of Eklund, Lampi, Mikkola and Mouton. By that stage conditions hadn’t really been sufficiently slippery to give the Quattros the edge, although it was already clear that the Toyotas, Nissans and Mitsubishis were not up to the pace of the Quattros, Opels and Alen’s Lancia. Vatanen experienced a misfire which was cured by a plug change, but a similar trouble in Airikkala’s Lancia persisted throughout the event and the car never really performed at its best. Blomqvist’s Quattro was not handling as he wished and front suspension settings were changed to improve its stability, especially on landings after jumps. Very often jumps coincide with bends, and it’s not at all easy to control a less than perfect car when jumping sideways at high speed.

Toivonen lost a little time when a plug lead jumped off, Salonen when he was held by police who caught him exceeding the strictly enforced speed limits, and Waldegard when he had a faulty alternator replaced.

On the eighth stage Ericsson overdid things on a bend, saw that he was not going to make it and straightened the car so that at least he could steer it through the trees. He could not continue due to broken drive shafts, but at least there was no structural damage and the crew was unhurt. Some time later along came Pelcita Millinen in an Escort and he, too, began to slide off. However, he tried to get around, failed and hit a stout tree sideways and very hard. Summoned quickly via the radio in Ericsson’s car, an ambulance soon appeared, but tragically 36-year-old Reijo Nygren, the co-driver, died later in hospital.

Antero Laine, driving an Escort, tried the time-honoured method of applying Coca-Cola to a slipping clutch, but it seemed to have too great an effect and very soon the unit had seized completely.

The first stop was for most of the Friday night, and prior to the 7 am restart off went the chase cars to act as radar spotters so that any of the works crews needing to stop for service would know in advance where the static speed traps were. The day dawned warm and sunny, but later the rain clouds gathered, burst, and sent down the answer to Audi prayers.

Mikkola had a spot of bother with his electronic fuel meter, and Hertz had to uncouple it and plug in the spare unit whilst on the move. Team-mate Eklund was convinced that his gearbox was about to pack up, but it was only a broken lead to the switch controlling his electric clutch. Waldegard severely damaged the front of his Toyota when, as he was cornering with a slowly deflating tyre, the tyre rolled off the rim sending the car into a bank. The repair process took considerable time. Blomqvist had a fuel leak fixed, but it seems that the other Quattros were not checked for the same failure and underbonnet fires became common occurrences.

Toivonen lost a little time after spinning into a ditch, whilst Valtaharju, whose car had actually been Alen’s practice car, had an anti-roll bar break after hitting a stone and also slid into a ditch. He got out only to find that the spares in the service vehicles were for Alen’s much newer car and they could not be fitted.

After that second leg Mikkola’s advance had brought him up to fourth, but ahead of him were Blomqvist, Alen and Vatanen in that order, just 77 seconds spanning the first four. After the restart, Mikkola again set off determined to make up the deficit. Becoming World Champion was important to him, for he is cutting his rallying programme for next year and 1983 will probably be his last full-scale attempt at the title. 

The third leg went southwards to Tampere and Hameenlinna, and still Mikkola chipped away relentlessly at the vital penalty difference. Mouton and Eklund both had fires, the French girl having to scoop sand from the road to put out the flames. This was a matter of necessity at the time, but all that grit didn’t do the car’s delicate mechanism much good. 

Geitel, whose gearbox had been rather stiff from the start, decided to stop to have the unit changed, but when mechanics came to offer the new unit into position they found that various lugs and bolt holes were in the wrong place. True the car was an old Violet, but its spare gearbox was supposed to be one which matched the car. 

The rain became heavier during the night, and just when it seemed that Mikkola might get within striking distance of the lead he had an engine mounting break, and the excessive engine movement pulled off an intercooler pipe. They replaced it as best they could, carried on gingerly lest it should come off again and later had both mount and pipe replaced. Imagine Mikkola’s feelings when the replacement pipe was found to have a leak and it had to be changed all over again. All this, fortunately, did not cost a huge chunk of road time, and he was still able to think of pushing hard for the lead. 

Vatanen, after a fine ·drive indeed, stopped when a drive shaft broke and the car just wouldn’t carry on with one driven wheel. As if spurred on by his team-mate’s misfortune, Toivonen then put in a magnificent burst and made five best times in succession. Alas, his fan and pump belts jumped off, and although he was able to continue for a short distance after replacing them the engine soon clattered to a stop. 

By the time the rally had completed the southerly loop and had got to Jamsa on the way back to Jyvaskyla, dawn had broken on the Sunday morning. More to the point, Mikkola had got to within 24 seconds of Blomqvist, followed just 13 seconds later by Alen. The situation was indeed tense, and it was here that Gumpert found himself with a most difficult situation. Nothing was made public about his decision, but what happened afterwards spoke for itself. 

After the 48th stage, with just two more to go, Mikkola was just four seconds behind Blomqvist. Both had been keeping a very close watch on Alen’s times, but he was another half minute or so back at that point. On 49, Mikkola moved ahead by five seconds, and on the final stage Blomqvist was all of 21 seconds slower than the Finn, a deficit which seemed to have no explanation save the one which we have mentioned. 

It could be said, of course, that without his delay after the first stage Mikkola would have won anyway, but this would not take into account Blomqvist’s deliberate slowing, and since no-one can really tell to what extent this was done there is really no point in hypothesising. Mikkola was the winner, and that is that. It was in fact his seventh win on this event; his first was back in 1968 when Bill Barnett first signed him up to drive an Escort. – GP. 

The Jordan Rally 

The Middle East Rally Challenge opened in August with a two-day event in Jordan. This is a new series, although rallying is by no means a new sport in the region, for there were tough rallies in Lebanon back in the ‘sixties, and more recently there have been regular events in the Gulf States. 

Being held for the third time, the rally is based at Amman and its route, largely in the daytime, goes southwards to the port of Aqaba and back. Unlike some countries, Jordan has rather more to offer than featureless desert, and there were stages in mountains as well as on the flat, dusty plains. There was even one in a forest, complete with pine trees! 

Backed by Amman Marriott Hotel, whose manager Haile Aguilar himself competed – and finished third – the event has organisers who admit their inexperience, but they are very quick to learn and we have seen far less slick events run by organisers of considerably.more experience. 

One of the difficulties of rallying in the Middle East is the relative scarcity of car preparation skill, and you will see cars which are fast but not strong, and those which are strong but not fast. Those which are both are few indeed, but that situation is being remedied noticeably. Movement of competitors and their mechanics from one country to another is on the increase, and the outcome will undoubtedly be an exchange of ideas which will benefit everyone. 

The Middle East market is considered so important by car manufacturers that factory presence was more than obvious in Jordan, even though there were no actual works drivers there. Saeed al Hajri, for instance, the Rothmans-backed driver from Qatar, drove a factory prepared Opel Manta with service vans and staff from Germany to look after it. Toyota, too, had factory cars for two drivers, along with a couple of their Swedish mechanics to look after them. One of these was driven by Michel Saleh from Kuwait, and the other by Marlboro driver Abdullah Omar from Dubai. The international flavour of the event was considerable, and of the 31 listed entrants only 13 were from Jordan. Even New Zealand was represented by Euen Burke who co-drove David Evans in a Chevette HSR. 

Practice is allowed, but on desert sections great care must be taken to include every possible item of information to supplement normal pace notes. There are tracks criss-crossing in all directions, sometimes as many as a dozen all running parallel, and it is very easy to make mistakes. Some competitors take compass bearings during their recces, but even so there were several who made little errors of a kilometre or so during the event. Dust is a problem, of course, but in many parts it is possible to move off the marked track and set a parallel course upwind in order to facilitate overtaking.

Much of the event this year was centred on a stirring contest between al Hajri’s Opel and Saleh’s Toyota. They were closely matched, but Saleh went off the road letting his team-mate Omar into second place behind the Opel. It was interesting to note that first and second places went to crews with British co-drivers, John Spiller with Al Hajri and David Orrick with Omar.

There would be little point in describing in detail the various happenings during the two days of the rally, but we would suggest that this is one worth watching in the future. Even the overseas privateer would not find it too hazardous, for the organisers are extremely helpful and there is always a welcome for foreigners. 

If you hanker after rallying in hot countries but don’t wish to subject your car to the pounding of the Safari, nor your pocket to the drain of one of the long marathons, the Jordan Rally may be what you are looking for. The address to note for the future is the Royal Automobile Club of Jordan, PO Box 920, Amman, Jordon. GP