Rothmans Manx Rally

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Paying the piper

For a time it seemed as if Grand Prixitis, otherwise known as “politics”, had finally entered the blood-stream of Britain’s top rally championship, the all-international six event Rothmans Open. Decisions about who could finally be the title holder were being taken by PR men, consultants and team managers, the men who crew the cars being dispensable pawns in some higher game of intrigue and personal ambition. Fortunately, in the end the right decision was made. The fastest men were allowed victory, and Stig Blomqvist had Opel sponsors Rothmans to thank for becoming 1983 Champion. He showed his gratitude by buying rally winners Henri Toivonen and Fred Gallagher a bottle of gin each!

The dilemma had been this. Before the Manx Rally, Blomqvist had led the championship by five points from Britain’s Russell Brookes. Blomqvist’s Quattro had won the Mintex, Welsh, Scottish and Ulster rallies. Vauxhall Chevette driver Brookes had won the Circuit of Ireland, been runner-up in Wales and third in both Scotland and Ulster. He’d also finished fourth on the Mintex, but as only the best five scores can count it was these eight points he had to drop. After his best season for some years Brookes had to win outright in the Isle of Man if he was going to be champion. The enigmatic Blomqvist simply had to finish anywhere in the top nine if he was going to win. Blomqvist’s job was much easier than Brookes.

Or so it seemed until two miles from the end of the 45th of the event’s 49 all-tarmac special stages. Entering a hairpin bend, Blomqvist’s Audi blew-up. There had been no warning, no drop in oil pressure, just a terminal death rattle as a connecting-rod punched a neat hole through the side of the block. Brookes now moved into third place behind the two Opel Manta 400s of Henri Toivonen and An Vatanen, the two Finns having dominated since the rain-swept start two days previously.

Linked through General Motors, but run entirely independently as rally teams, it was now a question of whether the Opel men would be ordered to step back and allow Vauxhall’s Brookes into the lead and the championship title. Brookes had foreseen that such a situation might arise, and had apparently written to Opel’s Sports Relations Manager, the German domiciled Yorkshireman Tony Fall, asking if he would instruct his drivers to let the Englishman win if the situation arose. Now it was going to be put to the test. By the time all the parties had mulled over their corporate dictates, and personal desires, there was only one stage left. A move of some sort would have to be made in the final service area, a dusty car park in St Johns, a half mile from the TT course and around the corner from the Tynwald. Many radio messages were passed to and fro between the waiting service crews, the competitors and management. Team sponsors Rothmans — and backed of the rally itself — wanted the order to remain unchanged. Fall, for his part, thought it advisable that Brookes should be allowed his The tension was very real. Although the Opel and Vaindiall teams stood side by side there was very little traffic between them. At times such as this it is the hard-working mechanics who suffer most. As soon as Toivonen and co-driver Fred Gallagher

arrived they leapt out of the car and went into discussion with the fag company’s motor sporting consultant. The message was plain. They would win, no matter what else they may be told. He who pays the piper calls the tune. In the middle of all the political machinations was the GM Dealer Sport Committee. Responsible for administering the motorsporting levy raised from the sales of Opel-Vauxhall in the UK market, its members could have found themselves in a most embarrassing situation. Wisery however it was felt that Brookes should not become champion by default. There was always next year when Brookes will change his allegiance from the ageing Chevette 2300HSR to a Manta 400.

Blomqvist’s non-finish assured Toyota of the Manufacturers Championship with its fleet Group A Corolla GT. No one has been able to live with Per Eklund in this British built and run car which owes a lot to past experience in Group 1 racing. The UK importer team had already won the GpA category, and despite a troubled Manx – Eklund lost five minutes in two stoppages due to electrical failures – still managed seventh place overall and a category win by more than four minutes. By previous standards, seventh was quite lowly for Eklund.

Although from Brookes’ personal point of view the Opel domination couldn’t have come at a worse time, for both Toivonen and Vatanen it couldn’t have been better timed. It was the first significant victory for the Manta 400, although success in a European Championship Coefficient Two qualifier is not quite the same as being on the pace in a World Championship round. It was nevertheless a step in the right direction. The fact that both Finns had been showing strongly on the World Championship 1000 Lakes was more to do with nationalistic pride than any great leaps forward in the development of a car which in terms of mechanical specification (normally aspirated  twin carburetter 285 bhp four-cylinder, engine with drive through the rear wheels) is woefully conventional in these days of super or turbocharging and four-wheel drive. In the Isle of Man it was different. 

Finns are not supposed to shine on tarmac rallies, but a genuine exception is Toivonen. It is fair to say that he enjoys driving on. asphalt as much as he does gravel,· something which couldn’t really be said for Vatanen. Toivonen has aspirations to go racing (he tried Formula 3 last year and is currently trying to arrange some Endurance racing appearances next year), and his track experience was obvious on the Manx. Perfect racing lines, precision driving and a neat, conservative style marked him apart. 

Toivonen led from the first stage, and so complete was his domination that after 19 stages he was able to arrange a truce with team-mate Vatanen. In complete contrast, the other Finn was all flailing arms, locking wheels and sideways motoring. Popular with the spectators, but hardly a recipe for success on a tarmac rally. He had lost time when he damaged a wheel, the tyre going down, but this again was due to over-enthusiasm. However, Toivonen did 
have one moment -or rather two -with two spins on the second stage of the event. He was still fastest. 

Last year’s Manx winner and retiring Open Champion Jimmy McRae did what he could to keep up with his Finnish team-mates. Drenched in sweat, the Scot was in fact doing pretty well, and was in fact a very worthy second until his Manta 400 was smitten by transmission problems. He’d struggled through one stage with a broken crown wheel and pinion, and just made it to the finish of the next when it gave up completely. Judicious pushing by a following Opel-support vehicle saw McRae make the three miles to service when the axle was replaced in a staggering 11 minutes 24 seconds. The Scot was in third place – although whether action would have been taken over his illegal assistance was open to discussion -but on the next stage a driveshaft snapped after a notorious jump, and this time he was out. His retirement gave added impetus for Toivonen and Vatanan to play it safe thereafter.

They literally cruised around the rest of the route, a blessing in disguise as even their management suspected that the transmissions weren’t up to prolonged attacking driving. The rash of axle problems on the new Manta 400 is something of a mystery. The rear axles are from the old Ascona 400 – development money was anyway not. forthcoming to produce something new, where they had been a model of reliability. Although the Manta 400 has about 30 extra horsepower over its predecessor, it is not thought that this additional output would unduly tax the drive-train, although the combination of a much lighter body and 285 bhp may have more serious consequences than people realise.

People were thinking that Blomqvist’s eighth place after the first day was due to the Swede driving to orders. In fact he needed to be first in order to give Audi the Makes title, so there was little point in him cruising. The truth was that in torrential rain, the Quattro was proving a handful. A lack of pre-event testing had meant that the early stages were tackled with the rear suspension set far too hard, and although the rear uprights were changed to the softer Ulster settings (where he had won), the Swede was never really happy. He said the Quattro was virtually undriveable in the rain, an alarming tendency to leap from bank to bank not making it that much easier in the dry. Worn-out springs were thought to be the reason, but even after these were changed Blomqvist said there was still something wrong.
 
So the fight went out of the Manx Rally at the start of the second of its three days. For the rest of the time it was just a formality, but that is the price one has to pay when what used to be a compact rally is stretched out to give more promotion time. The Manx is now basically a “nine to five” event with no night time motoring. Each evening there is some function or another for the spectators, and there is no doubt that these are extremely popular. But at times it seems the rally itself is secondary to the promotions, a clear case of the tail wagging the dog. What was that we said at the outset about rallying showing signs of Grand Prixitis? In this particular respect the disease is already well advanced. MRG. 

 

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