Rally review: Argentina and 1000 lakes rallies

An insignificant affair

Seven months is a long time for any driver to be idle, whether he is a professional or an amateur, and Mikael Ericsson must have come close to regretting his contract with Lancia as he watched rally after rally go by without any indication that he would get a drive. Since January's Swedish Rally, in which he finished fourth, he did nothing until finally he got to drive a works car in August's Argentina Rally.

He and Claes Billstam have a contract to drive for Lancia, but they are not always required, and the terms are such that if the Italian team does not need them, they are free to seek drives elsewhere.

The trouble is, very few teams indeed want professional drivers on an occasional freelance basis. If they are not available full-time, then someone else is going to nudge in ahead of them.

Lancia did not want to give the Argentina Rally a miss, unlike all other teams except a factory-backed Subaru outfit, because not only did it offer the chance of scoring more points in the World Rally Championship for Makes, but also of clinching the series.

There was also more or less an obligation of providing a car for last year's winner, Recalde, who always reaps enormous publicity on his home ground.

On the'other hand, Biasion either wanted or was required to take a rest (probably the former) so Ericsson finally got the chance to drive a works Lancia again. A third car, entered by the Jolly Club, was sent for Alessandro Fiorio, and that, apart from two Subarus driven by Peter Bourne and Chilean Jose Celsi, an Audi 200 driven by Austrian Georg Fischer, and the Gp N Lancia of Uruguayan Gustavo Trelles, was about the size of the visiting contingent.

Although it started at Buenos Aires with an evening test at a horse racing track, the route then led to Cordoba in which area the subsequent stages were held, on mixed surfaces, some rough, some smooth.

There would have been something wrong if the three works Lancias had not gone into an immediate lead, and that is precisely what happened. At first there was little to choose between them although Recalde was a little erratic in his efforts to keep up, which he did nevertheless: A leaking brake pipe union dropped Ericsson from first to third, but he soon recovered, and when Recalde dropped back after landing nose first following a jump and breaking his radiator, it was left to Ericsson and Fiorio to duel for the lead. Ericsson had the edge, but was eventually able to reduce his pace when Fiorio lost a chunk of time after water pump failure.

Bourne rolled his Subaru and lost so much time having the car repaired afterwards that he dropped a good fifty places. Team-mate Celsi got into even deeper trouble, but in a rather unusual way. Having lost his brakes on the final stage, he drove to the finish behind a service car which would, gently, do all the braking for him. Unfortunately, the driver of the service car braked rather suddenly when he encountered a stationary car, and he was promptly rammed from behind by Celsi, causing damage which could not be repaired.

Nothing unusual in all that, you may say, but the oddity came afterwards when Celsi and his co-driver got a lift to the finish and presented their time cards as though they had arrived in their competing car. Initially they were included in the classification, and it was not until someone realised that their car was not in the closed park that the matter was put right and Celsi removed from the list of finishers.

Before the start, Fischer discovered that his cylinder block was cracked, but rather than pull out he decided to have a go. After all, it was far too long a distance from Vienna to Buenos Aires to give up without at least having a try. He nursed the engine all the way and was rewarded with fourth place, but he didn't hide the fact that he was hoping all the time that one of the Lancias would stop, letting him move up to third place and a FISA Group A seeding.

Enthusiasm for rallying is exceptionally high in Argentina, from the top to the  bottom (even President Menem is a former driver) and there were huge crowds of excited but well behaved spectators everywhere. For them it seemed to matter little that the overseas contingent was meagre, but as a round of the World Championship it had precious little significance, although Ericsson would hardly agree with that! For him, it was a fine way to bounce back into the sport after his long lay-off, and to demonstrate that he had not allowed himself to become rusty.

The Japanese jolly

Before the start of the 1989 1000 Lakes Rally, anyone in Jyvaskyla who might have suggested that the event would be won by someone other than a Finn; or that for a while it would be led by a Spaniard; or even that the winning car would be neither a Lancia nor a Toyota, would have been ridiculed and treated as someone who didn't know rallying from a game of quoits.

As it happened, no-one attracted such scorn. People knew better. How could anyone consider that foreigners could come to the country which has produced more top class international rally drivers than the rest of the world put together and hope to beat the home drivers on their own ground? It has been done, of course, names like Erik Carlsson and Stig Blomqvist appear among the past winners of the 1000 Lakes, but it nevertheless remains one of rallying's least attainable objectives, almost as elusive as that hopeless endeavour which obsessed a monarch called Canute a long time ago.

On the few occasions that Finns have been beaten at home, it has been by their neighbours the Swedes, and we have often heard it said that, "They're all Scandinavians, after all!" That is about as accurate as calling a Welshman an Anglo-Saxon, or a Kikuyu a Xhosa. They are from totally different stock, and a Finn is no more a Scandinavian than a Mancunian is a Maori. They just happen to be neighbours, that's all. But whoever manages to better Finnish drivers in their country's premier event has certainly made a mark in the sport, whether they are Swedish or any other nationality.

There are always plenty of Finnish drivers capable of winning, but this year there were two in particular who stood out as favourites, one in a Lancia, the other in a Toyota. Markku Alen was determined to provide his Italian team with yet another victory, and himself with his second hattrick, even though he had only driven in one other World Championship event this year, in Portugal, where he was second.

Juha Kankkunen was equally determined to demonstrate that his near-victory last year in a Toyota was no flash-in-the-pan. On that occasion his close fight with Alen only came to an end in the closing hours of the rally when his engine stopped not long after an oil leak had led to a small fire. Ironically a fire also stopped him this year, just after a long, hard struggle to stay ahead of Alen ended when the Lancia driver's engine failed, probably after the strain of having the turbocharger pressure increased to provide more power.

However, these two were not the only drivers in a winning position. Ari Vatanen was up among the leaders, driving his Mitsubishi superbly, but he, too, succumbed to engine failure, coming to a stop on the same special stage (the 20th) as Kankkunen in the middle of the second morning.

With these drivers out of the way, two non-Finns found themselves sharing the lead, and the incredulity was plain to see on the faces, and hear in the voices, of commentators, even if one didn't understand a word of the language! After that 20th stage, Carlos Sainz in his Toyota and Mikael Ericsson in his Mitsubishi emerged joint leaders. On the next stage, Sainz inched ahead, and for the first time since the very beginning of the Rally of the Thousand Lakes a driver from outside the Nordic countries was leading the event. A Spaniard was beating the Finns in Finland. The situation was unparallelled.

But Sainz only kept the lead for two stages. Behind him, Ericsson was pushing as hard as he was able, and on the 23rd stage he moved ahead and stayed there to theend, winning his second World Championship event in succession this year, and sending his rating among the world's leading drivers rocketing. Hitherto, he has only shone occasionally - when he was second in Finland last year, for instance, and when he led the RAC Rally for some time - but this victory elevates him to the position of a piece of valuable rallying property and will certainly result in a worthwhile contract for regular drives next year, something which he and co-driver Claes Billstam have not had for a long time.

In Argentina three weeks earlier, they drove a Lancia to victory, and it was not until they came to Finland to begin their recce for the 1000 Lakes that they drove for the first time the present Mitsubishi Galant VR-4, with its four-wheel-drive and fourwheel-steering. Ericsson was cautious in his replies when asked before the start how he was coping with the car, but he had obviously taken to it extremely well, and at no time during the rally did he seem anything but unruffled and confident.

With 50 points to leader Biasion's 86, Ericsson had a.chance of becoming World Champion this year if he could have driven in as many of the four remaining rounds as possible, but this has proved impossible. He was originally entered to drive a Lancia in Perth's Australia Rally, but the team decided that he should be withdrawn.

There is no car for him in Sanremo either whilst, as might have been expected, it has proved impossible to find a car for the Ivory Coast Rally. The one remaining event is the RAC Rally, in which he will drive a Lancia, but one event is not enough to give him the points needed to get ahead of Biasion. Mitsubishi also wanted his services for the RAC but his current Lancia contract specifies that he may drive for another team only if he is not required by Lancia.

Next year, however, will be quite different for Ericsson and Billstam. Already the wires have been humming and, at the time of writing, no less than four major teams had offered them contracts for a full season of World Championship rallies in 1990, which is an enormous change from scratching around for a car, rally after rally. It remains to be seen which one they will accept.

The 1000 Lakes Rally invariably attracts a respectable number of works teams, and this year there were no less than eight, a few other makes being represented by dealers, importers and private teams. The eight were Lancia, Toyota, Mazda, Mitsubishi, GM (Opel), Skoda, Lada and Trabant. For the first time in many years there was no entry from Wartburg, although there was one such car entered privately by a Finnish crew.

Martini Lancia brought three Delta Integrales for Alen/Kivimaki, Biasion/Siviero and Auriol/Occelli, and this time there was no back-up from the Jolly Club or Totip. It was Biasion's first drive in the 1000 Lakes, but his French team-mate Auriol already had the experience of having finished third last year, also at his first attempt. Also in Lancias were Eklund, backed by Clarion, local drivers Lindholm, Makinen, Palmqvist and Laine, among others, and Belgian Gaban and Uruguayan Trelles in Gp N versions.

Toyota brought three Celica 2000 GT4s for Kankkunen/Piironen, Sainz/Moya and Eriksson/Parmander, whilst GM Euro Sport had two Opel Kadett GSis for Austrians Haider/Hinterleitner and Germans Schwarz/Wicha.

Mazda's MRT team has not made an appearance since the Monte Carlo Rally and it was interesting that they put out a written statement outlining all the slight changes made to the car since that event - to the mixture control, sump, exhaust, brake calipers and discs, differentials and suspension springs. They even mentioned a new location for the power steering oil cooler, and a new make of seat for Mikkola's car. Crews were Salonen/Silander and Mikkola/Geistdorfer, although it was the latter codriver's last appearance for the team, indeed, he is the second co-driver to leave MRT in the past year. Mazda Sweden sent a similar car for Edling, Mazda Finland had a Gp N car for Geitel/Hiikkine, whilst a private 323 was driven by British crew, Stubbings/Corner.

The Mitsubishi Team, whose name "Ralliart" can only be of Japanese origin, brought two Galant VR-4s from its base in Essex, for Ericsson/Billstam and Vatanen/Berglund, but a third was driven for the team's Finnish offshoot by Lampi and Kuukkala. An increased programme for next year was announced by the Maldon team, to include six World Championship events rather than the four which they will have tackled in 1989.

Skoda had three Favorit 136Ls for Czechs Krecek/Motl, Finns Aho/Hakala, and British pair Hunt/Forrester, whilst the Trabant team had three of their diminutive P800 RSs for Ficker/Leonhardt, Galle/Meinig and Weichsel/Richter, all from East Germany. All three Trabants finished, and two of the Skodas.

From the factory in the Soviet Union came no less than six Lada Samara 1500s, only two of them finishing, although a privately entered Lada 2104 driven by British privateers Welton/King did finish in 68th place, the only British crew from five starters to go the whole distance.

In Finland every imaginable sport is popular, but in recent years rallying has slowly been losing that popularity at home. This is not the result of any diminished interest in, or enthusiasm for, the sport at its top level, but because its costs for privateers have escalated so much that it has gonebeyond the financial limits of ordinary drivers who want to start rallying but have neither their own funds nor those of sponsors. The most popular sports are those which are open to all, in which skill matters much more than the means to. pay for the best equipment, and Finns are very conscious of the fact that even the most modest of rallying equipment is beyond the reach of many of the sport's hopeful aspirants.

Nevertheless, this did not deter the usual vast crowds from journeying out into the forests during the three days of the 1000 Lakes Rally, all of them eager to witness the amazing demonstrations of special skills, unseen on other events, as cars are driven at very high speeds, take to the air over crests, sit high on their suspensions for much of the time, wheels hardly in contact with the ground and adhesion continually changing from acceptable to non-existant. Delicate manipulation is going on inside the cars, but this is hard to imagine when the outside spectacle is one of crashing sumpguards and furious, almost savage competition.

When roads are wet, as they were this year, vital adhesion is more elusive, and even on a crest over which cars will not normally take to the air, drivers have to adjust their speeds finely so that firstly they lose no time and secondly, when they arrive at the bend following the undulation, the car is not so light on its wheels that it cannot be steered around it. The optimum proportion between speed and adhesion is continually changing, and demands a high degree of sensitivity for the car's behaviour. Pilots would call it "Seat-of-the-pants flying"!

All this, especially when the world's leading drivers are all there battling to gain split seconds, amounts to one of the most exciting spectacles imaginable. It is-not an adventure in the same sense as the Safari, nor an Acropolis-like contest in which the avoidance of obstacles is as important as speed. But just as those events are unique in their ways, so is the 1000 Lakes Rally peerless as a brand of rallying which cannot be matched elsewhere. .

The total special stage distance throughout the three days was only 315 miles, but when you consider that sometimes the roads were hard, wide and fast, sometime soft, narrow and rutted, but always tortuous and undulating, you realise that it takes a great deal of skill and determination to maintain a winning performance on everyone ofthe 43 stages. The winner's penalty this year was 4h 42m 03s, far less than on other events in the world series, but it amounts to an overall average of more than 67 mph, a speed which would be totally beyond the capabilities of ordinary folk on those forest roads built by roadmakers who, rather than construct embankments and cuttings, preferred to go over the crests and into the dips.

 Finland has enjoyed a summer just as hot as the rest of Europe, but August always brings the autumn and it rained quite heavily at times, both during the threeweek recce period and during the rally Itself. When you see that rain falling, you quickly realise where those thousands of lakes come from! Some of the roads, notably the narrower ones through private forests, were softened considerably by the rain and became badly rutted by the regular rally traffic, whilst the wider roads in state forests, which generally have more substantial foundations, did not cut up at all. One thing they did have in common - they were all slippery!

As usual, rally headquarters were at the Sandpiper Hotel in the Jyvaskyla suburb of Laajavuori. Start, finish and both night stops were also there, and the three-day, 900-mile route was divided into three legs forming a cloverleaf pattern. The organisation is slick, to say the least. Everything is linked by radiophone; police deployment and activity are controlled on a national level and not left to regions (RAC please note!); spectators caused no problems; the organisers had their own patrolling rescue helicopters and were not content to rely on the generosity and charity of works teams to provide this vital safeguard, should it be needed. Fortunately, it was not needed.

Throughout the weekend everything went smoothly, and the only real drama, apart from those in the competition itself, came when rival radio stations began sending their reporters into closed parks in order to be first with live comments. Would that all other rallies had problems no more severe than that!

The first stage was a few hundred yards down the road from the start, and consisted of a two-mile dash around the hill on which perches the most frighteningly high skijump tower imaginable, reminding everyone that skill and courage have many varieties. Penalties on this short opening test were merely academic, but it was significant that the two leading favourites, Alen and Kankkuneri, shared the best time, just one second ahead of Vatanen who was in turn two seconds ahead of Salonen and Auriol.

Kankkunen's equal best time was made even though he had gone marginally off the road on the last bend, slightly damaging the front left corner of his car. On the next stage he was joint fastest again, this time with team-mate Sainz, whilst Alen, whose windscreen wipers stopped, was fourth fastest, behind Ericsson.

At this point, Kankkunen had moved into a sole lead, followed by Sainz who stayed behind him in second place for seven stages. However, Alen got ahead of the Spanish driver on the eighth to separate the two Toyotas. In the meantime all was not well with his Lancia team-mate Auriol. He had collected a front right puncture on stage three, and decided to carry on carefully on the flat tyre. A few miles from the end he had the misfortune to hit a stone with that bare rim and the shock broke his suspension so that the wheel folded under the car. He struggled off the stage and got to his service point, but the repair took so long that he had to leave for the next stage before it could be completed. Further work was vital if the car was to continue and, as there was no more time to spare, a dejected Auriol resigned himself to retirement and drove slowly back to Jyvaskyla, all his hopes of repeating or even bettering his 1988 performance dashed.

Alen needed a differential change, whilst Kankkunen was having trouble changing from third gear to fourth, a problem which persisted for some time, even though it didn't seem to slow him down much. The gearbox was eventually changed (as was that of Sainz), but gear selection continued to be difficult. Salonen's turbocharger intercooler broke and had to be replaced, and Mazda team-mate Mikkola needed a new differential.

However, Mikkola's rally came to an end very soon afterwards due to clutch seizure. A broken centre differential was replaced on Sainz' car at the end of the first leg, and, as a precautionary measure, new turbochargers fitted to both his and Kankkunen's car. Ericsson had a few worrying moments on one stage when his brake pedal refused to go down all the way, but all became well again when both the pedal box and the master cylinder were replaced. Lampi broke a driveshaft, whilst Lindholm came to a very noisy and permanent stop when his camshaft drive belt came off, probably due to a stone being flung up.

The final stage of the first day began on the main dual carriageway in Jyvaskyla city centre, went into a park, then finished back on the main road just 2.7 miles later. Again it was academic, but it drew a sizeable crowd and allowed Biasion to make second best time, equal with Alen and one second behind Kankkunen. Biasion had encountered no real problem thus far, but was no higher than seventh after the first leg, obviously not finding it easy to get used to the unusually pronounced three-axis car movement along Finnish roads. .

On the second day the cloudbase was much higher than on the first, and the helicopter pilots of both the organisers and the works teams no longer had to worry about detours to dodge big clumps of dark, heavy, low raincloud. There was far less rain, even a few patches of sunshine, but the roads were nevertheless as slippery as before.

Salonen broke a shock absorber, so he had them replaced all around, whilst a great relief was the discovery that a tremendous transmission noise was due to a stone jammed under the propshaft. It was discovered before it caused any damage, and removed.

Just four stages into the second leg the engine of Mats jonsson's Opel stopped and the highest placed two-wheel-drive driver was out of the rally. His overall position had been 16th, and his departure meant that his team-mate Haider took over as best 2wd driver, in 22nd place! This speaks volumes for the predominance of four-wheel-drive cars nowadays, and yet when Gene Henderson drove a Jeep Wagonneer in 1972 to win the USA's former International Championship qualifier, the Press-on-Regardless Rally, the CSI promptly took fright and banned four-wheel-drive, only lifting the ban when Audi was about to unveil its first Quattro.

It was on stage 19 that things began to change. Firstly Alen's engine disintegrated under the strain of a full boost on Kankkunen's first place. One stage later, Kankkunen himself stopped when a fire, believed to have started in the alternator, destroyed the underbonnet electrical wiring. On the same stage, after already having stopped for turbocharger attention after stage 19, Vatanen stopped when his engine also failed.

The situation had taken a dramalic turn. The Toyota/Lancia fight had given way to one between Mitsubishi and Toyota and both Ericsson and Sainz were as determined to push as hard as Kankkunenand Alen had. They began by inheriting a joint lead; on the next stage, Sainz inched ahead, but Ericsson immediately pulled out the stops and got in front again.

Just a few stages later, perhaps trying rather too hard, Sainz lost his chances when he rolled off the road. He continued after the car was righted by spectators, but he then collected a puncture and couldn't remove the wheel due to damage sustained in the roll. He continued on the flat tyre, but suspension collapse inevitably followed and he finished the stage on three wheels. The car looked a complete mess, but when new suspension was fitted it was mechanically sound again, and at successive service points the work seemed to be concentrated on replacing windows and lights and knocking various panels into something resembling their original shape.

The result of this was a slight easing of the pressure on Ericcson, but he dared not relax too much because Salonen was less than two minutes behind, and the Mazda driver was just as hungry for a home win as all his fellow countrymen, especially as this was his first event in more than seven months. However, Ericcson felt it prudent to ease off fractionally, even though he found it against all his natural instincts.

Biasion experienced a bout of bad misfiring but it was eventually traced to a faulty fuel injection pump which was promptly replaced. He also had brake pads of the wrong type fitted on the Saturday morning, but the mistake was quickly realised and the pads changed. Haider, the remaining Opel driver, rolled on stage 21, continued, only to roll again in the closing hours of the event on the Sunday, this time with no hope of carrying on. He had been leading Duez' BMW in the second category by just a few seconds.

Eklund came to a stop when his Lancia's engine failed, whilst Lampi's rally ended when his Mitsubishi's radiator burst. Sundstrom, when third overall, stopped when a halfshaft broke on his Mazda and the flailing metal ripped off the wheel, and Stubbings put his Mazda partially off the road, causing a delay of some 20 minutes as the rescue vehicles went in to clear the road. Fortunately, no-one was hurt.

At the end of the second leg French privateers Amourette and Petit experienced a somewhat unexpected failure when, as they went through the car-wash before the closed park, the engine of their Peugeot 205GTi stopped. They had to push the car into the overnight park and had trouble restarting in the morning. However, they eventually managed it, and when the splutter finally gave way to a healthy sound after the dampness had evaporated, all was well again. "We have survived saunas and lake swims. Now we know the 205 can stand a ducking too!", said Amourette afterwards, the pair obviously enjoying every minute of their limited budget crack at the 1000 Lakes Rally.

In the later stages, Biasion's car needed spark plug replacement, a change of gear cluster and attention to its turbocharger. Meanwhile, Sainz was back up to third place and striving to get ahead of Salonen. But it was not to be, and the final order was Ericsson, Salonen and Sainz. In fact, Japanese cars filled the first five places, ahead of Biasion's Lancia, which was quite a surprising turn up for the books. In the Group N category Trelles (Lancia) evntually emerged leader in 15th place overall, a minute and a half ahead of Gaban (Lancia) who was just eleven seconds in front of Geitel (Mazda).

When first Datsun, then Toyota and Mitsubishi, started rallying, they went into the sport with what seemed like closed eyes. But that was an illusion. They recorded every move they made, even down to taking ground samples from the surfaces of special stages, and made careful notes of every single modification they found on rival cars. Cameras were as much part of a Japanese team's equipment in those days as spare wheels and rear axles! The thoroughness paid off, and today Japanese manufacturers are poised to topple Lancia from the perch which it has occupied since Peugeot's winning streak was ended by FISA's abrupt change of vehicle regulations.

Many readers will recall - those with shorter memories may not - that Japanese products (even cameras!) had the reputation in the 1950s of being shoddy, second-rate imitations of the more substantial European real things. That is exactly what they were at the time, but not many years went by before the "imitators" became "improvers", with devestating results on world markets. More recently it seems to have been the same wIth motor cars, and the time seems opportune for the old duels between Saab and Volvo, BMC and Ford, Porsche and Alpine, Fiat and Ford, and between Peugeot and Lancia to be resurrected in a four-way struggle between Toyota, Mazda, Mitsubishi and Nissan. The latter company always has watchful staff on World Championship events (there were two in Finland) so it can't be long before it rejoins the fray.

Ericcson and Billstam still find it hard to believe that a single result, only fractionally better than they have achieved in the past, has changed their prospects so much. It has often been said that the only worthwhile result is outright victory, better than a dozen' second places or class wins, and their success in Finland has emphasised that. They have only one other rally planned for 1989, but for 1990 they are no longer looking for cars to drive; the cars are looking for them! If you beat the Finns in Finland, then you have well and truly made the grade. GP