Rally review - Total Rally

As a general rule, the world's best-known rallies are those which form part of the World Rally Championship for Makes, there being still no equivalent series for drivers, to the shame of the CSI, and no personality at the end of the year who can be garlanded, interviewed, shaken by the hand or invited to be photographed with his arm around a beauty queen. But already we digress; whether for drivers or for the cars they drive, a world series has the best chance of getting its qualifying events known and talked about internationally. However, straightness of competition, smoothness of organisation and protest-free satisfaction with contest and result are not qualities confined exclusively to those events which annually receive the blessing of the select group jealously guarding its privileges as the inspectorate of the CST's Rally Working Group.

We are not trying to say that some World Championship events do not deserve that status—that is another story altogether— but the converse; that some rallies which are not in the championship are as tough, as well organised and as popular as some of those which are, and would not he at all out of place as part of the series.

One such event is South Africa's Total Rally, organised annually by the Pretoria Motor Club and backed handsomely by Total SA. It is a special stage event run on lines similar to those in vogue in Europe, hut in terrain which can best be described as African-style forests. The Eastern Transvaal does not provide the kind of going which one encounters in Kenya's Safari Rally, nor roads which have the rhythmic, swinging quality of those built by the engineers of Britain's Forestry Commission, but a midway balance which provides a character of its own. The important thing is that the rally does not allow practice. As in Britain, the owners of forest and other private roads don't mind the passage of cars during an event, but are completely opposed to having them passing and re-passing for weeks beforehand.

As far as competitors are concerned, this is a point in the rally's favour, but in the eyes of the CSI it is the opposite, for the Rally Working Group (among whose members are organisers of World Championship events openly opposed to a ban on practice) has declared that all World Championship events must allow practice, save for the RAC Rally and any other event which convinces the CSI of its need to preserve stage secrecy.

Although the Total Rally has been observed by CSI men, a deadlock remains over the possibility of its becoming a World Championship qualifier, the main reason being concerned with homologation. All championship events most admit cars of Groups I to 4 only, but the Total Rally is not in a position to do that owing to the very nature of South Africa's Motor Industry. Cars are made locally, assembled locally and, to a much lesser degree, imported, but the vital aspect is the economically necessary rule which insists on a high degree of local content (by weight) in cars assembled in the country. The result is a whole range of cars which come off production lines but which would he regarded as hybrids elsewhere. A Marina, for instance, could have a Dolomite Sprint engine, a Firenza could appear with Volvo driveshafts, and there was a time when Avengers were built with Peugeot engines. Such cars were, and still are, considered production models in South Africa, but with no export motor trade to speak of they aren't made in sufficient quantity to satisfy the CSI's homologation requirements.

Several South African manufacturers, enlightened companies as they are, maintain competitions departments, and it is unthinkable that they should be denied the right to take part in their country's premier event merely because their cars do not conform to standards set in Paris.

But championship status apart, the rally continues to stand on its own feet, thanks to its sporting-minded sponsors, and continues to attract European drivers who are engaged by South African teams. Local manufacturers' teams have their own drivers, of course, but for this particular event they supplement them with overseas visitors, a practice encouraged by the sponsors and facilitated by South African Airways.

In this year's event, Ford, Chrysler, Datsun, Toyota, Leyland and Alfa Romeo were all represented either officially or semi-officially, and the competitors themselves included South African, Portuguese, Rhodesian, Kenyan, German, Finnish, Swedish. Danish. French, Italian, Dutch, Austrian, English, Welsh and Scottish, an outstanding Cosmopolitan spread for an event in a country which is discriminated against so much in other so-called sporting circles.

In the past, the Total Rally had several starting points leading to a common route, as the Monte Carlo Rally has, but unlike the Monagasque organisers the Pretoria MC has seen the need to clean-up that style and nowadays each of its three legs starts and finishes in its home town, Pretoria. The rally no longer goes to Mozambique, nor does it now enter neighbouring Swaziland.

This year the roads were very dry indeed, and in the absence of any appreciable wind the dust problem was enormous, particularly in the dense forests where the foliage seemed to encourage the dust to linger rather than to disperse. Inter-stage sections which were somewhat tighter than they need have been were made even tighter by the dust of other cars, and it turned out that people lost time in some places simply because they were unable to go any faster. The smallest mechanical problem brought its risk of time loss, and although there was no penalty for lateness at time controls, there was always a maximum (30 minutes in the short legs. 60 in the long one) beyond which cars were excluded.

In the RAC Rally, the route in special stages is defined by a system of arrowing which is simple, clear and logical. In the Total Rally it is defined by distance-based instructions in the road book and this is not always as good as it should be. On a high-speed stage it should be quite impossible for a competitor to lose his was and then find himself back on the stage travelling in the .opposite direction, yet this is what happened more than once. It would take very little effort to prevent such happenings, and with this sorted out the rally could stand proudly alongside any other.

The first leg was made up of five special stages in the countryside around Pretoria and aggregate times on these were used to determine the starting order for the meat of the rally in the second leg. It was a fair system designed to have the fastest cars in front so as to minimise overtaking in the dust, but since those five stages were somewhat artificially contrived, like the "Mickey Mouse" stages used in British rallies to attract spectators, and the navigation not exactly precise, a few wrong turnings even among leading Competitors produced an odd result. But the eventual leaders wasted no time showing they meant business as soon as the main leg had started, Timo Makinen and Roger Clark keeping their Ford Escorts in first and second places as soon as they had gained those positions.

To list the misfortunes of those who retired, leaving just five cars to finish from 87 starters, would consume more pages than Motor Sport can spare the sport of rallying. The troubles were many and varied, the Toyota Corollas tending to Succumb to differential failure. Of the five team Escorts, two rolled, one going on until its engine failed, and another had its gear selectors jam. Britishers Tony Pond and Chris Selater both drove well in Marina and Corolla respectively, but both went out when the Marina lost oil presure and the Corolla broke its differential.

When we made our first sortie to take part in the Total Rally some years ago, spectator interest was low, but in each successive rally it has noticeably increased. This year the crowds were substantial, both on spectator stages and at the start and finish of each leg. Press and radio coverage was considerable and SABC's year-old television service devoted generous time to the event. There is no doubt that as the event progresses, so public interest escalates and more and more people become enthusiasts. To the local competitor, the highlight of the year is the Total Rally, when he can compare his skills with those of established professionals from Europe. Makinen's performance in his first Total Rally brought forth repeated use of those familiar local adjectives "magic" and "unreal" and one can only conclude that what the leading voting South African drivers need (Sarel van der Merwe, for instance) is a sojourn in Europe.

The Total Rally itself is a fine piece of concentrated competition. Whether it will eventually appear in the World Championship or not, it will remain high on lists of priorities and is certain to continue to attract discerning competitors from Europe.—G.P.