Rally Review

Motogard Rally of New Zealand

As any schoolboy will tell you, the process of fact learning demands a conscious effort to commit to memory whilst other data, both useful and otherwise, pleasant and unpleasant, seems to find its own way right into the memory. So it is with the facts which form the basis of these reviews, and when writing in retrospect about an event already several weeks old we consider, with but few exceptions, that incidents which cannot be recalled from memory without reference to notes are really not sufficiently important to take up space in a review.

If asked which car finished in sixth place on the 1966 Monte-Carlo Rally we could not answer without consulting written results, but we could expound on the subject of Mini Cooper head lamps straight from memory. Already such statistics as special stage times have faded from our memory of July's Motogard Rally in New Zealand, but the incidents which led to the disqualification of two works Datsuns from second and sixth places because the team refused to allow the cars to be scrutineered have lodged permanently in the memory cells.

Unprecedented as far as we can recall, the disqualifications were certainly the talking point of the rally when it was all over, and we are sure that Hannu Mikkola and Arne Hertz will forgive us for putting the cart before the horse by not first mentioning that they won the rally in their Ford Escort, Mikkola getting back into the joint lead of the World Championship which he now shares again with his team-mate Bjorn Waldegard.

Two years ago, unfavourable and unfair reports on the Radio New Zealand Rally led to the FIA omitting the 1978 event from the World Championship, an omission which in our view was quite unjustifiable. However, in 1979 the rally was back in the championship under the title Motogard Rally which it gained in 1978 when its sponsorship was taken up by Motor Specialities Ltd., New Zealand's leading distributors of parts and accessories. The sponsors did far more than back the event financially; they provided premises for use as an office before the event and as headquarters during it, staff, equipment and facilities which would otherwise have been very costly to the organisers.

From the time New Zealand's international event was called the Heatway Rally it has by tradition alternated on a two to one basis between the North and South Islands, being held once in the South Island for every twice in the North. This year was an exception in that it was the third year in succession that it took place in the North Island, being based at Auckland and not even visitng Wellington which has been its base in the past, though not because that city was being visited by HRH Princess Anne at the time.

Much of the running time was at night and the Sunday to Wednesday event was divided by two substantial rest stops by day, one at Tauranga on the East Coast and the other at New Plymouth on the West. The Special stages were largely in forests or on forest-type roads and they were of an extremely high quality, far better than many which are used regularly in Europe. The loose, dirt surfaces were often covered by gravel chippings and the tortuous nature of the roads was complemented by high degrees of camber

Indeed some of the cambers were so steep that if one ventured along them slowly one would risk sliding into the inside ditch. New Zealand's logging truck drivers move along pretty smartly!

There are some tarmac stages, on public roads closed by local authority order, one on a banked oval track with a dirt surface, and several at race circuits, using the circuits themselves and dirt-surfaced inner and outer access roads.

For a European team a visit to the New Zealand Rally is a costly business, but Ford, Datsun Europe and Dealer Team Vauxhall, all based in Britain, made the trip with five cars. Ford sent two cars for Mikkola and Ari Vatanen, whilst service was in the hands of the local Masport Team which not only sponsors a most useful team of Escorts but runs its own workshop into the bargain. They are not Ford dealers but makers of various light machinery (lawn mowers, for instance) and the name is a derivative of Mason and Porter. Two Boreham mechanics led the competent local men.

Datsun's drivers, Timo Salonen and Andy Dawson, came from Europe, but the cars were shipped directly from Japan and the service staff were largely local, although two mechanics and a Dunlop tyre expert did come from Tokyo. Vauxhall's expedition was in similar vein, instigated by the formation of a GM Dealer team in New Zealand. One Chevette was shipped from Britain to be driven by Pentti Airikkala, whilst there was Shepreth supervisions for the locally staffed service arrangements.

Airikkala made a storming start on the banked oval track which was the first stage, actually taking to the high banking and putting his Chevette sideways within inches of the rim. He did this to get out of the slippery mud (it was raining hard) on the inside and actually passed Mikkola's Escort, but it cost him dearly for mud clogged his radiator and the car subsequently overheated until repeated bouts of hosing cleared the obstruction away.

Later the Chevette retired as a result of a simple electrical disconnection. Beneath the dash the wiring loom is dual-purpose, for left or right hand drive, and a multi-pin plug fits into one of two sockets depending on whether the car is r.h.d. or I.h.d. That plug fell out on a special stage and neither Airikkala nor his local co-driver Roger Freeth, a successful racing motorcyclist, could trace the fault. They spent a frustrating time waiting at their lifeless car until the whole rally had passed, when mechanics drove in and rectified the fault in a minute or two.

Mikkola took the lead, followed by Vatanen who was having his first rally for several months due to the need to recuperate after straining his back early in the year. But there was much consternation in the Ford camp when, after the second leg of the rally, both cars needed to have blown cylinder head gaskets changed. Mechanics worked at amazing speed and it is to their considerable credit that the jobs were completed sufficiently quickly to avoid losing any significant road time.

During the final leg Mikkola kept a steady pace, never overtaxing his engine, losing a little time to his rivals here and there but never in such amounts as to put his outright victory at risk. Vatanen had the misfortune to have his gasket blow again, and it was a very sick car indeed which finally had to be manhandled on to the finishing ramp. They had stopped several times to top up with water and were running with a large can nestling between the knees of co-driver Dave Richards. At one time they removed a spark plug and found the cylinder full of water!

Whilst this was going on local drivers such as Blair Robson, Mike Marshall, Paul Adams, Jim Donald, Tony Teesdale and John Woolf, all in Escorts save for Woolf who was in a Mazda RX3, were driving extremely well, but Marshall blew a gasket, Teesdale broke a half shaft, Donald had his engine explode and Woolf his differential break.

Salonen, after several little problems including having his gear selector jam in second, had got himself up to second place at the finish, which pleased him immensely as it came so soon after a similar placing on the Acropolis Rally. But his pleasure was short-lived, and he must have been bitterly disappointed to be disqualified through no fault of his own. Another bitter pill was the fine of 200 NZ dollars imposed on him, as the driver of one of the affected cars, by the stewards.

When the rally was over, the cars were put into a closed park and the scrutineers, following the usual practice, notified the teams whose cars were subjected to a post-rally eligibility check. Salonen's Datsun had not only taken second place but had won the group two category and was therefore required to be inspected. But Andy Dawson, team manager of Datsun Europe as well as one of its drivers, told officials that he had been Instructed by the Datsun company not to allow the cars to be stripped under any circumstances until they had arrived back at the factory. This final scrutiny was clearly laid down in the regulations and the organisers then notified the stewards with a request that they should decide what course to take.

The next morning the stewards held an open meeting attended by Dawson, the organisers and other interested parties including Ford team manager Peter Ashcroft. After all, if Datsun were to be allowed to get away with refusing to allow inspection of their cars an immense precedent would be created, and Ford and all other teams were certainly interested in that.

Dawson repeated that he had been instructed not to allow the inspection of Salonen's car and the stewards brought in a prompt decision to disqualify the car from the results. Next highest in group two was Dawson himself, and he was then given an opportunity to submit his own car for inspection. He repeated his refusal and he too was disqualified. A period of one hour was allowed for an appeal, but none was made.

The obvious inference from this remarkable train of events is that Datsun had something to hide. They claimed, through Dawson, that they wished to inspect the cars' engines before they had been touched by anyone else, but since they knew full well that successful cars are checked after major events this seems a flimsy excuse. We cannot really comment on whether there was really something to hide, but if one applies logic to the whole thing by asking a few simple questions, a logical answer appears to be suggested. One thing is certain; the stewards took the only course open to them and their decision was certainly the correct one.

Who, if anyone, had something to hide? Who, if anyone, had something to gain? Who, if anyone, later had cause to be aggrieved? Were they in a position to retaliate? Did they retaliate? The answers to the last two questions are both negative, and we leave you to make your own deductions.

The World Championship for drivers is now again led jointly by Mikkola and Waldegard, each with 71 points, ahead of Markku Alen who has 34. Alen's chances of winning are no more than theoretical, but it will be interesting to see how the fight between the two Ford men, both good friends, one a Swede and the other a Finn, is resolved.

Among the makes, Ford has moved further ahead and now has 86 points to Datsun's 63. Fiat has 41, Renault and Vauxhall 24 apiece, Opel 24 and Lancia and Saab each 18. — G.P.