Early in 1979 the FISA announced that the 1980 World Rally Championship would include four rounds outside Europe, one of them either in Brazil or in the Argentine, and that began a controversy with South America at its centre.
To give the World Championship a character in keeping with what its title suggests was a fine ideal, but to choose qualifying events from geographically selected short lists was akin to insisting that 15 different rugby clubs should be represented in the Welsh team, one player from each. The 15 best players are naturally chosen from all the available talent collectively, and so the World Rally Championship should be made up of the world’s best and most varied events, no matter where they take place.
We are all in favour of variety, but to sacrifice quality merely to increase the international span of the series is not the ideal way to achieve it. After all – and the examples are hypothetical – the best rally in North America may not be as good as a third rate event in Europe, or even vice versa, and to ignore the consequences of this obvious defect in the selection system is to risk weakening the calibre of the series as a whole and damaging its reputation.
Of the four non-European events, one was to be in North America, one in Africa, one in the Pacific region and one in South America. The North American qualifier, Canada’s Criterium de Quebec, was found to be no longer suitable and was dropped, numbers being made up by having two rounds in Africa, the Safari and the Bandarna Rally.
Of the South American possibles, the favourite was in Brazil, but when that took place for the first time in 1979 it was nowhere near the standard required for the championship. It is unfair to castigate new organisers running new rallies, for all beginners make mistakes, but this was a dress rehearsal for probable championship status in 1980 and viewed in that light it just didn’t make the grade.
Next on the list was an event in the Argentine called the Codasur Rally, and it was this, held in late July, which was the South American qualifier in the 1980 World Rally Championship. There was misgivings that it would tum out the same way as the Brazilian event, and various little administrative matters such as the late publication of pre-event bulletins for competitors, all in Spanish, tended to reinforce these. However, even with marshals who could hardly be called experienced, the event itself turned out to be very successful indeed, earning the praise of those who took part in it.
The organisation was in the hands of the Automovil Club Argentino, but the national clubs of countries around Argentina were also very much involved. Indeed, the name Codasur is related to such an amalgamation and the emblem of the rally included no less than ten different flags. There were to have been six starting points, the non-competitive route from each leading to a converging point at the town of San Miguel de Tucuman in Northern Argentina. Two of these starting points, in Bolivia and Chile, were cancelled due to snow on high mountain passes, leaving one at Buenos Aires, where all the pre-event administration was based, one at Asuncion in Paraguay, one at Uruguayana in Brazil and one at Fray Bentos in Uruguay.
The competitive legs of the rally ran in loops, each starting and finishing at Tucuman. There were only 14 special stages in the whole event, but these were on the long side and totalled nearly 1,200 kilometres, all but some 60 km on dirt roads of varying roughness. Dust was quite a problem, particularly as long stages create far more opportunities for overtaking than short ones, and there was even the odd case of non-competing vehicles moving on stages, more during the runs of back-markers than front runners, again a risk associated with long stages which are not always easy to seal off and police.
Main contenders in Argentina were the teams of Mercedes, Fiat, Datsun and Peugeot, with four, four, two and three cars respectively. Having discovered the hard way that it takes more than sheer weight of resources to win rallies, the Mercedes people now have no illusions about what they are capable of winning and what they are not. The 450SLC is by no means a lightweight, and although power/weight ratio is all-important it does not follow that 300 bhp can propel a ton with the same agility as 150 bhp can propel half a ton. Weight is certainly one of Mercedes’ disadvantages, but there have also been serious problems with brakes and transmissions. Failures have occurred time and time again, especially on twisty roads when both are made to work hard and when there is little chance for brakes to be given a cooling rest, nor for transmissions to be given a break from sudden, hard acceleration.
The Codasur was a rally which Mercedes considered could result in a win, and they took four cars from Buenos Airies. One was an old 280CE which didn’t run at all well from the start. After losing oil all the way, it eventually expired beneath Andrew Cowan with a blown cylinder head gasket.
The other cars were 500SLCs, now homologated in Group 2 rather than Group 4, with five-litre engine, four ratio automatic gearbox and a revised model number. Two of them broke half shafts, those of Jorge Recalde and Bjorn Waldegard, and there was the most unusual situation at one point when the former was towing the latter when each had just one working shaft. The remaining 500SLC, driven by Hannu Mikkola, got to the finish in second place, but all of 16 minutes behind the winners Walter Rohr! and Christian Geistdorfer in their Fiat 131 Abarth.
The Fiat team was by no means enjoying a trouble-free rally, although their four cars filled the first four places after the two largely tarmac stages which formed a prelude to the event. On one stage there were several water crossings and all four Fiats stopped at one time or another with drowned engines. All of them got going, although Carlos Reutemann, engaged to drive for the Fiat team on this one occasion, had to call for help on his radio. The Fiat helicopter brought a mechanic to the spot and the car got away after a delay of some 15 minutes. Both Fiat and Mercedes were using helicopters to back up their service fleets.
Problems tended to be repetitive throughout the event, and whilst the same defect put out two of the Mercedes, two of the Fiats succumbed for the same reasons. On one stage there was an incredibly long straight of some 30 kilometres, but it was by no means smooth and there were many dips and jumps. The terrain was also featureless, and the combination was the worst possible kind for “fixing” pace notes accurately. Pace notes run from one bend to the next, from one crest to the next and so on, but without any bends and with no landmarks to positively locate the various surface hazards many had ro resort to the less satisfactory method of relating the hazards to tripmeter readings.
Several cars came to grief on that long straight by hitting bumps too hard, among them two of the works Fiats. First Alen then Bettega stopped when their cars hit holes with tremendous bangs, destroying not only sump guards but sumps as well. Alen called for help, and with an oil-supplying helicopter dancing attendance, he did actually make it to the end of the stage – but no further.
Helicopters are fine aircraft, and certainly not the risky contraptions which some unenlightened people (including some fixed-wing pilots) believe them to be, but they are costly to operate and only the most well-heeled of teams can afford to hire them for use as extremely efficient service vehicles. Indeed, we have heard suggestions that their use for service should be forbidden on the grounds that they give unfair advantages to the wealthy. That is quire ridiculous, for there are countless aids which can be employed by rally teams if they have the budget to employ them, and where can one draw a reasonable line between one piece of equipment and another? It’s an old story in both racing and rallying; if you have the money and can afford the best, then that’s your good fortune.
Timo Makinen lost a wheel from his Peugeot, blocked the road for a short time as he struggled to get mobile and finally got away with studs rather shorter than they should have been. Alas, the nuts were only engaged on a few turns of thread and it wasn’t long before the wheel came off again and he was out. Team-mate Lefebvre broke his gear lever off, whilst the similar car driven by local man Carlos Garro rattled to a stop with a dropped valve.
The Datsuns started badly, having no racing tyres available for the two opening stages on tarmac. Start order for the rest of the rally depended on the results of these two stages, and consequently both Harry Kallstrom and Shekhar Mehta had to put up with far more dust than they might. Both had very trying moments indeed during overtaking manoeuvres in almost zero visibility, but Mehta managed to carry on to fourth place, ably assisted by his wife Yvonne reading the notes.
Kallstrom was not as lucky. His gearbox jammed in second after only five kilometres of a 123 km stage. He tried ro continue but after some ten kilometres the engine became dangerously hot and would obviously not last the distance. He found a place to wait until the whole rally had passed, then drove, or coasted with clutch disengaged, back down the hill to the stage start.
The result was disappointing for Mercedes, but the company is going ahead with its rally programme so that experience will continue to be built up until the “small car”, as it is called, appears in 1981 or 1982 and provides the team with much more agility.
Walter Rohrl’s win puts him in a commanding World Championship lead, with Fiat leading the manufacturers’ category, and it was decided after the Codasur to send one car to New Zealand in September to keep up the chase for points in both categories. The Motogard Rally, this time ro be held in the South Island, will have four Mercedes, one Fiat, two Datsuns, a team of Chevettes and various Escorts, one of them driven by Pentii Airikkala. – GP.