From Humalamäki to Al Inshirah

Next round of the World Rally Championship is Finland’s Rally of the Thousand Lakes, this year moved by a calendar shuffle from its traditional late August date to the first weekend of September. Further changes, to comply with the new FISA rule limiting the length of special stages to a maximum of 30 km and stage average speed to 110 kph, include the scrapping of what is perhaps the rally’s best known stage, Humalamäki.

At less than five kilometres, Humalamäki was considerably short of the maximum distance, but its average speed was high and there was a fast, undulating, downhill straight along which cars have many times got out of phase with the jurnps and rolled frighteningly. It was for this reason that the organisers decided, not without much discussion we imagine, to omit Humalamäki from the 1986 event.

Another stage to be affected is Ouninpohja, a name which, to those unfamiliar with the language, will be as unpronounceable as many other Finnish words, but which will nevertheless be well known to anyone familiar with the rally. Like Humalamäki, Ouninpohja is less than 30 km long, but it has a long, fast straight in the middle, so the decision was made to divide the stage into two, thereby enabling the fast section to be cut out.

The Rally of the Thousand Lakes has always been much shorter both in time and in distance than its championship contemporaries, compressed between late on a Friday afternoon and a Sunday morning. Its stages have also been relatively short, but their tortuous, undulating nature have put a special, almost unique sting into the event which no other rally seems to match.

Speeds are lower than those of some other rallies, but the hazards are greater, and the spectacle of skilful drivers fighting for split seconds over strings of awesome blind crests, adverse cambers and firm but loose, slippery surfaces is one not to be missed. Indeed, it is watched by huge crowds, including many overseas visitors who combine the trip with holidays in a tranquil, natural lakeland which really has to be seen to be appreciated.

The organisation behind the contest is slick and efficient, and one gets the impression that, once it has started, it runs faultlessly with the minimum of supervisory effort.

The rally will start and finish at the Central Finland town of Jyväskyle, where headquarters will be set up as usual at the spacious, well appointed, but highly expensive Sandpiper Hotel in the suburb of Laajavuori— a far cry from the tiny office above Jaatinen’s high street jeweller’s shop from which the rally was planned in the ‘sixties. Matti Jaatinen is now a Provincial Governor elsewhere in Finland, whilst the secretary of the time, Mauri Lindell, now runs a pizzeria in Lapland. Hannu Kiiski, third member of the leading trio of those days, remains as chairman.

The start will be at the Sandpiper (or Rantasipi) Hotel from 5 pm on Friday, September 5, and the finish there soon after 2 pm on the Sunday. An overnight stop at Tampere and another back at Laajavuori divide the event into three legs of eleven, twenty and seventeen stages respectively.

Leading entries include three two-car teams from Peugeot (Timo Salonen and Juha Kankkunen), Lancia (Markku Alén and Mikael Ericsson) and Austin-Rover (Malcolm Wilson and Harri Toivonen). The Volkswagen team of Group A cars will also be there, and we understand the East German regulars Wartburg and Trabant, which we will endeavour to photograph this year for the benefit of two readers who wondered last year what a Trabant looked like.

The European Rally Championship, once the world’s leading series until the advent of what began as the International Championship, continues to be a top-heavy contest, overburdened by too many qualifying events. To make a serious attempt at the title, a competitor not only has to devote his entire time throughout the year to the task, but set aside a substantial budget to boot.

The result is a distinct lack of regular contenders, and a champion who is as much an organisational maestro as he is a driver, adept at seeking sponsors and possessed of a chess master’s practised ability in unravelling permutations and combinations of coefficients, geographical locations and overlapping dates.

The whole is a confused mess, but, just as overgrown forests sometimes contain a few superb trees, so the European Rally Championship has within it a few qualifying events which would put some World Championship rallies to shame.

One such event is the Cyprus Rally, which began as a hybrid of the Acropolis and RAC Rallies, combining the heat, dust, rough tracks and very tight road timing of the former with the style and timing system of the latter as it was a decade and a half ago. Its communications system, based on mountain-top repeaters using the amateur 2-metre band, was set up long before the Safari Rally established its similar system which is unquestionably the best we have seen anywhere, with the exception in the case of results transmissions of the radio-teleprinter network used by the old Alpenfahrt.

The Cyprus Rally has since lost the urgency which turned even a simple tyre change into a frantic race against the clock, but the other ingredients remain and the rally still has all the qualities of a tough, endurance event in the old style, wrapped in modern packaging. Its organisers are among the most helpful we have encountered anywhere, whilst villagers along the route display an uncommon degree of friendliness and hospitality. This year the rally has been changed radically as a result of FISA’s misguided belief that danger increases with distance. The number of special stages, for instance, has been reduced from 38 to 23, and the total stage distance from 700 to 400 km.

That, in our opinion, is a dilution which FISA has no right to impose, although we have no doubt that in its shortened form the Rothmans-backed Cyprus Rally will be as competitive and enjoyable as ever.

Now that severe restrictions have been placed on the use of Group B cars from the end of the year, it may be that some European Championship events will benefit from additional entries from private owners unable to compete in World Championship events. However, we doubt that this will signal a return to the adventure-seeking days of the past, for the freedom, the informality, the scope and indeed the opportunity have all been hogtied by the legislative leash steadily tightened by FISA.

Foreign entries for the Cyprus Rally have been received from Britain, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Jugoslavia, Kuwait and Lebanon, and by the time the rally takes place during September 26-28 a few more countries may have been added to the list. Start and finish will be at Nicosia, where headquarters will be at the Ledra Hotel —the comparatively new one on the north-western outskirts of the City, not the old Ledra Palace Hotel — and the route will be divided into four legs by stops at Limassol, Paphos and Nicosia.

Another rally well worth mentioning, although in neither the World nor the European championship, is India’s Himalayan Rally during October 22-27. This, too, has shortened its route since we were associated with its formation some seven years ago, and the total distance is now just 3,000 km.

The Bombay start has long gone, and with it the trek northwards through the hot, dry, dusty plains (in 1980) and the interminable and very boring tarmac run of 1981. Nowadays the rally starts and finishes in Delhi, which provides for much easier access to the competitive roads of the high country to the north.

The terrain and the scenery are nothing short of magnificent, and the constant backdrop of the snowy Himalayas themselves is nothing short of awesome, providing a spectacle that no other rally can match. The route itself sticks to the foothills, although 10,000 feet above sea level is rather more than a hill, and the near vertical drops from tracks along narrow ledges cut into sheer cliffs make the Stelvio and the Gavia look like ditch edges.

The weather up there is pleasant, although a mere step around the corner of a building, from sunshine into shadow, makes one want to change from shorts and shirtsleeves into sweaters and fur boots. We well remember the diesel in our fuel lines coagulating into what was overnight, a state which was remedied by lighting a bonfire under the tank, using a pull-through on the lines and a foot-pump on the injectors.

The roads vary from tarmac to dirt, many of them having a cobble-like surface of hand smashed rock, each piece carefully laid in a regular pattern stretching for miles and miles. There are no special stages. and the whole is timed in minutes, not seconds, just like the Safari. Some two-thirds of the route is competitive, the remainder relaxed, providing service opportunities.

Early Himalayan Rallies were plagued by organisational problems, but we imagine that most of them have since been ironed out.  In any case, the route alone makes a trip to this event more than worthwhile.

When many people think of Middle Eastern rallies they visualise flat, unbroken, arid expanses of sand and rock through which a compass is the only possible instrument of navigation. Much of it is like that of course, but there are exceptions, one being the Morocco Rally, revived in December, 1985 after an absence of nine years and to be run this year during October 27-31.

The mountains of the High Atlas offer grandeur, spectacle and fine competitive roads, although the relentless advance of tarmac continues to make character changes.  Desert tracks also abound in the South, and the event could well achieve the popularity it enjoyed a decade ago.

Rather than being based at Casablanca, where last year it created the need for long distances, not all of them interesting, it will this year move to Marrakesh and only the finish will be at Casablanca after a comparatively short fourth and final leg.

Each of the three rest stops will be at Marrakesh, partly at night and partly by day, whilst the first three legs will have short halts at Tarroudant, Tinerhir and Errachidia. The leg distances will be 920, 920, 1,500 and 450 km, making a total of 3,790 km.

The date change which we see as part of a plan to pave the way for championship reinstatement, is fine for the rally itself , but many clashes have been caused as a result, not the least of which is that between the Cyprus Rally and the Ivory Coast Rally. These two are in different series, so to most people the clash will not be serious, but we consider it of immense personal gravity, for it will prevent our seeing the Cyprus Rally this year and that is by far the better of the two events.

Another clash caused by the move of the Morocco Rally is that with the Oman Rally, during same week as the North African event. This rally is another which escapes very readily from the desert image of Middle East events, for Oman, out on the south-eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, is mountainous rather than flat, and its well defined dirt roads anything but desert tracks.

The friendliness of the Omanis, and the co-operation between organisers and authorities are prominent features of this friendly, informal event, and we have always been most impressed by the absence of crime in the country. Indeed, you can leave an unlocked car laden with valuables in the middle of Muscat and it will all be there when you return, which is more than we can say of many rallies in Europe which consider wholesale theft to be no more than a normal risk. Another point worth mentioning is the language; the country has three, Arabic, English and Swahili, which will please not only visiting Europeans but East Africans as well.

The rally will be run in three legs of 133, 172 and 98 km, starting during the evening of Wednesday, October 29 and finishing at 2 pm on the Friday. — GP