Rally review: New Zealand Rally

Privateer plunder

When Bernard Beguin won the Tour of Corsica in a Rothmans BMW, the achievement was acclaimed as one of the rare victories by a private team against the might of the factories. All credit to him and his team. It was not the triumph of a privateer, however, for the Silverstone based Rothmans outfit is quite substantial, and Beguin had the backing of a comprehensive service support organisation.

In the New Zealand Rally the winners again came from outside the ranks of factory professionals, but the situation there was rather different.

Firstly, Austrian driver Franz Wittmann can be considered a real privateer, gathering together whatever sponsorship he can and competing in World Championship events with limited resources and often with strained budgets.

Secondly, there were hardly any factory entries at all, which meant that Wittmann did not have the opposition he could expect on something like the Safari, the RAC or the Sanremo Rally. He fully deserved his victory, of course, using the 4WD of his Lancia Delta to full effect on some of the sandier roads and, with Jorg Pattermann, finishing just 47 seconds ahead of the works Volkswagen Golf GTi of Kenneth Eriksson and Peter Diekmann.

The only other regular Europeans among the front runners were Stig Blomqvist and Bjorn Cederberg in a Ford Sierra XR4x4 built by Gordon Spooner in England and backed by Motogard (the New Zealand component and accessory company which used to sponsor the rally itself until it was taken over a few years ago by the Australian Repco organisation). Wittmann's Lancia, sponsored by Funkberater, had been built at the factory but is looked after entirely by Austrian mechanics, whilst Eriksson's Olivetti-backed Golf had the benefit of factory support.

One reason for the few visitors is New Zealand's distance from the European concentrate of rally teams, and the expense of sending a works entourage to the other side of the world. Auckland is just about the end of the line and, as they freely admit down there, you don't visit the place on your way to somewhere else; there just isn't anywhere else to go!

The other reason is the event's replacement this year by the USA's Olympus Rally as a qualifier in the World Championship for Makes. It remains in the Drivers' Championship, which in our opinion is by far the more important, but that view is not shared by some works teams, notable Lancia, which has craved and collected manufacturers' pots as long as we can remember.

Naturally, Lancia would do all possible to secure the title for one of its own drivers, but since one of them is pretty certain to become Champion this year anyway, them was little point in expending considerable time, money and energy adding to a lead which was already substantial. The main Turin effort is for the make, not the man, and the workshop and other resources are at full stretch preparing for the four remaining manufacturers' rounds of the series.

With the exception perhaps of those who have tried in the past to ride roughshod over organisers whom they thought, wrongly as it happened, too inexperienced to offer much resistance, the New Zealand Rally has always been popular with visitors, from the days of the old Heatway right up to the present. The rhythm of the forest roads, (not unlike many in Europe), the enthusiasm of the people and the friendliness of the organisers all add up to something which has never been anything but enjoyable. However, popularity of that kind does not influence manufacturers, and drivers can only go where their teams direct them.

Among the local drivers there was a great deal of talent at the head of the field, and some well-prepared machinery into the bargain. Paddy Davidson drove an ex-works Nissan 200ZX, Possum Bourne a Subaru RX Turbo from which the works team might pick up some ideas, and Brian Stokes a Sierra 4x4. Three 4WD Mazda 323 Turbos were driven by Neil Allport, Ray Wilson and Tony Teesdale.

The 1275-mile route was contained in the North Island, for the days of shuttling year by year between the North and South Islands ended long ago, and the rally is now based at Auckland, with a secondary centre at Rotorua for two night stops. A few of the 36 special stages were on tarmac, but the majority used forest roads.

Against Blomqvist, Wittmann did not think much of his chances, even though the Sierra was much heavier than the Delta. But on just the third stage Blomqvist's rear differential broke and the best part of twenty minutes was lost having it replaced. Later, the centre differential stopped working and, although he pressed on which such determination that he was even fastest on one stage, a half-shaft eventually broke and he was out.

On the faster, straighter stages, Eriksson certainly had the edge over Wittmann, but the Austrian had the advantage when the going became twisty or slippery; and both were being harrassed very closely indeed by New Zealanders Bourne, Allport, Wilson and Teesdale. A misfire slowed the Volkswagen, the Lancia bent a strut in a hole, and Allport's Mazda needed a new wheel, halfshaft and caliper, after a stone lodged behind the latter and did considerable damage.

At Rotorua, Whittmann led by 26 seconds from Eriksson, whilst Bourne was only 19 more seconds behind. Eriksson lost some more time when his fifth gear packed up, and when the other ratios began to stiffen the chance had to be taken to replace the box between stages, an operation which was completed in a little over ten minutes Imagine that in a High Street garage!

After that, Eriksson drove like a man possessed, delighting the crowds and shortening Whittmann's lead. Wittmann claimed to have met a lorry on one stage, but no-one else seemed to have seen it, although he did pass a course car which had been stuck for a while in a ford and had to be towed out by a lorry.

When a hydraulic pipe broke, leaving him without brakes for a while, the situation looked bleak for Wittmann, for he was feeling the strain of constant 100% effort to stay ahead of Eriksson. But stay ahead he did, even though Eriksson, after losing another 40 seconds or so when a half-shaft broke, put all he had into catching him.

There was a moment of drama in the Austrian camp towards the end when an oil cooler pipe was broken by a stone. The replacement and top-up were somewhat hasty, and oil inevitably spilled onto the turbocharger, causing an instant fire. It was soon put out, but the engine looked a mess, blackened by smoke and swimming in oil. The ever-hopeful Eriksson wondered whether the Lancia would last, and even made best time by 20 seconds on the final stage; but last it did, and the woodcutter from Austria could hardly believe the good fortune which led to his winning a World Championship event.

It is all very well to say that the situation was engendered by a lack of stern professional opposition, but the fact remains that the fight was close, the competition fierce and Wittmann emerged an estimable winner. To theorise on the possible result had more works teams been present is merely academic and quite pointless.

Little is changed in the World Championship, save for Ericksson moving up to fifth place and Wittmann coming in at equal ninth. GP