An Unhealthy Obsession
Four times has the Morocco Rally been held since its revival in 1985 after an absence of nine years, and four times has it failed to match the stature it achieved in its halcyon days of the Sixties and Seventies. Its Eighties versions have not even looked like regaining its former eminence, despite handsome sponsorship by Marlboro, and even after four attempts this once-magnificent desert and mountain contest displays no more than a shadow of its old glory.
All the raw material is still there of course — the tortuous ribbons of tarmac over the passes of the High Atlas, and the rock-strewn tracks across the boulder beds and desolate scrublands of the southern desert — but when it is all strung together nowadays it does not match the stern test of reliability, stamina and endurance which it represented a dozen years ago.
Entries, too, have diminished, both in numbers and in standard, and this year there was not a single factory entry as such. Only thirty-one cars lined up at the start, a poor turnout indeed for an event which its organisers have put forward as a candidate for inclusion in next year's World Rally Championship. Indeed, this very candidature might be a reason for the rally's present lack of distinction: it used to be an adventure, but conformity has made it almost run-of-the-mill.
When it was revived in 1985, the organisers made no secret of the fact that their aim was a place in the World Championship. Since then, they have followed the pattern of FlSA's rules for that series — increased the frequency and duration of rest stops, reduced overall distance and shortened competitive sections. Such measures have diluted the toughness of the rally without improving it a bit, although manufacturers whose cars cannot survive without frequent service attention will doubtless disagree.
Again following FISA's World Championship rules, the organisers have even introduced special stages timed in seconds, a crass piece of wasteful, dictatorial madness in a long event over rough, desolate terrain (and just as absurd as it was in the Safari). This year more than seven hours separated the first and eighth finishers, and to insist that seconds be used in timing a few of the sections contributing to such a penalty difference is about as ludicrous as a cash purchaser of a Rolls-Royce demanding his four-pence change!
This preoccupation with World Championship status was undoubtedly a mistake. The organisers should firstly have concentrated on producing a high-calibre, problem-free rally, and attracting a good field of competitors. When those have been achieved, then is the time to think about elevation to the world series. Without the horse, the cart is useless, no matter how many FISA observers are present to be impressed by its construction.
The three previous Morocco Rallies were hit by storms, floods, landslides and even snow, but not all their troubles can be attributed to the weather. The time allowances for some of the competitive sections were quite unrealistic, for instance, and there were several occasions when faster competitors arrived early at controls, then having to endure the frustration of waiting whilst slower crews were able to catch up. This situation gave rise to bitter complaints, but fortunately it did not arise again in 1988.
The problems of winter, which can indeed be violent both in the High Atlas and on the desert lowlands, were replaced this year by the problems of summer. To avoid the risk of flood and landslide, the rally was moved from November to July, when the country sweltered in fierce heat. Petrol vaporisation became common, especially high up in the Atlas Mountains, and competitors, mechanics, organisers and others had difficulty not only starting their engines but keeping them running. There was a great demand for cold water and ice bags to keep fuel pumps and Iines cool, and these commodities were fetching a good price in certain parts of the route.
To be fair to the organisers, the date-change gave them little more than six months to prepare the 1988 version, and this may also have been at least partly to blame for the poor entry. Competitors, both professional and amateur, make their plans well in advance, and the time to begin trying to get their entries is a year ahead, not just six months.
The long competitive sections of the past have never been reintroduced to the present series of Morocco Rallies, and much of its magic is lost without them. One of the great sections used to be a 500-mile slog across the rough tracks of the south, from Irherm to Rissane via the oases of Tata, Foum Zguid and Zagora. That was all one competitive section, into which fuel and tyres had to be dumped in advance, and where one team even resorted to dropping spares by parachute!
This year, ignoring the very short special stages, the average length of the thirteen competitive sections was under 35 miles, and the longest just 100 miles — long, perhaps, by the standards of European special stages, but not by those of Africa, where road closures are virtually impossible for anything longer than a mile or two, and where distance is a plentiful commodity.
The start was at Casablanca, and the first leg a daytime run to the first night stop at Marrakesh. The second and third parts ended in night stops at the town of Ouarzazate, Gateway to the Sahara, and the final leg brought the rally back to the finish at Marrakesh. Several sections were used more than once, thereby avoiding long distances and cutting out all night driving. This also reduced the overall area covered by the rally, and minimised the manpower needed to maintain communications — which was achieved by telephone from town to town, and by single-sideband HF radio elsewhere.
The favourite this year was Middle East Champion Mohammed Bin Sulayem from Dubai and his Irish co-driver Ronan Morgan. Alas, their Ford Sierra Cosworth intermittently lost its engine oil-pressure on the first day, probably due to surge, and stopped very noisily indeed with a con-red through the side of the block.
Another potential winner, Flory Roothaert from Belgium, lost considerable time when his Nissan Silvia's differential casing shattered. He did carry on after an axle change, but when his low oil-pressure warning-light came on he switched off immediately and, rather than risk destroying his engine, decided to pull out.
Two French crews from Casablanca, each in a Group B Opel Manta 400 prepared by Guy Colsoul in Belgium, were also in with a chance, and when the cars ran almost faultlessly throughout the four days, not even requiring a single suspension change, it was not surprising that they finished first and second. Winners were Paul-Emile Decamps and Michel Gauteron, followed after some twenty minutes by Patrick Borne and Claude d'Agésy.
The two Mantas actually ran in the Group S category, for no class was included for Group B cars over 1.6 litres (again the influence of the World Championship) and the scrutineer insisted that they be reclassified.
Third place went to Marc Lacaza's Toyota Corolla, taking the Group N category for the second year running. He also scored 20 points in the Championship of the African Continent, for Decamps and Borne, as drivers of Group S cars, were not eligible for points in that series (which hardly seems fair when you consider that a large proportion of the cars currently being rallied in Africa are not homologated).
A performance which deserves special mention was that of French driver Georges Houel, a veteran campaigner of many rallies both in Europe and in Africa. At the age of 75, he tackled the Morocco rally in his venerable Renault Fuego without any service support whatsoever, and having made no recce. He finished seventh, and when it was all over he was in better shape than drivers half his age, seeming capable of starting the entire event again.
We would dearly like to see the Morocco Rally regain its former stature and reputation, but whilst it seeks World Championship status and conforms to the stunting rules of that series, it cannot be run as it was in the Seventies. Nevertheless, with greater efforts to attract more competitors, it could become popular once again. After all, the Straits of Gibraltar are not that wide! GP