Distance as detterence

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Whilst the world’s major rally teams, including those of Japanese manufacturers Toyota, Mazda and Mitsubishi, are based in Europe, it is small wonder that a great deal of heart-searching is done before any of them embark on an event which takes place at the other side of the world. To transport an entire works team from one side of the globe to the other is costly, and the expenditure is invariably weighed carefully against the available budget, the suitability of cars for the event, the chances of success and whether such success could be capitalised upon.

Even works teams have limits to their expenditure, although it may not seem like it sometimes, and when a suggestion is made that they undertake a foray spanning several continents, the decision is not made lightly. Of course, in an ideal world someone will turn up to finance a whole trip so that the annual budget may remain untouched, or nearly so. But such cases are rare, and it would be a whimsical team manager indeed who would allow his imagination to breed such fond fancies, and would wait around for wealthy corporate backers to demonstrate sudden philanthropism.

All this is not to say that the only expensive rallies are the distant ones. Anyone who has been responsible for administering a professional team’s entry in the Monte Carlo Rally, and has been concerned with its budget, will probably wince if you were to ask him how much it all cost. Dover to Monaco is a far easier journey than Heathrow to Auckland, but the special needs of the Monte Carlo Rally render it one of the costliest in the calendar for anyone tackling it with the serious objective of winning.

Nevertheless, distance can be a deterrent, and no matter how expensive the Monte, with all its tyre permutations and other pricey idiosyncracies, the south of France is reassuringly “just down the road” compared to the remoteness of the Antipodes. New Zealand is in a peculiar situation. It attracts no stop-over travellers breaking their journey, because no-one ever goes there on the way to somewhere else. It is the end of the line, and you either go there because that is your destination or you don’t go there at all. Even the New Zealanders themselves feel cut off sometimes, and it has become almost part of their academic system that one’s education is considered incomplete until an “OE” has been undertaken — Overseas Experience.

We consider this isolation tube one of the attractions of New Zealand, for it is largely unspoilt by the modern ravages which have eroded Europe, and its people are refreshingly relaxed and friendly, always ready to swap yarns with visitors and as eager to talk of New Zealand as they are to listen. But to someone concerned with the budget of a rally team, it represents a considerable number of noughts before the decimal point. The New Zealand Rally, the country’s major international event, has a chequered history, for it has been in and out of the World Championship, has qualified sometimes for both drivers’ and makes’ series, and sometimes for the drivers’ only, as this year.

To us, the driver’s series is far more significant that that for the makes, even though the only drivers who can possibly be in with a chance nowadays are those who drive for factories and are therefore tied to their teams. FISA, on the other hand, considers the car more important than its driver, and in doling out championship status it makes it abundantly clear that the drivers’ series is the poor relation. If a rally has to be “relegated”, iris taken out of the makes’ series, but usually allowed to remain in the drivers’ series. This has happened to the New Zealand Rally, quite unjustly in our opinion, for it is a fine event in demanding country, eminently suitable for inclusion in the full range of the World Championship. However, it is very likely that pressure from cost-conscious manufacturers (or from those whose cars were not ideally suited to New Zealand’s roads!) persuaded FISA to remove it from the makes’ series, and in 1989 it shares the same onepart status as the Swedish and Ivory Coast rallies.

The event is therefore not as attractive to manufacturers as it might be. Add to this the cost situation and you will conclude that its entry list is not exactly brimming with works teams. Were it better known among the world’s general car-buying public, like Monte Carlo and the Safari, the situation might be different.

On the other hand, the absence of rallylogo big guns can often lead to an abundance of entries from other professional teams, even factories, who are not contesting the World Championship as a whole but are aiming for outright wins on selected events on which they know they can do well. Furthermore, this can lead to exciting contests in which no driver stands out as an obvious winner even before the start, and where the competition is fierce all the way to the end.

This is how it was this year in New Zealand. There were plenty of familiar makes, but hardly any of the actual teams which are usually seen contesting rounds of the World Championship for Makes.

Mazda considered that any entry in the New Zealand Rally should be made from Japan and not from its Brussels-based European team, so Rod Millen entered a five-speed 4WD 323 prepared in Japan. However, Ingvar Carlsson, who drives for Mazda’s European team, wanted to tackle the rally, so he gathered enough sponsorship, borrowed a six-speed works car front his team, entered it in his own name and went off to Auckland.

What a stroke of fortune for him that he managed to get the deal together! He came away with an outright victory to add to that which he scored on the Swedish Rally in January. The factory itself may have learned some lessons from this, for its man Millen could only manage second place, 2min 42sec behind the winner. The Mazda 323 is popular in New Zealand, and other such cars were driven by local men Neil Allport, Ray Wilson and David Ayling, whilst a Group N version had been taken from England by Simon Stab GM Euro Sport decided to send two cars from England. They were identical, with 16-valve, 215 bhp engines, except that one had the Opel badge for Mats Jonsson and the other a Vauxhall badge for MalcolmWilson. The former was a Rudest GSi and the latter an Astra GTE. Both had magnesium gearbox casing which must have saved anything up to 20 lb. There were no cars from the Mitsubishi Ralliart base in Essex, but Ralliart Australia entered two Galant VR-4s for Australian Ross Dunkerton and Japanese Kenjiro Shinozuka.

They were by no means identical, for their power outputs were not the same and they had different gearboxes, axle ratios, wheel sizes and even roll-cage materials, which must have considerably increased loads being carried in service vehicles. Although privately entered, there were two distinctly professional Group A Ford Sierra RS Cosworths, for Jimmy McRae and his son Colin. The latter’s car was on loan from Boreham, whilst McRae Sue was in his own machine, formerly of the RED (Rally Engineering Developments) stable. There was a third RS Cosworth entered by Rothmans for Middle-Eastern driver Oared Al Hajri, whilst a Sierra XR 4 04 was driven by Brian Stokes and looked after by Ford NZ. There were no works Subarus, as one might have expected, but a solitary RX Turbo was entered by the New Zealand importer for Peter (“Possum”) Bourne. Alas, he didn’t have much luck at all, experienced quite a few problems and was eventually excluded for pushing his car over the finish-line of the third special stage after electronic failure stopped his engine — a harsh decision, but one which Bourne eventually accepted.

There were no official Audis, of course, but local man Malcolm Stewart (he and Ray Wilson were the only A-seeded New Zealanders) drove a Coupe Quattro, and Bob Locke a 90 Quattro.

Young Belgian driver Pascal Gaban was to have driven a Lancia Delta Integrate for Italy’s Top Run team, but the car did not turn up in Auckland. He completed all his practice and note-making, only to discover that, due to some kind of misunderstanding, the team had not shipped the car. When this came to light, there was talk of having it airfreighted at the last moment, in which case it would have arrived during the morning of the start, but this was not done and Gaban left for home in disgust. Whether the incident will have strained his relationship with the team for the future remains to be seen.

Another Belgian to call off his plans to drive in New Zealand was Gregoire de Mevius, but in his case the reason was straightforward; he simple couldn’t raise the necessary finance and cancelled the whole trip.

In the past, the New Zealand Rally used to alternate between the North Island and the South Island, and on one occasion even spanned both, when cars were ferried across the notoriously rough Cook Straits. Its sponsors have also been varied; it first came to prominence as the Heatway Rally, then for one year it was called the Radio New Zealand Rally before being taken on for several years by Motor Specialities Ltd as the Motogard Rally, until that vehicle accessory company was taken over by Repco of Australia, which decided that a budget for rally sponsorship was not appropriate.

In recent years the rally has been based entirely in the north, and this year its sponsor was Rothmans. Start and finish were at Auckland, and the four-day event was divided into four legs by three nightstops, one at Auckland and two at Rotorua. Apart from a few at the end of two of the days, all the special stages were held in daylight.

Total distance was some 1230 miles, of which the 42 special stages made up 375. The entire distance was contained within the north-western peninsula of the North Island — mostly to the north of an east-west, coast-to-coast line through Rotorua. Six of the stages were on tarmac, the remainder on dirt or mixed surfaces. Prerally note-making was allowed, the proviso being that on private roads such recces were confined to two organised sessions in which competitors were led over the stages in convoy. Although rally headquarters were at the Travelodge Hotel near Auckland Airport, the start was in Auckland’s Queen Street, in the city centre, which had been closed for the occasion.

By making best time in the first tarmac stage, Jimmy McRae was the first to go into the lead. However, the next was on dirt, and it was here that Ingvar Carlsson took over the lead which he did not lose, nor even looked like losing.

Behind him it was Millen who stuck largely to second place, although Jimmy McRae did manage to find enough grip on dry roads to get his RWD Sierra briefly ahead, and both Wilson and Jonsson represented serious threats for most of the time. In the first two legs, Millen had it in his mind that perhaps he would be able to catch Carlsson, but at the start of the third he must have become resigned to second place for he slowed appreciably.

It was very likely that he failed to appreciate the dangerous proximity of the two GM cars behind him, for during the third leg they got within just a few seconds of the California-resident New Zealander. Millen was also rather fortunate on two counts; that Wilson was not at his best form in the early stages due to a sickness having struck both him and his co-driver Grindrod, and that Jonsson had taken a half-minute road penalty after stopping to have a cracked exhaust manifold repaired.

In the second leg the roads were much drier than they had been in the first, but still the Sierras were unable to make an impression on the 4WD Mazdas. McRae Snr kept trying, only to come to a very sudden stop against a tree on one of the evening stages, after dark. The car was far too badly damaged to continue, and all chances of a Group A FISA seeding, which he only narrowly missed in Greece, were lost.

However, family honour was saved by McRae Jnr. For the first time, father and son were driving identical Group A cars in the same event, and 20-year-old Colin scored an excellent fifth place despite having been slowed twice by punctures, on both occasions driving on the flat to the end of the stage. No doubt some pretty pointed jokes were exchanged over dinner that night! Among the Mitsubishis, Dunkerton eventually managed to get ahead of his team-mate Shinozuka, but then a whole string of failures, including a broken strut top mount, a detached brake caliper and a seized clutch, dropped him right down to 27th place. It says much for his tenacity that he was able to recover to finish ninth overall, three places behind Shinozuka.

Neil Allport spent a very trying nine miles struggling to the end of a stage unable to see where he was going, and with no throttle control whatsoever. His accelerator cable had broken, so the bonnet was opened and co-driver Bob Haldane spent an uncomfortable time crouched in the engine compartment, cold and wet in the dark, operating the throttle by hand and attempting to make his steering instructions heard by his driver.

It certainly wasn’t easy for Allport, the open bonnet obscuring his view ahead and the engine noise drowning Haldane’s warnings of turns, and we can’t help wondering why they didn’t employ the time-honoured tactic of running a piece of string or wire from the throttle linkage through the window, so that the driver could operate the throttle by hand whilst retaining both his forward vision and the benefit of his pace notes. In the final leg Millen decided that he could take it easy no longer. Although he had no chance of catching Carlsson, he speeded up to keep the two GM cars at bay and finished 47 sec ahead of Wilson and 89 sec ahead of Jonsson.

It was a splendid result for Carlsson, who now has two World Championship wins to his credit this year, although no points were gained by Mazda in the makes’ series. Had the Swedish and New Zealand rallies counted for that section of the championship, it would have had a score of 65 points and would have been second, behind Lancia, not fifth as at present. Although Jimmy McRae crashed out of the event, the result was a good one, both for the McRae family and for Malcolm Wilson. Colin McRae, at the age of 20, scored his first World Championship points, Wilson gained Group A seeding, and there are now three British drivers figuring in the points table of the World Rally Championship, a situation which has not existed for some time. GP