Lancia's Revenge

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Originally, Toyota Team Europe’s programme for 1990 was one with which the team could cope without any frantic scrambling to prepare cars for event after event, but when Carlos Sainz won the Acropolis Rally and became a real contender for the world title, all that changed. It was decided to back Sainz with as much effort as possible, and the team’s primary object for the remainder of the year is to see their number one driver become World Champion.

Other rallies were added to the programme, although it was not always possible to prepare more than just one car, especially for sorties outside Europe. For the Argentina Rally, added to the programme after the win in Greece, it was impossible to prepare more than one car, and even that was done in great haste. “The team has worked night and day, but there’s still not enough time for perfect preparation,” said team director Ove Andersson.

Sainz and Moya left Auckland as soon as they could after winning the New Zealand Rally, for there were just two weeks in which they could practise in Argentina, and they had never been there before. They had intended to begin the work, tedious but vital, from the moment they arrived, but were thwarted by the late arrival of their practice car and the even later arrival of their tyre stock, all due to hold-ups at Customs.

Eventually they were able to begin, but since they had no spare sets of tyres, for three days they were unable to drive at anything like rally speeds, after which their tyres were released. Later, more delays came when their car was badly damaged in a head-on collision with a non-rally car on a narrow road, fortunately without causing any injury.

The outcome was a feeling of dissatisfaction with the entire recce, and nothing can unnerve a crew more than the impression that their practice has not been perfect. During the competition, absolute trust is placed in the pace notes, and if that confidence is in any way lacking it is virtually impossible to drive at 100%. There will always be the corner before which the driver will momentarily wonder whether his noted description of it really was correct. Even to use “very fast” instead of just “fast” can be more than enough to send a car off the road, and one bad note in several volumes of perfect ones can have results even more disastrous than an entire set of approximations.

Sainz and Moya are always meticulously careful with their notes, sometimes driving back long distances just to check whether their description of a single bend was the correct one, and to start a rally with the feeling that their recce had not been done with their usual thoroughness was something to which they were not at all accustomed.

However, they put those feelings behind them when the rally started, only to have them come rushing back in the third leg when a right-hander turned out to be much tighter than their notes proclaimed. There was no chance of getting around the bend at their speed and the car went off the road and rolled several times. They were unhurt and, more remarkably, they were able to carry on slowly, losing less than two minutes on that special stage. Their confidence, however, had been dealt a worse blow than their car, and it was sometime before they got up to stage winning speeds again.

Although Sainz was the only driver officially entered by Team Toyota Europe, his practice car had been refettled (even after its accident) to be used by local man Jorge Recalde, and those two made up the entire contingent.

In contrast, Lancia brought three Delta Integrales for Massimo Biasion, Juha Kankkunen and Didier Auriol, the latter currently second to Sainz in the World Championship table. Biasion and Kankkunen both had previous experience of the event, the Italian having won it twice, but it was Auriol’s first time in Argentina and he and Bernard Occelli consequently spent more time practising than their team-mates, without the delays suffered by Sainz, although almost everyone reported meeting other vehicles on the stages during practice, Kankkunen having to spin his car into a wall to avoid another car on one occasion.

Renault has no active rally team as such, but the company provides full backing and support for Alain Oreille, whose aim is to win the Group N section of the World Championship in his R5 GT Turbo. His car is prepared by Simon Racing, whose mechanics are invariably aided by factory staff when in the field. Oreille’s was the only car of its kind in Argentina, although the locally manufactured R18 GTX model is very popular indeed and figured prominently in the entry list.

Rivalling Oreille in Group N is the Uruguayan driver Gustavo Trelles who campaigns his Lancia Delta Integrale from Spain, where he and his co-driver Daniel Muzio now live. Naturally, they made the trip to Argentina. Another Group N contender is Argentinian Ernesto Soto who also drives a Delta Integrale. Incidentally, the three works Lancias and the two Group N cars entered privately all had 16-valve engines.

Among the world’s lady drivers only two are in contention for their section of the World Championship, Louise Aitken-Walker from Scotland and Paola de Martini from Italy. Only the Italian girl went to Argentina, but her Audi 90 quattro mysteriously failed to turn up in time — something about the cargo ship from Italy having an engine problem. There was therefore no chance of scoring points, but another vital ingredient for success was at stake; a champion will not be declared unless she has started at least one qualifying event outside Europe, and as this was the only such trip she had planned, de Martini decided to do something about it.

She approached the Lancia people, explained her predicament and they sportingly allowed her to start the event in one of their practice cars. After completing the initial short stage in Buenos Aires, where she recorded eighth best time, she withdrew from the event having met her obligation to start a rally outside Europe. Another visitor from Europe was Austria’s Rudolf Stohl, or Rudi as he is commonly called. Driving his Audi 90 quattro with co-driver Reinhard Kaufmann, he is an inveterate traveller to rallies which he considers out-of-the-ordinary and not bound by the standard FISA pattern which has caused most European events, at least, to become very similar. Indeed, the only European event he likes is the Acropolis, “. . . . because it’s rough, hot and difficult, and you still need a little bit of stamina”.

Before the start, Stohl had worries similar to de Martini’s, but not because his car had not arrived. It was his van-load of spares and tyres which failed to turn up, and on the first day of the rally he had to avoid taking any risks. Happily, the van eventually turned up.

Although the start of the event (on the Tuesday) was at Buenos Aires, the first real stage did not come until much later, after a 430 mile north-westerly road section to Cordoba, where the rally remained based until the Saturday finish.

Of the 30 special stages, all were on dirt roads except for the opening test which was on sand and two other short ones on tarmac over closed public roads at Cordoba. Total distance was 1325 miles, of which special stages accounted for about 350 miles. In common with other events in the World Championship, nearly all the running was in the daytime, divided by rest stops at night.

On the opening stage at the Buenos Aires sand track, a watersplash slowed both Toyotas due to misfiring, but Sainz nevertheless managed to make third best time, four seconds behind Biasion and just one behind Kankkunen.

Recalde came off much worse, and he had the misfortune of having to coax a spluttering, coughing engine to complete the stage slowly in front of his home crowd. Later, his rally came to an end when he hit some ruts rather hard, causing the car to jump into the air and roll. He was able to struggle off the stage, losing a wheel on the way, but the repair job took considerable time afterwards and when he got to the next time control he was just beyond his maximum lateness, by less than a minute.

Among the favourites, Biasion, Kankkunen and Sainz were very closely matched, all three recording exactly the same time on one fifteen mile stage. Auriol, on the other hand, experienced an acute power loss, and even spent about a quarter of an hour stopped on one stage trying to find the problem. He eventually got going, but lost so much time that he was down in 62nd position at the end of the first leg.

Sainz was perplexed by his car’s tendency to understeer, Oreille wished his Group N Renault had as much power as his rivals’ Lancias, whilst Stohl beamed when he heard that his missing spares van had turned up and would be brought to Cordoba as fast as it could be driven. Soto had been the fastest of the Group N drivers until he was slowed by turbocharger failure, but the Argentinian (not Argentine, as some writers use) was not the worry of the two other Group N drivers because he was not really in contention for the world title. Oreille and Trelles were the two protagonists in that bid, and Trelles had the power advantage which showed up particularly whenever a stage included long straights.

President’s son Carlos Mennem Jnr, who was able to acquire a Lancia Delta Integrale supported by Italy’s Top Run organisation, damaged the car badly when he slid into a hole, although he was able to continue.

After something like 50 miles of special stages, penalty differences up front were minimal, only five seconds spanning the two Lancias and the Toyota. Much further back in position was Auriol, but the time difference was minimal and he was confident of being able to climb back to at least fourth place. He certainly demonstrated that confidence by setting fastest time on the first stage (13 miles) of the second leg, despite having to cope with rutted roads and various back-markers. His previous day’s problem had been traced to a jammed water-exclusion valve in the engine air intake. When this was replaced, the engine ran perfectly.

Sainz felt that his understeer was steadily worsening, and little things began to trouble the other front runners. A mystery problem slowed Kankkunen for a while, but very suddenly it didn’t matter any more when his gearbox packed up and he was out. The once-reliable Delta seems to be reliable no more. Could it be the effect of a quest for greater performance to beat the Toyotas?

Ground problems were not alone in affecting Lancia at this early stage of the event, for they also had problems in the air. For some reason the usual light, manoeuvrable five or six-seater helicopters were not used by the teams. In their place were much bigger aircraft, Lancia using a monster, 13-15 seater Bell 212, which didn’t last very long. Early in the event the aircraft, loaded with a total of thirteen people, was approaching a service point when, during a low-level circuit, it flew into the ground, rolled and burst into flames. Miraculously, all four crew and nine passengers aboard the machine (one of eight of the type operated by the Argentinian military) managed to scramble to safety before the whole thing turned into an inferno, the only casualty being Lancia’s working manager Nini Russo whose face was cut when the pilot stood on it in his efforts to get clear! No reason was given for the accident.

With no obvious connection with the Lancia incident, Toyota abandoned its usage of its own helicopter very soon afterwards. It seems to have been a Sikorsky of about the same carrying capacity as the 212, probably an S58 of a type similar to the Westland Wessex, although this is not clear. What is clear is that rally teams can have no possible reason to enlist the aid of helicopters of such huge proportions. Lighter, smaller machines are much more versatile, and safer under the marginal operating conditions which rally teams all too often inflict upon their hired pilots, without much appreciation of the safety margins of the aircraft. On the other hand, perhaps nothing smaller was available.

It was a miraculous escape for the Lancia people, and one which could so easily have ended in tragedy. Helicopters are fantastic servants, but ruthless masters.

Back to the rally itself; Trelles hit a rock which had been dislodged by Soto and cracked his front differential. He carried on, losing a considerable amount of oil not to mention valuable seconds, but later his gearbox seized and he could go no further. It so happened that this was near Recalde’s family home, so after mechanics had replaced the gearbox he stopped there for a mutually consoling lunch on his way back to Cordoba. Oreille, despite an intercooler replacement, carried on steadfastly and, although his Renault was no match for the faster Lancia of Soto, he knew that his main rival Trelles was no longer a threat.

Then came the crash which took away Sainz’ confidence for a while, and with it all his hopes of a third outright win this year. The car was progressively fettled, stage by stage, but further failures did occur due to the shock of the impacts. Amazingly enough, at the end of the second leg, Sainz was only some two minutes behind Biasion and well ahead of Auriol, so his championship chances remained — provided the car could be kept going.

Meanwhile, Auriol had moved up to eighth place despite having to endure and penetrate the dust of back markers, whilst Mennem had finally retired after ditching another two times. He was pushed back by spectators after the second one, but the third caused transmission damage and he could not continue.

Leg three, after another night which brought morning frost, just as it used to on South Africa’s Total Rally, began with a clearly defined schedule within the Toyota team for progressive repairs to Sainz’ car. Gradually, it was restored to health, although outwardly it still looked terrible. But a broken half-shaft cost more time, and the gap was enlarged to seven minutes, a difference almost unheard of in a rally of this nature. Even in the Acropolis the winning margin was only just over a minute.

By this time Biasion had decided to halt his charge, and Lancia to turn down his turbocharger pressure in order to reduce stress and the risk of component failure. Auriol got up to fourth place, then got ahead of Stohl to take third. That was as far as he could go, so he contented himself with just staying in front of the Austrian and had no more thoughts of advancing. Sainz must have been keenly aware of this, because Auriol is his nearest challenger in the World Championship, but there was nothing he could do except ponder as the Frenchman added points to his score at every place he gained. Meanwhile, his confidence had returned, but there was no point in putting it to use because Biasion was out of reach ahead of him.

Having lost a gear and much of his gearbox oil, Soto was making slow progress through the stages, but Stahl was nevertheless unable to find a way through the Lancia’s dust. On penalties, though, the Austrian was ahead, and when the final leg started, Stohl was in fourth place. Oreille was also ahead of Soto, but when the Argentinian’s gearbox was eventually replaced he began to push harder.

In the final leg, Oreille felt that he had a chance of staying ahead of Soto and notching another Group N win for Renault, but a broken turbocharger pipe put an end to that idea and the Lancia overhauled the Renault into fifth place.

Soto’s performance was the only thing that kept the vast crowds happy on that final day, although Stohl was going fast enough to ensure that the Group N Lancia driver would not get ahead of him too. Up front, it was like a tourist jaunt. The differences between the leading three were such that none of them had any reason to drive flat out. Indeed, it was so processional that spectators wondered whether it was a competition at all. However, “ceremonial” throttle spins by each of the leaders certainly warmed up the crowds at the finish in the Cordoba football stadium.

The World Championship now becomes even closer. Auriol has moved a little nearer to Sainz (the gap is now 19 points), but Biasion has also moved up to just three points behind Auriol. Kankkunen lags another 22 points behind, but Finland’s 1000 Lakes Rally (end of August) could change all that, putting four drivers into contention for the title with just four rounds remaining. Among the makes, Lancia leads Toyota by 23 points. That sort of gap doesn’t sound much, but for Toyota to score a big advantage Lancia must be kept out of the high-scoring positions, and that will be very difficult indeed.

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