Five and Out
No matter how many manufacturers’ teams contest the World Rally Championship, history records that, when the half-year stage is reached, the number actually in contention for the lead has been whittled down to two. This year is no exception, and although no less than ten makes have scored points so far, two are so far ahead that neither can be overtaken by any of the others.
Toyota and Lancia are locked in a desperate struggle for supremacy in the makes’ series. Toyota is in front, but the margin is so small that any one of the four remaining rounds could reverse the order. Similarly, Carlos Sainz and Juha Kankkunen, for Toyota and Lancia respectively, are fighting for the drivers’ laurels. Sainz is leading, but in this series there are six more rounds to go, so Kankkunen still has a chance of getting ahead, as indeed have two other Lancia drivers, Didier Auriol and Massimo Biasion.
The former dominance of World Championship rallying by European makes has long passed. In a manner similar to the gradual transformation of Japanese industry after World War Two from the role of “imitators” (when the phrase “cheap Japanese copy” was coined) to that of “improvers”, the country’s car manufacturers are now well to the forefront, having slowly picked the competitive brains of their European rivals and even engaged European staff.
We recall the time when Japanese engineers used to spend all their time attending scrutiny sessions and visiting service points, looking, noting and even photographing just about everything that caught their eyes. Prior to a Safari Rally many years ago, we watched one gentleman use almost two rolls of film photographing the mounting bracket of a wing lamp from just about every angle imaginable. Those around were smiling at this display of oddly-directed interest, but it is just this kind of meticulous attention to detail (followed by shameless copying, of course) that has brought the level of their technological rally capability up from indifferent to competitive.
Of the ten makes that have scored championship points, six are Japanese, and five of those have established their rally engineering, development and planning facilities in Europe, some having forged links with European companies. Toyota is in Cologne, Mazda in Brussels, and Subaru, Mitsubishi and Nissan in Great Britain. The relationships between these centres and their corresponding companies in Japan, and the degree to which information is exchanged, vary from make to make, but each team is nevertheless improving its cars all the time.
Also a thing of the past is Lancia’s practice of choosing winners before rallies actually ended. This was when the make had things virtually its own way and was unchallenged, enabling team management to decide which of its drivers should win. Nowadays, there are precious few opportunities to do that. Toyota is such a threat that Lancia has no opportunity to indulge in such internal juggling. Indeed, the team is happy enough to have any of its cars in the lead, no matter who is driving it.
In Argentina, where the latest round of both series of the World Championship took place at the end of July, Lancia massed its resources and took no less than four cars, with four fully prepared practice cars and a huge service fleet shipped from Italy. Smarting from Toyota’s run of victories this year, the team was determined to win the rally which it had won on the last five occasions, three times with Biasion at the wheel, once with Recalde and once with Ericsson who has since moved to join Toyota.
Juha Kankkunen/Juha Piironen and Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero drove two of the Martini-backed Delta Integrales, whilst a third had been entered for local heroes Jorge Recalde and Martin Christie. The fourth, in Fina colours and entered by the Jolly Club but a works car nevertheless, was driven by Didier Auriol and Bernard Occelli.
By comparison, Toyota’s entourage was diminutive, certainly in vehicular strength. There were just two Celica GT-4s, driven by Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya and Mikael Ericsson/Claes Billstam, although a third had been entered by Toyota’s Middle East team for Mohammed Bin Sulayem/Ronan Morgan. It was in Argentina that Ericsson recorded his first World Championship win, in 1989, whilst Sainz’ highest place there is second, which he achieved last year even after a particularly bad roll. These were the only two works teams as such, but several other professional concerns were in attendance to look after various drivers, Britain’s Mike Little Preparations, for instance, having prepared a Group N Ford Sierra Cosworth 4×4 for Carlos Mennem, son of the Argentinian president. From Belgium, Grégoire de Mevius and Hervé Sauvage drove a Group N Mazda 323 GT-X.
Minna Sillankorva from Finland and her Italian co-driver Michela Marangoni went along with a Lancia from Italy’s Astra team in search of points in the ladies’ section of the World Championship. Uruguayan Gustavo Trelles, who has often rallied in Europe, was also in an Astra team Delta Integrale, with Ricardo Ivetich, whilst Alessandro Fassina and Massimo Chiapponi were in a Group N Celica GT-4 from Toyota Italy.
Austrian adventurers Rudolf Stohl and Reinhard Kaufmann brought their Audi 90 quattro prepared by Rolf Schmidt, whilst some of their love of the tougher rallies of the world must have rubbed off on their fellow-countrymen, for Kurt Gottlicher/Rudolf Brandstatter took their Group N Sierra Cosworth 4×4 and Ernst Harrach/ Matthias Felz their Delta Integrale. Veteran driver from Monaco, “Tchine”, otherwise cabinetmaker Agustino Turuani, was there in a Group N Sierra Cosworth 4×4.
When he saw the start list, Stohl was both embarrassed and concerned. He had been given number four, one ahead of Carlos Sainz. Although he is in the list of A-seeded drivers and quite entitled to that start position, he knew that he stood no chance of keeping up with those around him. Indeed, he even planned to slow down on the first stage so that the faster drivers could pass. But this wasn’t necessary. The organisers eventually allowed him to start further back.
The rally takes place exclusively in the region around Cordoba but, perhaps for political reasons or, more likely, due to the needs of sponsors, it has to start in Buenos Aires, which results in a long, boring journey of some 450 miles before the first proper special stage is reached. A spectator stage had been planned in Buenos Aires’ imposing stadium, but this was about to change hands and when the question of surface damage was brought up, the stage was cancelled. As soon as they heard this, a number of leading drivers requested that the start be moved to Cordoba, but this was not done.
Apart from this and another stage which had been shortened, the route was identical to that of last year, which meant that those crews who were there in 1990 had a head start on their practice sessions. Not having to make notes for the first time, they were able to concentrate on refining them, a job for which they were able to use full-blooded practice cars prepared to rally specification, rather than the standard cars which they are obliged to use for reconnaissance before many other rallies.
Following the usual pattern demanded by FISA, once the rally had got under way properly competitors spent the days on the road and the nights in bed. They left Buenos Aires on the Tuesday evening, tackled five special stages on the Wednesday morning, and then stayed each of the next three nights at Cordoba, or at least near it. Big cities are rarely to the liking of rally visitors, and nearly everyone chose to stay at the nearby lakeside resort of Villa Carlos Paz. The Acropolis is much the same in this respect; no-one stays in traffic-ridden Athens!
The five stages of Wednesday morning were just to the West and North-West of Cordoba, whilst the eight of Thursday were in more scenic country to the West and South-West. On the Friday there were nine somewhat rougher stages North of Cordoba, whilst the seven of the final day were in lower country to the South, where the many water splashes caused quite a few engines to splutter.
The character of the special stages has been described as mid-way between those of Greece and Portugal. Indeed, they can be rough, twisty and undulating, although there are some which are very fast indeed. Auriol, who was among several who confessed to having at least one, enormous, Argentinian steak each day, said that the stages had something to cater for every liking.
During the practice period there was rain, fog, a cold wind and even a little snow — it was wintertime after all — and some crews found their progress a little slower than they expected. But road surfaces were hard and well-founded, and nothing seemed to have been damaged by the weather. In contrast, the rally itself took place in fine sunshine!
Unlike Greece, where there is often precious little time for service between stages, the road sections of Argentina were generously timed and there was usually enough time to get everything done. This was indeed fortunate for the front runners, several of whom found themselves in urgent need of replacement parts just where there was plenty of time for such work.
Some rallies are led all the way from the first stage to the finish by the eventual winner. Others produce a runaway leader at, say, the halfway stage. The Argentina Rally did neither of these things. Throughout its entire duration there was never any certainty whatsoever, and the tension certainly showed. The lead changed hands several times, and it was not until the last special stage was over that Sainz and Moya were sure of winning — by just eight seconds from Biasion and Siviero! Four Lancias were at their heels, but the Spanish pair stayed resolutely in front to take maximum championship points, both for themselves and for Toyota.
But they came very close indeed to throwing it away. Happy to be spending some time among Spanish-speaking people (they also speak Welsh in the Patagonia region!), and even more delighted by his victory, Sainz executed a victory spin in front of the crowd just after he had entered Cordoba Stadium, whereupon his gearbox promptly broke! He was very relieved indeed to discover that reverse still worked, and he wasted no time crossing the line backwards!
When the rally started, the unexpectedly warm weather had the tyre men scratching their heads. It had been expected that soft rubber would be chosen most of the time, both for the Michelin-shod Lancias and the Pirelli-clad Toyotas, but ambient temperatures were such that treads were often wearing out much too fast. This slowed Sainz on the first stage, on which Biasion and Auriol were jointly fastest.
It was Biasion’s turn to make the wrong choice on the next stage, after which Auriol found himself the event’s first sole leader. Sainz got up to third place, but was soon passed by Kankkunen, producing the once-familiar situation in which Lancias filled the first three places.
Matters got worse for the reigning World Champion when a front tyre slowly began to deflate and his car’s handling deteriorated. Inevitably, the tyre and most of the wheel eventually vanished and he got to the end of the stage with not much more than the battered backplate and studs. The shock absorber had also been broken, so there was some energetic work done by the mechanics to get everything repaired, especially as a split turbo pipe also had to be replaced. All this dropped him to sixth place but, although he wondered whether it would ever be possible to recover, it gave him an extra reason to keep all the stops pulled right out.
Trelles’ engine stopped and he spent three minutes fiddling with wires under the bonnet. Amazingly, he got it to work, but lost more time on the next stage when the water pump/power steering belt broke. Coping with overheating and stiff steering, he struggled to the finish, coasting over the line.
Stohl went off the road and hit a rock which ripped off his left rear wheel, suspension and halfshaft. He got going again, but lost a total of eight minutes as a result of the incident and the subsequent repair. Bin Sulayem was taking no chances and driving to finish, whilst Recalde was complaining that his engine was producing far less power than it should.
At Cordoba that afternoon, the three Lancias of Auriol, Biasion and Kankkunen were leading, followed by the Toyotas of Ericsson and Sainz. Only 55 seconds separated first from fourth, but Sainz was another minute behind.
The next day, Sainz was determined to eat into the two minutes or so which separated him from the leader, but Auriol was equally determined to hold on to his lead, not only for Lancia, but for himself and Fina, for he has not yet provided his main sponsor with a World Championship win in his Lancia. Despite the gap, he was concerned about Sainz, but he was equally concerned about Biasion’s proximity (14 seconds). There were no team orders; he wanted to beat his team-mates as much as his rivals in the Toyotas.
Sainz began by taking 13 seconds on the first stage of the morning, and continued by getting gradually closer to the leader as the day progressed. He was helped in no small way by the misfortunes of others, the first being when Kankkunen lost time when his steering rack bolts loosened, all but allowing the unit to fall into pieces.
Having already hit a rock on Wednesday. Stohl found another on Thursday, this time breaking both his sump-guard and his sump. In fairness to him, he had started the day in 31st place and was having to cope with the thick dust of those ahead. It was in such a dense cloud, driving almost blindly and unable to pass, that he hit the rock.
Mennem, who is not exactly renowned for his car sympathy, came to a stop when his Sierra Cosworth’s head gasket blew. As it was, he hadn’t really been challenging for the Group N lead, which was being comfortably held by Grégoire de Mevius in his Mazda.
On the last stage of the day Sainz all but came to grief when a turbocharger oil pipe split. Fortunately, it was very close to the end of the stage so he didn’t have to stop to turn the tap which prevents oil being pumped in such cases, but it was a most uncomfortable end to the stage, smoke from the burning oil filling the car.
As soon as he’d crossed the line he closed the tap (not so long ago, crews had to remove the pipe and blank the hole) but he was still very concerned about the effects of oil loss and he didn’t want to stress the engine too much until engineers had looked at it. Fortunately, Bin Sulayem came along soon after, and they left together for their service point in very close formation indeed, Sainz in front.
Naturally, the Toyota team said nothing about possible pushing, but there can be no doubt that a series of “bumper to bumper collisions” took place during that journey to service.
To say that the ensuing activity around Sainz’ car was hectic would be an understatement. What is more, a transmission change took far longer than expected when bolt holes refused to marry, and it was fortunate that this happened after the last stage of the day, when service time was plentiful.
They made it without any road penalty, and Sainz found himself in third place, only a minute and a quarter behind rally leader Auriol. Biasion was second, 49 seconds behind Auriol, whilst Kankkunen had dropped to fifth, behind Ericsson.
As tyres were proving to be so critical in the varying temperatures, Sainz was always given first choice, and Ericsson had to take his pick from what was left. Sometimes he was unable to do this, for he was being used as a test driver on many of the stages, trying out different types of tyre.
On Friday’s first stage Auriol had a halfshaft break, but as he’d made a better tyre choice than the others, he made best time, but his tenuous lead vanished two stages later when a turbocharger pipe came off and he lost some two minutes. Trailing him was Biasion who was unable to pass because of the thick dust, so both Lancias lost time. Biasion emerged the leader, but Sainz was just eleven seconds behind him. Things were getting very tense indeed.
Meanwhile, Bin Sulayern executed a remarkable piece of aerobatics when his Toyota flew into the air after hitting a rock. The car yawed through 180 whilst airborne and landed facing the wrong way. Remarkably, it was undamaged and he was able to continue.
Trelles was struggling on with a blown gasket, topping up with water at every opportunity. Ericsson ditched at very high speed, soon after which his rear diff stopped working and he had to drive some twelve miles with just front-wheel drive, allowing Kankkunen up to fourth place.
There seemed to be almost as many complaints about dangerously positioned spectators as there have been in Portugal or Italy. They took no heed of warnings, and were sometimes seen standing in the very inside ditches into which drivers planned to drop their inside wheels to help them around the corners. One car did leave the road and scattered watchers like ninepins, fortunately without causing injury.
It was just about then that the Sainz/Biasion duel hotted up. Firstly, Biasion went slightly off the road and allowed Sainz to take over. Then Sainz inexplicably lost time and dropped back to second. On the next stage, obviously concerned that perhaps he had not been concentrating as hard as he should on the previous one, he made up for it and regained the lead, ending the day just one second ahead of the Italian. To make matters even closer, only nine more seconds behind was Auriol, after whom Kankkunen was another three minutes back.
The excitement in the air at the start of the final day could almost be cut with a knife, although the bubbling enthusiasm was confined to the many thousands of watchers. The teams themselves were thoughtful and, though they didn’t show it, tense. Everything was checked and double checked. At service points, mechanics made quite sure that every possible item that could be required was ready and in the correct place. Even spanners were laid out so that they would be exactly to hand when required.
On the first stage Biasion beat Sainz by one second, putting them both jointly in the lead, and the incredible fight lasted throughout all seven stages of the day.
Further back, Ericsson went spectacularly off the road after misunderstanding one of Billstam’s notes, and the car became wedged by its bumpers between two hillocks, its wheels hanging free. Eventually, enough spectators arrived to lift it bodily back to the road, but much time was lost.
On the fifth stage of the day, with just two more to go, Sainz noticed the turbocharger pressure dropping as he crossed the flying finish line, so a quick replacement became necessary immediately afterwards. But would the new one work properly? It did, and the Spaniard made best time on the next stage.
The final stage brought no change and Sainz emerged the winner by just eight seconds after one of the closest fought duels ever. There was jubilation in the Toyota camp, and unconcealed disappointment among the Lancia people who, after five consecutive wins, had begun to regard Argentina as their own preserve.
There are six rounds left in the drivers’ series; four in the makes’ series. Nothing is yet settled in either, but he would be a reckless man indeed who would put money on anything but Sainz keeping his title and Toyota becoming champion make for the first time. — GP
Reesults (top five) Argentina Rally, 23-27 July, 1991
1. Carlos Sainz (E)/Luis Moya (E) — Toyota Celica GT-4, Gp A — 6h 37m 31s
2. Massimo Biasion (I)/Tiziano Silviero (I) — Lancia Delta Integrale, Gp A — 6h 37m 39s
3. Didier Auriol (F)/Bernard Occelli (F) — Lancia Delta Integrale, Gp A — 6h 38m 36s
4. Juha Kankunnen (SF)/Juha Piironen (SF) — Lancia Delta Integrale, Gp A — 6h 43m 24s
5. Jorge Recalde (RA)/Martin Christie (RA) — Lancia Delta Integrale, Gp A — 6h 49m 30s
World Rally Championship Situation:
Drivers (top five) after 8 of 14 rounds: Carlos Sainz (E) 115 pts, Juha Kankkunen (SF) 83 pts, Didier Auriol (F) 66pts, Massimo Biasion (I) 54 pts, Marku Alén (SF) 30 pts
Makes (top five) after 6 of 10 rounds: Toyota 114 pts, Lancia 108 pts, Ford 28 pts, Subaru 20 pts, Mazda 20 pts