Budgets running into several millions of pounds, the most modern technology available and the most comprehensive development and support programmes that can be amassed are still not enough to fend off one of the oldest pitfalls in the rally game — a puncture!
During the Argentina Rally at the end of July the main battle, well ahead of all the others, was between the leading drivers of Lancia and Toyota, Didier Auriol and Carlos Sainz. They were very closely matched indeed, the Toyota having been improved to match the performance of the Lancia, but the entire contest was resolved on the strength of one flat tyre, Auriol finishing just over two minutes ahead of his rival, who was seriously slowed on one special stage due to a puncture.
Mechanical technology, electronic wizardry and strategic planning have been developed to amazing degrees, but an Achilles Heel remains, in the form of the points of contact between car and ground. You can’t strengthen a tyre by adding chips to it, or programme it to last precisely the distance of any particular special stage. It’s a circular tube of air-filled rubber wrapped around a metal disc and if something lets the air out it loses its effectiveness about as quickly as an electric kettle does when its fuse blows.
The one striking ploy to combat deflation has been the introduction of a substance to replace the air if it escapes — foam. It’s not new, for we remember using Dunlop Denovo ‘run-flat’ tyres many years ago, but Michelin has progressed so well with its ATS (‘bib-mousse’) tyres that they are now considered by Michelin-using teams to be absolutely vital on rough-road rallies; as vital, even, as laying on adequate fuel supplies!
The works Lancias used to run on Pirelli tyres. Now, they use Michelin and are able to fit foam-filled tyres whenever the need arises. They detract somewhat from a car’s handling characteristics, since they increase the unsprung weight, but they virtually eliminate the risk (and fear) of punctures so the advantages, both actual and psychological, far outweigh the drawbacks. Indeed, drivers have often arrived at the end of a special stage to discover that they have a puncture, without having known or even noticed it before.
The works Toyotas use Pirellis, which do not have any filling of anti-deflation foam. Ironically, Toyota’s team manager is one Maurice Guaslard, a Frenchman who used to work for Michelin, and he often gnashes his teeth nowadays when he recalls that he was instrumental in developing the foam-filled tyre and introducing it to rallying.
These tyres give their users such an immense advantage on stages which are rocky or stony that we have even heard non-Michelin users suggest that proposals should be made to FISA to have them banned. That would be a retrograde step, of course; almost like banning an engine which runs on water because it would be unfair to petrol companies!
Such talk has been going on for some time, but it came to prominence in Argentina because Sainz and Moya blamed their crucial puncture on a rock in the road — something they were unable to avoid due to their speed and committed line, and a rock which had been thrown from the verge by Auriol’s Lancia.
Corner-cutting used to very common, normal in fact, in the days of the sturdy, chunky Dunlop Weathermasters and Goodyear Ultra-grips. Nowadays, although it results in the same split-second advantages, it carries a far greater risk of punctures since rally tyres are now made to be more efficient but less durable. A driver therefore takes a risk if he sees an apex and decides to straighten it. However, if he has the reassuring presence of foam in his tyres, he is far less afraid of punctures and is more likely to use not only the roads but the verges, ditches and banks in order to straighten his line and increase his speed. This certainly does not amuse the non-foam runners who follow, and who are likely to encounter (and often do) rubble, branches and other debris flung into the road by the corner-clipping tactics of the driver of a car ahead.
So much for foam, and the advantage it gave Auriol on the rough roads of Argentina, but it’s worth remembering that a relatively simple and unsophisticated measure can sometimes produce results supremely better than every piece of complex gadgetry imaginable.
The number and quality of entries for World Championship rallies seem to be decided nowadays on whether an event qualifies only for the drivers’ series or for both that of makes and that of drivers. At least, that’s how it has been for the past several years. Drivers-only events such as the Swedish and New Zealand rallies have had to accept second best (the Ivory Coast Rally third best) in the programme decisions of works teams.
Whether to take part in a particular rally is a decision we feel should be left to teams, but there should be no first and second division, as there has been for some time. We believe that an event should be judged on genuine merit, not the decisions of FISA’s blue-blazer brigade, and we welcome the news that from next year there will be no difference between one series and the other. The same events will be qualifiers for both, which is how the situation should have been since 1970 when the CSI (as FISA was then called) first admitted to the respectability of rallying by creating the International Rally Championship – not ‘World’ at that time, mark you, and only for makes based on Monte Carlo, Swedish, Sanremo-Sestriere, Safari, Austrian Alpine, Acropolis and RAC.
Since it joined the world series as the Codasur Rally in 1980, when it was won by Walter Rahrl and Christian Geistdorfer in a Fiat 131 Abarth, the Argentina Rally has enjoyed mixed fortunes. It is too far from the team centres of Europe to spark much international enthusiasm save for what the championship itself engenders, and is nothing like as established as the Safari to make a positive mark as one of the few non-European event of the series.
Usually, when teams are planning their year’s programmes, a nucleus of leading events top their selections, based usually on two criteria; the likelihood of success and the degree of publicity which can be expected. If vital championship points are at stake, teams are more likely to tackle an event, but when publicity is being considered there is no comparison between the Argentina Rally and others in the series. In the eyes of the public, Monte Carlo and the Safari still reign supreme, followed by the 1000 Lakes. Acropolis and RAC Rally. They are the Hovises; the others, no matter how well run and established, are lesser loaves.
No one was quite sure which teams would be going to Argentina this year until the results of earlier events had established a points pattern. The first team to show its hand was Martini Racing, with two Lancia Delta integrales for Auriol/Occelli and local men Jorge Recalde/Martin Christie. Toyota followed by entering one Celica Turbo for championship leaders Sainz/Moya.
Lancia’s presence was augmented by a car entered by Astra Racing for Alessandro Fiorio/ Vittorio Brambilla, whilst another, entered by the same team, turned out to be the practice car which had used by Auriol, driven by Uruguayan Gustavo Trelles, this time with Argentinian partner Jorge del Buono. Another, entered by Top Run Racing (both Astra and Top Run are Italian preparation companies) was driven by Carlos Menem Jrir and Victor Zucchini, the driver being the son of the country’s president.
That was the strength of the two leading works teams; Lancia with two cars plus three back-ups and Toyota with just one.
Since Toyota began using its new Celica at the beginning of this year it hasn’t really matched the performance of the Lancia, and, even though Sainz is leading the championship, the car has really been undergoing constant on-event development. It has been gradually improved, but the surprising thing is that its major improvement has been due to what might be called a backward step. Intelligent transmissions and complex chip-based electronic engine management systems are now in vogue, but the old adage of ‘make it simple and it won’t go wrong; make it complicated and there’s more to go wrong’ still holds good.
After taking out the new Celica’s hydraulic centre differential and replacing it with a much older, almost constantly locked unit, drivers reported a marked improvement in handling and traction, and this is what was used in Argentina. However, this placed far greater strain on other transmission components such as the gearbox and halfshafts, although the abundance of service time in Argentina meant that these could be changed regularly without much inconvenience. The time was available to replace these parts at frequent intervals, so there was no disadvantage in using the older, more stress-producing centre differentials.
When works teams are not strongly represented, the privately backed outfits seem to come out in greater strength. In addition to Astra and Top Run, the familiar green Sierra Cosworth 4×4 of Canarias Racing was there, driven by Fernando Capdevila/Alfredo Rodriguez, whilst Austrian driver Rudolf Stohl brought his rather old and tired Audi 90 Quattro, partnered by Berliner Peter Diekrnann.
Another private pair were Hiroshi Nishiyama and Yoichi Yamazaki from Japan who were driving a Group N Nissan Sunny GTI-R.
In the search for more points in his quest for the World Group N Cup, Gregoire de Mevius had scraped together every penny of backing he could find and, with Willy Lux as partner, brought his Nissan Sunny GTI-R, entered by Nissan Belgium. Both he and Capdevila had chosen the Argentina Rally as their out-of-Europe event to qualify for the Group N title. Ironically, both suffered disasters of a different kind, and neither scored points.
The most popular rally car in Argentina is the readily available, two-wheel-drive Renault 18 GTX, and there were plenty of these in the entry list. Among their more prominent drivers were Gabriel Raies/Jose-Maria Volta, Miguel Torras/Luis Maciel and Walter D’Agostini/Juan Turra, whilst rivals Jorge Beschamdose Garcia were in a Fiat Regata.
That was about the size of it, although a very strong local contingent, augmented by a few Chilean crews and one Bolivian, brought the field up to a very respectable total. The Automobile Club of Argentina has its headquarters in Buenos Aires but the country’s premier rally moves far away from that city for its competitive route. To the north-west of the capital is Cordoba, and it was in this region that for several years the rally held most of its special stages. But this year, some say due to political reasons, although that is by no means certain, it went further north to the area around Tucuman which used to feature in the rally when it first joined the World Championship.
The move was far from popular among competitors. First of all, their workload during practice increased considerably as the stages were new and they had no notes from recent years to use as a basis for updating. Furthermore, some of the roads were far too fast for their liking, others too twisty and slow, whilst none of them liked the huge, unguarded drops which appeared in many places. Some competitors, among them Moya, Auriol and Recalde, asked that at least two stages be removed from the rally altogether and that others be shortened to cut out dangerous places.
During practice, the unfortunate Capdevila collided violently with a very large truck and, after about an hour of waiting at the roadside with a smashed knee, was driven to Tucuman where a private jet was arranged by Menem to take him to hospital in Buenos Aires. With such an injury it was unthinkable that he should drive in the rally, but he had in mind the rule which says that to become World Group N Champion it was necessary to have started one qualifying event outside Europe. With leg plastered, he duly appeared at the start ramp, albeit in the passenger’s seat, and drove off when the flag was raised, only to return to his hotel to await arrangements for going home.
During the practice period there was much rain, even snow, in the mountains around Tucuman, but this soon cleared up and a combination of wind and winter sunshine produced dust which, in places, was as fine and powdery as that of the renowned Suswa end of the Kedong Valley in Kenya.
As is customary nowadays, the rally was on the road by day, in bed at night. There were four legs, each starting and finishing at Tucuman, and the 28 special stages were laid out in 6-7-9-6 formation. Four of those on the first day were repeated on the fourth, and three from the second day repeated on the third. Between them, the road sections were sufficiently long and relaxed to allow plenty of time for servicing, although access roads were precious few and in several cases service vehicles could not be usefully deployed more than once in a day.
For Belgians de Mevius and Lux disaster struck even before the start. Like Capdevila, they had been making the Argentina Rally their one mandatory appearance outside Europe and were confident of producing a good, points-producing result. However, Lux unfortunately misread the regulations concerning the time that competitors should arrive at the pre-start parking area (in this respect, the French translation was said to be ambiguous) and when they did arrive they were well after their due time.
When told, they were naturally astonished, and it appeared likely that the organisers would allow them to start. However, Menem’s sponsors realised the situation and made it clear to the organisers that they wished the regulations to be enforced.
Thus it was that, after scraping together the considerable finance needed for the trip to Argentina and completing their recce, the Belgian pair, not to mention Nissan Belgium, faced the humiliation of being turned away from the start.
When boiled down, it is the co-driver’s responsibility to get such things right, but Lux should take heart from the fact that he is not the first nor, probably, will he be the last to make such a mistake; Henry Liddon and John Davenport, two illustrious co-drivers of the past, once did the very same thing on the Sanremo Rally.
The first stage was short, wide and fast. Sainz was fastest by three seconds from no less than five Lancia crews, and it seemed that he seemed set to repeat his Argentinian victory of last year.
On the second, Auriol was fastest, but by just a single second from Sainz. Fiorio lost a little time when his turbocharger wastegate began to stick, but the major problem affecting the Lancias was engine water temperatures which were too low. Every team, certainly since the advent of turbochargers, has spend considerable time and effort developing means to prevent engine overheating, but in Argentina Lancia engineers found themselves having to start warming them up! Adhesive tape and partially blanked grilles soon had the matter under control.
Stohl cracked his sump but did no serious engine damage and, after repair, was able to continue, albeit with a slight oil leak and a constant eye on temperature and pressure gauges for the remainder of the event.
Best times on the third and fourth stages put Auriol into the lead, just ahead of Sainz, but the Spanish driver was by no means perturbed. On the contrary, his relaxed mood indicated that he was happy with the situation. He was certainly happy with the car and said that the change of central differential types had greatly improved the car.
There had been one tarmac stage planned for this first leg, but this had been cancelled before the start, so that the opening Wednesday consisted of just five dirt-road stages. Auriol arrived at Tucuman five seconds ahead of Sainz, whilst Florio, despite an earlier misfire due to faulty spark plug, was another 1m 39s behind. The next places were occupied by Recalde, Trelles and Menem, in that order, the latter driver happy in the knowledge that his Group N opposition had been considerably reduced.
A 75-mile run out from Tucuman led to the first stage of the second day, allowing those with work to be done plenty of time to do it. A week before, this 23-miler had been very muddy indeed, all but impassable in a 2wd car, but when the rally arrived it was dry and dusty. It was here that Sainz collected his puncture by hitting an Auriol-flung rock, and he was never able after that to make up the minute he lost. The Toyota might have been improved to match the Lancia, but not to get ahead of it, and Sainz found that from then on he could not reduce the gap.
The last stage of the day, towards nightfall in the Andes foothills, gave the organisers cause for concern, for it was thronged with spectators, many of whose cars were rather badly parked in the stage. The decision was made to cancel the stage, but when cars then went through at non-competitive speeds the crowd became angry that they were not seeing the spectacle they expected.
Auriol did his best to appease them by using his handbrake on hairpins, but that was not enough, and a large group of people eventually stopped his car and began hurling rocks at its bodywork and windows. One man even dropped a piece of burning wood through the roof ventilator, whereupon the French driver decided that this was a situation that could only get worse, so he moved forward and eventually got through the human barricade. The seats had been burned a little, the bodywork dented and windows broken, but nothing more serious than that.
Sainz came in for the same treatment, and the crews of both cars said later that it had been a very ugly situation indeed, and one from which they were very relieved to escape. That stage and the one before it were due to be repeated the next day, but wisely the organisers decided to cancel them and reroute the rally to avoid them altogether.
Auriol’s lead at the end of the second day was up to 71 seconds, whilst Fiorio was another 3m 15s behind, followed, as before, by Recalde, Trelles and Mennem.
On the Friday the same long section led to a repeat of the previous day’s first stage. This time, Sainz was fastest, reducing Auriol’s lead to less than a minute, but in the long run it made very little difference and Auriol stayed resolutely ahead.
Menem had his front differential break on the second stage, whilst two stages later he collected two punctures. Later, not unexpectedly, came a spot of transmission trouble and before the last stage of the day the Argentinian collected a road penalty of 3m 20s after stopping to have his gearbox changed and dropped to fifth place, only one second ahead of Stohl.
Recalde, trying hard to get ahead of Fiorio, had the rear of his Lancia slide wide into a bank, causing the front to flick around and crash violently into some rocks. The oil cooling radiator was wrecked and there was no hope of continuing. Fiorio was not free from trouble, for he had been slowed by weak shock absorbers and his lead over Trelles came down to less than half a minute.
This happened on what was the shortest road section of the rally, between two stages which were close together, and there was no time to put his suspension completely right. Not long after, a dip in the road halfway around a bend flung the tail of his car into the air. It clipped a bank and the car rolled, one of its rear wheels being ripped off. He managed to drive the remaining nine miles or so of the stage and the mechanical damage put right, but thereafter he was troubled by dust getting into the car through all manner of body gaps. The incident cost him all of 15 minutes. Stohl hit a rock which punched a hole in the floor pan just in front of Diekmann’s seat, while the beaming faces of Nishiyama and Yarnazaki back at Tucuman indicated the immense pleasure of the Japanese pair at getting into the first 10. They moved up another place before the end, although they finished without second gear.
By this time, Auriol’s lead was up to 1m 52s, Behind them, almost in another rally, Trelles lagged by another 7m 41s, ahead of Fiorio, Menem and Stohl. The gap between the last two was only a second and Menem was determined to increase that considerably the next day.
No one expected any show of fight by either of the two leaders on the last day, and they were right. Sainz lost a little time after a water crossing caused a misfire, and after that the two just drove without taking any risks. Sainz was actually fastest on the last three stages, but by this time Auriol had slowed appreciably and there were no other conclusions to be drawn.
Between Menem and Stohl, however, the fight continued, but when Menem collected a puncture the Austrian moved ahead. He stayed there to the end, but the Argentinian took the Group N award and scored enough points to move into a six-point lead over a very disgruntled de Mevius in the World Group N series. The Belgian now has to tackle another non-European event if he wants to keep his chances of taking the title. He has two chances; Australia in September and the Ivory Coast in October.
This victory was Auriol’s fourth of the year, but he is still 12 points behind Sainz in the championship table. The Frenchman has an advantage. He has only started five events this year, whereas Sainz has started seven. The present rules allow drivers to start no more than 10 of the 14 rounds in order to be considered for the title, so Sainz will have to choose three of the remaining six. It has already been decided that he will not drive in August’s 1000 Lakes Rally, which will just be finishing when this issue of MOTOR SPORT appears. The Ivory Coast will certainly not be on his list, so his choice has to be made from Australia, Sanremo, his home event in Cataluna and the RAC Rally. Among the makes, Lancia has moved very strongly ahead, but the matter is not yet decided and Toyota still has a chance to retaliate in the remaining four rounds. G P