Clouds, and silver linings

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Juha Kankkunen and Juha Piironen have never had good luck on the Argentina Rally. But this year, for Kankkunen at least, fortunes changed, for he won the event comfortably. For Piironen, unhappily, things were vastly different. During the practice period, Kankkunen went to his co-driver’s hotel room and was totally shocked to find him in a state of collapse. He was rushed to hospital where a brain haemorrhage was diagnosed and an emergency operation undertaken immediately, followed later by another. Happily ‘Piiro’, a dedicated professional but nevertheless one of the gentlemen comedians of the sport, recovered and is now back in Finland continuing his recuperation.

A few rushed ‘phone calls were made, with the result that Nicky Grist, who has a limited contract with Mitsubishi, was soon on his way from Heathrow to Argentina where, after a little time discussing the pace note system with Kankkunen, he continued the recce with the Finn and then partnered him on the rally, scoring his most significant victory to date. The hastily formed partnership seemed to work well, and it is quite possible that it may continue, subject to Grist’s Mitsubishi contract and given that Piironen’s rehabilitation may take some time.

Toyota’s presence in Argentina consisted of two Celicas, one for Kankkunen and Grist and the other for last year’s winners Didier Auriol/Bernard Occelli. The Jolly Club was the only other team which had planned to take cars to Argentina, with two Lancia Delta Integrales for Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya and Gustavo Trelles/Jorge del Buono. Commenting on the Jolly Club’s run of mediocre fortune this year, we recently mentioned the cessation of development activities by Abarth, the departure of top mechanic Rino Buschiazzo for RAS in Belgium and the possibility that the team, an offshoot of the extensive Jolly Hotel chain, may be seeking a car other than the Lancia for next year.

However, that likelihood seems to have been scotched by the recent move to the Jolly Club of an engineer from Lamborghini, one who was having his first taste of rallying in Argentina. Ford, making no secret of the fact that its sights are on the makes series, not the one for drivers, originally omitted Argentina from its 1993 programme. But even the best-laid plans can be changed, and Boreham eventually decided to send one Escort Cosworth for Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero, a pair with much local experience under their belts, having won the rally no less than three times before. The team made its nomination to FISA a ridiculous formality only a matter of days before the one month deadline.

Among the other entries were two Audi Coupe S2s for Rudolf Stohl and his son Manfred, with co-drivers Peter Diekmann and Kay Gerlach. Manfred has now been promoted from his older Audi, and he drove very well indeed in Argentina, even beating his father until the veteran rallying adventurer was reseeded to get him out of a slower runner’s dust.

Mohammed Bin Sulayem and Ronan Morgan drove a Group N Escort Cosworth, whilst a Group A version was in the hands of Carlos Menem InrNictor Zucchini. A similar Group A Escort was driven by Antonio Coutinho/Paulo Brandao from Portugal.

French girl Christine Driano was driving a Citroen AX Sport with Marie-Christine Lallement, but her progress could hardly be called spectacular. To comply with FISA’s rules she had merely to finish the event to fulfil her World Ladies Championship obligations and drove so slowly in consequence that she created endless wrath behind her as faster drivers were unable to overtake through her dust. Indeed, she was driving so slowly that on one stage a disgruntled spectator lobbed a stone and smashed one of her windows.

The centre of Argentinian rallying is at Cordoba, where most of the best special stages are located and where most of the country’s leading competitors live. However, last year the organisers signed a two-year contract to have the rally start again at Tucuman, and they were obliged to go back there this year. However, the start was merely a token. After a short (48 minutes) trip to a two and a half mile horse-track spectator stage on the Wednesday, the event stayed at Tucuman for a night stop and then headed south to the far more popular region around Cordoba, where the event was subsequently centred.

For Sainz, the opening stage at Tucuman was his undoing. In an event which he enjoys (Argentina is mostly Spanishspeaking, although Welsh is spoken in the Patagonia region to the south) and won in 1991, he recorded a respectable time on the opening stage but immediately succumbed to engine failure which might have been caused by an electronic fault, although we heard later that two pistons had been holed. In testing, Trelles’ car also had its engine blow, and the Uruguayan driver had to start with a hastily installed spare.

Early on the Thursday, Auriol began experiencing severe difficulty with gear selection. The lever movement became stiffer and stiffer, and eventually he could only get second and fifth. A check revealed that the problem was inside, rather than outside, the gearbox and, in accordance with RSA rules, this could not be opened up until the end of the leg so he had to live with it for the whole day.

Auriol’s consequent slow progress infuriated Biasion, who could not even get within striking distance of overtaking in the Frenchman’s dust, although it must be said that dust is as much a feature of rallying as snow, ice, mud or rain. Bad visibility thus proved to be the major feature of the rally and one leading driver, who is also a pilot, said afterwards: “It was nearly all IFR out there.” He was referring to Instrument Flight Rules, the procedure governing aircraft flight in cloud or other low visibility conditions.

Biasion had a misfire after a watersplash, then had a front shock absorber break. Menem lost his front spoiler in the same watersplash, but after one of his bodyguards called the police (he is the president’s son) the missing part was brought to a later service point in a police van. Later. Menem lost a chunk of road time after a half-shaft replacement took far longer than it should have done.

Auriol’s gear selection difficulties continued, and he was mightily relieved to get to Cordoba with a gearbox that had not packed up completely. He lost much time during the day, but was nevertheless in fourth place afterwards. Naturally, his gearbox was replaced that evening.

Biasion continued to complain of being held up by Auriol’s dust, and the two were almost at loggerheads for a while. The Ford driver needed new front struts, even after one had been changed following a breakage.

In the Group N category, Recalde dropped back due to a detached turbocharger hose and a broken gear lever, leaving Bin Sulayem the clear leader, whilst Stohl the Younger was leading his father by some three minutes after the latter had been held up by the tourist-type driving of Driano.

On the second day, reseeding meant that Biasion was ahead of Auriol and free from his dust, but in the windless conditions which prevailed for much of the day the dust was really persistent and Biasion found himself hampered by Kankkunen’s trail. However, it’s no good complaining about the vagaries of nature because they are all part of the game. Having moved into the lead from the start, Kankkunen made use of his advantage and stayed there throughout.

Auriol’s gear selection difficulty recurred, probably due to flotsam moving around in the oil runs, and later he needed a replacement clutch which cost him 2m 30s in road penalties. Biasion experienced some worrying overheating, especially on hard climbs, and later this was traced to a blocked intercooler jet which was replaced.

At the end of the day, Kankkunen led Biasion by 1 m 13s, whilst Trelles followed another 6m 27s back. Auriol was a further 6m 54s behind and there seemed no chance that the Frenchman could repeat his 1992 victory.

In the morning, Rudi Stohl became noticeably faster than his son, no longer having to contend with Driano’s dust, although it should be said that Manfred suffered a broken half-shaft, a malfunctioning engine electronic unit and a gearbox oil leak from a broken pipe.

The final day was in relatively flat country and the wind proved to be almost zero. Kankkunen therefore had the day to himself, knowing that no one could get near him in his dust. If he slowed, the others had to slow. That was the score. Siviero deliberately clocked Biasion into a control a minute late in order to increase their separation from Kankkunen to three minutes, but it did little good. The dust really hung in the air.

During the day, Auriol needed a new half-shaft oil seal, at its joint with the front differential, but as this would mean breaking RSA’s official gearbox seal the team was reluctant to start the job. However, it was vital, so, after making sure that independent observers were present, they did the job and the FISA man said afterwards that he was quite happy with the work. But why seal the gearbox if it hampers other work? Strikes me that some rules need changing here, as in many other quarters.

Towards the end, Trelles all but lost his good result when a front suspension broke and he rolled. However, after much help by spectators, he finished the stage minus a front wheel, Del Buono sitting in the open boot to assist balance. He lost considerable time but held on to fourth. He might have dropped behind Menem, but he too finished a stage on three wheels, having broken a rear suspension arm. Later, there was consternation in the presidential camp when Menem’s turbocharger blew after the final stage, but an army of mechanics descended on the car and it got to the finish ramp on time. Towards the end of the rally there was a nasty moment which turned into one of amusement. A blown tyre led to the management car of Ford’s motorsport director, team manager and doctor rolling, the former gashing his head.

The Jolly Club doctor was soon on the spot and, when the Ford doctor declared his identity, the Lancia medic whispered to the Ford team manager. “Take no notice of him. He thinks he’s the doctor, but he’s banged his head. I’m the real doctor. Kankkunen’s tactics at the finish characterised the whole rally. Spinning his Toyota near the finish ramp, he raised a dust cloud equal to any which had been seen during the event itself. Biasion still held the championship lead, with Kankkunen only three points behind and the series was wide open as teams prepared for New Zealand. G P

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