Colin McRae takes a third straight win in New Zealand, and keeps his slim WRC hopes alive.
Sponsorship of events, teams and drivers by tobacco companies, notably to promote particular cigarette brands, has been as common for many years in rallying as it has in other sports. The reason is straightforward. Tobacco advertising is severely restricted in many countries, banned altogether in some, and one of the few ways these companies can secure public exposure for their brands is to negotiate contracts for sponsorship.
Tobacco companies pay huge amounts in tax, and one way to reduce these amounts and, at the same time, gain exposure without actually advertising, is to spend money on sponsorship. However, some countries have forbidden all public appearances of tobacco and cigarette brand identities and one of the latest to follow this trend is New Zealand. Small wonder, therefore, that the 1995 rally was called the Smokefree Rally of New Zealand, it being said that the government compensated the organisers somewhat for their loss of sponsorship revenue.
As has been the practice in the past few years, the rally was based at Auckland and took place entirely in the northern part of the North Island. The habit of alternating year by year between the two islands, and even starting at Wellington rather than Auckland, was abandoned a long time ago.
Unlike most events in the World Championship these days, which cram their routes into the hours of daylight of just three days, the New Zealand Rally spanned four, from Thursday afternoon to Sunday afternoon. Even so, the 1277 mile route contained just 310 miles of special stages, after three of the original 33 had been cancelled.
The first leg was held in the southern part of the Northland Peninsula, to the north of Auckland, the second to the south and south-east, ending alongside the famous lake at Rotorua, noted for its trout of enormous proportions, but which make indifferent eating since their muscles have no current against which to work. I recall catching such a huge trout once and getting our hotel chef to cook it. Denny Hulme joined us for dinner that evening and, after enquiring where I'd caught the fish, promptly ordered a steak!
The third leg formed a loop starting and finishing at Rotorua and extending eastwards, and final leg ran from Rotorua back to Auckland. Roadside servicing was practically absent this year, save for a few surreptitious activities, the plan being that all servicing would be in defined areas preceded and followed by time controls.
The New Zealand Rally was a qualifier in both the full World Championship and the 2wd series, not to mention the Asia Pacific Championship in which Japanese manufacturers are taking an increasing interest since it centres on what is their close-to-home market. All four teams which have nominated themselves for points in the world makes' series were there, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Subaru and Ford. Toyota was represented by Team Toyota Castrol of Cologne, Mitsubishi by Ralliart of Rugby, Subaru by Prodrive of Banbury and Ford by RAS, with plenty of Boreham backing, of course.
The three nominated Toyota crews were Didier Auriol/Denis Giraudet, Juha Kankkunen/Nicky Grist and Armin Schwarz/Klaus Wicha. A fourth crew entered by the team but not nominated were Safari winners Yoshio Fujimoto/Arne Hertz. Marcus Gronhoim/Timo Rautiainen took another Celica from Finland, whilst Mohammed bin Sulayem/Ronan Morgan had a similar car from Italy's Grifone stable.
Mitsubishi's crews were Kenneth Eriksson/Staffan Parmander, Tommi Makinen/Seppo Harjanne and, from Australia, Ed Ordynski/Mark Stacey, all in Evolution Three Lancers, the latter a group N version. Three group N Evolution Two Lancers came from Mitsubishi Germany for unnominated crews IsoIde Holderied/Tina Thorner, Argentinians Jorge Recalde/Martin Christie and Portuguese crew Rui Madeira/Nuno Silva.
The Subaru team had three lmprezas. Carlos Sainz was not fit enough after injuring his shoulder when he came off a mountain bike, so his place was taken by British driver Richard Burns. The line-up thus consisted of Colin McRae/Derek Ringer, Peter Bourne/Tony Sircombe from New Zealand and Richard Bums/Robert Reid.
The Ford team, many of its members stricken by 'flu just before the event, drivers included, was made up of three Escort RS Cosworths for Francois Delecour/Catherine Francois, Bruno Thiry/Stephane Prevot and, from New Zealand, Neil Allport/Craig Vincent.
Even though the New Zealand Rally was a qualifier in the two-wheel-drive section of the World Championship, there was a notable lack of interest shown by the regular 2wd teams. Even the Skoda team, a regular attendee, was absent. Indeed, it was as a result of the performance of privateers in New Zealand that Peugeot moved up to take the lead with 212 points, ahead of Renault which has 175.
Heavy rain in practice and during the event itself caused deterioration of many special stage surfaces, which sometimes favoured early runners and sometimes those a little further back. For the leaders, some six stages were run in darkness.
The first was a short (1.28-mile) spectator stage on the outskirts of Auckland where, as usual with such stages, penalty differences were minimal. Schwarz was fastest, Kankkunen, Auriol and Eriksson one second behind and McRae, Delecour, Burns and Makinen another second back.
Allport and Holderied both hit a post, Allport damaging his power steering, and Holderied doing so much damage to the front left of the car that the wheel began flapping uselessly. She managed to get off the stage but it was impossible to complete repairs in the time available. Another case of "you can gain nothing on Mickey Mouse stages but you can lose everything".
Bin Sulayem had a turbocharger pipe come off during the second stage. He carried on, but one stage later all drive was lost, putting the UA Emirates driver and his Irish partner out. Burns was slowed for a while by a faulty electronic sensor in the transmission system, but generally the Englishman was putting up very creditable times in his role as Sainz's deputy.
At the end of the day, it was Makinen who emerged leader, eight seconds ahead of Schwarz and another three in front of Auriol and Eriksson. Eriksson and Kankkunen were joint fifth, another four seconds back. Makinen, whose knowledge of the event did not compare with that of his rivals, was indifferent about having to be in first position on the road the next day. He is a man of few words to all but his friends, and simply shrugged his shoulders and remarked, "With weather like this, it could even be better for me to be first." Kankkunen, on the other hand, felt otherwise and even slowed a little so that a few seconds lost would put him a few places back.
True enough, there was overnight rain and Makinen made best time on the first three of Friday's stages. Eriksson had an intercooler pipe burst, whilst Allport lost about 20 seconds after stalling. He said that he was taking time to adjust to the technique required to use the seven-speed gearbox to its fullest advantage.
Just two stages into the second day Fujimoto was left with just rear-wheel-drive in his Toyota and, parts replacement regulations being what they are, he had to endure this loss of front drive until the end of the day. Gronholm, son of a well-known, enthusiastic father who was killed in a testing accident in Finland some years ago, put his Toyota off the road and damaged it so badly that there was no hope of continuing. In this respect, it must be said that several drivers fell foul of the NZ traffic police who, quite rightly according to law, objected to badly damaged and technically unroadworthy cars being driven on public roads from special stage to service point.
Thiry, the likeable Belgian, spun after his inside door handle fell off and began hopping around the under-pedal area. Auriol was suffering from the 'flu bug that had been moving around many of the rally people in New Zealand.
On the twisty fourth stage of the day, McRae was fastest by far and shot up immediately to take the lead, aided by Makinen's leaving the road. He put his Mitsubishi straight down a steep bank and was quite unable to regain the track even though the car was largely undamaged. As honest in his comments as ever, he exclaimed afterwards, "Car was good. It was my fault."
Having taken a good lead. McRae felt he could relax a little and even indulged in testing of new centre differentials. Schwarz became first driver on the road, but he slowed for a while after dashboard warnings that his engine temperature was rising and his oil pressure falling.
As the day progressed and the stages became faster, Auriol began picking up the odd few seconds here and there. Thiry hit a rock on a stage which was followed by a road section on which service was not allowed. But the next stage was short. less than three miles, so the bent front left suspension did not cost him too dearly; about a minute, he estimated.
In the afternoon, Burns, who was still putting up impressive times, was slowed by a front puncture. He was using foam-filled tyres at the time, but it seems that the foam-producing insert failed to react properly.
The last two stages of the day were cancelled, partly due to rain damage and partly, for the second of the two at least, because some leading drivers felt that it was too fast and made their views known to the organisers. So it was then straight to Rotorua where the unfortunate Bruno Thiry found himself quite unwittingly on the retirement list. After service before the overnight closed park, his Escort's engine refused to start and it was a full 20 minutes before the fault was traced to an obscure but vital computer chip which had failed. When the engine finally fired up, it ran perfectly, but the damage had been done and Thiry was beyond his maximum lateness.
The second of Saturday's slippery stages was the infamous Motu Road, just south of the Bay of Plenty. Later in the day it was run in the reverse direction, but divided into two, practice for the two-way use being rendered more or less safe by the recce restrictions which allowed only certain stages to be recced on certain days.
The full 28 or so miles of Motu Road is partly downhill and partly uphill. It is notoriously unforgiving of those who take risks, although McRae, with two New Zealand wins already under his belt, is well known for his mastery of this difficult stage. As forecast, he was fastest, despite the loss of his turbocharger cooling water, and he emerged with a time of 38m 09s, a full 355 less than that of Auriol. Delecour followed after another three seconds, but none could match the blistering pace of the Scottish Subaru driver.
Schwarz experienced understeer, whilst both Delecour and Eriksson spun. For Burns it was the end of a fine drive. He hit a watersplash rather hard, dislodging his radiator and knocking off the drive belt to both alternator and power steering pump. Eventually the battery went dead and the car spluttered to a stop with nine miles to go.
Schwarz also lost his alternator drive belt later, but he managed to struggle to his next service point for a replacement. Delecour lost between two and three minutes after hitting a rock, puncturing his left rear tyre and having the suspension on that corner collapse. But he managed to struggle on and have the damage put right.
The downhill part of the Motu Road re-run was cancelled, partly because it was considered too slippery and partly because it had been considerably cut up by the first running. However, the uphill part, which formed the next stage, was run. At the end of the day, McRae had increased his lead over Auriol to just over a minute, but behind him were three Toyota crews, all as eager as a pack of African wild dogs to run down the fleet Subaru as though it were a gazelle. McRae eased up fractionally, but he and Ringer kept close eyes on the clock and made quite sure the Toyotas did not get uncomfortably close In fifth place after the third day was Eriksson. whilst Ordynski's nominated Group N car was trailing a little but destined to score valuable extra points for the team, though none (or the driver himself as he was outside the top 10. Among makes, nominated crews may score team points if they finish in the first 15, the scores of the top two cars of each make being taken into account.
The Sunday morning restart was again at 6am, and this time there was more than a little frost on the road surfaces. New Zealand's North Island is considerable less south of the Equator than Great Britain is to the north of it, but in wintertime, as it is in July, frost and even snow can appear.
Japanese driver Taguchi, partnered by Australia's Fred Gocentas, felt like kicking himself when he arrived at the closed park. He had left his car key in his hotel and lost nine minutes collecting it. There is a lot to be said for all team members carrying car keys. Indeed, in the old Datsun team all competing cars and service vehicles were fitted with the same locks so that the same key would open and start each vehicle in the team. Every member of the team had to carry a key and much heartache was prevented by that simple ploy.
Four stages from the end Eriksson lost some time after he spun and, facing the opposite direction, was obliged to retrace his steps for about 50 yards before he could turn around.
Fujimoto dropped right out of the top 10 when he went off the road and took something approaching 20 minutes to regain it. He finished 27th overall.
As the day progressed, McRae became more and more contented with the fairly safe assumption that he was about to score his third New Zealand win in succession. But he is very much a realist and will not unwind completely until his car is safely on the finish ramp.
McRae's victory puts him up to fourth place in the World Rally Championship for Drivers. However, Auriol's second place elevated him to the lead, just one point ahead of Sainz and Kankkunen who share second place. Among the makes, Toyota, by its second and third places, goes to the head of its table whilst Subaru, notwithstanding first and seventh places, remains in third place. six points behind Mitsubishi and 24 ahead of Ford. G P