Of clocks and cock-ups...

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You can have the fastest, most reliable car on the rally, the most talented crew and the best driver, but if you can’t keep track of time, you can easily snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. John Davenport remembers those occasions when time stood still for no-one.

It was a warm, balmy October evening in San Remo. The participants in the 1974 San Remo Rally were stirring from their afternoon siestas and starting to get prepared for three days and nights of hard activity. For two crews, both with British co-drivers, their true awakening was yet to come.

I can still recall the leisurely way that Simo Lampinen and I got up, bathed, donned our overalls and packed our rally kit. We were looking forward to the San Remo, since after years in the trusty Lancia Fulvia we were to get the chance to launch the new, powerful Beta Coupe on its rally career. As we dressed, we turned on the TV and, behold, there was some rallying on the main programme. We assumed that it was old footage from last year’s event until the horrible truth dawned. It was live coverage. The car three in front of us was just leaving the ramp and the hotel was at least ten minutes walk from the start area. We arrived breathless, dishevelled, but with all our kit and paperwork, some four minutes after our start time. But the officials would not let us start since the rule on the San Remo in those pre-World Rally Championship days was that, if you were late, you had had it. Needless to say, Cesare Florio, the Lancia team manager, was less than impressed. We were just plain puzzled as to how the rally had started an hour early. Could it be the end of Italian summer time?

The answer was dead simple and provided by no less an authority than Henry Liddon. He too had missed the start and thus deprived the Kleber Scholarship winner, Jimmy McRae, of his prize drive. Henry subsequently discovered that the starting time given in the regulations and put up on posters all round town had been changed at the last moment and not everyone had been given the information. We might have thought that being part of the Lancia team that at least we would have been told. However, the team was accommodated in several hotels and the native runner bearing the tidings had not found our establishment.

The moral is that you can never take anything for granted where time is concerned. When it comes to calculating times and getting them right, co-drivers are paranoid to the point of insanity. Frequent re-calculations on bits of paper resemble the repetitive actions of a sufferer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. But even then they can go wrong and this most frequently occurs when dealing with corrections to road time brought about by delays. The worst such moment, since it was done in a blaze of publicity, was visited upon Terry Harryman during the 1985 Monte Carlo Rally.

The Peugeot works team under the management of Jean Todt was making its mark in the World Championship with its new 205 T16. At the end of 1984, Harryman had already won the 1000 Lakes, the San Remo and the RAC Rally sitting beside Ari Vatanen. Now they were starting the 1985 World Championship campaign for Peugeot by trying to give the marque its first ever win on the Monte Carlo Rally. After 16 stages, they were comfortably in the lead, but then, at the start of the last special stage going into the halt at Gap, there was a delay of four minutes. Between the end of the stage and the control in Gap was a short road section involving a new diversion thanks to road works. In addition, there was a service point where, in all the hurry, the car was not re-fuelled. Little wonder then that Terry had a career low and fbrgot to add in those four extra minutes to the time due at the Gap control. Consequently, he checked in four minutes early.

Even worse was the fact that early penalty is doubled. Thus the Peugeot was now penalised by eight minutes and was sufficiently far behind Walter Rohrl’s Audi Sport Quattro for the Peugeot management to be reaching for the Kleenex rather than the Bollinger. Fortunately for them, the nature of Finns and Ulstermen is not to give up on any fight. The following morning, Vatanen and Harryman got stuck in, though with more than 50 per cent of the stages already run, it did seem as if the task was impossible. They were catching the Audi and then, three stages from the end of the rally, Rohrl made the wrong tyre choice. Vatanen sailed past him to a famous victory and the first points towards Peugeot’s 1985 World Championship title. No one was more relieved than Terry Harryman.

Another less famous mistake on timing also concerns the Monte Carlo Rally but some 16 years earlier. And there is also a curious twist to this particular tale…

This was the era when the Porsche 911 had come into its own and the Alpine Renault A110 had still to get its 1600cc engine and exert the supremacy that was going to give it its first World Championship title in 1973. The rally was basically a struggle between these two teams with Ford (Jean Todt co-drove JeanFrancois Piot’s works Escort TC to fourth overall), Lancia and Renault taking a back seat. Porsche’s works team comprised Vic Elford (the winner from the previous year) Pauli Toivonen (reigning European Rally Champion), Bjorn Waldegaard, and Gerard Larrousse. The first two were lost to accidents, but in the closing stages Waldegaard led the sole surviving Alpine Renault A110 1300 ofjean Vinatier, with Larrousse close behind in third place.

All three cars picked up road penalties on that last night. Waldegaard dropped four minutes thanks to an over-long service in St Sauveur changing brake pads, while Larrousse dropped a minute on a tight section finishing at the top of Levens hillclimb. With the little Alpine A110 sandwiched between them and well behind Waldegaard on stage times, this seemed the way things were going to finish. But at the service point before the last run over the Col de Turini, the Alpine mechanics noticed that Vinatier’s fan belt was broken. Changing it cost them a minute at the start of the Turini, but they were still comfortably ahead of Larrousse. Now comes the sad bit.

In a similar fashion to Harryman all those years later, JeanFrancois Jacob failed to correct for that minute’s lateness and consequently checked in at the final control before Monte Carlo a minute early. In those days, this was not doubled, but it was enough in the final results as published to put Vinatier down to third behind Larrousse.

Now comes the twist and with it a salutary tale for all team managers and co-drivers. What Alpine should have been doing was not checking their own times — which were correct — but those of Larrousse. In those pre-computer days, some typist had copied out the results from the first half of the rally where Vinatier had led his rival by 12,859 seconds to 12,930 and incorrectly typed in the latter as 12,900 seconds. The final scores, based on the incorrect figure were given as Larrousse 21,831 and Vinatier 21,854. Add thirty seconds to that first total and Jean Vinatier would have taken second place by just seven seconds. This was not noticed until days afterwards.

The moral is that you don’t just check your own times, you have to add up the others as well. Though it is only fair to say that such errors are far less likely now that Bill Gates and Steve jobs help rally organisers with their calculations.

To complete this short collection of stories about timing, I have chosen one that shows a co-driver doing it right. As it is a personal story, it will also help to correct the impression of deep incompetence created by my first anecdote.

The Portuguese Rally started out life as the TAP Rally with the late – and great – Cesar Torres at the helm. Like most rallies of the 1960s and early ’70s, it had special stages but it also had difficult road sections and these were also timed to the second. Moreover, it had a lot of dust which meant a winning strategy was to run number one and stay there where you could see what you were doing. The rally started with a concentration run round Portugal and Spain with just a few competitive road sections at the end of it. The best performance on those sections decided the running order on the rest of the rally.

In 1970, these preliminary skirmishes took place on a dirt road up Montejunto where there were three time controls. Needless to say, all the works teams had practised this road as if there was nowhere else to drive in the rest of Portugal and Simo Lampinen and I with the Lancia Fulvia were no exception. Come the rally and we took off up there like a bat out of hell. It may have been classified as a road section but we had pace notes, crash helmets and a fierce desire to break the 1300cc Land Speed Record. We arrived at the time control and I hastened to descend and get the time card printed in the clock.

I should explain that although the road sections were, as I have said, timed to the second, you still had fifty-nine seconds of grace. If you were due at, say 16hrs 16min, you were still un-penalised up to 16hrs 16mins 59secs. Clocking in at 16 hrs 17mins 00secs would incur a one second penalty and then pro rata at a second for every second. Another point to bear in mind was that, since both sections were equally difficult, if you were nearing the end of your 59-second allowance, it might pay to wait and check in on the exact minute. You would pick up a one-second penalty, but start the next section on a whole minute, ensuring a fresh 59-second allowance.

Reaching the clock I stuffed the card in as usual and very nearly printed it without looking at the time. But old habits die hard, and I instinctively pushed the button to illuminate the readout.. I could not believe what I saw. The dam thing was a minute wrong – one minute behind official time. I cannot imagine that I have ever thought so fast, but I decided to wait there and print on the exact minute.

My reasoning went like this. If they do not correct this clock, then I will get no penalty here, and we will have set out on the next section at the beginning of a minute so that the penalty at the next control will be minimised. If they correct the clock, I will get a second’s penalty here and the penalty at the next control will still be minimised. Heads I win, tails you lose. And so it turned out. In fact, they did correct the clock so that, had I printed and gone, I would have been done for being early at the end of the first section and for being late at the end of the second. As it was we just had a single second of penalty – which turned out to be considerably less than everyone else. We started the rally the next day in first place and, I am delighted to say, finished it the same way three clays later.

Why do I keep thinking about a British Gas advertisement? Don’t you just love to be in control at the control?…

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