Sunday, 8 November 2009

Ford versus Fiat 1976 - 1981

1982 marked a change in rallying for several reasons. One was the introduction of Group B, but another was that the battle between the Fiat 131 Abarth and the Ford Escort RS, which had raged for the previous four years, was finally over.

It had been a titanic struggle between two great teams. Fiat, a massive corporate organisation awash with sponsorship money, Ford, always appearing to be a day late and a dollar short. The Italian mechanics could sometimes seem anxious and disorganised, but were in fact thoroughly professional and willing to improvise. The British mechanics by contrast were usually dirty and dishevelled, but their machinery was always meticulously turned out.

Their cars were superficially similar. Both were front engine, rear drive three box shapes loosely based on standard saloons. The Fiat was bigger, and with its squared off arches a bit weirder. Both cars were highly engineered. The Escort had the more powerful engine, but also the simpler suspension. The Fiat therefore could boast better traction whilst the Escort was quicker to change direct. Both were tough, although the Fiat needed lots of extra reinforcement to survive rough rallies whilst the Escort turned out to have an Achilles heal in its head gasket.

Then there were the drivers. Fiat had the flamboyant Alen, who in service areas would appear to be either about to have a nervous breakdown or kill someone, the amiable German Walter Rohrl and a whole galaxy of occasional drivers, hired and fired depending on the conditions.

Ford had a much smaller number of top drivers; the larger-than-like Waldegard, the laid back Roger Clark, the earnest Ari Vatanen (they were space, grace and pace someone once quipped) and Finnish loose surface ace Hannu Mikkola.

Fiat had replaced the 124 Abarth with the 131 in 1976. The car did not have a promising start, only finishing one WRC event, but that rally (the 1000 Lakes) it won outright. The Escort had first appeared on the scene at the end of the previous year in the form of the RS1800. In 1977, 78 and 79 both cars were entered by Works teams on World Rallies. At the end of 1979 Ford dropped out to build a new Escort, but they handed over all the Works bits, and the Works drivers, to David Sutton who continued to campaign them for the next two years. With the arrival of the Lancia Rally in 1982 Turin finally pensioned off the 131 whilst David Sutton moved on to preparing Quattros. The battle was finally over.

The Escort had been homologated at the end of 1975 as the RS1800 and had shown its pace by winning the RAC rally. The Fiat was homologated at the start of 1976.

The two cars first met on a World Rally in that years Moroccan Rally. Alas it was an anti-climax. Both Ford's blew their engines whilst the Fiats had almost everything except the engine break. Two retired whilst Alen survived to finish twelfth. The 1000 Lakes two months later was rather more exciting. The spoils went to Alen in the Fiat. Vatanen stuffed his Works Escort into a tree, Makinen was off the pace in fourth, but clinging on behind Alen was Penti Airikkala in an Escort. A private Escort. Not for the last time a private Escort had beaten the works cars.

Ford again won the RAC that year, but 1976 was really just curtain raiser for the main event the next year. 1977 was to be the all out battle royal between the teams. Lancia won the Monte Carlo and Saab the Swedish, but after that no other team got a look in. Fiat eventually won the title on the Tour de Corse. They had outspent Ford by a considerable margin, but in the end it had gone down to the wire.

1978 looked like more of the same, but Ford quickly got cold feet an then lost most their program to industrial action.

In 1979 they came back booted and suited with a specialist tarmac Escort for the Monte. Engine and axle locations were moved to the extent that the car almost became mid-engined and the BDA was tuned to give more power than a Stratos. Victory was denied Ford by the ever friendly French spectators who placed rocks on the road, but it was a private Stratos that won, not a Fiat. Turin had lost on a rally they consider their own and Ford were on a roll. They lost the Swedish to a Saab, but that was enough for Fiat who threw in the towel and played truant for the rest of the season. Ford won the Makes championship and Bjorn Waldegard became the first ever Drivers champion.

For 1980 David Sutton took over and whilst their was nothing wrong with his cars, the drivers didn't have a good year and Fiat took both titles. In 1981 though Ari Vatanen finally became the driver everyone had always hoped he would be and became Drivers champion. Fiat won their last World Rally in Portugal, whilst in Greece and Finland it was Vatanen and Ford first with Alen and Fiat second. Vatanen also won in Brazil, which only counted for the Driver's championship, and that was that. Battle over.

Between them these two cars pretty much dominated for half a decade, but before we tally up the final score, it's interesting to consider the rallies they didn't manage to win.

The Escort never won the Monte Carlo, but that wasn't for want of trying. In 1979 Ford got first Mikkola and then Waldegard into the lead, only to have them delayed by first French officials and then French spectators respectively.

Fiat, unlike Ford, never managed to break the Saab stranglehold on the Swedish and they only made a single attempt on the Safari where, predictably, they suffered terrible disasters.

The Escorts failed to make a serious effort in Sanremo in '75 after the Dunlop tire lorry broke down on the way there, and Fiat defeated them on both Italian and Corsican tarmac in '77. They planned revenge the next year but the workers went on strike instead.

Alen meanwhile made competitive times in the 131 on 1976 RAC, but the big car was never suited to the British secret stages and by the end Alen was entering in a Stratos instead.

Apart from that both cars more or less won everything worth winning.

The final scored was 18 WRC victories to Fiat and 17 to Ford, three Makes Championships to Fiat and one to Ford, one Drivers Championship to Fiat but two to Ford. Had the World Championship for Drivers started before 1979 each team would have racked up an extra title: Bjorn Waldegard for Ford in 1977 and Markku Alen for Fiat in 1978.

So Fiat would appear to have ended slightly ahead, but only slightly, and they did spend a lot more money on the project than Ford. However in one key respect Ford could claim the Escort was the winner. With the end of the factory team, the 131 Abarth pretty quickly disappeared. The specialist Abarth parts it needed were never made in large numbers and only the Works team and favoured privateers could get them.

Probably no more than 50 Abarth 131s ever entered rallies.

The Escort meanwhile has gone on to become the most ubiquitous rally car of all time. Ford had always been generous to private entrants, and even before the Works team was wound up RS parts were being officially and unofficially knocked out by a cottage industry of car tuners. Even now, 30 years since the car was officially retired, you can still build an authentic Escort RS yourself from any Mark Two shell. There's even a company that will build you a replica of the hottest Escort RS of all, the 1979 tarmac specials.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Obituary: Pentti Airikkala

Pentti Airikkala, who died last month after battling illness for several years, was one of the most sideways of the Flying Finns and the one who loved this country the most.

He burst onto the scene in 1976, tackling the British Rally Championship in an outdated Mark One Escort and serious discomforting old stagers like Roger Clark. He was able to upgrade to an RS1800 for the RAC Rally and put in a barnstorming performance to lead the rally before mechanical problems and eventual disqualification.

He then signed for Vauxhall to pilot their new 'Escort beater' the Chevette 2300HS. The project never really got going properly and despite some good performances his only success was to be crowned the 1979 British Open Rally Champion. 1980 promised the improved Chevette HSR and a shot at the European crown, but unfortunately the money ran out and he only ended up competing in Scandinavian rounds.

The rest of the 1980s saw Airikkala competing in various cars in Britain, Sweden and Finland. However as his star sank the drives became harder to find and by 1988 he was left to fund his own way in the British Open in a Mitsubishi Starion Turbo. Despite not having the most competitive car he almost won the series.

Back to being a driver the team managers wanted to know again he was given a drive in a Group N Mitsubishi Galant for the next Open. Up against a young Colin McRae in a Cossie he nursed the heavy car to the Group N title- being careful not to use the brakes in the last mile so he could be sure of stopping at the end of the stage.

His reward for this was a full blown Group A Galant for the RAC, the rally he'd been leading 13 years earlier. Lancia, who'd dominated the season, were saving their Lira and staying away so the Japanese teams, Mitsubishi and Toyota, who were the favourites.

Despite being second fiddle to Ari Vatanen, it was Airikkala who was clearly the quicker driver. The Toyota Celica GT-fours made the early running, but once Dai Llewellin and Yuha Kankunen had hit trouble Airikkala found himself second to their new Spanish hot shot Carlos Sainz.

Both drivers were looking for their first WRC win and the last day began with the young Spaniard over a minute ahead of the old stager. Airikkala had his suspension lowered for the fast Yorkshire stages and started reeling the Toyota in, but not fast enough. I was spectating in the Woodyard at Dalby when the drama happened. On the first pass through Airikkala looked like he'd taken a couple of seconds out of Sainz's lead, but not enough to win. The second time the cars came through though something was clearly wrong with the Toyota. A half shaft had broken and it was Airikkala who took the win, at 44 years old the third oldest driver to win a WRC round.

His last season was spent thrashing the ungainly Sapphire Cosworth 4X4 on a few international rallies. He then retired to run his well respected driving school, whose pupils included the World Champions Colin McRae and Richard Burns.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1982

1982, and Audi look set to dominate the world of rallying. The team have learnt from the teething troubles of last year and with no other competitive four wheel drive cars on the horizon the predominantly loose surface WCR looks to be theirs. The Manufacturers crown is in the bag, the only question is who will lift the Drivers title. Will it be flying Finn Mikkola or will the macho world of rallying have to wake up to a lady champion in the shapely form of Michelle Mouton, last year's Sanremo winner.

The championship itself moved on in two ways. Firstly there were new rules: Group B had arrived. For the Monte Carlo these were just old Group 4 cars with new homologations, but exciting things were on the way. Also however, for the first time, a team actually entered every round of the championship. No single driver started every event - that was not humanly possible with the length of rallies in those days, but Opel were there at every round.

Opel's Ascona may have been an old fashioned two wheel drive model in its third season, but they now had Rothmans sponsorship and the former World Champion Walter Rohrl. Having been forced to take a sabbatical in 1981 due to an excess of honesty with Mercedes, he was now trying another German team.

The partnership immediately brought success. The previous year on the Monte Mikkola's Audi had been pulling away from the field at a minute a stage and they started as firm favourites to win this year. However they hadn't counted on Rohrl and his secret weapon - his handbrake. The Quattro's primitive four wheel drive system with it's locked central differential didn't allow handbrake turns. Added to the Quattro's hammer like weight distribution it meant the Audi was unable to change direction quickly if it hit a patch of ice. Rohrl beat Mikkola by a comfortable margin whilst Mouton lacking a working handbrake, and Rohrl's superhuman reflexes, hit a house.

Sweden was Quattro country but it was local boy Stig Blomqvist who won, demonstrating how the skills he had learnt hustling bulky Saabs down the stages could be used to make the Quattro dance. Mouton won on the gravel of Portugal and again in the dust of the Acropolis. Mehta's Datsun (now called a Nissan) again won on the Safari whilst in New Zealand Toyota stopped being the bridesmaid and scored a one-two with the Celica after the Quattros failed.

Corsica meanwhile had proved the most technically interesting rally of the year with the appearance of not only Bernard Daniche in a 400 bhp plus BMW M1, but the new Group B Lancia 037 Rally. The rally itself turned into a thrilling dice between Ragnottis little Renault 5 Turbo, which liked the tighter stages, and Andruet's big Ferrari 308GTB, which preferred the faster ones, with victory eventually going to the more nimble Renault. The Lancias had handled diabolically and Attilio Bettega was hospitalised after a serious accident. Group B had arrived and had shown how exciting, and dangerous, it was going to be.

Rohrl meanwhile had had a steady season after the Monte finishing best non-Scandinavian in Sweden, best non-Nissan on the Safari, best conventional car in Corsica, best non-Audi in Greece and best non-Toyata in New Zealand. He'd suffered high speed steering failure in Portugal and missed Finland. The result was Opel led Audi 88 points to 58 in the Manufacturers series whilst Rohrl led Mouton 84 points to 52 in the Drivers.

The round in Argentina was cancelled due to some unpleasantness on the Falkland Islands so there were five rallies left in the Drivers championship and four in the Makes. Superficially things looked good for the Rothmans team, but there were problems. Firstly all the remaining rounds were wholly or predominantly on gravel. Secondly the series had a 'best seven' rule which meant only the top seven results counted towards the final tally so steady performances weren't going to be enough, Opel had to win something.

The next round was Brazil and things started to look ominous for Rothmans. Rohrl said he's never driven harder on a gravel rally. Certainly he'd never driven harder and lost and it was victory for Mouton and Audi. Rohrl skipped the 1000 Lakes to practice for Italy. Victory went to Mikkola's Quattro but crucially Mouton ended up on her roof and so she didn't score either.

Sanremo was next, a mixed tarmac and gravel event. The first days stages were on tarmac and the Audis found themselves behind a Ferrari and Alen who was flying in an Evolution 037. Once on the gravel though the Audi hordes, which includes Blomqvist in his Swedish Quattro, Harold Demuth in his German one and local boy Michele Cinotto in another, started to blitz the opposition. The rally returned to tarmac but still as we went into the last night, Audis held the top four positions with Rohrl down in seventh. That last night was to be one to remember. Rohrl overhauled first Demuth, then Cinotto and then crucially Mouton. Team mate Toivonen had a puncture and so Rohrl passed him too to finish third. Blomqvist, who was rapidly proving to be the fastest Quattro driver of all, won, but Opel had done enough to keep both championships alive.

The series then moved to the forests of West Africa, where the Ivory Coast rally looked like being interesting for the first time in its short and troubled history. Audi had never been to Africa, but they learnt fast and soon Mouton was leading with Mikkola, who had team engineer Roland Gumbert to act as 'flying mechanic', second. But Mikkola hit trouble and soon Rohrl was snapping at Mouton's heals. Victory would have left Mouton two points behind Rohrl with only the RAC to go.

At 4AM on Monday 1 November the rally restarted for a final seven hour blast to the finish. Mouton was 18 minutes ahead, but that lead was immediately wiped out when the Quattro wouldn't start. The French lady eventually got going but fog had descended and she left the road. She got going again but her co-driver had lost the pace notes and she had to drive blind - not easy in fog, especially as African roads then weren't actually closed and you could (and did) meet traffic coming the other way. It was a brave drive, but too much for her. A confusingly marked crossroads did for her and the car was too badly damaged to continue. Rohrl won and collected the Drivers Championship. Next year he had signed for Lancia so on the eve of the RAC Opel rewarded him for his efforts by giving him the sack.

The RAC went to Mikkola's Quattro. Toivonen tried hard for Opel but could only manage third, giving Audi the Manufacturers crown. For a while though the Audis were headed by Alen in his little Lancia. The Italians were clearly planning to take the battle to the Germans for 1983.

Monday, 15 June 2009

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1981

What I've noticed doing these blogs is that some years are a lot more interesting in hindsight than they were at the time.

1981 is a case in point. At the time it seemed a real low point in the series. The Ford-Fiat battles were a thing of the past and the recession, and uncertainty over the future of the rules, kept the big teams away. As a result the World Champion Driver was in a private car and the World Champion Manufacturer achieved the title with probably the lowest ever budget.

As well as the major teams, the defending champion was also missing. Walter Rohrl was to have driven for Mercedes, a team with plenty of money but rather unrealistic hopes. Their big cars had proved unwieldy in Europe and less reliable than the simpler Datsun's in Africa. In due course their plans were to use a turbo charged version of the new 190 for rallying. Meanwhile they hoped that the World Champion would show them how to make their ponderous 450s winners.

A less honest man than Rohrl might have pocketed the cash and let them keep their delusions. Instead Rohrl told them bluntly that with a lot of work and a bit of luck fifth on the Monte might be achievable. Mercedes weren't impressed and immediately cancelled their rallying program and sacked Rohrl.

That certainly put a bit of a damper on 1981. However with hindsight it actually was an interesting year. There were first victories for the Audi Quattro and Renault 5 Turbo, and last ever victories for the Fiat 131 Abarth, Ford Escort Mark II and Lancia Stratos - 5, 6 and 7 years after their respective debuts.

The car of the year was undoubtedly the Quattro. An awesome start on the Monte Carlo, where Mikkola was fastest on one stage by a minute and ten seconds, overtaking Darniche's Stratos on the way, was followed by every conceivable disaster. Accidents, mechanical failure, conflagration and disqualification followed the cars around the world. But there was also awesome loose surface performance and three unequivocal victories.

The Quattro was to remain the only four wheel drive, turbo charged car for the next three and a half years. Two wheel drive turbo charged cars though were starting to be two a penny. The Datsun Bluebird Turbo and the Mitsubishi Lancer Turbo were underdeveloped cars, but both showed how forced induction could give a cheap and cheerful saloon the power of a Group 4 Escort, without the expense of high revving, multi-valve engines.

But whilst these new arrivals appeared on the scene, for the pioneers of blown rally cars the end was nigh. Saab bowed out during course of the year, the end of the road for one of the great teams of rallying. Unwilling to build a homologation 'special' and unable to make the big 99 fast or reliable they called it a day.

With all these turbos on the scene the surprise was that the most powerful cars of the year were actually normally aspirated - the big Dodge Ramchargers that appeared on the Safari. A 440bhp rally car was remarkable in the early eighties. An American team that thought it could actually win was even more of an eye opener. They bombed hopelessly of course, but they were fun.

Turbocharging and four wheel drive were not the only change to the orthodoxy in 1981. The old order was also shaken by the result of the Sanremo rally. That a Quattro had won was by not that remarkable. What was of note though was that the driver wasn't Mikkloa, the winner in Sweden, but the French lady Michelle Mouton. Mouton was not the first woman to win a major rally - Pat Moss had bagged a fair few in the sixties, but she was the first to win a round of the World Rally Championship. Sadly, although Mouton was to go on to win more rallies, there have been no more lady winners.

The winning manufacturer though was actually Talbot. A company more infamous for its Alpine model, they had somehow turned their Sunbeam hatchback into an Escort beater with a little help from Lotus and Des O'Dell. Toivonen had shown the potential on the 1980 RAC, although he was too inconsistent in 1981. Instead a steady season by France's Guy Frequline saw victory in Argentina, and good enough results elsewhere to earn the Manufacturers crown for the team.

Going into the last round Frequelien also had hopes of taking the Drivers title too. He had had a tortoise and hare battle all year with Ari Vatanen in the David Sutton prepared, Rothman's sponsored Escort. Vatanen had won three times, but also had a series of major accidents which had set back his progress. Few people who had seen Vatanen's performance in the British forests, where he had won the 1976 and 1980 Open championships, doubted he had pace, but he had always seemed a bit too much of a Mercurial talent to lift the world crown.

His progress in 1981 followed his old form. If he didn't stuff the car into the scenery he either won or was only beaten by a Quattro. In the Ivory Coast (pictured above) he had a little disagreement with a fish lorry but still finished the rally. He was last, a day and eight hours behind Salonen's winning Datsun, but he did finish.

1981 was both the end of one era and the being of another. Markku Alen borrowed a Stratos from somewhere, probably a museum, to give the car its last works outing. This really was the final swansong for rallying's first supercar. The rally was won by Mikkola's Quattro, a car that was to dominate the early eighties as thoroughly as the Stratos dominated the mid seventies. And just as the Stratos had announced its arrived by seeing off the Renault Alpines on the Monte, Mikkola's Quattro ended the season by beating the Ford Escort RS fair and square on its home territory.

Vatanen ended the season in World Champion style, flinging his Escort through the forests as only he knew how, approaching corners with a Scandinavian flick, BDA engine rasping and roaring and rear end wagging as he accelerated away. However by the end of the rally he was a full eleven minutes behind Mikkola in the whispering Quattro, a car that braked in a straight line, crawled round the corners and then accelerated away with unbelievable pace.

It was new, it was a winner, but it certainly wasn't exciting.

Monday, 8 June 2009

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1980

Having just crowned its first World Champion rallying entered the 1980s on a high. Alas, it was to be a false dawn and the next two seasons, although interesting in their own way, were a bit of a disappointment.

Firstly the Fiat/Ford rivalry appeared to be over for the time being: a new front wheel drive Escort had been launched and so Boreham retired from competition and went away to devise a new rear wheel drive, turbocharged device based on the new Mark three bodyshell.

Secondly the end was now nigh for the old Groups 1 to 4, set to be replaced in 1982 by the news Groups A and B (no group N yet). This meant that most manufacturers decided to keep their powder dry and wait to see ow things went. The exception though were Renault and Audi. The French team unleashed its pocket rocket 5 Turbo on the Tour de France and in Corsica it looked like it was going to win by a country mile before mechanical gremlins handed the victory to a geriatric Porsche. Audi meanwhile were planning a quiet revolution, but at this stage no one took them seriously.

On the plus side the cars were looking better and rallying was promoting itself better. Rothmans, who were running Escorts prepared by David Sutton had inherited Ari Vatanen and Hannu Mikkola and fielded aggressively striped cars and an aggressive marketing campaign. Unfortunately an excess of aggression by their drivers limited their success - in Portugal their cars actually ended up piled on top of each other when both left the road in the same spot.

Fiat had resprayed the 131 in a similarly rakish manner and the old car didn't let them down again. Rohrl's victory on the Monte, the first by a conventional car for as long as anyone can could remember, set them off in grand style. Rohrl then convincingly blew his team mate Alen away again in Portugal and suddenly Fiat, who had only been aiming for a few cameo appearances during the season, were suddenly groping around for enough lira to make a championship bid. They eventually made it look easy, but it was a fairly shoe string affair.

A new round for the year was Argentina. The rally was a worthy successor to the great road races of the fifties in which Fangio had first made his name. Nobody knew whether it would be an Africa-style endurance rally or a European type sprint event, so the entry was fairly varied. The big Peugeot's and Mercedes looked great in their slick tired for the long fast tarmac stages, but the fast stages shredded their tires and the sprint cars dominated with Rohrl taking the honours.

Alen showed he was still the top Finn by taking victory on the 1000 lakes, but industrial action meant Rohrl had to tackle the gravel stages of the Sanremo in a tarmac car with no under body protection and extremely minimalist service back up in New Zealand saw a cautious Rohrl beaten into second by Salonen's Group 2 Datsun. The title was wrapped up by another cautious drive in Corsica Fiat retired bankrupt and missed the RAC completely for the first time ever.

Apart from the Rothmans Fords the only sustained opposition was from Opel with their new Ascona 400, who took the Swedish and showed promising form on the RAC, Talbot who fielded Group 2 Sunbeam Lotuses for Guy Frequline and Henri Toivonen, and Mercedes. The Germans were taking their big cars out of Africa for the first time but the results were disappointing.

Talbot meanwhile had a steady season until the last round where a mistake by Mikkola, and Michelin tires, put young Henri in front of the Escort. Toivonen inherited the lead after Kullang's own Michelin's let him down and Waldegaard's Toyota lost its oil, but once in front had then showed the pace that was to make him famous in his short career to keep the little Sunbeam in front. Both Mikkola and the Escort were considered unbeatable in the British forests and so this was a revelation and Toivonen brought the blue and white car home first to make him the youngest ever WRC winner and to end Ford's seven year domination of the event.

Elsewhere there were signs that the old order was changing. Darniche's Stratos was beaten into second on the Monte, Blomqvist's Saab likewise in Sweden whilst the might of Mercedes lost to Datsun on the Safari. But the real revolution was still waiting in Stuttgart. When Hannu Mikkola first told people he'd signed for Audi they couldn't have been more amazed if he'd said Trabant. However when a Quattro used as the course opening car on the French 1000 Pistes rally set times that would have seen it win by several minutes if it had been allowed to enter, people started to take notice.

But the Quattro revolution was for next year. 1980 belonged to a German driver not a German car: Walter Rohrl, the laid back German who never quite fitted in at Fiat. His debut in a 131 had seen him leave the road at high speed in a tarmac car with only half a roll cage. He had a lucky escape and the Italian's laid back approach to driver safety was always something that concerned him. The Sebastian Loeb of his era, Rohrl would drive the stages in his head the night before a rally, checking his times on a stop watch. Blessed with superhuman reactions, he would have his cars set up to understeer like racing cars, relying on the handbrake and his reflexes to get him out of trouble.

But whilst it was Germany's year, it was two young Finns who were attracting the attention as the season ended. Toivonen was the talk of the town, but his talent was to prove somewhat Mercurial. Ari Vatanen on the other hand was a driver who started his career driving at 110% and slowly crashed his way down to a level where he could actually finish a rally. In 1980 he collected his second British Open Championship, but he also won his first World Rally in Greece. His team mate Mikkola had once said that when Vatanen starts winning nothing would stop him. In 1981 we'd find out if that was true.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1979

Ford versus Fiat take three, and this time the blue oval is out for revenge.

Ford lost in '77 mainly through poor tarmac performance and so spent '78 putting together the most awesome tarmac Escort ever. Industrial action had stopped them trying it out in Corsica and Sanremo, so it was first unveiled on the 1979 Monte Carlo.

Group 4 rules were fairly flexible about such things as suspension mounting points and Ford had bent the rules as much as they dared putting their new car together. What exactly they did is still a little controversial but it appears they moved the rear axle several inches forwards and the engine a few inches back whilst shifting everything they could into the boot. The result was a car that has the weight distribution of something mid engined like a Stratos.

Boreham had also rung some more power out of the BDA engine, so the car may have had more power than a Stratos too. Fitted with extra wide arches and piloted by Waldegard and Mikkola, it looked like the team was going to do what no British team had done since the minis in sixties. The question was though, was it going to be a rerun of 1967 - or of 1966.

Fiat were back hopeful that the fiasco of the previous year would not be repeated. Alen and Rohrl had been joined by previous winner Andruet and the 131 was supreme on pace noted tarmac, or so they thought.

Instead the Escorts, led by a charging Mikkola, started to walk off with the event.

But the French were not going to let the British team have it their own way. First the local police reported Mikkola for dangerous overtaking. No rally officials had witnessed the incident but never-the-less the rally authorities hit Mikkola with a five minute penalty, which cost him the lead. Waldegard then took over and looked set for victory when, as first car on the road on the penultimate stage, he came round the corner and found spectators had put rocks on the road. He estimated he lost about half a minute moving them.

The benefactor of this sabotage, save to say, was a Frenchman. Darniche in his private Stratos had been having a dreadful rally until he decided on the last night to throw caution to the wind. Making some risky tire choices he drove in uncharacteristically reckless fashion but somehow managed to stay on the road and was gaining on Waldegarde at about 3 seconds a mile.

He entered the last stage only 15 seconds behind the Ford, but thanks to the French spectators he came out 6 seconds ahead to give the old Stratos an unlikely fourth Monte victory.

Fiat were well and truly beaten, and as well as loosing the Group 4 battle they also lost a Group 2 battle between Ford's new Fiesta and Fiat's Ritmo (known to us Brits as the Strada). The Fiesta effort was a serious business, with works drivers Clark and Vatanen driving performance versions of the hatchback which eventually formed the basis of the XR2. Off stage delays though eventually gave the Group 2 win to Ragnotti's pocket rocket Renault 5 Alpine.

Fiat sent a single car to Sweden where, in more familiar Ford territory, they were again shown a clean pair of heels. Young Ari Vatanen looked like taking a maiden victory until the old Escort head gasket problem reappeared, and so instead the winner was once again Stig Blomqvist, this time in the whispering Saab 99 Turbo, the first victory for a turbo rally car. That man Waldegard was second again.

Fiat had an unsuccessful crack at the Safari and then threw in the towel. That pretty much took the wind out of the series. The only threats the Ford team faced for the rest of the year were Darniche in the fast but fragile Stratos and Timo Salonen in the steady and reliable Group 2 Datsun.

Darniche managed to get his nose in front in Portugal and Greece only to have the car fall apart on him, although he did manage to win in Corsica against minimal opposition. Salonen managed a series of steady performances but never looked to be challenging for outright victory. A slight shadow fell over the team in New Zealand where the cars were hastily withdrawn whilst Salonen was a comfortable second. Later it was confessed they had been running over sized valves in a futile attempt to catch the Fords.

With the Makes battle pretty much in the bag attention turned to the inaugural World Rally Championship for Drivers. Top Ford men Waldegard and Mikkola were to be head to head all season but in an unusual twist both men were not only contracted to Ford but Mercedes, so for the endurance rounds they swapped their Rothmans Escorts for big silver Mercedes and continued their duel across Africa.

Mercedes arrived on the WCR in typically understated fashion. After winning a marathon in South America in 1978 (and displaying the still dirty cars at the Motor Show) they attacked the African events of 1979 with a logistics back up that would not have disgraced one of Rommel's Panzer Divisions. However local knowledge, and a bit of luck, saw Safari victory go to Shekhar Mehta and his tough old Datsun 160J.

In the Ivory Coast though Mercedes were racing only themselves. The Drivers title though was still up for grabs. Waldegard notvhed up a third second place in Portugal, but finally tasted the champagne in Greece. But Mikkola was catching up with wins in Portugal, New Zealand, Quebec and on the RAC.

Mikkola eventually brought his Mercedes home first, but Waldegard held on for second which was enough to give him the title. It seemed a little unfair that with four victories to his rival's two Mikkola should be defeated, but Waldegard was possibly the greatest all rounder that rallying has ever seen, able to win on tarmac, gravel or snow, in Europe or in Africa, and he was a worthy champion.

Fiat had been well and blown into the weeds. Alen had driven a magnificent rally on the 1000 Lakes to prove that on home soil he was still the top Finn, but the only other outing of the team was in Sanremo where they were beaten by a private Stratos - giving the venerable car, officially retired last year, its third victory of the year.

It had been a triumphant year for Ford, but it was the swansong for the Boreham team's Escorts. The old rear wheel drive car was being replaced by by a front wheel drive model and so the old RS was being retired.

Old many of the cars indeed were, at least according to their number plates. Ford had not actually been able to register a new chassis since 1976 which meant that for the RAC the works cars needed MOTs. However as Ford regarded body shells as service items there wasn't a lot original in these machines.

Boreham had lots of bits left over though, and they were given to David Sutton to play with. We were going to see a lot more of the old Escort yet.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1978

In 1977 the Fiat juggernaut had beaten Ford, but it had been a close run thing and 1978 looked like it was going to be the rematch.

Ford sat out the Monte again, but in the end the French defeated Fiat more comprehensively than they could ever have hoped to.

The victor was Jean Pierre Nicholas, the man who had nearly spoilt their championship in Corsica last year. Lacking a works drive he had, with a little help from his friends, put a private entry together in an old Porsche 911 Carrera and slithered his way through the snow to a popular triumph.

Fiat's humiliation didn't end there though as Walter Rohrl in the leading works car was also beaten by Jean Ragnotti and Guy Frequelin in their little Group 2 Renault 5 Alpines. It certainly didn't help when Verini spun on the snowy Col du Corobin and blocked the stage for his team mates, but not for the little Renaults who were able to squeeze past his stricken car. Rohrl was rather more amused by this than the Fiat management.

Ford started their challenge in Sweden, where they managed a one-two at Fiat's expense. The drive of the rally though was by lifelong Saab man Stig Blomqvist who, in a one-off drive for Lancia, quickly tamed the Stratos to set a string of fastest times before being delayed. Neither team went to the Safari and battle was rejoined in Portugal. The lead changed 12 times before Markku Alen snatched victory from Hannu Mikkola on the last stage after the Ford punctured.

Exciting stuff then, but Portugal turned out to be the end of the fun. Ford had broken the bank chasing Fiat last year and there was no money left to pursue them any further. Rohrl won in Greece at a canter and when the Ford's broke down in Finland the championship was gifted to Fiat. Boreham had planned to return for the last tarmac rounds to gain some experience for next year, but industrial action put paid to that plan.

Instead Fiat's nearest rival were Opel, whose Kadett GT/E scooped up most of the Group 1 and 2 victories, and Porsche who had a reasonable year thanks to a solitary works entry in the Safari and a string of good performances by privateers. In the endurance rounds Nicholas showed his versatility by winning with the big Peugeot 504 V6, whilst in the tarmac rounds the Italians were left to fight amongst themselves.

This was the Lancia Stratos's last year as a works rally car. No development work had been done on the car for several years and as its 24 valve head had just been banned the car was actually slower now than the version that had debuted in 1974. Munari had lost the chance to make it four Monte's in a row when his engine gave out, but in the European championship Tony Carrello was cleaning up whilst Walter Rohrl had a car for the German national championship. For Sanremo everyone swapped cars as Rohrl and Munari both entered 131s, and then threw them into the scenery, whilst Alen took Rohrl's Stratos and won.

In Corsica it was the French Fiat's against the Italian Fiat's, with Darniche's works car taking the honours. British Leyland made a rare venture into Europe with the TR7, now in red and with a V8 engine. Once again it was a disaster, but not of their making. Someone had sabotaged the cars in the parc ferme and Pond found himself starting the stage with no gearbox oil. French nationalist were probably to blame, but suspiciously Fiat chose to only book their cars in at the last minute. Almost as suspicious was the six minute delay suffered by Andruet's leading 131. The usually super efficient Fiat mechanics fluffed a gearbox change which fortuitously dropped Andruet's Fiat-France car behind Darniche's official entry.

The RAC was once again a Ford benefit, but industrial action made this something of a triumph over the odds. In the end the cars were prepared by local dealer teams, using parts smuggled out of Boreham whilst pickets looked the other way. The best non-Ford was Pond who managed fourth in the burbling red TR7. Two Stratoses entered for what was to be their last works outing, but both failed. The Stratos story was over - or so we thought at the time.

Their was still no world championship for drivers, but the FIA cup was a dry run for an inaugural championship next year. Markku Alen won thanks to his triumphs in Portugal, Finland and Italy. He won twice in Italy, the Sanremo and the Giro d'Italia, a bizarre concept where racing cars and rally cars took each other on over special stages and races. Free from normal homologation rules the event featured 400+ bhp Porsches taking on modified Group 4 rally cars in what was a foretaste of what rallying was to become in the Group B years: noisy, dangerous and very exciting.

The prize for hero of the year though goes, not to Alen, but to the Frenchman Jean-Pierre Nicholas. After his David-versus-Goliath victory on the Monte Carlo, he drove for Peugeot on the two African rounds and won both, fighting off a unique appearance by a works Porsche team on the Safari. It was a great result for the likable Frenchman who had started the year without a drive. Suddenly everyone wanted to know him again.