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.