Sunday, 16 December 2012

The History of the British Open Rally Championship: 1984

Blomqvist had beaten the Brits handsomely in 1983, but for 1984 he was away on a campaign that would see him become World Champion in the Ivory Coast in October.

Instead, Audi sent the reigning World Champion, Hannu Mikkola, to contest the series. Also in a Quattro was Malcolm Wilson.

Wilson had been developing a new car for Ford, a rear wheel drive turbo charged Group B car using an Escort Mark Three bodyshell. Ford though had realised that you could win now without drive to all the wheels and had abandoned the project and gone back to the drawing board.

This left Wilson without a team, so he bought Stig Blomqvist's 1983 series winning machine and formed his own, learning the skills that he would use fifteen years later to run the official Ford team.

Up against Audi was the works Opel team of Jimmy McRae and Russell Brookes, using the two wheel drive Manta.

With the demise of Vauxhall that, unfortunately, was that in terms of  Works teams. Quality not quantity. Group A was also looking fairly quiet, with Per Eklund in the Toyota Corolla the only factory driver starting the series.

The series started, as usual, in a chilly Yorkshire with the event formerly known as the Mintex, but now called the National Breakdown. On the icy stages Mikkola's Quattro walked the event, but behind him in the fog McRae, Brookes and Wilson had a good tussle. McRae caught a glove in his harness on the first stage and spun, punctured in Wykham and needed an axle change, but still managed to finish ahead of Brookes. Wilson couldn't keep up with the Mantas on his Quattro debut and retired whilst lying fourth.

Group A meanwhile was not the expected walkover for Toyota. Eklund's Corolla was headed for most of the rally by Mikail Sundstrom's Sunbeam Ti. The Talbot left the road once and broke three gearboxes, the last one failing mid-stage and stranding the Finn.

However the event was overshadowed by the death of Escort driver Hafsteinn Hauksson in Dalby. Treeless Iceland's leading rally driver, he had had to overcome a phobia of driving in forests to compete in Britain, so his death was both tragic and ironic.

The rally circus next grouped at Easter for the traditional blast around the Emerald Isle, the Circuit of Ireland. Mikkola and Eklund were tacking the Safari, so German Harold Demuth took over for Audi and Juha Kankkunen - another future World Champion - sat in for Eklund. Up against the Toyota was the new Rover 3500 Group A car driven by veteran Mini and Imp man Colin Malkin. The Rover was far too big for the narrow lanes, but it offered oodles of tail out grunt and was an instant hit with the fans. The Irish petrolheads also got to gawp at Henri Toivonen in the Rothmans Porsche. The Finn was desperately unhappy in the team, but you couldn't tell from his pace.

The opening stages provided drama a plenty. Brookes suffered prop shaft failure on the first stage, McRae suffered brake problems and went into a field on stage two, Toivonen left the road on the third stage and Malkin retired on the fifth stage. The Rover had more power than the Group B Mantas and its back axle couldn't cope. By the end of the season the Rover engineers were reduced to a device to spray washing up liquid on the tires to reduce mechanical strain.

All this left McRae the surprise leader, but his car was only running on three cylinders and steaming like the Flying Scotsman and he was soon out. Demuth also suffered engine failure which left the local boys Billy Coleman and Austin McHale battling it out in their Mantas. McHale took the lead on the last day only fir his engine to go bang, leaving Coleman as the sole surviving works driver and winner by a country mile. Second was privateer Ernest Kidney and third Hot Rod World Champion Davy Evans in his first ever rally.

Normality was resumed on the Welsh. Brookes took the lead on the Epynt tarmac, but once the rally reached the forests Mikkola's Quattro took over. McRae's Manta was still causing him problems. It overheated, then wouldn't stay in gear. Trying to make up time he crashed and squashed the exhaust. He then did it again and injured his hand. He dropped to sixth but managed to climb back to fourth, behind Malcolm Wilson, helped in part by Anterio Laine's sick Quattro holding up the rest of the field.

It was the dust and midges of the Scottish next. Mikkola and the Quattro led from start to finish again, but behind him the three Brits battled it out. Wilson's Quattro was fastest, but he suffered suspension failure. Brookes then took over second, but he left the road for twelve minutes handing the runner up spot to McRae, who for once had a trouble free rally.

It was back across the Irish Sea for the Ulster Rally next. Mikkola was away in Argentina, so double World Champion Walter Rohrl drove the works Quattro, which appeared to have shrunk in the wash. This was the debut of the Audi Sport Quattro, and it blew the opposition into the weeds. Austin McHale had a major accident on the third stage, so second place ended up being contested between Brookes, McRae and Irishman Bertie Fisher.

An spot of Irish rain put Fisher off the road, and so it was Brookes and McRae scrapping for second place. Seconds separated the two Manta, but in the end McRae overshot a junction and had to concede the position to the Englishman. Just fourteen seconds separated the two Opels in the end.

The crews went into the Manx then with Mikkola on 45 points, Brookes on 44 and McRae on 42. It was all to play for.

Rothmans had intended to send Toivonen in one of their Porsches to contend the event they sponsored, but he had injured his back in the 1000 Lakes and so Kankkunen once more made an appearance in the series.  Eklund, who had walked the last three rounds in Group A now again faced opposition from the Rover Vitesse, this time driven by Tony Pond.

Brookes took an early lead and after stage four was looking reasonably comfortable. The Porsche's engine had failed and Mikkola's gearbox had jammed, leaving only McRae to beat. The Andrews Heat for Hire Manta then punctured on the next stage costing Brookes three minutes. McRae took the lead and decided attack was the best means of defence. The Scot set a series of fastest times. Brookes put his foot down to reel in the lost time, but overcooked it at the Tholt-y-will bridge and crashed out of the event.

McRae led Bertie Fisher home by more than ten minutes to take both the rally and his third championship. Third place was Tony Pond in the wheel spinning, tail out Rover.

Brookes was once again the bridesmaid, but he'd enjoyed his first year with the Opel Manta. Next year he'd be back.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The History of the British Open Rally Championship: 1983

British fans had two questions at the start of the 1983 British Open: could anything beat a Quattro in the forests, and could anyone take the title from McRae? The answer to one of these questions was yes and the other no.

There were a few changes to the field for '83.

Mikkola was absent, off to become World Champion. Instead the Quattros were to be driven by Swede Stig Blomqvist and Finn Lasse Lampi. The Stig was a rallying exile. Sweden had got so fed up of Quattros winning all their snow and gravel rallies they'd banned them, so he he'd come over here instead. The clever men in Stuttgart had also been fettling their machines, and the Quattro was no longer such a dog on tarmac.

Opel had been busy too, although problems had delayed the homologation of the Manta 400 and they'd have to start the season with the old Ascona. The new car, when it arrived, promised more power - but less driveability - and a better weight distribution thanks to an engine pushed as far back in the bonnet as it would go.

Vauxhall though were still where they were three years ago, and still using thirteen inch wheels, but at least the old Chevette HSR was reliable.

Once again it was two wheel drive versus four wheel drive. The Ulster had been added to the series, to make six rounds and the extra tarmac would help the two wheel drive cars, but a 'best five' rule would allow the temperamental Quattro a free breakdown, which could even things up.

That was about it for the top line entries, but Group A was now an interesting class. Per Eklund was now in a Group A Corolla 1600GT , and the rear wheel drive car would face opposition from Fords Escort RS1600i driven by Malcolm Wilson and Louise Aitkin. Harold Demuth's Audi 80 Quattro would eventually be homologated into Group A too, but had to start the year as a Group B car. Privateer Chris Lord in the Mazda RX7 would also be contesting this Group.
 
The opening round was once again the Mintex. It started on the Otterburn tarmac and for two stages Russell Brookes's Chevette was the leader in the fog. However once the rally hit the fast Yorkshire forests Blomqvist took the lead in the Quattro. The weather perplexed the organisers, but when the chaos was sorted out Blomqvist won comfortably from Jimmy McRae's Opel, and Eklund was a surprise third ahead of Brookes and Demuth's 80 Quattro.

A Quattro winning on gravel though was not news, however a Quattro leading on tarmac was, and that's what happened on the next round, the Circuit of Ireland. In fact Blomqvist wasn't just leading, he was walking away with the event. Nearest rival was Pentti Airikkala, who was driving by far the most interesting car to appear in the series, at least in my opinion, the Lancia 037 Rally. British fans had seen the car in the previous year's RAC - or at least most of them had, I'd been in bed with a bad cold - but this was its first appearance in Ireland.

The Easter traffic was as bad as ever, and when Blomqvists gearbox broke his service crew were stuck in it and he had to retire. This gave Airikkala the lead in the Italian supercar, but he was finding the mid-engined car tricky to handle. His first encounter with the scenery dropped him him to third, but his second put him out.


The man who inherited the lead was Russell Brookes. Three times winner McRae had had a troubled run, but he still had to hold off Irishman Bertie Fisher in another Ascona before he could claim the win. The Scot's hold on the rally had been broken and it was starting to look like it might be Russell's year.

In Group A Eklund and Wilson retired and Chris Lord managed to hold off Louise Aitkin to claim the win.

The Welsh was next, and finally Opel had the Manta 400. in due course this would become one of the best rear wheel drive rally cars ever, but on debut it understeered terribly and McRae struggled, eventually only managing sixth. This left Brookes to take on the Audis. he beat Lampi, but Blomqvist had disappeared into the distance and won by nearly eight minutes.

In Group A Eklund and Wilson battled it out, with the Toyota a comfortable winner.

The action then moved north of the border for the Scottish which, rather than being hot and dusty, was cold and wet in '83. Blomqvist cruised to an easy win, but behind him Brookes and McRae tussled for the runner up spot. The Manta was starting to work properly now and in the end it all came down to punctures. The Chevette and the Manta both punctured on stage 28. Brookes had to stop and change the wheel whilst the Opel was able to struggle to the end of the stage, which gave the Scot second.

Eklund, meanwhile, won Group A by twenty minutes as the opposition fell apart.

It was back to the black stuff again for the Ulster Rally, but any hope that this would allow the two wheel drive cars to head Blomqvist were soon dashed. The Swede was again unbeatable. McRae had a troubled rally with the Manta. At one point the heater caught fire, and on another stage he had to stop to let petrol fumes out of the car. He must have wished for his old Ascona back.

Brookes's Chevette was running fine though, although the driver had 'flu. He spun on stage 5 but only lost thirty seconds, and was hanging on in third, unable to match the pace of Irishman Bertie Fisher in his Manta. Blomqvist had transmission problems, which briefly put Fisher in the lead. Brookes's co-driver Mike Broad put in a complaint that Audi had serviced the car illegally, but it was rejected. Instead Blomqvist soon regained the lost time won the rally by over a minute.

This left Blomqvist on 60 points to 53 for Brookes. Due to the 'best five' rule, to be champion, Brookes had to win the last round outright and Blomqvist not score at all. So it was all to play for on the Rothmans Manx.

As Rothmans also sponsored the series and the Opel team, they sent along a brigade strength squad for the event, consisting of Ari Vatanen, Henri Toivonen and Jimmy McRae. These three were soon leading, with the young Finn just ahead of his older countryman. Brookes was fourth until a puncture on day two cost him two and a half minutes, and dropped him to seventh, just behind Blomqvist.

McRae ended an unhappy year when the Manta's axle gave out, elevating everyone a place. The Audi engineers then turned the Quattro's boost up to eleven and Blomqvist started moving up the field with Brookes right behind. The Quattro was third behind the Opel pair, when it started stage 44 out of 49. Brookes was following and could see the Audi across Druidale when "Suddenly there was a mushroom cloud of oil smoke - it was like an atomic explosion." With a piston sticking out of the side of the engine block Blomqvists championship was over.

There was now the possibility of GM giving the Opels team orders to let the Chevette past. Brookes had asked before the rally what would happen in this situation, but he denied actually asking for the Mantas to be slowed. "I would not have wanted to win the rally that way," he said in 1983, although he'd clearly changed his view by 1989......

Eklund won Group A from Lord's RX7. He'd wrapped up  the championship in Ulster but his seventh overall put him fourth in the overall championsip. This was a nice result for the Swede after two years of driving unreliable and slow Celicas.

Russell Brookes though was disappointed to be runner up. He had scored in every round and said "I have driven harder, faster and better in 1983 than I have ever driven before." He had beaten McRea for the first time since the Scot had moved up to driving top level cars. After two disastrous years with Talbot and a troubled debut with Vauxhall, he was now back at the front of the field and would challenge for the title in every year for the rest of the decade.

But for Vauxhall Chevette this was the end, at least as a Works car. Conceived, rather optimistically, to win the 1976 RAC Rally, the Chevette had indeed been a 'better Escort' but had now run out of development. Airikkala had driven one to win the 1979 Open, but every other year had been a disappointment. We fans, though, loved the tail-out Chevette and its disappearance from rallying was another nail in the coffin of the ailing British car industry.

So it was a Swede who was British Open Champion. Not that we minded too much. We knew Stig, you see, and had been following his exploits since he'd won a particularly snowy RAC Rally in 1972. Besides, Stig could make the Quattro dance, he was the only one who could. Years of chucking overweight Saabs around the forests and rallycross tracks had given him car control second to none and for the first time we could see an Audi sideways.

He was far and away the quickest Quattro driver of them all, and Audi were starting to realise this as well. Two months after his engine blew in the Isle of Man he won the RAC Rally, and for the next year Audi gave him a shot at the world title. He took the opportunity and ran with it, and became the 1984 World Rally Champion. Like Vatanen three years before, the Open had been the springboard to the top of the tree.

This just showed what an important series the British Open was.

Blomqvist 60 points
Brookes 57 points
McRae 47 points
Eklund 34 points

Saturday, 8 December 2012

The History of the British Open Rally Championship: 1982

Fire up the Quattro, it's time for action.

1981 had been fun, but it had all been a bit insular and provincial. True, the World Champion that was (Walter Rohrl) and the World Champion to be (Ari Vatanen) had both popped by, and there were a couple of Belgians on the Manx, but all the drivers battling for the series had been British resident even if, like Pentti Airikkala, they weren't British born.

However for 1982 that all changed. The world and his wife came to battle it out on the Open. The last round of the series, the Manx, featured seven A Priority Drivers, that is, drivers who have won a World Rally or the European Rally Championship in the last three years or finished in the top three of a WRC round, or the top five of the ECR, in the last twelve months. Jimmy McRae was British but the other six, Ari Vatanen, Hannu Mikkola, Guy Frequelin, Henri Toivonen, Stig Blomqvist and Per Eklund, weren't. One was the World Champion, two of the other were future champions and another was die whilst the fastest rally driver in the world. It was a stellar cast.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The series started, as usual, in a chilly Yorkshire with the Mintex and leading the field away from York was Mikkola in the Beast from Stuttgart, run by our own David Sutton. Vorsprung durch Masses-of-Grunt-Grip, the Quattro was like something from a different planet in 1982. In these days of bang-bang devices and clever differentials it's hard to explain just how dull four wheel drive and turbo charging was when it first arrived on the rally scene. The Quattro was quiet and it braked and cornered in a straight line.  Unless you saw the speed at which it could accelerate out of a slow corner, it did not look like a rally winner.

Looking more like the real thing was reigning champion Jimmy McRae, still in an Opel Ascona 400 but now part of the Rothmans team, along with 1980 RAC winner Henri Toivonen. Russell Brookes was still sponsored by Andrews Heat for Hire, but had ditched the unlucky Sunbeam Lotus for a Chevette HSR. Vatanen was in a black MCD Escort and Per Eklund was getting ready to have another go at making the Toyota Celica competitive. The man left standing when the music stopped was 1979 Open Champion Pentti Airikkala. With no works drive, he bought himself an Escort to compete.

On the opening round though, it was the Quattro that was the car to have, and Mikkola led from the off and started taking ten seconds a stage off everyone else. Behind him the others were struggling for grip. The Finns though seemed to be having the better of it. Vatanen and Airikkala battled it out through Yorkshire, with Pentti getting his private Escort ahead of the David Sutton machine only for steering failure to end an inspired drive. Toivonen took over the chase and closed the gap Vatanen's engine went off song in Dalby forest.  Seconds separated the Finns as they went into the final sprint around Oliver's Mount, but on the Scarborough tarmac Toivonen's Opel was quicker and he snatched second place.

Leader of the home drivers for most of the rally is National Champion Terry Kaby. McRae has a slow start but gradually rose up the field to finish fourth. It had been a poor showing for the home team though and the Scandinavians had totally outclassed them.

Fortunately the next round was rather better suited to home grown talent and two wheel drive machinery. The Circuit of Ireland was five days of blind tarmac rallying round Ireland. There is nothing like it today. The Rothmans Asconas shot into the lead, but Mikkola was floundering in the big Audi. They weren't totally invincible it seemed.

McRae led, then Toivonen, then McRae again. Then Toivonen left the road and climbed a bank. Damage to the car was minimal but he's broken a bone in his wrist. Carrying on would be painful, but carry on he did. Vatanen then took up the chase, the World Champion pedalling the Escort as hard as he could, but not making much progress against McRae. Mikkola's Quattro was snapping driveshafts and David Sutton was reduced to pouring Coca Cola and then flour into the gearbox to prevent clutch slip. Brookes had been delayed early on by electrical problems but was now charging up the field.

Vatanen looked like he might just steal a win until he took a yump too fast and damaged the Escort, dropping him right down. Brookes had fought his way up to second, but a brave Toivonen held on for third but Mikkola was down in sixth, behind a pair of Irishmen. It was Jimmy McRae though who won, making it a hat trick of Irish wins for him.

For the Welsh though Mikkola was absent as Audi had sent him to the Tour de Corse, a decision they probably regretted as Mikkola's steering failure retired the car before the first stage. The real world also threatened to interrupt the rally, as it was feared that the army would want the Epynt ranges, which made up half of the rally, to train for the Falklands War.

In the end the rally went ahead without trouble, Walter Rohrl had said an "educated monkey" could win in a Quattro, but in the end Audi chose a different sort of primate for the event, the 1979 World Champion and 1977 RAC Rally winner Bjorn Waldegard. He vaguely remembered Epynt from an RAC a few years back, and was soon proving that Quattros could go well on tarmac. The Swede, who in his time had rallied everything from a Lancia Stratos to a Mercedes 450SLC, led from the off and took a comfortable victory.

Behind him there was chaos. Vatanen took a wrong turn on Epynt and was excluded whilst on the last blast through the tarmac McRae tool a "95mph corner at 100" and totalled the Ascona. Team mate Toivonen took second and the series lead whilst Stig Blomqvist, in a Talbot Sunbeam Lotus, was third.

It was back to the forests again for the Scottish Rally, and with Mikkola returning another Audi walkover was expected. But that wasn't what happened.

Instead the Quattro broke its steering arm - again - on the first corner of the first stage. Mikkola managed to get the car off the stage in reverse, but he'd lost nearly eight minutes and was dead last. Vatanen was leading, chased by Blomqvist and the two Rothmans Asconas, but Mikkola was after them. The Quattro overtook Malcolm Wilson to lie fifth by half time at Aviemore.

As they raced through the northern forests Vatanen retired with a broken driveshaft handing the lead to Blomqvist, who then retired with head gasket failure. Mikkola overhauled Russell Brookes, then Toivonen and then finally leader McRae. He won in the end by a massive ten minutes, but he'd done it the hard way.

So it was all to play for on the Manx, three days of pace noted tarmac stages with an A list cast. McRae needed to win the rally to retain his Open title, with Toivonen, Mikkola and Brookes all in with a chance if he didn't.

On the first day though, it is the Finns Vatanen and Toivonen who were dicing for the lead whilst Terry Kaby led the home challenge. Mikkola was again struggling and didn't make the finish, and both Talbots expired with engine trouble on the same stage.

Toivonen lost the lead when he punctured, but regained it when Vatanen crashed after a yump. Toivonen then has electrical problems, allowing McRae into the lead. With the car fixed he took off in pursuit of his team mate, only to crash out of the rally. This left McRae with a comfortable lead over Brookes, which he held to the end.

So it was the part time heating and plumbing engineer from Lanarkshire who was champion. The best drivers in the world had come to the British Isles to try to take the title off him, but had failed. The Scot had had a good year, also winning rallies in Belgium and Ireland and coming second in the European Rally Championship.

But whilst a Brit may have won the Drivers award, every round had been won by a German car, With a series that featured two tarmac, two mostly gravel and one 50/50 rally, the battle between two wheel drive and four wheel drive had been fascinating. Had Mikkola skipped Corsica and gone to Wales he may have won both the rally and the championship, but that wouldn't have stopped Opel taking the manufacturers prize. The Ascona 400 had shown it was the perfect car for the series; a reliable all rounder. The Quattro had proved unbeatable on gravel, but too complicated and unreliable for a series where every score counts.

Audi would be back though, and next time the British boys wouldn't find it so easy.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

The History of the British Open Rally Championship: 1981

1981 and Sedan Products bow out as the event sponsors, handing over to the glitzy Rothmans outfit. Nobody at the time was too bothered about the ethics of taking cash from a company selling addictive drugs that cause cancer - well, it was Thatcher's Britain - but they were worried about overkill as Rothmans now sponsored the series, one of the rounds and one of the leading teams.

This was also the last year in which everyone - except the army guys in their Land Rovers who tagged onto the end of the Welsh rally - was in two wheel drive cars. Abroad the new Audi was setting the stages alight, but back home Ford, Opel, Toyota, Talbot and Vauxhall battled it out in one last glorious year of high revving, multi-valve engines and tail-out opposite lock before the whispering Quattro spoilt the fun of forest rallying.

Escort development had come to an end two years ago, but the others were still trying to make a 'better Escort'. Opel and Vauxhall could make some claim to have managed to build one. The GM teams had amalgamated and their both their very different cars seemed more stable in fast corners than the old Ford. 

With reigning champion Vatanen largely absent as he pursued glory on the world stage, the drivers were mostly UK based, except for Per Eklund in the Toyota Celica. Airikkala was back, driving a Rothmans Escort for David Sutton. Jimmy McRae had left Dealer Team Vauxhall to drive the new Ascona 400 for Opel and in his place was Tony Pond. Brookes was still in the Sunbeam Lotus, still down on power and still waiting for the promised International drives. 

The opening round was the Mintex again and just like last year there was ice and snow and just like last year it was a Rothmans Escort out in front, although this time it was Airikkala. Last time we'd seen him in a Ford he'd been leading the 1976 RAC rally, and he carried on where he left off.

The initial blast through the Otterburn army ranges saw Tony Pond fit slick tires only to find ice instead of  tarmac. He left the road and went OTL. Everyone else lost time due to the ice and all but one of the stages ended up being cancelled, but Pond was still out. McRae then chased Airikkala's Escort as hard as he could, but the Finn easily held off the Scott for victory.

The Circuit of Ireland was next and Pond was once again on slicks but this time finding grip. He flew into the lead and was leaving the field behind when the Vauxhall drive system let go. He handed in his time card, but then the stage was cancelled. It wasn't turning out to be Pond's lucky year.

McRae inherited the lead, chased by Brookes. However a tightening right hander caught out the Englishman and he thumped a bank. Ever the pro, he made sure it was the co-driver's door which was stoved in and Mike Broad who received the bruised arm. They kept going, but too far back to challenge for victory and McRae took the laurels.

For the Welsh Rally the big news was that Vatanen was back, and soon leading, chased by Pond. He punctured and dropped behind Pond and Brookes, then Pond disappeared up a fire break whilst flat in fifth and lost enough time to give Brookes the lead, a very unfamiliar position for the Andrews Heat for Hire Sunbeam.

It didn't last though, and when an oil pipe let go Vatanen got the lead back again. McRae pulled back time on the Epynt tarmac and he just nosed ahead of the Finn before it was his turn for a puncture. Vatanen then took the lead for the third and final time whilst Pond put on late spurt and also passed McRae to take second whilst Airikkala was fourth.

In the Scottish Rally Pond was again quickest off the mark, leading Airikkala through the forests, the rest of the field in hot pursuit. Both Rothmans Escorts went off on the same stage and the Brookes' Sunbeam was sick for most of the rally, but on home soil McRae gave the Chevette a run for its money. Pond has his measure though and came home a minute clear of the Ascona. Airikkala was fourth behind team mate Malcolm Wilson. The Escort pair had extracted their cars from the trees but Penti's was handling like a dog for the rest of the rally.

McRae then entered the last round with a comfortable lead in the championship. Only Airikkala could beat him, and only by winning outright.

This was the Manx, now well on the way to becoming a true International rally thanks to Rothman's cash. Star entry, and early leader of the Manx, was reigning World Champion Walter Rohrl, driving a private Porsche since Mercedes had cancelled their rally program. A grinning  Rohrl admitted to driving "too quickly" and getting the Porsche up to135mph and frequently airborne, but he still could not shake off McRae and Pond. Airikkala crashed out, leaving the Scotsman with a smug grin. The championship was his, but he wanted the rally as well.

Pond had survived a 100mph spin and when night fell he and McRae found they had the edge over the German in the dark and both Pond and McRae overtook him. Rohrl fought back once the sun rose again but couldn't catch the Brits. The Scott told the cameras he was driving for European Championship points, but Pond didn't believe him, and the stage times suggested otherwise as well. However the Englishman held on and won. Rohrl suffered a broken drive shalf on the last stage, so Wilson came third, but his Escort had been totally outclassed by the GM boys.

Pond had been the fastest man in the series and it seemed unfair that he was not to be champion this or any other year.  A great driver, especially on tarmac, and a ready wit, he was signed up by Datsun and then Rover for International events, but was never given a competitive car. He eventually left rallying to concentrate on circuit racing and cameo appearances, like doing a 100mph lap of the TT motorcycle circuit in a Rover 700 Vitesse.

He died, far too soon, in 2002.

Instead it was McRae, who finished on the podium in every event, who took the title off Ari Vatanen, which must have made his thirteen year old son Colin very proud. Ari, now Private Vatanen of the Finnish Army, can't have minded either as two months later he became World Champion on the RAC Rally.

But Vatanen didn't win the RAC, he only came second. The winner was Hannu Mikkola in the first British appearance of the Audi Quattro. British rallying was never to be the same again.

Jimmy McRae 53 points
Tony Pond 40 points
Pentti Airikkala 29 points
Malcolm Wilson 27 points
Russell Brookes 17 points

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Stratos versus the RAC

The Lancia Stratos so dominated the World Rally Championship in the mid seventies that it's more interesting to discuss the rallies it didn't win than those it did.

A series of disasters afflicted their three expeditions to the Safari, the rough roads of Greece took their toll year after year and they never bothered to send such a nervous car to the smooth, fast roads of Finland. However the rally that the Stratos really should have won is our own RAC rally.

Fords dominated the event, but I wasn't the only spectator shivering by the side of the stage waiting for the Boreham boxes to pass so we could see - and hear - the exotic Italian supercar. If the Stratos looked out of place in the middle of Africa, it seemed no more at home in a cold, and frequently wet, British forest.

This was a rally the car really should have won at least once. Here's the story of how they failed.

1974

The Stratos was homologated in 1 October 1974 and by the time of the RAC Rally had already won two World Rallies. Sandro Munari brought the car to Britain and with his regular co-driver ill and himself suffering from food poisoning he was content to settle for third behind Timo Makinen's Ford Escort RS1600 and Stig Blomqvists Saab 96 V4.

However he's scored several fastest times on the way and had shown the car's potential. British fans took note.

Autosport journalist Peter Newton wrote of the experience "A deep musical throb among the distant trees, then with a bark of triumph, the Stratos leaps out of the gloom into the sunlight, its driver corrects and the red-and-white projectile hurls itself at the straining watchers on the corner. The sheer speed of its arrival takes everyone by surprise.."

1975

Before....
Lancia now realised they had a car that could take on the world, but expecting Munari to do all the driving was asking a bit too much of him, so they recruited Swedish ace Bjorn Waldegard to help out. Waldegard had made his name in Porsches and was expected to win the tricky northern European rounds, leaving Munari to take the glory on the other events.

Well, that was the plan anyway.

On the 1975 RAC Waldegard was flying in the new Alitalia liveried car. Literally. After 16 stages he had set 6 fastest times and was comfortably in the lead. He then flew too high on a yump in Pickering and broke a drive shaft. Mechanics changed it on the stage (that was legal then) but at a cost of one hour of delay and all of his rear bodywork.

.... and after.
Waldegard continued in the event and continued to set fastest times, but he'd been OTL and was also running without brake lights, rear lights and a rear number plate.

Exclusion was the result and with Munari crashing out it was Lancia nil points.

1976

He should have got his revenge the next year, but it all went wrong in San Remo.

Waldegard had ended the penultimate stage four seconds ahead of Munari. As it wouldn't do for the top Italian rally driver to be beaten on home soil Waldegard was instructed to let his team mate win. Waldegard came to the start of the last stage and was waved away. The car didn't move for four seconds. With everything square he then blasted off at full speed to win the stage, by four seconds.

Lancia were not impressed and sacked him on the spot. Ford signed him immediately and started cobbling a car together for the RAC.

Munari was again the lone Lancia on the rally. He set a few fastest times - including at the New Brighton spectator stage where little me was undergoing my RAC baptism - but mostly he appeared to not want to be there. Indeed the entire team appeared to have a case of the blues.

He eventually finished fourth, just behind Waldegard, who was busy telling the press he'd have won the event in a Stratos.

A second car, run by the British Chequered Flag team and driven by Per Inge Walfridsson  struggled before retiring with electric problems in Yorkshire.

Shortly afterwards the world found out what had caused the long faces in the Lancia camp. Fiat group headquarters had decided that next year the Fiat team in their 131 Abarths was to be given priority in World Championship.

1977

Turin only allowed Lancia to enter four World rounds in '77, but fortunately for us, one was the RAC.

Munari was again the only Stratos man, and again he struggled with the conditions and the secret stages.

At the end of the first day he was fourth, at the end of the second he was fifth and by half way he was ninth. The Stratos's gearbox then jammed in gear, loosing him an hour, but he carried on for the fans and eventually managed 25th, setting a fastest time on the last stage.

1978

This was to be the Stratos's last year as an official rally car, although once again Fiat were given priority in the WRC. Former Fiat man Markku Alen had switched to a Stratos for the San Remo rally, swapping cars with Walter Rohrl who had been campaigning it in Germany. He'd won the rally after the German launched his Fiat off a cliff.

Alen thought the car would be more suitable than the 131 for the RAC and so he and Munari entered their red, white and black Pirelli cars for what was supposed to be the last official outing for a works Stratos.

The press made the most of the occasion and Lancia managed some secret tire testing at Donnington whilst giving motoring journalists a ride in the car.

Thanks perhaps to this Alen stormed into a lead over the Sunday 'Mickey Mouse' stages and prepared for 'Maximum Attack' in the forests. However he was now entering Escort country.

The RS1800 had grown into the RS, with 15 inch wheels and various other tweaks. The Stratos meanwhile was going backwards, with its 24 valve engine banned.

Through Yorkshire Mikkola and Alen swapped fastest times, then in Kielder Mikkola turned it up to eleven. He beat Alen by thirty seconds in Hamsterly to take the lead and then took two minutes off the Stratos in next two stages.

Alen hung on grimly for a while, but was last seen by the side of the road in Twiglees with the back open. An Italian mechanic, asked to explain, just gave some exaggerated hand gestures and said "Mayonnaise..." The official reason was given as gearbox failure. With Munari parked up with electrical problems, that was that.

1979

Or that should have been that.

However next year Alen was back with another Stratos. Lancia had found an old car for him and it had been prepared by a private garage. For a while there was a second Stratos on the entry list, for Bernard Darniche, who'd won two rallies that year and retired whilst leading two more, but in the end the Frenchman was a no-show in Chester.

Once again Alen led over the Sunday stages, and once again he was overtaken in the forests. He pulled a bit of time back later in the rally in the fog, but eventually could only manage fifth.

1981

In 1981 British fans got their first sight of the Audi Quattro and the little Renault 5 Turbo. But for me there was only one car to see, Markku Alen driving another museum piece Stratos. And I finally got his autograph.

Unfortunately he was never on the pace and eventually put the car into a ditch in the Scottish borders.

That really was that.

2005 - 2012

The RAC itself turned into the Network Q and then got itself stuck in south Wales, eventually becoming the Wales Rally GB.

However there were still people who remembered what it used to be like, and so in 2004 the De Lacy motorclub launched the Roger Albert Clark rally for historic two wheel drive rally cars.

In 2005 alco-pop king and former British Rally Champion Steve Perez entered a Lancia, and it was time for the next generation of little Porters to see a Stratos in action.

His classic car was never able to keep up with latest Escorts, some of which have some very un-seventies mods, but he was the fans favourite. There is still nothing like the sound of an Italian V6 coming through the dark, and no rally car before or since - including the Ford RS200 - has ever matched its lines.

It may never have won an RAC, but for British rally fans, the Stratos is still a very special car.

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