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.

3 comments:

  1. would anybody know where and when the picture showing Audi Quattro with camera up front might have been taken ?

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  2. Scotland somewhere is all I know. The reg. says it's definitely Mikkola's car.

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  3. That's what I would have thought as well... until I found out that Bjorn Waldegaard (who had already driven Hannu's car at the 1982 Welsh while Hannu was competing at the Tour de Corse) was driving a 'camera-car' ahead of the competition at the 1982 1000 Lakes in Finland... just made me wonder...
    So probably just a publicity shoot ?
    Do you have any idea about the origin of the PACE (?) publicity on the bonnet ?

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