Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Five most unusual cars to enter the RAC rally

It's nearly that time of the year again.

No, not Rally Wales GB, which came and went a couple of weeks ago with very little excitement, but the far more interesting Roger Albert Clark Rally. The year the usual swarm of Escorts are joined by Steve Perez's incomparable Stratos, several continental Porsches and dark horse of the event the Fiat 131 Abarth of Julian Reynolds.

Over the years though the original RAC rally, which evolved into the Rally Wales GB and got itself stuck in the Principality in the process, saw some fairly unusual machinery take part. The word 'exotic' is well used to describe the cameos appearances by the little mid-engined Renault 5 Turbo, the Ford RS200, and the Lancia 037 Rally.

The word weird is probably best used to describe these machines though, the more unusual machines to venture forth into the British forests in November.

5. Panther Lima

At first glance the Lima, made by Blackpool based cottage industry Panther Westwinds, doesn't look a bad choice for a rally car. There's a tasty 2.3 lump taken from a Vauxhall Magnum, a compact two seater body and robust Vauxhall suspension. Admittedly sitting over the back wheels won't make it very comfortable in Kielder and the front wings don't allow for much suspension travel, but those are not the real problems.

You can basically rely on three things on the RAC Rally; the weather will be cold, wet and miserable. You want a car with performance, handling and reliability, but above all you want a roof. The Lima is ragtop. So hats off to intrepid crew Noel and Patrick Francis who completed the 1978 event in one.

4. Audi 80

It's difficult to believe now, but back in the 1970s Audis were cars for people who found Volvos too exciting. So we all wondered what was going on when a Works team of Group 4 homologated Audi 80s appeared on the 1979 RAC. Oversized and underpowered, they understeered their way through the stages handicapped by a weight distribution slightly less balanced than a hammer, and were hopelessly off the pace.

Well, less than a year later we found out what was going on when they unveiled the Quattro. Then in 1981 they brought the beast to the UK whereupon the Stuttgart based team used the experience they'd gained with the 80, and the Quattros awesome grip and power, to win every UK forest event they entered. After that Audi had a slightly different image.

3. VW Beetle

Beetles were decent enough rally cars in the sixties, and Porsche engined variants were regular staples of the continental rallycross scene in the seventies and eighties. However it's fair to say that by 1992 it was not the most competitive car around.

But if you can't make an impact with your cars speed or acceleration, you can always do it with the paint job. Dad Francis worked for Prodrive and was regular on the Historic rally scene in his Porsche. When he asked young Richard what colour he would like his car painted, he pointed to his Reebok trainers.

Richard finished the rally and didn't come last. He beat an MG Maestro, an Astra GTE, a Nova GSi and something else, which I will tell you about later.

2. Wartburg 353

Teams from the far side of the Iron Curtain used to be regulars on the RAC. The Skodas were genuinely good, and took home more than a score of class wins. The Ladas were fun, and once the official team stopped the Lada Challenge provided tail out action when the rest of the field were front wheel drive.

However there's not much you can say in favour of the poor old Wartburg. Front wheel drive, far too large for its 1150ccs and a two stroke, it was desperately sad to see the drivers pedaling the car hopelessly through the stage. The one virtue it had was that it was pretty robust - the engine apparently only had seven moving parts. They did actually move faster than you'd expect and one did once come second on a WRC event, although admittedly there were only three finishers.

If nothing else though the Wartburg team dispelled the myth of invincible German technology. For that we must be grateful.

1. Trabant 601S

The end of communism meant the end of the factory teams from Eastern Europe, but the odd privateer did make it over here. Two such intrepid adventurers were Michael Kahlfub and Gunter Friedemann who brought their Trabant over in 1992.

It was a long time waiting in the rain for the little car with its cardboard bodywork and 595cc two stroke engine, but I wasn't the only fan making the effort. Asked how he found the stages Kahlfub said they were smoother than East German autobahns.

He finished the rally and wasn't last either, coming just behind Richard Tuthill's Beetle and ahead of three hot hatches. I wonder if those drivers ever liven that down?

Monday, 27 October 2014

Best Five Drivers Never To Win The WRC

I guess overall the World Rally Championship Drivers title has been shared reasonably fairly.

Okay, so it's been more than a decade since the WCR was won by someone who wasn't called Sebastian, but at least Solberg and Gronholm got a go before Monsieur Loeb got going, and there's time yet for Latvala and Hirvonen.

However if you look back through the whole history of the WRC you see a few drivers who should have had a title but didn't. Here's my top five unlucky drivers.

1. Jean-Luc Therier

Jean-Luc Therier, Renault Alpine A110 Corsica, 1973
Where the WRC launched in 1973 one team dominated, Alpine Renault.

Alpine was a tiny French outfit that was taken over by national giant Renault that year. They'd been rallying their little A110 for over a decade by this time and with Renault's money they were now able to take on the world with their pocket rocket.

The pilots of these little missiles were known as The Blue Riders. Jean-Claude Andruet, Jean Pierre Nicholas, and Bernard Darniche would continue to win rallies for the rest of the decade whilst Ove Anderson went on to manage Toyota, but the fastest of all them was Jean-Luc Therier.

In 1973 he won in Portugal, Greece and San Remo and finished best non-Saab in Sweden. He also
managed two thirds, a fifth and a seventh. In Poland he was one of many drivers disqualified after the organisers decided to hide the Passage Controls, and on the RAC the little car expired.

Unfortunately for Therier there was no award for drivers until 1979. Had there been a Championship for Drivers in '73 he'd have won it by a country mile.

Renault Alpine scaled down their involvement in rallying after 1973. Therier was never to win with an Alpine again, but he did give the Renault 17 Gordini, which was a sort of Gallic Ford Capri, it's only win in America in 1974. He then moved to Ove Anderson's Toyota where he retired from every world event he entered.

Then in 1980 Porsche homologated a lightweight version of the venerable 911 and Therier drove it on the 1980 Tour de Corse.
Jean-Luc Therier, Porsche 911SC, Tour de Corse 1980
He was up against Jean Ragnotti in the little Renault 5 Turbo and former Blue Rider Anduet in a Fiat France 131 Abarth, but despite being down in eighth at one point Therier brought the Porsche home first. 

He nearly did it again on his next outing in Monte Carlo. Mikkola's Quattro set the early pace,  but when an accidnt made the four wheel drive car a three wheeler Therier inherited the lead. He held it until the last night when he went wide on a corner, mounted a bank and broke the transmission.

There would be one more podium in his career, but no more chances for victory.

2. Sandro Munari

Sandro Munari, Lancia Stratos, Monte Carlo 1975
The team that knocked Renault Alpine off their perch was Lancia and the car they did it with was the Stratos. The car was built around one driver, Sandro Munari. Quite literally built around him as anyone with longer legs and shorter arms, which was just about everyone, had trouble even fitting into it.

Munari had come third on the 1974 Safari in an old Fulvia, but when the Stratos was homologated in October he managed to win back to back rallies in San Remo and Canada and come third in Great Britain. Had there been a drivers title to play for it would have been his.

The next year he could have done it again, but
Sandro Munari, Lancia Stratos, RAC 1976
Turin politics saw him sitting out several rounds. By 1976 he had a rival in the team in the form of Swede Bjorn Waldegarde, but wins in Monte Carlo, Portugal and on the Tour de Corse would have given him another title.

Come 1977 though and Lancia had to give way to Fiat. Munari would the FIA Cup, a predecessor or the WRC for Drivers, but was limited to just five actual WRC appearances. One of these though was the Monte Carlo which he won to give him a Hat Trick.

In 1978 he only finished one rally, and that was in a Fiat 131 Abarth. Apart from a few cameos in Africa that was it for Il Drago.

3. Markku Alen

On the eve of the first WRC for Drivers in 1979 who would we have said were the best rally drivers in the world? Hannu Mikkola, Bjorn Waldegarde and Ari Vatanen of Ford, Markku Alen and Walter Rohrl of Fiat and maybe Stig Blomqvist and Timo Salonen who, although not winning rallies, had put in decent performances in uncompetitive cars.

Over the next seven years each of those drivers would win a world title except one; Markku Alen.

How this could be is a bit of a mystery. Partly it was because in 1978, when he was undoubtedly the driver of the year, there was still only a Makes title, partly it was because when he had another crack at the title in 1980 team mate Rohrl beat him fair and square and partly it was because when the Italians next had shot at the title the Lancia 037 was so out-gunned by Audi it took a team performance to win.

He had a theoretical chance of the title on the 1983 RAC, but Lancia had spent so much Lira on winning the Makes they didn't want to waste any more hopelessly chasing Quattros through muddy British forests.

Then in 1986 Alen finally had a great car and great chance.  When he beat Juha Kankkunen to win Olympus Rally at the end of the season he was indeed crowned World Champion, only to lose the title to the Finn 21 days later when the FIA took away his Sanremo win.

Walter Rohrl thought Alen was the greatest driver of his generation. He was a Flying Finn who became more Italian than the Italians. Calm behind the wheel, he was a bag of nerves at service points. half the vocabulary of the WRC, from 'maximum attack' to 'Mickey Mouse' stages, is thanks to him.

He continued to win into the Group A era and, after he eventually left Turin, he gave the Subaru Legacy it's first podium, but 1986 was his last challenge for the WRC.

Alen is the Stirling Moss of rallying, the greatest driver never to become World Champion.

4. Henri Toivonen

But perhaps the driver who really should have lifted the 1986 Drivers trophy was neither Alen, nor Kankkunen, but Henri Toivonen.

The 22 year old Finn would have been on nobodies list of great drivers in 1978. In fact he wouldn't have made many lists two years later when he started the 1980 RAC Rally in his Talbot Sunbeam Lotus. But then he went and won the event, beating Mikkola and the previously invincible Ford Escort RS into second place, and becoming the youngest driver ever to win a WRC event.

Toivonen continued to drive for Talbot and then switched to Opel. He led his first event for the Germans, but despite some solid performances never looked like winning anything in either and Ascona or a Manta. By 1984 he had largely dropped out of top flight competition and was driving a Porsche in the European Championship. However by the end of the year he had signed for Lancia.

A back injury following an accident at the start of 1985 kept him out of rallying for six months but
he stuck with the team despite the 037 being too long in the tooth to be competitive.

The reward was a drive in the fearsome 038 on its début in the 1985 RAC Rally. Up against a pack of Group B monster from Audi, Peugeot and Austin Rover, as well as team mate Alen, he drove the beast to victory.

Toivonen continued his winning streak on 1986 Monte Carlo Rally. He then retired in Sweden and was withdrawn in Portugal along with all the other top drivers after a fatal accident.

He started the 1986 Tour de Corse then as the fastest rally driver in the world. On tarmac the car's boost was turned up to give the 038 over 500bhp. To reduce weight all under body protection was removed and to improve the balance the crew sat on the petrol tanks. At the end of the seventeenth stage he was leading the rally.

He started the next stage complaining of the strain of keeping up the pace in such a powerfula nd twitchy machine. He never reached the finish. The car had left the road at a sharp left, out of sight of spectators and marshals, and exploded. All that was left when fire crews arrived was a burnt out shell and pieces scattered over the hillside like the aftermath of a plane crash.

The accident didn't just kill Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto, it killed Group B as well. Alen would keep up the fight against Peugeot for the rest of the season, but I suspect there was only one man who could have beaten Kankkunen in a Lancia, and that was Toivonen.

5. Francois Delecoeur

28 year old Francois Delecoeur was plucked from obscurity by Ford in 1991 to drive their palatial Sierra Sapphire 4x4. On his first event, the Monte Carlo, he looked set to reward them with a win, then his suspension collapsed. Over the next two seasons he pedalled the over-sized vehicle to four podiums.

Then in 1993 Ford unveiled the nearest thing the Group A era had to 'homologation special', the Escort Cosworth. On the Monte Delecoeur once again surged into the lead then on the final night Didier Auriel went mad and overturned a three minute lead.

He gave the new Cossie its first win on the next rally in Portugal. He also won in Corsica and Spain and only lost out in New Zealand thanks to another awesome drive, this time by our own Colin McRae.

Delecoeur then started the 1994 season as favourite to lift the crown.

He started well by finally winning the Monte Carlo then retired in Portugal whilst leading. The Driver's trophy looked like it might have his name on it.

Then he went for a spin in a friend's Ferrari F40, and met an amateur rally driver coming the other way. The car was destroyed and Delecoeur suffered injuries that kept him out of most of the rest of the season. He was fully fit again in 1995, but by this time the Escort had lost its competitive edge and didn't win a single round.

Delecoeur switched to Peugeot and helped to develop the world conquering Peugeot 206, but he never again had a shot at the title.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Obituary: Björn Waldegård

Björn Waldegård, who died yesterday, was rallying's first World Champion, and probably the most complete driver ever to lift the crown.

During his long career Waldegård won on tarmac and gravel, in Europe and in Africa, in conventional and unconventional cars and with two wheel drive and four.

These days, with the format of all international rallies being very similar, it's not unusual for a top driver to win everything. But in the past the difference between a short pace note event like the Swedish, a African endurance event like the Safari and blind rally like RAC was huge and Waldegård was unique in winning them all.

The Porsche Years

He first exploded onto the rallying scene when, aged only 25, he won the most famous rally in the world in a Porsche 911. Inexperience, and a language barrier, nearly cost the reigning Swedish Rally Champion his first Monte Carlo victory as he misunderstood a request by the mechanics for  "no brakes" and pressed the pedal, ejecting his calipers onto the ground. Fortunately the Stuttgart mechanics were able to repair the car and he led home a Porsche 1-2. Just to prove it wasn't a one-off he won again in 1970.

Unfortunately Porsche decided not to make the 911 the world beater it could have been, and instead left the field open for Lancia to make the Stratos the world's first supercar. Waldegård took to rallycross, but with the Lancia team built around Italian ace Sandro Munari, a driver who was less comfortable on the tricky northern European rounds, they signed up Waldegård as back up.

The Lancia Years

Driving the best car in the world, Waldegård had no problem winning his home round in 1975, but then rather unexpectedly he won in Italy as well.

On the RAC Waldegård was flying. Literally. After 16 stages he had set 6 fastest times and was comfortably in the lead before 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.
Waldegård 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.

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. He finished third, just ahead of Munari, and told the press he'd have won the event in a Stratos.

The Ford Years


Acropolis 1977
Waldegård's years with Ford were to be the most successful of his career.

In 1977 the blue oval made a determined effort to win the World Championship for Makes and, although the Ford "lawnmower" was beaten by the Fiat steamroller, the best driver of the year was undoubtedly Waldegård. He won the three toughest rallies of the year; the Safari, the Acropolis and the RAC. Had there been a World Championship for Drivers then he'd have won it.

Ford mostly sat out the 1978 season, but Waldegård still managed a win on the Swedish and second to team mate Hannu Mikkola on the RAC. For '79 Ford would be going all out for the championship, and with Fiat outgunned Waldegård and Mikkola who would be dicing to see who became the first ever World Champion driver.

Monte Carlo 1979
Waldegård's year didn't start well with French spectators placing rocks on the road in front of him to give victory to local hero Bernard Darniche's Stratos. However at least he did better than Hannu, who was nicked by the local plod whilst leading and given a five minute penalty.

Waldegård was second again in Sweden, beaten by Blomqvists Saab 99 Turbo, and again in Portugal where Mikkola snuck a win. The season was developing into a tortoise and hare contest between the two Scandanavians, and as an added twist both were contracted to Mercedes for the African events. In the end Mikkola also won in New Zealand, Quebec and Great Britain, but it was Waldegård who became the inaugural World Champion thanks to wins in Greece and Canada and consistent finishes over the rest of the season.

The Toyota Years

A disastrous ninth on the RAC marked the end of the road for Waldegård and the old rear wheel drive Escort, and after a disappointing year with Fiat and Mercedes, he signed for Toyota, the team with which he was to spend the next twelve years.

He started off well by briefly getting the previously off-the-pace Celica into the lead on the 1980 RAC then, after an unremarkable 1981 season, he brought the new style car home first on the 1982 New Zealand rally. It was a surprising win, for in the era of the Audi Quattro and the Lancia Rally the old normally aspirated, rear wheel drive car seemed antiquated.

1982 also saw him back in a Stratos, for a one-off drive in the Esgair Dafydd TV Rallysprint.

Ivory Coast 1983
Toyota then homologated the Group B turbo version of the Celica which, although off the pace in Europe, made Africa its own. Waldegård won in the Ivory Coast with it in 1983, on the Safari in 1984 and then won both rallies in 1986.

That car died with Group B and it was a while before Toyota had a car that was both fast enough, and tough enough, to win in Africa again. When they did, with the Celica GT-4 in 1990, it was again Waldegård who was at the wheel. By this time he was 46 and the oldest driver to win a World Rally, a record he is likely to keep a while yet. He retired from front line motorsport in 1992 when he broke his arm in an accident, once again in Africa, and once again in a Toyota.

Waldegård continued to drive though and I last saw him in action at the 2009 Chatsworth Rally Show, celebrating 30 years since his World Title, and putting a Mark Two Escort through its paces. It was 33 years since I'd first seen him in on New Brighton sea front in his first Ford drive.

A true legend, he will be missed.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Top Five Rock Cars

5. David Coverdale's Jaguar XJ


I must admit that when I first saw the video for Here I Go Again age seventeen I didn't actually notice that there was a car underneath Tawny Kitaen.

But, yes, as in all the other Whitesnake vids of the era, there is. And as David Coverdale, the lad from Yorkshire who joined the biggest rock band in the world before making it even bigger with his own band, never forgot where he came from it's a British motor.

Or two British motors actually, one white and one black. I used to think was some sort of symbolism. Not so. The video director just had a black one so he parked it next to Coverdale's white version and then asked Tawny to do her stuff. The result was a vid that helped push a song, that had previously only managed #34 in the UK charts on a previous release, to a Billboard #1.

The hair and the spandex have dated, but the cars haven't. Over here the big cats have a reputation of being a bit of an Arthur Daley motor and they aren't particularly practical on narrow roads. My little Metro ragged off a few. However even I'll admit the XJ is something of a classic design.

It not really recommended that your girlfriend dances in your lap whilst driving one though. I'd like to think Tawny was just playing around for the cameras, but as in 2002 she was arrested for kicking her then husband, Cleveland Indians player Chuck Finley, whilst he was driving, maybe she wasn't. He filed for divorce immediately afterwards and the Chicago White Sox played this song at the stadium next time they played the Indians.

4.  John Lennon's Rolls Royce Phantom V


How we missed the symbolism at the time.

When the hippest of the Fab Four bought a Roller and got artist Steve Weaver to paint it in the style of a Gypsy caravan it seemed that the counter-culture had stormed the bastions of the British Establishment.

It took punk to remind us that they had in fact become the Establishment.

Lennon, a wife beater who spent most of his post-Beatles career as a heroine addict, wrote some decent songs, but also appears to have lost touch with reality along the way.

Imagine is a great song, although a rather ironic one for funerals as who really wants to see the coffin of their loved one disappear behind the curtain to the words "Imagine there's no heaven." However in the video Lennon appears to have missed that he was singing "Imagine no possessions" whilst playing a $40,000 piano and wandering around his multimillion dollar mansion.

3. ZZ Top's Ford Eliminator


Few cars are more rock 'n' roll than the Ford Model A Coupe, the 'Little Deuce Coupe' of the Beach Boys song. Always a popular choice for making into a Hot Rod, the Eliminator is custom job done for ZZ Top frontman Billy F Gibbons by Don Thelan's Buffalo Motor Cars. The inspiration was the car driven by Martin Sheen in the film The California Kid.

They named their eighth album after the car and, along with the beards, the car had a starring role in the vids that accompanied their new grungy with a four-on-the-floor beat sound. The result though was a car that, although fully drag strip ready, spent more time posing than performing. 

2. Jan Berry's Corvette Stingray

When is comes to cars many artists talk the talk, but few walk the walk. Even fewer walk the walk and walk away.

Rock car crashes are tragically too numerous to mention them all. Marc Bolan died in a friend's Mini 1275GT, which, with only 57bhp probably gets the unfortunate prize of least powerful car to kill a celebrity. The prize for the most complete rock car death though must go to Whitesnake drummer Cozy Powell who died whilst doing 104mph in bad weather in his Saab 9000. Whilst drunk. And not wearing a seatbelt. And talking on his mobile phone. His last words were "Oh shit".

Jan Berry was half of a fifties double act that is surprisingly uncheesy. They liked their cars, and one of their songs was Dead Man's Curve,about a race between a Corvette and an E Type Jaguar that ends in both cars off the road.

Two years later Jan Berry was cruising on Sunset Boulevard, not far from Dead Man's Curve, when he too lost control of his 'vette and totalled it. He lived, and was back on the road a year later and lived to the ripe old age of 62.

1. Keith Moon's Chrysler Wimbledon 

Or was it a Lincoln Continental, or was it a Rolls Royce, or did it even happen at all?

This is the car that Keith Moon allegedly drove into a swimming pool in the ultimate act of rock we'll-pay-someone-else-to-clean-up-the-mess-'cos-we're-so-rich excess.

Numerous versions of the story abound. One has a drunk Moon trying to make a getaway from a police raid on a rowdy birthday party in a Lincoln, letting the handbrake off the car and having it roll backwards into the pool. In another version it's a Roller and in another the pool is a muddy pond at Moon's house.

Roger Daltry, who only admits to seeing the 450,000 bill for removing the car, says it was the Chrysler Wimbledon and an ornamental pool at a Holiday Inn in Flint, Michigan. As this is the nearest we've got to an eye witness, we'll go with that story.

In the picture the Wimbledon is the old timer to the right of the 246 Dino in this picture. As you can see Mr Moon has also pranged the Ferrari, allegedly after changing into first gear at 100mph.

But then, what is a rock car if it's in one piece. Some musicians, like Pink Floyd drummer Nick mason, whose collection includes a Ferrari F40 and a Lancia Stratos,look after their cars. Many musicians of that generation now look after themselves. Even Rik Wakeman has given up the booze and fags these days..

But what's rock 'n' roll about that?

Tragically Keith Moon did more damage to himself than to his machines and followed his Ferrari to the great party in the sky in 1978, after an overdose of prescription medication.