Report from Autosport of 25th October 1984
Wilson’s win, Dai’s day
Wilson wins rally but Llewellin is champion — Collins takes top points — Mouton is disappointing second — Metro shines but is unclassified — Eklund storms back to third — Wood’s Astra takes Group A
Report: KEITH OSWIN — Photography: TONY NORTH
Malcolm Wilson turned the form book upside down on Saturday and won the Audi Sport National Rally. The expected winner was, of course, works driver Michele Mouton, but for some inexplicable reason, the French star was off the pace throughout the day and finished second to the Cumbrian driver.
Third, after a storming drive in the second half after tyre and turbo problems had hampered his progress, was Per Eklund, driving the Team Toyota Europe Celica in practice for the Lombard RAC Rally next month.
But the story of the rally was the fight for the Shell Oils/AUTOSPORT RAC National Championship crown. Three drivers—Louise Aitken-Walker, Phil Collins and Dai Llewellin—were in with a chance. In the end, it was pre-event favourite, Llewellin, who took the title, although, on the day it was Collins who scored top points. Dai, however, was just one place behind and, like the Lauda/Prost battle in Estoril, second place was enough. Louise was never really in contention and, having led the series for much of the year, she eventually finished third in the championship with the turbocharged Sierra.
With over 80 drivers contesting this tight and fast event, the 1984 National Championship wound up with a fitting finale. It had been a superb contest all year and it would be fair to say that the best man won.
When it really tries, Wales can be the bleakest place on God’s earth at times. One such time was Friday night and Saturday morning as the cast arrived for the final act of the Shell Oils/AUTOSPORT National Rally Championship. Aberystwyth can never be classed as a great attraction for the contenders, the sea front start line usually windswept and cold. On Saturday morning, it seemed as though a hurricane was trying to sweep us all into the Irish Sea!
But, nevertheless, there was great excitement and tension. It was difficult to set one’s sights on the day in prospect as there was so much to consider. It was almost as though this year’s Audi National was a rally of two divisions. The first division comprised the top names of British and World rallying. Heading the list was Michele Mouton, the charming
French girl who won the event last year and who is being widely tipped as the Audi Sport UK driver on next season’s Shell Oils Open Championship. Naturally, she attracted lots of media attention. One of the HTV camera crews homed in on the Quattro, pointed a microphone and camera lens into the cockpit and began.
“Tell me Michele, do you feel tense before a rally?”
“No not really. I just like to drive and so I am usually fairly relaxed.” Then came the big cringe.
“Are you conscious of being a woman in a man’s sport?”
At this point, everyone took a step backwards, awaiting a French explosion at what was surely the most inane question of the weekend. But, with tremendous composure, Michele produced the perfect acid drop. Looking straight into camera she replied. “After 11 years in the sport, how can you ask such a question?” Collapse of stout party. . .
Michele of course was going to win. It was merely a question of who came second, wasn’t it? Per Eklund’s Toyota Celica twin cam turbo was tipped by most, but Malcolm Wilson’s Quattro — now carrying BBC Television Top Gear colours in readiness for the RAC Rally— was the other hot prediction. Eklund was getting used to the car for the first time since the Safari where a bridge parapet did untold damage to both the Toyota and his chances. The last time that ‘Pekka’ drove the car in this country was last year’s November event, but Per still needed the practice. He knows the British forests quite well now, but a 300bhp Celica is a far cry from the Group A Corolla GT.
Russell Brookes had been comprehensively thrashed by Mouton last year but all thoughts of revenge were tempered by the tyre testing that would have to take preference. With narrow snow tyres available from Michelin, the Andrews Manta would not be out for top times, although Brookes was never going to give less than his best if he could. The Opel team were also backed by the Shell Gold Card car of Bertie Fisher, eager to spend more time in the British forests and get used to his RAC co-driver, John Millington.
And then there was Tony Pond with the Metro. The little four-wheel-drive roller skate had reached the end of its 1984 test programme and now met top class opposition for the first time. In Cumbria, with a sick engine, Pond had challenged Wilson for the lead before crashing out. Now we all wondered how it would cope with Mouton and Eklund . . .
The Division 2 contest was the fight for National Championship honours. Each of the three drivers had spent a week answering questions from press and interested parties. ‘If you win, where must the others come for you to take the title?’ ‘What happens if you come second?’ Any number of permutations were considered. Television crews visited, interviews were conducted. In one of the most successful championships ever, in terms of national media interest, the pressure built up inexorably over the days leading up to Saturday.
Louise went testing with the Sierra and very nearly saw her chances swept away afterwards. With the car on the trailer, the team were on their way home when the wheels clipped a bridge parapet. Both trailer wheels were ripped off and the nearside arches of the Sierra damaged. Another few inches . . .
Dai Llewellin, still learning about media pressure, had been in greatest demand. This was a Welsh event and a home driver could win the title. There was human interest too as the press recalled the mid season financial crisis that took a burst of generosity from John Green to get out of. But now the final challenge loomed. Last year, Llewellin was in much the same situation, just two points behind Darryl Weidner. That time a log pile stepped in and ended the rally. Co-driver Roger Evans was keeping a careful watch for wooden objects on Saturday.
Without Hafren Forest to contend with, the event had a fresh and compact look to it. Pantperthog was followed by two stages in Dovey. A run north to Dyfnant and Aberhirnant was then followed by the first three tests again. That was all there was to it, a fast moving high pressure season’s end, but one which carried a tough test of nerve for all concerned.
To everyone’s surprise, however, it was Wilson who led after the Pantperthog test. Mouton could only manage fifth, 21secs behind the Cumbrian. Was something wrong with the Pirelli-shod Quattro?
“No, the engine is all right,” explained Terry Hoyle. “There is nothing wrong with the car at all.” It seemed therefore, that the works team driver was simply rusty after a fairly pressure-free World programme.
Tne first corner that the crews faced was the uphill hairpin right where a large crowd of spectators gathered to watch. Had they been at the time control as the cars arrived, they would have witnessed Michele going through her early morning work out. Standing in the middle of the road, observers were treated to a display of gymnastics as the French girl limbered up. Sadly, however, her hairpin technique was not so impressive, the Quattro understeering wide before getting into its power drive down the straight.
Eklund too was not so good. With a whistle of the turbo, the Celica shot into the comer but struggled for traction in the middle. Wilson was more at home and it was reflected in the stage time.
Pond’s Metro coughed and spluttered, clearly not quite at home yet, but nevertheless good enough for fourth. Aitken-Walker showed why she has not really managed to produce the results required to win the series as she struggled with the understeering Sierra and Phil Collins, too, was in difficulties, the Opel entering the corner far too fast and getting bogged down for a second or two. Championship favourite, Dai Llewellin, threw the Nissan, into the comer with tremendous enthusiasm but it was too much, the Blydenstein Racing car getting into a half spin and then, with spectators running for cover, it found grip and shot off down the road. Were nerves playing a part?
But the interloper in the pack over that early test was Allan Edwards. The powerful four-wheel-drive Escort entered that hairpin slower than any other car on the event, remarkably unimpressive. But, once the wheels were pointing down the road, the throttle was stamped to the floor and, with a roar of deafening sound, the red missile leapt forward and away, faster than any of the others. This wildly contrasting performance was to net third spot. But not for long. On the Garthieniog test, the bonnet was to flap open and, one stage later, the gearbox jammed. At service the car was packed away, with just the memory of what might have been.
And what of Russell Brookes? Even on the way to the first stage there were problems with the Manta. With no work being carried out on the engine since Cyprus, it was perhaps no surprise that the unit began to overheat on the way to the first stage. Twice the electrics were changed on the road section but, once on the stage, the problems returned. At service it was planned to try some new tyres and then go home. Only the presence of sponsor, John Andrews, altered the plan. Brookes stayed on, drove as best he could and, with an engine that offered little comfort even on the downhill sections of the final tests, he struggled through to finish sixth. One hopes that the visitors from Andrews were impressed as it was surely a gritty performance.
Eklund brought the Toyota into Machynlleth in fourth place, quickly, Henry ‘Mother Goose‘ Liddon and team engineer, Gerd Pfeiffer, began to analyse the performance. It had been very slippery and tyre choice was difficult. Otherwise, everything was fine with the red car but it did not help to know that Pond’s Metro was ahead. Even with excessive tyre wear on the opening test, Pond was lying second, just 8secs behind Wilson. The Cumbria battle was being continued and it was surely to provide some fine sport during the day.
Indeed, the Metro took the rally lead on the next test, albeit aided by Wilson’s Quattro losing third gear. For a moment, it looked as though the Quattro might be out as there was another problem. With a gearbox change clearly necessary, time was of the essence. Help could be speeded along if the crew could contact tneir ‘supervision’ car. But the radio would only receive and not make clear transmissions. The solution was quite ingenious. Service crew to rally car: “If you can hear us, press the microphone button twice.” Beep, beep.
“Is the problem in the engine?” Beep.
“Is it the gearbox?” Beep, beep.
“Do you want it changed?” Beep, beep.
“Can you get throught the next stage and into service?” Beep, beep.
“See you later. Good luck.” Beep, beep.
And with that, the ‘Road Runner’ Quattro set off. It arrived at Bala where the mechanics did a sterling job. Aided by David Sutton’s team, the Malcolm Wilson Motorsport crew had the ’box swapped just in time and the car was sent on its way again. But, to everyone’s surprise, Wilson was now in the lead again, Pond’s Metro having stopped in Dyfnant. One of two punctures on the Metro was brought about by a shattered wheel. Unfortunately, the remains managed to get lodged amid the transmission parts and had to be carefully picked out before a new wheel could be fitted. In the end, the whole process took too long and the car was OTL. Nevertheless, Pond continued and revealed that, despite mid-season criticism, the car really can work. For the first time since its York National debut, Austin Rover’s World Championship challenger really turned on the style, it handled well and set fastest times on five of the eight stages. Had Pond finished in the top five times on the Dyfnant test where the gremlins struck, he would almost certainly have won the event Eklund, too, was in trouble. The sight of the mechanics pouring water over the turbo-charger told the classic tale. The wastegate had failed on the Celica. A rapid switch was made but, apart from the turbo hassle, Per had stopped to change a wheel at the end of the Dyfnant test only to find that the jack would not work. The British Group A Champion was not so overjoyed when he arrived at Bala but, as on the Manx, he calmly analysed the problems and the job in hand. We were about to witness another charge back through the field. On the Manx, Per was among the lower part of the top 20 with two days to go. Now he had just three stages and he lay seventh, 4mins behind the leader. The task was almost as great.
In Division 2, the scene had been set early and was being maintained. Phil had collected an early puncture and Louise had recorded a spin. Dai had been struggling over the opening tests with a misfire but otherwise had stayed intact. The Manta led the Nissan by 12 secs, holding third and fourth places respectively. The Sierra lay eighth, almost lmin behind the Manta. If the situation continued, Dai would be champion, for whatever Phil did, Dai was too close.
“I need a little help from my friends,” he quipped. “I had hoped that Allan Edwards might have given me a bit more backing but obviously I didn’t pay him enough!” In fact, it was the Escort of Roger Chilman who was offering the best assistance to his team leader but the Presteigne farmer could not get ahead of his Haverfordwest rival.
After a slow start, Bertie Fisher was now creeping into the top 10 but still lay adrift from Roy Cathcart in the Collins Cars Ascona. Where would Phil get help at this stage of the event? In reality, he knew that Dai had to have a major disaster if he was to steal the title.
The Group A battle was proving entertaining too. Dave Metcalfe was leading the contest from Graham Elsmore. The Manta had seemingly got its reliability sorted out at last but Elsmore’s Toyota was storming back after a first stage puncture. The Hereford based driver was second but the leading pair had a new face to contend with this time out.
Andrew Wood has signed a deal to run the GM Dealersport Group A Astra GT/E on the RAC Rally in November and was getting used to the Ian Harrison prepared car for the first time. He was third and only just behind the Toyota. And what is more, he was beginning to get to grips with the car.
Graham Parkinson’s Nova was fighting hard for 1300cc class honours but Ian Hughes only had to finish to ensure the crown. However, the Samba driver was also aware of another challenge. Having brought the Coventry based team some excellent results over the past 18 months, he is hopeful that they will recognise his efforts when they name the number two driver to Mikael Sundstrom in the newly formed Peugeot Talbot Dealer Team. A 205 GTi would suit this driver’s immense talent down to the ground.
Brookes was now determined to reach the finish, having just thrown off a set of Michelin C3 narrow snow tyres. “They are all right for about six miles in these conditions,” explained Mike Broad, “but they would be perfect for really deep mud and snow. It is an ideal way to find out how they would last on the RAC. ” So all was not entirely lost.
With the weather switching from bright sunshine to torrential rain—is this a foretaste of November?—the crews set off for the final tests. Collins’ advantage had been cut to a few seconds after a uncture on the fifth stage but he still new that Dai needed bad luck. John Taylor was heard to tell Roger Evans that now was the time for a choke chain to be put on Dai. It was all a matter of reaching the finish in one piece. Rather like Ari Vatanen, Llewellin is usually determined to seek outright victory if he can. Now was a time to settle for second. Lose a battle and win the war. Everyone had advice, Dai being the only driver who could actually take the title on his own merit. The others had only to hope . . .
“We just took it very steady over the last few stages,” explained Phil at the end. “The only trouble was, we were unaware of how fast Eklund was going and he beat us by 10secs. But you know, you start to remember the little mistakes as you reel off the miles. The oil pipe on the Russek, the propshaft on the Granite, the ditch on the York and that firebreak in Cumbria. Any one of them could have cost us the title, but that’s life isn’t it?” It didn’t help when Roger Freeman revealed that he had now won the co-driver’s title. Not very tactfully timed Mr Freeman!
And, indeed, Phil had been beaten by Eklund. With a storming drive, the Swede notched up third overall on the last stage, some consolation for the earlier misfortunes. Bertie Fisher’s hopes of improving his top 10 placing were dashed with a roll in Dovey although he still managed to finish, albeit with the Manta looking decidedly second-hand.
The Group A contest was resolved in favour of Andrew Wood, a worthy result for the Astra debutant, although hard luck stories were the order of the day for both Graham Elsmore and Dave Metcalf. The Toyota broke a halfshaft in the Garthieniog while the Manta again fell victim to a failed differential at the end of the penultimate test. The Northern Auto Sport car nearly ended up being pushed off the pier after the dismal season that has now ended.
This also left Ian Hughes in second place, Garthieniog seeing off the Parkinson’s challenge for the lead with a time-consuming mishap. Gavin Cox and Steve King netted good placings too, Cox finally getting some sort of result after fading from the scene somewhat this season.
But the day belonged to Dai Llewellin. Malcolm Wilson, who had completed the penultimate stage with a puncture, was lost in the crowd who waited respectfully as he, Michele, Per and Phil all took their bows. Then they erupted as the Nissan pulled up to the finish banner.
Television and radio crews pounced, cameras clicked and everyone got soaked as Dai let rip with the Moet et Chandon. The underdog at the season’s mid point, Dai had finally come good. He nearly won the series last year and now he had finally done it. Roger Evans watched quietly as his driver took the acclaim. The realisation of what he has achieved will take some weeks to sink in one feels. But it must be said that the title has gone to a worthy champion, someone who will make good use of the prize and, hopefully, fully justify the faith that many people showed in him when the chips were down.