1986: Henri Toivonen is killed
Filled with sadness, Frenchman Bruno Saby gained his first World Championship victory at the Tour de Corse. He inherited the lead when the Lancia Delta S4 of Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto crashed on the second day killing both men and leading to the withdrawal of the works Italian cars
Toivonen's crash was so severe that the car exploded and was consumed by an intense fire, though officials stated later that both Toivonen and his American co-driver Cresto were believed to have died instantly from the initial impact.
The accident led to an immediate decision by FISA to limit the World Championship to Group A cars from 1987. Meanwhile, Peugeot have overtaken Lancia in the lead for the World Championship; positions at the top of the Drivers Championship remain unchanged.
The withdrawal of the top drivers from the Rally of Portugal in March postponed the pointers to ultimate success this season. After Sweden both Lancia and Peugeot had scored a first and a second and Markku Alen's late charge on the Safari had put the Italian team ahead. For all the earlier expectations of greater involvement with Group B, the World Championship still promised to be only a two-team race.
After winning the all-asphalt European Championship Circuit of Ireland with the MG Metro 6R4, Austin Rover had high hopes of success on this event. Citroen, whose Group B BX4TC ap-peared for the first time at Monte Carlo, have not been seen since the Swedish and Ford decided that their RS200 (first seen in Sweden), was too new for such a specialised event. All of which left the entry in Corsica rather thin at the top.
The lure of clear asphalt on home territory persuaded Renault, however, to attend, although their top driver Jean Ragnotti was only given a Group A car while the only works-supported Group B car, a Maxi 5 Turbo, was entrusted to their National Championship driver Francois Chatriot. Group A provided much of the interest at the start but by the end of the event it attracted even more attention.
The most successful Group A car in the recent history of the Tour de Corse is the Alfa Romeo GTV6, which in the hands of Yves Loubet (a former Corsican resident), had won this category twice already. Loubet was never entered in a GTV6 at all, for it was planned to make the debut at this event of the newly-homologated V6 Alfa 75. However, pre-rally testing with this car had shown some suspension faults and on the eve of scrutineering the engine and trans-mission were transferred to the old GTV6 in which he had been successful the year before. Renault had two 11 Turbos, one in proven specification for Alain Oreille (the Monte Carlo Group A winner), and the other for Ragnotti which was fitted with many new parts.
In the Peugeot camp there was a confidence brought about by weeks of testing on the island. New to the works team (and therefore to a second-evolution car) was French girl Michele Mouton, competing with her former co-driver Fabrizia Pons, recently married and making her final appearance in the co-driver's seat. Missing was Juha Kankkunen who has been occupied in recent weeks testing in Spain, while World Champion Timo Salonen was showing more interest in the event that was his custom in his old Nissan days.
The cars looked so low on the ground it was difficult to see how the undercar skirts would escape damage. Mouton was confident, having just returned from winning the Vorderpfalz Rally, Germany's all-asphalt equivalent of the Tour de Corse, but it was hard to assess what Saby was thinking. For so long he had been hovering in the wings, denied the chance of a big break, out-man-oeuvred by the Scandinavian rally mafia, and for some time not entirely trusted by Peugeot's managers. He had done a superb job in Corsica last year, but it never really counted for much. He knew that he was capable of bigger and better things, but he seemed to be in a minority.
The three team Lancias looked much as they have done previously. The team came with a heavy heart, remembering their friend Attilio Bettega who had been killed there just one year before. Toivonen had only been to Corsica once before, and had prepared thoroughly, but three days before the start he caught flu and spent a lot of time in bed.
For most of the team the presence of the monument to Bettega, erected in stage number 4 beside the place where he crashed last year, was a witness to the sincerity of their job. On the day of the event, bunches of flowers were placed round the monument.
Like Peugeot, Lancia firmly believed that the reign of the two-wheel drive cars, which had won every Tour de Corse to date, was at an imminent end. Of the three drivers, perhaps Alen was the most determined. Twice he had won the event before, both times it may have been good for his team - but it had never helped him in his personal quest, the World Championship. And Massimo Biasion? Here is a man who knows time is on his side. One day a victory will be his.
Confidence came and went so far as Austin Rover were concerned, as before the rally things seemed to go so well. French driver Didier Auriol was brought into the works team with his red and yellow car, sponsored by Export 33 beer, and pre-event testing had produced many changes. Tony Pond was happy to do a rally where he has driven well before, while Malcolm Wilson was discovering the magic of the island for the first time.
But the moment their rally cars arrived, the smiles disappeared. The balance of the car was completely missing, and on such a tyre-critical event it meant that every chance of success evaporated. The event became one nightmare after another. Just to get back some of their handling they started adding ballast, thus eliminating the work done to lighten the cars in the first place. On the event itself many other things went wrong...
The rally itself was the same as last year, completely! One stage was turned into a road section after the Portugal spectator crash (it passed through a village close to Bastia), and a few stage starts and finishes were adjusted in detail. The whole event was held in daylight and, as usual, the whole route (save for places where the roads were being remade), was run on asphalt roads.
But once again the Scandinavians did not like what they saw. Timo Salonen. who seems to be the drivers' spokesman these days, said, "It would be a nice event - if the stages were shorter and the rough sections were not used as stages." Before the event a letter was written to the organisers calling on them to carry out a few changes, but the drivers sensed the letter was not even read, let alone acted upon.
Someone acted on it, how-ever, feeling that it seemed like an attempt to alter the balance of power in World Championship rallying. In the course of a disturbing pre-rally press conference, FISA's President, Jean-Marie Balestre, produced a peti-tion which he claimed was signed by 58 crews who wanted to run the Corsican event entirely as planned. He failed to note that 58 did not represent the major-ity but admitted no top names were included. "Cars should be adapted to the rallies," he said, "not the other way round." Forty-eight hours and two lives later, FISA's President had performed a complete U-turn, announcing among other things that stages should im-mediately be shorter.
From the start on Thursday morning there was drama. On the very first stage Alen was caught by Salonen but claimed his intercom was out of order; Jean Ragnotti had a gear lever break; Auriol saw his oil light come on and coasted to the finish with smoke coming from the rear of the Metro; and Franz Wittmann's VW Golf GTI was stuck in first gear for 15km. Peugeots were first, second and third.
On the second stage Alain Oreille's 11 Turbo had the throttle cable break and then went off the road, and Pond found his clutch slipping. Corsica is unusual in being the only World Championship rally to run cars at one-minute intervals, so Salonen found more than once that he could catch up with Alen on the stages, inter-com problem or not.
As the rally headed into the afternoon Alen's engine began to lose power, the Finn's face displaying disbelief that the World Championship points should prove so impossible to collect. Salonen himself was not happy, more than once he found his tyres were going off unexpectedly, and suddenly on stage four Toivonen had slipped into the lead.
The rally route north to Bastia seems never-ending. Stage follows stage with hardly a break, and any problem with a car is likely to prove terminal. Malcolm Wilson had a driveshaft break and then lost the power steering, then had a puncture.
On nearly every stage Toiv-onen was fastest, seldom by much, but enough to accumulate a 102sec lead by the end of the day.
Before arriving at Bastia the Lancia team overhauled their cars. Alen's had a new turbo compressor and electrics; Biasion's had new electrics; only Toivonen's seemed to be going well. Biasion had also suffered a seemingly incurable brake problem earlier on, until it was discovered the balance bar was working the wrong way round.
At least their team was intact. In the French camp they had already lost two cars and Saby had struggled through despite some troubles with his tyres. "Alter 25km or 30km," he claimed, "they would get too hot and start sliding very badly."
The story of the evening was Alen's account of why Salonen was no longer in the rally: "Once again he had caught up with us, so we pulled to the left hand side of the road. There was plenty of room to pass, but I think he hit a rock as he went by. The Peugeot then spun round right in front of us and went off on the left side, toppling over. We stopped to make sure they were alright before we set off again."
And Michele Mouton was out as well. A pin in the linkage had jammed the car in gear, and as she tried to restart the car, the starter broke.
And Austin Rover? Wilson had gone missing as well. Belt trouble had been plaguing the car in addition to his other problems, and with a heavy heart he set off for stage 10. "After about 15km the engine started getting very hot, so we stopped to add some water. Another 5km further on I found the back of the car was on fire - it seemed the time to give up."
Behind Toivonen came Saby, Biasion, Francois Chatriot, Alen and Pond. with another 12mins before Yves Loubet in the best Group A car. A private Golf driver, Laurent Poggi, was enjoying himself by leading both the works VWs, while last year's Group N winner Patrick Bernardini was 2mins ahead of Bernard Dongues; BMW 325i against Renault 5 GT Turbo.
Leading positions: 1, Toivonen, 4h30m55s: 2, Saby, 4h32m37s; 3, Biasion, 4h34m13s; 4, Chatnot 4h39m16s; 5, Alen, 4h41m50s.
Pond was not looking forward to the day because there seemed no obvious way out of his problems. "The car is working against you all the time. It is understeering and you cannot drive through it because you destroy your tyres if you change your style." The Metro's transmission had been changed the night before, but on the first stage of the second day, it was no better. The only force that pushed Pond on was the need just to finish, but on the following stage this was denied. A cambelt failed and he was out.
The rally reached Corte at lunchtime, and Toivonen was gradually speeding up. No more was he simply taking the odd seconds off the opposition; on the final stage before Corte he was 47secs faster than Saby, 3mins quicker than the record time for the 58km section.
The Finn was anxious to pull out a comfortable lead while he could but after the halt there was a tragic accident which would cost him his life, together with that of his co-driver Sergio Cresto. In an instant, the car went off the road and was engulfed in a ball of fire. As soon as officials reported the route had been blocked the rally was halted. From miles around one could see a black cloud slowly drifting into the sky, and the sky was turning black as rain began to fall.
Firstly the radio reported the car was on fire and blocking the road, then came the more sinister news that the car was not on the road at all. Lancia's helicopter scudded by under the lowering clouds and headed straight for the smoke. It was clear that something awful had happened.
The reasons for the accident cannot be determined. Jean Ragnotti said that there was no sign of braking, it was just as if Henri had never thought the left-hand bend was sharp. Even hours after the wreckage had been put on a trailer and taken back to Ajaccio, the trees were still on fire. Wreckage was everywhere: pieces of radiator, snapped off hits of suspension, fragmented pieces of Kevlar... This was the crash of an aeroplane, not a car. The impact was felt everywhere. The silence in the mountains was uncanny.
After an hour and a half, ashen-faced drivers brought their cars out of the stage and followed instructions to go straight to Calvi without tackling the next three stages. The Lancias turned round and went back to Ajaccio while up in Calvi, Saby, Chat-riot and Loubet agreed to carry on.
Leading positions: 1. Toivonen. 6h39m41s; 2, Saby, 6h42m26s; 3, Biasion, 6h44m33s; 4, Chatriot, 6h51 m38s; 5, Alen, 6h53m52s.
The final day was run in the sunny beauty of the island that behaved as if the previous day had never happened. People still watched the cars go past, but everyone clutched a newspaper which showed the grotesque metal skeleton of what was once the leading car. There was some drama still to come.
Kenneth Eriksson, the Group A World Champion leader, demonstrated his style when his clutch failed on a transport section, right next to a service van. Team mate Franz Wittmann was an unlucky one - his VW broke its engine on the very last stage - and earlier, Group A privateer Klaus Fritzinger retired when his Toyota Corolla had head gasket failure due, he reckoned, to poor local fuel: "It happened because we had run out of supplies we had brought from Germany..."
The closely-battled Promotion category was fought out by a hoard of private Renault 5 Turbos, only 75secs separat-ing the leading crews at the finish. The Group N-winning BMW driver never gave up. Even when leading by over 30mins after Dongues' Renault went off the road, he was sideways through every corner.
Saby did his job just as he had done the year before. There was no champagne at the finish, however, and it rained again at the prizegiving ceremony the following day. The 30th Tour de Corse was the end of an era.
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