WRC preview: 1986 Monte
Peugeot was given a shock on the 1986 season opener. By David Evans T
his was it. The one we’d been waiting for. Three years in the making, Group B was coming to the boil.
Rarely had a season been so eagerly awaited as 1986. Chapter one, the Monte, was billed as a straight fight between Peugeot and Walter Rohrl. Why wouldn’t it be? In the hands of Ari Vatanen, the 205 T16 had slaughtered everything in its way in the Alps 12 months before. Admittedly, AV was missing – still recovering from his horrific Rally Argentina shunt the previous season. But Peugeot had world champion Timo Salonen, asphalt ace Bruno Saby and new boy Finn Juha Kankkunen.
Audi had Rohrl. And Rohrl had won this event on four of the last six occasions. Granted, the German might have been shown the way home by Vatanen in 1985. But that was in the evil-handling quattro Sport. He now had an even more powerful – 500bhp-plus – quattro E2, complete with insane aero, at his disposal.
Three Lancia Delta S4s lined up and were given lip service, but not an awful lot more. Anybody arguing in favour of the machine that had won on its debut in Britain the previous November was pointed quickly in the direction of Markku Alen’s car, which suffered a misfire on the concentration run from Sestriere. That engine-mapping problem would continue into the event, ruling Alen out at the midpoint.
Converging on Aix-les-bains from six concentration runs, the Automobile Club de Monaco provided a classic route with six stages on Sunday (January 19) afternoon and evening. An overnight halt returned the crews to the competition for six more stages on Monday afternoon before a decent night’s sleep. Tuesday morning started the run south through the Ardeche and through Tuesday night, arriving in Monaco on Wednesday afternoon. The final loop headed out of the principality late morning Thursday, concluding with a dawn arrival for a harbourside finish on Friday.
A proper Monte.
Lancia strikes early
And six stages in, a proper Monte upset for the French: Lancia was 1-2-3. Henri Toivonen was on a mission. And there was more to this mission than met the eye. Twenty years before, Henri’s father Pauli had ‘won’ the Monte in a Group 1 Citroen DS 21.
Or at least he’d arrived at the finish fifth, only to move up the order when three BMC Minis and Roger Clark’s Lotus Cortina were excluded for trumped-up irregularities with their headlights.
Toivonen wasn’t happy. And hadn’t been for the duration of the 1966 event – right from when his recce car broke down on top of the Col de Turini. Toivonen telephoned team manager Rene Cotton, who suggested the best bet would be for Pauli to pop back to Paris and pick up another. That conversation had ended shortly afterwards.
And Toivonen’s Citroen contract also went south when he elected not to go and pick up the winner’s silverware at the finish.
This event meant plenty to the Toivonen family.
Hence the excitement when Henri ended the first night two decades on with a time half a minute faster than anybody through the Chartreuse stage. By the following evening and the 11-hour rest halt in Grospierres, he was 1m41s ahead, with Rohrl his closest pursuer.
Neil Wilson, the man who co-drove Tovoinen to RAC victory at the end of 1985, was working with Henri’s brother Harri as one of the ice note crews.
Wilson recalls: “When we were on top of the Lancia, celebrating at the finish of the RAC, I told Henri it would be easier from now on.”
Waiting to go into Burzet at 10 o’clock on Tuesday morning, Toivonen remembered that conversation. He told Wilson: “You were right, it’s so easy now…”
Forced to give best to Saby’s Peugeot in Burzet, that stage did spell the end of Rohrl’s challenge. Stopping to change a puncture, he discovered the Audi mechanics had forgotten to switch the spare from the previous evening. Six minutes were dropped as Rohrl hobbled out of the test on three slicks and one studded Michelin.
Admittedly, Salonen was still just about within striking distance, but things were looking increasingly comfortable for the leader as he headed out of SS12.
Rogue Pug intervenes
Then everything went wrong. A spectator hurtled around a blind bend on the wrong side and slammed into the front of the #7 Delta. The fan was, ironically, driving a Peugeot.
The near-side front wheel was ripped from Toivonen’s car, with extensive damage to the radiator, suspension and steering. The team worked frantically to rebuild the S4, chopping out parts of the damaged spaceframe chassis and welding in new steel tubes. Incredibly, the car was kept on the road and the repair would be refined as the event progressed – but there was nothing to be done about the fact that the left-hand side was now two centimetres shorter than the right, providing wicked understeer on right-handers.
Toivonen didn’t escape unscathed either, hurting his hip in the shunt. He would spend the rest of the rally on painkillers.
The best pain relief came with the news that he was still ahead. Salonen had been kept at bay. For now.
There was nothing Toivonen could do when a stud punctured one of his Pirellis on the Col de Garcinets stage, just south of Gap on Wednesday morning. He dropped a minute and a half. The rally had a new leader. France could breath again. There was more misery for Toivonen and Lancia on the following Sisteron stage. As usual, the start was mostly dry, with snow and ice waiting over the top and down the north-facing side. Just below the infamous and always ice-filled hairpins on the final push up to the Col de Fontbelle, Lancia waited for its men. A midstage tyre change was planned. Slicks were replaced by studs, but the Pirelli racer had been too hard and Toivonen wasn’t able to get enough heat into them to lean on them fully. More time went Salonen’s way.
The bespectacled Finn drove into Monaco with a 33-second lead over Toivonen. He headed straight
for the Beach Plaza hotel and a well-earned rest.
Toivonen? He headed in the opposite direction, towards the heliport on the other side of town. It might have been getting late in the afternoon, but he took off and headed north, bound for a Delta S4 practice car and tomorrow’s first two stages.
He and co-driver Sergio Cresto completed a final recce of Col de la Madone and Turini. The benefits were two-fold: further improving their knowledge of the roads while simultaneously dealing Salonen a psychological blow as he enjoyed the Mediterranean sunset from his room.
The benefits were debatable when Salonen extended his lead on the opening stage of the final loop the following lunchtime, exploiting the advantage his Michelin-shod T16 had in dry conditions.
As the route moved north and west through the Alpes Maritimes, the weather went south. Cloud, rain, sleet and snow moved in. By the third stage of the loop, Toivonen was back in charge. And back out front.
At the time, questions were raised about the defence Salonen put up in the face of a string of fastest times from his countryman. But the reigning world champion was a shrewd operator and one unwilling to risk all in the pursuit of a victory in conditions where he felt far from comfortable.
After a final early evening service in Monaco, the crews drove into the night for the last time. Another lap of the mountains awaited them before an 0700hrs finish.
Toivonen was, by now, in complete control and would finish the event more than four minutes ahead of Salonen. Typically, Pirelli had come up with the goods in cold, changeable conditions and, with all the other manufacturers looking to the French for their rubber, only Lancia and chiefly Toivonen benefited. Had it not been for that errant Peugeot after Burzet and slow puncture a few stages later, the margin could have been considerably bigger.
Hannu Mikkola made it three different manufacturers on the podium with his quattro third, one place ahead of the sister machine of Rohrl. Kankkunen played himself into his new job with fifth, albeit almost half an hour down after more than 10 hours of competition.
Saby overcame transmission trouble to ensure all three works 205s finished in the top six. But ultimately, the French went home empty-handed. There was no Vatanen-inspired miracle finish this time around. And Rohrl, well he’d already won the event for the final time.
For Henri, it was two from two after celebrating an RAC win in Nottingham.
“The rally was good for me,” he said at the finish. “There were not so many mistakes and this rally went as we had hoped it would from the first stage, apart from the road accident after which we loaned Timo the lead for a while when we were coming south!”
The final chapter
Aged 29, Toivonen had the rallying world at his feet. He’d scored three world championship wins, but his Monte performance helped establish him as a title challenger in 1986.
A dropped valve on the next round in Sweden didn’t help, but it was a further pointer to the potency of the S4-toivonen partnership – he led on his first ever attempt at the Karlstad-based event.
The tragic spectator deaths brought Lancia’s Rally of Portugal to a premature halt. Which brings us to Corsica.
Not needed for the Italian firm’s slimmed down 037 Safari entries (for Alen and Miki Biasion), Toivonen focused his attentions on making the Delta S4 as fast as possible for Corsica. He knew it needed to be quick to beat a T16 on the French island.
And he found something. Lots of things. Wider Pirellis, new springs, dampers and rollbars lowered the car by 2.5cm.
“I’m now only beginning to understand this car,” he said after the test. “Lower than [it was in] Monte Carlo and 1.6 seconds per kilometre [faster], which puts us at least equal with the Peugeot on dry Tarmac.”
We know what happened next. Toivonen and the Delta delivered on pace and were leading when tragedy struck.
That’s another story for another day. For now, it’s worth remembering what a stunning job he did on the Monte 30 years ago this week, his final World Rally Championship win.
He did his family proud. ■