From Chris Biewer [ 30/06/2004 ].
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It seems to be a London-Sydney tradition that the biggest dramas of the rally wait until the Sydney finish feels in reach. In the original event in 1968 the far away leader Lucien Bianchi, Citroen DS crashed heavily with 100km to go! The winner was Andrew Cowan, Hillman Hunter, who only a few days earlier was still in 4th place behind dominating Bianchi, Roger Clark in a Ford Lotus Cortina and Paddy Hopkirk in the Austin 1800. In the 2000 edition Hannu Mikkola in his David Sutton Escort RS1600 was battling with Sig Blomqvist’s Capri for the lead until 5 days from the finish, when Mikkola dropped to 27th with electrical problems. This year with 5 days to go we experienced freak weather conditions and also saw the end of Jimmy McRae’s challenge, who was leading the rally for 18 days!
And it all started with such a great fun day before the dramas struck. Our last report left after day23. Day24 started in Coober Pedy. Everybody enjoyed the underground living in this Opal capital of the World (read the last report). From here the entire rally convoy went down the pub – only that it is the only pub for 400km, so it took some driving getting there! We are talking of William Creek. This village is absolutely in the middle of nowhere. Apart from the pub the village has an all important petrol station, and that’s about it.
Already on the way to William Creek, the convoy travelled through the Lake Eyre, which is a salt lake at 12 metres below sea level. Leaving William Creek we travel towards the Birdsville Track and the Simpson Desert. Here we have the day’s two long stages, both on gravel, obviously as even all the main roads here don’t contain an onze of tarmac. Joe McAndrew wins both these stages but his lead doesn’t increase too severely as Jimmy McRae keeps up well. Joe’s lead is now at 1m57s. Incredible, this rally now lasts since 24 days and this not even 2 minutes is the biggest lead we have seen so far!
It is nice to note that Skoda 1100MB crew Jiri Motal/Ota Kramaz have got on top of their gearbox problems that delayed them on the way to Coober Pedy, day23. Another crew to celebrate are David Winstanley/Terry Metcalfe. The Australian Outback was supposed to really trouble the modern FWD cars. And the MG ZR still seems to be a bit of an unknown quantity. But in SS41 Dulkaninna David, Terry and their MG posted the 8th quickest time overall, their best stage result so far!
Meanwhile Lloyd Hughes and Hugh Hodgkinson in their Porsche 911 continue their massive surprise charge up the order. 10th and 12th quickest times have them break into the top20 with the tendency pointing further upwards. The only bad news we received all day was the retirement of Americans Paul Shaver/Jeff Evans, whose Honda Integra suffered a huge engine blow up.
Day25 then served unexpected drama. Further along the Birdsville Track, the rally was scheduled to travel along the outskirts of the Simpson Desert. The rally is so far in the wilderness by now, the crews face their second night in a row in canvas tents. The nearest hotel is some 600km off route! Take Special Note that we are talking desert! For years it hasn’t rained in this area. What a massive, massive fluke that the heavens had to open right now! And how they opened. There were two long stages planned on a unique, white talcum surface, but both these desert stages were flooded so badly, the organisers had no option but to deviate the route and cancel the day’s competitive action. Can you imagine how absolutely unlikely this was to happen!
And how ironic that exactly here another drama should strike: Jimmy McRae stopped on this road section with a Toyota Corolla minus head gasket. Jimmy, who wasn’t willing to give up after having led the rally for no less than 18 days, reached the night halt and promised to work flat out to have the car ready for the re-start the next morning. It wasn’t going to happen. Improvised repairs didn’t work out and with the nearest hotel 600km away, you can imagine how close the next Toyota tuning specialist was. Jimmy McRae/Bruce Lyle, Toyota Corolla are basically out of the rally!
They are ”basically” out of the rally because this marathon rally runs an interesting scheme to let retired teams re-join the rally. Find out how the system works in the article "London-Sydney retirement system for WRC?" This means Jimmy McRae dropped to 14th place and is likely to drop further. As well Paul Darrouzet, whose yellow Capri was hanging from a crane on previous photos in our articles, managed a fine 5th fastest stage time in SS45. In the overall classification Jimmy’s problems mean that Joe McAndrew/Murray Cole, Honda Integra now have a 13m27s lead. Honda team mates Mike Montgomery/Roy Wilson have won SS45 by a minute and are in 2nd place. 3rd are Jimmy’s Toyota team mates Graham Lorimer/Nick Starkey. Incredible in this is that the top3 drivers are all from New Zealand. With 4 days left to go it looks like we might see for the first time ever a non-European winning this legendary event!
Two victims of day26’s over 100km of stages include Richard Martin-Hurst and Lloyd Hughes. Richard Martin-Hurst/Tony Devantier, Ford Capri Perana V8 lost time with a gearbox problem on the first stage, but they managed to solve the problem before the second stage and only dropped from 8th to 9th place. In the last days we started following Lloyd Hughes/Hugh Hodgkinson, Porsche 911. Since hitting Australia the pair is posting stunning top10 stage times and were improving quickly from their previous 23rd place. Maybe the going was a little too tough. Their catalogue of problems of day26 alone includes a damaged sump, loss of rear brakes and an off. So they are back down in 24th place again.
I promised the Australian section of this rally to be a very different story. I also promised the Australian Outback to be where the old V8s will fight back. Thank you to Gary & Rex Leeson and their Ford Falcon 4.7 V8 for putting an end to me looking pathetic with my previews! They were 6th and 7th quickest on the two stages of day26, moving up from 11th to 8th place in only these two stages! And when David Winstanley in his MG ZR had reasons to celebrate on day24, today it was Vidar Christensen/Oddvar Moy, Peugeot 306 S16 to put a smile on my face. The group N 306 was following the big block Leeson Falcon like a shadow today on the stage time sheets and that moved the Norwegian Peugeot team up from 13th to 11th place now with their dream of a top10 finish coming a little nearer to reality.
Now we spent 5 days in Australia and somehow it all seems to happen so quickly! Tomorrow the rally will already reach the Pacific Coast after a day of pine forest stages with soft soil and many crests and water splashes.