Madeira, rally of surprises and emotions

Madeira, rally of surprises and emotionsFrom Chris Biewer [ 01/08/2008 ].
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The Rali Vinho Madeira is a very unique event, as should be for a proper and exciting rally championship. The island is part of Portugal, but nearest land would be the North African coast some 650km away. Maybe this explains my earlier pun at the repetitive surnames on the island. It must have been an isolated place for some time in history. A beautiful place. The roads are windy, twisty, very hilly alright, but also wide with fresh, smooth asphalt. This makes it a fast rally despite its twisty and hilly nature. There is also a reason why this event is run at this time of the year. Apart from advertising Madeira’s famous wine, it is an island of flowers, making its rally stages look colourful like no other. Another unique aspect of this rally could today be its choice of favoured drivers. Three who are not usual IRC front runners stand out. Read on why.

 

 

We could have started with two drivers standing out. At the start of this event Giandomenico Basso and Bruno Magalhaes were the clear favourites. Bruno Magalhaes is one of the hottest and most successful drivers coming out of Portugal these days, but it is only his 2nd IRC start of the season – on the Rally Portugal he came 6th after an off. Giandomenico Basso’s role as favourite in itself calls for interesting questions. Basso is an IRC 2008 regular as Abarth works driver, but so far this year the Abarth Grande Punto didn’t seem to have the legs of the Peugeot 207. Will the dominating man of Rally Madeira in recents years still be a front runner with this car?

 

Rali Vinho Madeira 2008 leg1 was a refreshingly long day in modern rallying: 13 stages! And as the day developed, it soon became clear that there is a new, 3rd man in the list of this event’s own star drivers: Who is Alexandre Camacho? Flashback to Rali Vinho Madeira 2007, when it first counted to the IRC:

 

Giandomenico Basso and his works Abarth Grande Punto S2000 travelled to the island for this very combination won this rally clearly in 2006. Basso and Abarth duly delivered and won the 2007 edition, too. Would Basso/Abarth win in Madeira 2008 as well, it would be a rare hatrick. This is why Basso couldn’t be ruled out as favourite, even if Abarth had a below par season so far. However in 2007 Giandomenico Basso was not the fastest driver. This credit goes to Peugeot Portugual driver Bruno Magalhaes. In 2007 Magalhaes won 7 of the 19 stages, and that despite his rally only really started on stage 4! However for Magalhaes the 2007 event seemed over as soon as it started. A coil failure had his Peugeot run on 3 cylinders for the first 3 stages. A miracle that the engine survived without resulting damage and a miracle that Magalhaes could recover to 2nd place overall from this! Further down the field was another sensation. From early on – hence no excuses about star retirements allowed – a local boy of Madeira ran in the top10, driving a 206 S1600, FWD, 1600cc engine, a clear inferior car. This was Madeiran Alexandre Camacho. He finished 8th overall, won his class and scored IRC points. This show had several people open their eyes. For the season 2008 Alexandre Camacho has a 207 S2000, run by the Olca Team, supported by Peugeot Portugal amongst others, but in difference to even Bruno Magalhaes’ official importers car, Camacho’s 207 is still registered on Peugeot Sport in France!

 

Drop the curtains on Rali Vinho Madeira 2008. Traditionally the event started with a 2km blast along the Funchal sea front promenade. Do not mistake this with a side-by-side rally cross style superspecial stage. It is a proper, challenging fun stage, and although short, the results had some bearing. Because like a copybook of last year vice versa, Giandomenico Basso won all the morning loop stages, but this wasn’t enough to pull the lead out of Magalhaes’ grips! And if Basso can seamingly at ease win stages, this is good news for the IRC. The Abarth Grande Punto has the legs of the series dominating Peugeot 207 after all!

 

Alexandre Camacho moved himself into a solid 5th place. Very good, but maybe not sensational for some doubters. IRC series leader Luca Rossetti looked off form. He, Freddy Loix and Umberto Scandola are more or less the only real big star names Camacho kept at bay. Rossetti has a good excuse, as he competes for the first time on this island and cooked his brakes on those first stages. He surely adjusted his driving style to this as the day progressed.

 

Umberto Scandola should not have been in Madeira in the first place. Last year in our reports we started praising Scandola and his team. Scandola was driving a works Abarth in the quest of the Italian manufacturer finding a future star from their home market. As the season progressed the meanwhile 23 years old Italian started winning stages. Scandola only had one problem: Anton Alen was mega convincing. Sadly at the moment Anton Alen has a mega virus infection. Umberto Scandola is not forgotten, but apart from being a test driver, this is only his 2nd rally in 2008. And for this, Umberto Scandola does very well indeed. In fact, his stage times are consistant, while spectators are cheering him as Umberto decided this is a chance to have fun and slide a little more than usual.

 

Between the field led by Camacho and the undoubted favourites Magalhaes and Basso it was Nicolas Vouilloz/207 and suprisingly Renato Travaglia in another Grande Punto to have their own duel for 3rd & 4th places.

 

The rally was bound to take a massive turn after mid day service. The big afternoon loops kicked off with Serra d’Agua, a stage starting in the South, but crossing the island to the North, followed by 3 Northern stages, one of which going exactly along the Northern coast line. It soon became clear that the first stage was completely dry, but the Northern stages were all wet. Everybody in the service park was scratching their heads as to which tyres they should choose. This loop was 4 stages in a row without any service or tyre change scheduled.

 

Peugeot Portugal became really daring and choose a dry tyre, while the works Abarth team went out with more of a compromise for mixed conditions. On the very last stage before said service Giandomenico Basso in the works Abarth actually at long last managed to take the lead, only 1.1sec from Magalhaes. Obviously the gamble was going to be interesting. The first stage was reported to be dry, no surprise Basso had an average time and Magalhaes regained the lead. The big surprise was that it was newcomer team mate Alexandre Camacho to win this dry stage. But what about the 3 following stages? Were the Portuguese Peugeot’s gambling too high and the Abarth’s with their safer option would hit back big style?

 

Nothing was. The weather turned, windy conditions had the stages dry out surprisingly quickly. Basso and his safe option lost over half a minute against his strongest oposition and dropped from 1st to 5th in only this loop! Magalhaes and Camacho won two stages each in this loop.

 

The last loop of the day was a repeat of these dramatic 4 stages. By now the weather was more predictable dry and “normal”. Yet it was this loop where the biggest drama of the day should happen. Except Brice Tirabassi experiencing complete electrical failure in his brand new Peugeot 207 S2000, there were no major retirements all day. However the penultimate stage of this long day brought justice to the unfortunate Abarth works team. Until this point Magalhaes led the rally all day except at mid-day service. However dominating this may sound, IRC battles are that close, that a puncture was enough for Magalhaes to drop from an 11sec (that’s huge for IRC) lead all the way to 10th place overall!  

 

One must feel sorry for Bruno Magalhaes. This is only his 5th IRC start. But except Rallye San Remo 2007, where he crashed out after a cautious start, this was now his 4th IRC start in which he was leading and was denied a good result for bad luck! However for the event this may only have made things even more exciting. If 11.1sec was a “huge” lead by Magalhaes, we now have the scenario of Madeira’s own Alexandre Camacho having upped the pace all day to come within 3.7sec of the inconspicuous new leader Nicolas Vouilloz.

 

Vouilloz inconspicuous? Yes, he is the joined series leader, but as the day developed we had Vouilloz in 4th, concentrating on fellow series leader Luca Rossetti in 8th! Vouilloz’s lead is under threat from local Camacho. Travaglia in 3rd surprises insiders. Basso in 4th surely knows how to regain the stage winning performance of the first half of leg1. Rossetti is now 6th, only 1.1sec behind Freddy Loix. And the second works Abarth driver Umberto Scandola has got his hands back in and is bound to improve from 7th.

 

Not to forget, it is a long day left: 8 stages in a day, with the last stage being a real challenge at 22km.