Every now and then everything clicks for a driver with a rally. That was Markku Alén and the Rally of Portugal. He took his maiden World Rally Championship win on the event in 1975, missed the following year, but came back and won again in 1977.
That mid-Seventies era was defined to some degree by a fierce battle between Ford and Fiat. Björn Waldegård had led the ’77 event until he dropped time with a puncture in Arganil, allowing Alén’s factory 131 through for the win. That was nothing compared to the Abarth v RS1800 battle which raged through Portugal in 1978.
For that late April event, César Torres had added more weight to the route with close to 400 competitive miles – 60 more than in previous years. All but 80 of those miles were on the Portuguese gravel. Gravel which, for the opening day, was soaking wet and covered in fog.
Bernard Darniche made the early running in a private Lancia Stratos, but then Alén found his feet and moved to the front, only to be forced aside by Fiat team-mate Walter Röhrl. The German’s rally was scuppered – like that of fellow 131 man Sandro Munari and factory Escort drivers Waldgård and Ari Vatanen – in the Cabreira and Senhora de Graça stages early in the third leg. They all retired.
Alén didn’t escape either, his Fiat went off the road allowing Jean-Pierre Nicolas to move his Escort to the front.
A puncture for the Frenchman dropped him from P1 and left Alén and Hannu Mikkola out front and fighting into the final loop of stages. Just 11 seconds split the pair ahead of a final night comprising 11 stages and 55 miles.
The so-called Sintra Grand Prix commenced. The top two set out at a furious pace across the asphalt roads. Mikkola’s Castrol-liveried Escort nibbled at the Alitalia-Fiat and eventually – with the assistance of an Alén spin at the first run through Sintra – the Ford started the final test four seconds ahead.
Starting the stage ahead of his rival, Alén crossed the line and was immediately out of the car and waiting impatiently for Mikkola. In these pre-mobile telephone days, nobody knew exactly when Hannu had started and split times were still years away from this final six-miler which had started at half-four in the morning.
All they could do was wait. And wait. Eventually they waited four minutes before Mikkola’s RS1800 made it across the finish. He’d hit a stone, punctured and dropped more than four minutes.
Alén delighted in his Portuguese hat-trick – he would go on to add two more wins to that tally and remains, to this day, the most successful driver in the history of the event (an honour he shares with Sébastien Ogier).
On paper, the result of the 1978 Rally de Portugal Vinho do Porto relays a 4m28s victory for Markku and co-driver Ilkka Kivimäki. The reality is very, very different. This one was a tooth and nail battle, one of the absolute classic finishes in a WRC still only five years old the time.
Nicolas took third place, more than 15 minutes down on the winner – but the fans only had eyes for what had been a classic conclusion to an epic race through the Sintra hills.