The disaster of Rally Portugal 1986

Death and doomed decision-making haunted a crowd favorite

Fafe at night

Markku Alén has never been one for chasing the limelight. So when he – voluntarily – appeared in the Portuguese media in the days before the start of the third round of the 1986 World Rally Championship, something was up.

The then Lancia driver’s message was clear: stay off the road. The popularity of Rally de Portugal had grown dramatically in recent years, with some of the stages simply unable to contain the vast numbers of fans arriving to cheer their heroes. Twelve months out from the 1986 event, Walter Röhrl shed light on the shocking psychological approach required to succeed on crowded roads which typified the height of the Group B era.

“You must think of them as trees,” said the German. Typically matter-of-fact, the statement was as unflinching in its delivery as it was in its deployment.

The route for the event was an immediate cause for concern. Based out of Estoril, the opening leg of stages was set in Sintra, a half-hour drive from Lisbon. Yes, this was a weekday – a Wednesday – but the first stage was scheduled for 9.15am. Only in recent years had César Torres adjusted the route to run this leg in the daylight rather than the afternoon into the evening. Privately, the drivers feared the worst.

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Out of action courtesy of his terrifying Rally Argentina accident the previous year, Ari Vatanen was well aware of the danger Sintra posed both to the rally and the sport at large.

“In Italy and places like this,” said the Finn, “it was difficult to control the fans at that time. But in Portugal, it was impossible. I remember driving the Sintra stages waving my fist at these crazy people in the road. You drive down this human corridor. It was an accident waiting to happen.”

And that ticking time bomb detonated on the very first stage, Lagoa Azul (the Blue Lagoon). This straightforward three-mile blast down an insanely quick and largely corner-less stretch of road had fans pouring in for hours to find a spot to enjoy the sport in the early spring sunshine. Families mingled with hardcore rally fans, and picnicked on the roadside.

Roadside as in right at the side of the road.

Nuno Sardinha was one of them. Much of the following comes courtesy of John Matthews’ exceptional documentary Madness on Wheels.

“I liked rallying so much because there was so much quality at the time,” Sardinha said. “I came for the racing, I came with my friends. We came to do something different. It was an adventure, you might say, that we wouldn’t normally have. We had friends from past years that we met at the race. We met a lot of girls… and it was fun to watch the cars.

“The event was great, there were a lot of people – more than normal because it was the first time it had been in the daytime. Not so many people would come before, because it was the night.

“The crowds were applauding, cheering on the drivers, showing how happy they were to see the cars going at such speed and with such a sound and such a noise. The cars made a scary but spectacular noise and the people normally moved to the side of the road so when the cars came around they started clapping and clapping.”

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Within minutes of the stage starting Röhrl had a huge moment when a spectator ran across the road in front of his Audi Sport Quattro E2. Cracking on through a right-hander, Röhrl missed him by millimeters.

Later on the stage, Timo Salonen wasn’t so fortunate. He collided with a cameraman, reportedly standing in the road on the exit of a corner and who was there because there was simply no room on the fan-packed verge.

The rear of the Peugeot’s 205 T16 E2 hit the cameraman, up-ended him, broke some bones and sent his camera flying into the crowd. In pieces. Salonen lost his rear bodywork, but got to the end of the stage. Immediately, the crews were up in arms about the lack of control of the spectators. Officials were told at the end of the stage, but nothing was done.

Right around that time, Joaquim Santos’s Ford RS200 left the start. It’s worth pointing out that Santos was one of Portugal’s best-known rally drivers – a frontrunner on the national scene. And 1986 was the big time. It was his moment. After years in an Escort RS1800, he’d landed the Blue Oval’s rocketship for the season.

I felt the car was not controlled, but I felt it could still be controlled so I kept looking at the pacenotes and reading Miguel Oliveira

He won his first event in the car, but retired with gearbox failure from the next. Then came his big moment, his home round of the world championship; his opportunity to show what he could do among the world’s best.

Miguel Oliveira was, as usual, co-driving the 33-year-old.

“Joaquim had practiced a lot with the car,” says Oliveira today, “and he has practiced the stages, so I was hoping to do well. We were hoping to mix it with the big boys, but unfortunately it all stopped too early and too tragically.

“There is the fastest part of the stage, you come on to a straight and then you have a right-hand bend which is very, very fast. It’s almost no bend. It’s fifth gear, almost maximum, in the training [recce] Joaquim was doing 200kph [124mph] at that point. After that you are slowing down for a left-hand bend.

“The road was completely packed. There were people and people and people. When Joaquim came out of the [right-hand] corner one guy steps into the Tarmac, so he has to make a correction and when he made the correction and tried to come back to normal, the rear of the car went. He lost it.

“I have years of experience as a co-driver. I was looking down. You feel things on your back, on your arse – you don’t have to look, you feel the car. I felt the car was not controlled, but I felt it could still be controlled so I kept looking at the pacenotes and reading.

“Then… bump, bump, bump. I didn’t see anybody. I didn’t see anything because everything was on the left side of the car. I felt the whack, whack, whack of the car hitting people. But then I came out from the right and they took me and put me in a car.”

Santos couldn’t move. Uninjured, he sat in the seat with his head on the wheel.

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Around him was complete chaos. Three died instantly including a mother and her 11-year-old son. Another child was killed, and one person died later in hospital.

Scattered around the car, 32 more were seriously injured. Sardinha was one of them.

“We were a few meters from the front and when I heard the sound of the car I knew for sure he had lost control,” he said. “Around the corner, it started sliding and skidding. I remember I tried to move back and get away, go to the middle of the crowd and run away. I tried to run back away from the track, but the car hit me. I was knocked out momentarily.

“When I woke up, I was missing the sole of my boot. The sole of my boot was taken off by the tire of the car. I thought if the tire had gone a little bit higher I would have lost my leg.”

It’s at this point that the story takes another dark turn. Marc Duez was next through in his MG Metro 6R4. As is the accepted thinking in such an incident, the Belgian didn’t stop, but got to the next radio point to warn the officials to stop the stage.

That radio point was at the finish. Duez told them what had happened… but nothing was done to stop the stage immediately and bring an ambulance in. Eleven more cars started at competitive speed, much to the disbelief of both the crowd and the crews.

The crews had seen enough and gathered to discuss their plan at the Hotel Estoril. Coffee and refreshments were taken into the room and, also on the trolley, hidden in a napkin was a journalist’s dictaphone. When the machine was discovered, the tape was removed and destroyed.

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But the crews did have something to say and a hand-written note was photocopied and distributed. The statement read:

The reasons that all the undersigned drivers do not wish to continue with the Portuguese Rally are as follows:

1 As a mark of respect for the families of the dead people and for those injured.

2 There is a very special situation here in Portugal: we feel it is impossible for us to guarantee the safety of the spectators.

3 The accident on stage one was caused by the driver having to try to avoid spectators that were in the road. It was not due to the type of car or the speed of it.

4 We hope that our sport will ultimately benefit from this decision.

Ready for another dark turn? Brace yourself.

The rally continued, with condemnation from event officials about “notorious FISA-seeded crews”.

The stewards’ own statement read: “The Stewards consider that this attitude may affect the Rallye of Portugal image as well as that of the World Championship Rallye [sic].”

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Talking to the French newspaper L’Equipe following the Rally de Portugal, FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre insisted on congratulating the amateur crews who had continued in the event and admitted he’d sent a telegram to Torres confirming Portugal’s place on the 1987 WRC calendar.

On the evidence of that interview in L’Equipe, you could question the impact Santos’s crash had on the future of Group B.

Ultimately, history shows that in a matter of months, the category would be condemned. But it took two more deaths – Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto at the Tour de Corse – to bring Balestre to his senses.

The days of rocket-fuelled rocketships flashing by the toes of tens of thousands were, by the end of 1986, done.

For the record, Joaquim Moutinho and Edgar Fortes (pictured above) won the 1986 Rally de Portugal in a Renault 5 Turbo Tour de Corse. And the event did return, with full WRC status, in 1987.