When Turin committed three factory Fiat 131 Abarths to New Zealand’s inaugural World Rally Championship event, an Italian sledgehammer had been deployed to smash a southern hemisphere nut.
Skipping the preceding round in Kenya had made little difference in the standings, as Fiat was still running away with the 1977 crown. Round four wasn’t expected to be any different.
Ari Vatanen was the only non-131 interloper capable of disrupting the Italian job. Vatanen, then the reigning British champion, had teamed up with local lawnmower salesman Jim Scott to run a Ford Escort RS1800 which had started life in Boreham before being shipped to the South Pacific. It was a good car. But it wasn’t anything like the full factory effort Fiat had rolled out against the Finn.
Scott’s commitment to ensuring New Zealand’s lawns were kept in check meant they would only recce for a week before the start of what was a monstrous route – even for the era. Radio New Zealand Rally (also known as the South Pacific Rally) offered 75 stages and close to 1400 competitive miles across six days.
“We made the recce every day for a week until 10 o’clock at night,” said Vatanen, “but there was still only time to make the notes. We didn’t have time to go back and check them. That’s a recipe for disaster.”
You said it, Ari…
Despite unchecked notes, Vatanen made a great start to the event, making the best use of his Dunlop A2s, which he felt were far superior to Fiat’s Pirelli option.
It’s probably best to let the 1981 world champion take up the narrative here. Over to you, maestro.
“On the first night, there was a stage that went from gravel to wet Tarmac. Where it turned right in a downhill section I went straight on. And way down!
“Luckily we were carrying a winch in the car, so we managed to haul it back on the road. The trouble was, the winch had to be attached to a tree on the other side of the road – in doing that we blocked the passage of the other cars. Every time someone was approaching we had to detach the winch and start again. Altogether, it took us half an hour.
“This was by no means the end of our dramas, either. I kept catching the leaders at a rate of knots and then there would always be some other incident again, but the mechanics kept banging the car back into shape.
“On one tarmac stage in the night I lost the car and it somehow came to spin on its side, so that the water channel running over the windows was flattened! It didn’t end up on its roof, though, but one MacPherson strut had got detached and was sticking out from underneath the bumper. At the end of the rally, the car looked as if it was shot at with an elephant gun!”
In all, Vatanen won 48 stages in a rally that became an astonishing 1977 world championship season in microcosm. Across the spread of the year, he won an outstanding 121 stages. But only led for 25 of them. And rallies? He didn’t win any of them.
He simply refused to give up. In the penultimate day’s 60-mile stage from Pehira to Rakauroa, Vatanen caught and passed all three factory Fiats.
But the win eluded him.
After more than 24 hours’ competitive driving – and more than an hour spent off the road – Fulvio Bacchelli’s 131 came home a minute and a half ahead of him.
For a while, it looked like Vatanen’s most unlikely victory could be delivered in Auckland 43 years ago. Bacchelli’s Fiat suffered oil pump failure on the road from the final stage. He made it to the ramp with a minute to spare.
Markku Alén’s sister car split a water hose early on, but Vatanen’s countryman’s bigger problem came when the Kiwi constabulary didn’t see eye to eye with his policy of maximum attack on one road section. Smoothing over that particular incident took a significant level of diplomacy from Fiat’s management.
The third car of Simo Lampinen was ruled out of the win when it ingested the wire mesh which had been put across the air intakes to protect the engine.
Ultimately, the trophy went to Turin, but Vatanen emerged with the best of tales from an incredible rally.
On thanking his co-driver Scott for his efforts, Vatanen memorably noted: “He started the rally looking like my father, but at the end of it he looked like my grandfather!”