This is the beginning of an article series where we go through the history of the WRC from the viewpoint of the routes and seasonal calendars. There won’t be many mentions of cars, drivers or winners, but plenty of geography, kilometer numbers and rule changes. To kickstart the series, we look at the inaugural WRC season of 1973 and what kind of challenges it contained. A few of the rallies have remained on the calendar throughout the decades while others have taken years off. Some events have had their locations and titles changed within the host country, while a handful of these events are more unknown to the current generation of WRC fans.
Cover image from Wikimedia Commons.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Hannu Mikkola who passed away while the text was in proofreading phase. Mikkola’s career had already begun well before the WRC had established. He participated in the 1973 season with three car brands (Ford, Peugeot and Volvo).
|1||Rally Monte Carlo (Monaco)||Tarmac/snow||Fri 19th – Fri 26th Jan||456.50 km|
|2||Swedish Rally||Snow||Thu 15th – Sat 17th Feb||760.00 km|
|3||Rally de Portugal||Gravel/Tarmac||Tue 13th – Sun 18th Mar||397.50 km|
|4||Safari Rally (Kenya)||Gravel||Thu 19th – Mon 23rd Apr||5300 km*|
|5||Rallye du Maroc (Morocco)||Gravel||Tue 8th – Sun 13th May||1258.00 km|
|6||Rally Acropolis (Greece)||Gravel/Tarmac||Wed 23rd – Sun 27th May||556.35 km|
|7||Rajd Polski (Poland)||Gravel||Thu 12th – Sun 15th Jul||742.30 km|
|8||1000 Lakes Rally (Finland)||Gravel||Fri 3rd – Sun 5th Aug||517.20 km|
|9||Alpenfahrt (Austria)||Gravel||Wed 12th – Sat 15th Sep||324.50 km|
|10||Rally Sanremo (Italy)||Tarmac/gravel||Wed 10th – Sat 13th Oct||369.30 km|
|11||Press on Regardless (USA)||Gravel||Thu 1st – Sun 4th Nov||549.15 km|
|12||RAC Rally (UK)||Gravel/Tarmac||Sat 17th – Wed 21st Nov||540.02 km|
|13||Tour de Corse (France)||Tarmac||Sat 1st – Sun 2nd Dec||511.70 km|
We can instantly see some things that are different to the present day. First of all, many of the rallies were longer, with more competitive distances, although some of them had 300-500 km which is not that far from today’s routes. Another thing is that only Rajd Polski, 1000 Lakes, Press on Regardless and Tour de Corse were arranged over a weekend, with most rallies using the weekdays. The rallies also spanned over more days, with Monte Carlo lasting a full week.
All the rallies also had some characteristic differences and unique features. Let’s take a closer look at each rally.
Rally Monte Carlo started with a concentration run, which is essentially a long liaison to the actual start of the rally. The idea was that the drivers could start from around Europe closest to their home and end up together in Monaco. However, the most direct routes were not used in order to make the routes equally long for everyone. Also, one option was to start simply from Monaco and return later in the same location.
Leg 1 was concentration run (‘Parcours Concentration’).Starting points were Almeria, Athens, Frankfurt, Glasgow, Oslo, Reims, Rome, Warsaw and Monte Carlo. Concentration run distance varied from 2,418 to 2,735 kilometres.– juwra.com
The itinerary of the rally was different to what we know today. The concentration run ended with one special stage before arriving to Monaco on Sunday afternoon. Then the whole Monday was a rest halt. The second leg lasted for 24 hours, from Tuesday to Wednesday. It took the crews to Grenoble and back, including classic stages like Burzet, St Bonnet le Froid and La Cabanette, finishing with another 24 hour rest halt in Monaco. The rally concluded on the final double-loop over Col de Turini, where only 60 best-placed drivers were allowed to run.
Swedish Rally was already then the designated all-snow event of the season. In the latter decades Sweden became known as a compact sprint rally, but in 1973 it was surprisingly the competitively longest non-African event of 1973 with 760 stage kilometres (although 100 km was cancelled).
Curiously studded tyres were banned according to Motorsport Magazine. It didn’t help that there was very little snow, with bare ice covering the slippery roads. A four-car racing stage was contested at the Färjestad trotting track in Karlstad, which has still served as the super special location up to recent years.
Rally de Portugal was a mixed surface rally with some of the stages completely on gravel, some completely on tarmac, or both surfaces within the same stage.
It has an abundance of special stages, some rough and some not so rough, and road sections which are also timed at averages which are much faster than those of most events, although this doesn’t always appear the case on paper.– Motorsport Magazine 5/1973
The rally started lazily on Wednesday afternoon with just one stage four stages on Thursday afternoon. However, the next two legs from Friday to Saturday and Saturday to Sunday were longer, and consisted classics such as Arganil and Fafe.
The 5300 km route of Safari Rally didn’t have special stages but only tightly timed sections on varyingly rough roads, with the winner having the least lateness. Thus servicing the car during the legs also increased the penalty minutes, so it wasn’t necessarily the fastest driver who won the rally, but the most reliable car. This is probably why car manufacturers loved the event, and winning it was sometimes more important than the whole championship.
The second African event Rallye du Maroc was driven in Morocco. The drier terrain on the North-West corner of Africa posed a different challenge to the Kenyan Safari on the other side of the continent. In addition, Rallye do Maroc was a proper special stage rally, although the longest stages were over 200 km long, sometimes crossing deserts like Paris-Dakar would in the latter decades.
A 250-kilometre drive across the barren, rocky deserts of Southern Morocco on the edge of the Sahara, where the track is defined only vaguely and sometimes disappears altogether in a sea of boulders along the dry bed of a forgotten river, is an arduous journey even for those with time on their hands. For people who are driving against the clock, with vital special stage seconds ticking by at every drift, rock bed and gully, it’s an achievement to get to destination without smashing the car into pieces.– Motorsport Magazine 7/1973
An event which out-roughs the roughest Safari, it takes in the rocky escarpment roads through the Atlas Mountains, where the twists and turns make the use of pace notes necessary, and the long, interminable drags across the desert where notes read something like “Fork right and head for gap between two peaks on horizon” or “Stop and turn left along boulder bed for 1.3 kilometres”.
Without doubt the roughest event ever to be included in the series and probably the toughest test yet of how far a car can be driven at destructive speeds before it begins to fall apart.
A superb rally with a unique character, and one which certainly should remain a World Championship qualifier.
Clips of the this event can be seen here at 0:37
We tend to think about Greece’s Rally Acropolis as a rough and slow car-breaking gravel rally, but according to the following video, they drove also mountainous tarmac stages which look like almost like Tour de Corse! In fact, Acropolis was pretty much a mixed surface rally all the way up to the 80’s, with drivers even switching to slick tyres for the all-tarmac stages.
With tracks decidedly on the rough side, but not Morocco’s scale of course, the Acropolis is always a car-consumer, and since the time schedules on the inter-stage link sections were quite tight this year there was very little time indeed for servicing. The result was a finishers’ list only eleven strong, and that from 83 starters.– Motorsport Magazine 7/1973
Rajd Polski, or Rally Poland, had packed 742 stage kilometres and 3178 liaison kilometres into two overnight legs with only a short daytime rest halt. According to this history article, some of the sections required average speeds of over 100 km/h on small gravel roads, and the route was adjusted at the last minute.
The event was poorly organised, with impossibly fast averages on open public roads creating a needless danger for competitors and non-competitors. Special stages were not sealed off from other traffic, marshalling and timekeeping was slack, and the results service was almost non-existent.– Motorsport Magazine 8/1973
Needless to say, Poland wouldn’t feature in the WRC calendar anymore, at least for many decades.
The 1000 Lakes Rally of Finland has maybe changed its name since, but retained its center of Jyväskylä, as well as its main characters – speed and jumps. Many classic stages such as Urria, Ouninpohja, Myhinpää and Ruuhimäki were already included on the route. The winner’s average speed of the whole event was as fast as 105 km/h. It was also known as one of the shortest events on the calendar. Like Rajd Polski, it was contested over two nights from Friday evening to Sunday noon with the daytime rest halt on Saturday.
I didn’t know anything about the Austrian Alpine Rally, or Alpenfahrt, before writing this article.
[The] route did not go to the mountains any longer despite reference to Alps in the name. Instead, stages were held on fast and smooth gravel roads near Baden, west of Vienna.– juwra.com
Alpenfahrt was also the shortest event of the year with only 324 stage kilometres driven. According to Motorsport Magazine, one leg of the rally was cut because the cattle in the area were infected with foot and mouth disease. The magazine also mentions that the organizers were not experienced enough in organizing a World Championship level rally. Possibly for the aforementioned reasons, the country has never since organized a WRC round.
Italy’s Rallye Sanremo has traditionally been a mixed surface rally. In contrast to Portugal, most of the stages were driven on sealed surface with only short bits of gravel in between. In fact, the roads in the Sanremo area are nowadays all paved, but not already in 1973. This resulted in mountainous gravel action not seen in the latter decades.
Punctures were very frequent. The amount of smooth tarmac persuaded teams to use complete slicks with the minimum of longitudinal grooving to comply with regulations. Naturally they were not anything like as puncture-proof as stouter tyres, but most drivers felt that they were so much quicker on the slicks that it was worth risking punctures on the little gravel stretches which punctuated some stages. Some reckoned that the time gained by using slicks was more than the time it would take to stop and change a wheel, hut that is debatable.– Motorsport Magazine 11/1975
The Press on Regardless Rally, run at Lake Superior in Wisconsin, USA, consisted of 85 special stages, most of which were under 10 km in length. According to Motorsport Magazine the roads were very sandy and started rutting up quickly, and many stages were used twice.
The challenge in RAC Rally of Great Britain was that no pace notes were allowed. There were 80 special stages, but together they made up only 540 km since most of the stages were under 10 km in length.
The rally started on Saturday morning with some spectator-friendly stages in mid-England before heading into Welsh forests in the evening for an overnight leg which wouldn’t end until Sunday afternoon. Many current Wales Rally GB classics were on the route, such as Myherin and Hafren. One of the spectator stages, Sutton Park, was driven on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. These often paved “Mickey Mouse” stages made RAC partly a mixed surface rally
The rally restarted on Monday morning into another 32 hour leg towards Lake District and Scotland. The notorious Kielder forests were also tackled before another rest halt on Tuesday evening. Then the rally finished with a short run in Yorkshire on Wednesday.
Finally, France’s Tour de Corse was the only all tarmac rally of the season. As curious as Sweden being the longest special stage event is Tour de Corse being shortest in duration, lasting only from Saturday to Sunday, packing in 511 stage kilometres. However, a big chunk of the route had to be cancelled due to unpredicted snowfall!
Read also the Tour de Corse Route History on this blog.
Out of the 13 events, the manufacturers were allowed to count the eight best results to their overall score (driver’s championship didn’t exist yet). The championship-winning team Renault-Alpine collected their points from Monte Carlo, Sweden, Portugal, Morocco, Acropolis, Alpenfahrt, Sanremo and Tour de Corse.
As we know servicing was allowed anywhere the service crews were available, except during regroupings and parc fermes. Sometimes the cars were even serviced during the stage, and especially during the sections of Safari, which weren’t even closed from public traffic.
Most of the driving occurred during the nights. Monte Carlo, Portugal, Rajd Polski, Alpenfahrt, Press on Regardless and Sanremo had same stages run multiple times. However, Acropolis, 1000 Lakes and RAC constructed their routes through only single-run stages (actually RAC had one park stage repeated).
The next episode in this series will tell us how the calendar would evole in the upcoming years.