Thursday, December 07, 2023

Before Paris - Dakar: 13,200 kilometers in 7 days and 16 hours


History of the 1977 London-Sydney Rally.

When it comes to transatlantic rally marathons of the 1960s and 1970s, London-Sydney 1968 and London-Mexico 1970 are first of all remembered. The events of the second edition of London-Sydney are more often left behind the scenes. This race took place nine years later - in August-September 1977 and became one of the most interesting events in the history of motorsport.

The first rally in which a truck started as a full-fledged participant. First race for the works team with diesel cars. The first - and, we believe, the only - exit to the start of the motor home! And this is not counting the deadly complexity of the route, wild organizational fakups, amazing in their impudence, the attempts of the participants to deceive the judges.

Even the team that eventually won the rally tried to belittle its own status right up to the last. Not a race, in a word, but a detective on wheels!

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On the football lanes
The resounding success of London-Sydney in 1968, of course, demanded a sequel. Energetic Australian Wilton Dixon had no doubt: the race should be made traditional. In order not to part too much, the next start, like the destination, was timed ... for the World Cup.

That is why in 1970 they went from London to Mexico City, and four years later - to Munich, and not directly, but through ... the Sahara.

What-what, "London-Munich 1974"? Yes, few have heard of this rally. The race took place when the shock of the worldwide fuel crisis had not yet dissipated. Therefore, the enthusiasm of the factory teams, and therefore the press, was minimal.

It seemed like a little bit of good - the time for transcontinental rallies is over. But the resilient Dixon successfully played on nostalgia. Fuck football! To hell with the World Cup and new locations! Let's hit the London-Sydney route again! After all, the first time was so much fun. Can we repeat?

The enterprising Australian infected with his inexhaustible enthusiasm the representatives of Singapore Airlines, which was still little known to the general public, which agreed to become the title sponsor of the event.

The race was officially named the Singapore Airlines Rally London-Sydney and, in honor of the airline's 30th anniversary, was held on the roads of three continents. The symbolism was lacking. In 30 days, participants had to check in at 30 time control points (TC) and in the fight for the main prize of 30 thousand Australian dollars as quickly as possible to overcome 30 thousand kilometers.

The legendary route, scale and status of the event - after all, the longest rally in history! - plus generous prize money did their job. On the morning of August 14, 1977, a very diverse and cheerful car crowd gathered in London's Covent Garden, not far from the Royal Theater.

Separating the London theater and the Sydney Opera 30 thousand kilometers, 69 carriages dared to pass. There were a variety of characters here. Not only serious factory and dealer teams of Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot, Citroen, but also private pilots, adventurers and just daredevils. The last ones on the starting list, perhaps, were the most.

How else to call the daredevils who decided to rush across three continents on the Mini Moke buggy? To the madness of the brave, as they say ... "Donkey", by the way, was announced for the start by the Coca Cola Australia team. In addition to the smallest car of the rally, she also announced the largest - a 7-ton Leyland Terrier truck with a gasoline V8. By the way, both the giant and the dwarf will eventually reach the finish line!

Experts were preparing to watch with interest the adventures of the FIAT factory team, which equipped two model 131 diesel sedans for a long journey. Among the Scuderia racers, by the way, was ex-Ferrari pilot Giancarlo Baghetti. London-Sydney was also the first - at least one of the first - start at the international rally for Subaru cars.

The private Japanese crew on the Leone 4WD obviously counted on the advantages of the 4x4 formula, in turn, the pilots of the Bedford Auto Sleeper Motorhome simply dreamed of reaching the finish line. The sponsor of the team, the hotel chain Apex Leisure, did not count on more.

Among those who were going on the road not for fun, but for business (that is, to win), we single out the Peugeot and Citroen dealer teams that have secured factory support. Much was expected from Pole Soběsław Zasada's Porsche 911 and a whole litter of all-wheel drive Range Rovers. Well, Mercedes-Benz, of course - where without it!

London Sydney1977 7

Mr. Waxenberger's Spy Games
By the way, the Germans were not called the factory team then. They are first and foremost. The preparation of the three-beams for the launch at London-Sydney-1977 is generally a story with elements of a spy novel.

It all started with the initiative of Jonathan Ashman, manager of the British branch of Mercedes-Benz. An active organizer and a good amateur rally driver, he decided to personally go to the start of the transcontinental race as soon as he first heard about it.

At that point, Mercedes-Benz continued to officially ignore motorsport. The echoes of the Le Mans tragedy in 1955 still terrified top managers from Stuttgart. So Jonathan was going to conduct the entire program without noise and dust through the English branch.

He ordered two brand new W123 (280 E) sedans with six-cylinder engines, on mechanics and a suspension reinforced for third world countries. Pulled up sponsors, among others Mobil and Johnsons Rally Wax. And even, having abandoned the idea of driving himself, he became interested in the project of pilots of the level of Andrew Cohen, the winner of the original London-Sydney marathon.

Preparations for the race went on as usual, when Ashman was suddenly urgently called to Stuttgart. It turned out that the headquarters of Mercedes-Benz is aware of both the upcoming rally and the preparation of the British team. The German bosses listened with interest to the young Englishman and asked many questions. However, they did not officially help the project. “Thank you for not banning!” Ashman breathed a sigh of relief on his way home.

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In fact, everything has already been decided. Jonathan's project interested the most correct person in Stuttgart - Erich Waxenberger. Waxl, the godfather of the Red Pig 300 SEL AMG 6.8, who loved racing to the point of trembling in his knees, decided to help the glorious Englishman. Even if this help went against the official policy of Mercedes-Benz. For the first time ever...

Waxenberger ordered that the 123s intended for the rally be brought to Stuttgart. Here they were taken apart to the screw and reassembled, essentially turning stock sedans into seasoned marathon runners. Reinforced suspension, subframe and brakes, increased ground clearance, safety cage, aluminum hood and trunk, full bottom protection, plexiglass side windows, main pair, selected to improve acceleration dynamics at a slight loss of maximum speed.

Erich didn't stop there. In an atmosphere of strict secrecy, combat 123s were tested in Iran. Part of the rally route with particularly killer sections took place there. Waxl also insisted on including a third 280E and three light technicians in the team - more or less stock sedans stuffed with spare parts for combat Mercedes.

London Sydney1977 8

Finally, Erich agreed with Mobil, and 26 field service points appeared along the route of the rally to Singapore. Here, the pilots of the "three-beam" team were waiting for high-quality gasoline with anti-knock additives. The German had every reason not to trust the quality of fuel, for example, in the same Afghanistan.

At the same time, for the sake of conspiracy, three combat Mercedes-Benz 280Es formally represented three different teams, and even the starting numbers were given to them out of order, but in discord. Just to draw less attention to the project.

In any case, it is impossible to prepare for all the surprises of a multi-day rally marathon. The adventures of the London-Sydney 77 participants began literally immediately after the start. In some cases, the pilots themselves freaked out.

For example, the Singaporean Mini Clubman crew with starting number 3 distinguished itself. From Covent Garden, the guys immediately went ... to the airport to send the car to Madras by air. Singaporeans had the audacity to try to get a mark at the time control point already in India. With an absolutely "poker" facial expression.

Less resourceful participants in the race, who did not guess about such an option as a plane charter, had a harder time. Bad roads, vast distances, disgusting weather in places, wild animals and hitchhikers jumping out into the oncoming lane. Plus, of course, the enthusiasm of the local population. The crews of "London-Sydney" were convinced on their own skin: the rally in the photographs from magazines and the rally in real life are two huge differences.

Here are the typical everyday life of the race participants, when heroism went hand in hand with madness.

London Sydney1977 9

Australian Dave Bradford on a Peugeot 504 in Turkey collided with a truck - the navigator Gilbert Davies broke his leg. Instead of a hospital, the guys were sent ... to the police station, where they spent 48 hours. The riders were then released without charge, but the wrongly fused bone had to be broken again. So it goes.

The crew of Frank Johnson in a Mazda RX-4 after a collision with a cow rushed to the finish line without a windshield for 36 hours in a row. As a result, I arrived, by the way, becoming the best of the private traders at the finish line in Sydney.

Argentines Jose Araujo, Oscar Talis and Rialdo Crocenzi scored with a minus sign. The racers managed to… quarrel with each other in the smoke and considered it good to leave the race already at the intermediate finish in Athens.

Or here's another drama. Graham Gilles, co-driver of the Jeep CJ-5, urged the judges to put a mark on the control card even in the absence of the car itself ...

The sporting fate of London-Sydney was decided by the last Australian stage. Here, too, there were adventures and surprises.

Sea transportation of cars from Singapore took two days more than the estimated time. Not so much an accident, but a deliberate sabotage by the carrier, who suddenly decided to make some money on a situational basis. At the same time, the organizers could no longer reschedule the planned finish ceremony.

As a result, the crews who reached Australia were in for a real hell - 13,200 kilometers had to be overcome in seven days and 16 hours! Local organizers also raised problems. They set up ambushes with speedguns and punished speeding crews with penalty minutes. And that's not to mention the kangaroo... Only Andrew Cowen could draw profiles of three downed marsupials on the door of his Mercedes-Benz.

It was in Australia that the victory almost eluded the leading Mercedes-Benz crews almost from the start. Ambush on the Porsche 911 moved to the first line here. It was useless to fight in speed with the Porsche, but the Pole eventually rattled the suspension and rolled far back.

Then Paddy Hopkirk presented his application for general success. The experienced Briton had the best orientation on the Warri Gate section, far ahead of all his pursuers. Here are just mistakes in the preparation of the legend and the stewards, who left the TC before the arrival of all the crews, forced the organizers to cancel the penalty minutes for all participants.

Hopkirk was furious! If not for this controversial decision, the Citroen CX 2400, the former winner of Monte Carlo, would have been the first to drive onto the podium in Sydney. And only third place...

In the end, the London-Sydney crown went to the team that wanted it the most. The works of Erich Waxenberger, who single-handedly turned a semi-amateur team into a first-class factory team, if not in status, then in fact, a team, were not in vain. Two Mercedes-Benz 280 E became the winner and silver medalist of the longest and possibly the most difficult rally in the world.

It's a pity, but the history of transcontinental racing ended there. Just over a year after the London-Sydney 77 finish, the first Paris-Dakar will begin, which will confidently and immediately pull over the blanket of the world's main automotive adventure.


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