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  Home > Rallies > Portugal > Portugal 1986 > Disaster
Disaster strikes
In a space of few years, performance of Group B rally cars had advanced in leaps and bounds, making them not only more dangerous but also more exciting - which in turn drew even bigger crowds of spectators to watch the action. In addition, in Mediterranean countries the crowd control and safefy mentality has traditionally been very lax. Combining super-fast Group B rally cars, huge crowds and non-existent spectator control is a recipe for disaster.

This recipe would meet it's logical end at 1986 Portugal. First stages of the rally had traditionally been held in Sintra forests some 20 kilometers west of capital Lisboa, guaranteeing huge crowds every year. Drivers first in the road often described the experience as sheer madness, competitive driving was impossible as sea of spectators parted only when car was within meters of them and reveal very narrow trail through people.

Unfortunate Joaquim Santos, local driver on a Ford RS200, was seeded 12th driver to start on first stage. Lead drivers were already through and road was clearer but still there were occasional spectators standing in middle of the road. Coming from fast right hand bend and into a tighter right hander over a small crest on downhill section, Santos lost control of the car and spun right into thick crowd. Two children and a woman were killed on the spot and dozens more injured, with one of the injured children later dying in the hospital.

Loss of life had already happened, but tragedy continued. Organisers did not stop the stage until about ten more cars had started. Stage was five kilometers long and accident happened at approx four kilometers from the start, meaning that delay in stopping was unacceptably long. On top of that, top drivers were informed of the incident only after they had covered two more stages and arrived to rest halt, ready to tackle the those three stages twice more.

Learning of the tragedy, Ford decided to pull their remaining cars out of the rally. Organisers wanted the rally to continue and only after several appeals were made, agreed to cancel the repeated stages. Unhappy with the situation, professional drivers from all works teams gathered at 16th floor meeting room at Hotel Estoril Sol. FISA and rally representatives later arrived to make a visit but left with empty hands. After several hours of deliberation, a joint statement prepared by the drivers was read to press.

Drivers statement
Following is the exact transcript of the actual signed statement drivers presented to media at Hotel Estoril-Sol in 5th March 1986 15:30 local time, including emphasis and corrections.

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

  1. As 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 1 was caused by the driver having to try to avoid spectators that were in the road. It was not caused due to the type of car or the speed of it.

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

22 signatures

Row ensues
Drivers unanimously decided to withdraw from the event, most certainly unaware what reaction their decision would spark.

Team managers had various opinions. Ford's Peter Ashcroft of course had already decided of withdrawal and hence fully supported the drivers' decision. Austin's John Davenport would have continued but allowed drivers to make decision. Peugeot's Jean Todt was initially against the withdrawal, even calling the local spectators as "Africans with white skin". Later in the day he however changed his opinion, perhaps scenting the atmosphere and allowed drivers to have their way.

On the opposite camp was Lancia's Cesare Fiorio. He was home in Italy suffering from flu and only arrived to Portugal next day. He was vehemently opposed to drivers' decision and would surely have made his crews to continue had he been present. On same camp were rally organisers, who thought that canceling rest of the Sintra stages was enough and that rally would continue. And so it did - though without works drivers it turned out to be a very low-key affair and as a result, curious facts got into WRC statistics.

Also FISA took a hard line, accusing drivers of giving the sport a bad image (!) and threatening them with cancellation of their competition licenses. Fortunately, sensibility won and no such measures were adopted. Unfortunately, no safety measures were adopted either and it was only two rallies later that a new tragedy would strike.

Drivers attending the meeting had not seen any footage of the accident before making their decision. For example Tony Pond said that when he later saw it on television only strengthened the conviction that they did the right thing by withdrawing.

Footage is included in all 1986 WRC tapes that I've seen and is also available in internet. While I don't like crash videos, I think that this incident is important reminder of the dangers of the sport.