Friday, 19 December 2008

The History of the World Rally Championship:1976

The Battle of Waterloo may have been won on the playing fields of Eton, but the 1976 World Rally Championship was won in the boardrooms of Turin.

True, the Stratos was far and away the best rally car of the year. Lancia's main rivals, Fiat, spent the year developing their new 131 but only managed to get it to the finish once. But as Fiat owned Lancia they could have just asked the little team from down the road to stand aside and let them through.

Anders Kulland, Opel Kadett GTE, Monte Carlo Rallye
Fortunately they didn't and instead Lancia wrapped up their third title in a row in style. They took the top three places in Monte Carlo, the top four in Corsica and Sanremo and also took a victory in Portugal that gave an indication of what might have been if they'd been allowed to compete the previous year.

The Lancias didn't have it all their own way though. Accidents allowed Saab to reclaim the Swedish rally and Africa and Greece again defeated them, although in Kenya they came very close. The high drama though came in Sanremo.

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When they signed Bjorn Waldegard Lancia expected him to deliver results on the tricky Swedish and British rounds, snow and blind corners being something that southern European drivers aren't used to. What he wasn't supposed to do was displace Sandro Munari as the Stratos Numero Uno. The Stratos had literally been built around Munari, to the extent that other drivers had trouble physically fitting into the cockpit. Allegedly Lancia swapped Munari for the Stratos's Dino engine, allowing him to drive Ferrari sports cars on road races.

Munari in Morocco
So when at the end of the penultimate stage of the Rallye of Sanremo Waldegarde was four seconds Munari words were had. Swedes don't like being beaten, so Waldegarde responded by waiting for four seconds after being signalled to start the stage, then putting his foot down. He and won the rally by four seconds and then left the team to drive for Ford.
ahead of

Roger Albert Clark winning the RAC
The year ended with the RAC Rally. Once again a Ford won, but this time it was Britain's Roger Clark in his red and black Cossack car ahead of Blomqvist in the heavy Saab. It wasn't a classic event with crowd problems and an unpopular route, and the leader for most of the event was the young Finn Penti Airikkala. Fourth was a lacklustre Sandro Munari, once again finishing behind Waldegarde.
The car and driver were clearly capable of winning the event so what was the problem? A few weeks later the world knew the answer. Corporate politics in Turin had intervened again and Lancia had been told that it was Fiat who were to be given the chance at the title next year. Lancia had achieved their hat trick, but that was to be that.

The History of the World Rally Championship:1975

1975 started with a lot of promise.

The oil crisis was over and for once there appeared to be two teams eager to do battle over the whole series for victory. Lancia had the better car, but Fiat had the numbers. So it could have been a classic year, but alas it was not to be. Instead of a battle across the world on the special stages, the championship was decided in an Italian boardroom.

The first event of the year showed that the Stratos was going to be the car to beat. Leaving Renault Alpines and Fiats in his wake, Sandro Munari drove his green and white car to victory in Monte Carlo. The Lancia then showed its all rounder abilities in the next two rounds when, driven by Lancia's own Swede Bjorn Waldegarde, the Swedish rally was wrestled away from the Saabs, whilst only a failure of its Pirelli tires kept Munari's Stratos from first place in the Safari.

The Lancias failed in Greece and didn't go to Moroccan, whilst the Fiats missed the Acropolis and broke in Africa, where victories for Peugeot and Opel marked the further demise of the once all-conquering Renault Alpines. Battle between the Italian giants should have resumed in Portugal, but unfortunately politics got in the way.

Fiat had actually bought Lancia in 1969, but until now the brand was allowed to do its own its own thing. However Turin now decided that Lancia had had enough of the limelight and they were told not to go to Portugal. The Fiats walked to victory and only the mathematical chance that Renault Alpine could clinch the title allowed Lancia to go to Sanremo and Corsica. The Stratos reaffirmed its mastery on twisty tarmac and notched up two more victories.

The RAC, the final round of the year was the foggy RAC which was another Ford benefit with Timo Makinen's Allied Polymer Escort RS1800 narrowly beating Roger Clark's Cossack version. Most of the fastest stage times though were set by Waldegarde's Stratos. Victory was denied the Swede after the car stopped in the forest. Lancia mechanics got him going again, but without the car's rear bodywork. Servicing on a stage was illegal, and as well as having an immodestly displayed engine the car now had no brake lights, indicators or rear number plates, so exclusion was inevitable, but Bjorn's performance in the howling beast created another Stratos legend.

So the year ended with triumph for Lancia, although with the addition of fuel injection for Sanremo the Fiat Abarth's were now almost as quick. No other team seemed willing to challenge the Italians. Peugeot stuck to the endurance events, Saab to Scandanavia and Britain whilst Ford's tentative attempt at competition outside of Finland and the UK turned into a fiasco when the Dunlop tire truck broke down on the way to Sanremo. The Italians would appear to be going to have it their own way for a while longer.

The History of the World Rally Championship:1974

Lancia won their first World Rally Championship thanks to the Stratos, a solitary Fulvia and an oil shock.

The oil crisis decimated the WCR knocking out the Monte Carlo, Swedish, Moroccan, Polish and Alpine rallies - the last two never to return. The championship finally started in Portugal and was a walk over for Fiat. They must have thought it was going to be their year for whilst they skipped the Safari and couldn't beat the Escorts of Mikkola and Makkinen on the 1000 Lakes, they appeared to be the only team taking the championship seriously. Renault Alpine had thrown in the towel, Ford seemed only intetersted in doing British and Finnish rallies and Italian rivals Lancia had only managed a third place in Kenya with the aging Fulvia.

All this was to change in the next event. Although it was now October, the championship wasn't even half over yet, and so when Lancia wheeled out their new, purpose built rally winning machine in Sanremo there was still everything to play for.

The Stratos proved a winner straight out of the box and after success in Italy they sent Sandro Munari across the pond for the two North American rounds. He won the Rideau Lakes at a canter but on the wonderfully named Press-on-Regardless rally the car eventually conked out, a consequence of trying to do three rallies on the trot without a rebuild.

With a new car he managed a respectible third on the RAC. Timo Makkinen's RS1600 and Stig Blomqvist's venerable Saab 96 beating the Italian racer through the blind forest stages. The Fiat team though were hopelessly off the pace.

Lancia went into the last round in Corsica with a healthy lead, but a mathematical chance of loosing to Fiat. Munari's engine gave out, leaving Jean-Claude Andruet to take on the challenge of his former team mate Jean-Pierre Nicholas who was still driving for Renault Alpine. In the end the French team had to concede that the Italian wedge was now the master of the black stuff.

Lancia had their first crown. Winning with a car only homologated in October was a remarkable, and almost certainly never to be repeated feat. The Stratos legend was born.

1974 World Rally Championship for Manufacturers Results

Thursday, 18 December 2008

The History of the World Rally Championship:1973

For the World Rally Championship 1973 was the beginning, but for its winners it was also an end.

For the blue Renault Alpine A110 cars which swept the board, with their great French drivers: Jean Luc Therier, Jean Pierre Nicholas, Bernard Darniche and Jean-Claude Andruet, this was their swan song. Never again would the team attempt a full world world rally program and whilst for each driver there would be more victories, they would from now on be bit part players.

The WCR itself was almost a championship in name only. Renault Alpine were the only team to take the thing seriously, the others just sending cars to events they thought they could win. This says a lot about the relative status of the rallies and the championship.

This was a championship for manufacturers, not drivers, and winning the Monte Carlo, Safari or RAC rallies could make a reputation. The championship was secondary. This meant that whilst Renault Alpine appeared to romp to victory, they actually faced pretty tough, if inconsistent, opposition on each rally.

In 1973 it was very much 'horses for courses' as far as rally cars went and the A110 was far and away the best all-rounder of its day. Pretty much unchallenged on tarmac, it could live with the Escorts and Saabs on the loose and survive a rugged African rally as well as a Datsun or a big Peugeot.

During the year factory cars were only beaten by Saab in the snow of Sweden (or more precisely they were beaten by Swedes driving Saabs - no foreigner had yet won their rally), by a BMW 2002 on the Austrian Alpine, by disqualification of the sole works car in Poland (the exact location of Eastern European Passage Controls appeared to be a state secret) and by a trio of Ford Escort RS1600s (and a Volvo) on the RAC. On the snow of the Monte Carlo, the gravel of Portugal, the dust of Morocco and Greece, and on the tarmac of Sanremo and Corsica they were untouchable.

Sadly though the little cars, which had been around for a decade by this point, had run out of development. No more could performance could be rung out of them and from then on the team only made selective appearances on the WCR. The Blue Riders rode off into the sunset and whilst French cars and French drivers would lift the title again in the future, it would 31 years before a French car driven by a French driver would win. That sort of thing means a lot in France.

On the trivia side the 1973 WCR featured the only rally in which a two stroke Warburg came second. This was Polish rally - its only appearance in the championship. 52 cars started and only three finished so the Wartburg actually came second to last. Last place, or should we say third, was a Polski Fiat 125p.

The winner was a works Fiat Abarth 124 and the winning margin was 2 hours and 47 minutes. A quick calculation would suggest that the Fiat was pulling away from the Wartburg at a rate of slightly over 20 seconds a mile so this probably wasn't the closest fought rally ever.

However this damp squip of a rally shouldn't take away the triumph of Renault-Alpine and their Blue Riders. The French would be back, make no mistake, but next year it was to be the turn of the Italians. But which ones?

1973 World Championship for Manufacturers Results

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

How It All Began

It was November 28 1976 when, aged six, my parents took me to a windy New Brighton to watch Special Stage 35 of the 1976 Lombard RAC Rally. The cars had spent the night battling through a lunar landscape in Kielder forest and were extremely late. Having got there early to get a good spot - vital if you want to see the rally and are only four feet tall, a rather cold little Martin was rather dischuffed when several members of the motoring press turned up at the last moment and stood right in front of me. Fortunately a few words from Dad quickly moved them on.

The notes scribbled on the entry list we had with us, which still survives, say that Penti Airikkala was first through in his Escort, then Roger Clark in his Cossack liveried similar car, then Stig Blomqvist in the black Saab 99. However I don't remember any of these, nor Billy Coleman's fourth placed Escort.

However I still remember the car that came through next: Sandro Munari in a white and blue wedge that made an incredible noise. I'd apparently been taken to rallies, races and autotests before but I'd howled, or filled my nappy or fallen asleep or all three and don't remember them, but I still remember my first encounter with the immortal Lancia Stratos, and in particular the music of it's 24 valve Ferrari engine.