Thursday, 18 June 2009

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1982

1982, and Audi look set to dominate the world of rallying. The team have learnt from the teething troubles of last year and with no other competitive four wheel drive cars on the horizon the predominantly loose surface WCR looks to be theirs. The Manufacturers crown is in the bag, the only question is who will lift the Drivers title. Will it be flying Finn Mikkola or will the macho world of rallying have to wake up to a lady champion in the shapely form of Michelle Mouton, last year's Sanremo winner.

The championship itself moved on in two ways. Firstly there were new rules: Group B had arrived. For the Monte Carlo these were just old Group 4 cars with new homologations, but exciting things were on the way. Also however, for the first time, a team actually entered every round of the championship. No single driver started every event - that was not humanly possible with the length of rallies in those days, but Opel were there at every round.

Opel's Ascona may have been an old fashioned two wheel drive model in its third season, but they now had Rothmans sponsorship and the former World Champion Walter Rohrl. Having been forced to take a sabbatical in 1981 due to an excess of honesty with Mercedes, he was now trying another German team.

The partnership immediately brought success. The previous year on the Monte Mikkola's Audi had been pulling away from the field at a minute a stage and they started as firm favourites to win this year. However they hadn't counted on Rohrl and his secret weapon - his handbrake. The Quattro's primitive four wheel drive system with it's locked central differential didn't allow handbrake turns. Added to the Quattro's hammer like weight distribution it meant the Audi was unable to change direction quickly if it hit a patch of ice. Rohrl beat Mikkola by a comfortable margin whilst Mouton lacking a working handbrake, and Rohrl's superhuman reflexes, hit a house.

Sweden was Quattro country but it was local boy Stig Blomqvist who won, demonstrating how the skills he had learnt hustling bulky Saabs down the stages could be used to make the Quattro dance. Mouton won on the gravel of Portugal and again in the dust of the Acropolis. Mehta's Datsun (now called a Nissan) again won on the Safari whilst in New Zealand Toyota stopped being the bridesmaid and scored a one-two with the Celica after the Quattros failed.

Corsica meanwhile had proved the most technically interesting rally of the year with the appearance of not only Bernard Daniche in a 400 bhp plus BMW M1, but the new Group B Lancia 037 Rally. The rally itself turned into a thrilling dice between Ragnottis little Renault 5 Turbo, which liked the tighter stages, and Andruet's big Ferrari 308GTB, which preferred the faster ones, with victory eventually going to the more nimble Renault. The Lancias had handled diabolically and Attilio Bettega was hospitalised after a serious accident. Group B had arrived and had shown how exciting, and dangerous, it was going to be.

Rohrl meanwhile had had a steady season after the Monte finishing best non-Scandinavian in Sweden, best non-Nissan on the Safari, best conventional car in Corsica, best non-Audi in Greece and best non-Toyata in New Zealand. He'd suffered high speed steering failure in Portugal and missed Finland. The result was Opel led Audi 88 points to 58 in the Manufacturers series whilst Rohrl led Mouton 84 points to 52 in the Drivers.

The round in Argentina was cancelled due to some unpleasantness on the Falkland Islands so there were five rallies left in the Drivers championship and four in the Makes. Superficially things looked good for the Rothmans team, but there were problems. Firstly all the remaining rounds were wholly or predominantly on gravel. Secondly the series had a 'best seven' rule which meant only the top seven results counted towards the final tally so steady performances weren't going to be enough, Opel had to win something.

The next round was Brazil and things started to look ominous for Rothmans. Rohrl said he's never driven harder on a gravel rally. Certainly he'd never driven harder and lost and it was victory for Mouton and Audi. Rohrl skipped the 1000 Lakes to practice for Italy. Victory went to Mikkola's Quattro but crucially Mouton ended up on her roof and so she didn't score either.

Sanremo was next, a mixed tarmac and gravel event. The first days stages were on tarmac and the Audis found themselves behind a Ferrari and Alen who was flying in an Evolution 037. Once on the gravel though the Audi hordes, which includes Blomqvist in his Swedish Quattro, Harold Demuth in his German one and local boy Michele Cinotto in another, started to blitz the opposition. The rally returned to tarmac but still as we went into the last night, Audis held the top four positions with Rohrl down in seventh. That last night was to be one to remember. Rohrl overhauled first Demuth, then Cinotto and then crucially Mouton. Team mate Toivonen had a puncture and so Rohrl passed him too to finish third. Blomqvist, who was rapidly proving to be the fastest Quattro driver of all, won, but Opel had done enough to keep both championships alive.

The series then moved to the forests of West Africa, where the Ivory Coast rally looked like being interesting for the first time in its short and troubled history. Audi had never been to Africa, but they learnt fast and soon Mouton was leading with Mikkola, who had team engineer Roland Gumbert to act as 'flying mechanic', second. But Mikkola hit trouble and soon Rohrl was snapping at Mouton's heals. Victory would have left Mouton two points behind Rohrl with only the RAC to go.

At 4AM on Monday 1 November the rally restarted for a final seven hour blast to the finish. Mouton was 18 minutes ahead, but that lead was immediately wiped out when the Quattro wouldn't start. The French lady eventually got going but fog had descended and she left the road. She got going again but her co-driver had lost the pace notes and she had to drive blind - not easy in fog, especially as African roads then weren't actually closed and you could (and did) meet traffic coming the other way. It was a brave drive, but too much for her. A confusingly marked crossroads did for her and the car was too badly damaged to continue. Rohrl won and collected the Drivers Championship. Next year he had signed for Lancia so on the eve of the RAC Opel rewarded him for his efforts by giving him the sack.

The RAC went to Mikkola's Quattro. Toivonen tried hard for Opel but could only manage third, giving Audi the Manufacturers crown. For a while though the Audis were headed by Alen in his little Lancia. The Italians were clearly planning to take the battle to the Germans for 1983.

Monday, 15 June 2009

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1981

What I've noticed doing these blogs is that some years are a lot more interesting in hindsight than they were at the time.

1981 is a case in point. At the time it seemed a real low point in the series. The Ford-Fiat battles were a thing of the past and the recession, and uncertainty over the future of the rules, kept the big teams away. As a result the World Champion Driver was in a private car and the World Champion Manufacturer achieved the title with probably the lowest ever budget.

As well as the major teams, the defending champion was also missing. Walter Rohrl was to have driven for Mercedes, a team with plenty of money but rather unrealistic hopes. Their big cars had proved unwieldy in Europe and less reliable than the simpler Datsun's in Africa. In due course their plans were to use a turbo charged version of the new 190 for rallying. Meanwhile they hoped that the World Champion would show them how to make their ponderous 450s winners.

A less honest man than Rohrl might have pocketed the cash and let them keep their delusions. Instead Rohrl told them bluntly that with a lot of work and a bit of luck fifth on the Monte might be achievable. Mercedes weren't impressed and immediately cancelled their rallying program and sacked Rohrl.

That certainly put a bit of a damper on 1981. However with hindsight it actually was an interesting year. There were first victories for the Audi Quattro and Renault 5 Turbo, and last ever victories for the Fiat 131 Abarth, Ford Escort Mark II and Lancia Stratos - 5, 6 and 7 years after their respective debuts.

The car of the year was undoubtedly the Quattro. An awesome start on the Monte Carlo, where Mikkola was fastest on one stage by a minute and ten seconds, overtaking Darniche's Stratos on the way, was followed by every conceivable disaster. Accidents, mechanical failure, conflagration and disqualification followed the cars around the world. But there was also awesome loose surface performance and three unequivocal victories.

The Quattro was to remain the only four wheel drive, turbo charged car for the next three and a half years. Two wheel drive turbo charged cars though were starting to be two a penny. The Datsun Bluebird Turbo and the Mitsubishi Lancer Turbo were underdeveloped cars, but both showed how forced induction could give a cheap and cheerful saloon the power of a Group 4 Escort, without the expense of high revving, multi-valve engines.

But whilst these new arrivals appeared on the scene, for the pioneers of blown rally cars the end was nigh. Saab bowed out during course of the year, the end of the road for one of the great teams of rallying. Unwilling to build a homologation 'special' and unable to make the big 99 fast or reliable they called it a day.

With all these turbos on the scene the surprise was that the most powerful cars of the year were actually normally aspirated - the big Dodge Ramchargers that appeared on the Safari. A 440bhp rally car was remarkable in the early eighties. An American team that thought it could actually win was even more of an eye opener. They bombed hopelessly of course, but they were fun.

Turbocharging and four wheel drive were not the only change to the orthodoxy in 1981. The old order was also shaken by the result of the Sanremo rally. That a Quattro had won was by not that remarkable. What was of note though was that the driver wasn't Mikkloa, the winner in Sweden, but the French lady Michelle Mouton. Mouton was not the first woman to win a major rally - Pat Moss had bagged a fair few in the sixties, but she was the first to win a round of the World Rally Championship. Sadly, although Mouton was to go on to win more rallies, there have been no more lady winners.

The winning manufacturer though was actually Talbot. A company more infamous for its Alpine model, they had somehow turned their Sunbeam hatchback into an Escort beater with a little help from Lotus and Des O'Dell. Toivonen had shown the potential on the 1980 RAC, although he was too inconsistent in 1981. Instead a steady season by France's Guy Frequline saw victory in Argentina, and good enough results elsewhere to earn the Manufacturers crown for the team.

Going into the last round Frequelien also had hopes of taking the Drivers title too. He had had a tortoise and hare battle all year with Ari Vatanen in the David Sutton prepared, Rothman's sponsored Escort. Vatanen had won three times, but also had a series of major accidents which had set back his progress. Few people who had seen Vatanen's performance in the British forests, where he had won the 1976 and 1980 Open championships, doubted he had pace, but he had always seemed a bit too much of a Mercurial talent to lift the world crown.

His progress in 1981 followed his old form. If he didn't stuff the car into the scenery he either won or was only beaten by a Quattro. In the Ivory Coast (pictured above) he had a little disagreement with a fish lorry but still finished the rally. He was last, a day and eight hours behind Salonen's winning Datsun, but he did finish.

1981 was both the end of one era and the being of another. Markku Alen borrowed a Stratos from somewhere, probably a museum, to give the car its last works outing. This really was the final swansong for rallying's first supercar. The rally was won by Mikkola's Quattro, a car that was to dominate the early eighties as thoroughly as the Stratos dominated the mid seventies. And just as the Stratos had announced its arrived by seeing off the Renault Alpines on the Monte, Mikkola's Quattro ended the season by beating the Ford Escort RS fair and square on its home territory.

Vatanen ended the season in World Champion style, flinging his Escort through the forests as only he knew how, approaching corners with a Scandinavian flick, BDA engine rasping and roaring and rear end wagging as he accelerated away. However by the end of the rally he was a full eleven minutes behind Mikkola in the whispering Quattro, a car that braked in a straight line, crawled round the corners and then accelerated away with unbelievable pace.

It was new, it was a winner, but it certainly wasn't exciting.

Monday, 8 June 2009

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1980

Having just crowned its first World Champion rallying entered the 1980s on a high. Alas, it was to be a false dawn and the next two seasons, although interesting in their own way, were a bit of a disappointment.

Firstly the Fiat/Ford rivalry appeared to be over for the time being: a new front wheel drive Escort had been launched and so Boreham retired from competition and went away to devise a new rear wheel drive, turbocharged device based on the new Mark three bodyshell.

Secondly the end was now nigh for the old Groups 1 to 4, set to be replaced in 1982 by the news Groups A and B (no group N yet). This meant that most manufacturers decided to keep their powder dry and wait to see ow things went. The exception though were Renault and Audi. The French team unleashed its pocket rocket 5 Turbo on the Tour de France and in Corsica it looked like it was going to win by a country mile before mechanical gremlins handed the victory to a geriatric Porsche. Audi meanwhile were planning a quiet revolution, but at this stage no one took them seriously.

On the plus side the cars were looking better and rallying was promoting itself better. Rothmans, who were running Escorts prepared by David Sutton had inherited Ari Vatanen and Hannu Mikkola and fielded aggressively striped cars and an aggressive marketing campaign. Unfortunately an excess of aggression by their drivers limited their success - in Portugal their cars actually ended up piled on top of each other when both left the road in the same spot.

Fiat had resprayed the 131 in a similarly rakish manner and the old car didn't let them down again. Rohrl's victory on the Monte, the first by a conventional car for as long as anyone can could remember, set them off in grand style. Rohrl then convincingly blew his team mate Alen away again in Portugal and suddenly Fiat, who had only been aiming for a few cameo appearances during the season, were suddenly groping around for enough lira to make a championship bid. They eventually made it look easy, but it was a fairly shoe string affair.

A new round for the year was Argentina. The rally was a worthy successor to the great road races of the fifties in which Fangio had first made his name. Nobody knew whether it would be an Africa-style endurance rally or a European type sprint event, so the entry was fairly varied. The big Peugeot's and Mercedes looked great in their slick tired for the long fast tarmac stages, but the fast stages shredded their tires and the sprint cars dominated with Rohrl taking the honours.

Alen showed he was still the top Finn by taking victory on the 1000 lakes, but industrial action meant Rohrl had to tackle the gravel stages of the Sanremo in a tarmac car with no under body protection and extremely minimalist service back up in New Zealand saw a cautious Rohrl beaten into second by Salonen's Group 2 Datsun. The title was wrapped up by another cautious drive in Corsica Fiat retired bankrupt and missed the RAC completely for the first time ever.

Apart from the Rothmans Fords the only sustained opposition was from Opel with their new Ascona 400, who took the Swedish and showed promising form on the RAC, Talbot who fielded Group 2 Sunbeam Lotuses for Guy Frequline and Henri Toivonen, and Mercedes. The Germans were taking their big cars out of Africa for the first time but the results were disappointing.

Talbot meanwhile had a steady season until the last round where a mistake by Mikkola, and Michelin tires, put young Henri in front of the Escort. Toivonen inherited the lead after Kullang's own Michelin's let him down and Waldegaard's Toyota lost its oil, but once in front had then showed the pace that was to make him famous in his short career to keep the little Sunbeam in front. Both Mikkola and the Escort were considered unbeatable in the British forests and so this was a revelation and Toivonen brought the blue and white car home first to make him the youngest ever WRC winner and to end Ford's seven year domination of the event.

Elsewhere there were signs that the old order was changing. Darniche's Stratos was beaten into second on the Monte, Blomqvist's Saab likewise in Sweden whilst the might of Mercedes lost to Datsun on the Safari. But the real revolution was still waiting in Stuttgart. When Hannu Mikkola first told people he'd signed for Audi they couldn't have been more amazed if he'd said Trabant. However when a Quattro used as the course opening car on the French 1000 Pistes rally set times that would have seen it win by several minutes if it had been allowed to enter, people started to take notice.

But the Quattro revolution was for next year. 1980 belonged to a German driver not a German car: Walter Rohrl, the laid back German who never quite fitted in at Fiat. His debut in a 131 had seen him leave the road at high speed in a tarmac car with only half a roll cage. He had a lucky escape and the Italian's laid back approach to driver safety was always something that concerned him. The Sebastian Loeb of his era, Rohrl would drive the stages in his head the night before a rally, checking his times on a stop watch. Blessed with superhuman reactions, he would have his cars set up to understeer like racing cars, relying on the handbrake and his reflexes to get him out of trouble.

But whilst it was Germany's year, it was two young Finns who were attracting the attention as the season ended. Toivonen was the talk of the town, but his talent was to prove somewhat Mercurial. Ari Vatanen on the other hand was a driver who started his career driving at 110% and slowly crashed his way down to a level where he could actually finish a rally. In 1980 he collected his second British Open Championship, but he also won his first World Rally in Greece. His team mate Mikkola had once said that when Vatanen starts winning nothing would stop him. In 1981 we'd find out if that was true.