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.

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