Friday, 31 December 2010

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1988

Would anyone mind (or notice) if I skipped 1988? At the time even dedicated Lanica fans like me found their effortless progress about as interesting as watching paint dry. The assault on the senses that was Group B had faded into memory, and had been replaced by slower cars and predictable results. Formula One was effectively a one make series too that year, but at least you had the interest of Senna and Prost trying to ram each other off the road.

Lancia were as unbeatable with the Delta HF Turbo on the stages as Mclaren were on the circuits, but just to make sure they upgraded the Delta into the immortal Integrale in time for Portugual. Fast enough to beat everyone else and strong enough to conquer even the Safari, they embarked on another record winning spree.

The only time they were beaten was in Corsica where Ford, in their only official appearance of the year, fielded a team of ultra-lightweight Sierra Cosworths with flame-spitting side exhausts. Loubet was again second and it was the then unknown French driver Didier Auriel who won.

We'd be hearing a lot more about him, but not a lot more about the beloved Cossie. A terrific circuit racer, and multiple winner of the British Open Rally Championship, this was it's only world victory. After becoming the last two wheel drive car to win a World Championship event, it then became a footnote to rallying history.

The World Champion driver was Massimo 'Miki' Biasion, now Lancia's top dog. He'd worked his way up from the Junior Team, which can be a tough place to serve an apprenticeship.

On the 1984 Sanremo, for example, team boss Fiorio tried a spot of psychology on his drivers. With the rally in the bag for Peugeot, Biasion's car, which was lying third behind the first team car of Bettega, was called in to have a more powerful, but less reliable, cylinder head fitted.

Biasion was then told that as he had 30bhp more than Bettega he really ought to catch him - or look for a drive with someone else. Bettega meanwhile was told that if he couldn't hold off the young driver, maybe Fiorio should give Biassion his place.

The deaths of Bettega and Toivonen meant Biasion rose to be Lancia's number two through dead men's shoes. He'd won his first world rally in the mighty S4 Delta and when Kankkunen left at the end of '87 he had his chance to become Numero Uno. His crowning as king of the world of rallying also marked a transfer of the balance of power in the sport from Scandavia to southern Europe. The new kids on the block, apart from Biasion, where French drivers like Auriel and Bruno Saby, the Monte winner. Kankkunen excepted, the various 'Flying Finns' and Swedes were now looking rather long in the tooth.

The one ray of hope in an otherwise dull season came from the far east. Toyota unveiled their Celica 2000GT-four, a car which, in the hands of Kankkunen at least, could match the Lancias for pace. Toyota had been in world rallying since the beginning, and in the Celica Turbo had the ultimate African Group B car for African rallies, but they had only won outside of the continent twice (the 1975 1000 Lakes with the Corolla and the 1982 New Zealand with the Celica).

Toyota were pushing rallying technology forwards and thanks to its central differential the Celica, rather than understeering round the corners like the Lancia, handled like a real rally car. Alas in 1988 it was plainly not ready and was incapable of actually finishing a rally.

There really was only one exciting rally that year, and fortunately for British fans it was our own RAC. Snow meant it was a challenge even getting to the stages, but those of us who shivered through the night in our cars were rewarded by an classic event. The skiddy white stuff levelled the playing field, and also allowed the veterans to show up the youngsters. Tires were more important than power and it was Lancia and Mazda who had the edge over Toyota.

Alen disappeared off a cliff and Hannu Mikkola looked like taking a record fifth victory in his Mazda, but he came over a crest, was blinded by a low sun, and exitted the stage at speed. Trying to regain the road his transmission snapped and he was out, a victim once more of atrocious luck. This left Alen in his battered Integrale the winner of an event he'd been trying to win for years. He'd led in 1974 in a Mark One Escort, and over the years had headed the event in a Fiat 131 and and various Stratoses. Finally he'd done it.

In fourth place was Penti Airikkala in a private Lancia. He was seven minutes behind the winner, but he had been off the road for eight minutes......Next year he's only be driving a Group N Mitsubishi in the British Open, but he too was an old stager who we hadn't heard the last of yet.

We didn't know it at the time, but this was the last victory for 'Mr Maximum Attack'. World Champion for eleven days, winner of more stages than any other driver before or since, he would be around for a bit longer, but this was the nineteenth and final win for the highly strung Finn who became more Italian than the Italians.

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1987

The demise of Group B took everyone by surprise.

Group B had been the biggest thing in motorsport whilst it was going and it's replacement, Group A, had only been of passing interest to the manufacturers. Suddenly everyone was looking at the cars they'd homologated, many of them seemingly on a whim, and trying to figure out which ones could be made to work.

5000 Group A cars had to be made and sold, so they needed to be reasonably practical. There were going to be no more mid mounted engines or Kevlar bodies. Given that a front engine and steel body were inevitable, what was needed was at least two litre capacity, turbo charged engine, and a four wheel drive system in a reasonably compact body.

Unfortunately only one manufacturer had the Full Monty.

Mazda had a nice little 4x4, but it only had a 1.6 engine and there appeared to be no way of making it larger. Ford had a tasty two litre turbo, but it was only rear wheel drive. They also had a four wheel drive, but it was normally aspirated. Audi had a great engine and tried and tested four wheel drive system, but they were in a car the size of a bus. BMW and Nissan had neither a turbo charger nor four wheel drive, and so on.

That effectively left Lancia the champions elect before the season had even begun.

The season was a curious affair. Lancia won a snowy Monte Carlo with ease, but then had to endure a post rally appeal against their interpretation of the Group A rules. They won, and the other teams then went scurrying off to modify their cars accordingly.

In Sweden an excess of the white stuff allowed Timo Salonen a chance to give Mazda their maiden WRC victory in the underpowered 323. Japanese cars had won rallies before, but once before in Europe. The Japanese invasion had begun, after a fashion, because Mazda then promptly withdrew from rallying for six months in order to try to make their transmissions work.

In Corsica the Italians discovered that, in contrast to past form, that their cars are now better on loose surfaces than tarmac as they were beaten by Bernard Beguin's BMW M3. Beguin needed a bit of luck to beat Yves Loubet, as rain had put the Lancia ahead until punctures slowed the four wheel drive car, but it was an historic victory for number of reasons.

This was the first victory under its new name of Prodrive for the now Banbury based outfit David Richards had inheritted from David Sutton. It was also the last World Rally ever to be won by a 'conventional' (i.e. front engined, rear wheel drive, normally aspirated) car.

Apart from that, the Lancia team won every rally they entered. They skipped Africa and New Zealand, but privateer Franz Wittmann won that one for them anyway. This was a total of eight victories, a record, and as only the best seven scores counted it gave them a maximum score.

The Drivers Championship was a little more exciting, but not much. Team orders gave the Monte to Biasion instead of Kankkunen. Alen, now an old stager, won three rallies, and the championship ended up a three way battle between those three drivers.

The RAC was a climax of a sort. Biasion stayed home, as he had already entered more rallies than the other two, and so it was Alen and Kankkunen head to head again. Once more it was to be Alen who was the unlucky one. TV cameras on the Chatsworth stage had a perfect view of his first roll of the event. This put Kankkunen ahead, and whilst he was chasing the leader Alen had a more serious off in 'killer Kielder'.

If Kankkunen's win was the triumph, the tragedy was what happened to Per Eklund. He's spent most of the rally locked in a duel for second place with his old Saab team mate Stig Blomqvist. Compared to the Lancias, Eklund's Audi Coupe lacked power and Blomqvist's Sierra lacked traction, but against each other they were evenly matched. Eklund came home 28 seconds in front, but was then excluded when post rally scrutineering found slighty oversized valves in his car, the result of untypically poor German quality control.

Lancia and Kankkunen were deserved winners, but the general feeling was that if things went on like this nobody would be watching in twelve months time.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

After Group B

Group B cars are the legendary monsters of rallying, flame snorting beasts who dominated the stages for half a decade before, like the dinosaurs, they became extinct overnight on 31st December 1986.

But they didn't quite disappear completely.

Normally aspirated Group B cars hung around on national rallies for a while longer, and British fans enjoyed the Opel Mantas for a couple of years and the clubman's version of the Metro 6R4 for considerably longer. The big beasts though were banished from stage rallying and had to find other habitats.

Rallycross had been home to boosted versions of the Group B rally cars for several years by the time of the ban. With extra modification allowed, the cars that came to the fore in rallycross turned out not to be the ones battling for top honours on the stages.

Ford's RS200 had always had potential and the project was killed off prematurely. Fitted with the more powerful engine planned for 1987, it was soon leaving Peugeots and Lancias in its dust, and winning events at the hands of Norway's Martin Schanche.

The only man who could live with Schanche was our own Will Gollop in his Metro 6R4. The 6R4 project, like Rover at the time generally, was something of disaster. Underpowered and unreliable, the team had blundered through a disappointing 1986. However there had been signs of the cars's potential and future world champion Didier Auriel had had some success in a private Metro run by a German team. Gollop added twin turbochargers to his car, which at once wiped out the power disadvantage with Schanche's RS200.

The two of them battled it out around Europe for several years, with the climax coming in the last race of 1988 when Gollop's car caught fire after a shunt and the championship went to the Norwegian.

As rallycross cars only had to survive four laps of a short circuit, they regularly ran boost pressures well in excess of anything the rally boys would risk. 600-700bhp was the norm, and sometimes extra boost was used to get them away. In acceleration the would beat a contemporary F1 car.

However whilst Schanche and Gollop were by no means amateurs, they weren't running works cars. Most of the Group B teams returned to rallying with Group A cars, but one didn't.

Peugeot were the big loosers when Group B was banned, having managed to make the 205T16 almost unbeatable. Stung by the actions of the FIA, they were French after all and France is supposed to control world motorsport, they refused to play the Group A game and took their bat home.

Instead they spent the winter welding an extra section into the middle of the 205 and practising making it fly through the air better by reversing the transverse engine. It now didn't nose dive on overrun, as Ari Vatanen's had disastrously done in Argentine in 1985. They then set off on the most French of motor races, the Paris-Dakar rally.

An adventure across the north African desert, the Dakar was then mainly famous for being the race in which Mark Thatcher got lost - the only competitor ever to do so.

It had hitherto attracted a motley collection of souped-up Lada Nivas, Range Rovers and the home made buggies, but Porshe had upset the apple cart the year before when they finally found a use for their 959, a car that had been homologated for a cancelled Group B circuit racing series. The 205 won by a country mile in '87, and then came runner up to its replacement, the 405T16, the next year.

In Africa Peugeot cleaned up, but they were really only fighting the desert. The real fun came when the teams took on each other. There had been friendly rivalry between Peugeot and Audi at the annual Race of Champions, an event organised annually from 1988 by Michelle Mouton. Top drivers from the world of rallying would battle it out side by side in a series of identical cars. The drivers were the only ones who got prizes, but there was a lot of unofficial rivalry between the teams to see who could get FTD. Audi and Peugeot both sent cars to the first two events and, despite Audi turning the power up to 11, the Peugeots ended up being fastest.

But the last true battle between Group B giants took place not in Europe, but in America. The Pikes Peak International Hillclimb is an annual event held every year since 1916 in Colorado. The drivers start at the bottom of the mountain and the chequered flag is 1439 metres above them. The course runs for just under twelve and a half miles and features 156 corners and is a mixtures of tarmac and gravel.

Traditionally the home of the Good Old Boys and their V8 powered home made buggies, European teams started to try the event in the early 1980s. Initially the rally cars only competed for their own prizes, but soon it was clear that the Group B cars were able to beat the open wheelers in a straight fight.

In 1984 conservative American races were shocked when Michelle Mouton won the event outright in a long wheelbase Quattro. She repeated the feat the following year in the short version and then in 1986 Booby Unser decided that if you can't beat them, join them, and won the event in another Quattro. In 1987 Audi returned once more, this time with Walter Rohrl to lead the attack.

But old rivals Peugeot weren't going to let the Germans have it their own way and sent a brigade strength team led by Ari Vatanen. The 205T16s and the S2 Sport Quattros both featured outrageous wings and huge amounts of boost. Rohrl's car allegedly fielded in excess of 1000bhp.

There was also an S4 Delta, an RS200, a 6R4, a Mazda RX7 and a twin engined Golf on the menu (not a homologated Group B car, but VW did actually consider a twin engined Scirocco at one point), but these were just the supporting act.

The main event was Audi versus Peugeot, German team and German driver versus French team and French resident driver. Vatanen was fastest in training. But when it came to the real thing for once the Germans came out on top and Rohrl blasted to the top to set a new record time.

This wasn't the actual end of Group B; they were legal in rallycross until 1992 and Peugeot continued to enter the Dakar and even returned to the Peak in 1988 with a 405, narrowly beating Rohrl's time.

But this was the last duel of the Group B works teams, and perhaps it's fitting that we end the story here, with Rohrl gunning his thousand brake horsepower winged monster up into the clouds, Vatanen grimly following in his less-than-delicate French model. The end of an era. We shall not see their like again.

Watch it here.

400+bhp on closed roads, was Group B unique? No.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Before Group B

Group B rallying. 400+bhp cars on ordinary roads. We've never seen anything like it before or since - or have we?

The distinction between racing on circuits and rallying on roads is a relatively recent development. Racing started on ordinary roads and only in the last thirty years moved exclusively to circuits. The main difference was that races took place on the straightest and fastest roads, whilst rallies took place on the twistiest and slowest. That's why the first rally is generally considered to be the 1910 Alpenfahrt and not the 1894 Paris to Rouen.

In the twilight world between stage rallying and circuit racing though were the road races; sports cars setting off at timed intervals on closed public roads. Road racing started in Sicily seven years before the Germans started fahrting in the Alps.

The most famous road race was the Mille Miglia, which ran from Brescia at the foot of the Alps down to Rome and back again. Some of the road had open drops on the outside of the bends and in the 1930s Mussolini posted Blackshirts with flaming torches on the outside of the corners - about the only practical use for fascists I've ever heard of.

By the mid fifties the top cars had over 300bhp and could reach 180mph - which they frequently did on the longer straights. With 1950s brakes this could be a bit hairy, so Stirling Moss for one took along a co-driver to read an early form of pace notes. With no intercom instructions were limited to simple hand gestures meaning faster or slower, but it was another way in which these races resembled rallies.

The Italian drivers tended to rely on local knowledge instead and, in the case of multiple winner Clente Biondetti, cigars and brandy too. Perhaps not surprisingly a series of accidents ended the race for good in 1957.

Down in Sicily though the original road race, the Targa Florio, carried on for a further fifteen years. Now perhaps only remembered for giving its name to a topless Porsche, the route of the Targa varied over its history until it eventually settled down to eleven laps of a 45 mile circuit near Palermo.

By the late sixties 400bhp had been reached and passed. It was generally the smaller cars that won, but the race still saw big beasts like the four litre Ferrari 330P3 (left) and seven litre Ford GT40.

Italian fans drove their own tiny bubble cars out into the countryside to see the big supercars, just like they did in the mid 1980s, and they were able to enjoy the surreal spectacle of 200mph racing sports cars negotiating one street Sicilian villages, as in the picture at the top of this post.

Fastest Targa Florio driver of all was the Englishman Vic Elford (right), winner in 1968 and regular setter of fastest laps. Also a winner of 13 Grand Prix, the Daytona 24 Hours and the Monte Carlo Rally, he was probably the greatest all-rounder motorsport has ever produced.

But it wasn't our Vic that the crowds wanted to see, but local boy Nino Vaccarella, a former teacher from Palermo. Always driving Italian cars, in 1970 he was given the biggest monster of them all, the 500+bhp Ferrari 512S (top of page). Far too large for the event, especially as it rained part way through, he was beaten by the nimbler 3 litre Porsche 908s.

It took some guts to venture forth on those roads with so much grunt and the next time a car that powerful ventured forth on a closed public road, probably in the ill fated 1986 Portuguese rally, it was with four wheel drive and much better tires.

Vic Elford though was not the only driver to have won both the Targa Florio and the Monte Carlo Rally. In 1972 Sandro Munari co-drove the winning Ferrari 312P (left). Allegedly the use of El Draco in this race was the price Enzo Ferrari extracted from Lancia for their use of his Dino engine in the Stratos.

The last 'proper' Targa Florio was in 1973, although as the racers retired early it was won by a rather tame looking Porsche 911, while a prototype Lancia Stratos, with that Dino engine, was second. After that they didn't let the sports cars enter and the Targa became an ordinary rally, although cars like Andruet's Ferrari 308 (right) still gave the event an exotic feel.

However the Italians weren't the only ones to do it in the road. On the other side of the Alps the French had the Tour de France Automobile, a mixture of races, hill climbs and rally stages. It didn't boast quite the impressive machinery of the Targa Florio, but until it too became just an ordinary rally there were some tasty Matras and Ferrari 365GTB4s (395bhp - according to my contemporary Top Trumps packet).

It wasn't long after the demise of the Targa that the Italians decided to make their own version of the Tour de France in the form of the Giro d'Italia. It too consisted of races and rally stages. Amongst the winners over the years were a Lancia Stratos Turbo and a Porsche 935.

In 1979 the Lancia team rolled out their new Lancia Beta Montecarlo Turbo, with rally drivers Markku Alen and Walter Rohrl teamed up with Grand Prix men Riccardo Patrese and Giles Villeneuve to drive them. Unlike the road going, normally aspirated versions with their dodgy build quality and worrying tendency to understeer off the road at inopportune moments, these cars were real 400bhp racers that would give a Group B car a run for its money on tarmac. Indeed the central section went on to form part of the Lancia 037 Group B car.

The result was exciting stuff, as can be seen here. They lost to a Porsche, but returned in 1980 with Michele Alboretto in place of Villeneuve and this time blew the German cars into the weeds.

By this point the world economy was deep in recession and so the Giro was wound up. It was revived in 1988 for tin tops, but this proved to be a one off. By then Group B had been banned from rallying and so the days of outrageously powerful sports cars on closed public roads was over.

More or less.

There's still the somewhat niche rallying genre of 'N GT', where near-standard Porsche 911GT3s and Aston Martin V8s battle it out. Almost as powerful as WRC cars and a lot more sideways, they're perhaps not quite in the same league as Nino Vaccarella in his 512S.

Those days really have passed.

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1986

1986; rallying's annus horriblus.

At first glance it seems there is very little good that can be said about such a year.

In Portugal all the top drivers quit the rally after three spectators are killed.

In Corsica the world's fastest rally driver dies in a fireball.

In Italy the results are annulled after Italian officials disqualify the Peugeot team.

And finally the Driver's Championship is decided, not on the stages, but in a committee room.

But despite all that, it was a good season.

Firstly there was the record number of teams entering top flight cars. The Citroens were underpowered, the Metros unreliable, the Audis still unable to corner despite the wings, the Fords were underdeveloped and the Toyotas only viable in Africa, but these teams still made a colourful backdrop to the duel between Peugeot and Lancia.

Secondly, the emergency reforms after Corsica, which shortened rallies and slowed stages down, had the effect of producing some very close rallying indeed, and the top drivers were frequently trading fastest times with only a few seconds between them. That's not unusual now, but then it was something new.

Finally there were the cars themselves. There has never been anything before or since to match the spectacle of a bewinged, flame snorting, Group B rally car flashing past a few feet from you and a few inches away from the scenery.

A serious arms race was developing between the top teams. In the bhp stakes Rover and Citroen were still stuck in the 300s, Ford had made it to 400bhp and Lancia were pushing 500bhp. Peugeoet boasted 540bhp on their tarmac, 'grenade' setting. But the baddest beast in town was the Audi Sport Quattro S2 which was putting out over 600bhp.

We shall never see their like again.

So after a grim beginning, by mid season rallying appeared to be on the mend and the fun had returned. Evidence of this came in Finland with the welcome sight of Ari Vatanen amongst the specators. Recovery from his injuries in Argentina the previous year had taken a huge psychological toll, but meeting his old friends again renewed his love of the sport and it won't be long before we saw him behind the wheel once more.

In the end Kankkunen was a worthy champion. The young driver had announced his arrival at rallying's top table on the 1985 Safari, when he beat his team mate Waldegard. He was not only fast, but level headed, retiring once through mechanical failure and never through an accident.

The loser was Alen, World Champion for eleven days. The exuberant Finn, now more Italian than the Italians, was gutted that his Sanremo win was taken off him, but to be fair at the time the Peugeots were excluded by partisan officials, he was only fifth and Kankkunen was second.

However the year really belonged to Henri Toivonen. Winning the RAC at the end of 1985 he started the year by winning in Monte Carlo and then retired whilst leading in Sweden. At the time of his fatal accident in Corsica he was leading comfortably having been fastest on 12 of the first 17 stages. Having been the youngest ever World Rally winner when he surprised everyone by beating Mikkola on the 1980 RAC, he was looking set to become the youngest ever World Champion.

When the year was over we missed the Group B supercars, but we missed Toivonen more.

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1985

1985, and the Group B years were to reach their peak.

Audi were world champions but Peugeot had won the last three rallies they had entered. Lancia were off the pace but putting the finishing touches to a machine that they hoped would put them back on top.

The cars were louder and faster than ever before, bedecked with wings and spitting flames. The spectators loved them and the crowds were larger and more unruly than ever before. There was trouble on the horizon, but for the moment everybody was too busy enjoying the show.

Audi were now veteran rallyists and had three World Champions in the team. Peugeot, led by current FIA boss Jean Todt, were the new kids on the block. The Quattro had a power advantage, but the 206T16 handled better. It looked like it was going to be close.

But it wasn't.

On the Monte Vatanen continued his winning ways and, depite an 8 minute penalty imposed for a complicated timing error, Rohrl was beaten for the first time since 1979. Rohrl was not a happy man complaining, like Blomqvist, that the short Quattro was so twitchy it was almost undrivable.

The final positions were Peugeot-Audi-Peugeot-Audi. It was the same story in Sweden and in Portugal it was Peugeot-Lancia-Audi, with Timo Salonen spraying the champagne as Vatanen's five rally winning run came to an end with mechanical failure.

Peugeot failed in Kenya whilst Audi stayed home and in Corsica Renault beat them into second. Then in Greece, New Zealand, Argentina and in Finland Peugeot dominated, Audi were bridesmaids and it was all over. Thanks to a Herculean effort by Walter Rohrl Audi got a token victory for the big winged S2 Sport Quattro in Italy, but it had been Peugeot's year.

In many ways it was a bit of a disappointment. What had promised to be one of the competitive years ever had turned out to be one of the most one sided. However this was more than compensated for by the spectacle of the cars themselves.

These were still old style rallies, four or five days long. The RAC Rally of that year for example took the drivers straight from the Sunday spectator stages into Wales where they completed the current route of the Rally GB without a break before heading up through Kielder Forest to Scotland.

It was an epic rally, and not surprisingly many of the top drivers fell by the wayside. What was a surprise was who that left dicing for the top places. Lancia were debuting there 038 Delta, a turbocharged and supercharged monster. Alen led until a last minute off, but behind him, and snatching victory at the last minute, was a rejuvenated Henri Toivonen. After years of lacklustre performances for Opel and in the old 037, he had finally found his winning way again.

British fans took heart at the performance of Tony Pond's little 6R4 Metro, and for a while we dreamed of success in '86. Alas they were false dreams.

But the year had not been all fun and frolics. The first sign of trouble was on the Monte when Vatanen went into the crowd. Fortunately there were no serious injuries, but the warning signs were there.

Then in Corsica tragedy struck. Attilio Bettaga died in horrific crash in his Lancia 037 Rally. Bettega was considered to be a safe driver and the 037 a safe car, so the shock was tempered by the thought that this was a one off, a piece of bad luck that wouldn't happen again soon.

But then in Argentina Ari Vatanen was seriously injured in what at the time was thought to be a career ending accident.

A popular driver who shunned fast living and toasted his victories with milk, his accident was a shock to the world of rallying. He had fallen behind Salonen in the driver's battle thanks to mechanical failures, but was still considered the fastest driver in the world and hot favourite for a second world crown.

Suddenly serious questions were being asked about the safety of Group B rallying.

Vatanen's injuries essentially gifted the World Championship to his team mate Timo Salonen. Salonen has won his first world rally for Fiat in 1977, but had then played second fiddle to Alen before driving under powered Datsun's to remarkable class wins. Wearing glasses, overweight and usually smoking a cigarette when out of the car, he was not an obvious sportsman, but he was able to tame the powerful Peugeot and won the Driver's laurels by a record margin.

With the cars not getting any slower and a flood of new manufacturers wanting to get in on the Group B rally game, 1986 looked like it was going to be very exciting indeed.

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1984

As the Audi Quattro entered its fourth year in competition it was still the only serious four wheel drive rally car around. Yet despite this advantage they had been denied a clean sweep of the Championships due primarily to the efforts of one man; Walter Rohrl. However by now Rohrl had had enough of trying to beat them and had decide to join them.

Led by Alen, Lancia hoped to repeat their success of the previous year, but it was not to be. On the Monte it snowed, and Rohrl led Blomqvist home to add to his legend - winning first time out in a Quattro and wining the rally four times in four very different cars.

Lancia tried all their old tricks but to no avail, and in Portugal Audi came up with a new trick the Italians must have kicked themselves for not thinking of. They had rally leader Mikkola running on the road behind Rohrl so that the German could pull over and let Mikkola have a dust free run.

Led by a charging Blomqvist Audi soon put the series beyond Lancia's reach, winning three rallies on the trot and taking the manufacturers championship - but the French were about to rain on their picnic.

There had been a premonition that Audi's dominance was coming to an end on the Tour de Corse. Their sawn off Sport Quattro has expired without making an impact, but another car on its debut had sparkled.

                                                       Until he left the road, Ari Vatanen had been leading the rally in the new Peugeot 205T16. Seemingly combining the best attributes of both the Quattro and the 037; four wheel drive, a massive turbo and a mid engine layout, the Peugeot showed itself well able to beat Lancia on their favoured surface.

When the series returned to Europe for the 1000 Lakes Vatanen was waiting for them, and this time he didn't put a foot wrong, winning easily from Alen and a flying Toivonen, with Audi only managing fourth.

He repeated the feat again on the Sanremo and again in Britain, despite a roll. Suddenly Quattros looked slow and ponderous on gravel.

Vatanen's onslaught meant Audi had to send Blomqvist to the Ivory Coats for a lonely drive to claim the Drivers Championship. Audi had finally achieved the double, but it looked like their days at the top were numbered.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1983

The year began with Audi still having the only homologated, turbocharged, four wheel drive rally car. Both championships were theirs for the taking. That it didn't happen was down to three factors; a lack of reliability, dry weather, and Walter Rohrl.

The year began as ever with the Monte Carlo rally. Audi had been working on their cars and Quattros lines up on the start line leaner and meaner than ever before. So effortless had been the Quattro's superiority that until now the Germans had done very little in the way of actual performance testing, instead just concentrating on learning how to keep their complicated machines working in challenging conditions.

Now they found extra speed wherever they'd looked. Simply ditching their loyalty to Kleber tires gained them 2 seconds a mile. The Lanica Rally had ruffled a few feathers with its performance at the end of the previous year, so the Germans were taking no chances.

Lancia meanwhile had spent the winter getting some reliability into the 037 Rally. Here we saw just what Group B actually meant. Every component of the car was specially built and so the 037, despite its flimsy plastic bodywork, was one of the most reliable rally cars ever.

Who would have the upper hand on the first round depended on the weather. if it snowed Audi would walk the event and the Italians may as well call it a day there and then. But it didn't. The elements favoured the southern Europeans and with Lancia trying every trick in the book and a few that weren't, such as mid-stage tire changes (immediately outlawed by the authorities) they brought their two wheel drive racers home first and second, with Rohrl claiming his third Monte crown.

But the Audis didn't do that badly. Although they couldn't keep up with the Lancias they went faster than any Quattro has ever gone before on tarmac and easily held off the Opels, which didn't suit Lancia at all. The fastest Quattro man of all though was Blomqvist again, a portent for the future.

Lancia skipped Sweden, which let Mikkola take the honours in the snow. In Portugal though they put in an all out effort - and learnt just how hard it would be to beat the Germans.

The opening stages of the rally are always run on tarmac, usually between walls of over excited and seemingly suicidal spectators. Lancia, rallying's master tacticians, planned to use them to get their cars in front where they would benefit form dust free roads that would counter the Quattro's superior gravel performance.

The first half of the plan almost worked, and even though some stages were cancelled the Lancias started the gravel stages with a comfortable lead, but in the end it did them no good at all. The Quattro Blomqvist gobbled up the gap in just three stages and the rally ended with an Audi one-two, although it was Mikkola and Mouton as Blomqvist's car had died en route.

Lancia didn't go to the Safari but Audi did, hoping to use the experience they gained in the Ivory Coast the previous year. Their cars had a variety of adventures and eventually finished second and third behind Vatanen's Opel Ascona, the Finn showing the first signs of the African form that would eventually take him to victory in the Paris-Dakar.

Next was Corsica, the only full tarmac round of the year. Now it was Audi's turn to be the underdogs, but they didn't seem phased. A new Quattro was unveiled, with a slightly smaller engine so they could exploit the minimum weight rules and the result was dramatic. For the first time we saw a Quattro go well on tarmac.

In the end Mikkola crashed and Mouton went up in flames, but they were beaten long before they retired. The Lancias on tarmac were like nothing we'd seen before. In the end they took the first four places with the Bruno Saby's Renault 5 Turbo more than 40 minutes behind. The big surprise though was which Lancia actually won.

At the start of the season, Lancia team boss Cesare Fiorio had said it was pointless sending a driver like Alen to Corsica. Finns only go well on gravel, as everyone knew. In the end though it was 'Mr. Maximum Attack' who took the podium ahead of that man Rohrl, in a victory that showed what a truly all-round driver he was.

Lancia were on a high, but they knew it wouldn't last. The next four rallies were all gravel. Audi should have clinched it that summer, they really should. True, in Argentina they too managed their own one-two-three-four, hardly surprising in a rally which included some of the fastest stages ever in World Rallying, stages in which the Quattro's average speed was higher than the Lancia's top speed, and true in Finland Alen could only manage third on a rally that used to be his own.

But in Greece and New Zealand it all went wrong. In each case the rally entered it's last night with a single Quattro leading from Rohrl's hard charging Lancia. On the Acropolis Mikkola's boot lid came loose, severing a pipe to the oil cooler that was mounted on it. In New Zealand Mouton's con rod failed. The result was Rohrl won two unexpected victories.

What was it about Rohrl? Was he just lucky? Or was it that he put the opposition under so much pressure that they make mistakes?

This left just two rounds to go. Lancia had 110 points and Audi 98. A victory was worth 18 points, but as only the best 7 scores counted Lancia would have to start dropping scores. If Lancia won the next round they would only gain 8 points whilst if Audi came second they would score 16, putting them only 4 points behind going into the final round.

As the last rally was to be held in wet British forests Lancia had no illusions about their chances. The series had to be made safe in the next rally, the Sanremo.

You couldn't have designed a rally better suited to bring two such mismatched cars as the Quattro and the 037 together. 55% gravel and 45% asphalt it would be a close contest.

Lancia though had home advantage, and they made the most of it. Not only did they wheel out their three regular drivers in their Martini sponsored cars; Rohrl, Alen and Bettega, but they also entered the junior team of European Champion Miki Biassion and former European Champion Adartico Vudafieri in their Jolly Club 037s. They also offered as much support as they could to the various private Lancia drivers that entered. The aim was not just to win, but to take as many of the top places as possible to stop Audi scoring.

Lancia stormed ahead on the opening tarmac stages, 2 seconds a mile fatser than the Audis and a second a mile faster than the Opel Mantas. The rally then hit the gravel. The Lancias has been reseeded first on the road meaning they had less dust to deal with, but they still expected the Audis to overhaul them. However their calculations were that even if they were two and a half minutes behind when the final tarmac stages began, they could still win.

The plan worked like clockwork. The top Audi started the gravel stages twelfth on the road. Mouton fought her way up to second, only to drop back again with problems. Then Blomqvist had a crack, but as the gravel ended he was still behind Alen, whose main challenger had been Bjorn Waldegard in a Ferrari 308. Only in Italy would they rally a Ferrari on gravel.

The Lancias then changed to slicks for the final stages and Audi's world fell apart. Not only were they beaten by all three Martini Lancias and Biassion, but by the two Rothmans Opel Mantas as well.

Lancia had won the rally and the championship, and fittingly it was Markku Alen taking the laurels in his adopted country. The Drivers crown was still up for grabs, but despite Alen's pleas and threats to steal a car if necessary, Turin decided that they'd spent enough Lira and conceded the title to Audi.

Audi went to the Ivory Coast but again Mikkola could only manage second in Afria.

The winner was his old rival Waldegard in Toyota Celica Twincam Turbo, the first of a string of African victories for this car.

Audi wrapped up a one-two on the RAC. Mikkola was gifted the drivers crown when Alen failed to show up, but that was the end of his luck. On the Knowlsey 'Mickey Mouse' stage on the first day he hit a tree stump and knocked a wheel off. As a result he was once again denied a hat trick of RACs.

The rally was won by Stig Blomqvist, who was rapidly showing himself to be the top Quattro man. Having served an appreticeship in heavy, front wheel drive Saabs, Blomqvist was the one drive rwho could make a Quattro dance. Having been forced to play second fiddle to Mikkola and Mouton for two years he was not laying down the challenge. Next year he was determined to be number one.