Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Nearly Great Rally Cars: The One Hit Wonders

Some rally cars dominate the stages and go down in the history books; the Lancia Stratos, Ford Escort RS, Audi Quattro, Peugeot 205T16, Lancia Delta Intregale and Citroen Xsara WRC all won shed load of rallies and have their place in history.

Other cars fared less well.

However to even win a single World Rally is an impressive feat. The Mini Cooper S, Opel Manta 400, Ford RS200 and Sierra Sapphire Cosworth didn't even manage that.

So these are the cars that only graced the top of the podium once.

I'm going to disqualify variants of the same model of car (with the exception of a certain Saab). I'm also not counting the 1995 Toyota GT-4 ST205 as the reason it is only credited with a single win is that the team were caught cheating and disqualified from the championship, leaving even it's single victory tainted.

That still leaves a pretty long list.

Interestingly only one entry is from the last twenty years. No longer do minor manufacturers enter their less competitive cars in less popular rallies in the hope of sneaking a surprise win, and no longer can less conventional cars hope to triumph in unusual conditions.

Sadly the sport is less of a spectacle as a result.

Datsun 240Z Safari 1973

The 240Z really is a great rally car, although it was antiquated even when it was new. Like the old Austin-Healey 3000 it was a powerful engine bolted to a rock solid chassis.

Never quite on the pace in Europe, on the rough tracks of Africa the driver could unleash the power and watch other cars fall apart trying to keep up.  On the Safari in 1974 Datsun not only won with the 240Z, but took half of the top six places.

BMW 2002tii Austrian Alpine 1973

The 2002tii certainly counts as an almost great rally car. Not quite as good as an Escort RS1600 or a 124 Abarth, and from a manufacturer more committed to roundy roundy stuff, it could never-the-less cut it with the others in the right conditions.

Future World Champion Bjorn Waldegard cut his WRC teeth in one, but it was Archim Warmbold who pedalled it to its only victory, with Bernard Darniche in the world conquering Alpine A110 a distant second, in the only running of the world’s oldest rally in the WRC.

Renault 17 Gordini Press On Regardless 1974

Two cars dominated the early years of the WRC; the Renault Alpine A110 and the Lancia Stratos. However both manufacturers knew that the number of drivers who would buy their exotic machines to commute to work in was extremely limited. 

As a result both produced tamer road cars in an attempt to cash in on their rallying success. Lancia’s was the Beta, a disaster of a car that usually went rusty before it had left the showroom. Renault, meanwhile, produced the 17 Gordini. 

A sort of Gallic Ford Capri, it had a certain butch charm. And whilst it was unlikely to beat a well driven Stratos or A110, thanks to Renault raiding the Alpine parts bin it was capable of a reasonable turn of speed. 

On the 1974 American event, with a series of disasters wiping out the official Fiat team, French ace Jean Luc Therier was able to bring his car home ahead of Markku Alen’s surviving 124 Abarth.

Opel Ascona Acropolis 1975

The car may be unfamiliar, but the driver isn’t. Walter Rohrl took his first WRC victory in this car, a Panzer of a machine whose main virtue, according to Herr Rohrl, was that you could drive it off a small cliff with no ill effects.

The Acropolis was probably the only European rally it could ever have won. The Stratoses were faster, but both left the road and then broke leaving Rohrl to fight off local hero ‘Sirocco’ in an Alpine. Opel and Rohrl would combine again and become World Champions, but this is where it all began.

Datsun Violet 710 Acropolis 1976

The next year Lancia again started the Acropolis as favourites, and once again all three expired. Again the winning car was more renowned for strength than speed and once again ‘Sirocco’ came second.

There isn't a lot to say about this Datsun. They were campaigned in this country and elsewhere to limited effect, although fans liked the distinctive sound of the twin cam engine.

Saab 99EMS Swedish 1977

Saab started the 70s with one of the great rally cars of all time in the form of the 96. However by the middle of the decade it was clear they were loosing out in the power battle. The 99 evened things up, but with that extra grunt came extra weight.

Saab were swimming against the tide in two respects; persisting with front wheel drive – then very unfashionable – and refusing to produce a ‘homologation special’.

The 99 was therefore a car that took special conditions to win, and the Swedish rally provided that. Traction, and local knowledge, beat power and Stig Blomqvist was able to left foot brake to victory ahead of two more convention Opels. He had had a massive dice with the two works Fiat 131 Abarth, but when Makinen’s shed a rotor arm and Alen’s decided to provide some much needed warmth by bursting into flames, Blomqvist cruised home.

He would go on to be World Champion, but the normally aspirated 99 never troubled the podiums again.

Saab 99 Turbo Swedish 1979

Realising they were going nowhere with the car, Saab decided to try the appliance of science and become the first team to seriously campaign a turbo charged car.

The machine had shown promise on the 1978 RAC, impressing a very young me as well as more experienced pundits, but it took the rather special conditions of the Swedish again to gain victory. The Escorts were faster, but Mikkola and Waldegard both left the road and Vatanen succumbed to the old BDA Achilles Heel of head gasket failure.

However it had been a historic win, with Fiat and Vauxhall both beaten fair and square. The first victory for a turbo charged car, but, alas, the last for Saab. They never did get the Turbo properly sorted and Blomqvist reckons the best 99 they ever made was the normally aspirated Group A version in the 1990s.

Toyota Celica 2000 GT New Zealand 1982

The Toyota Celica must be one of the unluckiest rally cars ever.

Team Toyota Europe won a brace of World Rallies with the 1600cc Corolla and had high hopes of adding to the tally with their new 2 litre car. Unfortunately with Ford and Fiat engaged in a battle royal for the title the car didn't get much of a look in, with second on the 1977 RAC being its best result. Worse, they then lost half their valves in a rule change and by the time they got them back the world had moved on.

They tried a new holologation of a new body style and, in the era of the Audi Quattro, didn't hold out much hope.

Then, in New Zealand, it all went right. The Quattros failed and Walter Rohrl in his Opel Ascona 400 drove for a finish on a blind rally he doesn't enjoy. Toyota had not only won, but scored an impressive one-two with Waldegard leading home fellow Swede Per Eklund.

Having finally found its winning ways, the Celica didn't look back. The next version was the Africa-conquering Turbo and that was followed by a series of world class four wheel drive models before the final disgrace in 1995 and a return to the Corolla.

Audi 200 Quattro Safari 1987

When the FIA banned Group B cars at the end of 1986, every team except Lancia was left in the lurch. The Italians had a nice little compact, turbo charged, four wheel drive car in the Delta Turbo. Everyone else though was short in at least one area.

Mazda had a good, small four wheel drive, but it only had 1600cc. Ford had a great engine in the Sierra Cosworth, but it was only two wheel drive. Audi, meanwhile, had a good engine and a proven all wheel drive system, but the only homologated car to have them was the palatial 200 Quattro.

In Europe the car was far too big, but in the open spaces of Africa that didn't matter. Hannu Mikkila diced with his old rival and former team mate Waldegarde across Kenya, but the Swede's Toyota Supra wasn't up to the job and Mikkola led Rohrl home for an Audi 1-2.

Six years early Mikkola and Audi had ushered in the four wheel drive revolution by knocking six minutes off their nearest rivals on the first six stages of the Monte Carlo Rally. Since then they'd won seven World Rallies together, but this was to be their eighth and last. The end of an era.

BMW M3 Corsica 1987

The M3s maiden win in Corsica that year was also the end of an era; the last time a front engined, rear drive, normally aspirated car won a world rally.

Tarmac makes up a significant proportion of the WRC today, but back in 1987 the Tour de Corse was the only all asphalt event and so one of the few rounds anyone had a chance of beating the all conquering Lancia Delta Turbos.

Ford had a series of mishaps, Ragnotti put his Renault 11 Turbo off the road and so it was up to David Richard's private Prodrive outfit to take on the might of Turin.

The M3 handled brilliantly and had been unbeatable in its class on the circuits, but making it a rally winner was still an great achievement for the Banbury team.

Driver Bernard Beguin had just missed out becoming European Champion in 1980 and had really had a career in which he failed to achieve his full potential, until this rally. The Lancias didn't give up without a fight, with fellow Frenchman Yves Loubet being the fastest. He took the lead when the rain came, but lost it when he had tire trouble, allowing Beguin and the M3 to take their maiden victories.

Ford Sierra RS Cosworth Corsica 1988

The first rallying Ford Cosworth was a great car in every way except its lack of four wheel drive. Like the M3, Corsica was the only place it could win. In '87 the Fords had failed, but the next year they returned with cars specially prepared for tarmac, including flame spitting side exhausts.

This time it was the BMWs which broke, leaving the blue oval to fight the might of Lancia, again led by a flying Loubet. The Lancia Delta Integrale was the quicker car, but Loubet lost eight minutes when his gearbox stuck in neutral and so it was a young Didier Auriel who gave Ford their first win in the WRC since Vatanen's Escort RS in 1981.

This too was a historic moment; the last time a rear wheel drive car won a world rally. BMW would try again next year with the fastest M3 Prodrive had ever built, but by then the Integrale's were too good. It wasn't quite the end of two wheel drive. In the late nineties the lighter weight of the Formula Two Kit Cars would give the Citroen Xsara a couple of victories, but there would be no more wins for tail out rear drive cars. A real pity.

Opel Kadett GSi New Zealand 1988

With all wheel drive and a turbo required to win rallies, the WCR effectively split into the teams going for glory, which in 1988 was just Lancia and Toyota, and those battling for class wins with hot hatches.

There was lot of pub talk at the time about which was the best hot hatch, with the VW Golf GTi and Peugeot 205 GTi having their fans amongst beer drinkers - with the XR3i being popular for those on Australian lager - but on the stages the clear winner was the Vauxhall Astra GSi.
Rallied abroad as the Opel Kadett, it picked up regular class wins but didn't have any chance of a top placing unless the Lancia and Toyota teams stayed home. However with the Italians having wrapping up the WCR in June with a win in America, that's what happened in New Zealand.

Pretty much nobody you'd heard of entered the rally - except Jimmy McRae, and he retired on the first stage - and the winner was an unknown Austrian called Josef Haider. Opel had been rallying for more than twenty years by this point and had managed to make Walter Rohrl World Champion along the way, but this was their last win on the WCR.

Nissan 200SX Ivory Coast 1988

Nissan were another team left with vitually nothing to rally when rule changes outlawed their growling 240RS.

Instead they opted to make their middle-of-the-road coupe an Africa beater and, although it took a while, they got there in the end.

The rally was poorly attended, but French Africa expert Alain Ambrosino had a hard fought duel with Austrian Rudi Stohl in an Audi Coupe. It ended when Stohl crashed in the Tai Forest and broke his arm, which is not something you want to do when you're half a day's journey away from a hospital.

Renault 5 GT Turbo Ivory Coast 1989

By this time it was clear the Ivory Coast rally's days were numbered. The works teams stayed away, leaving only a motley assortment of privateers to battle it out. That's how a tiny Group N, not A, but N, Renault 5 Turbo came to win in 1989.

The little Renault wasn't a bad rally car by any means. On tarmac it could defeat more powerful opponents, as Alein Oreille had proved that year in Corsica when he won Group N after a tremendous battle with a pair of Sierra Cosworths.

But winning a World Rally in Africa? It's still hard to believe.

Subaru Legacy 4WD New Zealand 1993 

What's the Legacy doing on this list? This was a tremendous car, competitive staright out of the box. Did it only ever win one World Rally?

Yes it did.

Although drivers immediately praised the balance and traction, the truth was that on debut the car was over weight and full of bugs. The two years Colin McRae spent campaigning it in the British Open were as vital to the car's development as they were to the young Scots.

The WRC was pretty competitive then too, with Lancia and Toyota still slugging it out and Ford bringing the Escort Cosworth to the fight as well. It would take a special drive to give the Legacy a win, but in New Zealand that's what we got.

McRae, who turned 25 during the event, and who had had a series of adventures including almost hitting a helicopter on a stage, had been lying fourth before the Motu Road stage. Twisty, narrow and rough the stage took 38 minutes to complete, and on it the young Scot took 42 seconds out of his nearest rival. He blasted into the lead and never lost it, taking his first WRC victory and the first win by a British driver since the late Roger Clark on the 1976 RAC.

Epic stuff.