Sunday, 2 December 2012

Stratos versus the RAC

The Lancia Stratos so dominated the World Rally Championship in the mid seventies that it's more interesting to discuss the rallies it didn't win than those it did.

A series of disasters afflicted their three expeditions to the Safari, the rough roads of Greece took their toll year after year and they never bothered to send such a nervous car to the smooth, fast roads of Finland. However the rally that the Stratos really should have won is our own RAC rally.

Fords dominated the event, but I wasn't the only spectator shivering by the side of the stage waiting for the Boreham boxes to pass so we could see - and hear - the exotic Italian supercar. If the Stratos looked out of place in the middle of Africa, it seemed no more at home in a cold, and frequently wet, British forest.

This was a rally the car really should have won at least once. Here's the story of how they failed.

1974

The Stratos was homologated in 1 October 1974 and by the time of the RAC Rally had already won two World Rallies. Sandro Munari brought the car to Britain and with his regular co-driver ill and himself suffering from food poisoning he was content to settle for third behind Timo Makinen's Ford Escort RS1600 and Stig Blomqvists Saab 96 V4.

However he's scored several fastest times on the way and had shown the car's potential. British fans took note.

Autosport journalist Peter Newton wrote of the experience "A deep musical throb among the distant trees, then with a bark of triumph, the Stratos leaps out of the gloom into the sunlight, its driver corrects and the red-and-white projectile hurls itself at the straining watchers on the corner. The sheer speed of its arrival takes everyone by surprise.."

1975

Before....
Lancia now realised they had a car that could take on the world, but expecting Munari to do all the driving was asking a bit too much of him, so they recruited Swedish ace Bjorn Waldegard to help out. Waldegard had made his name in Porsches and was expected to win the tricky northern European rounds, leaving Munari to take the glory on the other events.

Well, that was the plan anyway.

On the 1975 RAC Waldegard was flying in the new Alitalia liveried car. Literally. After 16 stages he had set 6 fastest times and was comfortably in the lead. He then flew too high on a yump in Pickering and broke a drive shaft. Mechanics changed it on the stage (that was legal then) but at a cost of one hour of delay and all of his rear bodywork.

.... and after.
Waldegard continued in the event and continued to set fastest times, but he'd been OTL and was also running without brake lights, rear lights and a rear number plate.

Exclusion was the result and with Munari crashing out it was Lancia nil points.

1976

He should have got his revenge the next year, but it all went wrong in San Remo.

Waldegard had ended the penultimate stage four seconds ahead of Munari. As it wouldn't do for the top Italian rally driver to be beaten on home soil Waldegard was instructed to let his team mate win. Waldegard came to the start of the last stage and was waved away. The car didn't move for four seconds. With everything square he then blasted off at full speed to win the stage, by four seconds.

Lancia were not impressed and sacked him on the spot. Ford signed him immediately and started cobbling a car together for the RAC.

Munari was again the lone Lancia on the rally. He set a few fastest times - including at the New Brighton spectator stage where little me was undergoing my RAC baptism - but mostly he appeared to not want to be there. Indeed the entire team appeared to have a case of the blues.

He eventually finished fourth, just behind Waldegard, who was busy telling the press he'd have won the event in a Stratos.

A second car, run by the British Chequered Flag team and driven by Per Inge Walfridsson  struggled before retiring with electric problems in Yorkshire.

Shortly afterwards the world found out what had caused the long faces in the Lancia camp. Fiat group headquarters had decided that next year the Fiat team in their 131 Abarths was to be given priority in World Championship.

1977

Turin only allowed Lancia to enter four World rounds in '77, but fortunately for us, one was the RAC.

Munari was again the only Stratos man, and again he struggled with the conditions and the secret stages.

At the end of the first day he was fourth, at the end of the second he was fifth and by half way he was ninth. The Stratos's gearbox then jammed in gear, loosing him an hour, but he carried on for the fans and eventually managed 25th, setting a fastest time on the last stage.

1978

This was to be the Stratos's last year as an official rally car, although once again Fiat were given priority in the WRC. Former Fiat man Markku Alen had switched to a Stratos for the San Remo rally, swapping cars with Walter Rohrl who had been campaigning it in Germany. He'd won the rally after the German launched his Fiat off a cliff.

Alen thought the car would be more suitable than the 131 for the RAC and so he and Munari entered their red, white and black Pirelli cars for what was supposed to be the last official outing for a works Stratos.

The press made the most of the occasion and Lancia managed some secret tire testing at Donnington whilst giving motoring journalists a ride in the car.

Thanks perhaps to this Alen stormed into a lead over the Sunday 'Mickey Mouse' stages and prepared for 'Maximum Attack' in the forests. However he was now entering Escort country.

The RS1800 had grown into the RS, with 15 inch wheels and various other tweaks. The Stratos meanwhile was going backwards, with its 24 valve engine banned.

Through Yorkshire Mikkola and Alen swapped fastest times, then in Kielder Mikkola turned it up to eleven. He beat Alen by thirty seconds in Hamsterly to take the lead and then took two minutes off the Stratos in next two stages.

Alen hung on grimly for a while, but was last seen by the side of the road in Twiglees with the back open. An Italian mechanic, asked to explain, just gave some exaggerated hand gestures and said "Mayonnaise..." The official reason was given as gearbox failure. With Munari parked up with electrical problems, that was that.

1979

Or that should have been that.

However next year Alen was back with another Stratos. Lancia had found an old car for him and it had been prepared by a private garage. For a while there was a second Stratos on the entry list, for Bernard Darniche, who'd won two rallies that year and retired whilst leading two more, but in the end the Frenchman was a no-show in Chester.

Once again Alen led over the Sunday stages, and once again he was overtaken in the forests. He pulled a bit of time back later in the rally in the fog, but eventually could only manage fifth.

1981

In 1981 British fans got their first sight of the Audi Quattro and the little Renault 5 Turbo. But for me there was only one car to see, Markku Alen driving another museum piece Stratos. And I finally got his autograph.

Unfortunately he was never on the pace and eventually put the car into a ditch in the Scottish borders.

That really was that.

2005 - 2012

The RAC itself turned into the Network Q and then got itself stuck in south Wales, eventually becoming the Wales Rally GB.

However there were still people who remembered what it used to be like, and so in 2004 the De Lacy motorclub launched the Roger Albert Clark rally for historic two wheel drive rally cars.

In 2005 alco-pop king and former British Rally Champion Steve Perez entered a Lancia, and it was time for the next generation of little Porters to see a Stratos in action.

His classic car was never able to keep up with latest Escorts, some of which have some very un-seventies mods, but he was the fans favourite. There is still nothing like the sound of an Italian V6 coming through the dark, and no rally car before or since - including the Ford RS200 - has ever matched its lines.

It may never have won an RAC, but for British rally fans, the Stratos is still a very special car.

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