Friday | 18 Mar 2022

WRC at 50: 1970s

Rallying was already evolving at a rapid rate when the FIA World Rally Championship arrived in 1973.

The European Rally Championship had been around for both manufacturers and drivers in the previous decade, but the scoring system was convoluted and, to many, overly complex.

The eligibility of a car for events like Rallye Monte-Carlo depended on which class it was running in. For example, Group 1 was welcome in Monte, but not on the RAC Rally, whereas Group 2 wasn’t permitted in the French Alps, but was wanted in the forests of Britain.

The Commission Sportive Internationale (CSI) ratified the International Rally Championship for Makes (IRCM) in 1970. This was the immediate forerunner of the WRC.

The original IRCM comprised eight rallies, including the East African Safari Rally, which the CSI felt necessary to give the series its international title. Two years on and that calendar had expanded to 10 events with Morocco and America’s Press on Regardless Rally joining.

As the sixties progressed into the seventies, the cars competing at the sport’s highest level were changing. Saabs, Minis and Ford Cortinas were the order of the day – nothing terribly exotic and mainly modified with a couple of spotlights in front of the bonnet and a touch of tinkering beneath it.

Group 4 changed all that.

Rallying builds up to WRC launch
Initially labelled a ‘sportscar class’ only 25 cars had to be produced by a manufacturer to introduce a car to Group 4. Seeing the potential for some serious homologation specials, CSI lifted that number to 500 in time for the start of the WRC in 1973.

As well as the 500 cars, Group 4 dictated two seats (this is where it differed from Group 2, which required 1000 examples of a four-seat motor).

Alpine was perhaps one of the earliest benefactors of Group 4 with its A110. This car, created by Jean Rédelé out of his Dieppe factory and leaning heavily on the underpinnings of Renault’s Dauphine, stopped one of the world’s finest sports car manufacturers in its tracks.

Porsche dominated the sport through the late 1960s and into the first year of the IRCM title. The 911 and 912s were a force to be reckoned with, delivering both power from a rear-mounted two-litre engine as well as traction and balance with rear-drive.

The Alpines were cut from roughly the same cloth. Except their fibreglass bodies were lighter. One year on and with Rédelé accepting the need to sign a non-French driver, Swede Ove Andersson (a man who we will hear much more about as the decades roll on) won in Monte-Carlo, Sanremo, Austria and Greece.

Having missed the title by two points in 1970, Alpine went one better and lifted the 1971 crown. Hoping to homologate an 1800cc engine for the start of 1972, that process was slowed until the middle of the year.

In the meantime, trying to squeeze as much power as possible out of the in-place 1600cc motor, the works Alpines suffered transmission issues. Once that homologation did come, the 1800cc A110 was a serious piece of kit as the first ever world championship for rallying loomed large.

The third and final IRCM crown was worn by Lancia in 1972. Winning a championship was nice for the Italian manufacturer – not least because it edged Fiat, the company which had taken it over three years prior – but secrets were being kept in the corridors of Torino power.

And it wouldn’t be long before the world witnessed the subject of those secrets…..

History video: Best of Rally Kenya

The start of something big
If the World Rally Championship was intent on starting with a bang, the 1973 Rallye Monte-Carlo certainly provided that.

When a snowstorm hit the January event, the Burzet stage was only possible for the vast majority of the field when snow ploughs arrived. More than four hours later than planned, the road was clear and the crews headed into the test. Unfortunately, 144 of them were excluded for going over a pre-determined time limit for completing the stage.

Angered at the decision, many of those crews blocked the route for the front-running factory drivers. The WRC’s first ever event ground to a halt due to a blockade by frustrated crews on the outskirts of Digne.

Eventually, peace broke out with the news that free entries on the 1974 event would be available for the excluded crews.

Jean-Claude Andruet headed an Alpine one-two-three back in the Principality. Four wins from the first six rounds meant the title was realistically going in just one direction. Alpine pulled 147 points from its best eight scores from the 13-round series – 66 more than second-placed Fiat.

The range of rallies on which the A110 worked was as impressive as the car’s performance – a Monte success was followed by wins in Africa and Greece.

As the French marque celebrated its inaugural world title, there were wider concerns for 1974 as the developing oil crisis took hold in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. The final two rounds of the ’73 season (the RAC Rally and Tour de Corse) only went ahead with government dispensation after oil prices rose from $3 to $12 per barrel.

The first two rounds of 1974 were lost to the crisis. With a supply of fuel coming from then Portuguese controlled Angola, TAP Rally of Portugal eventually provided the season opener.

Fiat hit the event hard, running four works Abarth 124 Rallyes. Raffaele Pinto led from start to finish on an event which will also be remembered for the factory debut of Markku Alén, who ended third.

After a Safari won by Joginder Singh’s Mitsubishi, the depleted season moved north for round three in Jyväskylä. Typically in the seventies, it would be a Finn who would win at home. But which one? Timo Mäkinen and Hannu Mikkola went head to head in a pair of Boreham-built Ford Escort RS1600s. Nobody else came close and Mikkola won.

If the oil crisis had gripped the world of rallying through the early part of 1974, Lancia offered the sport a reason to smile from 1 October.

Ove Andersson claimed second in an all-Alpine 1-2-3 at the WRC's first ever round at Rallye Monte-Carlo in 1973

Rallying’s first supercar
Lancia’s secret actually made its debut at the 1971 Turin Motorshow, although Italian design house Bertone had shown a concept car at the same show 12 months earlier.

The Stratos was born. And it was born for competition thanks to Lancia’s Cesare Fiorio. The Italian’s political ability was crucial in the early development of the Stratos.

When Fiat took control of Lancia in 1969, the firm acquired a controlling interest in Ferrari. When it came to powering his wedge-shaped machine, Fiorio was in no doubt the V6 2.4-litre engine from a Dino 246GT was the way to go.

When there was talk of an all-new Fiat programme based around a Ferrari 308 motor, the 2.9 V6 in question was sweet-talked into a Stratos by Fiorio.

Gianpaolo Dallara and Marcello Gandini had been working on the Lancia for a while before former Ferrari man Mike Parkes joined Lancia as chief engineer.

Tested through 1973, the required 500 cars were completed. Sort of. Lancia reached an understanding with the FIA under an ‘intention to complete’ agreement when the governing body inspected the cars at Lancia’s Chivasso factory.

Come 1 October 1974, the Stratos was fired-up and sent in the direction of the world stage for the first time.

Predictably, it hit the ground running and delivered wins in Sanremo, Canada and Corsica to lift the 1974 WRC title from its owner and rival, Fiat.

The foundations of that success came from the Lancia Beta Coupe with the likes of Simo Lampinen doing an exceptional job, but when Sandro Munari got his hands on a Stratos in time for Italy’s WRC round in the autumn, the perfect partnership was created.

Celebrating the WRC’s 50th season

Celebrating the WRC’s 50th season

It’s a truly landmark year for the FIA World Rally Championship.

Read More

The 1975 season started with Monte-Carlo success for Munari, but that was the Italian’s only victory in a year which delivered the next generation of stars in Alén (Fiat) and German Walter Röhrl (Opel) to the top step of the podium (in Portugal and Acropolis respectively).

A key to Lancia’s continued success with the Stratos in 1975 was signing Björn Waldegård. The Swede delivered maximum points as early as his home event at round two, with a further win coming in Sanremo, where Munari led until stopping to change a puncture – only to find a spare wheel that didn’t fit the Lancia.

The Stratos secured a hat-trick of titles for Lancia in 1976, amassing almost twice the points of nearest rival Opel. It’s fair to say – certainly on any European event apart from Finland – the 24-valve Stratos was an odds-on bet for victory.

It accelerated to 100kph in 4.5sec and with that Ferrari engine sitting squarely over the rear wheels, it offered better traction out of slower corners than front-engined rivals.

It was, however, something of a beast to drive. With a wheelbase 230mm shorter than an Opel Kadett, it was skittish in the extreme and required the raw talent of drivers like Munari to truly master it.

As generations pass, some question the car’s ability to rank alongside the WRC’s greatest all-rounders. It never won Finland and it never succeeded on the Safari. Second in 1975 was as close as the car came in Kenya. Africa remained the domain of the rugged, durable and powerful Peugeot 504s.

The Lancia was also hamstrung by its beautifully compact design – a design which wouldn’t permit it to carry enough spare wheels on the Safari. The Stratos ran a different size wheel at the front and rear; a smaller front could be carried onboard, but a spare rear had to be strapped to the roof. Two punctures at either end effectively did for its hopes of a win.

A change of regulations regarding the use of multi-valve heads from the start of 1978 blunted the Stratos’ potential, but by then a change of direction had come from northern Italy.

The Lancia team had been shipped across town and would now come under the umbrella of the Attività Sportiva Abarth, where there was little appetite for a car which meant little to the car-buying man on the street. A Fiat 131, for example, made much more sense to Fiat PR director Luca di Montezemolo.

Sandro Munari, pictured here en route to second place at the 1976 Rallye Sanremo, tamed the mighty Lancia Stratos

Fiat v Ford
If the mid-seventies belonged to the supercar Stratos, the end of the decade was all about the more PR-friendly family cars. All of Italy could relate to the 131 in the same way a Ford Escort was the car of choice on driveways the length and breadth of Britain.

The Escort had, of course, been a staple of rallying in the shape of the RS1600 MkI, but a change of model in 1975 meant a new car. Ultimately, however, the powertrain and BDA engine meant there was little difference in the performance of the two cars, even if the latter was badged as an RS1800.

With Peter Ashcroft in charge and names like Waldegård, Mikkola and Ari Vatanen behind the wheel, a win was never far away. But Boreham always seemed to come up short in its effort to match Turin.

While the 131 lacked the drama of the Stratos it benefited from an incredible logistical effort – with more than double the number of people working on the project. As the end of the seventies neared, more than 450 people worked in the Abarth factory. Granted, many were employed on road car or racing projects, but there was no shortage of expertise in how to make the 131 go faster.

Daniele Audetto had taken control of Abarth’s rally operations with Giorgio Pianta taking care of the engineering side and Ninni Russo on logistics.

The 131 made its debut in 1976 and went on to score back-to-back manufacturers’ championships in 1977 and 1978. Alén, Timo Salonen and Bernard Darniche would all win to help carry Fiat to its maiden success at world level.

Röhrl joining the Italian squad for 1978 only served to strengthen something of steamroller season for the 131.

Markku Alén claimed the Fiat 131's maiden win in Finland in 1976

Having missed out to Fiat for the previous two seasons, Ford redoubled its efforts in 1979. Alan Wilkinson engineered the ultimate Group 4 RS1800 for what would be the Blue Oval’s final official season with the MkII. With Kugelfischer fuel injection, the factory cars headed into the seventies’ finale with 270bhp and cars that handled beautifully.

Waldegård missed out on a Monte win after rocks found their way onto the line as his Escort led into the final night. Ultimately, he finished second by six seconds to Stratos-driving Frenchman Darniche.

Stig Blomqvist demonstrated the potential of turbocharging rally cars with a Swedish win in a Saab 99 – but that only came when Vatanen’s Escort departed the lead with a blown head gasket.

Portugal was a Ford one-two with Mikkola heading Waldegård home, but the Swede was back on top in Greece. The best Fiat could manage was a 1000 Lakes win for Alén.

Worse still, Röhrl’s factory 131 was headed by Tony Fassina’s Jolly Club-run Stratos at home in Sanremo. That effectively ended the Italian manufacturer’s hopes of a third straight title and Ford celebrated winning the makes’ race in Corsica – where it had no official cars.

With the manufacturers’ title secured, Ford withdrew from the WRC at the end of the season to focus on the development of its next rally car.

Bjorn Waldegård lifted the first drivers' title in 1979 and helped Ford to win the manufacturers' crown too

Something else about 1979…
The final season of the WRC’s first decade heralded the arrival of the drivers’ title. Given Ford’s domination of the year, it would come as no surprise that the maiden campaign for a world championship was a two-horse race between Waldegård and Mikkola.

And it went down to the wire – and involved both drivers swapping their RS1800s for a pair of five-litre Mercedes 450 SLCs in Ivory Coast. This wasn’t the first time they’d done it. With Ford skipping the Safari, they’d used the German motors in Kenya too.

Ultimately Mikkola won the final round of the season, but with his team-mate a close second, the first championship would go the way of big Björn.

Next Friday: 1980s

The Experts' View

We enlisted the help of six WRC experts, whose knowledge of the sport’s history is encyclopaedic, to tell us their Greatest Moments from the 1970s – and what a wonderfully wide range of views we received.

The first WRC round at Rallye Monte-Carlo in 1973 topped the list for both Marco Giordo and Julian Porter, who were stunned by Alpine-Renault’s clean sweep of the podium by Jean-Claude Andruet, Ove Andersson and Jean-Pierre Nicolas.

Andruet was back the following year in a Lancia Stratos and Giordo pointed to his Tour de Corse win that clinched a first world title for the Italian manufacturer. David Evans opted for Sandro Munari’s victory two months’ earlier at Rallye Sanremo on the supecar’s debut.

Evans and Porter listed Roger Clark’s 1976 RAC Rally win in Britain in a Ford Escort RS1800, the first win for a British driver in the WRC.

The Mk2 BDA-engined Escort topped the podium on many occasions in the second half of the decade and that car took the plaudits of Jari-Matti Latvala. The Escort’s highlight came in 1979 when Ford won the manufacturer’s title and Björn Waldegård won the inaugural drivers’ crown – a standout for both Porter and Latvala.

Morocco has appeared three times in the WRC and the 1976 event was a landmark for Reiner Kuhn. Simo Lampinen won the Transmarocaine special stage in 9hr 40 min 46sec at an average speed of 80.17 kph. The test was a remarkable 788km from Ait Baha to Efoud and featured a midway service and refuel!

The incredible final night stage in the 1976 edition of Rallye Sanremo was nominated by Michel Lizin. Waldegård’s win over Munari by four seconds after tactical chicanery by Lancia would go down in memory.

Lizin also highlighted the 1978 Rally de Portugal when a breathtaking final night battle between Alén and Hannu Mikkola eventually went the way of Alén after a final stage puncture for his fellow countryman when he cut one corner too many.

More news