Friday | 25 Mar 2022

WRC at 50: 1980s

The Eighties. The decade of excess. Ten years when cars got faster, louder and an awful lot more lairy. It’s hard to imagine 120 months when the FIA World Rally Championship evolved more.

As the seventies tipped towards the eighties, Björn Waldegård was securing the first drivers’ championship at the wheel of a five-litre, V8-engined Mercedes. Power wasn’t a problem, but the big 450 SLC was something of a cruiser compared with the bruisers that were coming. And it had an automatic gearbox. How times would change.

Four. Quattro.
Most things sound better in Italian. Hello is just hello, until it’s ciao. A good English crikey has nothing on a booming mamma mia! And then there are the cars. Testarossa. Countach. Supercars aside, a 16-valve Fiat Tipo was just that to most. In its homeland, it was the Tipo Sedicivalvole.

You know where this is going.

In September 1979, Audi asked existing WRC manufacturers and the sport’s rulemakers if anybody had any objection to the removal of the rule precluding the use of four-wheel drive cars in competition.

The world was aware that Audi was working on an evolution of the Volkswagen Iltis – a military-oriented four-wheel utility vehicle – for a possible off-road motorsport programme.

But nobody saw what was really coming until 3 March 1980.

That Monday morning, Geneva Motor Show opened and the world was reminded of the Italian word for four. Quattro.

Audi’s first all-wheel drive, performance road car was there for all to see. And a three-year development and competition programme had already been signed off in Ingolstadt. The new decade couldn’t have started with a bigger bang.

WRC at 50: 1970s

WRC at 50: 1970s

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

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But still, there were those unconvinced. Rival manufacturers dismissed plans to place a driveshaft on all four corners and a turbocharger beneath the bonnet.

How could it work? Such transmission technology was still the stuff of farmer’s fields. And the turbo? Forget it. Remember the Merc’s five-litre motor? The thinking was still more on the side of there being no replacement for displacement.

So, Audi locked itself away through 1980 and did much of its development in private. Homologated on 1 January 1981, Franz Wittmann gave the Quattro its maiden win at Austria’s Janner Rally 10 days later. In snowy conditions, he won all 31 stages to build a 20-minute lead over his nearest rival.

Days later, six stages and 150 competitive kilometres into the WRC-opening Rallye Monte-Carlo and Hannu Mikkola’s Audi was six minutes clear of everybody. Six minutes.

Suddenly, Opel’s more conventional Ascona 400 or Fiat’s 131 Abarth looked less than impressive. By the end of January, Audi’s rivals were clearly walking towards an imminent gunfight with little more than leaking water pistols.

But that’s not to say Audi galloped away over the horizon to win everything through the early eighties. Far from it, in fact.

The Quattro's debut at Rallye Monte-Carlo in 1981 in the hands of Hannu Mikkola was astonishing

The end of an era
Walter Röhrl won the first drivers’ title of the decade with six podiums and four wins aboard a 131 Abarth.

The German dominated the series and promptly departed the Italian marque at the end of the season, bound for Mercedes and an apparently bright rallying future. Weeks later the German car giant canned its rally programme and left the champ with no car in which to defend his title.

Even without Walter, the 1981 season was, of course, remembered for a thriller of a fight between Ari Vatanen’s David Sutton-run, Rothmans-backed Ford Escort RS1800 and Guy Fréquelin’s factory Talbot Sunbeam Lotus.

The first half of the year belonged to the Frenchman, but the Finn reigned in his enthusiasm and roared back through the second half of the year, taking the title with second place on the season-ending RAC Rally.

When it worked, Audi’s Quattro was unbeatable on the loose through 1981, but teething troubles kept Mikkola back to third in the championship battle.

Twelve months on and there were more mechanical issues for Hannu, but his team-mate, Frenchwoman Michèle Mouton, enjoyed a sensational year. The current FIA WRC safety delegate won three rounds to come within a handful of points of defeating a resurgent Röhrl, who had returned to the series to lift a second crown in three years with Opel.

Some consolation for Audi was winning the 1982 manufacturers’ title in its second year in the sport.

Ari Vatanen won the Acropolis Rally in Greece en route to the 1981 title

Group B and 1983
Regulation change arrived for 1983, with the birth of Group B and a set of rules which permitted manufacturers to deliver all-wheel-drive turbocharged supercars to the stages, provided they’d made 200 road-going examples.

It was a move which changed the face of the sport. Suddenly, what was fast becoming the Formula 1 of the forests was available to carmakers the world over.

But still, not everybody went the way of total traction. Lancia’s 037 provided a defiant last stand for the rear-wheel drive hardcore. Run with its successor – the Delta S4 – already in the planning stage, the supercharged 037 was a sensation. Beautifully balanced, it became the modern day, natural successor to Lancia’s previous rallying supercar, the Stratos. But it simply couldn’t compete with the sheer grip Audi had on offer.

What it gave away in terms of speed out of slower corners, Lancia tried to make up for in cunning and guile. The eighties were the time for the mid-stage pit stop on Rallye Monte-Carlo.

Typically, many of the stages through the French Alps provided snow and ice on a north-facing ascent, followed by a bone-dry descent down the south side. Lancia’s answer was to switch studs for slicks on the col. It was a great plan, and 037 drivers Röhrl and Markku Alén finished the season-opener one-two in 1983. But in the grand scheme of things, all the evidence pointed towards four-wheel drive.

Which makes Lancia’s manufacturers’ title in 1983 – taken with just two points in hand over Audi – even more impressive. There was, however, nothing Röhrl could do about Mikkola finally getting his hands on the drivers’ crown.

A year later and Audi’s domination was complete. Stig Blomqvist led team-mate Mikkola home to become the first Swede to secure the drivers’ championship, with the makes’ race going to the German squad.

The original Quattro had evolved into the A1 and A2, but the rest of the world was onto Ingolstadt and the party it had started.

Lancia's innovative tactics helped Walter Röhrl win in Monte-Carlo in 1983

The next level
Audi developed the idea of the four-wheel drive rally car, but it was undoubtedly refined and bettered – if not perfected – by Peugeot. The 205 T16 was realised from the brilliant mind of designer Jean-Claude Vaucard and made its debut in Corsica in 1984. It was immediately on the pace on the twists and turns high above Ajaccio. By Finland it was a winner.

One of the inherent issues with Audi’s Quattro was weight distribution. Peugeot dodged that by locating its turbocharged engine in the middle of its spaceframe chassis.

The devolution of Group B supremacy away from Audi was fascinating in the mid-80s. The Germans had shortened its Quattro A2 into the Sport, arguably one of the most menacing-looking machines ever to grace the WRC stages, but that only heightened the inbalance in the car. Blomqvist, in particular, was always more comfortable with the older, longer, more stable car.

Looking to shift some of the bulk backwards, Audi put the radiator and cooling package in the rear of a wildly winged E2, but that car won only one once (1985 Sanremo) in the hands of Röhrl.

Peugeot meanwhile, was getting stronger and stronger. It’s improvement to the 205 also came with a tea tray rear wing, but the T16 E2 was Group B’s all-conquering car.

Timo Salonen then Juha Kankkunen won successive drivers’ titles in 1985 and 1986 with Peugeot – under the guidance of former FIA president Jean Todt – monopolising the makes’ race in the same seasons.

Juha Kankkunen won the 1986 title in Peugeot's dominant T16 E2

What about the others?
Lancia, MG, Ford and Citroën all delivered four-wheel-drive Group B machinery, but they all came too late.

Lancia posed arguably the biggest threat to Peugeot with its Delta S4. Henri Toivonen gave the first supercharged and turbocharged machine a maiden win on the 1985 RAC Rally and the Finn looked a very fair bet to lift the title the following year.

His death, along with co-driver Sergio Cresto, on the 1986 Tour de Corse was a pivotal moment in the sport’s history. It was also a crash which robbed us of two of rallying’s finest and fastest competitors.

Alén did all he could to carry the fight to Peugeot and he was champion – briefly – but ultimately the final year of Group B was one to forget for the Turinese.

Austin Rover’s MG Metro 6R4 broke cover on the same WRC round as the Delta, but it was a polar opposite in terms of engine configuration.

The British team went with a 3.5-litre V6 engine shorn of forced induction. While there was little doubt it sounded stunning, its looks definitely divided opinion. When Tony Pond scored a third place on the ’85 RAC, he held a nation’s hopes in his hand.

And certainly, there was no shortage of national fervour as the 1986 season beckoned. But that RAC podium was as good as it would get for a car which was simply outgunned in terms of grunt.

Ford’s gorgeous RS200 was an even later starter, not landing until round two in 1986. It was a car which promised much and, unlike the Metro, certainly wasn’t found wanting in terms of horsepower, but a lack of development time allied to Peugeot’s mastery of Group B meant the Blue Oval wouldn’t come close to the glories it enjoyed in the previous decade.

As for Citroën’s BX 4 TC, it disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived. It was the most unwieldy and awkward of things to drive… and look at.

Tony Pond stirred British fans with a podium on his home event in 1985 in a MG Metro 6R4

What went wrong?
Group B became a victim of its own success. As power outputs continued to rise, so did the level of danger. Vatanen suffered horrific injuries when he crashed his 205 in Argentina in 1985. The seat broke from its subframe as the car tumbled down a mountain and the 1981 champion was left hospitalised and fighting for his life.

The safety of the category had been questioned since Attilio Bettega was killed after his 037 collided with a tree in Corsica in 1984.

With fatalities in an accident involving Joaquim Santos’ Ford RS200 having ended manufacturer participation at Rally of Portugal in 1986, the sport’s governing body was already on the highest alert.

Group B had captured the hearts and minds of rally watching millions around the world. The sport easily rivalled Formula 1 in terms of popularity. But when the French island was the scene of further disaster in 1986 when Toivonen and Cresto were killed as their Delta S4 plunged off the side of a mountain and burst into flames, something had to be done.

The day following the crash, then FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre dictated Group B would be replaced by Group A for 1987.

Before it departed, Group B had one more storyline to deliver. Lancia had questioned Peugeot’s aerodynamic devices on the 205 at the Sanremo Rally, with the result being that the French team was excluded on the Italian event.

Ultimately that decision was overturned, but not for 11 days after the end of the final 1986 round, the Olympus Rally in America. Alén’s time as world champion was short-lived as the Lancia driver was forced to hand the crown to Peugeot man Kankkunen.

Video: The Greatest WRC Drivers; Juha Kankkunen

The new world
Christian Geistdörfer said it better than anybody else. When he and Röhrl tested Audi’s Group A 200, the German co-driver dryly observed: “It was like stepping off a rocket and onto a bicycle.”

At its peak Group B had been knocking, unsustainably, on the door of 600bhp. The 1987 Rallye Monte-Carlo delivered production-based cars with less than half of that and the vast majority of it delivered to only the front or rear wheels.

The change of rules meant rally cars had to come from a manufacturer’s current model line-up. Lancia was by far the best prepared with a rally variant of its roadgoing Delta HF 4x4.

Mazda’s 323 turbo was firmly in the ballpark and would win regularly in the early years of Group A, despite only running a 1600cc engine versus Lancia’s two-litre unit.

Elsewhere, Ford had the race-ready Sierra RS Cosworth – a turbocharged monster of a thing – running rear-wheel drive only. Ironically, it did have the Sierra XR 4x4, but that was lumbered with an underpowered V6 motor. The nineties would be upon us before the two could be married into a rally winning partnership.

Lancia dominated the early days of Group A, winning nine of 13 rounds in 1987 and 10 in 1988. For much of the time, the most difficult – not to mention political – decision of the year centred on which Delta driver would be allowed to win which rally. For 1988 and 1989, it came as little surprise that Italian star Miki Biasion took back-to-back drivers’ titles.

While Lancia’s control and authority over the 1988 season was obvious, there were the beginnings of a revolution – and it was coming in the Far East.

Mitsubishi entered WRC in 1988 and Mikael Ericsson steered a Galant VR-4 to victory in Finland the following year

Toyota, a long-time favourite for African endurance-style events, had turned its attentions to a full WRC programme with Ove Andersson’s Cologne-based Toyota Team Europe.

The Celica GT-Four was the result. Making its debut in 1988, the Japanese machine wouldn’t win until the following season through Kankkunen in Australia, but the threat had been established.

And it wasn’t just Toyota. Mitsubishi had been in a similar position, with a wealth of experience of how to win rallies at some of planet earth’s furthest-flung corners. Andrew Cowan via his Ralliart concern convinced Japan of the merits of an almost full-bore WRC effort.

The Galant VR-4 also made a 1988 debut and won at the hands of Mikael Ericsson and Pentti Airikkala in 1989.

While the eighties signed off with another Biasion and Lancia success, there was no doubt times were changing and the manufacturers were starting to flock back to the WRC as the nineties loomed even larger on the horizon.

Surely the next decade couldn’t be as tumultuous as the one just gone?

Next Friday: 1990s

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 1980s – and what a wonderfully wide range of views we received.

As outlined above, the decade was dominated by the introduction of turbocharged four-wheel drive machinery and fire-breathing Group B monsters and it’s no surprise both feature in our experts’ choices.

Jari-Matti Latvala spotlights the entire Quattro era, while David Evans nominated the 1980 Geneva Motor Show, when the world first set eyes on the manufacturer’s first all-wheel drive performance road car.

It took just two rallies for the Quattro to become a winner and Julian Porter picks out Hannu Mikkola’s Sweden victory in 1981, the first success for a four-wheel drive car, as a moment that changed the sport forever.

Audi’s second win came eight rounds later in Sanremo, but of more significance was the fact it was claimed by Michèle Mouton, who became the first and only woman to win a WRC event. Porter, Marco Giordo and Michel Lizin hailed the first of Mouton’s four triumphs.

Michèle Mouton created history at Rallye Sanremo in 1981

Mikkola eventually scored Audi’s first drivers’ title two years later – another landmark moment for Giordo.

As the decade progressed, the phenomenally powerful Group B cars held sway and Latvala picked out the period between 1983 and 1986 as truly memorable.

Before that era became established, Henri Toivonen created history by winning Britain’s RAC Rally in 1980 at the tender age of 24 years and 86 days. Porter recalls he became the youngest driver to win a WRC round, a record that stood until Latvala beat it in 2008.

Toivonen had to wait five more years for his second WRC success. In 1985 he and co-driver Neil Wilson were again victorious in Britain in a Lancia Delta S4 after a gruelling rally covering 62 special stages and more than 850km of competition.

Eighty seconds of road penalties relegated Toivonen to third, five minutes adrift of team-mate and leader Markku Alén. He fought back and after Alén himself lost time, Toivonen overhauled home hero Tony Pond to win by almost a minute. It was a remarkable victory that resonated with Reiner Kuhn, Evans and Latvala.

Lizin remembers Toivonen’s next win at the following season’s Rallye Monte-Carlo. The Finn held a handsome lead until a road accident cost time and damaged his femur. Team management encouraged him to stop but the brave Finn persevered to snatch another memorable success. It was to prove his last.

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